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What are the five essential experiences on the Garden Route? We pin our flag to the mast and explore the five essential experiences that, in our opinion, define the Garden Route.
#1 GETTING AWAY FROM THE CROWDS ON TABLE MOUNTAIN
Cape Town is a City where mountains meet City and Sea. The City spreads from the charming V&A Waterfront up to the flanks of Table Mountain and there is no better place to see all it than from atop Table mountain amidst the lush fynbos. Most tourists venture no more than 5 minutes from the Cableway, but there is plenty of space to take in the view in solitude whether climbing Table Mountain or just enjoying the 2 hour loop from the Cableway station at the top.
#2 EXPLORE THE FYNBOS, MOUNTAINS & WILD COAST OF THE WESTERN CAPE
Fynbos describes the predominant vegetation in this area and describes a diverse ecosystem of small leaved bushes. The diversity is fascinating but the real reason we recommend time amongst the fynbos is that it creates an incredibly vibrant vista and is found in some incredible locations. None more dramatic than amidst the mountains and Coast-line of the Western Cape around Hermanus, Grootbos and De Kelders. This is a landscape where a single view can take in sweeping mountains, dramatic coast-lines and an ocean with abundant whales and dolphins (in season). From June – October the area becomes the best land based whale watching location in the world, but the region is worth a visit year-round. Explore the fynbos, mountains & wild coast of the Western Cape, where mountains meet ocean (Garden Route and Western Cape Beach Guide).
#3 TREKKING THE COASTAL PATHS IN TSITSIKAMMA NATIONAL PARK
A wild, wild coast-line. Easily our highlight of the Garden Route area. Densely forested mountains rise from the ocean, rivers carve deep clefts in the cliffs and dolphins frolic in the surf. This is absolutely not sun-beds and cocktails territory! This is a coast-line that begs to be walked. The Otter Trail is arguably the best Coastal walk in the world, but is an option only for those who book well in advance and are willing to carry their own gear (camping equipment and all). The Dolphin Trail is a fantastic alternative – a 3 day supported trek staying at comfortable lodges and highly recommended (no under 16s). For younger families the waterfall trail is a stunning short walk from Storms River Rest Camp that will have the kids clambering over rocks as the path hugs the ocean to a well-deserved swim in the splash pool of the afore-mentioned waterfall.
#4 THE WILDLIFE OF THE EASTERN CAPE
Safari snobs will claim the Garden Route has nothing to match the marvel of Kruger NP or the Masai Mara, but the area offers some excellent small private reserves and superb variety of wildlife. The area is perfect for families or those who don’t want the sole focus of their trip to be safari. How many places can you combine penguins (Boulders Beach in Cape Town), Whales and Dolphins (Whale Coast), Meerkat and Ostrich (Oudtshoorn) and traditional big five safari (Eastern Cape and Garden Route Game Reserves). Read our guide to our favourite Eastern Cape and Garden Route Safari Lodges and Camps for families –we’ve tested the majority of them with our own children).
#5 INDULGE & RELAX IN THE CAPE WINELANDS
(read our guide to getting the most out of the winelands with children)
A foodies nirvana set amidst drop dead gorgeous mountain landscapes. South Africans have embraced the vineyard as the ultimate family day out. Many of the best Estates come complete with picnic spaces, jungle gyms and whilst you are trying the wine, there is plenty of hot chocolate on offer for the children.
AND SOME OF THOSE WE FEEL ARE OVER-RATED...
- The Garden Route officially covers the area of Coast around Mossel Bay, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. It is in our opinion over developed and over-rated. We only usually recommend Knysna and Plettenberg Bay if you are dead-set on getting some quality beach time in. Our preference though is to use a single base on the fringes of the Garden Route in the Crags Area (home to a lovely set of very independent and unique accommodation options including Hog Hollow, The Kurland, Emily Moon River Lodge and Moonshine on Whiskey Creek). Here you are well located for the highlight of the Garden Route, Tsitsikamma National Park and it is easy too to dive into the visitor attractions of Knysna and Plett.
