Garden Route travel tips cover image of Kim in Tsitsikamma National Park

These Garden Route travel tips are Part 3 of our 4-part Unearthing the Garden Route series. For all our insights and tips, don’t miss Part 1: Quick-Hitting Guide, Part 2: Pros and Cons, and Part 4: Restaurant Recommendations.

Plan the Garden Route Like You Plant a Garden

If you randomly toss a bunch of seeds around onto some dirt, your garden’s not going to turn out too well. The same goes for your Garden Route trip. You have to put some thought into planning for it to turn out beautifully.

These Garden Route travel tips will help you do so.

They’re the equivalent of a beginner’s guide to gardening: best practices we learned from others, built on with our own experience, and are now sharing with you.

Garden Route Planning Tips

Don’t feel obliged to stay everywhere along the Garden Route

The Garden Route’s small enough that you can be within no more than an hour-and-a-half drive from every attraction and activity if you pick a central place to stay.

This saves you the hassle of packing and unpacking and saves you money, since most Garden Route hotels offer discounts on multi-night stays.

Plettenberg Bay and Knysna are the most central towns to use as bases. Or, if you’re doing a longer trip, you could pick two, like Storms River and Wilderness.

Rebecca and Kim read books inside the lord milner hotel at our pitstop in Matjiesfontein, along Route 62.
Kim and our friend Rebecca extending our quick pitstop into a reading session at the iconic Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein.

✓ Do a loop

If you’re starting and ending your trip in Cape Town, don’t go up and down the N2, the Garden Route’s main drag, both ways.

Instead, go along the interior in one direction and hit up some non-Garden Route highlights like Matjiesfontein, the Meiringspoort Pass, and some Route 62 wine farms and restaurants.

This interior route only takes about and hour-and-a-half longer and allows you to explore a completely different, but equally worthy, section of South Africa.

Kim and Chris standing in front of the rental car on Clarence Drive.
We rented this sweet and speedy Picanto. It’s excellent on gas, but needs help getting up hills.

✓ Do rent your car from Around About

We should’ve taken our own advice from our South Africa road trips tips and went with Around About Cars from the start.

But we didn’t and our rental car experience was a disaster.

First, the company that offered us a free rental (#BloggerBonus) reneged on our day of departure (#BloggerBogus).

We then booked the cheapest car from Europcar. But, that fell apart when the sleazy agent Cobus at the Convention Centre tried to scam us into paying extra for insurance and refused to rent to us otherwise.

Our next stop was Avis, which was fine except that we ended up being penalized for exceeding the mileage limit.

From now on, we’re really truly sticking with Around About. We recommend you do the same. Every rental comes with unlimited kilometers, each of our three earlier experiences with them was hassle-free, and they often have the cheapest rates.

Tip within a tip: Get Sufficient Mileage

If you don’t go for Around About, at least ensure you get enough mileage with your car rental.

We thought 1,600 km was plenty for our recent eight-day Garden Route trip from Cape Town to Tsitsikamma and back.

Wrong.

We ended up driving more than 2,000 km. This caused us some stress during our trip and cost us about R1,000 extra.

Road, aloe, and rocks in winding Meiringspoort Pass
This scenic Meiringspoort drive isn’t on the typical Garden Route. But it could be if you make a loop.

Don’t expect a scenic drive

Don’t get us wrong. There’s plenty of beautiful scenery on the Garden Route. You just can’t see most of it from the road.

The highway views along the Garden Route are mostly of clear-cut forests, suburban development, and farmland, not the beautiful beaches and majestic mountains we imagined.

Tip Within a Tip:

For scenic drives near-ish to the Garden Route, try Meiringspoort and Swartberg Passes and Clarence Drive (Route 44) from Hermanus to Cape Town.

fynboshoek cheese lunch tsitsikamma
Passing the butter over our delectable farm fresh cheese lunch at Fynboshoek in Tsitsikamma.

✓ Do reserve at some restaurants in advance

One of the unexpected highlights of our Garden Route trip the food.

Unexpected, but not accidental. We ate through many megabytes looking up places to eat and chewed many friends’ and strangers’ ears for tips.

Then, when we settled on our spots, we called to reserve because, even though we were traveling in a slower season, tables were sometimes hard to come by. Some experiences, like lunch at Fynboshoek Cheese, require reservations and don’t accept drop-ins at all.

There’s no reason not to. It costs nothing more than a phone call to make reservations and doesn’t cost you to cancel if your plans change.

Rebecca and Kim tasting beer outside the Tsitsikamma Brewery in Stormsriver.
Incorrect info on Google almost caused us to miss out on this beer tasting experience at Tsitsikamma Brewery.

Don’t trust Google’s hours

Our plans got screwed up a couple of times because of incorrect opening hours reported on Google.

We eventually learned our lesson, stopped trusting Google, and started calling, or at least checking the business’ Facebook pages, to confirm hours. We recommend you do the same.

✓ Do plan based on the days of the week

Beware that many restaurants and attractions are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Plan to spend those days driving, having a beach day, or a doing a full-day outdoor activity.

On Fridays, look online or ask around for what events are going on in the evening. Because we didn’t know to do so, we missed out on a party at the new Knysna Gin Distillery.

And on Saturdays, as we’ll elaborate on in a later Garden Route travel tip, head to one of the markets.

Classic Kim going straight for the kimchi at the Harkerville Market.

✓ Do stop by Saturday markets

We enjoyed sampling snacks, checking out the crafts, and relaxing in the low-key local vibes of the Harkerville Saturday Market outside Plettenberg Bay.

