South Africa is now a staple on most traveller’s bucket lists. The call of the endless coastline, unique fauna and flora and beautiful cities and towns proves difficult to resist – but where to start?
I spent 3 weeks exploring South Africa’s famous Garden Route and beyond, driving along the dramatic coastline, dipping inland to the scorched semi-arid land of the Little Karoo and ending up in the vineyards of Stellenbosch. As South Africa is such a vast country and driving distances can be long, I’d block out at least 2 weeks in your calendar for this trip.
There were some stops that I loved and others I would skirt on a second visit. Here, with the glorious benefit of hindsight, I’ll outline the hits and the misses of our itinerary and whether or not I’ll be visiting again.
Start – Cape Town
What? Nestled on the coast and hugged by dramatic mountains which fall away into the crystal clear sea sits the city of Cape Town. For many first time visitors to South Africa Cape Town will be their first port of call, and what a beauty it is.
Number of nights needed? You could spend a lifetime exploring this incredible city. However, if you need to get cracking 3 nights to a week is a good timeframe to start with.
Highlights? I’ve written a whole post dedicated to my favourite Cape Town spots here.
Would I visit again? I’m definitely not done with Cape Town yet. After spending this visit based in the vibrant city-centre neighbourhood of Bo Kaap, I would love to spend some time closer to the sea and explore Cape Town’s incredible array of beaches.
Stop 1 – Hermanus
What? A 1 hour 30 minute drive eastwards along the coast from Cape Town brings you to Hermanus. The town is famous for hosting Southern Right whales during the winter and spring months and is home to beautiful beaches year round!
Number of nights needed? A single night should suffice here.
Highlights? Head to Grottos Beach for swimming and relaxing. Eat at the popular beachside restaurant Dutchies or have a cocktail with your feet in the sand at their beachfront bar across the road. If you visit in season, whale watching is a must. Take a trip out on the water or simply cast your eyes out to sea to catch a glimpse of these mammoth mammals.
Would I visit again? The town has a nice feel to it and the beaches are lovely. I would like to return during the whale season but if you’re visiting for beaches alone I’d suggest to keep on travelling further up the coast where the real gems lie.
Stop 2 – L’Aghulas
What? Just under a 2 hour drive from Hermanus, L’Aghulas is a sleepy coastal town perched at the southernmost tip of Africa.
Number of nights needed? An afternoon stop to break up the drive to Swellendam was enough although the laid back town could easily suck you in for a night or two of relaxation.
Highlights? Obviously, a visit to the southernmost point of the African mainland is mandatory. The rugged coastline here is beautiful and its similarity to south-west Australia (which used to be joined to it) is uncanny.
Drive 10 minutes along the coast to bustling Struisbaai Harbour and catch a glimpse of the massive resident stingrays which greet the returning fishermen bringing in the daily catch. Once the rays have had their fill and left, stay for a bite to eat at the delicious Pelican’s Harbour Cafe.
Would I visit again? This area felt very chilled and definitely lulled me into the holiday-spirit. There’s gorgeous stretches of sand to explore and fresh seafood to be had. My only complaint was that, despite bearing similarities to my beloved Western Australia, it just wasn’t quite as stunning, but that’s definitely me being spoilt!
Stop 3 – Swellendam
What? Driving 1 hour 20 minutes inland from L’Aghulas lands you on Swellendam’s doorstep. As the third oldest town in South Africa, there are lots of beautiful colonial houses and history here. The town is nestled in gorgeous natural surrounds, with mountains framing its long tree-lined streets.
Number of nights needed? I think a pit-stop here is all that’s necessary or a quick sleepover in one of the cutesy BnBs on route elsewhere.
Highlights? A stroll along Swellengrebel St is lovely. Pop into one of the many cafes and restaurants which line the street and soak up the views of the mountains beyond. We were only here for a brief night but unless you’re interested in the history of the town or have time to explore its surrounds, there doesn’t seem like much more to do here.
Would I visit again? I think once is enough here. It was one of the places where I felt most uncomfortable and it had nothing to do with safety. Some of the locals seemed to have a very small-town mindset and we only saw a handful of black people when we drove through the town, there really seemed to be a worrying divide between white and black. Maybe if we’d have stuck around these first impressions would have been proved wrong but I was left feeling on edge about this seemingly backward town.
Stop 4 – Wilderness
What? Wilderness is 2 hour 30 minutes from Swellendam and 45 minutes past the entrance to the world-famous Garden Route at Mossel Bay. It is what it says on the tin and is where rugged mountain forests meet the sea which, although alluring, is plagued with dangerous rip-tides.
Number of nights needed? The area surrounding Wilderness looks incredible and I would have loved to spend a couple of nights here to get stuck in to the list of adventurous activities available.
Highlights? We only popped into town for lunch on the way to nearby Knysna so the one highlight I can recommend is a slap up meal in Cocomo with its lovely staff, dreadlocked patrons and massive portions.
Would I visit again? Most definitely. This area offers so much, I would love to hike in the National Park, sunbathe on the beach and unwind in the numerous bars and restaurants in the trendy town.
Stop 5 – Knysna
What? It’s a 40 minute drive along the coast to Knysna, the gem in the Garden Route’s crown. Surrounded by ancient forests, a gorgeous lagoon and a coast dotted with breathtaking beaches there’s a reason why visitors swarm here.
Number of nights needed? Lots of holidaymakers base their whole trip around Knysna as it is perfectly situated to explore the scenic Garden Route and there is so much to see and do in the local area. As we have family living in Knysna, we spent the majority of our trip here but if you’re in a hurry, 3 nights should be enough.
