Inarguably South Africa’s best known multi-day road trip and a solid contender for one of the world’s most scenic drives, the Garden Route lived up to all of the hype and even exceeded our expectations in terms of beautiful coastal views and cosy little seaside towns. This 300km route officially stretches from Port Elizabeth to Mossel Bay, but it’s possible to extend the trip on either end and add in a number of worthwhile detours depending on what you’d really like to see. We spent over a week driving through national parks looking out for elephants, visiting big cats at a rehabilitation centre, hiking through stunning nature reserves, wine tasting amid rows of vines and roses, hugging ostriches, sailing out into the Indian Ocean in search of seals, shopping in cute little markets, and eating our hearts out at an assortment of lovely restaurants, and still we could have easily spent two or three weeks more. Do yourself a favour and work the Garden Route into your SA itinerary, allow yourself several weeks to enjoy all the journey has to offer, and be prepared to fall in love with this beautiful part of the world.
We flew into Port Elizabeth and rented a car, backtracking to Addo Elephant National Park on the first day, and then continued southwest along the N2, staying in Plettenberg Bay, passing through Knysna and Wilderness, and staying in George before veering inland on the R62 to stay in Oudtshoorn. We drove back out to Mossel Bay, the official end of the Garden Route, but continued on, staying in Hermanus and passing through Gordon’s Bay via the coastal route before finishing our drive in Stellenbosch. I wrote a post for each day of our road trip, linked below:
What I would have done differently
We absolutely loved our time driving the Garden Route, but, as with any trip planned from across the world, there are a number of things I would have done differently if I had known what I do now. Typically, we drove for about 1-2 hours each day (our longest day of driving was only a bit over 4 hours), so I was pretty content with the amount of time spent in the car, but certainly wouldn’t have wanted more. For the most part, I would have just allowed heaps more time, as we had to pass through a number of beautiful towns and skip exciting activities because we had a schedule to keep. Unfortunately, given the popularity of the route as well as the time of year, it would have been impossible to just wing it and find accommodation each night without reservations, so I planed the itinerary as best I could with the information available online.
As I said, the most significant change I would make to our itinerary is just to allow more time. A week was no where near enough to see all of the amazing places along this drive, and I can’t imagine how people do it in even less time, but I know they do. Really, 2 weeks would allow you to visit most of the beautiful towns and enjoy the activities available, but you certainly wouldn’t get bored with even 3 or more weeks. Plettenberg Bay was the only town we stayed in for more than one night, but we could have happily stayed for a few days in each place and even added in some more stops along the way.
If I were to plan a new, longer itinerary, I would have stayed at least two nights in each of:
Port Elizabeth: Quaint seaside city with a great coastline. We really just landed in PE, drove to Addo, and then passed right on through on the way to Plettenberg Bay. With more time, I would have definitely liked to explore what appeared to be a really lovely beach town.
Plettenberg Bay: Beautiful and slightly upscale seaside town with lots of activities, boutique shops, markets, and great seafood restaurants. We spent 2 nights here, but definitely could have spent more. We stayed in the Whale of a View B&B, which was really nice and had amazing ocean views.
Knysna: Another upscale beach resort town with cute shops and nice restaurants. We had planned to kayak here, sadly the weather didn’t agree, but we were pretty disappointed not to be hanging around for a few days to explore.
Wilderness: Outdoorsy town offering lots of hiking, canoeing, kayaking, abseiling, canyoning, etc. Again, we had planned to spend a few hours here, but ran out of time and had to drive basically right through to George, which was no where near as exciting.
Oudtshoorn: Small semi-desert town on the R62 famous for its ostiches, but also boasting a few nice wineries in the nearby Klein Karoo. We stayed in the B&B on church which had a braai area and a private pool, and would have liked to stay a few more days to just relax and enjoy more of the nearby activities.
Mossel Bay: Larger town on the coast marking the official end of the route. We spent a few hours in Mossel Bay, taking a trip out to Seal Island and lunching on the tasty seafood, but could have made this a stop for the night.
Hermanus: Upscale coastal town set against a mountain backdrop with a stunning waterfront Nature Reserve and some wine country of its own. This was our favourite town on the entire route and we ended up skipping an entire day of wine tasting in Stellenbosch just to spend more time here. We stayed in the Hermanus at Home guesthouse, which was adorable and very conveniently located. I probably would have spent 4 days minimum here if I had known how amazing it would be.
Stellenbosch: Sweet little town in the Cape Winelands, surrounded by several hundred vineyards and cellar doors. We spent 3 days here in the Fleur du Mont Airbnb, which had a large braai area and pool in the stunning garden.
Favourite stops along the route
Addo Elephant National Park (near Port Elizabeth)
About a half hour drive east from Port Elizabeth, Addo is an unmissable stop along the route. Even if you’ve been on safari before, it’s great fun to self-drive through this smaller national park and see hundreds of elephants. Entrance was about R280 per person and is just paid at the gate.
Storms River Bridge (between Port Elizabeth and Plettenberg Bay)
This beautiful gorge seems to fly by your window before you even know where you are, but definitely park up at the service station across the road and walk over to take in the view properly.