- Hermanus has traditionally been associated with the magnificent whale watching opportunities of the Western Cape. Whilst in season it does provide a magnificent land base for whale watching it is a little built up for our tastes. Head instead for Grootbos, De Kelders Reserve and De Hoop Reserve for equal if not superior whale watching and a sense of coastal wilderness that you just won’t get in Hermanus.
Quite the adventure hub, Moab is the perfect base for a white water rafting trip, with tours from 1 day to a week to choose from. If you have time, try to go for at least 2 days, as there is quite simply nothing like camping on a deserted river beach. The trip you choose depends mainly on the ages of your children, as younger children are not allowed to go on the faster rapids. Whilst life jackets are provided and should be worn at all times when on the boats and around the water, it is advisable that your child is able to swim to take part in a rafting trip.
The under 10’s are not old enough to go on the wilder rapids, so for this age group, there are two available rafting options:
A gentle two day float trip on the Colorado River close to Moab, passing through gentle rapids. In the late afternoon, you will set up camp on one of the many riverside beaches, where you will enjoy a mouth-watering dinner under the stars. This is a great option if you are short of time and want to experience the stunning scenery of the area from the river. Children will love playing and swimming in the river and adults will love the relaxed pace. Your guide will bring inflatable kayaks along so you have the option to explore at your own pace.
The Green River trip is ideal if you have more time and want to get further off the beaten track, well away from the day-trippers on the Colorado River. Your trip begins with a scenic flight before you set off in your raft. The five day trip includes some shorter hikes and the chance to see Indian petroglyphs, as well as some rapids. The emphasis is on fun and you will have a child-friendly guide with you who will take the children on nature hikes while you have a chance to relax by the river. Evenings are spent camping by the river and chatting round the campfire. Your guide will bring inflatable kayaks along so you have the option to explore at your own pace.
For the older children, there are a couple of rafting trips that go through wilder rapids:
This trip begins with a 2 hour drive upstream from Moab to the Colorado River. The first day is more of a relaxing one, with a chance to swim, play and float along. The next day is when the fun begins, with a succession of rapids to navigate. There are also some great hiking opportunities, as well as the chance to relax around camp. This is a great option for families short on time who want some good rapids. You will have the option of having a paddle boat for your family, so you can navigate the rapids as a family together.
The Cataract Canyon rafting trips take you through the stunning Canyonlands National Park, through some of the region’s most beautiful scenery. The trip begins on the Colorado River, close to Moab, and ends in Lake Powell. Over the course of the five days, you will tackle rapids, hike in the National Park and look for Native American petroglyphs. As with all of the trips, you will camp by the riverside and have plenty of time to relax. You will return to Moab via a scenic flight. This trip is by oarboat, which means that the guide navigates through the rapids.
I have done some white water rafting in my time, but was very seduced by the idea of taking my daughter rafting and then camping on a river beach and toasting marshmallows over a fire. A little contrived, perhaps, but that is what clichés are there for! Because my daughter is only seven, I was unable to take her on fast rapids – you need to be 10 and over for that – so we settled for a two day, one night ‘float trip’ on the Colorado River, with a few light rapids along the way.
We were given the option at the time of booking whether we wanted an inflatable kayak, or to go on the oarboat with our guide. We opted for a kayak, with the agreement that if we got tired, we could have a lift. And what a good choice that was! We set off on our adventure, kayaking down some of the most gorgeous scenery. The red rocks and clear blue skies had quite rightly earned our section of the river the moniker of ‘postcard alley.’ Our lunch was a sumptuous affair on a deserted beach. We went to look for interesting stones and explored our tiny island while our guide prepared some delicious food. The pace was perfect for us, enough time to potter around, but not so much time that we got restless. After lunch, we headed off again, stopping off for swims and waterfights along the way in the surprisingly warm water.
