5 surprising Garden Route stays that’ll blow your mind
In the trees, on the hills, with the vines or at the beating heart of a township; these hotels and homestays along the glorious Garden Route will show you South Africa at its finest, writes Steve Madgwick.
Quaint seaside towns surrounded by impenetrable bush, dotted along the contours of the hills and valleys of a coast-hugging road that meanders over low-lying bridges which span large lazy lagoons… welcome to the Garden Route, where South Africa’s barren Cape gets a luxurious perm.
The Garden Route technically spans all the way from just outside Cape Town eastwards towards Port Elizabeth, but its sweet spot is the couple-of-hundred-kilometre stretch where it meets the coast, from Mossel Bay to just past Plettenberg Bay.
Hidden away from the towns here, in the hills and hinterland, perched on the cliffs, are some of the most luxurious, curious, unique and decadent stays on the whole of the African continent.
These five will blow your mind (and maybe your budget) – but they’re all worth it.
1. Tsala Treetop Lodge – not your average treehouse
At first sound, a ‘treetop lodge’ sounds like a euphemism for a tacky family holiday resort, but be assured that five-star Tsala is the furthest thing imaginable from that. Its 10 treetop suites and 6 treetop villas sit (on stilts) on top of a valley strewn with some of the oldest indigenous forests in South Africa; 50-metre-tall yellowwoods, ironwoods and stinkwoods (no they don’t really smell).
The stacked-stone, wood (rough and finished) and glass structures are full of distinct, character-filled spaces that allow you to appreciate the woods from a plethora of tranquil angles. The ‘afro-baroque’ décor inside is very ‘busy’ but ultimately works, thanks to the mix of harmonising earthy natural tones and bold local crafts thrown in here and there.
The (Charlotte Rhys stocked) bathroom is more like a bath precinct with a copper-tapped stand-alone bath and both outdoor and indoor showers (if you don’t like the monkeys watching). Even the loos have a valley view. A forest-facing private infinity pool on the deck outside and large ceramic combustion stove in the sitting room help to basically season-proof Tsala.
For dinner, it’s a tranquil (but fairly long) forest walk along the low-lit boardwalk to Zinzi restaurant, for a mix of tapas and modern African fine dining fusion. Except for the not-quite-lightning-quick complimentary wi-fi and the bafflingly complicated light switches, there are very few reasons to come down from the trees.
2. Madison Manor Boutique Hotel - the new Old World
Madison Manor markets itself as ‘Old World’ and pretty much lives up to that hype. Which is quite the achievement, considering the five-star property in its current incarnation is only two years old. The grand hilltop building’s Cape Dutch exterior is skirted by generous wooden decks, a nod to the local wood chopping industry of times past, plus sprawling manicured lawns.
Inside, Madison is like a museum of South African antiques that you’re not afraid to use and touch; plop down on your room’s vintage chaise longue, and wander around admiring a trunk collection to behold and the serving dish lids turned corridor installation.
Have a chat with ultra-friendly chef Leonard as he cooks your breakfast to order while you marvel at the brass kitchen scale collection on the dining hall’s buffet.
Although it falls short in a few details, such as the mid-quality own-branded combined shampoo and soap, there is plenty to keep you here. If the pool (complete with wooden sun lounges) with a 180-degree aspect of Knysna’s estuary in the distance isn’t enough, then maybe Narla (the hotel’s bouncy black Labrador) will steal your heart. (No children under 16.)
3. Wandu – much more than a township homestay
You may think that a $20-per-night room without an ocean view will struggle to compete with these heady five-star stars. But, in this case, you would be wrong.
Of course, the accommodation at Wandu in the township of Khayalethu (population 35,000) does not come with just about any of the five-star bells and whistles (although it’s perfectly charming, clean and comfortable). But as a cultural experience this is six-star.
Host Mawande and his delightful family invite you into the home (bedrooms are separate from their converted government house) with open arms. Try some Xhosa fare (pap and chakalaka), sample some umqombothi (local beer), and take a tour through the town’s (12 metre by 12 metre) ‘Mandela homes’.
The reality is that this is exactly how the majority of black South Africans live, yet very few tourists get to experience it. As Mawande says, “it's not perfect yet, but this is the next generation of South Africans” and most locals are happy that tourists get to see their way of life “with [their] own eyes”.
Keep an eye out for the ‘Township Big 5’ (goat, chicken, pig, cow and dog). All this for about $20 a night, including breakfast.
