Driving South Africa's Garden Route in three days

by Siobhan

Don’t let the fact that you’re short on time put you off driving South Africa's Garden Route. Admire the views, enjoy fresh food and local wine, then sleep it all off in pretty hideaways

“I’m afraid that you must have held a driving licence for at least two years in order to be a named driver on one of our hire cars, ma'am,” the lady at First Car Rental (http://www.firstcarrental.co.za/) in Port Elizabeth informed me. There was nothing to be 'afraid' about – this lovely lady had just ensured that I got to sit back and enjoy the view for three whole days while my partner drove the length of South Africa’s Garden Route.

A small part of me did feel bad. There is no doubt that you could spend a leisurely week or two driving a little way each day, stopping at each viewpoint and every attraction. Even more relaxation could be had by joining an organised tour. But, with a whirlwind round-the-world trip carefully planned and a strong desire to do everything independently, we had decided to drive like the wind and fit our experience of the Garden Route into three busy days.

We took the first day relatively slowly and drove 80km to our first stop: the surfing hub of Jeffreys Bay. As a surfer, or first-time surfer, 'J Bay' is a location to get excited about. It hosts the annual Billabong Pro every July, yet for the rest of the year there never seems to be too much competition to catch a wave. Surfing lessons and equipment hire are both readily available, and what could be more amazing than spotting a whale when riding a wave?

Even for non-surfers, the on-the-beach location and views of the pink sunset from Island Vibe make the area a worthwhile stop. Island Vibe is budget accommodation in price only. Its rooms start at R100, but the best option is to pay a little extra - R350 will get you an en suite double complete with quirky furnishings (mosaic shower cubicle, beaded curtains, bright African wall art) and a balcony giving uninterrupted views of the beach. Their surf-memorabilia themed bar is worth a drink or two and, for eating, the restaurants in town offer a choice of freshly-caught fish. The sun deck at 3 Fat Fish (http://www.dining-out.co.za/member_menu.asp?MemberID=959 ; mains from R65) caught our eye, and we ate salted-curd smoked beef carpaccio, camembert with orange and ginger chutney, oven-baked Monkfish with chorizo, and fresh West Coast mussels.

Day two - a seat with a view

Day two was an intense driving day, covering over 300km. But the views were breathtaking, through the vast, rocky Tsitsikamma Mountains, past mirror lakes and over quaint bridges. A stop at the pretty coastal town of Knysna (renowned for its oysters - its annual oyster festival takes place in July) and the Dry Dock Food Company (http://www.drydock.co.za; mains from R60) on the lagoon front provided us with a relaxing seafood salad lunch. Of course, if you are spending longer in the region, there is no shortage of activities, and along this adventure-focused part of the route you can do a canopy tour, bungee jump, cage dive with sharks or attempt blackwater tubing at the dramatic Storms River. Back in the car we passed bright purple and yellow meadows en route to our next stop, Fairy Knowe Backpacker's Lodge in Wilderness, where we arrived at dusk.

Set in an almost ‘other worldly’ indigenous milkwood forest, Fairy Knowe is charming, homely and rustic. Accommodation is varied and in scattered buildings – we stayed in a double room with fireplace and four-poster bed for R350. It is worth noting that it can be difficult to arrange an evening meal here if the lodge is not busy, but the buffet breakfast of muesli, yoghurt, fruit, freshly-baked muffins, toast and omelette is a fantastic – and filling – start to the day; ideal for the long, steep walks around the area. Fairy Knowe's reception has a file full of trails of varying levels and lengths, including the Giant Kingfisher Trail (7km return from the Ebb and Flow car park to a swimming hole) and they can also arrange horse riding and Southern Right whale watching (July – October).

Day three - fine dining

Day three’s drive saw us pass ostrich farms and vineyards on our way to historic Franschhoek: the gastronomic capital of the country. The Cape Winelands provides a very different view of Africa, with its French Huguenot influence dominating the food and wine as well as the landscape. There are over 30 restaurants in the valley and, without recommendation, we would have struggled to choose where to dine. Luckily, the owner of our accommodation pointed us towards the refined-yet-cosy The French Connection Bistro (http://www.frenchconnection.co.za/). It turned out to be one of the best value top-table meals we had ever eaten; with pork and quail terrine, chilli spiced calamari and warm Belgian chocolate tart. Three sumptuous courses for two washed down (far too easily – the waitress asked if my glass was leaking) by local Franschhoek Hills wine totalled R370 – a mere £30.

We stumbled back to our log cabin at Otter's Bend for a quiet evening. Otter’s Bend has friendly owners and cute resident dogs (one giant, one tiny – yet the tiny one is the bully). Its cabins are located on the bank of the Franschhoek River and a double room will set you back R400 - with complimentary dog welcome, owl hoots and excellent recommendations from choice of restaurant to advice on the 45-minute drive into Cape Town.

All of the accommodation we stayed at along the Garden Route was billed as ‘backpacker's’ or ‘traveller's’ and yet were full of character, exceptionally clean, great value for money and in lovely surroundings. Yes, of course we could have spent longer in the region, but if you only have time to simply drive, eat, sleep and be happy, then a road trip along the Garden Route is an excellent choice.

Getting there

Fly into Cape Town, Johannesburg or George (roughly halfway along the route) Airport. British Airways, Emirates, KLM and South African Airways fly to one or all of the above, with prices starting at £530 return from the UK.

Overnight trains depart from Johannesburg Station. Shosholoza Meyl train company (+27 11 774 4555) run services on Tuesdays and Fridays, departing at 11am and arriving in Port Elizabeth at 7am the following morning. A bed in a two-berth private cabin costs around R250. For further information visit: http://www.seat61.com/SouthAfrica.htm

There are many car rental companies to choose from in Port Elizabeth. If arriving by train, it is useful to book car hire in advance as most companies will then pick you up and transport you to Port Elizabeth Airport, where their offices are located. At a cost of R160 (£12) per day plus a R600 (£50) one-way fee, our Citi Golf was more than adequate to take us the 760km to Cape Town.