South Africa’s Garden Route: Non-Stop Beauty From Heidelberg to Storms River

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Garden Route

The first step for most South Africa travelers who make it out of Cape Town (which can be difficult, since Cape Town is awesome) is The Garden Route, an expanse of coastline that stretches Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, roughly halfway along the South African seaboard.

The Garden Route is long, diverse and could take up weeks or even months of your time if you have it to spend. But here, I’m going to provide you with a limited list of Garden Route destinations, so that you can create a Garden Route itinerary that suits your travel plans.

Mossel Bay

Although the de-facto start of the Garden Route is the town of Heidelberg, Mossel Bay is the place many travelers begin their time on this scenic stretch of coastline.

On the surface, Mossel Bay is little more than a charming seaside town, perched on gently-sloping hills above an impossible blue harbor. But Mossel Bay is rather historically significant: It was the first place Europeans set foot on South African soil, in 1488.

Mossel Bay is beautiful, but unless you take part in the sand boarding on offer by many of the hostels and hotels in the area, it isn’t the most exciting place to spend a holiday.

George/Wilderness

Wilderness is bucolic and charming

Wilderness is bucolic and charming

It is not until you reach the city of George – or, more preferably, the small town of Wilderness – that you really begin to see what the Garden Route is all about: The sea breaking in front of you; the mountains towering behind you; and lush, flower-filled forests, fields and pastures all around.

To be sure, both Wilderness and George are great for outdoor activities, from hiking and horseback riding, to canoeing and “kloofing” (i.e. jumping off cliffs into water), to surfing and even paragliding.

George is also a transit depot for travelers who want to head inland a bit, to the town of Oudtshoorn. Although not technically part of the Garden Route, Oudtshoorn is an interesting place to visit, with a more arid landscape than the coast – and a quirky ostrich industry.

Knysna

Knysna is beautiful, even if it isn't particularly exciting or even accessible

I heard nothing but good things about Knysna before I arrived there, so I was a bit taken aback by how boring it seemed when I arrived. I was also disappointed by how far its town center is from the Knysna Heads, the town’s most-advertised geographical feature.

If you love oysters, however, you'd be silly not to stop in Knysna

If you don’t have a car, I wouldn’t recommend staying in Knysna for long – a day should be sufficient. Even if you do, I can’t imagine Knysna being interesting to most travelers under the age of 60. (Unless you like oysters a lot – Knysna’s famous for those!)

Plettenberg Bay

Unlike Knysna, Plettenberg Bay has a terrible reputation – so terrible, in fact, that I didn’t visit.

Nature's Valley has its name for a reason

To be sure, aside from nice beaches that are apparently good for kitesurfing, “Plett” (as locals call it), is most famous as a destination for skydivers.

Nature’s Valley/Storms River

The landscape of Nature's Valley is stunning, and transitions from coast, to deciduous forest, to mountains, to coniferous forest, seemingly without order

The landscape of Nature’s Valley is stunning, and transitions from coast, to deciduous forest, to mountains, to coniferous forest, seemingly without order

Whether you stay in The Crags, less than an hour east of Plett, or continue all the way to Storms River, the de-facto end of the Garden Route, “Nature’s Valley” is the adventure travel capital of The Garden Route – and not just because it’s home to the world’s highest bungee.

Head to Storms River for all your adventure travel needs, such as zip lining

Storms River in particular is great for outdoor activities along the Garden Route, whether you mountain bike through the Tsitskikamma National Forest to the point where the town’s namesake river empties into the sea, or zip line through the forest canopy.

The de-facto end of the Garden Route is where the Storms River empties into the Indian Ocean

Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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2 Responses to South Africa’s Garden Route: Non-Stop Beauty From Heidelberg to Storms River

  1. Neil Playdon March 13, 2013 at 7:33 am #

    I understand your comments about Knysna but the Heads are still quite stunning (assuming you have a car to get you up there of course) . Also in fairness the Knysna Speed Festival which takes place annually does attract a more mixed age group in terms of crowd and its an exciting event with the Hillclimb being the main attraction. Agree with your comments on Nature’s Valley – the scenery there is stunning.

  2. We Blog The World March 13, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

    Thanks for your feedback Neil! As you stated, if you have a car the Knysna Heads are worth seeing. We love the Nature’s Valley route too– between the breath taking views and the bungee there is something for everyone!

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