Garden Route, South Africa

Garden Route, an empty, misty road, South Africa

Approaching the Garden Route from Hermanus Bay, July (winter)

Driving South Africa’s Garden Route

Strictly speaking this famous driving itinerary runs via the N2 along the coast from Mossel Bay to just beyond Plettenberg Bay, and has become overpriced, overdeveloped and less-than-fascinating. . . but. . . extend the route to a circular, south coast drive starting at Cape Town and heading first for Hermanus Bay, cruising on quiet, straight, superb, back roads if time permits as far as Tsitsikamma National Park, then returning along the R62 via Oudtshoorn and perhaps Stellenbosch, and you’ll find much scenery that is wide and green and reminiscent of England’s Dorset, mountains that recede into the distance in layers, wonderful beaches, some of South Africa’s best walks, maddest activities and endless wonderful pictures demanding to be taken.

n. b. Garden Route flowers appear mostly, naturally, in the spring (September – October), so don’t expect a technicolour playground at other times.

Dassie and kid staring contest, Hermanus, Garden Route, South Africa

If your kids get bored with distant animals the local dassies (Rock Hyrax) should keep them busy with a staring contest, or try the playground beside Grotto Beach.

Hermanus

Hermanus Bay from Castle Rock whale-spotting viewpoint, Garden Route, South Africa

Hermanus Bay from Castle Rock whale-spotting viewpoint.

Hermanus is a town with the heart of a seaside village, though new housing is spreading like wildfire. The *** rating is a result of the magical whale-watching opportunities from the town’s cliffs, particularly the rocky promontory of Castle Rock from which you can go almost eyeball-to-eyeball with Southern Right Whales from July to November.

Whales seen from the cliffs of Hermanus Bay, The Garden Route', South Africa

Southern Right Whales seen breaching from the Hermanus shore, Castle Rock. Nothing unusual.

Hermanus also offers kayaking whale trips, shark cage diving, clifftop walking trails and some good beaches, particularly Grotto Beach in Walker Bay.

Garden Route Fails

Mossel Bay

Mossel bay is a disappointing start to the official Garden Route. It’s untidy and uninteresting to most casual tourists, except surfers who will find superb, consistent waves and adrenalin junkies who can organise a variety of death-defying activities from here. See below for a local opinion of the Bug’s Mossel experience.

George

George is another tourism failure, 5 miles (8km) inland and useful mainly as a terminus for the famous George to Knysna train ride, the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe. The views are stunning but the return trip is 7. 5 hours too long.

Knysna

Knysna, an overdeveloped former-paradise, sits on a pretty lagoon with a well-designed, modern waterfront tourist area selling overpriced oysters, but the dense forests are gone, replaced by walks, formulaic boat rides, quad bikes and cliff-jumping.

Prince Albert Pass from Knysa, Garden Route, South Africa

Prince Albert Pass from Knysa.

Plettenberg Bay

Lookout Beach, Plettenberg Bay, South Africa beaches

Plettenberg Bay is an activity centre with excellent beaches and a lively atmosphere but suffering from severe style deficiency. Whales like to hang out here and varied marine trips are popular, as is the enjoyable and informative Monkeyland sanctuary 10 miles (16kms) east.
Lookout Beach on a lagoon spit is remote and the best beach in the area.

Tsitsikamma

A Tsitsikamma flying fox running at some scary height, Garden Route, South Africa.

A Tsitsikamma flying fox running at some scary height.

Tsitsikamma National Park is mostly about spectacular coastline hikes, such as the famed five day Otter Trail, but skimming the tree tops on a wire in a Canopy Tour, tossing yourself off the Bloukrans River Bridge in world’s highest bungee jump (216m), mountain biking, black-water tubing and abseiling are alternative ways to keep yourself busy.

Nature’s Valley

Nature's Valley beach, South Africa beaches

Nature’s Valley beach, a remote but spectacularly lovely location.

Nature’s Valley is a tiny, incredibly tranquil seaside village that is still firmly resisting the 20thC, let alone the 21stC. It has one shop, one restaurant, amazingly few fences considering this is South Africa, razor-barb capital of the world, and is surrounded by overgrown dunes.
The beach is absolutely stunning, the walks and surfing terrific, but there is nothing else to do. If you want to stay here you should phone ahead for a limited guest house bed (there’s no internet in this part of the world), though there is a rest camp too.

Nature's Valley village and beach, South Africa

Amazing summer vacation spot. But in winter? Could be better? Photo by Paul Venter.

Why go to Oudtshoorn?

Riding an ostrich at speed, Oudtshoorn, South Africa

She won’t forget that ride for a while!

Oudtshoorn on the way back to Cape Town from the Garden Route and is ostrich capital of the world as well as being a pretty place of wide streets and grand houses – grand B & Bs too, for that matter.

Drives around the area are magnificent, such as over the Swartberg Pass, and near Oudtshoorn are attractions such as the Cango Caves and the Cango Wildlife Ranch, but the bizarre ostrich is the star of the show here and a short, informative tour of a farm, including walking on ostrich eggshells and riding the big bird – if you’re not too big yourself – are memorable experiences.

Storms River Bridge, South Africa

Storms River Bridge.

An unhappy email from a Bugged visitor: andre.burger

After reading your review of Mossel Bay, the Garden Route, Knysna, Oudthoorn ect, I was amazed at what you had to say to the rest of the world via your website. I dont know when you where there or with who you visited this area, but I think that you must have been half bind and unable to get around much. I have been staying in Mossel Bay for a number of years and find it a fascinating and lovely place to stay. The town in clean, the people friendly, helpful and the weather fantastic. The Garden Route, Knysna and the rest of the Southern Cape is absolutely beautiful and full of lovely areas and filled numerous activities for all walks of life. I am truly offended by what you have written about such a lovely area.

I console myself that people who read your articles will think the same as me: here is the opinion of one person and only one person that has been splattered on the internet giving incorrect info and an incorrect impression of the Southern Cape.

My offer is open to you next time you visit the Southern Cape, come and visit me and I will show you this wonderful and beautiful place. And its very easy to find me just go to Mossel Bay, locate Trawlers Pub and Restaurant in Marsh Street, and ask for Andre, thats me. They will know how to get hold of me and I will show you around our beautiful area. So the invitation is open and please do put this letter on your website. I will be watching to see if you will do so