A trip to South Africa promises pristine beaches, breathtaking natural beauty, sea views that spread as far as the eye can see, vibrant culture, lip-smacking gastronomy and adrenaline filled adventure. I recently travelled the majority of the Garden Route, a popular road trip itinerary for backpackers. It was an incredible adventure, starting from Cintsa and ending in Cape Town, all while hitting some of the best hostels in South Africa along the way. The weather was perfect, flight prices were reasonable (April and September are the most wallet-friendly) and accommodation prices were far cheaper. The entire trip along the Garden Route was mind-blowingly incredible, and so I’ve put together a few top tips in the form of a “Backpacker’s Guide to South Africa!”
The perfect way to start your day in Chintsa is go for a walk along the beach at dawn (it’s right on the doorstep of the hostel). Check out the beach horse trail (350 rand/ €33 – 3.5 hours long) that leaves from the hostel at sunrise, before enjoying your breakfast and coffee on the sun terrace.
You can learn to surf, hike, walk, sunbathe, join a guided game drive, or even quad bike through the 4000 hectare game reserve up the road. Buccaneers Hostel have a volunteering outreach project called VA 32, and they invite guests to come and see the work they are doing. Volunteers are involved in a variety of projects, from teaching computer literacy in rural primary schools to facilitating sports development and arts initiatives.
The craft beer revolution has come to Chintsa, and there is a fantastic local brewery, the Emerald Vale Craft Brewery. There you can get a tour of the factory and afterwards have a few tastings before hopping back onto the bus feeling refreshed.
Combined with a visit to the local township and visiting some of their local volunteer projects, the whole tour of Ngxingxolo and Chintsa Craft Brewery takes 4 hours and costs just 325 rand/ €22. Tours depart from the hostel every day at 9am and 2pm and must be reserved a day in advance.
Where to stay in Chintsa: Buccanneers Backpackers & Lodge
It just wouldn’t be a true Backpackers Guide to South Africa without some hostel recommendations now would it? This is one of my favourite hostels in South Africa. Cascading down a hill, the lodge has numerous vantage points to enjoy the jaw-dropping views of the lagoon and Chintsa Beach. You can find every possible type of accommodation here to suit your needs: from spacious camping options to dorms, double/twin safari tents, family cottages with private sundecks to enjoy the legendary Chintsa sunrise, double/twin rooms and beautifully designed en-suite rooms. There is a fabulous bar on site where you can enjoy a beer and every evening, they cook dinner for guests and locals. When it comes to where to stay in Chintsa, you really can’t go wrong with Buccanneers!
Port Alfred, Bathurst, Grahamstown
Port Alfred is a sleepy little town with magnificent sand dunes, which makes it popular with sand boarders. The frontier town of Bathurst is just a 15-minute drive from Port Alfred on the R67 to Grahamstown, and it’s here you can visit the historic Pig and Whistle Inn. It’s a family run Inn, and the onsite pub is the oldest continuously licensed pub in South Africa.
With its small town sleepy Victorian charm, Grahamstown could easily be mistaken for a quintessential English village. It is a town of many churches (40 to be precise) which has earned it the moniker ‘The City of Saints.’ If you have time for just one “Saint,” make sure you visit the Anglican Cathedral of St Michael & St George on Hill Street. It has the tallest spire in the country and one of the most incredible organs, and a spectacular interior. If time permits, I recommend a visit to the Observatory Museum to learn about the Victorian history of the town.
If you are hungry or want a cup of fine coffee, then definitely pay a visit to the classy Haricots Bistro and Deli, a Mediterranean cafe and deli. There you can enjoy an excellent eggs benedict for breakfast, and for lunch or dinner choose from variety of options like chicken schnitzel served in a creamy mushroom sauce, or a spinach & feta cannelloni for as little as 60 rand (£4.50/€3.50). They have a cracking bakery with home baked scones and cupcakes, and their flourless chocolate cakes are made with 70% Belgian dark chocolate.
The city marks the beginning of the Garden Route, and the perfect base for exploring is Lungile Lodge hostel. Start your visit with an evening tour of the city, led by hostel owner, Lee Katzen. Make sure to go for sundowners at the scenic Sardinia Bay Beach, one of PE’s best kept secrets.
Head over to Stanley Street, which (at night) is always bursting at the seams with locals and travellers checking out its exciting mix of eateries, cocktail bars and wine bars. Soho Bar specializes in molecular cocktails and has the best sushi in town. The special evening menu is inspired by the colonial heritage of the area: goat curry potjie (R95) and the Sunday roasts accompanied by live music are unmissable. The Bridge Street Brewery is a fitting place to end the evening.
Port Elizabeth is a montage of architecture from bygone days with some of the finest art nouveau architecture in the country. Tours cover some of the city’s finest buildings, including City Hall, the Diaz cross which commemorates the moment Bartholomew Diaz sailed into Algoa Bay in 1488, (the first European to do so) and the beautiful Italianate campanile tower, which gives you panoramic views of Algoa Bay.
