* This article first appeared here on MzanziTravel Magazine
South Africa’s Garden Route is the legendary green corridor where the mountains create astonishing gorges and passes to drive through, with an undulating coastline never far off. Resting along the coastline are some of South Africa’s favourite holiday towns and I was off in my Ford EcoSport to explore some of the lesser-known spots hidden on route.
Carmel Guest House: the Retreat with a View
If your holiday needs to start with some rest and reflection, Carmel Guest Farm might just provide the stillness needed. Established in the 1950s, Carmel’s founders had a desire to create a place of safety and rest – elements they had found helpful from their faith and wanted to share with others.
For decades people have visited Carmel as a place of rest and refuge. As its popularity grew children’s programmes were added to the offering, and now mention the Guest Farm across South Africa and many families will recall happy holidays spent there. Cresting a high ridge, Carmel gifts visitors with sweeping views down towards Victoria Bay below.
A rhythm of reflection, gently paused by meals, helps restore a sense of calm from the helter-skelter that often consumes us our lives. The property has been designed for retreat with benches placed strategically across the sloping gardens, and the various paths that dissect them. The glass-sided chapel offers both sanctuary and stunning views over the valley – and must surely be one of the country’s most beautifully located wedding chapels.
Regardless of if guests come a faith context or not, Carmel has a tangibly numinous environment that fosters both peace and calm. There are a variety of accommodation options ranging from my favourite sea-facing rooms to the large family units. Find out more at www.carmelguestfarm.co.za.
What to do
- Victoria Bay
A mere 5-minute drive from Carmel, Victoria Bay is surely one of South Africa’s most beautiful beaches and best kept secrets. Enjoy a stroll along the little promenade and pier, and when you’re ready to retreat from the beach there’s a little café alongside the parking lot to get a meal or drink.
- Coffee and cake in Wilderness
Wilderness has a host of little whimsical shops – spend some time exploring them and then settle for coffee and cake at the Green Shed Coffee Roastery. A delightful mix of seating options and décor showcase the owners’ unique tastes. The outside seating area is a favourite of mine if the weather plays along.
- Visit Kaaiman’s Grotto
Park your car at the Westerly end of Wilderness’ Sands Road and look for the abandoned railway track above. Follow this in the direction of George and after 20-minutes you’ll discover the eccentric Kaaiman’s Grotto. The cave boasts an eclectic mix of décor and design and is well worth a visit. Look out for Clifford who maintains it, and to find out more about the cave’s story. The walk should only be done in a group and to be safe rather leave your valuables in the car.
THE CRAGGS, PLETTENBERG BAY
Trogon House: the Tsitsikamma Tree-Top Paradise
Twisting and turning through the indigenous forest, the road to our first stop was already half the adventure. Since the Garden Route is home to the legendary Tsitsikamma forest, of course, our road trip had to include a stay in a treehouse. Trogon House & Forest Spa is a 25-minute drive from Plettenberg Bay and offers guests the chance to stay in one of their three treehouses, one of which is the glass Honeymoon Suite, or the two Forest Suites.
Arriving at Trogon the adventure continues as you wind your way through the property on its suspended walkways. The central lodge area is home to two forest suites, the pool deck and the guest spaces for dining and relaxing. As you wind down in the gorgeous green environment, the forest provides a natural soundtrack courtesy of the birds and monkeys that also call it home.
My home for the stay was the Honeymoon Suite – a large elevated treehouse with fireplace, freestanding bath, and veranda overlooking the forest. On the second day, the weather turned, offering us cooler temperatures as a storm began to settle in. I lit a fire and watched the storm approach from the warmth and safety of my glass treehouse. For a remote, enchanting, and utterly beautiful getaway you don’t have to look much further.
One of Trogon House’s marvels is the on-site Forest Spa. Picture a spa with a jacuzzi, sauna and fireplace also set in its own treehouse. The glass-walled spa overlooks a private section of the forest giving complete privacy to guests. A variety of treatments are on offer, ranging from an hour to a whole day. Be sure to ask about their couples experience – you’ll thank me later!! The good news is that the spa is also available for day visitors, but book in advance to avoid disappointment.
During the course of my stay I couldn’t help being reminded of South African writer Dalene Matthee, whose well-loved novels recounted stories of those who first settled in the surrounding forests, centuries ago. A stay at Trogon may be a rather luxurious reimagining of their experience, but the same charm and intrigue of staying in the heart of the forest is bound to bowl you over. See more at www.trogonhouse.co.za.
What to do
What to do
- Monkey Land
The driveway of Trogon House skirts the edges of Monkey Land itself and so I couldn’t resist a visit. I had no idea that this forest just outside Plett was also home to the world’s biggest primate sanctuary, with 10 species of ape, monkey, and lemur. You’re only able to visit with a guided tour and I was encouraged to find out interaction with the primates is allowed, only observation. A fun activity for the whole family to enjoy.
- Wine Tasting
It was only last year that I discovered Plettenberg Bay has an impressive collection of boutique wineries making a fully-fledged wine route. Start at Bramon for their famous bubbly then move to Newstead for a feast of décor and food. Lodestone grows sensational olives worth a tasting, and end off at Kay & Monty for a tasting with a view.
- Hog Hollow Horse Trails
The good news is that you don’t have to drive along the wine route. Allow the Hog Hollow Horse Trails to take you on a carriage ride between farms – the most unique way I’ve toured wineries in South Africa before! Visit their website for a host of fabulous experiences not to be missed.
- Monkey Land
The Turbine Hotel: Where history and luxury meet
Over the past decade or so, South Africa has witnessed the birth of several exciting building conversions, where historic buildings have been brought back to life in creative ways. Knysna’s Turbine Hotel is one of these unique projects and is in every way a tasteful tribute to the past with a chic and thoughtful reimagining of an original turbine plant.
From the 1920s Knysna’s Thesen Island was a timber processing plant, and the power station was commissioned in 1940. She breathed her last breath in 2001 and after several years of planning and rebuilding, The Turbine opened in 2010 as a 26-bedroom 5-star boutique hotel. It was the last stop on the Garden Route and I was arriving much anticipation, finally visiting the acclaimed Turbine Hotel.
When it comes to the rooms, all 26 have been individually appointed. These luxe spaces are sanctuaries of rest in-between exploring the town, and in keeping with the rest of the hotel, expect eclectic industrial elements popping up, tastefully reminding you that you’re in a converted historical power station!
The hotel’s location on Thesen island is perfect for exploring and the staff at the make it easy for you to enjoy all Knysna has to offer. The Turbine owns two boats which offer guests cruises around the estuary – our sunset cruise included drinks and a snack platter and I even got to try my hand at being skipper.
When you’re done the Turbine Spa has a wide range of treatments for day visitors as well as hotel guests. The gorgeous wallpapers alone, are enough to entice you in for a treatment.
From electric past to an eclectic present, the Turbine Hotel no expense has been spared in carefully curating the spaces with art, playful yet sensible decor and a variety of classy dining spaces. A visit to the hotel should feature on any Garden Route itinerary, and even if you’re not able to overnight a day visit will prove to be worth the wait.
Many will recall the devasting fires that swept through Knysna in 2017 causing widespread damage. The hotel staff shared with me some of the story of the horrific events. I was encouraged to hear that open opened its doors, rooms, couches – in fact, every possible space – for victims of the fire over those traumatic days. Hospitality with a heart – something you’ll experience first-hand with a stay at the Turbine. Explore more at www.turbinehotel.co.za.
Knysna: What to do
- Explore by Bike
Why not get on a bicycle and head off to explore both the island and the town. The Turbine Water Club has bikes for rental from R180 for two hours. The ride to the Knysna Heads is a scenic and easy outing, as you follow the track that skirts the edge of the lagoon.
- Get on the ocean
For a scenic option, the Turbine Water Club also offer sunset cruises, boat rides or kayak hire. The sunset cruise includes a tour of the Knysna from the water, with snacks and drinks included.
- Gin tasting
Gin fever has also reached Knysna, and you can taste the variety on offer at Knysna Gin’s distillery just outside town. There’s a great selection of cocktails on offer that showcase their products and if you’d like to try the gin ahead of time, you can order it online from Yuppiechef.
If I’m honest, I was initially a little hesitant when the team at Ford South Africa suggested that I take one of their EcoSports for the trip across the Western Cape – primarily because of its 1.0l engine. In addition, being an automatic I was worried about its power as it transported us and our gear up and down the Garden Route hills.
After the 5 hour drive from Cape Town to George, I quickly realised that I had no reason for concern. I now also understand why the EcoSport has won the award for the best engine under 1.0 litres for 6 years running. With 92kW power and 170Nm torque, the vehicle delivers excellent fuel economy and responsive power.
Combined with 16” allow wheels, an 8” colour Touchscreen with ApplePlay compatibility and of course great fuel efficiency – we couldn’t have had a better ride. This must surely be one of South Africa’s most exciting road tripping car, and also surprisingly affordable with vehicles starting at around R260k.