Far from the crowds and traffic snarl-ups on South Africa's much-vaunted coastal Garden Route is a stunning inland alternative that showcases some of the country's most fabulous scenery but passes unnoticed by most visitors.
Route 62 — which evokes comparisons with the legendary Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles — starts from just outside Cape Town and runs to the city of Port Elizabeth. It winds through scenic spa towns, vineyards and fruit farms, breathtaking mountains and floral feasts — not to mention the self-proclaimed Ostrich Capital of the World.
The best news for tourists is that it is possible to combine Route 62 and the Garden Route, named after its dense and lush vegetation, for a truly unforgettable journey.
Instead of taking the N2 highway from Cape Town to George (a journey of about five hours, and that's without road work) as most tourists do — go on the N1 highway to Worcester and then follow the inland route to George. It's shorter and infinitely more beautiful and you only miss a small part of the Garden Route. The road is empty and fast and can be covered in a few hours. But it's worth lingering for at least a couple of days.
Here are some of the highlights along the way:
Worcester and Robertson are both wine and fruit growing centers in the Breede River valley. The wine farms are all open to the public and are magnificent. A short detour from Robertson is the village of McGregor, at the foot of the Riviersonderend Mountains, prized by artists and wealthy South Africans seeking to escape from modern pressures into olde-world charm.
Montagu is surrounded by the most amazing rock formations and is a beautiful base for mountain biking and hiking. It boasts wonderful hot springs — a huge hit among children — which stay open late at night and take on additional charms under a starry sky. (We were once there at dusk when a snake slithered from the mountains and came to rest upon the ample body of a female visitor snoozing in the shallow waters!!) It's definitely worth an overnight stay — there is cheap caravan (camper) and chalet accommodation at the Montagu Springs resort and a pricier hotel called Avalon Springs, and lots of guest houses in the village.
Calitzdorp, known for its port wines, and Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital, lie a couple of hours farther down this magnificent road, which is lined by a multicolored display of indigenous flora in spring (September). Oudtshoorn is a bustling tourist center because of its location and its ostriches, prized for their tough leather and low-cholesterol meat. There are several farms offering tours and — for the brave — ostrich rides. We were pampered for a night at the Rietfontein Ostrich Palace Hotel near Calitzdorp — which bills itself as the world's oldest ostrich farm which turns 100 next year — and enjoyed exceptional food and accommodation at very reasonable prices (it's a deservedly popular breakfast and lunch spot for mountain bike tours). There are plenty of hotels, guest houses and game reserves catering for all budgets in the area, and restaurants are good even by South Africa's high standards — just don't ask for a boiled ostrich egg for breakfast as it takes two hours to cook!
The awe-inspiring Cango Caves lie about 30 minutes from Oudtshoorn. If you are relatively fit and don't have claustrophobia, try the 90-minute "adventure" tour through the "Tunnel of Love" and "Devils Chimney," otherwise just take the standard walking visit and marvel at the stalactites and stalagmites. Authorities have become stricter with weight limits ever since a guest got stuck for nearly 10 hours last year, trapping more than 20 other hapless visitors with her.
Beyond the caves lies the formidable Swartberg Pass, which winds precipitously down to the hamlet of Prince Albert. (A road from there leads through total isolation in the Karoo desert to Gamkaskloof or "The Hell"). It's worth a detour if you have time. If not, don't worry as the scenery is also amazing on the Outeniqua Pass down from Oudtshoorn to the coastal town of George. Even better is the spectacular untarred Prince Alfred's Pass linking Oudtshoorn with Plettenberg Bay.
George is one of the main tourist hubs on the Garden Route, so called because of its dense vegetation. South Africa's last remaining passenger steam train, the Outeniqua Cho Tjoe, runs between Mossel Bay, the first town on the Garden Route, and George. Some visitors only go as far as George and then return to Cape Town, missing out on the loveliest parts of the route. The other two big attractions are the towns of Plettenberg Bay, locally known as Plett, with a beautiful beach and a "big resort" feel about it, and Knysna — very busy, but scenic with highly recommended outings to the Featherbed nature reserve. There are unlimited accommodation options — but everywhere gets full during the December-January summer holidays.
Indian Ocean currents mean that the waters of these coastal resorts are much warmer than beaches around Cape Town, which is chilled by the frigid Atlantic Ocean. There are plenty of attractions all along the route, including an excellent monkey sanctuary as well as elephant and bird parks.
To avoid the crowds, seek alternatives to the three main resort towns (Mossel Bay, Knysna and Plett). The village of Wilderness, for instance, has a long sandy beach, lovely lakes and is next to a beautiful national park. Nearby Sedgefield is also an excellent base. There are plenty of water sports and adventure activities as well as bird-watching and more leisurely pursuits.
Near the end of the Garden Route is arguably its most beautiful part — the Tsitsikamma national park, a stretch of ruggedly beautiful coastline frequented by whales and dolphins and bordered by indigenous forests. It's the starting base for the world-renowned five-day Otter Trail through forests and rivers — but you need to book months ahead and be prepared to carry your own bags and food. The three-day Dolphin Trail is for those who want a bit more luxury. There are many extreme sports activities, including bungee jumping. You can swing through the forest on in the Tsitsikamma canopy tours at Storms River Mouth. Or stroll on the endless beach, watch the waves and swim in the lagoon at Nature's Valley, which is a secret hideaway and, as its name suggests, comes close to being paradise on earth.