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South Africa’s Garden Route consistently ranks highly in the world’s best road trips. A coast-hugging highway that winds past world-class beaches, colourful seaside towns and untouched natural forests, the Garden Route certainly delivers on spectacular scenery and memorable activities along the way.
The road is so well-travelled that planning your own holiday along the Garden Route should be easy. Shouldn’t it?
The problem is that even the briefest of holiday planning will reveal ten different recommendations from travellers saying that you should follow their version of an “Ultimate Garden Route”, suggesting places to stay, beaches to swim at, and views to stop at along the way. But all will be different. How can this be true?
Travelling along South Africa’s Garden Route is a deeply personal experience, and no two journeys are ever the same. For a relatively short road, there is a lot to see and do, and unless you have unlimited time, you probably won’t be able to see it all. There is no right or wrong way to experience a Garden Route holiday at its best, just different highlights to see and do along the way. So how do you plan your perfect Garden Route Itinerary? Let me help you…
The Garden Route is located along South Africa’s southern coast. It effectively links the western and eastern capes, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. The Garden Route follows the coastline between the towns of Mossel Bay and Storms River (Stormsrivier).
The name ‘Garden Route’ refers to the ecological diversity that is found along the route. The area benefits from a relatively mild and temperate maritime climate, giving rise to rich forests and other vegetation such as the flowering fynbos.
Officially the Garden Route runs for 180 kilometres (112 miles) between the towns of Mossel Bay and Storms River. However, most tourists will begin their journey in the city of Cape Town and continue to Port Elizabeth (Gqeberha), which if driven directly and without diversions is approximately 800 kilometres (497 miles).
Whilst it is possible to cover the distance between Mossel Bay and Storms River in just over 2 hours, this wouldn’t be getting the most out of your visit. Most itineraries will take between two and seven days to complete this part of the route and longer if you are travelling to and from Cape Town or Port Elizabeth. Ultimately, how long you spend along the Garden Route is up to you.
There is no right or wrong direction to complete the Garden Route. Because in South Africa you drive on the left, it could be argued that by driving east to west, you will always be on the coast side of the road, and have unobstructed views. However, there are plenty of scenic views to the other side of the road as well. Some people choose to drive the route in both directions for this reason. However, most international tourists will generally drive from west to east having arrived into South Africa via the airport at Cape Town.
South Africa’s Garden Route is a year-round destination, however there are distinctive seasons which can significantly impact your holiday experience:
Spring (September to November)
This is my favourite time to visit and is an excellent time to view the wildflowers in bloom. The weather is generally mild, although you will probably need a jacket. There is less rainfall than the winter months and generally temperatures are quite pleasant for outdoor activities. You can even catch the tail end of whale watching season at the start of spring.
Summer (December to February)
Long days combined with warm and sunny weather makes this peak season along the Garden Route. This is the perfect time to spend time on the Garden Route’s many beaches and indulge in some of the water sport activities. However, like every seaside destination around the world, during the school summer holidays, expect larger crowds, less availability, and higher prices.
Autumn (March to May)
This is another good time to get the most from the Garden Route. The crowds have thinned out and the weather is usually still pleasant. The landscapes are often freshened up by showers, making the scenic views even more vibrant.
Winter (June to August)
Whilst winters along the Garden Route are fairly mild, it is the wettest season, and there are cold spells. However, if you prefer a quieter experience, and don’t mind cooler temperatures, then winter is still very rewarding, especially of you enjoy whale watching. Just expect some seasonal activities not to be available during this time.
Ultimately the best time to visit the Garden Route depends on your preferences for weather, crowd levels and the activities you want to enjoy along the way.
Garden Route Holidays by Freedom Destinations
Where you stop and spend some time along the Garden Route is up to you, and will depend on your interests, but there are many highlights that you should consider. Considering a trip travelling eastwards from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, here are just some of my favourite places that you will come across.
The most common starting point for the Garden Route, Cape Town is a destination in its own right and is definitely worth a few days exploring. Be sure to take the cable car to the top of Table Mountain for panoramic views of the city and beyond. Enjoy the shops and restaurants at the V&A waterfront and seek at the stunning beaches at Camps Bay and Clifton.
Beyond the charming Cape Dutch architecture of the historic town, the surrounding vineyards are famous for some of South Africa’s finest wines. Many wineries offer dining options alongside informative wine tasting sessions.
