Travel

South Africa’s Garden Route Is One of the Best Road Trips on the Planet

Gear up for lush landscapes, scenic vistas, seaside retreats, and all the wildlife.

holgs/E+/Getty Images
holgs/E+/Getty Images
holgs/E+/Getty Images

If the world was divided between those who prefer green spaces and those who prefer blue spaces, the confluence of those desires would be found at the tip of South Africa. Taking its name from the verdant forests that line the Indian Ocean’s edge, the Garden Route captivates both tourists and South Africans alike. The 124-mile coastal drive stretches from the harbor town of Mossel Bay to the mouth of Storms River, offering up a plenitude of sights along the way, from sprawling vineyards, inland lagoons, and elephant-laden safaris to massive gorges framed by seafront horizons. It’s the kind of road trip where every passing scene is likely to jolt you out of your seat.

Daniele Schneider/Photononstop/Getty Images
Daniele Schneider/Photononstop/Getty Images
Daniele Schneider/Photononstop/Getty Images

What to know before hitting the road

The majority of the Garden Route follows the N2, South Africa’s version of the Pacific Coast Highway. Along the way, you’ll pass through beachside cities like Cape Town, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, and Gqberha, as well as natural escapes like Addo Elephant National Park and Tsitsikamma National Park. Depending on your itinerary, the journey can range from one to two weeks, so make sure you’ve allotted yourself plenty of time to explore around the bush.

The beauty of the Garden Route is a year-round spectacle, so when you choose to go depends on your adventure of choice. Summer in South Africa-roughly from November to April-brings warm, dry weather, ideal for beach-going and other outdoor activities, but with it also comes peak tourist season. The winter runs from July to September, and offers fewer crowds and milder weather. The sweet spot might just be the shoulder seasons of spring (September to November) and autumn (March to May).

September is an especially excellent time for spotting whales and catching the region’s otherworldly fynbos flowers in full bloom. And since the rainy season comes to a close around the end of August, the Western Cape will be at its greenest, while hiking the infamous Otter Trail in autumn promises pleasantly cool mornings. Keep in mind, however, that rainfall is unpredictable in the Rainbow Nation, so you’re likely to get hit with some drops no matter the time of year.

tirc83/iStock/Getty Images
tirc83/iStock/Getty Images
tirc83/iStock/Getty Images

How to navigate the Garden Route

While there are a few airports dotting the Garden Route, Cape Town International Airport offers the best starting point. Cape Town-based Drive South Africa, which partners with car rental companies like Avis and Hertz, is a reputable agency for booking a rental, especially if you’re hoping to get an off-road vehicle to tackle some rugged terrain. You’ll need your passport, driver’s license, and credit card-no international driver’s license necessary, unless yours isn’t in English.

If the idea of driving yourself through safari land and mountain passes seems a bit daunting, consider booking a trip with a tour company like Contiki, which offers an expert-led, seven-day trip covering the very best of the Garden Route. All accommodations and experiences-from visiting Stellenbosch wineries to kayaking through Storms River Gorge-are included in the package, so you won’t have to worry about booking a thing.

Whether you’re cruising by your lonesome, or placing your fate in the hands of a local guide, here’s everything you absolutely can’t miss along South Africa’s magical Garden Route.

Bkamprath/E+/Getty Images
Bkamprath/E+/Getty Images
Bkamprath/E+/Getty Images

Get to know the locals in the Mother City

While the Garden Route officially begins in Mossel Bay, consider spending a night or two in Cape Town, home to the rightfully touristy V&A Waterfront, towering Table Mountain, and a cluster of choice surf spots. While it’s a bit of a detour from central Cape Town, Boulders Beach boasts one of the last colonies of African penguins in the world. Not only is the beach itself a sight to behold-a hidden cove sheltered by massive boulders-the peaceful resident penguins, dispersed around a visitor-friendly boardwalk, remain delightfully unbothered.

On the cultural front, choose from the technicolor architecture of the Bo Kaap Museum or the contemporary art of Zeitz MOCCA. And if you’re looking for a way to commence the trip, Cape Town happens to be a certified all-day party town, with spots like Caprice and Modular at the ready to host a good time.

Merten Snijders/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Merten Snijders/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Merten Snijders/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Make your way to the Ostrich Capital of the World

Next up: the Klein Karoo, a desert-like region situated between the Swartberg and Outeniqua Mountains. The principal town, Oudtshoorn, is known for having the world’s largest ostrich population. It rose to prominence during the 1880s and early-1900s, when ostrich feathers were as valuable as diamonds. Today, you can visit the Art Nouveau-style homes of the former feather barons before paying a visit to the big birds at one of the many ostrich farms lining the road.

