Garden Route Holidays
The Garden Route, South Africa's most celebrated expanse of coastline, is 300 km of seemingly endless beaches winding around a backdrop of lagoons, verdant mountains, and forests, which give the route its name. Dotted in between – and worth the detour – are charming fishing villages and tranquil nature reserves.
The Garden Route, South Africa, Itinerary
This is where to come on holiday to really immerse yourself into nature and taking time to explore the surroundings pays off. You will find some of the best hikes in the country thanks to the stunning coastal trails decorated with indigenous flora and fauna. While for wildlife enthusiasts, it is the ideal place to spot whales, seals, and white sharks.
Our Africa and safari specialist Matt Shock says:
“Hiking in this region is so magical, it has an other-worldly beauty about it thanks to the fynbos that is bursting with colour. There is something truly special in knowing that what you’re seeing is one-of-a-kind, as 6,000 out of the 9,000 species of plants here aren’t found anywhere else in the world."
Officially, the Garden Route starts in Mossel Bay (400 km from Cape Town) and ends in Storms River. However, people often set off from Cape Town stopping in Hermanus or De Hoop Nature Reserve and travelling on to the Eastern Cape for safari. You can also access the route from the Winelands or by flying to George or Plettenberg Bay from Cape Town.
Excellent road conditions and scenic views make the route a dream for self-drivers and even works well for families as the distances are manageable in just a few hours. We tend to recommend stopping at each destination for 2-3 days, allowing for a leisurely pace to appreciate the sublime coastline.
When you are limited on time, we’d suggest choosing just one or two stops on the Garden Route, South Africa, itinerary sandwiched between a visit to Cape Town and a safari on the Eastern Cape.
Where to Stop on the Garden Route, South Africa
Here are our top stops on the Garden Route:
Between June and November, Hermanus becomes one of the best places in the world to go whale watching and see southern right and humpback whales. The incredible creatures migrate from the cold Antarctic waters to have their calves, and the raggedy cliffs of Hermanus or a boat trip from its shores are the perfect place to spot them. Thanks to the arrival of the whales, what was once a sleepy fishing village is now an incredibly popular tourist destination and it’s clear to see why. This charming town is peppered with sandy coves and long stretches of soft white beaches.
Things to do:
Although you will only see the whales between June and November, throughout the rest of the year Hermanus’ waters are alive with dolphins, seals, and penguins. Take a boat tour or sea kayaking trip to look for the playful animals or watch from the craggy headlands.
While the sea is icy cold even in the height of summer, walks along the Atlantic coast will reward you with soul-lifting views. Hiking trails in Hermanus are plentiful and avid trekkers will enjoy exploring the cliff paths, which take you past pretty bays, historical sites, and breathtaking scenery filled with fynbos.
Nearby vineyards in Hemel-en-Aarde Valley you will find one of the most beautiful wine regions in South Africa. While Franschhoek and Stellenbosch often steal the limelight, other areas in the region are now getting the recognition they deserve. Take a tour of the area, stopping at wineries including Creation, Newton Johnson, and Hamilton Russell for wine tasting or a delicious lunch.
Not forgetting the town itself, which is full of lovely boutiques, cafes, and traditional crafts shops to peruse.
Who should visit? Hermanus is a real crowd-pleaser. Thanks to a good collection of five-star hotels (including Birkenhead House), plenty of activities for all ages, and the laid-back atmosphere of the town, it’s the perfect stop for family holidays to South Africa’s Garden Route or those looking to switch off and soak up the beautiful walks, with a spot of wine tasting thrown in.
Just a couple of hours from Hermanus – continuing east – is De Hoop Nature Reserve where the scent of eucalyptus and fynbos fills the air. On one side you’ve got the fluffy sand dunes and on the other wild but unspoiled coastline. De Hoop Nature Reserve takes you off grid and into the wilderness. As well as conserving 34,000 hectares of native fynbos and coastal ecosystems, the reserve includes the De Hoop Marine Protected Area (MPA), essentially a nature reserve in the sea, and a haven for southern right whales.
Things to do: Here you will find Lekkerwater Beach Lodge on what might be the longest, undeveloped beach you’ve ever seen — over 6kms of pristine sand. This is one of the most remote lodges in southern Africa and a stay here is an experience in itself.
Daily activities are structured around the tides and involve fascinating walks to discover the rich natural history of the region, from endemic fynbos and inter-tidal ecosystems to remarkable mammal and birdlife. De Hoop Nature Reserve is known as one of the world’s best locations for land-based whale watching (June/July to November) so join a dry marine safari to see them, while there are over 260 bird species to be found too. And, after all the action, watch the sun go down with your feet in the sand and a private beach dinner or romantic sundowners from the dunes.
