Introduction to the Garden Route South Africa
Planning the best Garden Route itinerary for can be pretty stressful because there’s just SO much to do and see and time usually is limited for Garden Route South Africa itinerary. You can’t do it all right. Don’t stress any longer! We have travelled the Cape Town Garden Route itinerary extensively and will help you with which accommodations to book, which activities to do, what are the best routes, where is the kids friendly stuff and much more of the essential things to create your ideal Garden Route itinerary.
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Over the last 15 years, I’ve travelled it by myself a couple of times, many times with friends and with my 5 year old daughter I’ve also visited quite a few times. We DO live in breathtaking Cape Town but it doesn’t mean we never leave this awesome city.
Are you spending some time in Cape Town too? Read HERE about the best 48 hours in Cape Town. We’ve just returned from a 9 day Garden Route self drive trip. We’ve stayed in accommodation from self-catering to 5 star deluxe and done many activities en route.
In case you would like to combine a visit to South Africa with a fabulous beach holiday to Mauritius, you can about the best beaches and places to stay HERE.
Another great advantage of a Garden Route itinerary is the wide range of malaria free safari options and we will include quite a few of these. Oh and if you think you will visit beautiful gardens when doing your Garden Route itinerary, no, that’s not what it is about. The Garden Route derives its name from the Garden of Eden. The area with beautiful forests, mountains, beaches and gorges will remind you of the Garden of Eden and yes you will find the local Fynbos but it is not well manicured pretty gardens. It is wild nature at its finest! That’s the Garden Route South Africa for you!
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Best places to visit on the Garden Route South Africa
When you visit the Garden Route, you will most likely start from Cape Town. The start of the Garden Route is somewhat argued about but for argument sake let’s say the Garden Route is located between Mossel Bay and Jeffrey’s Bay. This is a stretch of about 300 km and between these 2 towns, you can easily spend 2 weeks exploring safari parks, villages, hikes, wine routes, whale safaris and much more so we do suggest to plan a generous amount of time if you really would like to know the Garden Route a little bit better. When visiting the Garden Route our favourites are: Wilderness, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, The Crags, Nature’s Valley and Tsitsikamma. Around those towns you will find a wide range of Garden Route Accommodation which include not only Garden Route hotels but also other accommodation on the Garden route like guesthouses, Bed & Breakfasts, high quality self-catering accommodation and beautiful tented camps. All the information you need for your perfect Garden Route Itinerary you will find in this article. See below a map of the Garden Route. Cape Town is about 350 km to the left of Mossel Bay.
Gateways to the Garden Route South Africa / Perfect Garden Route Stop-overs
From Cape Town to the first Garden Route attractions like Garden Route Game Lodge, is about 400km. This often feels as if it is too long to drive in one day, especially when travelling with a child. Luckily en route to the Garden Route you can find several villages and towns that we can highly recommend.
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Hermanus and Stanford
This region is very popular in whale season from June to November so the perfect Garden Route itinerary during that time will definitely include a stay in this area. Hermanus is the most well known but we prefer Stanford and then do the whale watching from De Kelders. Our absolute best accommodation just outside of Stanford is Bluegum Country Estate. I can’t recommend this place enough. It has become a home away from home and we try to go as often as possible.
Another favorite place to stay in the area is Grootbos Nature Reserve. If you would like to experience beautiful luxury and a true eco experience in an exquisite setting, this is the place for you. Check for incredible winter deals HERE (winter is from May – August in this part of the world). They offer the most amazing whale safaris with marine biologists and if you’re a wild flower lover, you will be in the best company. Grootbos Nature Reserve is a fynbos reserve. Fynbos is indigenous to South Africa and forms the smallest but richest floral kingdom in the world.
Elgin / Grabauw
This area is very much up and coming and has just opened a huge weekend market in the old railway station of Elgin. It is possible to take an old steam train from Cape Town in case you would like to do something different and enjoy train rides. The Trail’s End Bike Hotel is a favorite hotel for active people who enjoy bike rides. There are more than 300km of bike trails in the area so cycle your heart out! Wine lovers can taste at several wonderful estates like South Hill, Almenkerk and for lunch the pool room at Oak Valley is great.