We eventually found a beach that was perfect for camping, so we pitched our tent and looked for lizards while our guide prepared our dinner. I didn’t have to lift a finger. As the stars started to come out, I sat back and was quite simply in awe of the scenery. We felt so far from civilisation, it was a real treat to have left mobiles behind and to just enjoy some of life’s simple pleasures. My daughter loved the beach and the surroundings and was as happy as Larry, I even had time to open my book and read a little. Our guide didn’t just have us toasting marshmallows, but introduced us to smores, a traditional American campfire treat of marshmallow, chocolate and crackers….
The next day, after a surprisingly good night’s sleep, we headed off down-stream again, much to our delight following a group of otters. We then hit the rapids, they weren’t huge, but they were immensely enjoyable. My daughter absolutely loved it.
All in all, a fabulous trip and possibly the most relaxing 24 hours of my life!
Read on for our round-up and comparison of the best Garden Route and Eastern Cape Private Reserves.
There are a growing range of quality safari options in the Eastern Cape and Garden Route area. Although certainly not as wild or expansive as Kruger, the location is convenient, the mountain and fynbos landscapes frequently beautiful and the wildlife plentiful. The region is perfect for a first time safari or for families with children who want a malaria free safari. The big National Park is the ever-growing Addo National Park which is noted in particular for its large herds of elephant, however most safaris take place on private conservancies.
What you are not going to get is that feeling of complete wilderness that you get in some of the best safari location in Southern and Eastern Africa, but don’t let that hold you back. For first time safari-goers or families with children, the region offers some fantastic experiences. The reserves don’t tend to be massive, so we usually recommend a two night stay at the end of a Cape Town and Garden Route itinerary.
The overall quality of the private reserves in this area is very high. In the search for the best family safari option in the Cape area, we have stayed at Gondwana and Botlierskop (near Mossel Bay), Buffelsdrift (Oudtshoorn), Riverbend Lodge (Addo), Amakhala Reserve (Eastern Cape) and Kariega and can honestly recommend a visit to any of these. There are pros and cons to each, but if you haven’t been on safari before, then I would honestly be surprised if you weren’t blown away by the experience at any of them.
GONDWANA GAME RESERVE (11000ha)
Gondwana Game Reserve is situated on a beautiful stretch inland from Mossel Bay in the heart of the Garden Route. The scenery here really is breath-taking and the wildlife is superb. Within a 24 hour stay we saw cheetah, giraffe and a pride of lion feasting on a freshly killed Eland. Accommodation is very well appointed and the adult only Kwena Lodge huts (modelled on traditional Khoi-San dwellings) are first class.
Families are accommodated in bush villas, these are ostensibly luxury villas plonked in the middle of a game reserve. They are incredibly well appointed, but the lavish interiors don’t necessarily chime with the environment. Another consideration is that young children aren’t allowed to eat in the main lodge restaurant so evening meals are served in the villas (you can also self-cater or braai on the veranda). This can be an advantage, but also has the potential to leave you feeling a little left out on a limb.
Gondwana is managed by a large corporate and somehow that does come across in the service when compared to the mostly owner managed reserves elsewhere in the region. On game drives, we spent a lot of time chasing around the bush after lions and would have preferred a more rounded experience. This is particularly important for families, children will be just as interested in the small game as the lions. Of course, you shouldn’t judge a place on one experience, but other reviews on Tripadvisor do correlate to some extent.
Wildlife 4/5 (well stocked and no segregation)
Landscape 5/5 (would be hard to beat the incredible views)
Safari Ambience 2/5 (luxury rather than bush ambience, particularly in family accommodation)
Families 3/5 (activity packs for kids, but families limited to villas)
Tripadvisor 4.5/5 (based on 163 Reviews )
Value 4/5 (there are some very good specials worth looking out for)
Overall Score = 3.6/5 (Good Garden Route Option when offers are available)
In Gondwana's favour, superlative views
We saw a small pride of lion feasting on this Eland at Gondwana
Kwena Lodge Huts in Gondwana are for adults only
The interior of the family villas. Luxurious, but not exactly in keeping with the bush setting.
