Exploring the Garden Route – the essentials

Located between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, the Garden Route is a stretch of coastline popular amongst backpackers and tourists looking to escape the cities and explore some of South Africa’s rural gems. To help you get the most out of your time, here are some hints and tips to help with planning your travel method, where to stay and where to eat.

If you’ve read our post on the highlights of the Garden Route, you’ll have plenty of ideas of where to go and what to see during your time travelling this famous South African coastline. Below we’ve put together some options to help bring your plans together including how to get around, where to stay and where to eat.

Travelling around

There are several options to travelling the Garden Route depending on your preferences, planned activities and budget.

For the backpacker (especially younger or solo) looking for flexibility and ease of travel with minimum prior planning on your part, the BazBus backpacker service is likely to be your first choice. The BazBus links hostels up and down the Garden Route to Cape Town and, through Port Elizabeth (PE), to the rest of South Africa. Tickets can be bought on a one-way or return basis, with options for unlimited time and hop-on, hop-off available. You can decide when you travel and where you stay (within reason), letting BazBus know within 24-48 hours when you want to travel and to where. This gives you the flexibility to change your mind en route and maximise your time exploring the Garden Route.

If you’re a more experienced traveller, travelling in a larger group or perhaps just looking for complete control on where you go, then hiring a car is the best option for you. Deals are available with all the major car hire companies to get you on your way, with many offering unlimited mileage and one-way fees that won’t break the bank. When numbers are taken into consideration, even two people can find this a cheaper alternative to the BazBus setup (especially when the weak value of the Rand is taken into account). We booked all our South Africa car hires through Atlas Choice who compare prices from many well-known providers and provide you a clear price upfront – we found that they were the cheapest provider for us for each hire we wanted to undertake (five in total).

Driving in SA is fairly simple too, with the N2 highway connecting from Cape Town through PE to Durban with pretty much everywhere you want to go and see less than a few hours off this route.

Top Tips: Driving in South Africa is not dissimilar to driving in the UK (albeit with often quieter roads) but you do need to be confident at driving on the left-hand side of the road. In addition, costs for less common automatic cars can make this a less attractive option, as many of our American friends who can’t drive a manual car found.

Accommodation choices

There are heaps of places to stay along the Garden Route, suitable for all needs and budgets. For BazBusers, there are pre-selected hostels with discounts and pre-organised stops available who can also help you plan your other journey legs. For those travelling independently, the Coast-to-Coast guide lists many of the best value accommodation options in an easy-to-read format allowing you to plan as much or as little as you want! Most offer either secure off-road parking or parking with an attendant service. Most don’t require booking in advance but it is worth checking this for your own piece of mind.

Some of our Garden Route favourites:

Santos Express, Mossel Bay

This boutique hostel sees you staying in former sleeper train carriages now permanently parked next to the beach in Mossel Bay. Room types available include a 16-bed dorm and single or twin cabins.

A rather wet Santos Express ready to board!
A rather wet Santos Express ready to board!

Onboard facilities include hot showers, toilets and electrical outlets in every cabin. Santos has its own bar and restaurant serving a range of cuisine options inside or on their terrace overlooking the sandy beach below which is suitable for paddling or swimming. If you’re staying in a single or twin, breakfast is included in your room rate free of charge.

Inside the dining car at the Santos Express
Inside the dining car at the Santos Express

Top tip: Please note that there are no kitchen facilities available at Santos Express for you to cook for yourself.

Amakaya Backpackers, Plattenberg Bay

This hostel is well set up for the traveller with a range of facilities and room options available. Dorms sleeping four to twelve people are available, plus double and twin private rooms too. Amakaya has its own bar and lounge area for you to relax in, plus complimentary tea, coffee, breakfast (in their self-service kitchen) and the all important WiFi!

Offstreet parking gives you somewhere secure to leave your car while you enjoy what Plattenberg has to offer too.

