The Western Cape is the most mountainous and arguably the most beautiful of South Africa’s provinces. A sweep of the country’s western flank takes in wind-contoured beaches and vine-combed valleys, indigenous rock art and ancient woodland, colonial architecture and urban life. Road trips take you through spectacular mountain passes, past deserted bays and into historic villages, with tantalising glimpses of everything from whales to wildflowers along the way. Read our Western Cape guide for everything you need to know before you go.
Where to go in the Western CapeFrom the vineyards of the Winelands to the remote and windswept West Coast, via the desiccated Little Karoo, the Western Cape brims with natural wonders and gastronomic riches. Here are some of the top places to visit in the Western Cape:
Stellenbosch and WinelandsThe Winelands are a gastronomic destination famed for fine wine and dining in scenic surrounds. Limewashed Cape Dutch manors, housing some of the country’s best restaurants and guesthouses, are cradled in the belly of vine-combed valleys beneath mauve mountains.
The main wine routes unfurl from four towns: Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and Somerset West. Franschhoek is the smallest, most romantic and exclusive of all the towns. A centre of culinary excellence, it is draped in a heavily cultivated Provençal character. In a region of impressive settings, it has the best – at the head of a narrow valley.
The university town of Stellenbosch, by contrast, has some attractive historical streetscapes, a couple of decent museums and cafés, and plenty of independent shops. Paarl, a pretty drive from Stellenbosch, is a workaday farming town overlooked by stunning granite rock formations. Beyond, the sprawling town of Somerset West boasts one outstanding attraction, Vergelegen, among the most impressive of the Wineland estates.
Cape TownCrowned by Table Mountain, Cape Town is one of Africa’s most enticing cities. Close to the national park, the vibrant metropolis is a cultural and creative melting pot. In this extraordinary city, you can browse the world’s largest collection of contemporary African art, listen to a unique, evocatively Cape style of jazz, sip on wine in a historic Constantia estate, before partying the night away in a Long Street club. To appreciate Cape Town you need to spend time outdoors, as Capetonians do. They hike, picnic or sunbathe, often choose mountain bikes in preference to cars, and turn adventure activities into an obsession.
Pringle BayThe coastal route along the R44 from Cape Town to Hermanus is one of the most spectacular drives in the country. The stretch is broken up by a series of mushrooming settlements, including Pringle Bay and Betty’s Bay. Pringle Bay is a small coastal village tucked away at the foot of the Hangklip in the Overberg region. The town and its surroundings are part of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dolphins and whales are sometimes sighted just off the coast, while oystercatchers often nest on the sandy beach.
Garden RouteDriving the Garden Route is one of the top things to do in the Western Cape. This 200km sliver of coastal plain, dotted with empty beaches and tiny coves, stretches between Mossel Bay and Storms River Mouth. It has a legendary status as South Africa’s paradise – reflected in local names such as Garden of Eden and Wilderness. This soft, green, forested swathe is threaded by rivers, tumbling down from the mountains to the rocky shores and sandy beaches. The coast is dominated by three inlets: Mossel Bay, the closest to Cape Town; Knysna, its surrounding hills cloaked in ancient woodland; and Plettenberg Bay, home to good swimming beaches. The whole stretch is a vast adventure playground, from forest hikes to marine safaris and river tubing.
Route 62 and Little KarooOne of the most exhilarating Western Cape travel experiences is driving the mountain route from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, which runs largely along the R62 – hence Route 62. Less known than its coastal counterpart, the Garden Route, this trip takes you through dramatic mountain passes and crosses a frontier of dorps (farming towns) and drylands. This “back garden” of the Little Karoo is in many respects more rewarding than the Garden Route, being far less developed, with stunning landscapes, quieter roads and some wonderful small towns to visit.
West CoastNorth of Cape Town, the remote and windswept West Coast is usually explored during the wild-flower months of August and September, when visitors converge on the West Coast National Park. In addition to its colourful botanical display, much of the park’s appeal lies in the uplifting views over the still lagoon to an olive-coloured hillside, the salty air, and the Atlantic mists vanishing in the harsh sunlight. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise, with ostriches and thousands of migrating waders, plus tortoises galore. The West Coast’s other major draw, 200km north of Cape Town on the N7, is the Cederberg. This rocky wilderness has excellent hikes and hidden rock-art sites – the work of indigenous San people, who were virtually extinguished in the nineteenth century.
