ROUTE OF ALL DELIGHTS For a diversion from the beaten path and winter chill, you can’t go wrong with an unforgettable soul vacation courtesy of the postcard-perfect Garden Route Many parts of SA hard sell their winter break credentials – the Karoo is beautiful but as cold as an Antarctic odyssey, and the north is dry and brittle albeit a good time to see game. Durban is warmer but largely on go-slow and Cape Town, well, the rain keeps the majority away. This leaves an overseas trip or the Garden Route. The latter makes emotional and rational sense – it is less congested with visitors from abroad, prices are relatively reasonable and the climate is fairly mild. But it’s still cuddle-up cool, good for open fires, rekindled connections, a decent book and rebooting the soul. The Garden Route’s concerted effort to win acceptance as a year-round destination is paying handsome dividends, with services and attractions now open beyond the traditional high season. It is this secret season that offers the best value but more importantly, it’s also a great time to see a part of the country clothed in some of its finest livery; the coastal belt is an emerald spectacle in winter, verdant and clean. Where to go, rather than when, is a conundrum. George and Port Elizabeth are the proverbial Garden Route bookends, growing by the year and frankly, less special as a result. Plettenberg Bay is the true nexus, a coming together of high-end accommodation, cuisine and activities. There are no matric revellers in winter, and the wealthy who chase summer have flown to the Algarve or Tuscany. Winter in Plett is, as sometime Knysna resident Roger Federer once quipped, ‘a great time to avoid people like me’. The satellite centres of Knysna – The Crags, Nature’s Valley, Wilderness and Sedgefield – are within easy driving distance. So, where to stay? Thanks to an increasingly discerning international clientele, standards have risen markedly over the past five years. The Plettenberg Being a Relais & Châteaux property, it has all the trimmings that suggests (notably a grand chef in the form of Peter Tempelhoff). The Plettenberg, however, is still a fairly traditional rooms-in-a-line hotel. Less ordinary is the location, at the end of Plettenberg Bay’s Church Street. It boasts some of the most astonishing sea views along the coast. It is also close to the hustle and bustle of Plett’s Main Street, now a trendy avenue with its de jour bars and restaurants. The hotel’s spa is also a major attraction, popular with the Johannesburg glitterati. www.relaischateaux.com Fancourt Hotel Fancourt, George’s premier hotel, is altogether more cosmopolitan. This is no simple country spot, but rather an expansive, fully serviced golf estate with a plethora of room and suite choices. Of course, there are also the three world-class Gary Player-designed golf courses, catering to the professional, the wannabe and the beginner. Cuisine is equally diverse with a trio of casual restaurants as well as Henry Whites, the classical dining room. The Manor House is the choice of those in the know. The 150-year-old mansion is Fancourt’s boutique hotel-within-a-hotel and spares no expense when pampering its guests. www.fancourt.co.za Fancourt, George’s premier hotel, is altogether more cosmopolitan. Yet this is no simple country spot Kurland Hotel Plett is not short of exclusive hotels but Kurland arguably pips them all because of the exquisite 700 hectare estate it finds itself on. The airy suites are another reason – there is no substitute for size. The hotel also has a spa on the property as well as a polo field. It deserves the various and many awards it has won over the years. www.kurland.co.za The Grand Café & Rooms Even closer to the Main Street atmosphere in Plett is the Grand Café, something of an institution in the town and unlike anything else. The Moroccan-inspired architecture and decor work well with the hang-off-the-cliff location. Little courtyards, balconies and intriguing nooks and crannies, meanwhile, are a delight for those tired of the ubiquity of modern hotels. The restaurant serves traditional North African cuisine as well as less exotic fare. www.grandafrica.com Serendipity Wilderness and Serendipity Restaurant Still in Plett, Serendipity is a darling of the Garden Route – a restaurant that offers accommodation to boot. The food is the real attraction, courtesy of highly acclaimed executive chef Lizelle Stolze who has won a slew of international awards. Make no mistake. In spite of its laid-back charm, expect exceptional food in a memorable location. A simple double-storey house with fantastic service, you’ll find this five-star guesthouse is on the banks of the Touw River Lagoon, close to Wilderness. www.serendipitywilderness.com Turbine Hotel and Spa Some 20 km from Plett, Knysna (with its renowned lagoon and arresting Eastern and Western Head buttresses) is home to the Turbine Hotel. Situated in the recent