A highlight for many is Donkin Reserve, a heritage monument steeped in the colonial history of Port Elizabeth. The space has been redeveloped and now has a statue of Madiba, plus the second biggest flag in all of Africa. The panoramic views from this point are beautiful and it is well worth the climb.
Where to stay in Port Elizabeth: Lungile Lodge
The perfect base for exploring Port Elizabeth during the overnight stay for the next leg of the trip is Lungile Lodge hostel. As I mentioned above, the owner Lee, is a beacon of knowledge about the city and runs a bunch of excellent tours for his guests. The hostel itself is clean, warm and friendly. You can choose from the dorms to one of their en-suite privates. There is a nice sized common room where you can challenge fellow guests to a game of pool. When deciding where to stay in Port Elizabeth, you’d be crazy to miss the parties at the hostel pool, once the sun starts shining.
Tsitsikamma Falls, Marilyn’s Diner, Plettenberg Bay
I have a fear of heights. So the idea of zip lining has always been something I never really fancied. In the spirit of discovering my inner Indiana Jones and conquering my fear of heights, I took up the challenge at the Tsitsikamma Falls Adventure. There are eight slides in total. You zig-zag along cables that cross the river gorge. Yo go as high as 50m above the water in some places! Each section presents its own surprise and beautiful views over the indigenous Tsitsikamma fauna and flora. The guides were informative, easygoing and professional. Some of the lines are easy, a few of them are fast and some are really long like the aptly named Puff Adder that is 211 metres!
Another unmissable landmark on the Garden Route is Marilyn’s Diner. Storms River Village is literally a one street town, so discovering a 60’s themed cafe complete with neon rimmed homage to Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe was an unexpected surprise. First of all, you have the classic pink Cadillac parked in the driveway. Then there are the posters of the icons plastered over the walls. A jukebox blares in the corner playing hits from the 60’s, and there is a bunch of Elvis and Marilyn memorabilia to feast on. It is one of those surreal unpredictable experiences you have to savour on any roadtrip. If you are peckish, the cafe serves simple but honest food. Tip for adrenaline junkies: Storms River is also home to the Bloukrans Bungy, the world’s highest commercial bungee bridge. faceadrenalin.com has all the details and it costs R850.
Next stop on the Garden Route is Plettenberg Bay, affectionately referred to by locals as ‘Plett.’ Nicknamed ‘Bahia Formosa’ (Beautiful Bay) by early Portuguese explorers thanks to its white sand beaches and aquamarine blue waters, Plett is your classic resort town packed with a bunch of excellent hostels and places to eat. The area has a rich history, once serving as a colonial outpost of the Dutch East India Company. In recent decades it has been home to a whaling station.
Food recommendation: have dinner at ‘The Fat Fish’. This diner serves up delicious seafood from all parts of the world: India, Burma, Thailand etc. I had an excellent Burmese seafood curry with rice (R100/€7.50) followed by an excellent chocolate mousse (R40/€3). If you’re looking for more variety, they have an excellent tapas menu (prices starts from R45/€3.50) where you can sample everything from wonton prawns, mussels in a garlic and herb gratin, grilled halloumi with chorizo and arancini with a warm gorgonzola dipping sauce.
Monkeyland, Knysna, Sedgefield
Monkeyland! The whole concept is to allow visitors to see the monkeys in their natural free habitat. The sanctuary is exceptional and caters for several species of primates. Guides take visitors on a ‘safari’ through the forest where you can see on a typical visit about 10 different species ranging from Gibbons of Asia to the Lemurs of Madagascar. My guide was very knowledgeable and informative. The tour is around an hour long and your ticket allowa you to take more than one tour in the day if you want to go round again.
Sitting at the foot of a beautiful lagoon, Knysna was another key highlight of my Garden Route road trip. It is picture postcard pretty, famous for its oysters and has a variety of adventurous activities for those seeking an adrenaline kick.
Make sure to check out a bar called Sirocco, which is famous for its oysters and sushi. Grab one of their tables with a great view of the lagoon and the surroundings! Also, take advantage of their lunch deal where you can get 6 native oysters and a beer for as little as R74 which works out to be €5. Deal!
Our guide and host for this leg of the trip was Lyle Katzen (brother of Lee) from the uber cool Afrovibe Lodge. One of the most popular tours at the hostel is the Rastafarian Township Tour. You’ll pop over to Judas Square in the Nekkies Township where a fully functional Rastafarian village is flourishing. There you’ll be guided around the village by the charismatic Brother Paul, who lifts the lid on the spiritual beliefs and ethics of Rastafarianism, which has its origins in Ethiopia. Over 25 families call this village home but there are more ‘Rastas’ spread across the township. It is a colourful and happy place. While walking around the village, you might be invited to listen to the Sunday practice session of the ‘Reggae Ambassadors’, a local community band headed up by Brother John. They love their music here.
