Travelogue: The Garden Route

If you’re ever at a loss for somewhere to go on a weekend away in beautiful South Africa, then take a stab at The Garden Route. It’s something I’ve always known about; have heard about. Something that other people did. It just sounded so, well, gardeny.

Well, the good news is that it sort of is, but a lot it’s not.

Christian had been work-weeking in George and told me that it had ‘weekend getaway’ written all over it. That this part of the world was something that would have fitted perfectly into our 2011 plan, when we took every long weekend to adventure to a nearby places that everyone else seems to have been to but that have, until now, evaded us. You may not have noticed, but the SA public holidays are perfectly suited to this sort of thinking as they’re more or less 6 weeks apart – Human Rights Day (March), Freedom Day / Workers Day  (27 Apr, 1 May), Youth Day (16 June), Women’s Day (9 August), Heritage Day (26 September). Last year was perfect for it as the bulk were bumpered onto weekends, thus allowing us to sneak away to Dullstroom, Clarens, Maputo and Swaziland (in among our other adventures to Vic Falls and Leo Lapa at Kruger) without taking any leave.

Granted, those were all self-drive options, but with Kulula now flying into George, it doesn’t have to cost the world to fly either. Lucky for me, I caught a Kulula sale and am a Discovery Vitality Silver member (or was, am gold now J ), so the return flight cost me R700 and some change (as opposed to the R2000 and some change regular fares).

So, with that… it was off to George.

It all started with a nail-biting journey to the airport. As always, last minute client requests had left me tight for time and gunning it to the airport. Lady Luck is clearly a fan of the Garden Route though as, despite all odds, I made it to the airport in under half an hour… even with enough time to find the long-term parking… with a parking right at the entrance, with a bus ready and waiting to ferry me to the airport… to get there with 10 minutes before check-in closed… with no queue… and getting through the gates with still enough time even to hit the slow lounge (for the tiniest little roast beef roll I have ever seen and a tomato juice – for ‘5 a day’ value to keep me fighting fit for the weekend ahead).

Landing in George is surreal. It’s such a pretty surrounding that it doesn’t seem right to have big fat aeroplanes messing up the place. It’s gorgeous green fields disappearing into mountains on the left and blue seas disappearing into blue skies on the right. Golden sun smiling down on the whole picture. Awesome.

We did a bit of a drive through George, initially delighted to see that they have their own Schwabinger, but disappointed to see that it was no more than a deserted beer garden (although did have a dingy little restaurant annexed, which likely had some wholesome food to offer) so we carried on with Plan A and dropped my stuff off at the hotel, The Oakhurst. Lovely boutique hotel with a comfortable luxury room with it’s own little loft lounge (which we were tickled that we had wooden stairs up to where it seemed the other rooms only had ladders).

Christian had done lots of research about what to do and not to do, so it was hardly surprising that our sundowners and dinner were amazing. He’d planned dinner in Wilderness, with a short sundowner pub-crawl preamble.

Wilderness has a distinct main corner of activity, with 2 perpendicular roads lined with pubs and restaurants. We settled on Blue Olive as our first stop, drawn in by the allure of the decks being built around pre-existing trees, giving an almost treehouse effect. Really stunning in the warm sunshine, sipping on the local micro-brewery (Mitchell’s) beers.

Moving on, we tried a place called Bongo’s, which had the unfortunate positioning that all the tables either faced the highway or a large sports screen (neither particularly appealing to me), so this was a 1 Beer Wonder visit. (Although their pizzas did look good, albeit a bit on the pricey side).

With the sun rapidly setting we headed for our dinner spot, Salinas. Being quite newly opened, the restaurant is still in high demand (even with the locals) so it was Christian’s solid admin that had not only gotten us in, but managed to get us the best table in the house. Positioned on the corner of the deck that surrounded the 2 beach-facing sides of the building and without railings of any kind, it felt like we were actually on the beach. Idyllic spot to watch the sun creep behind the mountain on the other side of the bay… and eat super-fresh seafood… and sip back lush red wine.

After a long day and lovely evening, we retired back to the hotel for a nightcap. Christian had discovered that the bar staff are consistently very heavy handed with the wine, so the nightcap was more of a talking point than about the drink itself. True’s nuts, the barista poured a veritable fishbowl of wine each – to the point that had we not been drinking a glass of white (Christian) and a glass of red (me), it might have taken more than a bottle for our 2 drinks!

