Sometimes you have to go to the very end to find the very best. At the foot of South Africa is a spectacular 150-mile journey through the wide band between the Indian Ocean and three sets of mountains inland. It is a floral paradise with sands that are wide and white, the double majesty of elephants on land and whales close to the shore, forest walks and one of the continent's most unhurried towns.
Park and ride
You could drive the Garden Route in a day, but I wouldn't. Stop in a place such as Mossel Bay, with the world's mildest year-round climate after Hawaii. Or Plettenberg Bay, for its glorious, golden beaches. Or Knysna, voted South Africa's best small town, for its art galleries, coffee shops and restaurants. Then take a jaunt, by car, bus, bike or on foot (you'll need five days for some of the longer routes, like the Otter Trail). It's very accessible, this jumble of lush plains, wooded cliffs, sharp-nosed headlands and coastal wetlands cut by the estuaries of rivers sweeping down deep gorges. At the Knysna Heads, the sea crashes spectacularly through a narrow rocky gap.
The region's horticultural pedigree is so high that Unesco declared it a World Heritage Site. The heathland vegetation (fynbos), unique to the Cape, is one of richest in the world. There are blooms for every season – the stars include the king protea, blue lily, chincherinchees, red hot poker, and a thousand varieties of daisy. And there are dazzling birds to go with them, such as the dainty little Cape rockjumper, the orangebreasted sunbird and the protea canary. There are many places to enjoy this miraculous colour show. For the gala performance, visit the De Hoop Nature Reserve and Tsitsikamma National Park.
The Garden Route's coast is one of the best and easiest places in the world to see whales and dolphins from land. Robberg Beach is a top location to see exhilarating acrobatics from southern right whales. Look out for 60 tons of raw power doing headstands within splashing distance of the shore. The Hermanus Whale Festival is held in October to celebrate their return to Walker Bay. If you want to come closer, at Plettenberg Bay there are whale-watching trips by boat. For the finest view of all, book a light aircraft.
Here is the perfect antidote to the urban flat-out fast-lane lifestyle. The little coastal town of Sedgefield was recently named South Africa's first 'Cittaslow' – meaning 'slow city' – by the global campaign for a calmer life. It is one of only 147 Cittaslow towns in 24 countries, selected for its record in looking after its people, its visitors and the environment, and avoiding the 'sameness' of too many towns. There was praise for its successful farmers' and craft markets, and the strong ethos of adventure and outdoor tourism. The 50 goals Sedgefield meets include promoting local heritage, preserving traditional food, 'taking time for leisure and pleasure', and urban planning. It all comes together in the annual April Slow Festival here.
Knysna Elephant Park was born out of the sad memory of the hundreds of elephants that used to wander coastal forests here. In 1994 Ian and Lisette Withers set up a free-range sanctuary for amiable giants Harry and Sally, spared from a cull at Kruger Park. They continue to thrive at the park today, along with other rescued elephants, wandering and browsing as they would in the wild. Visitors have the chance of a close encounter, but on the elephants' terms. There are overnight stays at the Elephant Lodge, with spectacular views of the Outeniqua mountains.
Jump to it
There are big, bold, outdoor challenges all along the route – it's the South African style. Start on a high in the Tsitsikamma Reserve, with a thrilling trip through the top of the forest on a network of treetop platforms and cable slides. Go higher still, with abseiling and paragliding around the town of Wilderness, and skydiving at Mossel Bay. But for the full-on hurricane of adrenaline, nothing beats the Bloukrans Bridge bungee jump at Tsitsikamma, from one of the world's tallest single-span arch bridges. It's billed as the world's highest bungee – 650ft above the river. Then come back to earth in the Cango Caves at Oudtshoorn. There's excellent surfing, and diving at Victoria, Buffalo, and Herold's bays.