BOTLIERSKOP PRIVATE GAME RESERVE (3000 ha)
The family owned Botlierskop Private Game Reserve is one of the smallest reserves in the Garden Route and Eastern Cape, but makes up for its diminutive size with great service and family friendly activities. We loved the safari style accommodation in the thick of the bush and were genuinely startled and thrilled when confronted by the shining eyes of a nyala gleaming out of the darkness on our walk back to the tent to one night. There is an excellent range of activities available and Botlierskop is particularly well suited to families. We took a morning horse ride amongst among rhino and plains wildlife which was absolutely unforgettable and comes highly recommended (suitable for beginners or experienced riders).
The disadvantages of Botlierskop are two-fold, firstly the land feels the least wild of all the options discussed here with electricity pylons over-head and neighbouring villages and farms clearly visible from view-points. Secondly, the predators (lions) are kept segregated from the other wildlife which although understandable from the point of view of conservation on a 3000ha plot, does diminish the experience a little.
Wildlife 3/5 (well stocked but lions kept apart)
Landscape 3/5 (would be hard to beat the incredible views)
Safari Ambience 3/5 (Great Safari tents in the bush)
Families 5/5 (great balance of activities for families and no restrictions)
Tripadvisor 5/5 (based on 183 Reviews )
Value 5/5 (offers some of the best value in the region)
Overall Score = 4/5 (activities make this a good garden route option for families on first time safaris)
Service and guiding is superb at Botlierskop, note the electiricity pylons and farmlands in the background
The views though are otherwise stunning
It is understandable, but having the lions in a separate section of the reserve is a disadvantage.
The big reason to visit though, especially for families, is the range of activities on offer, including horse rides through the reserve.
BUFFELSDRIFT GAME LODGE (4500 ha)
Buffelsdrift is full of surprises. On the face of it, the entrance just 5 minutes drive outside of Oudtshoorn feels more like a visitor attraction than a private reserve, but hidden within is a beautiful land-scape. Lavishly appointed safari tents are located on the shore of the lake and we were woken during our stay by the sound of hippos literally metres outside. We were also pleasantly surprised by the quality of guiding with a refreshing focus on all the wildlife not just the big animals - the 6 year old loved learning about (and nibbling) the wild plants. Currently there are no lions on the reserve, but plans are afoot to acquire neighbouring land and introduce predators.
Buffelsdrift is very proud of its elephant experiences which allow you to get up front and very personal with their tame elephants. Children and adults who are confident with animals will love it. For me it lacks the sense of wilderness you get in the best reserves, but given its location, good value and the tents on the lake, it is arguably the best choice for a family looking to drop a short and relatively inexpensive safari experience into a Garden Route holiday.
Wildlife 3/5 (well stocked but no lions yet)
Landscape 4/5 (Incredible views from the look-out)
Safari Ambience 3/5 (Great Safari tents on shores of the damn, but close proximity to civilisation detracts)
Families 4/5 (Elephant encounters and balanced guiding good for families, only drawback is that families must stay in the second tier of tents back from the lake)
Tripadvisor 4.5/5 (based on 179 Reviews )
Value 5/5 (offers some of the best value in the region)
Overall Score = 3.9/5 (activities make this a good garden route option for families on first time safaris)
06.30hrs @ Buffelsdrift: 6 year old emerges from bed and goes to take a look at the hippos that have just woken her. Hard to argue with that.
If you know of a better spot for a sun downer than Buffelsdrift then I would like to know about it...
The Elephant Experience is much lauded, but it isn't for everyone (look closely at her face).
Sightings of Giraffe, Rhino, Hippo numerous plains species are common, but there are currently no predators on the Buffelsdirft reserve.