Tenikwa Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (just outside Plettenberg Bay)
This phenomenal rehabilitation and awareness centre about 15 minutes out of Plett is home to all of Africa’s wild cats, plus a number of birds, turtles, lizards, meerkats, mongoose, and other small animals. You can visit for a cheetah walk, half-day, or full-day tour of the facilities with a booking online and learn all about the important work being done here. I really admire Tenikwa for their commitment to the animals, not allowing any touching of the cheetahs like other similar facilities and not allowing any of the animals undergoing rehabilitation to even be seen by visitors. Of the cats we did see, one was Chester, the centre’s first animal, a diabetic cheetah who receives a daily insulin shot and lives a very happy life in the shelter.
Robberg Nature Reserve (near Plettenberg Bay)
One of the scenic highlights of this route, Robberg is located less than 10 minutes out of Plett on the way to George and is covered with walking trails and stunning beaches just begging to be explored. Even in overcast weather, this is a beautiful spot to enjoy views of South Africa’s rugged coastline and to stretch your legs a bit.
Karusa Winery (near Oudtshoorn)
Don’t wait until Stellenbosch to start sampling some of South Africa’s amazing wine. About 20 minutes out of Oudtshoorn on the road towards Cango Caves, Karusa is an absolutely gorgeous winery offering an extensive tasting list and great bottle prices, not to mention a very excellent restaurant overlooking the vineyard.
Ostrich Farm in Oudtshoorn
Despite the amazing wine that we discovered, the real draw to this inland town is its ostriches. No visit would be complete without also taking a tour through one of the many ostrich farms here to learn about these strange, flightless birds and how they have put little Oudtshoorn on the map.
Seal Island (Mossel Bay Harbour)
Back on the coast, park at the harbour and buy tickets for a boat trip around Seal Island, a large rock about 25 minutes off the coast that is home to thousands of fur seals. Although you can’t get off the boat or get any closer to the seals because the island is protected, the views from the boat are still pretty cute. Tickets were about R170.
Fernkloof Nature Reserve & Cliff Path (Hermanus)
Winding along (in my opinion) South Africa’s most scenic stretch of coastline, the 12km Cliff Path through Fernkloof Nature Reserve is a flat walkway that takes in all the beauty of this town, from some of its incredible beaches to its dramatic mountains. Within moments of laying eyes on this view, I was ready to cancel all plans for onward travel and just stay right here (we did actually rearrange our next day to spend more time walking through Fernkloof).
Scenic drive from Hermanus to Gordon’s Bay
Rather than taking the inland route from Hermanus to Stellenbosch, take the slightly longer scenic route via Gordon’s Bay. I promise, it’s well-worth the extra 20 minutes.
But don’t skip out of town too quickly, Hermanus is actually my favourite town along the whole route. Full of upmarket restaurants, boutique shops, a bustling craft market (and who can forget those coastal views!?), spend some time just exploring Hermanus itself.
The gem of the Cape Winelands, Stellenbosch is home to hundreds of cellar doors with fantastic wines and some truly unparalleled scenery. Sample a few (dozen) varietals, take some bottles home, and eat at some of the nicest restaurants in the whole of South Africa.
If I were able to go back in time (or, more realistically, if I come back to South Africa and drive the Garden Route again someday), this is the itinerary I would book for myself:
Day 1: Fly into Port Elizabeth, pick up the rental car, explore town and spend some time on the beach
Day 2: Drive to nearby Addo Elephant National Park and self-drive through the park to see wild animals, return to Port Elizabeth for dinner
Day 3: Drive from PE to Plettenberg Bay, stopping to see the beautiful Storms River Bridge, and spend the day wandering around Plett, lounging on the beach, and eating seafood
Day 4: Visit nearby Tenikwa Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre for a full or half day tour of the facilities and the resident big cats
Day 5: Stop in Robberg Nature Reserve for a hike on the way to Knysna, explore town
Day 6: Go kayaking in Knysna
Day 7: Drive on to Wilderness for a dayhike, canoe, or canyoning adventure
Day 8: Enjoy a second activity in Wilderness before continuing to Oudtshoorn for the night
Day 9: Visit the Cango Caves and nearby Karusa Winery for wine tasting and lunch, returning to Oudtshoorn for dinner
Day 10: Visit an ostrich farm before driving on to Mossel Bay and exploring town
Day 11: Take a boat trip to seal island or go cage diving with sharks in Mossel Bay
Day 12: Drive to Hermanus and hike around Fernkloof Nature Reserve
Day 13: Explore the markets in Hermanus and go for a kayak along the coast
Day 14: Stop at a winery or two in Hermanus before driving the scenic route via Gordon’s Bay to Stellenbosch
Day 15-16: Wine tasting in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek
- If your group size (and luggage size) allows, get a compact car. Fuel is quite expensive!
- Pick-up a Vodacom SIM card in the airport or in town and load it up with data so you can use Google Maps in the car to navigate. We paid about R230 for the SIM card itself, 20 minutes of talk time (in case we needed to call our B&Bs to confirm bookings, etc), and 1G of data, which we found to be more than enough. We turned airplane mode on when not in the car to conserve our 4G, but probably didn’t even need to.
- Load up a good roadtrip playlist on your phone before you leave! Most all rental cars have Bluetooth and the drive time will be a lot more enjoyable with some tunes.
- Book your accommodation in advance unless you’re planning to sleep in the car. This is a popular route and you wouldn’t want to pass through a wonderful town just because you couldn’t find somewhere to stay last minute.
- Service station attendants will pump your fuel for you, so be sure to have a few R5 coins around the car for a tip.
- Go slow and enjoy what is sure to be a highlight of the whole trip.