We started off Saturday the way every good Saturday should – with a hearty breakfast. The hotel has a continental buffet and hot food to order. We went with the omelettes (supplemented by yoghurts, cold meats, toast and juice) and were very pleased with our choice.

Heading off for our day of beach bouncing, we were hindered by a really big deal in George’s annual calendar The Wheelchair Race. Through and across town, it meant that roads were closed off and we got to see some of the more far flung suburban parts of George (who knew they had so many schools?!)

We stopped off at the Outeniqua Farmers’ Market, which would have been much better had we not eaten as it’s largely food stalls and fresh edible farm produce. Lots of delicious things I would have loved to gluttonise, but alas, there was no room in the inn (or in me).

Good time for a walk along the esplanade at Victoria Bay though. Beautiful cove with all the ingredients for the perfect beach… and so conveniently located as the signpost will tell you. Just 8315km from Perth, 9670 from Berlin, 6276km from South Pole and 9762km from Bali. It would seem that Victoria Bay is practically en route to anywhere!

Continuing the beach-hop, we moved on to Wilderness Beach, where we frolicked a bit in the sand and sea, getting toes wet and doing the seaside thing, but it was a bit windy so we didn’t stay very long.

Back on the main drag, we stopped in at Timberlake Market. Again all meats, cheese, wines and confectionery… and no room to enjoy it. This spot did seem to be a bit more family oriented though, with more activities for kids to do… while parents eat. I really should have brought a bigger appetite with me for this weekend!

The end result was arriving at Plett (our furthest point for the day) to park at Beacon Island and take a long walk along Beacon Beach. There were lots of jelly fish and blue bottles so I didn’t do more than the odd ankle-deep dunk in the water (not like I ever do much more than that, but still) but Christian was braver and said the water was ‘fresh’, which we all know means bloody freezing in my world!

Fiiiinally, I was ready for lunch and we hit the beach classic, Moby Dick’s on Central Beach, for some super-fresh fish and chips and the first beers of the day. Always such a treat to eat at a seaside spot, right on the beach, with excellent seafood (and company). If you’re in Plett, this place is definitely worth a visit.

First half of the day down, we were back in the car and headed for Knysna. We took a drive to Thesen Island and settled at the quay at a lovely place called Scirocco, where we worked our way through the as-yet undiscovered Mitchell’s offerings (with names like Forrester, 90 Shilling, Millwood Mild and Milk & Honey) whiling away the time until our sunset cruise. There were lots of other inviting-looking cafes, restaurants and pubs, but we were too engrossed in the hilarity of making up stories about the stick figures on the warning signs to bother to move.

… until we had to in order to make our 5 o’clock cruise from the Knysna quay.

The cruise was (surprisingly) a barless affair, so we organised some roadies from the restaurant at the quay… which might not have been the smartest move seeing as the boat also turned out to be a bathroomless affair!

The Knysna Bay makes for a lovely sunset, with calm waters and green hillside taking you to the mouth where the river meets the sea at the famous Knysna Heads. The cruise director was well versed in history and anecdotes from Knysna’s long and mottled past, which made for entertaining listening against the backdrop of all the lush scenery. Fortunately, the cruise only takes you to the official point where the river is marked as joining the sea (by buoys) so there’s no danger of spilling drinks (and it’s easier on the already-full bladder) than having to tussle the ocean and waves.

Returning to the quay leaves a large selection of entertainment options (of the similar eating/drinking variety as the rest of the region), but we bee-lined without hesitation to the Oyster Bar. A stalwart and a must. Jutting right into the bay, the quaint wooden building is the best place to grab an oyster (or several, they’re sold by size and individually by any portion number that suits) and watch the sun orange the sky.

With nothing left on the day’s busy agenda but dinner (yes, eating again), we were unanimous that we wanted to try Pomodoro’s in Wilderness. We’d walked past it the night before and both commented on how nice it looked and, more importantly, smelled.

What a great choice! A lovely cosy Italian restaurant, where we somehow managed to get a very private nook table that was the perfect candlelit setting for our animated recounting of the day’s experiences. Nice friendly staff, quick service, correct orders (despite my inevitable chops and changes) and we had a delicious tomato/mussels pasta and a pizza brimming with all our favourite toppings and cheese and a bottle of red, all for R200. Highly recommended!

