Covering 300km of South Africa’s stunning coast, the Garden Route is one of the most popular destinations in the country. Along the way you’ll find great scenery, beautiful beaches and lots of things to do. Whether you’re interested in game reserves, whale watching in Plettenberg Bay or playing golf in George. There are so many Garden Route highlights not to be missed.
From Mossel Bay to Tsitsikamma National Park, the Garden Route offers something for everyone. There are several ways to travel the Garden Route, allowing you to enjoy everything at you own pace. My experience touring the Garden Route was influenced somewhat by forest fires through the area at the time of my visit. Despite this it was still one of my favourite areas of South Africa, with each stop providing something different.
Want to know which towns are on the Garden Route? How about what to do in each stop? Then read on and find out for yourself all the Garden Route highlights.
Starting from Cape Town on South Africa’s West coast, the first stop on the Garden Route is Mossel Bay. It’s a harbour town and popular beach destination for South Africans. Aside from the pristine beaches you’ll find plenty of activities to distract you in Mossel Bay. Especially for anyone looking for something a little more adventurous.
Whether it’s land or water based, there are plenty of things to do. Surfing, scuba diving and fishing are all options if you want to get wet. Or further in-land you can try sandboarding, quad biking and mountain biking. If that’s not quite what you’re looking for, one of the most popular attractions for visitors stopping off in Mossel Bay is skydiving. Tandem jumps from either 10,000 or 14,000 feet cost around £130-210 with video and photos available as an add-on. You can also do a beach landing (so long as the weather is good) for a little extra.
Diving with great white sharks is another adventurous activity in Mossel Bay and the best company are White Shark Africa. While they use baiting to lure the sharks (which isn’t seen as the most ethical approach) they are involved in a lot of research in the area.
George is little more than a city and serves as the administrative capital of the Garden Route. While there may not be much to do here, it’s a great place to base yourself while exploring the rest of the route. You’ll find everything you need and can stock up on supplies before heading to the smaller towns along the coast.
There are several attractions to keep you occupied in the city with botanic gardens, museums and some of the best golf courses in the country. From George many people travel inland to Oudtshoorn, a town well-known for its ostrich farms.
Wilderness is the first stop on many visitors’ Garden Route itinerary. It’s a typical small town with a nice array of restaurants and shops. There is also a beach which is a nice place to stop for a swim or just relax (when there’s no ash raining down from the heavens).
There are a few activities available in Wilderness, the most popular one being kayaking, and the best place to rent kayaks happens to be where I stayed – Fairy Knowe Backpackers. Alternatively, the Map of Africa is a great vantage point overlooking the area. The viewpoint is best reached by car but it’s possible to get there by walking from the centre of town. It takes about an hour and a half to walk up, following the main road uphill as it twists around the surrounding hills until you pass through a small community. You won’t miss much of interest by driving there and it saves a lot of time.
A popular hike in the area is to a small waterfall close to Fairy Knowe Backpackers called the Kingfisher Trail. This is a much more scenic walk through woodland with various routes open to you culminating in a waterfall. You can even take a kayak up the river, stopping off once the water becomes too shallow and hiking the rest of the way. The not so great part is the price, which is expensive for such a short walk (R142 for non-locals, almost £8). I was recommended to use a South African accent in order to get the cheaper rate but didn’t have the confidence to actually try it. You can spend a couple of hours in the area, although in my opinion the waterfall at the end is not so spectacular that you need to see it.
The next major stop on South Africa’s coast is Sedgefield. Named after the town in the UK, Sedgefield’s local farmer’s market is a popular attraction as is Goukamma Nature Reserve. The area covers 2,500 hectares and from £40 you can spend a night in the nature reserve surrounded by the dense forests and local wildlife, including many bird and fish species.
The area surrounding Sedgefield is very picturesque, with lakes, sand dunes and fields, not to mention the spectacular coastline. With so much water it’s not surprising that a lot of activities in the area involve getting wet. Canoeing, windsurfing, fishing and swimming are all possible in and around Sedgefield. If you want to get the best views of that amazing local scenery head up and try a spot of paragliding!
