One of the most superb scenic drives in South Africa is through the Western Cape’s Garden Route – a stretch of highway fringed with dense tangles of trees and plants, cliffs and rocky capes, gentle lakes and pristine white beaches. Extending from Mossel (mussel) Bay to the Tsitsikama (clear water) Forest and rugged Storms River gorge, this coastal ‘Garden of Eden’ is pounded by surf and separated from the arid interior by majestic mountains that trap the rain.
The French explorer Francois le Valliant waxed lyrical about the region in the 1780s: ‘The land bears the name Outeniqua, which in the Hottentot (Khoikhoi) tongue means ‘a man laden with honey’. The flowers grow there in millions, the mixture of pleasant scents which arises from them, their colour, their variety, the pure and fresh air which one breathes there, all make one stop and think nature has made and enchanted abode of this beautiful place’.
Apart from encroaching urban sprawl, this description holds true today.
Depending on your mood, you can choose between lazing on the beach, playing golf on internationally rated courses, hiking or boating, or indulging in leisurely meals. Six restaurants in the region feature in Wine magazine’s Top 100 Restaurants in South Africa, which I edit. The coastal waters team with game fish, shellfish have been a speciality since the first Khoikhoi beachcombers lived off the sea, and cultivated fresh oysters are a major industry.
But bear in mind that the area is a premier holiday destination. If you prefer peace, opt for off-season travel (high season covers the summer months of mid-December to end-January). In off-peak periods, the guest houses are quieter, the restaurants less crowded, and the pace slow rather than frenetic.
Make a date with history in Mossel Bay, where stone age tools have been found and a petrified forest, some 15 million years’ old, was unearthed in 1864. Portuguese navigator Bartholomew Diaz anchored here to take aboard fresh water during his attempt to find a sea route to the east in 1488, followed by Vasco da Gama in 1497. Don’t miss the historic Post Office tree on the beach, where from the fifteenth century, mariners left letters in the hope that they would be found and delivered by ships sailing home.
Take a steam train ride from the sleepy town of George at the foot of the Outeniqua Mountains. The Outeniqua Cho-Tjoe vintage train chugs slowly along the coast to Knysna (place of wood) every day except Sundays, passing tranquil lakes and providing a spectacular view from a railway line that crosses the Kaaimans (crocodile) River as it enters the sea. (The ride takes just over two and a half hours, so pack a snack and bottle of bubbly).
From George you pass through the Wilderness, an area of dense coastal vegetation, tranquil lagoons and an 8km stretch of pristine beach. A popular holiday, timeshare and retirement haven, the name harks back to its natural state, before development took place in 1877.
Spend time in Knysna, on the edge of an 18,000 ha lagoon, protected by high sandstone cliffs known as the heads. Rich in crafts and one of South Africa’s most picturesque resorts, it has sadly succumbed to commercialization. But it is the country’s oyster capital, and you can feast on oysters in most restaurants in town. Attractions range from a waterside shopping complex (with a tempting delicatessen called 34°South) to a ghost mining town in the forest, where overgrown shafts are all that remains of a gold rush in 1886.
Cross the lagoon by ferry to Featherbed Nature Reserve, where the 2,2k bushbuck trail affords glimpses of the Cape’s graceful small antelope and colourful birds, including the Knysna loerie. Catch your breath at viewing spots offering a panorama of the lagoon.
If you’re a sun-worshipper, make your destination Plettenberg Bay, which promises a realize-your-fantasies beach vacation. Originally named Formosa (beautiful) by the Portuguese, today this is the holiday playground of landlocked Johannesburg residents craving the sea. As for marine life, dolphins sport in the surf and during August and September you have a ringside view of Southern Right whales, which come into the bay to calve.
Don’t miss the markets. Selling farm produce from cheeses to honey, preserves and organic vegetables, they’re a centre of social life on Saturday mornings, when shoppers meet over coffee, apple dumplings and pancakes. South African specialities like fresh proteas (the national flower), biltong (sticks of dried meat) and mampoer (a home brew with a kick like a mule) are offered by individual stalls.
Every Saturday from 8am till 12 noon off the N2 highway from George to Plettenberg Bay, outside the small coastal town of Sedgefield, and at Tula Pottery between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay.
