Things to see & do along
the Garden Route, South Africa

When is a route more than just a way from one place to another? When it’s the Garden Route in South Africa. This much celebrated section of the southern coast encompasses many of the best things to do in South Africa in one neat package, from wildlife watching to wine tasting. Adventure is easily accessible along the route, with fairytale forests for hiking in, blissful beaches, craggy coves and whales that skim the coast on their annual migration. Short detours take you from the coast to the mountains or the dry Little Karoo to see the Big Five, ostriches and impressive cave systems. Suddenly, ‘garden’ sounds deceptively tame and ‘route’ sounds decidedly A to B-ish. In fact, the Garden Route is wild and wonderful, with the real excitement happening when you get out of the car.

Officially the Garden Route stretches from Mossel Bay to Storms River, and is so named for all the lush and diverse vegetation flourishing here, but getting too precise about start and end points misses out the bigger picture – a picture that includes all the wild and exciting landscapes that lie along the longer route between Port Elizabeth in the east and Cape Town in the west. Most Garden Route vacations include this broader journey, spending time in Addo Elephant National Park, whale watching in Hermanus and exploring the Winelands northeast of Cape Town.

There’s so much to do along the Garden Route that it’s best to allow two weeks. Getting the most from this beautiful route is not about racking up the miles, after all, but about stopping frequently and for a few nights to explore. Just like the fine wines produced here, you shouldn’t gulp down the Garden Route in one go; breathe it in, swirl it around and sip it slowly.

Garden Route highlights,
from east to west

Addo Elephant National Park

Addo Elephant National Park is just a stone’s throw from Port Elizabeth. It’s home to around 600 elephants, and also black rhinos, leopards, lions, buffalos, hyenas, zebras and various antelopes. Smaller inhabitants include meerkats and lots of dung beetles, which can be seen throughout the park rolling little balls of dung by the side of the road. The park stretches all the way to the coast, offering protection to penguins, seals and other marine birdlife, and includes the largest and best preserved coastal dunefield in the southern hemisphere.

Tsitsikamma National Park

Bang on the Garden Route, this park covers both land and sea, protecting important forest and marine areas. Its 80km stretch of coastline is made up of rocky coves with sandy beaches, indigenous forests reaching down to the sea, waterfalls and rivers. There are excellent walking trails and routes that include suspended canopy walkways and zipwires. Paddle a kayak up the Storms River, spot birds flitting between the sea, forest and scrubland, go horse riding or just gorge on the views and amazing seafood.

Plettenberg Bay

At the very heart of the Garden Route, Plettenberg Bay, or ‘Plett’, has everything going on, from glowing sandstone cliffs in the bay itself to the calmer waters of Knysna Lagoon, protected by two limestone cliffs which emerge from the sea side by side. Surfers will be in heaven here, or there’s hiking through Featherbed Nature Reserve, accessible by boat. Sea kayaking, horse riding and sailing trips are all on offer, too, and Plett itself is a pleasantly laidback place to relax in. Not far away is Robberg Nature Reserve. There are great walking trails here, brilliant bird viewing, and sweeping coastal views with dolphins and seals visible in the sea below. From July to November, look out for southern right whales nursing their young in the calm waters.

Oudtshoorn

Head inland and over a pass and the lush landscape of the Garden Route becomes drastically different as you reach the Little Karoo, a much dryer and hotter region. Here, you’ll find Oudtshoorn, which became famous thanks to the trade in ostrich feathers and is still, today, the ostrich capital of the world. Visit an ostrich farm to get close to these big birds and head underground in nearby Cango Caves, an extensive network of caverns with impressive stalactites and stalagmites, millions of years old.

Mossel Bay

The small town of Mossel Bay is home to the Dias museum complex, which focuses on the influence of early Portuguese sailors on South Africa. Check out the Post Office Tree, too, an old milkwood tree which has been used to leave messages for passing ships since 1500.

Hermanus

Nicknamed the ‘whale capital of the world’, whales are easily spotted from the shores in Hermanus. Come from July to November to see southern right whales breaching in Walker Bay. Year round, there is hiking, river cruises and lagoon kayaking, horse riding and surfing to try. Nearby are Pringle Bay, a seaside village with good markets, arts and crafts shops and cafes; the African penguins at Stony Point Nature Reserve in Betty’s Bay; the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens; and Kogelberg Nature Reserve.

Winelands

The wine industry of the Western Cape dates back to the 17th century and its makers today produce some of the best wines in the world. Stellenbosch is at the heart of the region and its vineyards are often surrounded by spectacular gardens and farmland, so come for the views as well as the tastings – you can even stay overnight at some wine estates. Explore Stellenbosch town itself, one of South Africa’s oldest colonial settlements, made up of tree lined streets and whitewashed, Cape Dutch architecture. Franschhoek is another food and wine heartland, which you can explore using a hop-on, hop-off tram.

Cape Town

A city with one of the most beautiful settings in the world, Cape Town is a wonderful fusion of urban and natural with a thriving cultural life. Table Mountain and Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, are popular attractions, but check out the colourful houses of Bo Kaap, too, and then café hop and shop along Bree Street and Kloof Street. It’s worth allowing a day to explore Cape Peninsula, too. The Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, a place of rugged cliffs, unspoilt beaches, shipwrecks and beautiful flora, is home to lots of wildlife, including eland, springbok, baboon and ostrich.

Our top South Africa Vacation

South Africa vacation

South Africa vacation

Explore Cape Town, the Winelands and the Garden Route

From £2300 to £4500 15 days inc UK flights
Tailor made:
This trip can be tailormade throughout the year and can be adapted to suit your interests, budget and requirements as necessary
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Garden Route practicalities

Most Garden Route vacations are around two weeks long, allowing five to seven days for the core Garden Route itself and its many attractions, then bookended with time in Cape Town and the Winelands, some whale watching around Hermanus (in season) and a safari in the Eastern Cape. Both small group and tailor made vacations explore the Garden Route, and self driving is an option, giving you flexibility but also the benefit of all accommodation booked for you, plus any game drives or organised activities.

You can explore the Garden Route at any time of year. For hot, sunny weather come during the summer months of December to April. For milder temperatures come from May to November; you can also catch the whales migrating at this time.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Christopher Griner] [Intro: South African Tourism] [Addo Elephant National Park: Tobin Rogers] [Oudtshoorn: AndreasGoellner] [Winelands: Martyn Smith]
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