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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.
✓ 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.
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.
✓ Do rent your car from Around About
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.
We ended up driving more than 2,000 km. This caused us some stress during our trip and cost us about R1,000 extra.
✗ 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:
✓ 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.
✗ 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.
✓ 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.
✓ 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.
✗ 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.
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.
✓ 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.
✓ 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:
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.
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.
✓ 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.
✗ 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
And see what else we’ve discovered and learned during our six months in South Africa, starting with these guides: