South Africa shows it’s got way more to offer than safaris

South Africa Garden Route
By Linsey McNeill
31/05/2024
Home » South Africa shows it’s got way more to offer than safaris

South Africa has become one of the most affordable safari destinations, due mainly to the strength of the pound against the rand, but it’s also fantastic value for an action-packed self-drive or touring holiday.

As Tourism Minister Patricia de Lille announced at this year’s Indaba, Africa’s travel trade show, there’s so much more to explore in South Africa than its safari parks and Cape Town and, with such a favourable exchange rate, now is the time to do it.

To find out what’s on offer, Travel Gossip joined a fam trip along South Africa’s Garden Route, which stretches around 125 miles along the Western Cape, from Mossel Bay in the west to Storms River in the east.

It’s called the Garden Route because it passes through lush rainforests, wetlands filled with exotic birds, vineyards producing some of South Africa’s best wines, and along a rugged, dramatic coast encircled by the Outenique and Tsitsikama Mountains.

Our four-day road trip took us along the N2, a well-maintained highway that hugs the coastline, each day providing us with the sort of incredible views that just make you want to pull over and drink it all in. In fact, one long-haul specialist in our group said the views of the coast were even better than Big Sur on California’s Pacific Coast Highway, one of America’s most iconic road trips.

We attempted to paraglide, played drums with children in a township, swam with seals, ziplined through a forest and hiked along vast sandy beaches; we stayed in fabulous hotels, each one unique; and we dined on delicious fresh fish and meat, every time expressing surprise at just how cheap it was: “Eight pounds for a steak, that’s ridiculous!” “Five pounds for a burger, you’d pay twice as much in London!”

Our road trip started on the outskirts of George, a short hop by plane from Johannesburg or a three or four-hour drive from Cape Town. The first night was spent at the five-star 18-suite Manor House, a former 19th century farmhouse transformed into a boutique hotel in the beautifully manicured grounds of the Fancourt, famed for its three golf courses, including one links. 

A Classic Room at Fancourt

My suite, with a separate living room, giant en-suite with a walk-in shower as well as a bath, a bar with decanters filled with liquor, plus baskets and jars full of treats seemed like pretty good value at a lead in price of £420 a night in May, which is the off-season. Classic rooms at the Fancourt, which are smaller but just as lovely, start at a very reasonable £150 a night.

In addition to the Manor’s own delightful outdoor pool, guests have full use of the facilities at the 115-room Fancourt, which includes a proper spa with a large indoor pool, steam room, sauna, plunge pool and whirlpool, plus of course the golf courses and outdoor pools. 

We ate at La Cantina in the Manor House where you can feast on flame-grilled ribeye steak with truffle fries for less than £15. My spaghetti alle vongole was delicious.

Worth noting is that the Fancourt has one accessible room, which are apparently rarer than hen’s teeth on the Garden Route. Also worth mentioning is that golfers planning to play a round on the links, a private course, (at extra cost) need to book tee times months in advance.

While a little off the beaten track, the hotel is only a few minutes’ drive from George airport and it’s ideal for clients who want to play golf, relax by the pool or in the spa, or cycle around its extensive grounds. 

It’s also a great base from which to explore the surrounding area, or try some activities such as tandem parasailing, available from numerous outfits in the Western Cape, including at Wilderness, a beautiful spot with modern beach houses – some of them available for rental – sitting right on a long sweep of sand. 

Unfortunately (or maybe not!) our parasailing session was cancelled due to a lack of wind. The lesson learned it that if this is a must-do, clients ideally need to spend at least three days in the area to increase the likelihood of getting the best conditions for take off.

We consoled ourselves over fresh oysters and steak at Butterfly Blu, a restaurant perched on a dune at Brenton-on-Sea, which surely must be one of the most scenic lunch spots in the world.

Our itinerary, courtesy of South Africa Tourism, included a tour of the Knysna Township, organised by township resident Ella Mapurisa of Emzini Tours. Uncomfortable at first at joining in with this sort of voyeur tourism, I did actually find the tour fascinating and, surprisingly, uplifting.

Ella, a brilliant guide, explained that the tours she runs provide funding for her outreach project, caring for children of alcoholic parents unable to look after their younsters themselves. The daughter of alcoholics herself, she has provided a home for 16 children so far.

