The Ultimate Road Trip: Garden Route

A serendipitous combination of world-class beaches, iridescent lagoons and indigenous forests interspersed with welcoming towns, and a simple, scenic, ocean-hugging highway guarantees the Garden Route inclusion in every roundup of ultimate four-wheeled adventures.

Photograph by Bernard Pakes
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In Wilderness National Park, witness blazing sunsets over the still waters of Swartvlei lake and the Outeniqua Mountains.
Photograph by Bernard Pakes

Stretching for 124 miles through the Western Cape between Mossel Bay and Storms River, the route is set up for seasoned road-trippers as much as first-timers. With countless detours and pit stops showcasing the region’s beauty, culture and hospitality, the challenge is deciding whether to devote four days or a fortnight.

1. Mossel Bay

Mossel Bay, the western gateway to the Garden Route, is less than 249 miles from Cape Town along the N2 highway. Driving conditions are excellent and the scenery peerless: before the fabled Garden Route even commences, drivers are treated to coastal idylls like Betty’s Bay, and pit stop cafes serving farm-fresh, road trip snacks known locally as padkos. Mossel Bay offers a chance to stretch your legs on the St Blaize Trail, a rugged, nine-mile (one-way) coastal romp from a cave below Cape St Blaize Lighthouse to Dana Bay.

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Map illustrated by Guillermo Trapiello

2. George

The historic timber town of George lies 30 minutes down the coast. Pause at the Garden Route Botanical Garden for an introduction to the fynbos that characterizes the Cape Floral Region, recognized by UNESCO for its staggering biodiversity. While the region only spans 0.5% of Africa, it contains 20% of the continent’s plant species. From George, exit the main highway to reach nearby Wilderness or head further inland on the Seven Passes, a route that explores the Outeniqua Mountains, snaking through canyons and over high bridges towards Knysna, 44 miles away.

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The thick forests of Wilderness National Park are threaded with hiking routes that meander between tranquil waterways, ideal for wild swimming and canoeing.

3. Knysna

One of the highlights of the Garden Route is the town of Knysna, a culinary hotspot famous for its 10-day Oyster Festival in late June, which overlooks a tranquil lagoon dotted with sailing boats. The ocean lies beyond twin sandstone promontories; the eastern head viewpoint affords beautiful views across the lagoon’s islets at sunset. Linger in Knysna for a day or two, savoring its upmarket restaurants, renting mountain bikes from the friendly folk at Knysna Cycles to explore the surrounding wilderness, and supporting the local Xhosa community with a township visit with Emzini Tours.

4. Wilderness National Park

Wilderness National Park calls to campers, hikers and kayakers. Its wetlands are rich in exotic birds and its forests are threaded with hiking routes that meander between waterfalls. To soak up the area’s beauty, strike out from the rustic Ebb and Flow camp with binoculars and a swimming costume on one of the four trails named for local kingfisher species, ranging from two to 6 miles.

5. Plettenberg Bay

Plettenberg Bay, half an hour further east, is a byword throughout the Western Cape for breathtaking beaches. Here, sandy coves popular with surfers sit beneath sheer cliffs, and waters teem year-round with migrating whales and dolphins. To the south lies Robberg Nature Reserve, a jutting peninsular home to seal colonies and perfect for a picnic, best explored on the 5.6-mile round-trip trail to The Point. Moving on eastwards, stop in at Birds of Eden — the world’s largest free-flight aviary; a verdant sanctuary for over 3,000 exotic birds rescued from cages — and swing by Enrico Restaurant for seafood and Italian fare within meters of the waves.

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The panoramic scenery of the Robberg Nature Reserve can be enjoyed on a half-day round-trail hike to The Point.

6. Storms River

The eastern terminus of the Garden Route is Storms River village, 50 minutes from Plettenberg Bay. Its evocative name speaks to the rugged, indomitable landscape that surrounds it. Inland to the north lies the dense, mountainous Tsitsikamma Forest, home to zip-lining experiences, kayaking expeditions through gorges and the world’s highest bungee jump (709ft) at Bloukrans Bridge. To its south, skimming the coastline, lies the maritime Tsitsikamma National Park. The oldest hiking route in the country, the five-day Otter Trail, kicks off at Storms River Mouth and runs through the park’s gallery forests and along the clifftops to Nature Valley, and offers a suitably epic and energetic conclusion to a Garden Route road trip.

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Duration: 4-14 days
Arrival airport: Cape Town International Airport
Destination: Storms River
The route: The Garden Route follows the N4 highway between Mossel Bay and Storms River, with scenic stops including George, Wilderness, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. It’s typically accessed from Cape Town, and the 250-mile drive to the starting point can take in the heritage sights in Swellendam or whale-watching in Hermanus. At Storms River, loop back to Cape Town (taking the R62 for a change of scenery) or press on for 104 miles to the major city of Port Elizabeth, breaking the two-hour drive with a stop at the surf mecca of Jeffrey’s Bay.
When to go: The spring and summer months of September to April are popular for their warm, long days and the flowering fynbos.
Driving tips: The popularity of the Garden Route makes it particularly safe and welcoming for solo travelers, women and families.

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