Craving an overload of natural beauty, sweeping vistas and soothing sights for your next holiday or short break? Take a road trip along the lush and picturesque Garden Route.
The roughly 200km journey from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape Town to Storms River in the Eastern Cape will deliver everything from magnificent white-sand beaches to ancient forests and luminous lakes.
If you’re flying in, the city of George at the foot of the Outeniqua Mountains is the springboard for your adventure. Hop in your hired car, and be on your way.
Here’s our pick of five Garden Route destinations famous for dramatic land- and seascapes.
Go wild in Wilderness
First stop: Wilderness, about 15km east of George. The town might be small, but it packs a punch, with lots to do – from surfing and canoeing to abseiling, hiking and paragliding. Based at the magically named The Fairy Knowe resort, Eden Adventures offers a range of outdoor activities in breathtaking natural settings.
For more views, make your way to the Map of Africa viewing site in Wilderness Heights for an incredible perspective of the Kaaimans River valley, mountains and surrounding forest. You’ll quickly understand why it is named thus: the flow of the river below creates the shape of the African continent in the topography.
Wilderness is also an excellent place to spot dolphins and whales. Good viewing spots include the long, sandy Wilderness Beach and Dolphin Point Lookout alongside the N2 highway outside town. (Even if you don’t see a marine mammal, the spectacular vistas from here will still make your heart soar.)
See the sights on seven passes
Most visitors travelling along the Garden Route from George to Knysna use the N2 highway – but there’s a thrilling alternative for those with time on their hands and the patience to tackle untarred stretches: the Seven Passes Road. To access this route from Wilderness, follow the signs to the nearby settlement of Hoekwil.
The series of interconnected passes, built in the second half of the 1800s by famous road builder Thomas Bain and his brother-in-law Adam de Smidt, was the first road to link George and Knysna and offers incredible views and natural beauty every kilometre of the way. This is not a destination – it’s an experience.
The 75km route crosses seven rivers and gorges, winding through indigenous forest and pastoral landscapes. Expect hairpin bends, curves and steep inclines, so take extra care in rainy weather.
Make memories in Knysna
No matter how many times you’ve been to Knysna, this popular holiday town set on a large “lagoon” (actually an estuary fed by the Knysna River) never ceases to take your breath away. There are glorious panoramas everywhere – start with an al fresco lunch in the sun overlooking the yachts and glittering harbour at The Waterfront Knysna Quays.
Above all, the town is famous for its spectacular, massive Knysna Heads sandstone cliffs, forming a natural gateway between the lagoon and the ocean. For the best vistas, travel up the eastern head by car (or hired bike, if you have strong legs!).
There are several lookout points at the top, all offering sea, lagoon and mountain vistas as far as the eye can see. To see the heads from a different perspective, try one of the many ferry, yachting and kayaking options on offer in the town.
Commune with nature on a Robberg hike
Just over 30m along the Garden Route from Knysna, more stunning scenery awaits at pretty Plettenberg Bay. The place gets jam-packed with sunseekers during holidays, but you can avoid the crush by heading straight to the mindblowing Robberg Nature Reserve 8km outside town.
Not only is the reserve – a protected area and part of a Unesco World Heritage Site – home to wildlife such as the tiny blue duiker (the Western Cape’s smallest antelope), Southern Ocean seabirds (even albatross are sometimes spotted here in winter) and large seal colonies, its rocks date back to the Gondwanaland supercontinent around 120-million years ago. Robberg is also an important Stone Age archaeological site.
The peninsula boasts one of the country’s most scenic hiking trails. Choose from three circular routes (depending on your fitness and how much time you have) and immerse yourself in the phenomenal vistas of the ocean, unspoilt beaches and pristine dunes. Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, whales and even the great white sharks that sometimes come close to the rocks below on the lookout for a tasty meal of Cape fur seal.
Stimulate your senses at Storms River
From Plettenberg Bay, the next stretch (about 65km) will take you to the small town of Storms River, passing by the picturesque village of Nature’s Valley, indigenous forest, mountain passes and more lovely beaches.
Adrenaline junkie? Then hop off the N2 highway at the Bloukrans Bridge, about 20 minutes before you reach Storms River, to combine awe-inspiring views with the ultimate rush of what operator Face Adrenalin says is the world’s highest commercial bungee jump from a bridge (more than 200m).
Then head to the 77m-long Storms River suspension bridge in the Tsitsikamma National Park, offering an abundance of thrilling snapshots of the ocean, river mouth and coastal forest below. You can also go ziplining for more bird’s-eye views. Keep that camera ready!
There’s plenty more to see on the Garden Route but, if time’s up, push on for about 170km to reach Port Elizabeth and hop on a flight to take you home with enough memories to sustain you until your next break!