One of the few things I knew about South Africa’s vacation destinations before moving here was an area called the Garden Route. Nested between mountains and the Indian ocean coast of South Africa, this stretch of 800km is home to some of the most breathtaking and diverse landscapes, beaches, forests, lagoons, game reserves, and overall greenery giving it its name. According to the Guiness book of world records, it has the second mildest climate after Hawaii. Year round, it ranges from 10-30 degrees. I had been planning this trip for awhile and what a trip it was! Great decision I could have made doing this trip in the South African summer. Enjoy my recounts of the trip!
In addition, for those looking to visit South Africa for longer but plan to visit the Garden Route, read my post about the perfect two, or three week South Africa itinerary.
The Garden Route
The Garden Route is simply the area along the coast between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. We landed in Port Elizabeth, rented a car, and drove all the way to Cape Town via the scenic N2 highway. Having a GPS is absolutely necessary and it saved us everywhere we went. A combination of GPS + Google Maps is the best choice as a GPS won’t know where a hotel or restaurant is. The airports all over South Africa sell pay as you go sim cards and Vodacom is what I recommend for this part of the country as there are plenty of remote areas and Vodacom has the biggest cellular network.
|COUNTRIES VISITED||South Africa|
|MY TRIP DATES||Dec 22, 2013 – Jan 1, 2014|
|TRIP HIGHLIGHTS||Addo Elephant Park, Plettenberg Bay, Bloukrans, Oudtshoorn, Beaches, Hermanus, Cape Town|
|TRIP STYLE||Road Trip|
|TRIP COST||~30,000R for two|
|TRIP START AND END||Port Elizabeth –> Cape Town|
Roadtrip, aka rent a car
The Garden Route is located solely in South Africa. This is a proper developed country and the roads are proper roads (unlike the dirt roads of Tanzania). There are tours done by all the major operators like Nomad, Acacia, AfricaTravelCo, etc. that do overland tours through the Garden Route but I don’t see the need unless you’re traveling on your own and want some company. I did this trip with my girlfriend who flew in from America and this is the ultimate road trip in South Africa!
There is SO much to see on this stretch of land that you may miss it if you’re following someone else’s agenda. The roads are perfect, the signs are clearly labeled and helpful, everyone speaks English, and the weather’s great. As long as you have some good company, music, and a good sense of adventure, this is the trip for you. All the big car rental companies are located at the Port Elizabeth airport. Picking up from PE, and dropping it off in Cape Town is not a problem at all.
Plan, but be Spontaneous
Like any trip done in Africa, a well thought out itinerary is a good thing to have. However, the Garden Route is a very developed part of Africa. Many of the towns on this stretch of land are very western and you would need to think twice to remember you’re in Africa. The coast is primarily Afrikaans speaking but everyone in South Africa speaks English as well. DO make a plan for this trip, and have some semblance of an agenda. Depending on how much time you have for this trip, be spontaneous as well. There are so many little stops along the road, whether it is a game farm, wine estate, beach, hike, biltong, etc, you want to soak in as much as you can.
You’re likely not going back to this area of the world anytime soon, so make the best of it. Have a rough idea of what you want to see and where you want to stay the night and take it from there. The drive from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town is around 800km. By the time I arrived at Cape Town, my trip odometer read 1600km! So that’s 800 extra km that I drove to go off the beaten path and see what I wanted to.
I made a plan initially, taking note of where I would be staying, and what activities I would do but things changed as I started the trip. For example, I saw in one of the airplane magazines on my flight to Port Elizabeth that Sardinia Bay is a beautiful, less crowded beach near Port Elizabeth. Never heard of it before but we decided to go just because and what a winning decision that was. You can click on the links and see how much itinerary changed from pre-trip to post trip.
How Long for Garden Route?
I hate these questions, usually because I’m always on the “not enough time” side of things. The Garden Route is only 800km and can easily be driven in a day but there’s no fun in that! With so much to see, it’s all about how much time you can allocate. But alas, we live in an on the go, vacation strapped world so we have to be realistic as well. We spent 7 full days and 6 nights on our trip. We then spent 4 nights in Cape Town as CT is a trip on its own.
I felt this gave us enough time to see most of what we wanted to see. We wasted no time however, was constantly on the go, and made it a point of emphasis to do as much as possible. Resting and relaxing was not high on our priority list. Who needs to rest? You’re only here once. There were some places I wish we could have stayed another night liken Hermanus, and a night or two in the winelands. In the end, we came out satisfied with our trip. Ideally, I’d recommend people to allot 7-10 days for this trip. Minimum, I’d say 4 days.
Peak Season Visiting
The towns along the Garden Route are not just meant for foreign tourists, the South Africans appreciate the beauty of this part of the country just as much as us foreigners do. This is never more apparent than during the times we decided to do our road trip, late December during the Holiday Season. It’s absolutely packed. Plettenberg Bay was a complete zoo, and Cape Town may as well have been bourbon street during Mardi Gras. The whole of Gauteng (Johannesburg, Pretoria etc), migrate to the coast during the holiday season and combine this with all the tourists from America and Europe, and you have a recipe for mayhem.