African Ubuntu, Jeffrey’s Bay
The view of the beach and sea from African Ubuntu
The view of the beach and sea from African Ubuntu

Located in the surfing Mecca of Jeffrey’s Bay, African Ubuntu has everything the weary traveller or avid surfer could desire. Tucked away in a residential area, Ubuntu offers dorms to private doubles built around the central common areas that form the beating heart of the hostel.

Our African Ubuntu room - luxury!
Our African Ubuntu room – luxury!

Free WiFi is offered to all visitors alongside the complimentary hot drinks and breakfast offered daily. There’s an honesty bar so you can grab a drink as the need arises, a pool table, book exchange and garden area to relax in. One feature we liked (but never got around to using) was the group meal option organised each evening and allowing you to try out a range of SA cuisine and traditions without breaking the bank.

As with most Jeffrey’s Bay hostels, discounted surfing lessons are available daily for beginners and intermediates to take advantage of, with cheap board and wet suit hire also provided.

Other location options

Beyond the ones we stayed at ourselves, some other destinations worth considering include:

  • Oudtshoorn – home of the Ostrich Farms and Cango Caves, this inland town is about two hours north of the coast but a good spot for local exploration.
  • Storms River – near to the border between Western and Eastern Cape, this little village located in the Tsitikamma National Park is home to multiple hostels servicing the many adventurous activities available here including tubing and the world’s highest commercial bungee jump.

Where to eat

Where and what you eat on your journey along the Garden Route will very much depend on your personal circumstances and preferences. With many hostels boasting fully-equipped kitchens, cooking for yourself is a cost-effective option for the money-minded traveller. If your schedule doesn’t suit cooking for yourself or you fancy a treat, there are loads of great places to stop and eat along the way.

Some of our favourites include:

Santos Express Restaurant, Mossel Bay

Eating at your hostel is always an easy option and the Santos Express’ restaurant is a good quality establishment with reasonable prices. We were here for two meals (dinner and breakfast): the choices were clear and simple with options to swap fries for alternatives a welcome bonus.

For breakfast, we had the included continental option of toast, fruits and cereal although the cooked breakfast (available for a supplementary cost) looked delicious too.

Safari Ostrich Farm Cafe, Oudtshoorn
Ostrich fillet for lunch - yum!
Ostrich fillet for lunch – yum!

We ate here whilst visiting the farm itself and enjoyed a delicious ostrich steak served with rice and mixed vegetables. The ostrich itself had been reared on the farm we were visiting and there is something to be said for being able to see the stock from which you have eaten!

LM in Plett, Plettenberg Bay
Peri-Peri chicken dish
Peri-Peri chicken dish

This Portuguese-Mozambican restaurant on the Main Street in Plettenberg Bay gave us the opportunity to try some old favourites but with a local twist.

Anthony's dinner choice
Anthony’s dinner choice

Claire tried the peri-peri chicken dish whilst I opted for the ribs (which I haven’t had since leaving the UK), both of which were deliciously served with their signature crisp-like chips and side salad.

Niña’s, Jeffrey’s Bay
Fried Calamari at Nina's restaurant in Jeffrey's Bay
Fried Calamari at Nina’s restaurant in Jeffrey’s Bay

This no nonsense restaurant is popular amongst locals and visitors alike and was less than two minutes drive from our hostel, African Ububtu. With surfing on the TV and surfing momentos adorning the walls, you won’t easily forget the surfing pedigree of where you are.

Claire's dinner at Nina's restaurant
Claire’s dinner at Nina’s restaurant

The menu is extensive and offers a mixture of dishes, specialising in fish from some of the local catches. I opted for the local calamari which was delicious. Claire went for pork medallions which was equally well complimented with chips, vegetables and side salad.

Have you travelled the Garden Route? Where was your favourite place to stay and what made it memorable? Did you BazBus or drive yourself? Where was your favourite spot to eat during your journey? We’d love to hear about your experiences so please comment below!

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