The Garden Route is one of those classic South African destinations you need to visit at least once in your life. And once you've been, chances are you'll you back again and again as you fall more in love with the lush green forests, the pristine beaches and those little seaside towns.
Come rain or shine, the Garden Route is a must for travellers. In summer, the best beaches of the world cannot contest those sun-soaked shores.
And in winter, with all the iconic regional festivals lined up, it's a retreat for slow-food lovers, readers and nostalgic travellers of all sorts.
Travelling on the Garden Route can be a little overwhelming if you're going in blind. Therefore, we've laid out some guidelines for different things to get up to while you're in the area.
Around the coast
The Garden Route straddles a stretch of ocean connecting Cape Town with Port Elizabeth. Naturally, the coolest things to get up to happen right here.
Whale watching in Hermanus
Hermanus is a year-round crowd magnet for multiple reasons.
Beautiful nature hikes, extraordinary wines unique to the heavenly Hemel-en-Aarde Wine Valley terroir, pristine beaches, an exciting array of craft, art and lifestyle shops, an inviting selection of seaside seafood restaurants, and of course, the celebrities of this seafront town, turned tourist hot spot - the whales.
The annual Whale Festival will kick off from 30 September to 2 October this year. The whales, however, do not arrive only for the festival. They grace Walker Bay from as early as June through to November.
Secret whale watching in Witsand
While Hermanus is widely accepted to be the whale watching capital of South Africa, the coastal hamlet of Witsand is an excellent alternative - especially if you'd like to dodge the crowds.
Witsand is located about 45mins drive from the N2 turnoff just after Swellendam. While you can follow the tarred road all the way into the town, we suggest a little detour via Malgas to take the pontoon over the Breede River. It's a quintessential Hessequa experience.
Various elevated lookout points are dotted along the shore, offering expansive views of the sheltered San Sebastian Bay.
Secret Beaches along the Garden Route
The entire Garden Route coast is littered with amazing beaches, making it a swim, surf, sun and touch rugby haven in high season.
But when the crowds drawing into places like Hartenbos, Stilbaai and Mossel Bay start making you feel claustrophobic, you need to get away.
Luckily, there are little secret beaches all along the Garden Route. Check them out here: 9 Secret Beaches along the Garden Route
Shark Cage Diving
We're skeptical of companies that portray the sharks in SA's waters as aggressive, blood-thirsty predators that want to kill everything they see... this is not the truth.
Luckily, the shark cage diving operators in SA understand that sharks are the main focus of their industry and that shark conservation is the ultimate goal.
In the forests
Spot the elusive elephants of the Knysna Forests
The Knysna Forest is arguably the most magical place in the country. Here, despite dense human populations and agriculture, elusive creatures of the bush still populate the woods.
The five elephants believed to live in the forest today are but an echo of the elephant herds that used to roam the forest.
In 1876, there were an estimated 400 elephants walking the Knysna forest, the Garden Route National Park says.
The GRNP team, along with the Knysna Historical Society and other stakeholders have launched a historical route in one of SA’s largest individual forests.
By using this self-drive route, visitors to the Garden Route can drive to 10 marked historically significant locations in the Knysna forest. The route comes with a map of the 10 areas dubbed "rooted in time".
SEE: Forest Fairy: New historical route launched in the Knysna forest
Listen to the trees...
Looking at the dense overgrowth in the Knysna forest, it's strange to imagine that there were once so many elephants living here. And if the Knysna forest can hide 400 elephants, what other secrets can those trees tell?
Contrary to many travellers' thinking, there aren't only a single Big Tree in the Garden Route forests. Almost every tree in those magical woods, in fact, has a history dating back further than most of our lives.
What Big Trees are concerned, however, there are four official Big Trees in the Garden Route National Park, including the Dalene Matthee Big Tree. Here's a guide to exploring these Biggest Trees of the Knysna Forests.
The Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour is built on platforms in magnificent Tsitsikamma indigenous rainforest.
Many of these platforms are built around giant Outeniqua Yellowwood trees that are up to 700 years old. So, harnessed in for safety, standing right within the crowns of these giants you get to look down at the forest floor 30m below and see the world from the Yellowwood giants' perspective. And what a view it is!
If you are fortunate enough, you will spot a pair of Knysna Loeries or the brilliant red plumage of the elusive Narina Trogon!
Hiking Grootvadersbosch, just outside Heidelberg
Run by Cape Nature, the Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve is an outdoor lover's delight - there are hiking and mountain bike trails a-plenty, bird hides hidden among tall trees and a neatly maintained campsite.
The reserve comprises 250ha of Knysna-type forest and is the most noteworthy in the southwestern Cape. Among indigenous trees like red alder, stinkwood, yellowwood and the dominant ironwood, a few exotic species such as camphor, Australian blackwood, eucalyptus, ash, Californian redwood and oak can also be found.
