Sophie Foreman, returning from a recent trip to South Africa, has curated the best sights and stop-offs for 7 days along the Garden Route, from exploring ancient caves to surviving the world's biggest bridge bungee jump.
The Garden Route in South Africa is basically 200km of nature showing off. Covering a vast chunk of the African continent's south coast, it boasts beautiful beaches, incredible interactions with wildlife and a whole host of activities for adrenaline junkies - the perfect playground! But with such a massive distance to cover, and often a limited timetable, it can be tough to choose which of the many possible adventures to explore. Here are our favourite stop-offs well worth a visit as you meander along the N2 from Cape Town. You can use this guide as a basis for your adventure and tailor our recommendations depending on how long you have for exploring. Take it slow or make a whistle-stop tour.
CAPE TOWN TO L'AGULHAS
Whether you've just arrived in Cape Town, or been exploring for a few days already, pick up your rental car and get ready for some jaw-dropping coastal scenery today. Hit the road early and head 45 minutes east along the N2 to Somerset West for a hearty brunch at Pajamas and Jam Eatery to fuel up for the road trip. In this beautiful English Garden-esque converted warehouse, enjoy yummy breakfast options such as bacon and banana croissants with aubergine jam or a vegan breakfast bowl. We challenge you to make it out of there without indulging in one of their magnificent cakes.
After leaving Pajamas and Jam, begin your detour along the coast along the R44. You'll be tempted by the plethora of white sand beaches. If you choose to stop off at one for a dip, we recommend Rooi-Els for its privacy and some intimate dolphin spotting from the shore.
By lunchtime, you should arrive at Betty's Bay. For a small conservation fee, this is the much less crowded spot to spend time with the colony of African Penguins, avoiding the tourist trap penguin viewpoint of Boulders Beach in Cape Town. Here, you can learn all about the native penguin populations, their habitats and lifestyles. To be honest, we could spend hours watching them play around in the surf.
After you've sated your penguin-watching appetite, head out along the coast again to the small town of Hermanus, famous for its colourful round houses and whale watching. If you have time when you arrive, book a whale watching tour with ..... If you're feeling a bit riskier, shark cage diving might be more up your street.
You can either spend a night in Hermanus at one of the many amazing accommodations or, alternatively, you can skip the afternoon whale watching and make a detour to Cape Agulhas: the most southerly point of the African continent. It's also the official geographic divide between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans (though in reality this meeting point fluctuates with winds and currents). Stay overnight in the small towns of L'Agulhas or Struisbaai.
L'AGULHAS TO MOSSEL BAY
Start out early and drive towards Mossel Bay for a sandboarding lesson. Mossel Bay is home to the world-famous Dragon Dune, the biggest dune in South Africa and the perfect chance to try this sport; all with the promise of a soft landing! For beginners, much like a ski slope, they have a baby dune, and a third dune for those not quite ready for the Dragon Dune. If it's recently been raining, ring up in advance to make sure the dune is open.
Cool off by visiting the Dias Museum in Mossel Bay to learn about the early European explorers of the region. A particularly lovely highlight is the 'post office tree' where sailors left messages for one another.
Catch the sunset by walking along the seafront via Point Road to Cape St Blaize lighthouse. Afterwards, grab a seaside table at Kaai 4 restaurant for local beer and traditional food cooked over open fires.
MOSSEL BAY TO WILDERNESS
Make the drive north to Oudtshoorn to explore the astonishing Old Cango Caves, stretching over 4 km (though only about a quarter of this is open to visitors). The Heritage Tour is filled with stories about the original cave explorers and the limestone rock formations are like nothing else you will ever see. Or, if you're like us, opt for the Adventure Tour which sees you scrambling through 15-inch passages, and up narrow tunnels with names such as "The Devils Chimney".
Reward yourself with coffee and cake in Pause Coffee Roastery. This is part of the small Timberlake Organic Village of independent shops and restaurants with plenty of outdoor spaces to chill out and take a breather! The village itself has many ongoing sustainability and conservation efforts you can explore throughout the gardens.
Spend a tranquil late afternoon kayaking in the Sedgefield Lagoon - a perfect time of day for spotting the local bird populations and hike to the hidden Kaaimans Waterfall. You can rent your kayaks from Kaaimans Restaurant.
Stay on at Kaiimans Restaurant for dinner or visit Serendipity to sample traditional South African cuisine such as milk tart or mosbolletjies (a sweet bun).
WILDERNESS TO KNYSNA
After making the short drive from Wilderness, spend the morning exploring the unique lagoon waters around Knysna. A number of local tour companies offer boat trips out on the lagoon or you can hire a kayak and stand up paddleboards. Alternatively, you can see this geographical feature from above by driving to the Knysna Heads. The lagoon was once proclaimed by the British Navy to be the most dangerous harbour in the world!
