Safaris, vineyard hopping and gourmet dining are just some of the pleasures of a road trip along South Africa’s Garden Route

Words Rowena Marella-Daw

Road trips lend themselves to fun, spontaneous journeys. This is particularly true of South Africa’s glorious Garden Route, where the panorama of imposing mountain ranges and dramatic coastlines is endless. The 754-km stretch of the N2 national road from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth runs parallel to the Southern Cape coast, bringing surprises at every turn.

Our Garden Route jaunt commences in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, where our elegant bolthole, Cape Grace Hotel, benefits from views of the imposing Table Mountain and marina. The bustling harbour, markets and restaurants are all within walking distance, including the Watershed, where I scour over 150 stalls showcasing innovative African arts and handicrafts, decor, fashion, jewellery and furnishings.

Across the harbour in Cape Town is the Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island, where a memorable exhibit details the national hero’s story. For 18 of his 27 prison years he was incarcerated on Robben Island, now a World Heritage Site and museum. Tours of the island can be booked at the adjacent passenger ferry terminal.

Cape Town’s culinary scene is creating a buzz worldwide, with chef Luke Dale-Roberts’ The Test Kitchen and The Potluck Club requiring bookings weeks ahead.

Over at Cape Grace Hotel’s classic Signal Restaurant, Chef Malika van Reenen’s repertoire marries Cape Town’s heritage with modern influences, evident in the Rooibos-smoked salmon fish cake and Bobotie-spiced springbok, not to mention a delightful tasting menu paired with exquisite wines from local producers. And speaking of wines, Stellenbosch has over 150 wine farms across a 30km radius – the highest concentration of producers in the world, many of which grace the gentle slopes of the majestic Stellenbosch, Jonkershoek and Simonsberg Mountains. A perfect excuse to make a detour.

Wine tourism is burgeoning here, and with so much to do, we manage to cram some of the best tastings and culinary trips into a three-day marathon. During a ‘Foodies on Foot’ tour, we eat our way through town: lunch at Oude Werf hotel, dessert at M Patisserie, Biltong at Eikeboom Butchery, and a visit to Schoon de Companjie, a cooperative for artisan treats.

Stellenbosch is home to some of the region’s finest restaurants. Tokara boasts creative dishes, a contemporary art gallery and romantic views, while Makaron at Majeka House is popular for its quirky décor and innovative cuisine. The mouth-watering traditional braai at WedgeView Country House & Spa is a true feast. Next up – some serious vineyard hopping.

A salt and wine pairing of Fleur du Cap’s Unfiltered range at Die Bergkelder cellars includes naturally crafted varieties, and a ‘vertical tasting’ at Stellenbosch Vineyards involves various vintages of the same variety, notably the Lanner Hill Kumkani sauvignon blanc’s 2006 to 2015 vintages. JC Le Roux’s Methode Cap Classique range is a serious rival to champagne, while at Van Ryn’s, the only brandy distillery in Stellenbosch, we learn about the distillation process and pair their award-winning vintages with Belgian chocolates. Staying in a vineyard – the Lanzerac Hotel & Spa – enables us to taste their wines at leisure. Our Stellenbosch sojourn is brief, but we leave clutching beautiful memories and bottles of world-class wines.

Just off the R327 turning before Mossel Bay, a long, rocky road leads to Gondwana Game Reserve. In this 11,000-hectare malaria-free private game reserve, the Big Five (lion, buffalo, elephant, rhino, and leopard) share space with many other species that roam free within an immense spread of valleys and undulating hills. At the heart of Gondwana are the Kwena Lodges, their dome-shaped thatched roofing inspired by tribal Khoi-San dwellings. Native furnishings bring a rustic feel, balanced with laid-back luxury and 180-degree views. An outdoor infinity pool sits at the bottom of the slope, and it’s not unusual to see wildlife paying an occasional visit here.

Early morning and afternoon safaris in the company of our expert guide, Felix, are captivating. We come across herds of zebra, elephant, giraffe and hippo, but most riveting is a pride of lions guarding their kill, an eland. They aren’t perturbed by our presence, even when we return the next day to witness them feasting on the carcass at very close range. A close encounter with an adult elephant is heart-stopping, and spotting two precious rhinos is an unforgettable finale.

Fancourt, our next port of call, is a popular golfing destination in the city of George. But for non-golfers like me, the real star here is the Manor House, proclaimed Africa’s Best Romantic Boutique Hotel in the 2015 World Boutique Hotel Awards. Our Oakland Suite comes with butler service, and he makes sure the sweet treats kept coming. Dining at Henry White’s, we satisfy our seafood cravings, and over at La Cantina, the Italian tasting menu of three starters, three mains and two desserts puts even the best restaurants in Italy to shame.

We devote a day to exploring the Klein Karoo region’s boutique vineyards – Herold Wines, Karusa Premium Wines & Craft Brewery, and Surval Boutique Olive Estate, where we dine among olive groves. Passing through the town of Oudtshoorn, sightings of ostrich are not unusual – this is the ostrich capital of the world, after all. Not far away are the famous Cango Caves, Africa’s largest show cave system of limestone caverns and towering halls of stalactites, some resembling giant organ pipes.

The journey to Knysna, our last destination, is punctuated by forests, lagoons and coastlines. The focal point in this laid-back enclave is the waterfront, with its restaurants and quirky shops. Conrad Pezula sits on the hilly eastern head of Knysna, where an outdoor pool overlooks the Knysna lagoon. Pieces of art from local artists grace the hotel’s lobby, and suites have a touch of retro elegance. A shuttle service takes guests to Noetzie Beach, a secluded oasis with two romantic private retreats: Pezula Castle and Beach Castle. There’s so much to do here – horse riding, hiking in Pezula’s ancient indigenous forest, canoeing on the Noetzie River – if you can summon the will to get up and leave behind the relaxing ambience. I can’t.

Rounding off our Garden Route adventure, we head for Camps Bay, an affluent coastal enclave on the foothills of the majestic Twelve Apostles mountain range. Our South Beach crash pad is part of the new Blue Views Collection of luxury apartments, and by the time we settle in and perused our private terrace, the clouds are already hovering, the winds causing waves to crash over boulders and rocks.

The Garden Route is indeed full of wonders and surprises, and our mini road trip is packed with memorable experiences, most remarkable of which are the safari, wine tastings, great food, exquisite resorts and friendly locals. No doubt, the Western Cape captivates, and I know I’ll be back.

Lanzerac Hotel & Spa lanzerac.co.za

Gondwana Game Reserve gondwanagr.co.za 

Fancourt  fancourt.co.za

Conrad Pezula Hotel conradhotels3.hilton.com 

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