In case you overnight in this area we highly recommend this amazing biker’s hotel where Rosie and I once stayed over night: Trail’s End. Contact me for bookings, especially great for families with bikes for the kids!
Swellendam is one of those towns that many people choose to stay overnight in. It is the 3rd oldest town in South Africa after Cape Town and Stellenbosch and you will find many historical buildings in Swellendam. There are lovely places to stay and there are lots of them. In case you’re looking for contemporary, modern, we can highly recommend Bloom Estate which is run by a lovely Dutch couple.
For those who choose to do self-catering AfriCamps runs a luxury tented camp on a nearby farm about 20 km outside of Swellendam. We stayed there ourselves and with kids it is absolutely gorgeous. Staying at AfriCamps you will enjoy a very spacious family glamping boutique tent. AfriCamps has several locations throughout South Africa and is ever expanding. The one close to Swellendam is a kids paradise on your way to the Garden Route. The swimming pools, the trampoline, the jungle gym, it was absolutely perfect for my 5 year old daughter. The tents have 2 rooms, 1 with bunk beds. My daughter was delighted. We enjoyed the spacious kitchen with big table and the nice terrace outside. I didn’t try my hand at the ‘braai’ because you know as a single mom traveling you can only do so much so just cooking a steak on the stove was quite ok.
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The best Garden Route Safari – malaria free safari options
In case you’re driving the Garden Route from Cape Town and are not planning to drive all the way to Addo Elephant Park, there are quite a few amazing options to have a wonderful Garden Route safari experience. An advantage of enjoying your safari in this part of South Africa is the fact that these are all malaria free safaris which makes it very easy to take the entire family. No need to take any malaria precaution. We will talk about the following 3 for you which we have all visited and stayed overnight (May 2018): Gondwana Game Reserve, Botlierskop Private Game Reserve and Garden Route Game Lodge.
Gondwana Game Reserve is an exquisite 11.000 hectares conversation area with a range of different accommodation styles. The lodges are all graded 5 star. Families with children are booked into the Fynbos villas a bit away from the lounge areas. Other guests stay in the Kwena lodge huts in walking distance of the restaurant, boma and meeting point for the safaris. The tented eco-camp sleeps a maximum of 10 people in 5 tents. While staying here, you will get to know more about the ‘behind the scenes’ running of conservation programs so it is a very hands-on program which should be fun to do with the entire family or with a group of friends.
Ulusibi house is a private villa for either 3 couples or 4 adults and 4 children. It comes with a private chef, private ranger and anything you can wish under the sun. A stay at Gondwana Game Lodge includes your accommodation, 3 meals, 2 safaris per day, the junior ranger program, afternoon tea and free WiFi. Check out the Winter Specials. They are quite incredible.
Botlierskop is completely different from Gondwana. First of all the reserve is quite a lot smaller HOWEVER, the scenery is spectacular with many steep mountain climbs and driving through rivers. We really enjoyed it and were lucky enough to be the only 2 people on the game drive. We stayed in the recently opened Village Lodge @ Botlierskop which will be their child friendly option for children below the age of 8. We absolutely loved staying here during our Garden Route itinerary. Everything is spacious, modern and it all seems to be build with the purpose to provide jobs in the area. The vegetable garden looks so beautiful and we just wanted to forage for our veggies. All the staff was super friendly, the pool area is right next to the restaurant which is great when your kids want to swim while you order lunch, coffee or cocktails. The Village Lodge really has a very laid-back ambiance which is what I prefer when traveling with Rosie.
We did pop in at the main lodge as well which offers beautiful luxury safari tents with jaw dropping views. The great thing about Botlierskop is that they offer a wide range of activities like horse riding, walks and also day safaris. So in case you don’t want to stay over night, you can still plan a visit for the day. Although we do recommend that you at least visit The Village Lodge.
