SOUTH AFRICA Road trippin’ with Erin Cebula
When I began researching South Africa, I came across dozens of must-dos. Bloggers and tour companies raved on about the majesty of Kruger National Park, the cool grittiness of Johannesburg and the bounty of the wine lands. But it was the Garden Route - a stretch of forested, coastal area between Mossel Bay and Port Elizabeth - that appeared near the top of every single list I dug up, and I’m a sucker for top tens. As I continued searching, I was thrilled to learn that this 300km stretch encompasses dramatic peaks, indigenous temperate forests, pine plantations, rocky coves and glorious sandy beaches. The wildlife and outdoor activities were continually described as “remarkable” and almost every beach town boasted fresh oysters galore. This was all I needed to hear!
My adventure kicked off in what locals refer to as The Mother City. Cape Town is bright, bustling and home to 4 million people. It’s built on a peninsula beneath imposing Table Mountain and is the crown jewel of South Africa’s southwest coast. Some say it resembles the fair city of Vancouver, but Cape Town has something Vancity just doesn’t, and that’s drama. The mountains are jagged and rough, the neighborhoods are technicolor wild and the ocean is the aquamarine of your dreams. I loved it instantly, and my affection only grew when I checked into Kensington Place.
I chose this award-winning boutique hotel for many reasons. It’s located in the charming suburb of Higgovale, which has a West Hollywood feel and is steps away from Cape Town’s coolest bars and restaurants. There are only 8 rooms and every single luxe one of them has a private terrace with views of the harbor and surrounding mountains. The design is cozy, but contemporary, and there are lush gardens at every turn. The staff turned out to be as helpful in person as they were on-line, and we relied heavily on their expert food and fun recommendations. I was particularly impressed by the fact that we were warmly greeted with a cocktail, and just the right amount of chit chat at (the very late check-in hour of) 11pm.
At the top of Kensington Place’s food reco list was The Shortmarket Club, a new hot spot I had managed to secure a reservation for some 2 months earlier. This buzzed about offering from Luke Dale-roberts of The Test Kitchen fame, is tucked away in a heritage building just off vibey Bree street. As the name suggests, it has a clubby feel, but not the icky kind. The space is sexy and opulent - in an old world way - and as soon as you enter you feel as if you’ve been let in on a juicy secret. The menu is beautifully balanced; with options for veggie and seafood lovers and for those who live for braai. BBQ is huge in South Africa, and The Shortmarket Club honors that tradition beautifully with grass fed cuts from local farmers. I had to indulge in one of these tasty filets, along with burnt leeks with
stracciatella and the insanely delicious sambal matah tuna. I’ve had tuna a hundred ways, but never swimming in sambal oelek, ginger, hot coconut oil and lime. To. Die. For.
The next morning - with a belly still full - I embarked on the first (driving) leg of my Garden Route adventure. The goal was to make it to Knysna, a charming town built on the northern shore of a large warm-water estuary some 6 hrs away. This was to be our base camp for two days of wilderness exploring and oyster eating. So, with a strong Americano in hand, I bid a fond farewell to Cape Town and began the winding accent through the mountains and past the posh suburbs of Clifton and Camps Bay. Driving on the left took a little getting used to, but I managed to arrive in Knysna unharmed and ahead of schedule. After settling into my turbineturned-boutique hotel on Thesen’s Island (yes, you heard right), the hubby and I hit the town fixed on slurping back as many molluscs as possible. Seafood institution, 34 Degrees South was by far our favorite, serving up delicious wild oysters direct from local waters.
Next on the menu: hiking the world famous Robberg Bay Trail. This 11km loop circles a rugged peninsula that looks out on the Tsitsikamma mountains, and is both a national monument and a World Heritage Site. The views are spectacular at every turn, and some of the rocks you’re bound to climb date back over 120 million years. The area is also a protected marine park and home
to dolphins, Black Oystercatchers, Cape Gulls and surprisingly stinky Cape Fur Seals. My husband and I finished the challenging hike in just over 3hrs, but didn’t quite escape unscathed. I still feel bad for asking poor Shawn to climb up a slippery, lichen covered rock for a photo op.
To ease Shawn’s suffering (and get myself out of the dog house) I took him for lunch at the famous East Head Cafe. This gem of a restaurant overlooks the Knysna Heads and serves up globally inspired seafood, salads and damn good cocktails. To me, this is what every waterfront cafe should aspire to be; buzzing, casual and all about fresh, no-fuss food. We scored one of the coveted outdoor tables with lagoon views and stuffed ourselves silly with spicy Cape Malay curry and the best fresh fish and chips of our lives.
Next stop was Plettenberg Bay, or ‘Plett’ as it’s more commonly known. Thousands of local and international tourists flock to this resort town over the Christmas break - so if your looking for laid back beach vibes, keep on driving. Personally, I was looking forward to a little action after 2 nights in sleepy Knysna, so my injured wingman and I bee-lined it to Central beach for a solid afternoon of bar hopping followed by sushi at the very popular Fat Fish. The rest of our evening in Plett is a little fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure it was fun!
Surprisingly, I hit the road early
the next day with sights set on Tsitsikamma National Park and its mosaic of ecosystems. This was our final day on the Garden Route, and I wanted to spend it in a park with 80 kilometers of pristine coastline and an oceanfront pub. And yes, Tsitsikamma has both of these things! It also offer short scenic strolls, strenuous five-day hikes like the Otter Trail and even the worlds highest bridge bungee at 216 meters. And no, I didn’t do it. I threw myself off a bridge for my 24th birthday and I don’t need to do that again. Instead I chose to explore Storms River; hiking over suspension bridges, through deep gorges and along rugged cliff edges. And as I had hoped, we wrapped this final, incredible leg of the journey with a cold pint of Castle overlooking a raging Indian Ocean. And if that’s not a must-do, I’m not sure what is.
Side note: Cape Town is currently experience the worst drought in its history. After three years of minimal rainfall, the city is now in a state of emergency, with locals and visitors limited to 50 liters (a 90s shower and one flush) per day. Tourists are less affected by the drought than residents, as hotels and B&B’S have a dispensation to use more water - but if you do chose to visit, please do your best to conserve this precious resource.
Erin Cebula has been a fixture on Canadian Television since landing the coveted role of Community/arts Reporter for BC’S #1 Station in 2000. Her compassionate approach to lifestyle reporting has graced the likes of Vancouver talk show Urban Rush, 6...