Equally impressive are the Cango Caves, a 20-million-year-old series of chambers hidden within limestone rocks. Tour through the psychedelic stalagmites and stalactites, and if you’re feeling especially adventurous, crawl and slide your way through the narrow tunnels. To end the day, head to Buffelsdrift Game Lodge, where dinner might come with a show: hippos dipping in and out of the estate’s adjacent watering hole. While you’re there, make sure you try the bobotie, a traditional Cape Malayan dish of venison, egg custard, and papadum.

Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images

Rub elbows with elephants in Addo

Get an early start from Oudtshoorn and head east to Addo. Though not officially on the Garden Route proper, this elephant-crazed town on the Eastern Cape is worth the detour. You’re looking at about a five-hour drive, so schedule in a pit stop at The Verandah Coffee Shop, a one-of-kind roadside cafe in Steytlerville that triples as a wildlife rescue center (you might see a fox or two) and a vintage sports car museum.

Addo Elephant National Park is swarming with more than 600 elephants, as well as other members of the Big Five like lions, rhinos, and buffalo. You’ll also find some rare antelope species roaming around-including the greater kudu, red hartebeest, and eland-plus, if you look closely, groups of flightless dung beetles exclusive to Addo. The park is massive-the third largest game reserve in South Africa, in fact-and it’s best explored from the driver’s seat of your car. Pull up alongside a watering hole, and you’re bound to see multiple gentle giants taking a few sips.

After you’ve had your fill of gazing at animals, point your GPS about 30 minutes southwest to Gberha. Formerly known as Port Elizabeth, this Eastern Cape seaport was recently renamed to reflect its Khoi-San and Xhosa heritage. If time permits, end the day admiring the sunset at Sardinia Bay Beach or walking along Route 67, a trail of public art installations that celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 67-year quest to end Apartheid.

Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision/Getty Images
Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision/Getty Images
Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Go for a second serving of safari then try seafood in Knysna

Any seasoned guide will tell you that when it comes to spotting wildlife, nothing is guaranteed-that’s why it’s a good idea to increase your luck by tacking on a second day of game drives. Thankfully, private game reserves on the Eastern Cape provide some of South Africa’s best safari opportunities thanks to their diverse ecosystems.

Check lions and cheetahs off your list at Amakhala Game Reserve, then later enjoy lunch at one of the area’s swanky lodges. Afterwards, turn the car around and travel west to the town of Knysna, widely known as the Jewel of the Garden Route. The seaside village is famous for its oysters, so make a beeline for the bivalves at places like The Drydock or 34 South.

A. Mertens/Shutterstock
A. Mertens/Shutterstock
A. Mertens/Shutterstock

Set sail in Plettenberg Bay, then paddle beneath the Storms River Bridge

From Knysna, drive 30 minutes east to jaw-dropping Plettenberg Bay. One look at the pristine mansions and white sand beaches, and you’ll understand why this seaside resort, nicknamed “Plett” by locals, is one of the most affluent boroughs in South Africa. The area is best seen from the water, though, so book yourself a boat and set out on a marine safari. Depending on the time of year, you might see Southern Right whales, Bottlenose dolphins, or Cape fur seals splashing about the waves.

Your next stop is Tsitsikamma National Park , a.k.a. the garden of the Garden Route. Here, dramatic currents sculpt white foamy shores flanked by mountains bursting with gorgeous flora and fauna. Taking its name from the Khoi-San term for “place of abundant water,” this pocket of natural splendor is famous for the suspension bridge that swings over the Storms River, as well as the arduous Otter Trail, a five-day trek that culminates in the village of Nature Valley. But there’s so much more to the park, from zip lining across Tsitsikamma Falls to observing seabirds soaring through the rocky ravines. If you only have time for a snapshot of what Tsitsikamma has to offer, make the most of it by renting a kayak and paddling down the breathtaking Storms River Gorge.

BARTON/Photodisc/Getty Images
BARTON/Photodisc/Getty Images
BARTON/Photodisc/Getty Images

Pet some sharks in Hermanus then sip your way through Stellenbosch

Entering into the university town of Stellenbosch marks your return to Cape Town, but don’t end your trip without a bit of revelry. Before you engage in some wine-soaked fun, stop at Hermanus to pay a visit to the South African Shark Conservancy. There, you can pet some local sharks while learning about the many ways the nonprofit organization is working to save endangered species. Afterwards, take a moment to poke around the charming seaside town’s roster of antique shops, art galleries, and restaurants. But don’t linger too long, because vineyard-hopping lies ahead.

Along with the Paarl and Franschhoek Valleys, the oak-lined town of Stellenbosch is part of the Cape Winelands, a winemaking region with more than 100 venues including standouts like Dornier Wine Estate, Blaauwklippen, and Middelvlei. You can’t leave without trying a glass of South Africa’s signature pinotage, a cross between pinot noir and cinsault. Spend the rest of the afternoon-or the next few days-romping through the scenic vineyards, then retire for a good night’s sleep. You’re due back in Cape Town in the morning.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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