Unearthing the Garden Route, Part 1
Why All the Garden Route Hype?
Before coming to South Africa, Kim and I couldn’t help but notice all the blogs and travel guides going on about “The Garden Route this” and “The Garden Route that.” But even after reading what they had to say, it wasn’t clear to us what was so special about the Garden Route.
Only now, after we finally “did” the Garden Route, do we finally get what the hype’s about.
This quick-hitting Garden Route blog, the first of our 4-part Unearthing the Garden Route series, lays out what we learned.
It should give you a better understanding of what the Garden Route’s about and how to do it yourself.
Garden Route Guide Outline
What Isn’t the Garden Route?
It’s important to start this Garden Route blog by clearing up some misperceptions we had, and maybe you have too as a first time-visitor.
It doesn’t have much to do with gardens.
It’s more about the forest and the sea. The “Coastal Forest Route” would be more accurate, but I guess that wouldn’t appeal as much to tourists.
It’s not a route.
It’s an area. The “Coastal Forest Area.” We discovered we could just as easily explore it all from a single base as by changing hotels every night. (See How Long to Visit the Garden Route, below.)
It’s not a scenic drive.
Speeding through the “Coastal Forested Area” on the N2, it looked a lot like semi-rural areas of Canada, the US, or Europe… except for the baboons on the side of the highway.
It’s not remote.
Every town along the way is more developed and populated than guidebooks and photos had led us to believe.
It’s not over-touristy.
Despite its popularity, we didn’t feel we were among a swarm of tourists everywhere we went (aside from the Storms River suspension bridge).
What Is the Garden Route?
Technically, “Garden Route” is the name given to the parks, attractions, and towns along the 200 kilometers of the N2 highway between Mossel Bay and Storms River in southern South Africa.
We’d say it’s really just 150km though, because the 50 kilometers between Mossel Bay and George are are national park and forest free.
The main Garden Route towns are, from west to east:
- Wilderness: “Wilderness” is as accurate a name as “Garden Route.” Holiday homes along the beach and river are not wild. The beach is nice and more accessible than other towns’.
- Sedgefield: The most undeservedly zoomed-by of the main towns, except during it’s renowned Saturday Wild Oats Market.
- Knysna: Low-key mid-sized city built around a lagoon. Most of the town is old-school (with plenty of old people) except the modern V&A Waterfront-esque development, Thesen Islands, right in the middle of it.
- Plettenberg Bay: Modern holiday town where South Africa starts to feel like South Florida… if South Florida had wine farms and a really awesome Robberg Peninsula.
- Nature’s Valley: Secluded beach-, river-, and forest-side collection of guesthouses with a lot around it but not much in it.
- Storms River: A relaxed, tree-shrouded strip of a few shops, restaurants, tourism agencies, and a microbrewery that serve solely as a fueling and resting point for Tsitsikamma Park tourism.
Other towns like Oudtshoorn, Hermanus, and Port Elizabeth cling on to the Garden Route bandwagon but aren’t actually part of it. They’re worth a visit, though.
Why Visit the Garden Route?
Why should South Africans visit the Garden Route?
For South Africans, who are spoiled with scenery, good food, and coastline all over their country the Garden Route’s unique appeal comes from:
- The forest, of which there is very little elsewhere in the country.
- Comfort. It’s easily the most well-developed holiday destination in South Africa. It’s their Florida/Hawaii/Cote d’Azur.
- The moderate year-round climate, which I guess also falls under comfort.
Why should foreign tourists visit the Garden Route?
Bigger forests and better climates are shorter plane rides away in other countries than South Africa, so the unique appeal of the Garden Route for foreigners is:
- The coastal scenery. You can’t see it from the road (see: What the Garden Route Isn’t), but if you strap on your hiking boots you won’t see anything like it anywhere else, either.
- The variety. The Garden Route packs an abundance of wine farms, wildlife, wonderful food, wilderness walks, and waves into a tight package.
- Comfort. Non-adventurous travelers who want to tick South Africa off their list will gravitate here because it’s easy to find things to do for all ages and interests, secure, and basically feels the most like home.
What to Do on the Garden Route?
Since this Garden Route travel guide is meant to be quick-hitting, we’ll only briefly touch on the most popular things to do and our favorites.
Nature-lovers and city-escapers will enjoy:
- Tsitsikamma National Park’s waterfall hike (our favorite Garden Route hike) and suspension bridge walk (ok)
- Salt River Mouth hike by Nature’s Valley
- Hircling the Robberg Peninsula (our #2 favorite Garden Route activity)
- Knysna’s Circles in the Woods
- Mossel Bay’s St. Blaize Trail
- The canoeing plus hiking combo in Wilderness.
