The Complete Guide: South Africa's Garden Route

Wildlife-spotting, deserted sandy beaches, sheltered lagoons, bush land and mountain passes: this stretch of the Western Cape coastline is an area of spectacular natural beauty. And with outdoor sports and delicious local food, there's plenty of entertainment along the way. Let Ann & Steve Toon take you on a scenic tour

Sorry to disappoint, but the Garden Route tag is a misnomer. If you're expecting a horticultural holiday with a string of designer gardens to inspect, seed catalogues in hand, you're going to feel short-changed. This region of South Africa is so-called because the densely vegetated stretch of stunning Western Cape coastline, rich in diverse natural beauty, contrasts so sharply to the country's arid interior.

Sorry to disappoint, but the Garden Route tag is a misnomer. If you're expecting a horticultural holiday with a string of designer gardens to inspect, seed catalogues in hand, you're going to feel short-changed. This region of South Africa is so-called because the densely vegetated stretch of stunning Western Cape coastline, rich in diverse natural beauty, contrasts so sharply to the country's arid interior.

It comprises 200km of indigenous temperate forest, pine plantations and thick fragrant bush known as "fynbos", beneath the Tsitsikamma and Outeniqua mountains, running alongside rocky coves and glorious sandy beaches. A few lakes, lagoons, gorges and mountain passes are then tossed into this scenic salad for extra garnish. Tourist development, logging and population growth may have taken their toll on the forest and fynbos, but the Garden Route remains a breathtakingly beautiful natural playground.

Correct – yet it is very popular. Despite, or perhaps because of the fact that the Garden Route has little of what many feel is the "real" Africa about it, the area appeals to plenty of European visitors to South Africa. In the northern hemisphere's midwinter, it has the added bonus of a sunny, warm climate.

Under apartheid, the area was popular with Capetonian families and the landlocked wealthy of Johannesburg. Now, it is capitalising on this tourist infrastructure. You can find extreme adventure, tranquil retreats, plus plenty of arts and crafts galleries, good restaurants and characterful accommodation. The Garden Route even has its own gay pride carnival, the Pink Loerie Festival, held each May in Knysna. And the present favourable exchange rate – around 16 rand to the pound – allows you to enjoy the region in considerable style.

The two obvious gateways are Cape Town – from which the Garden Route is only half a day's drive – or George airport, easily reached from Johannesburg. Fares for most of the winter are around £500 return to Johannesburg, £600 to Cape Town, so long as you avoid the Christmas/New Year period – when it also gets uncomfortably crowded, and accommodation prices can double.

The Garden Route's three main seaside towns, Mossel Bay, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, form the triumvirate of resorts on the itinerary of most package tours, but you really should explore the Garden Route's wilder, woollier side as well. Mossel Bay, an old-fashioned seaside resort, marks the start of the route. Its Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex is worth a look. Most people carry on east towards the heart of the Garden Route, but if you want to overnight here, try the Old Post Office Tree Manor hotel, in an old Cape Dutch house overlooking the sea (B&B R330/£20 per person, 00 27 44 691 3738, www.oldposttree.co.za).

Next stop is Wilderness National Park (00 27 12 428 9111, www.parks-sa.co.za), a mix of coastal and mountain fynbos, lagoons and wetlands attracting 250 species of birds including lots of kingfishers and the colourful Knysna Lourie. You can stay right in the park here, family bungalows cost around R600/£36. Knysna, on an attractive, oyster-rich lagoon, is one of the Garden Route highlights and makes a good base. There's a wide range of holiday accommodation, but for something different a night in a luxury tree house at the Phantom Forest Eco-Lodge costs R1,125/£68 a head for dinner, bed and breakfast (00 27 44 386 0046, www.phantomforest.com). Set in a private nature reserve, the lodge is built from sustainable materials and has a "wellness centre" if you feel like chilling out.

Knysna has no beach but the next port of call, Plettenberg Bay ("Plett"), is one of South Africa's best seaside resorts. Despite the flashy hotels, there's also good-value family accommodation. Coral Tree Cottages, for example, are well-equipped and spacious. Two-bedroomed self-catering cottages, sleeping six, cost R700/£42 (00 27 44 532 7822, www.coraltree.net).

East of Plett, leave the N2 and descend a steep and twisting road through old-growth forest to Nature's Valley, a hidden gem with a superb beach and unspoilt lagoon. Beyond Nature's Valley lies the best stretch of wild coastline, in Tsitsikamma National Park, which boasts superb hiking trails and even an underwater nature trail which you can snorkel. Wake up next to the Indian Ocean, staying in an "oceanette" (a self-catering chalet) in the park (R330/£20 for two, 00 27 12 428 9111, www.parks-sa.co.za). Or try the privately run Tsitsikamma Lodge (00 27 42 280 3802, www.tsitsikamma.com) where garden cabins with TV, hi-fi and spa-baths cost around R343/£21 per person.

