Simon Marsh sets off to explore South Africa’s breathtaking Garden Route by road, discovering adventure, ocean and fine dining. You are guaranteed to want to plan your own visit.
The infamous Garden Route of South Africa, where the Indian Ocean’s African odyssey begins in earnest. Starting on the southernmost coast of Africa with nothing but ocean between the shore and the Antarctic other than ocean lies the small town of Hermanus.
Famous for whale watching and shark diving, this small seaside town is an easy ninety minute drive from Cape Town along well maintained smooth roads. We opted to stay at the grand old lady of the town, The Marine, which was established in 1902. This hotel which dominates the sea front has undergone more than one revival and since 1998, has been a member of the very exclusive Liz McGrath collection which incorporates just three Western Cape-based five star hotels.
Hermanus is a seaside town littered with quirky shops full of knick knacks, a plethora of restaurants and bars offering sumptuous seafood and the opportunity to see, first hand, some of Africa’s most southerly water based mammals. In whale watching season, normally between July and September, it is possible to view the mammals from one of the eateries overlooking the ocean or to take to the sea in an organised whale watching trip, or even in kayaks (it is not unknown to be lifted up by a whale underneath you).
A more relaxing way to enjoy the stay includes the hop on- hop off bus tour, the harbour museum, a meander along the cliff top path with the possibility of seeing dolphins playing in the surf and an invigorating massage at the hotels own spa. As we gazed out to the water, we were lucky to notice a movement in the open seas ahead and spent the next hour enchanted by a pod of dolphins leaping and spinning in a show that felt like it had been put on especially for us.
Origins Restaurant at The Marine offers the best of land and sea, sumptuous calamari paired with an oaky chardonnay is just one example of the vast array of options available and as Hermanus is really the border of the wine producing region, you are able to both eat and drink locally produced products.
The next drive to Knysna is a leisurely stretch along beautiful open countryside and dramatic ocean vistas. There are many places along the way to stop for a snack. The last stretch between Wilderness and Knysna is the most dramatic with long inviting beaches, sweeping estuaries and an array of local businesses offering their services.
Knysna offers waterfront properties overlooking the sheltered lagoon, hotels on the infamous heads that look out to the open ocean beyond or properties on top of the of the surrounding hills with views of its forest where the elusive Knysna elephant live and the mysterious phantom pass. In this town, the world is literally your oyster, which is coincidentally the mollusc that Knysna, with its annual oyster festival, is best known for.
We opted to rent a house through Airbnb. Embarrassed by its size, it included kayaks which we could use to navigate our way to a café by water, keeping an eye open for one of the remarkably unique Knysna loeries with their radiant red wings and exchanging pleasantries with neighbours embarking on their own nautical expedition.
There is no shortage of things to fill your time, from boat trips into the lagoon to seek out the unique Knysna seahorse or taking to the board to test your balance on the sand dunes as you learn to descend by standing on a piece of wood and hope to win some bragging rights by not getting a face full of sand.
A new arrival is the scooter tours that take you into the forest and allow you to feel the breeze as you whizz along tracks as fast as you dare. These vehicles specially imported from Europe have super fat tyres that give extra stability and even the children were soon flying along at breakneck speed causing more that one heart palpitation to us fretting parents.
There is no shortage of dining options in Knysna; in fact there is something to suit everyone and any known dietary consideration. Thesen Island, the Venice of the Western Cape for its array of canals, is the perfect place to enjoy a glass of locally brewed craft beer, the trademark oysters or one of the sumptuous seafood platters that combine the line caught fish of the day, delicately cooked calamari and meaty prawns. Some of the home made peri peri sauce provides a guilty treat to mop up the accompanying rice or chips, topped with a nightcap of red wine.
For the children and those of us young at heart, a short drive offers the waterslides of adventure land or the canopy tours in neighbouring Sedgefield. For the adrenaline junkie there is everything from throwing yourself off a plane strapped to a stranger or whizzing across plains and forest on a quad bike as you go places that a car could never reach.
The Garden Route is a place of remarkable beauty. Accommodation options range from backpacker hostels to the finest of five star hotels, and there is something to cater for every taste and with first-world facilities readily on hand. If the ocean and the forest are not enough, there are game reserves dotted around so it’s perfectly possible to see the big five in the day and be at the coast in time for sunset.