Those who want quicker thrills can pay up to bungee jump, kayak, abseil, and paraglide.
The Garden Route’s dishes out surprisingly varied, delicious, and reasonably-priced food to consume and refuel post-adventure.
Kim shares her top picks in her blog post on Garden Route Restaurants: A Food Fanatic’s 8 Favorites.
To go with your food, you’ll have the chance to consume plenty of wine at Plettenberg Bay’s wine farms that have been bubbling up (literally, since they’re particularly known for their sparkling MCC) over the past decade, microbreweries in every town, and the new gin distillery in Knysna.
If you get too full, you can empty your wallet by being a consumer at the Saturday weekend markets.
And don’t worry, you won’t be consumed by wild animals unless you jump over the fence at a wildlife sanctuary or escape from your cage while shark diving.
If you run out of things to do, do nothing.
Go to the pool at one of the many-equipped hotels around the Garden Route or head to the nearest beach and chill.
Don’t watch other people have a good time on the Garden Route.
But do see what the Garden Route’s like and to get some ideas for yourself by watching the highlight reel of our 8-day road trip from Cape Town to the Garden Route and back:
When to Visit the Garden Route?
Sometime way back in the early 90s, the Guinness Book of World Records ranked Mossel Bay as the second most temperate city in the world, after someplace in Hawaii.
To this day, Garden Route tourism officials can’t stop boasting about it.
Whether or not that lofty ranking is deserved, we can say for sure the weather’s comfortable year-round. The average monthly highs rarely exceed 25 degrees during the hottest months of January and February and the lows remain above 18 degrees in the coldest months of July and August.
Avoid visiting the Garden Route in late December and January if you can. That’s when local South Africans and foreigners migrate down by the bus-, car-, and plane-load.
How Many Days Should You Spend on the Garden Route?
Three to six days.
But if you’re driving from Cape Town, make that five to eight days to stay in non-Garden Route towns on the way there and back. You’d be wasting time, gas, and enjoyment to skip past towns along the way like Hermanus, Stanford, and those on the Route 62 corridor. They all offer just as much as their Garden Route neighbors.
If you spend three days in the Garden Route proper, pick one base, probably in Plettenberg Bay or Knysna, and explore from there. Add a second base if you stay for four to six days.
We recommend a max of six days because, while the Garden Route has enough to keep you busy for weeks, if you have the luxury of so much time we’d strongly advise you take advantage of it to explore more of South Africa.
Where to Stay Along the Garden Route?
We won’t pretend to come close to knowing all the best places to stay in the Garden Route. All we can honestly share with you is our feedback on where we stayed (after extensive research) and a couple other spots we saw along the way:
- Hide Away in Knysna (Official Site | Booking.com): The rooms are comfortable and most have fantastic sunset views of the lagoon, but the best part about this place are the owners and hosts, Colleen and Cecil, who will help ensure you get the most out of your time.
- La Vista Lodge in Plettenberg (Official Site | Booking.com): The views are the well-deserved feature attraction of this 7-room boutique hotel, but the breakfast was just as breathtaking.
- Love Earth Farm in Stormsrivier (Facebook Page | Booking.com): Comfy private cabins on the farm of a super-hospitable Spanish-South African couple.
- Villa Chante in Mossel Bay (Official Site | Booking.com): Comfortable, clean, cheap, but not too conveniently located self-catering accommodation in Dana Bay.
- The Fountain Shack on Robberg Peninsula (Official Site): Basic huts in an anything-but-basic location right on Robberg Nature Reserve. Book this well in advance.
Where to Get More Info on the Garden Route?
General Garden Route Guides
- Guidebooks. We used both the Rough Guides and Lonely Planet Garden Route travel guides and slightly favored the former.
- Pamphlets. The little booklet La Vista Lodge gave us on Plett’s wine farms was helpful.
- Average weather for various Garden Route towns.
- The official South Africa National Parks (SANParks) website is ugly but has the most up-to-date park entry fees and is the only place you can book lodging inside the parks.
- Free money from Airbnb—up to $47 US off—if you’ve never used it before.
The Best Garden Route Blog
The Unconventional Route, of course!
Read the rest of our Unearthing the Garden Route series:
- The Pros and Cons of the Garden Route
- Garden Route Travel Tips: 15 Dos and Don’ts Nobody Tells You
- Garden Route Restaurants: A Food Fanatic’s 8 Favorites
And for more real-deal, straight-shooting, original tips for traveling around the rest of the country, check out our South Africa archives.