Driving the Garden Route: South Africa’s Ultimate Road Trip

What kind of holiday do you most enjoy: a relaxing beach break with soft sand and warm sea? Perhaps something a little more active like hiking forest trails, paddling peaceful rivers or teeing off on championship golf courses? Or how about a few days at a luxurious boutique hotel, close to a selection of cafes and restaurants?

Garden Route holiday packs all of these experiences into a magnificent stretch of Indian Ocean coastline. Living in Cape Town it’s an area I’ve explored many times, yet on each trip, I discover new reasons to return. Last journey it was the sunny, sand-between-the-toes dining at Ristorante Enrico, and the oysters and bubbles overlooking the Knysna Lagoon. The time before it was the walks on the Robberg Peninsula; its wide beaches empty of people.

Robberg Peninsula
Even in peak summer season, the beaches of the Robberg Peninsula are free of the holiday crowds. 

Easy Driving & Roadside Farm Stalls

Driving the Garden Route is easy. For a start, you just follow one road, the N2 National Highway, which runs from Cape Town all the way along South Africa’s east coast. Road conditions are excellent and there are plenty of places to stop for ‘padkos’ (road trip food) along the way. Forget any bad experiences at greasy roadside diners; South Africa’s farm stalls sell fresh produce, homemade preserves, and just-out-the-oven pastries and pies.

From Cape Town, it’s less than 400 km (240 miles) to Mossel Bay – the official start of the Garden Route. Set off early and take the cliff-hugging coastal road past the holiday villages of Rooiels, Pringle Bay and Betty’s Bay. Or stop in at historic Swellendam, South Africa’s third oldest town. The mountains here have a wonderful waterfall hike, some horse riding trails and if you’re staying for the evening be sure to dine at La Sosta (voted “Best Italian Restaurant in South Africa”, Eat Out Awards 2014).

Garden Route farm stalls
Roadside stops: Peregrine Farm Stall (left); coffee and carrot cake at Die Ou Tronk in Riversdal (right). 

Top Garden Route Towns

Mossel Bay is not the prettiest of Garden Route towns. But continue another 60 km (37 miles) and you’ll find yourself gazing down at a broad ribbon of beach stretching away to the distant horizon. This is Wilderness, and for me, this is where the Garden Route truly begins.  Surrounded by bird-filled wetlands and thick indigenous forest, this lovely seaside town is a paradise for nature lovers and within easy reach of the larger and more popular hubs of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay.

A short drive from Wilderness (around 20 minutes) takes you to sleepy little Sedgefield, the calm waters of its coastal lagoon a fantastic oversized paddling pool for those travelling with young kids. And if you’re nearby on Saturday morning then don’t miss the Wild Oats Market for a hearty farmer’s breakfast and a fun outdoor atmosphere.

Paddling on the Keurbooms River
Paddling on the Keurbooms River Nature Reserve close to Plettenberg Bay

Another 20 or so minutes down the road, a low bridge leads you across the Knysna Lagoon. Everything in Knysna centres around the lagoon; even the light has a magical quality as it reflects off the tranquil water. Take the ferry to the Featherbed Nature Reserve or a boat trip to ‘The Heads’ (sandstone cliffs on either side of the lagoon mouth), pick from the restaurants in the buzzing Waterfront and feast on wild oysters – the town has an annual festival around its oysters, they’re that good!

The best beaches are at the next town along, Plettenberg Bay (or Plett as it’s known to the locals). Plett is a true seaside holiday town that bustles with visitors over the hot summer months. Take a beach brolly and enjoy a day on the sand, or set off on an ocean safari to watch dolphin leap through the foamy waves. Also worth a visit are the nearby wildlife sanctuaries of Monkeyland and Birds of Eden – large forest enclosures where you can walk amongst monkeys or brightly coloured birds.

Read the Garden Route activity guide for more top outdoor adventures and activities.

Garden Route restaurants
Whether fine dining at The Plettenberg or a casual lunch at the East Head Cafe – delicious meals are matched by the phenomenal views.  

Adding On to The Garden Route

A road trip along the Garden Route can have many detours, depending on your interests and the time of you’re travelling. During the months of July to October I’d highly recommend a few days at the seaside town of Hermanus (just outside Cape Town) where you can experience the best land-based whale watching in the world. Or drive from Cape Town inland via the unbelievably pretty Route 62, stopping at the Cape Winelands town of Robertson to sample wines at the numerous estates and enjoy a picnic cruise on the Breede River.

Also, at the end of your Garden Route holiday, be sure to add on a few days at one of the Eastern Cape’s private game reserves. This region is home to some of South Africa’s leading luxury game lodges, and has a well-earned reputation for excellent game viewing with regular sightings of elephant, rhino, cheetah, lion and a host of other big game. What’s more, the Eastern Cape is malaria-free so you can avoid the hassle of anti-malarial medication.

Shamwari game drive
Close-up elephant sighting on a game drive at Shamwari Private Reserve.

Such a rich variety of things to do and places to explore means that every Garden Route road trip has its own unique highlights. If you’ve already travelled this beautiful stretch of South African coastline, no doubt you have had many incredible experiences of your own.

Tsala Treetop Lodge

Experience this for yourself with Giltedge Africa. Chat to us if you’d like to explore the Garden Route.