By Lee Middleton
Though most visitors' idea of a drive through South Africa involves a Land Rover following a pride of lions, the country's variety of drop-dead beautiful landscapes, small towns peopled by friendly folk, and great roads conspire to make it the ideal road-tripping destination. Our vote for best place to get your freedom of the road on goes to the Garden Route. Sandwiched between majestic mountains and the Indian Ocean (think constant sea views), this 150-mile stretch of ancient indigenous forests, fynbos-covered peaks, golden beaches, and pristine lagoons earns its title.
First, the five things your road trip would not be complete without:
Canoeing Through Wilderness National Park
Driving from the west, you'll know why you missioned all this way when you round the bend before Wilderness. A series of rivers, lakes, estuaries, and beaches set against a lush mountain backdrop, Wilderness National Park is a wonderland of aquatic environments and a birders' paradise. Canoe trips are a perfect (and extremely civilized) way to explore your surroundings and will invariably include fantastic bird sightings. Did someone say picnic?
Whale and Dolphin Watching in Plettenberg Bay
It's impossible to drive past so many miles of gorgeous coast without wanting to get a little closer. Full immersion at this latitude is a bit daunting, though. A better idea: head out on a dolphin or whale-watching boat or kayak tour from Plettenberg Bay. Pods of bottlenose dolphins frequent the bay year-round, and from July to November, humpback and southern right whales are seen almost daily. A trip with Ocean Blue includes the perk of supporting the local township school and conservation work.
Sundowners at Emily Moon River Lodge
Zanzibar meets Rajasthan above a reed-lined river whose meandering curves are so picturesque the whole thing feels like a set from the best Ivory Merchant film you've never seen. A visit to Emily Moon for a sundowner is a romantic must-do. Stay for supper or even for the night if you really want to luxuriate in this intimate guesthouse-cum-restaurant's magical setting that manages to get colonial chic just right.
A Lazy Afternoon at Bramon Wine Estate
Though South Africa's preeminent vineyards lie westwards, a handful of Garden Route vines are producing some extremely quaffable stuff these days, with Bramon's sauvignon and sparkling wine ranking highly among them. But the real reason to visit the estate lies in a lazy afternoon lounging on a daybed couch or around a table set in the vineyards, enjoying the amazingly tasty mezze style menu (made with organic free-range products) surrounded by views of the Tsitsikamma mountains, the grapes, and a bottle or three of wine.
Walking with a Cheetah at Tenikwa
Cat lovers are in for the treat of a lifetime at this rescue-center reserve, where twice daily visitors can "walk" an adult cheetah through the Tsitsikamma mountain forest. In fact it would be more accurate to say that the cheetahs walk you: the cats choose the route while guests hold a leash that accompanying guides have instructed them to drop should the cheetahs decide to run. The proximity—the sound of these big cats purring in anticipation of their daily "exercise" is truly thrilling—combined with the stunning natural environment makes for an unforgettable experience. Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Center also shelters other wild cats in tasteful enclosures, and all proceeds go to rehabilitating wild animals rescued from injury or illegal capture.
Where to Stay: Halfway between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, the five-star Relais & Chateaux Tsala Treetop Lodge is all sleek wood and glass and stone set in the forest. Ten suites and six double-bedroom villas enjoy sweeping views over a mixed pine and indigenous forest, plunge pools, fireplaces, and all the other luxuries one would expect.
DIY travelers might be more at home at the lovely self-catering home with untrammeled forest views, That Place. With a fully kitted kitchen, three bedrooms, book-laden shelves, a big fireplace, and gorgeous pool and sauna, it's even better than a home away from home. Located around the corner from Bramon and Tenikwa (and other zoological attractions, Monkeyland and World of Birds), it's a great location from which to explore the Tsitsikamma Mountains and the area's multitude of activities, or to just curl up with a great book and a killer view.
Where to Eat: South African oyster cultivation has been based in the clear cold waters of Knysna since the 1950s.The sublime sweetness of these sea creatures is best enjoyed in winter (May to September), and if you can make it, the annual Knysna Oyster Festival (July 6-15) is a true ode to the mollusk. But fear not, if you can't hit the festival, 34 South on Kynsna's waterfront is one of the best places to enjoy oysters (or any other seafood) year-round.
A small, friendly owner-managed seafood joint in Plettenberg Bay, Off the Hook serves delicious and simple dishes like a panko-crusted calamari and excellent fish of the day options, perfectly cooked and served with tangy fresh salsas. Another owner-managed establishment, recently opened pizza and pasta joint The Table sits on an excellent position on Plettenberg Bay's main drag. Simple and inventive pies are baked in a massive wood-fired oven and their fresh pastas are all excellent. A full bar, stylish interior and some outdoor tables mean this place will be absolutely buzzing in season.
Car Rental: Hertz offers the best rates, customer service, and reliable standards one would expect from a big international company. Book directly through the South African offices. Pick up/drop off points would be: Cape Town, George and Port Elizabeth.
The 275-mile drive from Cape Town to Wilderness takes a bit more than five hours without traffic or stops. Alternately, fly to George, rent a car, jump on the N2, and you'll be in Wilderness in about 20 minutes. From Wilderness, the distances aren't massive: just 70 miles (or 90 minutes) to Storm's River (the official "end" of the route). So take your time and explore.
Road conditions throughout the area are excellent and you can even use a US license here. Just keep left and beware speed traps coming into and exiting towns. South African drivers often let others pass by driving in the shoulder; politeness dictates a flash of your hazards as you speed by.
This region is generally very safe, but follow the usual precautions and don't leave valuables visible in your car.
Photo Credits: Canoeing: Courtesy of South African National Parks; Dolphins: Courtesy of Ocean Blue Adventures; Emily Moon River Lodge: Courtesy of Emily Moon River Lodge; Bramon Wine Estate: Courtesy of Bramon Wine Estate; Cheetah Walk: Courtesy of Tenikwa; Tsala Treetop Lodge: Courtesy of Hunter Hotels; Offthehook: Courtesy of OFFTHEHOOK