Driving South Africa

Three different routes make for memorable range-roving trips. 

Much of South Africa’s hinterland is accessible only by vehicle, and with the country’s excellent road infrastructure and spectacular scenery, traveling by car is an ideal mode of exploration, whether you do it yourself or opt for a service like PG Tops (pgtops.com) or Cape Fusion Tours (capefusiontours.com), which both create tailor-made tours with a driver. Distances between towns can be considerable—all the more reason to break the journey into parts and enjoy the hotels and restaurants along the way.

1. The Garden Route

Approximately 137 miles long, the Garden Route meanders through a narrow stretch of coastal plateau sandwiched between the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma mountains and the Indian Ocean, where 160,600 acres of indigenous forest shelters 300 bird species. The route is about 240 miles southeast of Cape Town on the N2, starting at Mossel Bay. This seaside resort town is the place to discover the region’s history in the Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex (1 Market St.; diasmuseum.co.za). Lagoon-side Knysna, the Garden Route’s foodie capital, hosts an annual Oyster Festival (July 4-13, 2014) and is a great base to get in some adventure, from scuba diving to whale watching (adventureroutes.com). Plettenberg Bay, or “Plett” to South Africans, is a flashy town of holiday homes with the route’s best hotels. Continue northeast to the Crags, where the Kurland Hotel hosts annual polo tournaments (plettpolo.co.za), and farther to Nature’s Valley in Tsitsikamma National Park (sanparks.org), which features the drive’s most untamed stretch of coastline.

Car + Driver

The N2 is a national highway and is busy 24/7. It’s not difficult to travel, although it requires a vigilant driver. It’s possible to get to its farthest point (Nature’s Valley) from Cape Town in about six hours. Also note that South Africans drive on the left.

Where to Stay

Knysna
Falcons View Manor Rooms start at $180; 2 Thesen Hill; 27-44/382-6767; falconsview.com.

Villa Afrikana Guest Suites Rooms start at $180; 13 Watsonia Dr.; 27-44/382-4989; villaafrikana.com.

Plettenberg Bay
Plettenberg Park Hotel & Spa Rooms start at $220; 4 Robberg Rd.; 27-44/533-9067; plettenbergpark.co.za.

The Plettenberg Rooms start at $290; 40 Church St.; 27-44/533-2030; collectionmcgrath.com.

The Crags
Kurland Hotel Rooms start at $275; the Crags; 27-44/534-8082; kurland.co.za.

Where to Eat

Knysna
34 South Shop 19, Knysna Quays Waterfront; 27-44/382-7331; 34south.biz.

Plettenberg Bay
Nguni 6 Crescent St.; 27-44/533-6710; nguni-restaurant.co.za.

Zinzi Off N2, six miles west of Plettenberg Bay; 27-44/532-8226; zinzi.hunterhotels.com.

2. The Little Karoo Route

Route 62 is a 528-mile route ending in Port Elizabeth, through the hot, dusty backcountry where towns and villages have survived the last two centuries hardly altered, and the landscape is alternately bucolic and dry. It begins in Worcester, an hour and 15 minutes from Cape Town on the N1 highway, but comes into its own around Robertson, 31 miles farther on. McGregor, Bonnievale and Montagu come in quick succession, the latter home to the Montagu Museum (41 Long St.; 27-23/614-1950), with art exhibits in a century-old church. Toward Barrydale, the landscape widens, and the veld is dotted with flat-topped kopjes, the hillocks that characterize the Karoo. Ladismith follows, then pretty Calitzdorp and finally Edwardian Oudtshoorn, where the C.P. Nel Museum (3 Baron van Rheede St.; cpnelmuseum.co.za) provides the background to what was an ostrich-feather boomtown. Each of Route 62’s towns has landmark historic homesteads lining its streets, while orchards, vineyards and farms illustrate the deeply embedded roots of country living. An overnight stay en route is recommended. Sanbona Wildlife Reserve (sanbona.com), just beyond Montagu, has luxury lodges and tented camps—a place to spot lions, rhinos and giraffes and to see San rock paintings, more than 3,500 years old, while The Robertson Small Hotel in Robertson provides comfortable accommodations in a turreted Victorian villa. The stretch of Route 62 from Robertson to Calitzdorp is also the start of the Klein Karoo Wine Route (kleinkaroowines.co.za), where you’ll find Robertson’s Springfield Estate (three miles SE of Robertson on R317; springfieldestate.com) as well as Calitzdorp’s De Krans Wines (dekrans.co.za) and Peter Bayly (Groenfontein; peterbayly.co.za), producers of showcase wine and port. The road is also peppered with farm stalls and restaurants offering country cooking, craft shops and artists’ studios (particularly in Barrydale). For the adventurous, Route 62 offers hiking, riding and fishing, plus caving in the subterranean, stalagmite-filled Cango Caves (cangocaves.co.za) near Oudtshoorn.

Car + Driver

Regional roads make up the majority of Route 62, and they’re less busy than the national (N) roads. The route is paved, but feeder roads to and from it—to scenic overlooks, picnic areas and so on—may be dirt. Avoid Sunday-morning travel, when freight is on the move. Take care at night, when wildlife crosses the road. The section from Worcester to Oudtshoorn (194 miles) is best and can easily be done in a day, but plan on breaking at Robertson, Montagu, Barrydale or Calitzdorp to explore the areas.