Knysna is famous in South Africa as the home of the oyster. If you're a fan of seafood, this is the perfect excursion for you. Hop on a 90-minute oyster tour with Knysna Charters and learn about the local oyster farming scene (whilst sampling some, of course!) all accompanied by wine.
For a foray into life beyond the tourist trail, Peggy's Tours, operated by local artist, Peggy Dlephu, operates visits to the townships where she has founded art-based projects with school children.
Or instead, you could visit Monkeyland - a very popular rehabilitation centre for monkeys that have been in captivity or private homes. Enjoy a walking safari through the forest with knowledgeable guides teaching you about the 700 free-roaming cheeky primates (our visit involved a very near miss with a gibbon!) from 11 different species.
Make the short drive up the coast to Lookout Beach in Plettenberg Bay for a sunset stroll. You can often see dolphins and surfers alike enjoying the waves of the vast beach. Lookout Deck restaurant, right on the beach, is a prime spot for 'sundowners' (drinks at sunset) with a large outdoor deck encompassing the cliffs over the beach. Sample the beautiful seafood that the whole coast of South Africa has to offer.
KNYSNA TO JEFFREYS BAY
Start the day off well with a leisurely slow breakfast at Ile De Pain, with some traditional French patisserie. I know, not very authentic South African, but I couldn't let you miss out on all the breads from this artisan bakery. Get there early if you want one of their pastries - they often sell out before midday. If you're like us, you'll be stocking up on quiches and cheese sticks for road trip snacks as well.
Afterwards, continue your trip along the garden route with a stop at Bloukrans Bridge in Storms River. Here, you can dare yourself to do the highest bridge bungee jump in the world! Thankfully, despite its scary potential, this jump has never had an accident - does that make it any easier to take the plunge? If you don't want to go the full hog, you can still walk the bridge and view the fascinating jumping process happening - including the singing line of rope-wielding men who relentlessly pull up each jumper.
Following a morning of adrenaline, head towards Jeffrey's Bay (affectionately nicknames J-Bay by locals) to spend a chilled out afternoon catching waves in a surf lesson or bodyboarding in the surf capital of Africa. If you don't want to partake, you can relax on the beach and watch the professionals at the 'supertubes' section of the beach. The town has some really great outlets for surf gear with discount shops, from the likes of Roxy and Quicksilver, stocked with last season's goods.
Head to Nina's Real Food, one of the most popular joints in town. Try local game meats such as Kudu, Springbok or Ostrich (the ostrich espetada is especially good), or indulge in home comforts like pasta and pizza from this varied menu. Make sure you get some gelato for the way home!
Make sure you get an early night - you're going to need it!
ADDO ELEPHANT PARK
Instead of planning a two week trip to remote Kruger, where you will also need to take Malaria tablets, make the 2- hr excursion from Jeffreys Bay to enjoy a guided game drive at Addo Elephant Park. This park is a true stalwart of South African conservation effort, founded in 1931 to protect the 11 remaining elephants in the area. Currently home to 550 elephants in addition to lions, black rhinos, buffalo and all types of antelope. All game drives need to be booked in advance through the Addo Elephant Park office. Depending on what time of day you choose to take your safari, you'll see different animals. Unlike other safari parks, tarmac roads mean you can choose to see the park in your vehicle, but we highly recommend spending a little more to go with a guide. Their knowledge of the park is endless, they'll be able to drive you to off-road locations and get regular updates about which animals can be found where at any given time. For preservation reasons alone, the endangered flightless dung beetle (exclusive to Addo) crossing the road is frequently run over by tourists too distracted by animal spotting to concentrate on driving.
JEFFREYS BAY TO CAPE TOWN
After breakfasting at Tasty Table, you will either continue into the Eastern Cape from here or make your way back to Cape Town. If you're continuing back to the Western Cape, stretch your legs in preparation for the long return trip with a visit to the beautiful Tsitsikamma National Park, known as "the garden of The Garden Route". If you have a bit longer to spend there, any activity you can imagine is available from ziplining to horse riding and quad biking to golf. If you're keen to hit the road, we recommend one of the many short hikes to explore this coastal reserve. Our favourite is the hike to Storms River Mouth crossing the famous 77m-long suspension bridge. You might even spot one of the elusive Cape clawless Otters for which the famous multi-day hiking trail of the area, The Otter Trail is named after.
Refresh yourself from the 5-hour drive with a brief pit stop at Peregrine Farm Stall, just outside the town of Grabouw on the main road. Farm stalls like this are dotted along the sides of all South Africa's highways, providing vital lunch stops amongst the wilderness and profiling the incredible produce from the local area. At Peregrine, pick up a coffee for the road and some picnic supplies for later. Their selection of biltong (dried meat snacks - try the ostrich) and homemade pies are something not to be missed. After this, meander down the mountains via (the slightly bone tingling) Sir Lowry's Pass to find stunning vistas of the Western Cape with views of the Cape Town coastline on a clear day.
You'll be at Cape Town in 45 minutes ready for your trip home or for more exploring!