4. The Mount Knysna Boutique Hotel – just like home, sort of
The Mount Knysna does boutique to the letter: personal, small, thought-through quiet spaces. Perched high up on Knysna Heads, from the heated infinity pool, you can reflect on the shipwrecks lying in Davy Jones’ Locker of the beautiful yet treacherous waters far below the cliffs.
This place feels homely because it once was one (a luxury home), which means the setting feels a little ‘suburban’, the neighbours a little closer than usual; plus it’s a little isolated from the nearest town (Knysna, seven kilometres away).
But if you are happy in clifftop solitude, the Mount Knysna is your niche. The bar is so cosy you’ll end up talking tête-à-tête with anyone in there like an old friend and the cellar has plenty of distinctive South African wines hiding away; genuine triumphs such as the Meerlust Rubicon 1998, a bargain when you’re splashing out in rand.
Mount Knysna’s pièce de résistance, however, is its private 12-seat cinema with business-class-comfy recliners to melt into. Movie marathon?
5. Packwood Wine Estate – the alternate wine route
South Africa’s Cape is renowned for wine regions like Stellenbosch, but the Plettenberg Bay wine route is not one of them – just yet. At Harkerville about 20 minutes’ drive west of Plettenberg Bay, Packwood Wine Estate is a small-scale example of a burgeoning, diversifying region which boasts 18 producers; only a few of which offer accommodation at the moment.
The quaint ‘little’ 500-hectare property was (and still is) a dairy farm, but co-owner Vicky has put a lot of effort into Packwood’s cool climate wines; obvious, once you indulge in a glass of the pinot noir.
The self-contained thatched-roofed cottage (for two) or house (maximum six) are ideal not just for peace and quiet but also as a home base for cyclists and walkers, as there is plenty of forest to play in nearby. You’ll mostly have to self-cater, but there are creamy cheese platters and light lunches available.
The views across the jersey-cow-dotted fields to the Tsitsikamma mountains sell Packwood as much as anything. If you are lucky, you may spot a troupe of baboons (who think the vineyard is like a “sweetie shop”) or, less likely, one of the leopards that sometimes lick their lips over the plump cows.
City guide to Rabat, Morocco
Look past the Moroccan greats of Casablanca, Marrakesh and Fez to discover Morocco's capital Rabat, brim full of ancient treasures.
Rabat is known for
Old medina, the beautiful Kasbah, Souq shopping
Rabat's Eat streets
When dining in Rabat you should sample the best of both the Moroccan tradition and the French colonial influence.
A much-loved traditional restaurant can be found in the old medina. Dinarjat (+212 37 70 42 39) adds a little theatre to proceedings: you’ll be met at the medina gates by a man in traditional dress bearing a lantern who leads you through the labyrinth of old streets to the old wooden door of the restaurant.
Inside a 17th-century mansion you choose from a classic menu of lamb tagine, couscous and salads under vaulted ceilings.
For a taste of France, head to Le Grand Comptoir. Housed in a restored 1930s Art Deco building, it has that Casablanca romance; a place of martinis, jazz and rare steak.
Out and about in Rabat
If you only have a day or two in Rabat head straight for the 17th-century walled Medina, a rabbit warren of streets that carry that old North African sense of romance and adventure.
Dip in and out of the souqs and cafes and you could get lost, but not for long as you’ll eventually hit one of the ancient fortress walls.
Head north up the Rue des Consuls past grand old courtyards before leaving the Medina and entering another of Rabat’s treasures, the beautiful Kasbah les Oudaias, through the spectacular Bab Oudaia gate.
Relax in the Andalusian Gardens here and wander the narrow streets and blue-and-white walls of this 12th-century citadel that overlooks the Atlantic.
Summer heat getting too much? There's a lovely clean swimming beach right in the city.
Make your way to the 14th-century Grande Mosquée de Rabat Medina, which marks the start of Rue Souika, a thoroughfare of shops with the reed-covered Souq as-Sebbat at its eastern end.
Practise your bartering for Moroccan lamps, embroidered babouche slippers, jewellery and fabrics among baskets filled with bright spices and Turkish delight.
Don’t miss the bustling souqs in the neighbouring city of Salé, a short taxi hop over the bridge that crosses the Bou Regreg river.
Salé is known for its carpenters, who produce fine chairs, tables and trays.
Stop by one of the woodworking factories to pick up a gift.