Highlights? As we were in Knysna for 10 days we crammed a lot in. There was no lazing around the pool for us, every day was jammed with activities. I’m thinking of dedicating a whole post to things to do in and around for Knysna but my favourite things were a meal in Melven’s restaurant, exploring my favourite beaches at Coney Glen and Brenton-On-Sea and taking in the spectacular views from Knysna Heads.
Would I visit again? Of course! My family is there, the surroundings are amazing and I have a long list of things I want to come back and do. This place is built for tourists and subsequently there’s plenty here to keep you entertained. Scheduling in a couple of days on the beach wouldn’t go amiss either…
Stop 6 – Tsitsikamma National Park and Stormsriver
What? Driving an hour and 10 minutes drive from Knysna, we visited the outstandingly beautiful Tsitsikamma National Park on a day trip. By far the most stunning place we visited in South Africa, the National Park offers incredible coastal scenery, the famed and oft-pictured suspension bridges and a small beach which is perfect for a dip. The nearby town of Stormsriver is a great place to stop for lunch or use as a base for the various adventurous activities on offer.
Number of nights needed? A day trip wasn’t enough to get the most out of this area. As with Wilderness, I would have liked a couple of days here to fully immerse myself in the National Park and tackle a longer hike than the one we squeezed in or a kayak down through the gorge to the river mouth.
Highlights? Just taking in Tsitsikamma National Park is a highlight enough. The view over the suspension bridges are breath-taking and although we were chased along one of the said bridges by a rogue baboon, the afternoon was still great! Cooling off with a tasting paddle at Tsitsikamma Micro Brewery in Stormsriver (next door to the quirky Marilyn’s 60’s Diner – you can’t miss it…) rounded off the day perfectly.
Would I visit again? Yes! This area offers a lot for outdoorsy types and I felt like I just scratched tantalisingly at the surface. If you’re after that jaw-dropping South African scenery everyone tells you about, then Tsitsikamma is the place to go.
Stop 7 – Oudtshoorn
What? The ostrich capital of the world. Yup, you read that right. At this point in the journey we are starting our return back to Cape Town, heading an hour back along the coast to the large town of George and then shooting an hour north to the semi-arid ostrich loving town of Oudtshoorn. A hot, dusty town filled with large birds might not sound too appealing but there is lots to do here and the change in scenery from the lush coastline is striking.
Number of nights needed? We spent 2 days in the town, despite our accommodation being nearly 2 hours away. The town itself doesn’t seem very scenic or exciting but if you want to be close to the activities then it’s a perfect base.
Highlights? As Africa’s largest cave system, the Cango Caves are a major draw. Unfortunately I completely chickened out of heading underground on the cave’s ‘Adventure Tour’ after trying to squeeze myself through the tiny replica crevices on display in the reception. If you plan to do this tour (which consequently my family enjoyed), you must be fit, not in the slightest bit claustrophobic and preferably the size of a small five-year old child if you want to slide through the tiny rock formations.
Another highlight was our visit to Cango Wildlife Ranch which is a fun day out. even for zoo-sceptics like myself. For a very reasonable price, you can add a hands-on wildlife encounter to your day. One half of my family chose to pat cheetahs and the other (me included) took a dip with the crocs, as you do!
Would I visit again? I think I’m done with Oudtshoorn. The town just isn’t interesting enough to warrant a return visit. Maybe one day I’ll pluck up the courage to return to the caves but for now I think me and Oudtshoorn are done.
Stop 8 – Prince Albert
What? Skid and twist your way along the unpaved Swatberg Pass which winds its way for over an hour from Oudtshoorn to the village of Prince Albert. The drive is ridiculously scenic (if not completely terrifying) and it even made the list of my South Africa Best Bits. At the end of this crazy drive is the little oasis of Prince Albert, a quirky settlement with a high street brimming with craft shops and restaurants.
Number of nights needed? We spent 2 nights here but the majority of our days commuting all the way back and forth to Oudtshoorn. Due to its remote location, this is probably enough.
Highlights? When we first stepped foot in the village it was deathly quiet and its isolation felt overwhelming. It felt like a town plucked from the pages of a Western and I half expected gun-toting cowboys to come riding down its dusty streets. However, after a stroll down the main street and a meal in one of the delicious, and bustling restaurants I was sold. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to do much else but simply sitting outside with a glass of wine in hand staring up at the incredible star-filled sky was a highlight enough.
Would I visit again? Prince Albert is somewhere I would love to spend a bit more time in. It has such an active and creative community (including its own cinema) which would be great to get to know. It also feels like one of those beautiful, isolated places which would be perfect for a writing retreat, so who knows I may return one day and be inspired…
What? A painfully boring and long drive, 4 hours to be exact, whisks you away from the rocky inland to the verdant wine-lovers paradise of Stellenbosch. With a reputation around the world for being one of the premier producers of South African wine, it would be rude not to stop by a few vineyards for a taste-test.
Number of nights needed? Our quick overnight stopover was nowhere near enough here. The region is only 30 minutes from Cape Town’s airport so you can be supping on your favourite Sauv Blan within an hour of stepping off the plane. I could have easily have spent our whole trip here but 3 nights could probably do it justice.
Highlights? Despite spending less than 24 hours here, Stellenbosch made a lasting impression. Our accommodation at Skyview Manor was a dream and we had the place all to ourselves. For dinner, we chose Spec and Bone on our host’s suggestion which was delicious and we spent the evening wandering around the gorgeous university town. There was so much going on, from trendy restaurants to music-filled bars and I would have loved to have experienced more of the town’s offerings.
Obviously a wine-tasting is a must and we just about squeezed one in on our final morning in South Africa. We chose Le Pommier primarily for its proximity to our hotel but it turned out to be a great choice and the perfect send-off before we left for dreary Blighty.