The Garden Route, for the uninitiated, is not a self-drive circuit linking cultivated gardens for the horticulturally inclined.
Rather, it’s a one-of-a-kind journey along a coastline where mountains crowd a shoreline punctuated with a myriad beaches, lakes and bays. Where indigenous forests, amber-coloured rivers and beaches stretch forever.
The Garden Route has been touted as the ‘Greatest Road Trip’ by CNN, Huffington Post, Rough Guides and the Business Insider.
And the ‘garden’ bit?
Well, this section of coast forms the fulcrum of the Cape Floral Kingdom (a World Heritage Site) known as fynbos (fine bush) a type of indigenous vegetation with over 45 000 plants.
The Garden Route is also a feast of holiday towns, hamlets and villages, outdoor adventures that include hiking, mountain bike riding, paragliding, white water rafting, fishing, boating, swimming, and gobstoppingly gorgeous scenery that is the reason visitors return, year upon year.
Everything You Need to Know to See the Garden Route Properly
You’ll find some of the best beaches, restaurants and hotels in the country on the Garden Route. But there is also the opportunity to explore off the beaten track, to find the secret hideaways and beautiful spaces far from the madding crowd.
In short: to see the Garden Route is a gift you owe yourself at least once in your lifetime.
See The Garden Route – useful information
Our advice is to drive its entirety, stopping at every town along the route, finding the local attractions and taking part in as many as make you happy.
Otherwise, make a meal of it and leave from Cape Town, driving Route 44 through the Overberg (leave at least two days to do this part of the journey as you’ll want to stop at L’Agulhas – the southernmost point of Africa).
If you time it well (July/August), as you pass along the Whale Coast (the Overberg and beyond) you’ll be able to spot the southern right whale, see penguins, dolphins and shark cage dive.
The important bits
The Garden Route is beautiful wherever you are.
There’s little you can do to spoil a trip along the Garden Route. If you’re adventurous, you could be spontaneous and simply get in the car and go where your heart desires. This idea comes with a proviso: not during school holidays or peak season.
It’s also advisable to have some idea of where you want to stay.
There are pre-planned Garden Route tours (all the major tour operators do overland tours along this coastline). And the Bazz Bus travels up the Garden Route (if you’re backpacking).
So, follow our tips and scan our best places to stay, and you’ll be ‘A’ for away:
Tip 1: Avoid the major beach towns (they can get inundated, particularly in peak season) and head for the lesser known destinations like Hoekwil (just around the corner from Wilderness), and Nature’s Valley. Having said that, Wilderness and Knysna are requisite stops for their beauty. And you’ll still find secret accommodation spots away from the tourists (scroll down).
Tip 2: The Robberg Nature Reserve is a marine Protected Area just outside Plettenberg Bay. It’s beautiful, easy to do in a morning, has a wonderful hike to the Point and back that involves seeing plenty of wildlife and crashing seas. If you can, fit this in to your itinerary.
Tip 3: Drive the Seven Passes – between George and Knysna the Cape Fold Mountains rise up like quills on a porcupine. They’re riddled with routes, some created by the persistence of rivers, others by wagons laden with goods for market. Forged by Thomas Bain and his brother-in-law, you can either drive or cycle the 75 km route (most of it is gravel, not tar) that crosses 10 rivers and seven gorges along back roads. Start on the Saasveld Forest Station road from the George side.
Tip 4: The moonlight hike to Gericke’s Point in Sedgefield is a highlight if you can get the moon and your visit to coincide (remember to wrap up, no matter the time of year) and you’ll enjoy jellyfish, plough snails, crabs, anemones and octopus. If you can’t do the moonlight hike, then go at low tide when the rock pools are exposed. Wear shoes for rock jumping.
Tip 5: General notes: – the roads are excellent along the Garden Route (you can drive it in an ordinary low-key sedan), there are clear road and town signs and the chances of getting lost are slim. Leave time to do things that aren’t on the agenda (farm stall, game farm, wine estate, beach, hike etc.) and don’t go for less than a full week, or you’ll spend the next year longing to go back and do it all over again (you will anyway)!
Main things to do
- Storms River Mouth
- Knysna forest and the Knysna Heads
- The Otter Trail (book way in advance!)
- Jump Bloukrans
- Wild Oats Farmers Market, Sedgefield
- Map of Africa Viewpoint
When to go and See the Garden Route
Did we mention the climate? Because it’s great, just about all year round.
You may experience the odd cold snap during winter (July and August) but days even at this time of year average around 15 degrees Celsius. Most popular months for the area are December and January (book way ahead if this is you), and between November and April are the summer months.
Best time: February and March – out of season, still hot.
Where to stay – our top 10 accommodation recommendations:
We’ve written about where to stay on the Garden Route before.
So this list is quintessential Garden Route: slightly quirky, with a touch of whimsy and romance…
Perched up above a valley just outside Plettenberg Bay this lodge offers a peaceful setting, unfenced dams, hiking, mountain bike trails and beautiful rooms (we particularly love the honeymoon suites).
Two quintessentially romantic and whimsically decorated self-catering cottages on the edge of the Knysna forest. Why wouldn’t you?
Lakes, gardens, birds, 400-year-old milkwood trees, romance and seven heavenly en-suite cottages and rooms.
Two stylish urban chic units on the edge of the forest and a golf course. This is a perfect base for the Garden Route.
You’re up in the hills above Wilderness in rural Hoekwil and if the delightful décor doesn’t go to your head, the fresh air most certainly will.
You’re going to love the artistic atmosphere, the corridors dripping in art, and the nooks and crannies of this guest house.
You’ll find this fynbos endowed, playful, self-catering holiday home in Milkweed Glen only two minutes from the Indian Ocean.
Your views of the ocean from this three-bedroom retreat are incredible, but you’ll also enjoy the décor’s uncomplicated restraint, making paramount your experience of the sea.