Written by James Bainbridge
The Garden Route is a 200km/120mi-long strip of beaches, bays, lagoons and inviting tourist towns, running up the Indian Ocean from Mossel Bay to Storms River. The coastline is only part of its charm. Adventurous activities can also be had exploring the thick forests and dramatic river valleys of the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains. Thanks to the balmy waters of the Mozambique Current, the region has a blissful microclimate that is the world’s mildest after Hawaii.
All along the Garden Route, wild mountains cascade down to the water’s edge. Old-growth forests cradle the bays and lagoons riddle the Indian Ocean coastline. This concentration of glorious surf and turf offers strings of beaches, the Garden Route National Park (divided into the Knysna, Wilderness and Tsitsikamma sections) and several nature reserves. Without even touching the water, you can explore hushed forests on the Knysna Lakes day trails and walk the wobbly suspension bridges at Storms River Mouth. Then there are famous multiday hikes, including the 45km/28mi Otter Trail across forests, headlands, beaches and rivers to Natures Valley, where hikers hang their boots in the trading post tree. Garden Route holidaymakers can wake up in the morning and choose between driving a scenic mountain pass, skydiving, bungee jumping, mountain biking, zip lining and kloofing (canyoning). It’s also possible to go on day safaris at private wildlife reserves such as Botlierskop near Mossel Bay, home to lions, elephants, buffaloes and rhinos.
Fun on the Water
The Garden Route is firmly established as South Africa’s favorite summer holiday destination, and the choice of water-based activities here is incredible. In Mossel Bay alone, you can learn to surf, get up close to a great white on a shark-cage dive, and see seals and dolphins on a cruise to Seal Island. Canoe along Wilderness National Park’s placid Touw River or take a boat trip across Knysna Lagoon to the sandstone Heads. Watery options also include paddle boarding, snorkeling, whale-watching tours, white-water tubing and exploring Storms River Gorge by kayak and lilo.
Buzzing Beach Towns
Eating ice cream on a sandy stretch such as Santos Beach in Mossel Bay is an essential part of summer for South Africans. This heritage as a beloved holiday spot has created a string of holiday towns with sights, tours, activities, restaurants and accommodation. Choose between the likes of Mossel Bay, where towels are laid and beers are clinked at the Point, and Plettenberg Bay (aka ‘Plett’), with its upmarket resort atmosphere. Opt for the vibey tourist town of Knysna or seek seaside tranquility in smaller enclaves such as Victoria Bay, Herolds Bay and Buffels Bay. These spots are close together, so can be enjoyed on day trips, with stops from food markets to private wildlife reserves en route.
The Garden Route has a fascinating history as a significant player in South African history, thanks partly to its thick forests. The Knysna Forests were once logged for their indigenous yellowwood and stinkwood, which were shipped to build houses and railway lines in Cape Town. As novelist Dalene Matthee (a descendant of Sir Walter Scott) evoked in Circles in a Forest and Fiela’s Child, the forests were inhabited by wild elephants, itinerant woodcutters and gold panners. Watching the new film of the latter or reading Matthee’s novels is excellent preparation for spending a day beneath the canopy on the walking trails. History also lingers in Knysna itself, with its furniture shops and the five 19th-century yellowwood houses that make up Knysna Museum.
Mossel Bay is famous as the place where Europeans first stepped onto South African soil. The town’s sprawling Dias Museum Complex marks the spot where Bartolomeu Dias’ crew came ashore in 1488, looking for drinking water on their quest for a sea route to India. Sights here include the ‘post office tree’, where mariners once left notes for each other, and the replica of Dias’ caravel, built in 1988 and sailed from Portugal to commemorate his voyage. History goes back even further at the nearby Point of Human Origins, where the caves contain evidence of human life from 160,000 years ago.
Whether you want a side trip from Cape Town or a holiday en route along South Africa’s east coast, the Garden Route is perfectly positioned. Mossel Bay is under 400km/250mi along the N2 highway from Cape Town, meaning it can be driven in a day. There are some beautiful routes from Cape Town, offering awesome road trip potential. You could drive through the coastal Overberg region, then head back along Route 62 through the Little Karoo’s sleepy towns and ostrich farms. If you don’t feel like driving, hop on the sociable Baz Bus, which makes eight stops along the Garden Route on its Cape Town–Port Elizabeth route.