Situated in the middle of the Garden Route, Knysna is one of the most popular stops along the coast. It’s a bigger town than either Wilderness or Sedgefield, which is another reason why visitors choose to base themselves there. One thing to do in Knysna is rent a bike and cycle to Knysna Heads. It’s an easy flat ride (unless you want to cycle up to the top) and gives a great view of one of the most dangerous harbour entrances in the world and the lagoon enclosed beyond. I rented my bike from the shop close to my accommodation at Jembo’s Knysna Lodge, which was not only very cheap but the guy who owned it was really friendly too.
Something else I enjoyed on my visit to Knysna was Mitchell’s Brewery. Whilst the production has been shifted over to Cape Town, there’s still a restaurant where you can try and/or buy some of their tasty beers. The beer tasting was very good value and included a pint of your favourite beverage at the end. They also do really nice burgers and on Wednesdays it’s buy one get one free.
Plettenburg Bay, commonly known as simply ‘Plett’, is a coastal town with good seafood and incredible long, wide beaches. The nature reserve at Robberg is also a great area for hiking with some amazing scenery and local wildlife. The nature reserve covers a 4km peninsula and is home to many birds, while between June and November you may see southern right whales. Dolphins, sharks, seals and other marine life can also be spotted from the coast.
Outdoor activity options are once more well supplied, although depending on your budget they may be more on the expensive side. Plett is another popular skydiving location, mainly thanks to the spectacular views from up high of the long, golden beaches surrounded by the dense forested wilderness. If you’re interested in enjoying a panoramic view of Plettenberg Bay tandem jumps from either 10,000 or 12,000 feet start at £130 with the option of landing at either the airport or on the beach.
Just 20 minutes from Plettenberg Bay is Monkeyland, a free roaming primate sanctuary. They offer tours in a range of languages educating visitors with information about the many species who live there. They do a lot of great work rehoming primates from inappropriate living conditions and operate a strict no touching policy. Entrance to Monkeyland is £12 for adults and £6 for children. They also offer combined tickets with two other nearby attractions; Birds of Eden and Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary. A ticket for all three is less than £25 for adults and around £12 for children. The three visits can be spread over three separate days, so don’t worry about having to see all of them at the same time.
Storms River and Tsitsikamma National Park
The final stop on the Garden Route is another small town; Storms River. However, the real highlight of the area is the nearby Tsitsikamma National Park. This is my favourite part of the Garden Route. Not only is Tsitsikamma incredibly beautiful with its rocky coastline, secluded bays and deep forests, but there are plenty of affordable excursions. The majority of these often involve a combination of activities such as stand-up paddle boarding, canyoning, kayaking or rafting. But be cautious as you may need to organise getting yourself to the park and pay an entrance fee, as not everyone includes this in their prices.
Fortunately, this isn’t the case for every activity. I arranged to go tubing through my hostel in Storms River, Tube ‘n Axe. The activity didn’t involve entering the national park, so no further charges were added to the base cost. To get the most from your visit spend a night or two in Tsitsikamma, thereby negating any extra fees for re-entering the national park.
There are several hikes available in Tsitsikamma, two of which I completed on my day visit. The first leads up to a viewing area which takes around an hour and a half for a round trip, depending on your fitness level. On the other side of the national park is a longer trek which takes around three hours to get there and back. It’s a much flatter hike but does involve scrambling over rocks for part of the way. This trail makes up most of the first day of a longer multi-day hike known as the Otter Trail.
Where to go after the Garden Route
- Jeffrey’s Bay – one of the best surfing locations in the world
- Port Elizabeth – the friendly city, known for its beaches and cultural diversity
- Cape Town – one of South Africa’s most popular cities with tons to enjoy
- Cape Agulhas – the southernmost tip of Africa
- Hermanus – great for whale watching and sea kayaking
- Gansbaai – the top spot to get up close with great white sharks
- Stellenbosch – wine country, with many vineyard tours in the area