Lay of the Land: Located on the southern coast of South Africa, east of Cape Town, the Garden Route stretches some 160 miles from Mossel Bay east to the Bloukrans River. Heading east from Mossel Bay, you first hit the more commercial and industrial area around George, then drive through the laid-back, outdoorsy regions of Wilderness, Sedgefield, and Knysna before reaching the high-end (but seasonal) luxury of Plettenberg Bay ("Plett," as the locals call it). Further east, you'll find the Bloukrans River and the Tsitsikamma Forest, a playground for adventure junkies.
WHEN TO GO
The annual temperature ranges from the mid-50s to the mid-80s, with colder weather in May through September and warmer conditions November through February. However, the sea is almost always temperate enough to swim in, even in winter. Although there are rainy days in October and November, they're likely to be sandwiched between gorgeous, sunny ones with temperatures in the 60s and 70s. The mild climate makes the Garden Route a great escape any time of the year. However, it's especially lively (though expensive) at Christmas, when Johannesburg's moneyed descend on Plett. Nature lovers might want to book a trip sometime between June and October, when the whales come to calf. If you're looking to add the Garden Route as an extra leg of a safari or Cape Town trip, aim for autumn or spring.
HOW TO GET THERE
The region's main airport is in George, and there is also a smaller one in Plettenberg Bay with flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg. But many South Africans opt to drive from Cape Town, on the N2 highway. It takes about four to six hours to drive to Mossel Bay, the start of the Garden Route, at a leisurely pace. The scenery, through the wheat fields of the Swartberg mountain range and then intermittently along the sea after Mossel Bay, is stunning; the road, good and well marked. You could also take the quieter R62, which goes inland to Oudtshoorn and then south to George, where the most popular part of the Garden Route begins.
Renting a car is advisable for the duration of a trip along the Garden Route. Drivers need to be 18 and can use a U.S. license. Try Hertz or local company Tempest Car Hire, and double-check that your credit card's insurance will cover you for rentals in South Africa. There are many places to detour to off the N2, whether it is roadside shops, flower sellers, stalls of gourmet foods, or deserted beaches—Nature's Valley, Buffalo Bay, the surfer haven of Victoria Bay, and Keurbooms. The N2 can get congested on weekends and during the Christmas holidays. To avoid traffic, you can opt for the R62.
There are tourist offices in most of the major towns, plus kiosks aplenty in between, with free maps and brochures. For information on the area, start at www.gardenroute.org.za. The two main tourist centers are:
Mellville's Corner Centre
40 Main Street