Western Cape, South Africa
This 130-mile stretch that begins east of Cape Town and runs along Africa’s southernmost tip is a coastal terrain of lakes, mountains, forests, and golden beaches. Indian Ocean waters just offshore are full too – of penguins, dolphins, and migrating whales that have travelled here to breed and calve. Beautiful year-round, the area is positively glorious between July and October, when an unequalled diversity of wildflowers, supported by a unique combination of soil and climate, burst into bloom and gives full meaning to the drive’s name: “The Garden Route.” See it by hiking any of the hundreds of miles of trails or on leisurely drives through forests and parkland.
The charming town of Knysna has a cliff-fringed harbour replete with sailboats, a colourful community of artists, and plenty of well-heeled vacationers. Sample the area’s renowned oysters during its event-packed July oyster festival, when you can stop by the Knysna Oyster Company’s alfresco tasting tavern, one f dozens of participating restaurants, to slurp down some of the bivalves with garnishes from caviar to mango and a chaser of a cold Mitchell’s, the local ale. Follow walking trails out along the coast to view the Heads, rock sentinels at the mouth of the lagoon. On a gorgeous sweep of bleach lies the Plettenberg, the coastline’s most exclusive hotel, with a box-seat view of the wild and rugged headland and a half-moon bay. Come at least for lunch on the open terrace, and whale-watch while you dine.
Although not officially part of the Garden Route, visit the coastal city of Hermanus for more whale-spotting, or head out in the direction of nearby Dyer Island (a breeding colony for African penguins and Cape fur seals), where shark diving (safely ensconced within specially made cages) provides unparalleled thrills. On the south end of whale-rich Walker Bay, check into the hilltop Grootbos Lodge set amid a multitude of flowering shrubs in a private nature reserve; or, on the north end, the smartly styled Birkenhead House; perched on the rocky Hermanus Cliffs. The famous Otter Trail in Tsitsikamma National Park is a 5-day trek through jaw-dropping scenery; half-mile trails descend from the park’s visitor’s center for those with less time or stamina.
WHERE : The Garden Route runs from Mossel Bay, 237 miles/382 km east of Cape Town, to Storms Riversmouth, 359 miles/ 578 km east of Cape Town.
BEST TIME : Jun – Oct for wildflowers and whales; early Jul for Knysna Oyster Festival; late Sep for Hermanus Whale Festival.