It's one of the best-kept secrets of camping in the Garden Route...
Recognised as the 'highest bungee from a bridge' in the world, Bloukrans Bungy is the ultimate Garden Route thrill. Look, we might not easily trust anyone who is willing to Jump off a bridge for pure fun... but if we can do it, anybody can.
Plus, if there's any place in the WORLD to bungee jump, this should be the spot.
Mountain biking around Riversdale
Resting peacefully high above the town of Riversdale is a picturesque mountain peak known as the Sleeping Beauty - "a mountain which forms a perfectly pretty silhouette of a slumbering girl with long lashes, a petite little nose and pouty lips," as travel writer Nadia Krige puts it. "While she's pretty to look at from far, her foothills are covered in a network of mountain biking routes to explore from closer by."
This year, Baleia Wines will host the first ever Baleia Wines Mountain Bike event on 3 September 2016. The event will take place at the Baleia Wines winery just off the N2 outside Riversdale, so get peddling!
Cooling off in the Korentepooort dam
It's spring - so swimming is in order!
Korentepoort dam is located about 16km outside of Riversdale, perfect for a chilled-out afternoon of swimming, picnicking and watersports.
With the famous Sleeping Beauty in the background, the dam provides a perfectly pretty spot to while away a summer's day. Getting in will cost your R5 per person and R30 per vehicle.
Check into Bontebok
Bontebok National Park, the smallest of our 21 National Parks is gorgeous. It's a real Garden Route secret, and the walking trails through the aloes and spring flowers, and along the Breede River, is a must for nature-loving adventurers.
Home to 200 Bontebok, the formation of this park saved the species from extinction.
It may be easy to overlook Swellendam as we rush past towards the seaside towns on the Garden Route, but it would be a mistake to do so - especially if you're a food-lover.
For real spoiling make a dinner reservation at the renowned La Sosta Restaurant, which has just won the Eat Out 2014 Best Italian Restaurant award. "Their tasting menus thrills with delicate flavours and superb presentation and its all served in their intimate dining room that seats no more than 20 lucky people," travel writer Dawn Jorgensen says.
Slow food in Sedgefield
On Saturday mornings from 07:30 to 12:00, the Wild Oats Community Farmers Market in Sedgefield is also a must-do. This massive market rivals any hipster Cape Town or Joburg market, and offers the freshest vegetables right from the farmers.
You can also buy freshly shucked oysters on the spot! YUM!
Fynbos-infused gin? Yes please! Located on the banks of the Goukou river, close to where it meets the Indian Ocean in Stilbaai, Inverroche is a progressive craft distillery producing a range of uniquely South African spirits, using rare hand-harvested wild Fynbos botanicals.
While they are best known for their gin, they do also produce spiced rums and liqueurs.
They offer daily distillery tours where you will get to meet Magnanimous Meg, the custom-made, wood-fired copper pot still used to produce their legendary spirits and, yes, gin tastings too. They are open Monday to Saturday, from 10:00 to 16:00.
"If you're into intimate, boutique tasting experiences, Hessequa will make you a very happy camper," Nadia Krige writes. For wine, visit the Baleia Bay or Edenberg cellars, both in the vicinity of Riversdale.
Baleia Bay wines are cultivated on the Dassieklip farm just outside town. Their product offering currently includes an award winning Sauvignon Blanc, as well as a Chardonnay, Shiraz and Pinot Noir. They offer free wine tastings from Monday to Friday, 09:00 to 17:00, and on Saturdays and public holidays from 10:00 to 13:00.
Edenberg is located on one of the oldest farms in the area and each and every bottle of wine is produced by hand - from harvesting to packaging. They are open daily from 10:00 to 17:00 for free wine tastings and cellar tours.
Say 'cheese and olives' please!
Kasselshoop's handcrafted cheeses are an absolute must-try. And if you're into olives, Botterkloof has a wide array of Olive Products.
Both are located en route to Stilbaai, which makes for a convenient two-delicious-birds-with-one stone scenario! Kasselshoop is family-run and offers cheese and wine pairing tours, while Botterkloof's farmstall is jam-packed with all sorts of delights, of which olives are the crowning glory.
Kasselshoop offers Cheese & Wine pairing Tours from Monday to Friday, by appointment from 10:00 to 15:00, very hour on the hour. Botterkloof's Farm Stall is open daily from 08:00 to 16:30.
Play at Jakkelsvlei
If you're after a one-stop-shop for cheese, wine and all things divine - in a family friendly environment - Jakkalsvlei is the spot. It certainly dishes up one of the best platters in SA, and makes for the perfect place to lounge away an entire day while the kids frolic on the lawn.
Jakkelsvlei is open Monday to Saturday from 09:30 to 17:00. Bookings are advised.
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