AMAKHALA PRIVATE RESERVE (7000 Ha)
Amakhala Private Reserve in the Eastern Cape is set in a beautiful valley with excellent wildlife and accommodation options at reasonable value compared to its more illustrious neighbour Shamwara. It has an industry leading attitude to conservation and supporting local communities and a nice selection of small individually owned camps and lodges. Our attention is naturally drawn to the small camps in Amakhala which offer a superb balance of safari ambience and value.
Hillsnek is a simply gorgeous small camp set on a bluff overlooking the main section of Amakhala reserve. This is one of those places where everything comes together just so, with fresh contemporary and inviting décor and a wonderfully relaxed ambience. There are just three tents and the main pool / dining area all wrapped around the incredible wall-to-wall views. Quatermains is a small and intimate colonial expedition style camp which means paired down furnishings, crisp white canvas and a simple firelight and candle ambience. There is no electricity at night - all lighting is provided by paraffin lamps. Owners, Riaan and Julie Brand host at camp, are very experienced safari guides and have an exclusive arrangement to access both Shamwari and Amakhala reserves on game drives, which is a huge plus. Also unlike most other safari options in the area, it is possible to enjoy guided bush walks, which is a fantastic way to get a feel for the environment and of course stretch your legs a little. Quatermains is ostensibly for over 12s only but offers fantastic value for larger families (of five or more people) who can take place in exclusivity and in which case no age limits apply.
Wildlife 4/5 (well stocked but no lions yet)
Landscape 4/5 (Incredible views from the look-out)
Safari Ambience 4/5 (Great Safari tents on shores of the damn, but close proximity to civilisation detracts)
Families 4/5 (Personal service at small camps very accommodating of children)
Tripadvisor 5/5 (based on 96 Reviews for Amakhala Hillsnek and 76 reviews for Amakhala Quatermains)
Value 5/5 (offers some of the best value in the region)
Overall Score = 4.3/5 (Superb small camps and good overall value)
Typically stunning Eastern Cape scenery at Amakhala
Amakhala has good populations of elephant and giraffe in addition to limited numbers of predators
The safari shower at Hillsnek Amakhala, streets and away one of the finest camps in the Eastern Cape
Looking for souvenirs. Hillsnek provide a children's pack including an egg box for a poo safari.
KARIEGA GAME RESERVE (9000 Ha)
A slightly larger more commercial operation than many of the others discussed here, Kariega is nevertheless a very good option with fantastic wildlife. Over two game drives we saw lions on three separate occasions and were very lucky to see one hunt and kill a bush pig. The guides are excellent and very enthusiastic. There is a choice of accommodation available, and the quality does vary. The River Lodge is superb (couples only), but accommodation in the main lodge and Ukhozi Lodge is a little dated in the interiors. Having said that who is going to complain about that when you have a deck with private plunge pool overlooking a stunning valley? The landscapes are beautiful and wild, but are let down slightly by the public road running through the reserve.
For families, the advantages of staying somewhere like Kariega is that the slightly less intimate atmosphere will probably mean you can relax more and worry less about noise levels.
Wildlife 4/5 (well stocked)
Landscape 4/5 (Beautiful)
Safari Ambience 3/5 (Let down only by the road running through)
Families 4/5 (Relaxed holiday ambience good for families)
Tripadvisor 4.5/5 (based on 240 Reviews )
Value 5/5 (offers some of the best value, look out for offers)
Overall 4.1/5 (Hard to fault, only real criticism is lack of intimacy)
More stunning Eastern Cape scenery at Kariega
We got lucky and saw a lion kill a bush pig, it was all over in seconds.
Guests staying in the superb River Lodge get to travel to the main game viewing area by boat
Guests staying in the Kariega Ukhozi Lodge get their own plunge pools
RIVERBEND LODGE (14000 Ha)
Riverbend Lodge is situated on a private concession within Addo National Park. It is probably the most expensive option in this round-up and is almost certainly the highest quality on offer. The plot of land is gorgeous, taking pride of place in Addo where the park meets the Zuurberg Mountains. The quality of guiding was the best we have experienced in the Eastern Cape and the level of service is incredibly personal.