On that winning note, we headed back to the hotel to call a very long day a very long night’s slumber!

Sunday’s adventure took us inland though the Outeniqua Pass to Oudtshoorn. After nearly nearly neeeearly running out of petrol, we free-wheeled into Oudtshoorn and looked, as one does, for the nearest ostrich farm. Safari Ostrich Farm it was. Having had a family holiday through Oudtshoorn, I didn’t feel it necessary to take a tour or ride a bird, so it was a case of some bird-watching (through a camera) and some shopping (the souvenir shop for the respective niece and nephews) and then we were on the road again.

Ordinarily, this would seem like an extravagance. To road-trip to all the way to a spot and stay only 20 minutes, but it’s super doable in these parts. All the towns are very close together, with most 20 or 30 km apart (George to Wilderness to Knysna to Plett along the coastline) and then slightly further 50km inland to Oudtshoorn and all the way with pretty scenery and things to look at along the Pass, so really no obligation to labour it to make the journey worthwhile. Of course, there’s always the failsafe option if you feel the need to linger – the town is heaving with lunch and tea places.

But, that wasn’t for us, and we headed off through the Robinson Pass, through Hartenbos to Mossel Bay.

What a truly undiscovered pleasure. Diaz Beach is really breath-taking, with the bluest sea and the beigest beach (beach sand really isn’t white), which we enjoyed from the lunch place du jour, Sea Gypsy.

Apparently a local legendary spot, it’s a simple set up with bench-style tables and plastic table clothes. But what it lacks in textbook elegance, it makes up for in charm and character… and the most melt-in-your mouth fresh seafood and gob-smacking portion sizes at bargain prices. I had a basket of crumbed calamari and crumbed mushrooms with chips, so much that I couldn’t finish and for only R40! If you’re choosing between here and Moby Dick’s, choose here.

Taking in the local sights – and working off some of lunch – we wandered around at Mossel Bay Point. The town is bizarrely peppered with caravan parks along the prime beach frontage. Never ever would you see such premier real estate go to the bottom of the holiday food chain like this! Mossel Bay Point follows this trend with people on deck chairs, under tents attached to mobile homes watching us (through the mesh fence of the caravan park) walk along the esplanade.

Right at the end there are stairs up to Blaize Cave and the lighthouse, if you’re into that sort of thing. We suspected that the path would continue further around the cove, but sometimes these mysteries are best kept as mysteries. And on a bellyful of lunch, it’s definitely one of those times.

I finally got my hands on some ostrich biltong, which had been a bucketlist for the trip. It’s much saltier than beef, but still worth the effort.

Last stop on the roadtrip was Herald’s Bay. A stunning secluded cove at the bottom of a hill with full mountain cliffs on 3 sides, sheltering a cul-de-sac of what can’t be more than 40 houses. And it’s just houses. No waterfront with restaurants and shops. Nothing. Not sure that I could live there or would even want to holiday there (it really feels quite remote, even though it’s only a few kilometres to the next town), but I’m very glad I can say that I’ve been there and seen how the other half live (although 40 can never really be considered half now, can it).

En route home, a stone’s throw from Herald’s Bay, we stopped in to see how their neighbours (contributors to the proverbial other half) were doing at Oubaai Hyatt Resort. Very fancy and lovely, but having had a weekend of seaviews, a 5* experience that overlooked a *gasp* golf course simply wasn’t anywhere near as good, so we decided to head back to George for sundowners at Kingfisher’s (a spot which Christian’s colleague had pointed out must be good since it always had a full parking lot… not realising that it shared the parking lot with a car dealership hehehe). We didn’t eat there, but it looked like it served a great pizza.

Finishing off the evening with a dip in the hotel pool and a ‘tankard’ of wine from the heavy-handed hotel server, we retired to the suite to rest our weary bones and have a giggle to ‘Sh!t My Dad Says’.

The sting was taken out of departure the next morning with a sumptuous breakfast at the hotel, a 5 (literally) 5 minute drive to the airport, with beautiful scenery and surroundings along the way and a super-quick check-in, as only secondary airports can do. Still, it was hard to be excited to return home after such an awesome weekend.