As beaten tracks go, the Garden Route has been well worn into a pretty smooth tourism product. But step off the N2 and take it slow, meet some locals and soon you're discovering scenery, hiking trails, farms and rondavels that those who fly past, ticking off boxes and chasing whale sightings rarely find.
The first time I 'did' the Garden Route, I took a linear approach. Beginning in Cape Town and making my way day by day, landmark by landmark, until I reached Port Elizabeth about a week later. In my mind I thought I had a pretty clear picture of what each of these places were all about. Hermanus; Whales. Wilderness; Birds. Knysna; Lagoon. Plettenberg Bay; Beach. Tsitsikamma; Forest. It was... very nice, I thought, but perhaps a little too polished, too European.
Fortunately, the second time I travelled this route I had plenty more time to dawdle. And then I understood. Behind the lagoons, whales and elephant sanctuaries, I found hundreds of kilometres of rolling hills, mountains and forests to explore. I found hidden lodges perched daintily on top of deep, plunging gorges.
I found vineyards and beautiful farm estates where guests are actively encouraged to stay long enough to get involved and actually experience the lifestyle, rather than look at it from behind their cameras. I found eco-reserves offering rustic sanctuaries, holistic therapies, permaculture courses and yoga retreats.
I found stunning country homes with immaculate gardens, enormous fireplaces, grand pianos and huge great danes, at the bottom of endless dirt tracks. I found lovingly built thatched rondavels, tree-houses, farmstalls, delis, bakeries, incredible 5 star cuisine, locally made crafts, all hidden in the most unassuming places. I found passionate people who believe in community development, local produce, slow living... And I found possibly the most diverse range of accommodation options in the country.
This is what I love about South Africa. Just when you think you've crossed another destination off your bucket list, you turn the corner and add another ten. Just when you think that you've tamed South Africa, she turns wild...
One word of caution, my advice would be to avoid the Garden Route during the December school holidays! Unless you particularly enjoy being packed onto a beach like a sardine and sitting in traffic...