An overdose, more likely. The Garden Route has become a real adventure playground: scuba diving, surfing, snorkelling, kayaking, canoeing, rafting, biking, hiking, flying, hang-gliding, paragliding, ballooning and parachuting, all much cheaper than in the UK. A word of warning, though: safety standards and regulation are improving but may not always match what you'd expect at home.

Most tourist centres have dive schools. Try Diving International (00 27 44 533 0381) at Plett. Look for soft corals, sharks, parrotfish, or the indigenous Knysna seahorse. However, you might want to avoid Seal Island, as it was here in 1990 that a scuba diver was killed by a great white shark. If you do want to come face to face with Jaws, Shark Africa (00 27 44 691 3796, www.sharkafrica.co.za) offers cage-diving from Mossel Bay for about R750/£45.

Top surf spots include Victoria Bay, Buffalo Bay and Plettenberg beach, but serious surfers will want to carry on east to Jeffrey's Bay. Surfers flood to J Bay from around the world to tackle the legendary "supertubes" – you'll need a good-sized board for the fast waves. J Bay's mix of surf shops, fast-food outlets, bars and rampant holiday home development makes it an acquired taste; there are plenty of surf shops all along the Garden Route where you can hire boards and get information on local conditions.

Other wet and wild activities include sea-kayaking (Real Cape Adventures, 00 27 82 556 2520, www.seakayak.co.za, R180/£11 for half a day), black water tubing (Storm's River Adventures, www.stormsriver.com, 00 27 42 281 1836, around R295/£18), rafting on the Breede River (Felix Unite, www.felixunite.com, 00 27 21 683 6433, R895/£54 for three days) or canoeing on the Keurbooms river (Cape Nature Conservation, 00 27 44 533 2125, www.capenature.org.za, from R90/£5.50 per person for an overnight trip).

If you've a head for heights, how about tandem paragliding in the town of Wilderness to spot whales and dolphins from a seagull's-eye view (Cloudbase Paragliding, 00 27 44 877 1414, www.cloudbase-paragliding.co.za, R300/£18 per flight)? Or plunge 216 metres from the world's highest bungee jump at Bloukrans River Bridge (Face Adrenaline, 00 27 42 281 1458, www.faceadrenalin.com, R500/£30).

For more traditional outdoor activities, the forests and beaches of the Garden Route are traversed by countless hiking, biking and riding trails. Tsitsikamma National Park boasts one of South Africa's best long-distance hikes, the 42km Otter Trail, offering five days of superb coastal walking with rivers to ford and plenty of time to swim, snorkel or just relax. You overnight in basic huts and must carry everything you need. It's hugely popular and often booked a year in advance (book through South African National Parks 00 27 12 426 5111, www.parks-sa.co.za, and pay the R420/£25 trail fee). For the lazy adventurer, the new Dolphin Trail, is a "luxury" three-day hike over 20km, involving stays in comfortable cabins, with food prepared for you, and your luggage transported between stops (R2,200/£133, Storms River Adventures, 00 27 42 281 1836, www.dolphintrail.co.za).

Mountain bike fans, meanwhile, should head for the Harkerville trail, near Knysna – actually four different circular trails of varying degrees of difficulty. Contact Outeniqua Biking Trails (00 27 44 532 7644) for bike hire and guided trails.

Motoring down the N2 in an open-topped MGB roadster or astride a Harley Davidson. It costs around R1,000/£60 a day for rentals over nine days with Classic Twin Tours (00 27 21 882 2558, www.classictwintours.com). Steam afficionados might prefer to recreate authentic rail travel of the Twenties to Forties on a Union Limited Golden Thread vintage steam rail tour (UK agent Northumbria Travel, 01670 829922, www.steam-in-south-africa.com). The four-day trip departs from Cape Town, takes in Garden Route highlights and costs £475 per person, but don't expect Orient Express-style luxury.

If you're planning a self-drive holiday, hiring a car is cheap and the roads are excellent. If you're on a tight budget, public transport along the Garden Route is better than anywhere else in the country. The Baz Bus (00 27 21 439 2323, www.bazbus.com) is a very well organised alternative to the major operators, allowing you to hop on and off along the route for a cool R930/£56 return from Cape Town.

Travelling under your own steam means that you can stop off when and where you fancy. Golfing enthusiasts, for example, could simply play their way along the Garden Route, since there are as many golf courses as there are holes in a round, including the famous Fancourt Country Club near George (00 27 44 804 0030, www.fancourt.com). A self-guided, eight-day tour including car hire, B&B accommodation and five rounds of golf costs around R9200/£555 per person sharing with South African Golfing and Safari Tours (00 27 82 782 3142).