The Garden Route Game Lodge is situated just off the N2 highway and no need for long gravel road adventures like the options above. In is the only Garden Route safari that allows children from ALL ages on the open safari vehicles which is great for families with very small children. The Garden Route Game Lodge Reserve is fairly small with only 3.500 hectares and animals are kept in 2 separate enclosures to ensure their safety. We saw the 2 elephants, drove to the lion enclosure (a couple of hundred hectares), saw buffalo, wildebeest, water buck, impala and hippos on a short 2 hour afternoon safari drive. We stayed in an absolute gorgeous bush chalet with a bath outside and a bush shower. The views from the deck are magnificent. Garden Route Game Lodge also offers day safaris.
We didn’t visit Sanbona on this particular trip but I have visited a few times in the past. It is the best game reserves close to Cape Town, 58.000 hectares, just off the Garden Route if you don’t have enough time to fly up to the northern parks. Sanbona offers an amazing Dwyka Tented Camp for couples and the Sanbona Lodge for those with small children. The Lodge offers the ‘Kids on Safari’ program for the little ones (under 4) that are not allowed onto the safari jeep.
Tilney Manor is another accommodation offer at this amazing game reserve close to Cape Town. This is the more traditional safari lodge. The Explorer Camp gives you an authentic walking experience while sleeping in luxury tents and enjoying evenings around a campfire. This camp is operated during the Summer months from October to April and each wilderness trail takes 2 days to complete. It sounds like a marvelous adventure right up my sleeve!!
Seasonal tip: Check Winter Specials!
For all Garden Route accommodation we encourage you to check Winter specials (May – September). Accommodations offer incredible value during that time of the year and the weather is in most places still gorgeous. It might be chilly at night but the days are usually sunny and blue skies everywhere. Another advantage is that it is usually less busy.
First nature stop on your perfect South Africa Garden Route itinerary, Wilderness
Wilderness is one of those places where we keep coming back to. The Wilderness National Park is a fantastic Garden Route attraction. The long stretch of beach makes this popular holiday town one of the Garden route highlights. In the national park you can hike up to the waterfalls, rent canoes and enjoy either beautiful camp sites or very well equipped self-catering cottages. The beach lends itself for very long beach walks. Be careful though when taking a swim because the current is very strong here. Wilderness is definitely a place to visit on our recommended itinerary for the Garden Route.
Where to stay in Wilderness
Wilderness offers a wide range of accommodation. The Wilderness Beach Hotel is perfectly located for those who want to be near the beach and prefer a full service hotel with bar, restaurant, pool and spa. The Wilderness Views next door is slightly even more luxurious and offers wonderful sea views. For those who prefer off the beaten track, we had a lovely stay at 7 Passes Tented Camp. It was so quiet and peaceful. Don’t forget to shop for food because the nearest shops are about 30 km away. There are canoes that you can take to go for a paddle. In the evening everybody gathers around the fire for a braai or you can pre-order dinners in case you don’t like to cook yourself. I would also like to give a special mention to Interlaken Guesthouse which is just off the N2 and run by really nice people. The views over the lake are beautiful and there’s a little jacuzi to splash. Since there are lots of stairs and balconies, I only recommend this one for couples or friends and not for families with small children. Contact me for bookings!
UPDATE January 2019: During the Summer holidays we discovered the loveliest B&B in Wilderness, Wilderness on Sea. We absolutely loved our stay there and will definitely be back for a couple of nights more. The BEST about Wilderness on Sea is the LOCATION which is right by the beach AND also in walking distance of the restaurants in the village of Wilderness. You can leave your car in the parking bay and just enjoy beach time without the stress of driving. We really enjoyed the friendliness of the owners as well as the beautiful garden area and breakfast room. My daughter particularly liked the Kitkat chocolates on the bed…
Knysna, your next Garden Route highlight
From Wilderness to Knysna it is only a short 40 minute drive. In case you’re in this area on a Saturday morning, we highly recommend the Wild Oaks Farmer’s Market in Sedgefield that you will pass through on your way to Knysna. It is the mother of all markets in the Western Cape and the perfect place to mingle with all the locals who enjoy a morning out for breakfast and/or lunch. In case you’re self catering, you can stock up on all kinds of delicious, homemade, organic goodies. This market is definitely one of the more memorable Garden Route highlights.
