Almost every sojourn through South Africa arrives in Cape Town at some point. The city’s international crowd, rappelling thrills on Table Mountain, sailing on the busy waterfront, cooking in the Malay community, hearing jazz (in the home of a local!), and fine dining (even in a rose-petal-strewn antique bank vault!) will impress you.
Then loop down the Cape peninsula for penguins, wineries, and the big prize – the Cape of Good Hope!
But if you rent a car and head east, an entirely unexpected world awaits you, along the Garden Route, a (minimum) 2-day drive along the coast between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
STOP 1: STELLENBOSH
Less than 2 hour northeast of Cape Town are the Durbanville Hills and the enticing wine country of Stellenbosch. It’s not officially part of the Garden Route, but I’d recommend it as a most worthy detour for your first night.
You can stay in the town, where quaint guesthouses put you within walking distance of wine-tasting rooms and incredible chefs, or you can sleep out amongst the vines.
Either way, you’ll enjoy the “vine hopper”, a hop-on-hop-off bus that circles the large vineyard country with several routes, allowing you to taste and tour cellars without the worry of driving.
2 good tips?
- Buy The People’s Guide, an exhaustive book about South African wines and culture.
- Sample a pinotage, a uniquely South African blended wine, somewhere between a pinot noir and a hermitage.
STOP 2: THE WHALES OF HERMANUS
The next morning takes you down through wetlands, past flocks or flamingoes, and into the cliffside town of Hermanus, on a small cove that the Southern Right Whales love to return to every June where they birth their calves and nurse their young.
Kayak off the coast here and you’re sure to see seals lounging in the kelp, birds and penguins, and – yes – the whales.
If you’re not a water lover, then be happy that Hermanus is one of the #1 spots for land-based whale-watching, too.
Stay in a guesthouse in this salt-sprayed village and walk the cliffside trail for kodak moments!
STOP 3: TSITSIKAMA NATIONAL PARK
Driving east, you’ll reach Knysna (pronounced Nie-s-na), traditionally known for its artists and oysters, but more recently acclaimed for its golf.
But your destination for the night is Tstisikama National Park, a slice of pie whose crust is the coast (where you can find oceanettes, 50 metes off the Indian Ocean surf, for $72/night) and whose heart is a gorge that extends inland. I rode a jet boat into the gorge and was amazed at misty waterfalls, mixes of shadow and sun streams, and the most colorful lichen I have ever witnessed!
After your overnight, grab breakfast on the porch, admiring the surf, and then hike over the suspension bridges and up to the overlook. Maybe you’ll see a whale?!
For deep dunes and mind-blowing stretches of beach, detour to the Gamtoos Coastal River Reserve. Read all about that here.
STOP 6: ONWARD (TO SOWETO, OR KRUGER, OR BEACHES, OR….)
Pull into the airport in Port Elizabeth and fly on to Durban (sunny beaches and best Indian curries!) or out to Nelspruit (for Kruger’s lion watching!) or back to Johannesburg, to meet my guide Mandy, who’ll show you the hidden corners of Soweto.