In the winter and spring months Hermanus becomes South Africa’s whale watching capital, where it is possible to view Southern Right Whales and Humpbacks close to the coast. As well as viewing these graceful giants from the shore, you can join a cruise to get even closer. If you are in Hermanus in September look out for the annual whale festival which celebrates the return of the whales. Nearby Gansbaai is also good for whale watching and is also known for shark cage diving, for those fascinated by Great White Sharks.
Significant both geographically and historically, Cape Agulhas is the southernmost tip of the African Continent, marking the point where the Atlantic and Indian Ocean mix. The treacherous waters have a reputation for shipwrecks and the historic lighthouse was constructed in 1848 to aid maritime navigation.
About 50 kilometres (31 miles) inland from the town of George, Oudtshoorn is still a popular stopping place when travelling along the Garden Route. The main attraction is the Cango Caves. Guided tours can take visitors underground into a labyrinth of limestone chambers. In recent years Oudtshoorn has also become known as ‘the ostrich capital of the world’ and it is possible to spend some time on one of the ostrich farms learning about these unique birds.
As this marks the official start of the Garden Route it would feel rude not to stop. The beautiful Diaz Beach is named after the Portugal Explorer Bartolomeu Diaz and you can learn more about him and the history of Mossel Bay at the Diaz Museum complex that includes a replica of his ship.
The charming town of George is a popular stopping point and a good base for exploring the surrounding area. As we are on the Garden Route, you could spend some time wandering the peaceful botanic gardens, or for some fun in the surf, grab a board and head down to Victoria Bay. This small beach is the destination for local surfers but is also great for relaxing on the sand, whilst the rustic restaurants beyond the sand are home to some of the best calamari in the world (in my opinion!).
Just a short hop from George on the way to Knysna is Wilderness, another fantastic beach overlooked by the impressive Salinas Beach Restaurant, the perfect location for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with views of the ocean. Whilst boat tours from Wilderness will take you out in search of dolphins and other sea mammals, it is also worth heading inland to explore Wilderness National Park which includes the river, freshwater lakes, and the estuary.
Nearly everyone will stop for some time in Knysna. The waterfront is a lively area with a variety of restaurants, shops, and galleries; however, it is the iconic Knysna Heads that will stay longer in the memory. These two massive sandstone cliffs guard the entrance to the lagoon and offer a variety of viewpoints to see further along the coast. The western head is home to Featherbed Nature reserve, which can be reached by a small ferry. You can explore on foot or join a guided tour to learn more about the unique coastal habitats found here. Those desperate for a wildlife encounter can visit Knysna Elephant Park, where you can interact with elephants, however, I would prefer to see these animals when out in one of South Africa’s wonderful National Parks and protected game reserves.
Plett (as it is more commonly referred to) is surrounded by natural beauty, with white sandy beaches, dramatic cliffs and lush forests on all sides. A picturesque seaside town, Plett has good access for the Robberg Peninsula, part of the Garden Route National Park. The area features some diverse environments including the unique flowering Fynbos vegetation that contributes to the Garden Route name. For more animal encounters Plett is home to Monkeyland, Birds of Eden and Jukani wildlife sanctuary that are all entertaining and doing their bit for conservation of different species.
As well as marking the official end of the Garden Route, Storms River is a stunning coastal town with access to National Parks on its doorstep. Perhaps the most photographed location in Storms River is the suspension bridge that crosses the river mouth. A walk across the bridge provides panoramic views of the rugged coastline. Storms River has become a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and there is a lot you can do from a variety of hiking trails to, water activities such as snorkelling and scuba diving as well as kayaking and boat trips. For those wishing to take to the skies there is ziplining through the forest canopy and then the Bloukrans Bridge, where you can participate in the world’s highest bungee jump or just watch the madness from the side-lines.
Usually visited from Storms River, so only just beyond the official Garden Route, this park boasts a dramatic and pristine stretch of coastline, rich in biodiversity. Visitors are treated to views of rugged cliffs, wild waves, secluded beaches and unique rock formations, whilst inland the park encompasses ancient and lush indigenous forests that include towering yellowwood trees and giant ferns. The forests are also home to a variety of birdlife including Kingfishers, Knysna Turaco and the African Black Oystercatchers. Tsitsikamma features a network of well-maintained hiking trails that reach out through the park. It is also the start of ‘The Otter Trail’ one of the most famous multi-day hikes in South Africa (a bit too far for me!).
