Here in South Africa, students in university just arrived back from a week-long recess, commonly known in the U.S. as spring break. My friends and I all had the Garden Route on our bucket lists of things to do in South Africa, so we all decided to plan a vacation centered around this beautiful coastal experience. The Garden Route stretches across the south-eastern coast of South Africa and, if you are coming from Port Elizabeth, can lead you to Cape Town. The many places we stopped along the Garden Route were beautiful and filled with welcoming people and I am going to share with you some of my most favorite destinations. Technically, my friends and I did the Garden Route in a week with a longer visit in Cape Town, but the places I will be discussing can definitely be done in a weekend.
Knysna is about a three-hour drive from Port Elizabeth and is very doable for a weekend trip. The trip is easily done by car, but to make life easier, many tourist companies offer services to help bridge the distance. Knysna is a small town surrounded by breath-taking views of forests and the lagoon that engulfs the area. This is a popular vacation spot because of its various types of activities. There are many outdoor-oriented activities for those who love hiking or getting great scenic pictures. My most favorite activity was the Knysna Elephant Park. You can choose from an early morning walking tour or the feeding tour that departs every hour. We chose the feeding tour which also includes time for pictures and just hanging out with the elephants. Feeding the herd was such an out-of-body experience! Feeling their trunks as they took the fruit and vegetables out of my hands made me laugh every time. This park also serves as a sanctuary to help orphaned elephants, which is how the herd started out when the park first opened. If you decide to head into Knysna and plan to spend a few nights there, I recommend staying at Knysna Lodge. This lodge has two glamping cabins which makes for a comfortable but laid-back experience up above the Knysna views! We were also given 10% discounts for different attractions around the area such as the Knysna Elephant Park and Monkeyland.
Oudtshoorn, while not technically on the Garden Route, is about an hour north of George, which was where we were staying for the night. We decided to go a little off the route to explore the ostrich capital of the world. Oudtshoorn is in the Swartberg and Outeniqua Mountains and has the most beautiful orange-tinted landscapes. Once we made it into the mountains, we made our way to the Cango Wildlife Ranch. This ranch reminded me of a smaller zoo focused 100% on conservation and raising awareness of a small group of animals. A tour guide took us around the different habitats and gave us stories on the different animals in the ranch. At the end of the tour, my friends and I had paid for the experience to meet with their junior cheetahs and learn a little more about them. I was over the moon when we walked into the cheetah habitat to spend some time with them, as well as when we learned about how the ranch takes care of them. Petting a cheetah isn’t as soft as I thought it would be, yet it was still as awesome as I expected! For this excursion, I recommend finding a weekend where the weather is not going to be so hot. Oudtshoorn is positioned well away from the coast and the area can be scorching hot if you do not plan your day accordingly. This excursion and location are amazing, and I would recommend it to anyone searching for something fun and educational. This location is a further drive but if you have a longer weekend or a recess it is a must-do!
Plettenberg Bay is the closest location to Port Elizabeth on my list. It takes about two and a half hours to get to from campus. This stop on the Garden Route has it all- adventure sports, swimming with seals, and my favorite, Monkeyland! Plettenberg Bay is in the Tsitsikamma mountains and is a popular destination for many tourists and South Africans. There is an activity for everyone in this beautiful region. I wish we could have spent more time here and I may find myself back there one weekend before the end of my program. As I said, we visited the monkey sanctuary called Monkeyland and it was an out-of-this-world-experience. Close your eyes and imagine little monkeys running past your feet and jumping above your head in the canopy. This sanctuary is one of the coolest places I have ever been. We were led on a guided walking safari where we learned that it is the first sanctuary in the world to be home to multiple primate species. These primates have free-roam of the entire sanctuary. There are no cages, and there is enough food to go around so the different species have no reason to compete, so they all live together in harmony! It is the perfect place for monkeys who come from many different backgrounds to heal and recover emotionally and physically. If you are an animal lover and love to learn more about the conservation efforts going on in South Africa, I definitely recommend this experience! You can also find other sanctuaries in the same area if you want more animal experiences.
These three locations are must-see destinations if you plan to drive the Garden Route or if you are planning a fun weekend trip. If you are interested in planning a trip, there is a lot more information online about all these places and the activities I mentioned. In this context, the scenic route is always the better choice!
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