Who should visit? Nature lovers and people who want to share the experience with other guests – Lekkerwater Beach Lodge has set arrival days, plus lots of group activities. This isn’t a place for the anti-social!
Drive 319 km on from De Hoop (you might like to break up the journey by stopping in Mossel Bay, Wilderness or George) and you’ll get to Knysna, a charming town flanked by forests and lagoons. Its old town is all wide, tree-lined streets and Victorian houses, while down by the waterfront at Knysna Quays you’ll find a smart complex with craft shops, galleries, bars, and restaurants.
Things to do: Don’t miss sampling the local seafood – particularly oysters, which are a specialty here – before you venture on from Knysna. There is plenty to do around the town, from paddleboats, steamer cruises, or canoeing on the lagoon, to hikes and mountain biking around the stunning Knysna Forest, stopping at waterfalls and looking for elephants, baboons, and more. Nearby Knysna Elephant Park was the first facility in South Africa to house and care for orphaned African elephants and now has eight herds residing there. Visitors to the park can get up close and personal to the gentle giants.
Who should visit? This is a great stop for people who want to combine exploring nature and hiking, with delicious food and a bit of shopping.
Plettenberg Bay – or ‘Plett’ to the locals – has long been attracting the stylish South African set who reside there in the summer. Its sheltered coves, craggy mountains, wide, white beaches, and biodiverse forests have charmed visitors since Portuguese settlers first arrived in 1488. And with a temperate climate, empty beaches, and azure waters it's not hard to see what makes Plett such an amazing stop on Garden Route itineraries.
Things to do: Chic restaurants and bars serve exceptional seafood with views to match, making this the ideal location to indulge in some of the area’s finest flavours. After trying the exquisite food of Plettenberg Bay, a world of activities awaits, with surfing, quad biking, horse riding, and hikes aplenty. And if you’re lusting after some Big Game viewing head to Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve where over 35 species of animal can be seen – from lion, hippo, giraffe, crocodile, and buffalo to the endangered white rhino – or pay a visit to the elephant sanctuary.
Who should visit? Plettenberg Bay will appeal to solo travellers and young couples who want to live like a local for a few days and soak up the buzz of the town.
Other Notable Destinations
Here are some extra locations to visit on your Garden Route road trip to help break up the drive and add flair to your itinerary.
The official start of the Garden Route, Mossel Bay is a classic, South African, seaside town, which can get very busy in the summer months (December and January). It’s a relaxed and friendly location and worth a stop if you’re an adrenaline junky!
Things to do: Much of the activities here centre around the water and beach, from cage diving with great white sharks to surfing the sand dunes or taking a boat trip out to Seal Island. There are some nice restaurants and interesting historical buildings, which pay homage to Mossel Bay’s colonial past.
Who should visit? We might recommend stopping in Mossel Bay to break up the journey between De Hoop and Knysna.
Take a bit of a detour off the coastal route and you’ll reach Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo area. This is the ostrich capital of the world and also home to the spectacular Cango Caves, Africa’s largest show cave system; an ecological hotspot where three distinct plant biomes (succulent karoo, cape thicket and fynbos) meet.
Things to do: Most people come to the town to see the ostrich farms or caves but the town itself is steeped in history and it is home to three museums. Along with the ostrich, are game lodges, which house the likes of buffalo, giraffes, meerkats, elephants, and rhinos.
Who should visit? Oudtshoorn offers up something a bit different from the rest of the Garden Route itinerary and if you’re into ostriches, then it’s a must-see.
The small village of Storms River is close to the Tsitsikamma National Park, a coastal reserve well-known for its indigenous lush forests, reefs, rivers, and flourishing fynbos. This is the end of the Garden Route and the start of many picturesque hikes.
Things to do: One of the most popular hikes is the Mouth Trail. It’s a beautiful trek less than 2km long, which leads to an impressive 77m suspension bridge over the mouth of the Storms River. There are many other (longer) trails too, select them depending on your interests, from bird watching to waterfalls and other wildlife. Beyond this, there is kayaking, tubing, and exploring caves to keep you busy.
Who should visit? This is one for the adrenaline junkies, who like their holiday jam-packed with action and adventure.
The Thatch House
Hermanus, Garden Route, South Africa
The Thatch House is a small boutique hotel located close to Hermanus, with rooms boasting beautiful views either over the Klienrivier Lagoon or the Maanschynkop Nature Reserve. The hotel can be taken on an exclusive basis with your own dedicated staff.