Make an excursion to family-run cheesery Fynboshoek Cheese near the spectacular Storms River bridge. The cheeses, snapped up by the area’s restaurants, include fresh ricotta, chevre, provolone, sweetmilk and mature cheddar. Phone in advance to book for lunch, and you’ll be served bread straight from the oven, green salad topped with feta, tomato and mozzarella salad, plus coffee and home bakes. (Off the N2 freeway, down a 3km drive along a farm road. Tel Alje van Deemter at +27.44 280-3879).
Where to stay
Given its attraction to holidaymakers and tourists, the Garden Route bursts with Bed & Breakfast establishments, giving tourists the opportunity to stay with a South African family. For more information, The Bed and Breakfast Collection, published by Portfolio, is a reliable guide, as all venues are checked out. (Website www.portfoliocollection.com Information and reservations office, tel +27 11 880-3414).
It’s vital to book well in advance, whether at a B&B establishment, hotel or guest house – and our weak currency puts even luxurious accommodation within reach of visitors.
Where to stay and eat
Instead of sleeping over in George, move on to the Wilderness. The Swiss-owned and run Palms Wilderness Guest House offers comfortable accommodation and excellent dinners featuring fresh fish and succulent steaks in a lagoonside setting. (Tel +27 44 877-1420).
In Knysna, you’ll enjoy local fare at Belvidere House which blends a long history of hospitality (the manor house was built in 1849) with a superb setting on the edge of the lagoon, where cottages are surrounded by manicured lawns. (Tel +27 44 387-1055).
At Phantom Forest you dine and sleep in tree houses, linked by walkways, high in indigenous forest, with views of the lagoon and estuary that are normally the preserve of resident eagles. Uncluttered décor is streamlined African and Pan-African menus are infused with local colour and spices. (Tel +27 44 386-0046).
On the outskirts of Plettenberg Bay, you’ll be charmed by Hog Hollow Country Lodge, set on the edge of a ravine in dense indigenous forest. Décor is African-style, and you’ll be plied with fresh seasonal menus at a sociable dining table. (Tel +27 44 534-8879).
Hunters Country House, just ten minutes from town, envelops you in comfort in individually decorated cottages, and an antique-rich former family house. Breakfasts are bountiful, gourmet menus revolve round freshness, and the wine cellar is formidable. New is the less formal Tsala Treetop hotel on the property, where airy rooms are set in indigenous forest. (Tel +27 44 532-7818).
Perched on a rocky point, The Plettenberg offers an ocean panorama, sink-into-comfort rooms and a restaurant that’s been extended to make the most of the view. Innovative menus centre round local ingredients. (Tel +27 44 533-2030).
Friendly, relaxed Redbourne Lodge is run and managed by a hands-on young family. The winelist is exceptional and cosmopolitan menus specialise in tempting fish and seafood dishes. (Tel +27 44 533-5037).
Other recommended restaurants
In Mossel Bay, feast on sea-fresh wild oysters or filling seafood casseroles at the Gannet. (Tel +27 44 691-1885).
In George, the Copper Pot is a landmark for its generous, country-style meals and award-winning winelist. (Tel +27 44 870-7378).
In Knysna, oysters are de rigueur. The Oyster Catcher on the quays is a basic restaurant offering oysters off-loaded at the door. (Tel +27 44 383-2960).
Knysna Oyster Company, on an island overlooking oyster beds and lagoon, probably sells more oysters than any restaurant in South Africa. (Tel +27 44 382-6942).
Oysters Restaurant specialises in oysters and seafood platters – and even offers ostrich steak “carpetbagger style”, topped with an oyster or two. (Tel +27 44 382-6641).
For teas and light lunches, one of Knysna’s best-kept secrets is La Lavande, a tiny, tucked-away tea garden-cum-restaurant in one of the early settler houses, where the muffins are memorable and the salads crisply fresh. (Tel +27 44 382-1490).
In Plettenberg Bay, Brothers Restaurant and Terrace on the main street, an unpretentious restaurant with hearty helpings and an award-winning winelist, has an umbrella-shaded deck for relaxed alfresco eating. (Tel +27 44 533-5056).
Elie’s Cabin in the Beacon Isle Hotel has the feel of a luxury liner. The hotel is built on a rocky promontory and on stormy nights waves crash against the windows. Retro fare includes steaks and crêpes suzette flambéed at the table. (Tel +27 44 533-3545).
Jos Baker is a food and wine, journalist. She has written numerous books and contributes to Wine Magazine.