Being part of Addo, the game can be less concentrated than in some of the other private reserves, but that only lends it a greater authenticity and sense of wilderness. The lodge itself is a very high end colonial farm-stead. River Bend goes to great lengths to accommodate families and comes highly recommended by my 6 year old. There are kid’s menus and dedicated children’s activities on offer, but it is really simply the quality of the guides and staff that makes this place so welcoming for families. It is worth noting that there is a separate farm-stead available for rental for larger family groups.
Wildlife 5/5 (Part of the greater Addo National Park)
Landscape 5/5 (Zuurberg Mountains provide a beautiful backdrop)
Safari Ambience 4/5
Families 5/5 (Most welcoming lodge for families in the region)
Tripadvisor 5/5 (based on 161 Reviews )
Value 2/5 (Is considerably more expensive than other options)
Overall 4.3/5 (Best on offer, but expensive)
River Bend Lodge is a high quality lodge with superb guides, expect a very personal experience.
Breakfast with herds of Addo elephants wandering by, and yes the granola was the best I have ever tasted.
Buffalo at Addo River Bend Lodge
Honestly speaking, a first time safari goer can’t go wrong with any of these options. When planning itineraries for clients we tend to opt for the Eastern Cape Reserves, simply because it makes more sense in the overall balance of things to finish your trip with a safari. Overall, a couple of places stand head and shoulders above for their ambience, intimacy and value, including Amakhala Hillsnek (easily the best appointed camp in the area), Amakhala Quatermain’s (pared back safari camping with access to Amakhala and Shamwara reserve) and Riverbend Lodge. Having said that, Buffelsdrift in Oudtshoorn, Gondwana & Botlierskop near Mossel Bay and Sanbona near Montague are all good options if you are flying in and out of Cape Town and not making it as far East as Port Elizabeth.
If budget is tight, then the combination of staying in Camp Figtree with forays into Addo National Park is a good one. Staying in Addo Rest Camp itself will be even cheaper, the accommodation is so-so but is amidst the wildlife (it is not unusual to see giraffe and elephant from your cabins), it can be a little over-run and it is unlikely you will get that safari ambience. Like-wise out of peak, a one day stay at any of the Garden Route reserves is a good option.
There is no denying that the Grand Canyon, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, is a sight not to be missed. The same, sadly, cannot be said of the accommodation options in the vicinity, which offer a comparatively low quality at extortionate prices. If you want to spend more than a day at the Grand Canyon, however, you are a captive market and so just need to accept it and focus on the views.
The main accommodation choice you need to make is whether to stay in the Grand Canyon National Park, or outside. The advantage of being in, is that you are in walking distance of some amazing views, which makes sunrise and sunset viewing easier. There is also the added romance of staying in the park. However, park accommodation sells out months in advance and is very expensive for what it is. Also, none of the accommodation in the park has a pool, which is a consideration if you are travelling with children. Of the park accommodation, Maswik Lodge North is a reasonable option, set in ponderosa pine forest, rooms are fairly out-dated, but have the advantage of a small balcony area overlooking the forest. Thunderbird Lodge offers small motel rooms with a rim view which are ideal for early risers wanting to beat the crowds for early morning views.
Outside of the park, in the south, the main gateway town is Tusayan, which is a 10 minute drive from the park. It is a fairly soulless place, but has the usual chains of hotels and motels on offer (Best Western, Holiday Inn Express etc) Whilst these don’t offer particularly characterful accommodation options, for a night or two they are perfectly fine and have the added benefits of having leisure facilities – nearly everywhere has a pool and the Best Western even has a bowling alley.
Further south, is the charming town of Flagstaff, but at 1 ½ hours drive from the park, this is a less convenient option.