Explore eden - JSE MAGAZINE

Explore eden

As the Garden Route recovers from 2017’s destructive wildfires, it’s a good time to rediscover and explore this national treasure

Explore eden

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but after wildfires ravaged the Garden Route in mid-2017, that old truism might need to be revisited. Images of raging forest fires and gutted homes were splashed across front pages both in SA and abroad; the lush coastal scenery turned to cinders and ash in one news cycle. For a regional economy heavily reliant on tourism, the impact was devastating.

Yet, a lot can change in 18 months, and the Garden Route is back on the to-do list for both local and international tourists. Whether you’re packing your golf clubs or looking to discover the area’s natural beauty, you won’t be short on ways to while away a week road-tripping in this popular tourist destination. For decades Mossel Bay has been seen as the unglamorous cousin to Knysna and Plettenberg Bay (‘Plett’), but this is changing fast as locals discover the charms of this laid-back coastal town.

If the weather’s fine, head for Santos or Hartenbos beach, both of which have been awarded Blue Flag status for the year (along with De Bakke and Little Brak River). If it’s not beach weather, the Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex is a good indoor alternative – it tells the tale of early Portuguese explorers in the region. And if you want to tick off some easy wildlife sightings, the Garden Route Game Lodge in Albertinia is home to all of the big five, although they’re far from free-roaming.

From there, the N2 heads east through the holiday towns of Hartenbos and Great Brak River and on towards the outskirts of George. Here you’ll find Fancourt estate, which delivers an exceptional resort holiday experience. A few minutes’ drive from the airport – served by direct flights to Johannesburg and Cape Town – Fancourt is most famous for its world-class golf offering, with three courses spread out across the estate.

While the Outeniqua and the Montagu are traditional parkland courses with their own charms and challenges, the flagship course is the Links. Designed by Gary Player and Fancourt’s owner Hasso Plattner, this privately owned course is rated number one in the country and evokes Scotland’s finest. It’s also just a short drive to the coves of Herolds Bay and Victoria Bay. Here, holiday cottages line the coast, while postcard beaches throng with kids and sunbathers. ‘Vic Bay’, as it’s known by locals, is also home to one of the best point breaks on the Garden Route, so pack your surfboard.

There’s little need to stop for long in George, although the Outeniqua Transport Museum will certainly appeal to railway buffs (it has 13 steam locomotives). If time allows, tackle the Montagu Pass to discover the cool-climate sauvignon blanc, syrah, pinot noir and more at Herold Wines.

Heading south-east, it’s worth driving slowly down the scenic Kaaiman’s river pass (be alert for speed cameras), to soak up the unfolding vista ahead of you. After a stop at the viewpoint to admire the coastal scenery, the sleepy village of Wilderness is a good stop-off point. Cast a line in the Touw river, or paddle upstream in search of African fish eagles, which are often spotted there. The dunes overlooking the ocean are home to some excellent boutique hotels and B&Bs, with unbeatable sea views.

As the N2 speeds eastwards past lakes and rivers, make time for a stop in the holiday village of Sedgefield. There’s no shortage of cottages for hire, and with Swartvlei beach just around the corner, it’s an excellent option for family travellers. The town is also home to one of the foodie surprises of the Garden Route – Trattoria da Vinci on the main road (N2)– which serves authentic Italian cuisine. However, if it’s food you’re after, you’ll want to set aside a few days for Knysna. Long the epicentre of Garden Route tourism, the town has managed to retain its waterside charm, despite decades of steady growth and development.

The Turbine Boutique Hotel and Spa – crafted from what was once the town’s wood-fired power station – is perhaps the most stylish address in town. From here it’s a short walk to the shops and restaurants of Thesen Island, and it’s an easy stroll to the charming bistro-bakery, Île de Païn. Markus Färbinger is the godfather of wood-fired baking in SA, and his croissants and sourdough breads are legendary. Alongside the fresh bakes is a compact menu of inspired cafe cuisine. Be sure to call ahead to reserve a table, especially during weekends. Apart from artisan breads and the town’s famous oysters, there’s plenty to fill your days in Knysna. There’s more golfing at Pezula and Simola, or take to the water with Featherbed Co, which runs regular sightseeing trips on the Knysna lagoon. The highlight of these is a view of the Knysna Heads, the rocky gateway between the lagoon and the Indian Ocean. Selected cruises can also be combined with a range of activities in the Featherbed Nature Reserve, which occupies the western head. There’s an excellent public viewpoint on the eastern head for those who prefer sightseeing from dry land.

The Knysna forest is as much an attraction as the sea though, with a range of hiking and biking options on offer. In both the Diepwalle and Milkwood sections of the Garden Route National Park, you’ll find well-marked walking trails suitable for all ages and fitness levels. As you wander, keep an eye out for the colourful Knysna turaco (or lourie), and pay a visit to the Forest Legends Museum to discover the history behind the region’s elusive elephants and short-lived gold rush.

If that all sounds a little too outdoorsy, head back along the N2 and crest the rise into Plettenberg Bay, where a fine sea view unfolds before you. You won’t be the first taken aback by the region’s coastal beauty. Early Portuguese sailors dubbed this Bahia Formosa (‘beautiful bay’), when they first sailed into its waters more than 500 years ago.

Plett is a suitable option if you’re looking for a little pampering, with an abundance of stylish hotels and guesthouses to choose from. While the Beacon Island Resort is ideal for families, the pick of the bunch is the five-star hotel, the Plettenberg. When you tire of the views from the rim-flow pool, slip on your Havaianas and take a wander along the golden sands of Robberg beach. Or, for a touch more adventure, pack your hiking boots and tackle the walking trails of the Robberg peninsula. The well-marked routes range in length from 2 km to 11 km. Keep an eye on the waters below and you might even spot a great white shark cruising the shallows.

Beyond Plett, the N2 weaves through the forests and valleys of the Tsitsikamma (a Khoi-san word meaning ‘place of abundant or sparkling water’). And there’s certainly no shortage of ways to enjoy this environment – whether you’re blackwater tubing through the gorges or snorkelling in the protected seas of the Storms river mouth rest camp. This is also the starting point for the iconic five-day Otter Trail, which ends at Nature’s Valley, a little seaside enclave that has one of the best beaches on the Garden Route.

These ancient forests also dish up plenty of adventure, including the Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour, where you’ll find yourself flying through the forest canopy, 30m above the ground. This zipline adventure traverses between platforms built around towering Outeniqua yellowwood trees, offering a remarkable perspective on the surrounding forest.

If heights are what gets the adrenalin pumping, you’ll also be smiling as you leap from the Bloukrans river bridge. It remains the world’s highest commercial bridge bungee, and at 216m, it is sure to have you screaming all the way down.

It’s not all about adrenalin though. Family travellers are well looked after in the Garden Route, whether it’s wandering through the Monkeyland primate sanctuary or Birds of Eden – the world’s largest free-flight aviary – to discovering the region’s artisanal cheese makers, farm-style restaurants and wineries.

If you prefer your sparkles in a glass, head straight for Bramon wine estate. Peter Thorpe was a forerunner of winemaking in the Tsitsikamma area, and the region’s cool climate contributes elegance to his excellent méthode cap classiques, crafted from chardonnay and, unusually, sauvignon blanc. Visit the estate for a tasting but be sure to take a bottle home with you – it’s a stylish way to toast an unforgettable Garden Route getaway.

By Richard Holmes
Images: Claudia Frey, Garden Route Game Lodge, Tsogo Sun