downtown waterfront development, it has quite possibly the best location of any hotel in Knysna – the site of the old power station on the lagoon’s Thesen Island. The idea was to retain the infrastructure and history of the station yet give it a chic, contemporary feel. Spacious rooms have stunning views, with balconies for sundowners and water gazing. The Amani spa, three chic bars (be sure to try the margaritas at the Tapas Bar) and excellent cuisine all add to the pleasure. It’s utterly stylish and highly recommended. www.turbinehotel.co.za Hunter’s Country House and Zinzi Restaurant Towards Knysna there is gem of a lodge – and again food is the drawcard. Zinzi Restaurant is a refreshingly, unashamedly bling island in a sea of Garden Route slow-roasted veg and homemade pies. The feel is Afro-Zen and the food is fine- dining fare with the accent on freshness. Hunter’s itself really is winter-wonderful, with a host of accommodation options to choose from. Best of all is the Forest Suite, a private house set in the woods. Zinzi’s is actually at Tsala Treetop Lodge next door, another accommodation treat, with chic ‘tree houses’ set in the forest. www.hunterhotels.com Pezula Castles – Pezula Castle, Cliff Castle and the Beach Castle Below the Eastern Head and away from the flurry of central Knysna, is the now decidedly upmarket Noetzie. Conrad Hotels (part of the Hilton group) has scored something of a coup by buying up three of Noetzie Beach’s famed castles. The group has renamed the petits châteaux – Pezula, Beach and Cliff Castle – and guests can choose accommodation to suit their heart’s desire, be it a grand, three-bedroom suite at Pezula Castle, a single room at Beach Castle or the rounded quirkiness of the turret room at Cliff Castle. Access to the beach is through the Pezula Hotel atop the cliffs, with its chic, contemporary South Seas-inspired houses and nearby golf course. www.conradhotels.com Market trade Luxury accommodation aside, food is a big part of the Garden Route’s appeal. Outside of the traditional upper-echelon restaurants, the route has a strong tradition of organic and fresh food, so much so that it has become a tourist feature. The area’s growers come together to sell their produce in three weekend markets, including the Wild Oats Community Farmers’ Market in Sedgefield, which has a strict local growers-only policy; the Harkerville Market near Plett with gourmet food and select crafts from the region; and the Outeniqua Farmer’s Market in George, which offers plenty of food, craft, art and entertainment. www.wildoatsmarket.co.za www.harkervillemarket.co.za www.outeniquafarmersmarket.co.za Wine of the Garden Route With the evolution of the Garden Route food culture, wine naturally followed suit, and the region now boasts a decent number of boutique wineries. Winemaking is based largely around Plettenberg Bay and has come a long way in a short period of time – indeed it now has Wine of Origin status. Sauvignon Blanc and Cap Classique are the favoured wines. Bramon Wines is the original estate and arguably the best place to taste the region’s produce. Situated at The Crags, just the other side of Plett, it also features a simple restaurant. Other well-established wineries include Plettenvale, Packwood, Andersons and Newstead. www.plettwinelands.co.za The game game While not traditionally a Big Five area (the true wildlife region being northeast of Port Elizabeth), the Garden Route has nevertheless seen a gradual upswing in wildlife sanctuaries and conservancies. Close to Plett, Birds of Eden, the Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary, the Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary, and the Elephant Sanctuary are all in close proximity to one another. Between Knysna and Plett is Noah’s Park Wolf Sanctuary – a rehabilitation sanctuary for canines that has African wild dogs, black-backed jackals and, obviously, wolves. The Cango Wildlife Ranch is another sanctuary close to the famous caves outside Oudtshoorn. It has an array of white lions, leopards, white and snow tigers, ‘pettable’ cheetahs and a snake park. The more adventurous can get up close and personal with some snappy beasts courtesy of the crocodile cage diving that’s now on offer. However, for a truly authentic wildlife park experience, the renowned Addo Elephant National Park steals the show. Located near Port Elizabeth, it is a national park in the best SA tradition with a full Big Five complement, despite its singular name. Goukamma Nature Reserve, the Keurbooms Nature Reserve, Robberg Nature Reserve, the Outeniqua Nature Reserve and the Garden Route National Park all welcome winter visitors too. Whale watching is especially good in June and July at Goukamma. By Peter Frost Images: Gerald Hoberman, Greatstock/Corbis, Kendall-Leigh Nash/HSMimages, Pezula Media If you ever find yourself in Johannesburg, be sure to check out The 20 Best Restaurants in Midrand.