Alternatively, stay at the Garden Route's most stylish offering, The Lodge in Plettenberg Bay, voted one of the world's top 101 hotels last year by Tatler magazine. With Phillippe Starck bathrooms, it's one of the trendiest small hotels in South Africa. Rooms cost from R1950/£118 (00 27 44 561 2800, www.thelodge.co.za).

The Garden Route is a long way from South Africa's crime hotspots and is traditionally one of the safer parts of the country, but the influx of tourists has prompted a rise in crime. The Foreign Office says, "There is a risk of vehicle hi-jacking and armed robbery in some areas. Drivers should park in well lit areas and not pick up strangers. Avoid driving in rural areas at night." Be alert when arriving at Cape Town or Johannesburg airport, as luggage and passports are often targets for thieves.

The Garden Route is not prime safari territory, but you can still sample the classic African game lodge experience with the added bonus that you won't catch malaria stalking the Big Five. You can fly in to Prince Charles' favourite, Shamwari reserve (00 27 42 203 1111, www.shamwari.com) in the Eastern Cape, for a day visit with Plett-based African Ramble. The trip costs R3,290/£198 (00 27 44 533 9006, www.aframble.co.za).

Alternatively, enjoy the friendly elephants of Greater Addo national park with all the colonial comforts of Gorah, the park's new private lodge (from R2670/£161 per person, 00 27 44 532 7818, www.gorah.com). If that's too steep, a national parks chalet costs from around R350/£21 (00 27 12 428 9111, www.parks-sa.co.za).

The Garden Route is also one of the best places in the world for shore-based whale and dolphin-watching, particularly between July and October. Ocean Blue Adventures is one of several operators offering boat-based whale watching, from R395/£24 for two hours (00 27 44 533 5083, www.oceanadventures.co.za).

The Garden Route's tourist industry was built on its appeal to South African families, so there is plenty to amuse the kids. You could take a return trip on the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe steam train from Knysna to George (R60/£4 for adults, R40/£2.50 for children, twice-daily except Sundays, 00 27 44 801 8288).

The Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe is Southern Africa's last scheduled steam-hauled passenger train, and follows a spectacular ocean-hugging route through Goukamma, Sedgefield, Victoria Bay and Wilderness. Or catch the motor boat John Benn across Knysna lagoon to Featherbeds private nature reserve, where a tractor-trailer ride takes you around the small reserve which is home to the largest breeding herd of the tiny, endangered blue duiker antelopes (00 27 44 382 1693, R70/£4).

Make up for the disappointment of not seeing the fabled wild Knysna elephants with a visit to Knysna Elephant Park, where a small group of friendly hand-reared elephants are kept in semi-natural conditions and can be handled and fed treats by visitors. Book in advance if you want to go on a walk through the forest with the elephants – kids will love it (standard tour R60/£4 adults, R30/£2 children, walks R500/£30 adults, R250/£15 children, 00 27 44 532 7732, www.knysnaelephantpark.co.za).

More close encounters of a furry kind can be had at Monkeyland, 18km east of Plett, where rehabilitated primates roam in huge walk-through natural enclosures. Guided walks give children and adults a chance to interact with the tamer residents while learning a little about them (R66/£4 for adults, R33/£2 for children, 0027 44 534 8906, www.monkeyland.co.za).

For active children there are plenty of places to hire canoes, bikes or horses. And if they're not afraid of the dark, a trip to Cango Caves, near Oudtshoorn is a must. The standard tour walks you through breathtaking, dramatically lit caverns, but take the "adventure tour" to strike deeper into the hot, airless, inner recesses along ever narrower tunnels, until finally you have to "post" yourself through a frighteningly tight slit. Adventurous children will be in their element, adults might be less happy – don't try it if you're claustrophobic (R50/£3 for adults, R35/£2 for children, 0027 44 272 7410).

If you're heading back to Cape Town then "Route 62" offers a great scenic alternative to the N2. Strike inland from Knysna or Plett, crossing the Outeniqua mountains via the dramatic untarred Prince Alfred's Pass, or take the tarred road from George up to Oudtshoorn. Either will bring you to the arid, sun-baked landscape of the Little Karoo, a region of sparsely populated valleys with quiet, old-fashioned towns, surrounded by rugged mountain scenery.

The only large town is Oudtshoorn, dubbed "ostrich capital of the world", and notable for its "feather palaces", showy sandstone buildings built by the self-aggrandising ostrich barons of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. If you don't fancy a visit to one of the touristy ostrich show farms, you'll still see hundreds of these bizarre birds on roadside farms.