Where to Stay

Robertson
The Robertson Small Hotel $ Rooms start at $170; 58 Van Reenen St.; 27-23/ 626-7200; therobertsonsmallhotel.com.

Between Montagu and Barrydale
Sanbona Wildlife Reserve Rooms start at $780; Rte. 62 between Barrydale and Montagu; 27-41/509-3000; sanbona.com.

Barrydale
Barrydale Karoo Hotel $ Rooms start at $150; 30 Van Riebeeck St.; 27-28/572-1226; barrydale-karoo-hotel.co.za.

Calitzdorp
The Retreat at Groenfontein $ Rooms start at $110; Groenfontein; 27-44/213-3880; groenfontein.com.

Welgevonden Guesthouse $ Rooms start at $60; St. Helena Rd.; 27-44/213-3642; welgevondenguesthouse.co.za.

Oudtshoorn
Rietfontein Ostrich Palace Rooms start at $110; Rte. 62 between Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn; 27-44/213-3784; rop.co.za.

Where to Eat

Robertson
Reuben’s at The Robertson $ 58 Van Reenen St.; 27-23/626-7200; therobertsonsmallhotel.com.

Montagu
Die Kloof Padstal $ 1 Long St.; 27-23/614-2209; diekloofpadstal.co.za.

Barrydale
Joubert-Tradauw Rte. 62, 7.4 miles west of Barrydale; 27-28/572-1619; joubert-tradauw.com.

Calitzdorp
Die Dorpshuis $ 4 Van Riebeeck St.; 27-44/213-3453; diedorpshuis.co.za.

Oudtshoorn
The Colony $ 5 Baron van Rheede St.; 27-44/272-2101; queenshotel.co.za.

3. The Cape Peninsula Route

The Cape Peninsula flanks the waters of False Bay immediately to its east, poking its crooked finger out into the freezing Atlantic at Cape Point, 40 miles beyond the city to the south. Often erroneously considered the point at which the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet (it’s actually Cape Agulhas, about 158 miles southeast), the peninsula’s tip is a place of violent storms, wild seas, extravagant mountains and endless views. If you leave Cape Town on the M3, Muizenberg (17 miles away) and then St. James (accessed by the M4) are first on the coastal drive. St. James retains its early-20th-century style, its mansions heaped up on the terraced mountainside, while surfers ply the waves from Muizenberg’s wide sandy beach and shark spotters keep watch for Great Whites, famously the inhabitants of the waters here.

The route winds on quickly to Kalk Bay, with its picturesque harbor and antiques shops—browse Quagga Rare Books & Art (86 Main Rd.; quaggabooks.co.za) before a meal at one of the many restaurants. Fish Hoek follows, then the naval base at Simon’s Town, outside which Boulders Beach (sanparks.org) is a sanctuary for a colony of endangered African penguins. Farther on, the road skirts the nature reserve at Cape of Good Hope (sanparks.org), part of Table Mountain National Park, with pristine wilderness that is among the region’s great treasures. Stop here and admire the view from Cape Point before continuing, via the M65, to Kommetjie and spectacular Noordhoek, with its expansive beach that runs five miles long. Then the route climbs the seaward flank of Constantiaberg mountain and heads for Hout Bay via Chapman’s Peak Drive, one of the Cape’s superb cliffside passes, continuing along the Atlantic seaboard’s corniche to Llandudno, Camps Bay, Clifton and Bantry Bay. Beachside, built-up and spread out beneath the majestic Twelve Apostles mountain range, these are places to vacation in hotels, lounge on beautiful beaches or dine on restaurant terraces.

Car + Driver

The circuitous route is about 90 miles and is easily covered in a day. From Cape Town to Muizenberg, where it begins, it’s a 30-minute drive outside rush hour. From Bantry Bay, where it ends, to Cape Town, it’s ten minutes.

Where to Stay

Camps Bay, Cape Town
POD Rooms start at $240; 3 Argyle Rd.; 27-21/438-8550; pod.co.za.

The Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa Rooms start at $420; Victoria Rd.; 27-21/437-9255; 12apostleshotel.com.

Clifton, Cape Town
Cape View Clifton Rooms start at $270; 232 Kloof Rd.; 27-21/438-8748; capeviewclifton.co.za.

Bantry Bay, Cape Town
Ellerman House (See “How to Shop the Western Cape”)

Where to Eat

Kalk Bay
Harbour House V&A Waterfront; 27-21/418-4744; harbourhouse.co.za.

Olympia Café & Deli $ 134 Main Rd.; 27-21/788-6396.

Camps Bay, Cape Town
Azure Restaurant At the Twelve Apostles Hotel; 27-21/437-9029; 12apostleshotel.com.

Grand Café & Room 35 Victoria Rd.; 27-21/438-4253; grandafrica.com.

The Roundhouse Off Kloof Rd., the Glen; 27-21/438-4347; theroundhouserestaurant.com.

Sea Point
La Perla Beach Rd.; 27-21/439-9538; laperla.co.za.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.