Knysna is the biggest town on the Garden Route and has often been elected the most popular town amongst the South Africans. Many South Africans come here during the long Dec/Jan holidays (hint hint: maybe not such a great time to visit then…). I hadn’t visited yet after the fires of June 2017 and I expected to see the worse when I visited in May 2018. Surprisingly, I didn’t notice THAT much anymore of the fires which I guess is a good thing. Knysna is open for business and holiday makers are very much encouraged to plan their perfect Garden Route itinerary and include a visit to Knysna as one of the Garden Route highlights.
Best places to stay in Knysna
The accommodation options are PLENTY in Knysna. I don’t even know where to start to be honest. If you’re looking for luxury and close to everything then we recommend the Turbine Hotel & Spa. For self-catering with a stunning view and the best chocolate chip cookies in the world, stay where we stayed: Guadeloupe Self Catering Apartments. If you want to see Knysna off the beaten track, enjoy peace & quiet we totally loved staying at Forest Edge Nature Lover’s Retreat, about 25 km outside of Knysna.
Things to do in Knysna
Knysna offers a wide range of activities of which the most popular are the boat rides from the Waterfront. The historic John Benn Ferry will take you to the Knysna Heads and back. Enjoy some oysters and bubbly.
Other things to do in Knysna are segway tours, canoe-ing, renting mountain bikes, an authentic cooking experience with local people and soon the Featherbed Nature Reserve will re-open again after it burned down in the fires. Everyone is really anticipating the re-opening and we were very excited to see the new jetty that had just been finished. Thesen Island is popular with everyone and if you’re looking for a very special hotel, please have a look at The Turbine Hotel & Spa, it offers contemporary luxury in a quirky heritage location.
Where to eat in Knysna
Many restaurants can be found on the Waterfront. We highly recommend Bazala for amazing South African dishes and Drydock with their brand new outside deck overlooking the boats.
If you would like to do something totally different, please do get in touch with Kilzer’s Kitchen and Cooking school and find out if they run one of their cooking evenings, usually on a Wednesday night but other evenings are sometimes possible too. If you’re a family or group of friends of about 10 people, they can organize a custom designed experience for you.
To make things convenient you can book one of their self-catering apartments at Guadeloupe Self-Catering Apartments which are on the premises of the cooking school. Every amenity under the sun is found in the apartments and they have a lovely view over the Knysna Lagoon. We had a lovely 1 night stay here and were treated with a massive pack of the best chocolate chip cookies for the road. They went a long way.
Knysna off the beaten track
Knysna used to be the centre of the woodcutting industry. In case you’re interested in this, we highly recommend you stay outside of Knysna, close to Rheenendal in Forest Edge, Nature Lover’s Retreat. You can visit the memorial of Dalene Matthee who wrote many books about this area, hike different trails to waterfalls or swimming holes, rent mountain bikes and who knows, you might run into one of the few remaining Knysna Elephants?
Specials thanks to Ypie Kingma from www.destinationgardenroute.co.za who organised the days in Knysna so brilliantly!
Plettenberg Bay: Beach, whales and wildlife
In and around Plettenberg Bay there are SO many things to do so yes we definitely recommend to spend some time in this area. Beside the beach and the beautiful Robberg Nature Reserve for your hiking trails, Plettenberg Bay is very well known for the spectacular whale safaris that launch here from the beach. A few companies are granted permits to get quite close to the whales which can lead to some enthralling encounters. The whales can be found in this area between June and November.