Originally populated by black and coloured South Africans expelled from the cities during apartheid, townships now have a more mixed population. I got the impression that Knysna, home to some 30,000 people, is probably one of South Africa’s model townships with a large percentage of ‘Mandela Houses’ – solid homes built by the government and gifted to South Africans – and there are supermarkets and chain stores as well as mini markets selling single tea bags and sugar by the spoonful, stores selling ‘medicinal’ herbs, and enterprising businesses in shipping containers.

We visited a hairdresser who seemed happy to welcome us into her shipping container-salon as she box-braided the hair of a client – who joked that the braids would have to last for three months since she was paying the eye-watering sum of R400 (about £17).

At the end of the tour, Ella took us to ‘one of her houses’ for tea, a lesson in Xhosa (one of the official languages of South Africa) and a traditional sing along with some of her 16 foster children. It was a joyful moment, (despite my concerns about the little ones ‘performing’ for tourists), especially as the children seemed to enjoy it. 

As the Tourism Minister said at Indaba, getting overseas visitors into the townships is a way to spread the wealth from the tourism industry into local communities. It also fosters greater understanding of each other, but I think some tourists would feel understandably squeamish at the thought of ogling locals much worse off than them.

Our second night was spent at the Turbine Hotel and Spa, a quirky, boutique property created from a former power station on Thesen Islands in Knysna. Old turbines – albeit painted in bright colours – still sit in the public areas, and there are small pieces of machinery in some of the bedrooms.

Thesen itself is a cute marina on the pretty Knysna estuary, with a few shops, bars and restaurants. Almost Disneyesque in appearance, it’s a chilled, laid-back pit stop on the Garden Route.

Most people come to South Africa on safari, hoping to see the Big 5, but did you know you can also swim with seals? There’s a huge seal colony at Plettenberg Bay, just a short boat ride from the beach.

Our expert guide from Plett Sea Adventures kitted us out with wetsuits, goggles and flippers and seconds after we’d jumped into the (chilly) water, we were surrounded by dozens of seal pups, darting between our legs, jumping in front of our eyes and – in some cases – nibbling at our floats. 

Another thing that South Africa is well known for its wines, so from the coast we headed to the verdant hills of The Crags to Kay and Monty Vineyards to sample their hand-crafted  ‘Champu’ fizz, ‘SAV’ sauvignon blanc, Pretty Polly rose and ‘The Chick’ red over cheese and meat platters and fresh salads.

Unbelievably we still had room that evening for a beer-tasting session at Barrington’s in Plett, where we dined on steaks, ribs and burgers. Incidentally, most meat in South Africa is halal.

Our third hotel was The Old Rectory, just a few steps from the stunning Hobie beach in Plett, it is a delightfully restored 18th century rectory with bright, large bedrooms and a small outdoor swimming pool plus a spa in a restored school house.

The final adventure of our Garden Route road trip was a Canopy Walk at Storms River in the Tsitsikamma forest, which isn’t, as the name suggests a walk at all, instead you hurtle along 10 – yes 10! – ziplines, dangling from the giant Yellowood and Hard Pear trees 30 metres off the ground. Someone should have warned me!

Claire from 2by2holidays

Of course, we were in safe hands with our hilarious guides (‘lift your feet at the end, you need your ankles for the long walk back’) and the adrenaline meant we burned off some of the extra calories we’d consumed at all the delicious meals.

Talking of which, we finally got to enjoy a traditional South African braii (BBQ) at the Cape St Francis Resort in the Eastern Cape. We were staying in their delightful beachside villas, each of which has a shared kitchen where their chefs served us melt-in-the-mouth lamp cutlets with delicious salads too.

On our final morning, we strolled from the hotel along the broad sandy beach in the May sunshine to Port St Francis, known as the Calamari Capital of South Africa. Some of the finest squid in the ocean is found in the waters around St Francis and shipped all over the world, but mainly to Spain where, it seems, they can’t get enough of it. Who knew?  We were treated to a platefuls of hot calamari and, although it’s not my favourite dish, I can confirm it was good.

As we boarded our flight at Port Elizabeth, possibly a few pounds heavier than when we’d landed, I had the feeling that although we’d sampled such a lot of what the Garden Route had to offer, there was still a lot more to see and do.

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