The ultimate experience
Looking like some alien obelisk, the Hassan Tower forms a striking edifice on the banks of the Bou Regreg river.
The 44-metre high minaret, a slab of ornately carved red sandstone, is all that remains of Sultan Yacub al-Mansour’s effort to build the biggest mosque in the world, an attempt that was destroyed by earthquake in 1755.
Take a walk in the surrounding gardens and then catch a five-minute taxi to Rabat’s other must-see sight, the Chellah.
This medieval muslim necropolis was built on top of a Roman Fort. You’ll find the remains of a spectacular mosque here and the ancient ruins now play host to an annual jazz festival in September.
Avenue Mohammed V is a tree-lined boulevard with plenty of shady spots to sit and have a coffee.
Try La Comédie, which bakes its own pastries every day, and watch the world go by.
Stay & play
Affordable: The Repose has traditionally styled suites in a lovely old riad in Salé’s Medina.
Moderate: Riad Sidi Fatah is set in a traditional mansion in Rabat Medina.
Luxe: With its own hammam, wellness centre and pool, the Relais & Châteaux property Villa Diyafa is the ultimate way to indulge after a day in the hot, crowded souqs.
City guide to Windhoek
A green oasis in a dry, mountainous landscape, Namibia’s capital is surely one of the most surprising African cities, retaining striking connections to its Germanic past.
Windhoek is known for it's
African crafts, German castles and a gateway to the Namib wilderness.
Eat streets in Windhoek
For an upmarket South African menu and its fine wines head to The Stellenbosch Wine Bar & Bistro. Joe’s Beerhouse is great for a selection of craft beers and well-cooked game
Out & about in Windhoek
Head to the old heart of Windhoek for a stroll past its intriguing German colonial buildings, some of which are as old as the city itself.
Start in the middle of it all at the city’s most recognisable landmark: the striking German Lutheran Christuskirche.
It’s a rather photogenic, curious mix of neo-Gothic and Art Nouveau influences, designed by Gottileb Redecker, who also created the country’s parliament building just down the road.
The official name of the parliament is the Tintenpalast, or ‘ink palace’, perhaps a cheeky reference to the vast quantities of ink spent drafting red tape.
Rest your legs a while in the ornate gardens before heading over to the city’s oldest building, the imposing Alte Feste, the ‘Old Fort’, built in 1890 to house the Schutztruppe, Germany’s occupying forces in Africa.
The fort marks the beginning of the modern city of Windhoek, and you’ll find the National Museum of Namibia here too.
Housed in the industrial setting of the Old Brewery complex you’ll find the fantastic mixed-use arts space that is the Warehouse Theatre.
Join office workers for their post-work drinks in its cosy bar, the Boiler Room, and adjoining courtyard, before going on to watch everything from a play, stand-up and live bands at one of several stages. warehousetheatre.com.na
The people of Namibia produce some stunning art and fabrics that you shouldn’t leave the country without.
Head to the Namibian Crafts Centre for more than 30 stalls selling everything from woven baskets, beadwork jewellery, tribal masks, and exquisite sculptures fashioned from the roots of the country’s ironwood trees.
A 10-minute walk away you’ll find the colourful and bustling Post Street Mall for more arts and crafts, the centre of which is marked by a public installation incorporating meteorites from the famous Gideon Meteor that exploded over Namibia in prehistoric times.
The Ultimate Experience
Of the three German castles in Windhoek it’s Heinitzburg Castle that you can’t leave the city without paying a visit, if just for a cocktail or two.
Commissioned by Count von Schwerin in 1914 for his fiancé, ensuring he positioned it with the best views of the city, the castle is now a luxury hotel and the ideal spot for an evening drink to take in the city and the mountains beyond from its Garden Terrace.
If you’ve settled in for the night then stay for dinner at Leo’s at the Castle; the priciest restaurant in town but also the best.
With easy access to beans from across the continent, Windhoek has experienced a surging coffee culture in recent years.
The Kaffee Bar in the Wecke & Voigts store, is a ‘national treasure’ of a cafe, to get your fix for the day.
Stay & play
Winnie Guesthouse has well-appointed rooms, a restaurant, bar and an outdoor pool to escape the African heat.
In the heart of the old town, the Hilton Windhoek has restaurants, bars, a rooftop pool, spa and gym.
Stay in the regal setting of Heinitzburg Castle with fantastic views out across the city.
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