And, while it’s not technically on the Garden Route, the Hermanus Country Market was similarly enjoyable.

The dates didn’t work out for us to check out the Wild Oats Market in Sedgefield, but according to many it’s the best of the bunch.

kim and chris cheersing at a wine farm in plettenberg bay
Happy we made it to at least one wine farm in Plettenberg.

✓ Do visit the local wine farms.

If we had planned better, we would have started our Robberg Pensinsula hike earlier to have time to visit more than one estate in Plettenberg Bay’s emerging winelands.

The first vine was only planted in 2001, but now there are close to 20 farms making an increasingly varied (thanks to global warming) collection of wines.

Tip Within a Tip:

Ask your hotel or at the tourism office for a handy little booklet that lists the wine farms’ opening hours (many close annoyingly early at 4 p.m.) and contact info.

The Overberg region, which is between the Garden Route and Cape Town, has one as well.

Chris peers over the ledge on our hike to Wolfberg Cracks in Cederberg.
If you’re into stargazing, climbing, and incredible hiking, The Cederberg is for you.

Don’t only “do the Garden Route”

You’ll have a fantastic time on the Garden Route, but you might have an even better time if you expand your options to less-publicized destinations.

South Africa has so much more to offer: quirky towns like Barrydale on Route 62, beautiful micro-Cape Town Hermanus, the dramatic Drakensberg, remote but rockin’ Ceberberg, seaside Paternoster, Wes Anderson-y Matjiesfontien, wild-west and artsy Nieu Bethesday, mystical Hogsback

…and on and on.

All of the above are just as memorable and attractive as anywhere on the Garden Route.

At the very least, spend a couple days checking one or two out instead of sticking to the stock Cape Town -> Garden Route -> Kruger itinerary.

Waves crashing waterfall hike in Stormsriver.
Morning views from the waterfall hike in Storms River Mouth.

Garden Route Traveling Tips

✓ Do get a jumpstart on the crowds

We got to Tsitsikamma Park just as the gates opened at 7 a.m. and had the Waterfall Trail to ourselves. By 10 a.m., when we got back to our car to walk to the suspension bridge, the park’s trails teemed with tourists.

Plus, in the morning the light’s better for photos, the weather’s generally more favorable for speedy exercise, and it leaves you with more time for wine tasting in Plett, craft beer drinking in Tsitsikamma, or simply lying on the beach wherever.

Chris showing the camera his weird and wonderful mushroom from our hike in Knysna.
We didn’t find the elusive chameleons on our forest run in Kynsna but Chris found these crazy looking mushrooms instead. Anybody know what this is?

✓ Do poke around

Slow down (really), keep an eye out for interesting-looking spots and don’t be afraid to poke your head in and say, “Hi.”

Our favorite experiences, like our unplanned but unforgettable meal at Tottie’s Farm Kitchen, and our favorite encounters, like the lady at the Op Die Plass “shop” by Storms River, happened that way.

Chris and Rebecca walk along the sand in Robberg.
Not long after taking this photo we got lost, but not for long thanks to Maps.Me.

✓ Do use Maps.Me for hiking

Maps.Me is a free Google Maps app alternative that may not be as practical as Google Maps for most purposes, but blows it out of the water for one:

Hiking trails.

We find Maps.Me to have most of the hiking trails Google Maps doesn’t and they’re easy to download and use offline.

For us, it particularly came in handy for getting back on track on the Robberg Peninsula after we misguidedly followed an equally misguided South African family the wrong way through a thick thicket.

Bonus Tip:

We did most of the hikes in about 40% less time than estimated. For example, it took us 2.5 hours to hike the Robberg Peninsula compared to the 4 hour estimate, and the Waterfall Trail in Tsitsikamma took us just under 2 hours versus the 3.5 hour estimate.

The view from Hide Away in guesthouse in Knysna.
Views overlooking the Knysna lagoon from Hide Away. Can you spot the oysters? Oh wait, there are none.

✓ Do ask Garden Route residents for recommendations

The Garden Route is spread-out enough that, despite being a top tourist destination, there are plenty of nooks and crannies that most visitors miss.

Don’t expect us bloggers and travel guide writers to be able to find and share them all. Only the people who live there have the time to see and do everything, so ask them.

Some won’t be helpful and will repeat the most popular tourist attractions but others, like Colleen from Hide Away Guesthouse in Knysna and one delightfully opinionated Eden Adventures employee who spilled all her beans for us, will be treasure troves of tips.

Funny speed limit sign.
Stick to the speed limit because the traffic police and all their tricks are out to get you and your money.

Don’t speed

Along the Garden Route, speed limits often change abruptly and traffic cops place their money-grabbing cameras right there to extract as much money as possible.

Count us among their many victims.

Even though our Capetonian friends warned us repeatedly about this and we were careful to comply with the speed limits, my attention to the speed limit signs slipped just once and I got dinged with a ticket because of it.

Bonus Travel Tips

Don’t miss our other South Africa travel tips

Complete the rest of our 4-part Unearthing the Garden Route series with Part 1: Quick-Hitting Guide, Part 2: Pros and Cons, and Part 4: Restaurant Recommendations.

And see what else we’ve discovered and learned during our six months in South Africa, starting with these guides:


Disclosure: Whenever possible, we use special links that earn us a cut if you pay for stuff we'd recommend anyway. It costs you nothing, so we’d be crazy not to.

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