Where to stay in Sedgefield: Afrovibe Lodge, Myoli Beach
Just a short drive away from Kynsna is Sedgefield and the beautiful Myoli beach. The beach is home to one of South Africa’s most vibrant and fun backpacker hostels, the Afrovibe. The hostel is literally on the beach. The parties here are legendary, and the staff are welcoming and friendly. They have a nice in-house restaurant and do an excellent braai. Plus there is plenty to do: choose from kite-surfing, surfing, wakeboarding, stand up paddle boarding, paragliding, mountain biking, horse riding, canoeing and beach volleyball! Or you can always spend your days simply dipping your toes into the pristine sand of Myoli beach, cocktail in hand from the bar. Rooms here are clean and comfortable, with lots of light. It gives you the feeling of being in a beachside cottage. They have a choice of dorms and private rooms-all of which are en-suite. Where to stay in Sedgefield? Afrovibe of course!
Paragliding in Knysna, Heidelberg, Swellendam
I had never been paragliding in my life before coming here. I was terrified in the beginning given my fear of heights but by the end, I found myself not wanting to come back to earth. If you want to do it, try the program offered by Flytime Paragliding and Afrovibe Lodge. It costs just R550 (€40). You can easily pay double to do the same thing in Cape Town so this is THE place to go paragliding in South Africa.
After a relaxing nights sleep, we went for brunch at the quirky French café in Swellendam, La Belle Alliance. Formerly a Masonic lodge, it is a beautiful quirky place overlooking the Koornlands river. Pancakes are awesome (R 29, €2.25 /£1.50) as is their Rataouille Provençal (R74, €5.70 /£4.50)
Where to stay in Swellendam: Swellendam Backpackers
Set against the picturesque backdrop of the Langeberg mountains I arrived at the beautiful Swellendam Backpackers to be greeted by the hostel dog, Molly. It is again one of those hostels that feels more like a boutique hotel, but still retains a homey, social vibe. Master of ceremonies is the charming Stephanie Coetsee. It is the perfect place to stay in Swellendam, to take some time out, relax in the huge garden of the hostel and do some bird spotting, go for a walk in the mountains or maybe go horseback riding with Stephanie. On a hot summers day you can go for a dip in the river at the bottom of the garden. Stephanie is a great host and knows her wine very well, so if you are looking for an expert local guide, she is the lady to speak to. The rooms at Swellendam are clean, cosy and comfortable. All rooms are with en-suite facilities. Swellendam Backpackers also allows you the option of camping so if you would prefer to make use of your own tent, there is a camping area so large you may need a map or GPS to find your way around.
Hermanus is the best place in the world for land-based whale watching. There are a bunch of excellent vantage points in the bay. Hermanus itself is a genteel, upmarket resort town full of great restaurants, shops and has an excellent whale museum, if you are curious to learn more these beautiful cetaceans.
We ended our road trip in style by stopping over in South Africa’s second oldest town, Stellenbosch. It’s probably the most elegant, stylish place I visited on my travels. Lots of great boutiques, beautiful cafes, art galleries, banjo playing buskers, craft beer bars and obviously, plenty of good wine to sample. On the suggestion of local wine expert, Mariette Du Toit-Helmbold we went to the Bramptons wine studio. The studio is the shop front for Brampton wines, and is basically a cellar-door tasting room, but does offer light lunches like salads, wraps and quesadillas until 4.30pm. They also do have selected tapas (like spanakopita , dolmades or slow roasted pork belly. The food operates from noon until 8pm. They also do wine tasting between 11am and 4pm so that is worth remembering. You won’t get a better, cheaper bottle of wine anywhere in the world!
If you have time to do just one thing in Cape Town, take the elevator to the top of Table Mountain where you get beautiful views like this.
It is without doubt one of the most breathtaking views you will see anywhere in the world. All throughout Cape Town, just the mere sight of Table Mountain really takes your breath away. Afterwards for sunset, head to the nearby Signal Hill. It is the perfect place for sundowners, and you can watch in awe as day turns to night and the city starts to sparkle in the dark.
Where to stay in Cape Town: Once in Cape Town
Cape Town is a city blessed with cool hostels but few are better than the luxury hostel, Once in Cape Town. This hostel has a great central location with party spots on Long and Kloof Street nearby, clean and very comfortable rooms available. Plus they have ‘Your Truly’, a lovely cafe/bar on the premises, which pulls in the locals.
The highlight of my stay there was the free breakfast at the Once in Cape Town hostel – great coffee, fresh orange juice, sliced oranges and a freshly baked warm croissant with butter and jam. Perfect way to start the day before heading to the airport for a long trip back home, and one of the best places to stay in Cape Town, for sure!
Another Fab Cape Town Hostel: The Backpack
When in Cape Town, do also check out the Backpack, the oldest and probably still the best hostel in town. Beautiful rooms, friendly staff, lovely onsite cafe, organized tours of the city (township, craft beer or graffiti tours – take your pick) plus you have beautiful views of Table Mountain in the distance. Lots to love about this hostel, which Lonely Planet recognised as the best value accommodation in 2014.
One Final Top Tip:
If I had more time on my trip, I definitely would have kept a day aside and visited Addo National Park. Going to Kruger can be expensive with flights, so if you have limited time and are sticking to the Garden Route then Addo National Park is a great option to have. Lungile Lodge run tours there starting in the mornings at 9am and end around 7pm. Price is R700 per person excluding entrance to the park but it also includes a township tour.