A top destination for competition surfers ‘J-Bay’ is known for its right-hand point break, and hosts a round of the World Surf League. For the less gifted (like me) the pristine blue flag beaches are also ideal for swimming, sunbathing and the usual beach activities. As you would expect the small town is dominated by surf-themed shops and surf-culture giving it a bohemian vibe.
The end of many Garden Route itineraries, the city of Port Elizabeth is a gateway to the rest of South Africa and beyond, however, it is also home to its own beautiful beaches, such as Hobie, Kings and Pollock beaches. Entertainment in Port Elizabeth is provided by the Boardwalk Casino that, in addition to gaming, also offers dining, shopping and live entertainment, whilst some of the best golf courses in South Africa are located on the city’s outskirts.
A popular addition to many Garden Route activities is a visit to one of the nearby Game Reserves for a safari experience. Addo Elephant National Park is surrounded by game reserves that all offer safaris. The National Park is renowned for its high concentration of elephant, but the park is also home to the other members of the ‘Big 5’. Shamwari and Kwandwe Private Game Reserves are located about an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth and offer a luxurious stay with exceptional wildlife viewing. Amakhala and Kariega Game Reserve are a little further away from Port Elizabeth and offer a variety of safari experiences, including game drives, river cruises, and guided walks.
The best garden route itinerary for you will depend much on the time available and your interests. You will want to stay in the places that best suit you, but it is likely that you will choose a variety from one of these themes:
As it implies the Linear Garden Route starts at one end of the Garden Route and finishes at the other. It can be started at Mossell Bay or Storms River, and can even include the direct routes to and from Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. It is likely that you will want to choose two or three places to stay along the way and then tour out each day.
Pros: A quick and easy routing taking in the highlights of the Garden Route
Cons: A small amount of back-tracking along the road will be required to see all the sights
A variation on the linear route, the Circular Garden Route begins and ends in Cape Town. The route will naturally follow the traditional Garden Route along the coast and then return to Cape Town inland, through the Little Karoo (Klein Karoo), a drier area that includes the town of Oudtshoorn.
Pros: There is no back-tracking or diverting so you can keep heading in the same direction
Cons: There are more miles to cover, as you effectively drive to Port Elizabeth and back again
Another longer variation with extended stays in Cape Town and then a safari stay in the Eastern Cape, The Extended Garden Route is most like a complete holiday, and most international visitors will likely do something similar this. Spend three or four days in Cape Town before collecting a car to drive the Garden Route. Before departing from Port Elizabeth head to Addo Elephant National Park or one of the nearby Game Reserves to enjoy a safari.
Pros: This is a great holiday with a city stay and a safari combined with a scenic self drive
Cons: This is going to take longer and ultimately will have a larger price tag
Although we have focused mostly on self driving holidays it is also possible to complete the Garden Route on an escorted tour. Tours usually follow a variation of the Linear Garden Route, starting in Cape Town and ending in Port Elizabeth. Travel by coach along the coast with an expert guide to point out all the highlights along the way.
Pros: No need to be concerned about driving abroad and a knowledgeable guide to show you the highlights
Cons: You will be travelling as a group and only stopping at pre-arranged points
The Garden Route is spectacular and I would recommend it be included in most South Africa holidays. Booking your perfect Garden Route itinerary shouldn’t be chore. Holiday planning should be fun! Hopefully I have given you all you need to select activities that you want to do, and destinations that you wish to visit, along South Africa’s Garden Route. So now you just need to book it.
Although it is possible to book all the elements of any South African itinerary separately, it can be a lot of work, and difficult to get all the component parts to fit perfectly. Availabilities and prices can change, leaving you having to change plans or start all over again.
I honestly believe that the best and easiest way to book your perfect Garden Route itinerary is by speaking with an expert. Even if you think that you know exactly where you want to go and when, an expert can confirm your choices, or suggest alternatives that you may not have considered. They can also suggest certain places, restaurants or viewpoints that they have personally enjoyed. These may be places that aren’t in the guidebooks. The Freedom Destinations Africa travel team have all travelled widely within South Africa. Some even grew up along the Garden Route, so you can’t get more experienced than that! When you are ready to book your perfect Garden Route Itinerary, contact the Freedom Destinations Africa team and they will check availability, prices and ultimately book it all for you.
Richard has more than 25 years of experience working within the travel industry. He has travelled widely in the USA, Australia and Africa and enjoys exploring National Parks and other wilderness areas.