Visiting during South Africa’s summer months, you’ll be expected to pay more for lodging but not quite as much as peak season which is during the holidays. However, the summer months are the beautiful months and weather really makes a huge impact on this road trip. When it is nice and sunny out, it is REALLY nice. When it is cloudy, which we had 1 day of, it is still rather nice. The Garden Route can be done year round but if I were to do it again, I’d probably go sometime between March-May when the weather is still very nice and peak season tourism is nearing an end.
To put it in perspective, if we had visited during the off season or just at a time that wasn’t during the Holidays, we could have just driven into a town and picked out our accommodation the night of because there would be such higher vacancy.
With more people, comes more demand for lodging and your hotels and B&Bs will be booked full. If you’re planning on doing this trip during the holiday season, absolutely make sure to book months in advance, perhaps even a half year! Expect to pay about 50% more during the holiday season.
For booking accommodation, I can recommend using AccommoDirect which is great for finding hotels and private properties within South Africa.
I’m of the new school of thinking in that if hundreds or thousands of other people have visited something I’m interested in visiting and have given it rave reviews, who am I to say I’m better than those people and that I’m too good to bandwagon with the crowd? Sure tourists aren’t the same as locals but you’re not likely to find knowledgeable locals wherever you go so thank god for TripAdvisor because it’s the next best thing. I used TripAdvisor to choose all my restaurants, and book my lodging. It didn’t lead me wrong and I’m incredibly happy with all the restaurants I went to and all the places I slept at. So make sure to download the TripAdvisor app and use it liberally.
If you’re like me, one of the biggest and most exciting parts of traveling is sampling the local fare. South Africa has no shortage of great restaurants and the Garden route is home to many. There’s really nothing distintive about South African cuisine but this country does their steaks and seafood damn well, two things one can never complain about. For all our meals, we just alternated between one. Some days we’d feel like steak, others we felt like we had too much red meat and it was time for some fish or prawns. Tough life. Game meats are also readily available at most restaurants and this is a must do for anyone visiting SA.
Also make sure to absolutely make restaurant reservations in the bigger cities like Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, Hermanus and Cape Town.
In this post, I’ll just be writing about the places we ate at which was usually one or two places per stop so in no means will this be a restaurant guide to the Garden Route (that’s what TripAdvisor is for) as I would need at least a month to be qualified to write that!
Day 1: Port Elizabeth
And finally, the trip begins! Our flight from Joburg to Port Elizabeth landed 9am in the morning so we had the whole day to explore. Upon landing, I pick up my car at the Avis booth expecting the usual Volkswagen Polo, Honda Jazz or some other boring car but nope, we are upgraded to a brand new Mercedes C200! It only had 44km on the clock! What a great way to start the trip knowing that we’ll be rolling in style for the next 11 days.
After spending some time configuring the car’s bluetooth capabilities so it would connect with our phones to play music (highly important), we are on our way. We decide to drive into Port Elizabeth and check out the city in the morning.
Port Elizabeth – Book accommodation in Port Elizabeth
Located in the Eastern Cape province, Port Elizabeth or PE as the locals call it, is one of the largest cities in SA and home to one of its major ports. There isn’t a whole lot to do in this city and we weren’t here long enough to explore it. The city is rather large and coming from the airport you’ll come to a T intersection where one side leads to the city and the other leads to Summerstrand. Without a doub, take the turn to Summerstrand. We drove around the city for all of 5 minutes initially before realizing this isn’t where we want to be and turned around to Summerstrand.
This is the wealthy beachfront suburb right next to PE where everyone flocks to during the summer. The beach here is gorgeous! Long stretches of sandy beaches, tropical colored water (this is the Indian Ocean), and perfect weather. We came right around Christmas time and it was completely packed on the beach. This would be the theme for
most of the trip as the entire country flocks to the coast for the holidays. A perfect time to park the car and walk around. The beach stretches on for miles and the sand is incredibly soft. We thought how great it would be to have a place here in one of the many modern condo buildings and be able to visit whenever. While we thought this beach was very nice (which it was), the beaches would actually only get better from here on out. There is also a boardwalk area with restaurants, shops, and other things.
We spend an hour walking along the beach before breaking for lunch. There are some very good restaurants in Port Elizabeth but we only had time for lunch. There are many restaurants in Summerstrand and we picked a place called Ginger right by the beach. Other restaurants that looked appealing to me were De Kelder, The Bayside Pantry, El Greco. Ginger did not disappoint as I had some grilled fish with a beer, which would be a common theme throughout the lunches. Seafood lunch with beers for two came up to 200R.
After lunch, we walked around the boardwalk which took no more than a half hour and it was only noon. Addo Elephant Park was the end destination for the day but we had 5 hours to kill before our scheduled game drive and it’s only 1 hour drive to the park. We decided let’s check out the beach we read about in the airline magazine on our flight down here. It was highly recommended and gave us something to do. Why not? Plug this place into our GPS and 25 minutes later, we’ve arrived.
