High on the must-see lists of most visitors to South Africa is the Garden Route, and with good reason: you can’t help but be seduced by the glorious natural beauty. The distance from Mossel Bay in the west to just beyond Plettenberg Bay in the east is under 300km, yet the range of topography, vegetation, wildlife and outdoor activities is remarkable.
Stellenbosch is an elegant, historical town with stately Cape Dutch, Georgian and Victorian architecture along its oak-lined streets – and it is so much more than that. Full of interesting museums, quality hotels and a selection of bars, clubs and restaurants, it is constantly abuzz with locals, students, Capetonians and tourists.
Following Rte 62 will take you through some spectacular scenery changes, from the rugged mountain passes between Montagu and Calitzdorp, to the arid semi-desert of the Little Karoo region around Oudtshoorn. It’s touted as the longest wine route in the world and is a great alternative to the N2 if you’re travelling from Cape Town towards the Garden Route.
Embracing an exquisitely beautiful lagoon and surrounded by ancient forests, Knysna (pronounced ny-znah) is probably the most famous town on the Garden Route. Formerly the centre of the timber industry, supplying yellowwood and stinkwood for railway lines, shipping and house-building, it still has several shops specialising in woodwork and traditional furniture.
West Coast & Swartland
The windswept coastline and desolate mountains on the western side of Western Cape are a peaceful, undeveloped paradise. Head north of Cape Town and you’ll find whitewashed fishing villages, fascinating country towns, unspoilt beaches, a lagoon and wetlands teeming with birds, plus one of the best hiking regions in the country.
Surrounded by mountains and vineyards, and set on the banks of the Berg River, Paarl is the Winelands' largest town. It's often overlooked by people heading for Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, but it does have its own charm, including interesting Cape Dutch architecture and gracious homesteads, a good range of places to stay and some decent restaurants.
French Huguenots settled in this spectacular valley over 300 years ago, bringing their vines with them. Ever since, the town has clung to its French roots, and July visitors will find Bastille Day celebrated with boules matches, berets and brie. Franschhoek bills itself as the country’s gastronomic capital, and you’ll certainly have a tough time deciding where to eat.
In the late 1860s, no self-respecting society lady in the Western world would be seen dead without an ostrich plume adorning her headgear. The fashion boom in ostrich feathers lasted until the slump of 1914 and during this time the ‘feather barons’ of Oudtshoorn made their fortunes.
Plettenberg Bay, or ‘Plett’ as it’s more commonly known, is a resort town through and through, with mountains, white sand and crystal-blue water making it one of the country’s top local tourist spots. As a result, things can get very busy and somewhat overpriced, but the town retains a relaxed, friendly atmosphere and does have very good-value hostels.
The seemingly endless Karoo has a truly magical feel. It’s a vast, semi-arid plateau (its name is a Khoe-San word meaning ‘land of thirst’) that features stunning sunsets and starscapes. Inhabited for over half a million years, the region is rich in archaeological sites, fossils, San paintings, wildlife and some 9000 plant species.