Responsible tourism options just outside Plettenberg Bay
Just outside Plettenberg Bay you can find Monkey Land, Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary and Birds of Eden. All 3 parks belong to the South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance which strives to improve the lives of primates, birds and other wildlife in captivity. The parks were recommended to me by Louise from www.greengirlsinafrica.com. I actually always consult her when I’m not quite sure if I should visit a certain place with animal encounters. Louise and her colleagues keep a close watch on what is good and bad in the industry. Wildlife sanctuaries in Southern Africa are slowly phasing out touching and petting of animals which is great. I used to be also quite ignorant and was very pleased when I could cuddle with a baby cheetah about 14 years ago but I’m happy to know better now.
It is possible to get a discounted entrance ticket for all 3 parks. On this trip with Rosie, we visited Jukani only. The animals have so much space and our Guide Mr X was really good. Rosie was more interested in reading all the different signs which made me aware of the fact that she can now read in Dutch and English at the age of 5. Proud mother I am!!
Just outside of Jukani is the Plettenberg Puzzle Park which I was looking forward to visit. It sounded it like fun but was closed for renovations at the time we were in the area.
Where to stay in Plettenberg Bay
Plettenberg Bay offers a wide range of accommodation from camping to self catering to luxury hotels and lodges. A few years back we had the most amazing stay at Kurland Hotel which takes pampering to a totally different level. I think it is great when a hotel or accommodation suppliers ‘gets’ the child friendly aspect without losing sight for the wishes and holiday feelings of the adults as well. Kurland in Plettenberg Bay totally get it right. First of all there are 2 separate pool areas of which one is only for adults and the other one is surrounded with all the kids things. Then 2nd of all, the food is out of this world! So you can have a fantastic culinary evening while your kids are happy as well. We stayed in the elegant suites which were close to everything. The hotel belongs amongst the best hotels in the world and is consistently graded a 5 star family hotel. The owners are very much involved in the running of the hotel and you will feel at home straight away.
Buffelsdam, affordable luxury
This guest lodge is build to perfection by the owners who live on site as well. They are originally from The Netherlands and came to South Africa to make their dream come true. You will find very spacious rooms, a lap pool for those morning exercises and lovely hosts. Almost across the road from Buffelsdam is our favorite lunch spot in this area which is Bramon Wine Estate. Don’t miss out on their delicious country style tapas lunch between the vineyards. Take your time and don’t rush.
Tsitsikamma National Park
This is an absolute MUST Garden Route itinerary and you HAVE to include this national park to your Garden Route Itinerary. Tsitsikamma National Park is the home of the Ottertrail which must be the most famous hiking trail in South Africa. If you want to book this, you need to do this well in advance and bookings are made through the SANparks web site. I did this trail many many years ago and it is still pristine. A maximum of 12 hikers is allowed onto the trail per day to make sure you have an amazing nature experience. The huts are basic and you need to carry your own food and cooking utensils. Each hut has a braai area. It is most fun to hike the Ottertrail with a bunch of friends so you can all hike to together. Each camp has 2 huts with 6 beds and some of the bathrooms have the most incredible views of the Indian Ocean.
Hiking the Otter Trail might not be everyone’s cup of tea when visiting the Garden Route but luckily you can also do more easy accessible hikes like hiking to Storms River Mouth. This really is a very short walk and then you can go onto the suspension bridge over the Storms River. A short boat trip is also possible and I definitely recommend it.
The highest commercial bungee jump in the world is at Bloukrans bridge
For the adrenaline junkies this one should be on your Garden Route Itinerary. The bungee bridge, 216 m (709 feet) high, is in the most beautiful spot in a gorge.
How about a canopy tour in the indigenous Tsitsikamma forest 30 m above the forest floor? You will learn all about these ancient trees and bird life is abundant. Tours are run daily throughout the day.
Further east of Tsitsikamma there’s still Jeffreys Bay and Cape St. Francis. Both have amazing beaches and the Cape St Francis Resort is a fantastic place to book your family holiday.
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