The Garden Route is constantly held up as one of the great delights of South Africa, but what actually is it? Officially, it is a 200 km (124 miles) stretch of South Africa's south coast, from Mossel Bay in the west to the mouth of the Storms River, just past the Tsitsikamma National Forest in the east. However, the drive up from Cape Town to Mossel Bay nearly doubles the length of the journey. The first stretch does go through the winelands, to towns such as Hermanus (good for whale-watching) and Swellendam (with fabulous Cape-Dutch architecture) and, with a bit of a detour, takes you to Cape Agulhas, the real southern tip of Africa. It's worth doing.
The area is undoubtedly very beautiful. This does rank amongst the world's great coastal drives with the Indian Ocean offering magnificent cliffs and beaches. Inland there are ruggedly majestic mountains clad in dense forest and fynbos. The sea isn't massively warm and friendly here, however, better for surfing than swimming in many places. There is no land until you reach the Antarctic. The sunbathing season is also relatively short-lived. If you are after a real beach holiday you need to go further north to Kwazulu Natal.
The Cosy Coast
The Garden Route gained its massive reputation as a holiday paradise from white South Africans living in the hot dry interior of the country. They flocked down here in their thousands for Christmas seaside holidays in the relatively cool coastal belt, reveling in the lush green forests and the English-style cottage gardens. For visiting Westerners, it may all seem a little too like home and not quite African enough. In which case, mix up time on the coastal Garden Route with excursions inland to the wilder, more 'African' Karoo.
This is the African equivalent of the Pacific Highway through San Louis Obispo and Carmel. It has quaint old towns that work very hard at staying pretty. There are plenty of beautiful old Cape-Dutch b&b's to stay in, lovely little museums to explore and small craft and antique shops to poke around in. There are tea shops with lace tablecloths and cake and seafood restaurants aplenty. This is a place to relax, play golf (with many superb courses), walk and cycle, go riding or fishing, whale, and bird-watching. Those with a more adventurous streak can bungee off the Bloukrans Bridge, one of the highest in the world, zip through the tree canopy of the Tsitsikamma Forest or take a canoe or kayak out to sea, along the rivers or lagoons.
The Tractor Tree
Mossel Bay is actually one of South Africa's largest ports. Boat trips off the coast head over to Seal Island - to see the seals and there is bungee jumping off the Gourits River Bridge. This is also where one of the roads heads north to the Karoo town of Oudtshoorn, global headquarters of ostrich farming. The main reason for stopping in Mossel Bay itself is to visit the Bartolomeu Dias Museum, named after the Portuguese explorer who was the first to round the Cape and stop here in 1488.
George is named after King George III of England (the one who was on the throne during the American War of Independence). It has the country's oldest Catholic cathedral (1843), smallest Anglican cathedral and a couple of excellent small museums. The so-called Slave Tree, an ancient oak with a lock and chain grown into the trunk, was actually only planted after emancipation and the truth is far more mundane. The lock was used to secure a local tractor!
Wilderness, the next major resort along the Garden Route, is one of the prettiest on the coast, built between a long white sand beach and an idyllic lagoon. National Park protects much of the surrounding wetlands which provide superb opportunities for birding and canoeing.
The King That Never Was
Another George is a local legend in Knysna, built on a huge horseshoe lagoon and famed for its oysters. The founder of the town, George Rex, was believed by many to be the son of King George III and Hannah Lightfoot (the claim has been thoroughly refuted both historically and through DNA). At 80,000ha (308 sq miles), the Knysna Forest is the largest forest in the country and one of very few patches of ancient coastal forest still surviving. Hiking trails offer opportunities to explore the giant yellowwood and stinkwood trees, coastal cliffs and see animals from elephants to otters.
The great golden curve of Plettenberg Bay is one of the most beautiful on the whole coast - and some of the most expensive real estate in Africa. There are some seriously lavish homes along the coast here, along with some great set-piece tourist attractions. Monkeyland is home to around 400 monkeys, apes and other free-roaming primates. The Birds of Eden, the world's largest free-flight aviary, covering 3.2ha (7.9 acres), with a 1.2 km (0.74 mile) walkway. It's home to 2,000 birds of over 150 species. The Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre offers the chance to get close to wild cats including cheetahs in rehab.
At the eastern end of the Garden Route is the Tsitsikamma Forest National Park which covers not only the coast forest, but a 5 km (3 mile) wide strip wide of marine life. Look out for dolphins off-shore, rare African black oystercatchers in the patchwork of fynbos that clads the cliffs.