Wow. Now THIS is the beach to be. Not only were there just a fraction of the people here, the beach was absolutely breathtaking. No buildings or signs of civilization was the theme of this place. To top it off, we had to climb a dune from the parking lot to actually get onto the beach. There were dunes everywhere! Dunes and beaches, it’s hard to beat that combo. I felt like I was in Namibia again. The color of the water was even prettier here and the long evenly distributed waves crashing into the shore added to its beauty and this style of beach would be something we’d see many more times along the Garden Route. We ended up hiking up a dune, and passing the hell out for an hour. It was great but now I had sand all over me, a small price to pay I suppose. If you’re in Port Elizabeth for a few hours and want to see a beach, make sure to come to THIS one.
Day 2: Addo Elephant Park
Around 3pm, we figured it was probably a good time to start driving to the Addo Elephant Park as our game drive was scheduled for the sundowner at 6pm. The drive took around 1.5 hours from Sardinia Bay and we arrived to our accommodations right outside the park around 4:30. Turns out, the sunset drive which we booked starts at 5! We so droped off our bags and drive the 10 minutes to the park to make it in time.
The Game Drive
The Addo Elephant park is one of 19 game reserves in South Africa and the third largest by size at 1600 square km. This area along the Garden Route was once home to thousands of elephants until the European settlers came in and hunted these elephants for ivory until near extinction. There were only 11 elephants left in this area until this area was turned into a sanctuary dedicated to the revival of the population. Now there are almost 500 elephants here which is a massive number for a park this size.
There are other animals on the game reserve like warthogs, jackals, kudu, and Cape Buffalo. The owners have also introduced a few lions into the park to control the animal population but at the end of the day, the name of this place is elephants and that is what you’re here to see. You should have zero problems spotting elephants and a lot of them at that. The drive was 300R and lasted two hours which is ample time to see this park.
As we started our drive, it took maybe 5 minutes before we saw our first group of elephants. Our game vehicle was fully packed with 20 people so cue the cameras here as everyone scrambled to get pics. Eventually, we saw so many elephants that no one took out their cameras unless the elephants got very close to the vehicle which is ALWAYS cool.
We probably saw at least 50 elephants here. Our guide told us the best time to see them is actually during the day when it’s been dry for awhile, similar to the Etosha Park in Namibia, as the elephants all congregate to the watering holes and at times you can see 100 of them at once! We didn’t see that many, but we did have a herd of 15 of them walk within a meter of our truck as they crossed the road (Look at the picture at the top of the post). We saw some cape buffalo too which is always cool
As the sunset, we parked in the middle of the road to have some beers and biltong that our guide had set up. The herd of buffalo we just saw were about 50 meters from us at the watering hole and a few stray bull elephants were near us as well. This was pretty cool how close we were to the buffalo. These are dangerous animals as they account for more human deaths than any other animal in Africa and we were questionably close to them.
As we finish our snacks, we get back into the car, content with what we had seen in the last two hours (many elephants, buffalo, zebra, kudu etc.) and headed back. I was planning on going for another drive the following morning but I feel that a two hour drive here was all we needed. This park felt more like a giant zoo and while it’s incredibly easy to see big animals, it didn’t really feel like a proper safari. To put it in perspective, the Masai Mara in Kenya is about the same size and there must have been 10x the diversity and amount of animals.
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Where we stayed in Addo Elephant park
All the major game reserves in South Africa are very developed and there is a wide spectrum of lodging available to everyone. Whether you want to camp for cheap or stay in a super fancy luxury lodge for 1,000$ a night, everything is possible.
I ended booking a night at the Aardvark Guesthouse after reading great reviews on TripAdvisor and Booking.com. It’s located 10 minutes outside the park and it was the perfect first night stop for us. We had a small chalet but the beds were comfortable, the showers strong, and there was a fan to keep us cool at night. For 550R a night, it is a bargain for two people and that was during peak season too so I’d expect that price to drop significantly in other months.
Where we ate
Our lodging for the night is conveniently located right next to Hazel’s, a restaurant with the top ranking on TripAdvisor for the PE area famous for serving up game meats. What better place to eat at after seeing so many animals than to a restaurant that is famous for serving them hot? We made a reservation before we left for the game drive and we arrived promptly at 8pm. Wow, what a great first dinner to start the trip!
We got springbok carpaccio to start, and Wildebeast and Blesbok steak for our mains. Mmm, wow. I’ve had many game meats but never even heard of Blesbok until this place so it was good to check that off the list. This place deserves its #1 rating on TripAdvisor. The meat is cooked perfectly.
The chef even told us that cooking game meat requires a different skill than beef. Cows are all killed at the same age so the meat is consistent but game is hunted and they could be any age. A young springbok will have different meat texture to a fully grown springbok so it’s up to the chef to feel out how it should be cooked and these guys are damn good at doing it. Highly recommended.