South Africa : Garden Route
The Garden Route is a stunning stretch of indigenous forest, dramatic coastline and huge sandy beaches running east from Cape Town. Contrary to what its name may suggest, it’s not a series of beautiful gardens to visit, but derives its name from its dense vegetation, including the famous fynbos, which characterises this coastline in contrast to the country’s arid interior. It’s a beautiful and easy route to drive, stopping at small towns, beaches, lagoons and nature reserves. Between July and November, the Southern Right Whales can be seen just metres from shore, and you can enjoy some spectacular sightings around Hermanus. As well as lovely guest houses and unique lodges, there’s a huge variety of activities on offer en route including dolphin and whale watching, zip-wiring in the Tsitsikamma Forest, horse-riding and golf. The Garden Route combines really well with Cape Town and the Winelands, and there are also a number of malaria-free game reserves within easy reach so you can start or end with a couple of days on safari. The Karoo and Oudtshoorn are also within easy driving distance for a day or overnight.
Grootbos Nature Reserve is a wonderful wilderness retreat nestled in the fynbos-clad hills above Walker Bay. The private reserve, which is owned and managed by the Lutzeyer family, not only has beautiful views of the dunes, sea and distant Cape of Good Hope, but is home to over 1000 species of Cape Flora and a host of small animals. There are lots of fun outdoor activities for all ages to do on the reserve including horse-riding, mountain biking and cave walks, and its big attraction between July and November is whale-watching from the shore and from boats. There are two luxury lodges on the reserve: Garden Lodge, which is suitable for families, and the more sophisticated Forest Lodge. Both have their own restaurant and pool area. There is also an exclusive-use villa with six elegant suites and its own staff.
The Phantom Forest is an award-winning eco-lodge in a unique forest setting just above Knysna. The lodge has fabulous views and beautifully combines stylish design and funky rooms with excellent food and wine. The suites are set up high among the trees and linked to the main area by forest board walks. They all have decks and unique features include glass-roofed bathrooms, double-ended baths and outdoor Jacuzzis. The Phantom Forest is renowned for its outstanding food, and there are two restaurants serving six-course gourmet dinners. There are two salt-water swimming pools and a hot tub in the woods, a mini gym and an excellent spa offering a range of treatments using minerals from the sea and land. You leave your car in the car park and take a forest buggy up to the lodge, which only serves to enhance the wonderful feeling of escapism.
Hog Hollow Country Lodge is an exceptional guest lodge on a private reserve 20km outside Plettenberg Bay. It has 16 wonderful suites set in the garden and forest with breathtaking views over Tsitsikamma Forest and the mountains beyond. The service, food and ambience is fantastic, helped by the fact most of the staff have been here for years, and it’s ideal for a relaxing stay while making the most of the attractions of the Plettenberg area. The suites are private and stylishly decorated in warm, indigenous tones and fabrics, and each has a wooden deck with a hammock where you can enjoy siestas and the panoramic views. There are two family suites as well as an exclusive-use villa sleeping up to six with its own staff and pool. Dinner is around a big table like in East African lodges (though you can have your own table if you prefer), and the farmhouse breakfasts are delicious. There is a huge swimming pool with great views, and lots to do close by.
The five-star Plettenberg is one of Plettenberg Bay’s best hotels and with possibly the best position, set on a cliff top with breathtaking sea views. The hotel embraces this sense of space with light, airy architecture and décor. Divided between two pretty buildings, the luxurious en-suite rooms are elegantly decorated. There is a swimming pool for both buildings, which both enjoy the great views. In season it is possible to watch Southern Right Whales breaching while you eat breakfast or without leaving your room.
The Grand Café & Rooms is a small and quirky eight-bedroom hotel in the main shopping and restaurant street of the fashionable Plettenberg Bay, and only a few minutes’ walk from the beach. It has wonderful bohemian bedrooms with funky elements at every turn, whether it’s two roll top baths side by side in The Bath House bedroom or huge high beds that you need a footstool to climb on to. Dressers are piled with antique books and you might catch yourself in gilt mirror. Breakfast is Parisian-style, there’s a lovely balcony with great sea views. The pool courtyard is for the exclusive use of guests. The main café serves bistro lunch and dinner and is open to the public. The service is very personal and friendly, and the atmosphere is relaxed and laid-back. It’s not for everyone, but those who love it, love it!
Kurland is a luxury country hotel on a lovely private estate 20km outside Plettenberg Bay. With elegantly decorated traditional public rooms, wood-panelled dining room laid with silver and old-fashioned Dutch china, and large, welcoming fireplaces, it has the feeling of a private home. There are 12 bedrooms set in cottages around the English-style country garden. It is a brilliant place for families with its fairytale loft rooms designed especially for children and a lovely walled play garden with a children's swimming pool, a jungle gym and optional childcare. Eight of the rooms have small private gardens with a plunge pool. It is ideally located to enjoy all the sights, beaches and activities of Plett Bay including whale watching, mountain biking, walking and horse-riding, and the estate is renowned for its polo matches.