Follow the R62 west through Calitzdorp, a Victorian village with wineries producing excellent port, and carry on through sleepy towns far-removed from the tourist bustle of the coast. Leaving the Little Karoo, you pass through the fertile fruit and wine country of the Breede River Valley, then on to the Cape Winelands. Take a couple of days over the trip to allow time for short detours to visit attractive little towns such as McGregor, an artsy magnet for urban escapees from Cape Town, or Tulbagh, with its perfectly restored Cape Dutch architecture.

The South Africa Tourism Board (08701 550044, www.south-african-tourism.org). There are umpteen websites offering information, try www.gardenroute.com or www.gardenroute. co.za as starting points.

Top Five Sights

Stay in a medieval castle and search for elephants

Knysna elephants

Elephant warning signs on the road between Knysna and Plett aren't entirely a joke, but your chances of seeing wild elephants are almost nil. Thousands once roamed the forests, but hunting and habitat destruction saw numbers dwindle to a handful. An attempt to introduce fresh breeding stock in the 1990s failed, and today you'll not get a straight answer to how many, if any, survive. Searching for elephants is a good excuse to explore the beautiful forests, with their majestic yellowwoods – try the walking trails in Diepwalle Forest, about 20km from Knysna.

Ostrich racing

Oudtshoorn, an hour's drive inland from Wilderness, is worth a visit for the nearby Cango caves, but whether you'll want to visit one of Oudtshoorn's ostrich show farms is another matter. If you do you'll see "jockeys" riding the birds in races, or even get to sit on one yourself, but bear in mind that this is cruel and can lead to broken legs for the unfortunate birds. The show farms are chiefly memorable for some of the tackiest souvenirs you'll ever see. Best of the bunch is probably Cango Ostrich Farm (0027 44 272 4623, R29/£1.70 adults, R11/70p children).

Post office tree

Back in the 16th century, mariners used to leave messages for passing ships in an old boot under a milkwood tree in Mossel Bay. Outside the maritime museum, part of Mossel Bay's Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex, you'll find a tree with a plaque optimistically claiming "This may well" be the same tree. The museum itself is worth a visit for the life-size recreation of Dias's tiny ship, a testament to the bravery of these early Portuguese explorers.

Noetzie's castles

Eccentric holiday homes built like medieval castles, complete with turrets and battlements, Noetzie's castles enjoy an idyllic location on a lovely surf beach about 10km east of Knysna. The sea is dangerous for swimming, but there is a sheltered lagoon. For an unusual place to stay, rent one of the castles (00 27 44 375 0100, www.knysnacastles.com, from R500-750/£30-45 per person).

Fossil fish

Knysna's unassuming little angling museum (entry by donation) is home to an unusual biological curiosity, a preserved coelacanth. The coelacanth is a "missing link" fish, with fins resembling primitive arms and legs. It was thought to be extinct until a specimen was caught in a deep-sea fishing net off the South African coast in 1939. Since then divers have discovered several colonies in the depths of the Indian Ocean.

Taste your way round the region

Feast on oysters, springbok and local red wine

The Garden Route is famous for its seafood. If you can't make the Knysna Oyster Festival in July, a tasting of six oysters at the Knysna Oyster Company (0027 44 382 6941) costs just R30/£2, while oyster and champagne sunset cruises on Knysna lagoon cost R350/£21 with Springtide Charters (0027 82 470 6022, www.springtide.co.za). The farms of the Little Karoo, just over the scenic mountain passes, have put ostrich meat and organic lamb on to many restaurant menus as well providing the perfect excuse to sample some of the local Karoo reds. The Garden Route is also famous for locally brewed beers from Mitchell's Brewery – there's even a brew based on Yorkshire ale called Bosun's Bitter (0027 44 382 4685). If you want posh nosh to go, Farmhouse Picnics (0027 44 356 2707) will deliver gourmet picnic baskets for two anywhere in Wilderness, Sedgefield or Knysna for about £7. A choice of menus include oysters, smoked chicken, vegetable kebabs, lime and basil couscous, pecan pie plus wine, and even ideas for good picnic sites.

Five of the best

Start your culinary tour with a seafood lunch served in the garden of Cafe Gannet in Mossel Bay (0027 44 691 1885).

Guests sit round a huge 24-seater dining table at Hog Hollow Country Lodge, 18km east of Plettenberg Bay (0027 44 534 8879, www.hog-hollow.com).

Savour loin of springbok with savoy cabbage and bacon, onion marmalade and red wine jus in the recently revamped dining area of Sands at the Plettenberg (0027 44 533 2030).

Food is sourced on the Karoo family farm at Jemima's highly acclaimed restaurant in Oudtshoorn (0027 44 272 0808).

The award-winning pan-African menu at Phantom Forest Eco-Lodge near Knysna also features local fish, cheese and game (0027 44 386 0046, www.phantomforest.com).

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