- Wine estate lunchesWine tasting is one of the most memorable things to do in the Western Cape. Eat alfresco and quaff fine vintages at the top restaurants in South Africa, while gazing out at beautiful vineyards and mountains.
- De Hoop Nature ReserveMassive dunes and edge-to-edge whales make this the most exciting coastal nature reserve in the country.
- Rooibos tea toursVisit a working rooibos farm to see where the tea is grown, and enjoy a tour and tea tasting led by a knowledgeable Western Cape guide.
- OudrifAn exceptional and remote retreat lodge on the edge of a gorge in the dry and dramatic redstone back country of the Cederberg.
- Ocean safarisEnrich your Western Cape travel by learning about whales and dolphins on an excursion around Plettenberg Bay.
- Storms River MouthA dramatic section of coast, where hillside forests drop away to rocky coastline and the Storms River surges out of a gorge into the thundering ocean.
- Route 62This mountainous inland route takes you via dozy villages, across spectacular passes and through semi-desert.
- Garden RouteA road trip along the Garden Route is one of our ultimate things to do in the Western Cape.
Be sure to incorporate the Tsitsikamma section which has it all – indigenous forest, dramatic coastline, the pumping Storms River Mouth and South Africa’s flagship hike, the Otter Trail.
- Kirstenbosch National Botanical GardenThe beautiful timber-and-steel “Boomslang” walkway twists through the forest canopy at Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, providing stunning views of Table Mountain and the Southern Suburbs.
- Explore local dorpsAn unsung South African pleasure is road tripping through the Karoo to elegantly decaying dorps (towns) to enjoy country hospitality, Cape Dutch architecture and off-grid relaxation. Meander slowly to the likes of Prince Albert and Nieu Bethesda.
Top things to do in the Western Cape
Route 62 and Little KarooThe Little Karoo is hemmed in by a gauntlet of rugged mountains and steep-sided valleys (or poorts) that for centuries made this area virtually impassable for wheeled transport. In the nineteenth century, the British began to tackle the problem and dozens of passes were built through the Cape’s mountains. Many were engineered by the brilliant road-builder Andrew Geddes Bain and his son Thomas. In fact, whatever the Little Karoo lacks in museums and art galleries is amply compensated for by the towering drama of these Victorian masterpieces. Some of the best of these passes are listed below.
- Cogman’s Kloof Pass
Between Ashton and Montagu, a 5km route that’s at its most dramatic as it cuts through a rock face into the Montagu Valley.
- Gamkaskloof Pass
Reached from the summit of the Swartberg Pass, this is arguably the most awesome of all the passes, leading into a dramatic and lonely valley, all on gravel.
A tarred road through a gorge in the Swartberg, which keeps crossing a light-brown river, while huge slabs of folded and zigzagging rock rise up on either side.
- Prince Alfred’s Pass
On the R339, between the N2 (just east of Knysna) and Avontuur on the R62, a dramatic dirt road twisting through mountains, past a few isolated apple farms.
- Swartberg Pass
Between Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert, an over-the-Swartberg counterpart of Meiringspoort, with 1:7 gradients on narrow untarred roads, characterized by precipitous hairpins.
The Overberg Interior and Whale CoastEast of the Winelands lies a vaguely defined region known as the Overberg (Afrikaans for “over the mountain”). Of the two main routes through the Overberg, the N2 strikes out across the interior, a four- to five-hour stretch of sheep, wheat and mountains. Just north of the N2 is Greyton, the favoured weekend retreat of Capetonians, and the starting point of the Boesmanskloof Traverse, a terrific two-day trail across the mountains into the Karoo. The real draw of the area though is the Whale Coast, based around Hermanus – the whale-watching capital of South Africa. Also along this section of coast is Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point on the continent, where rocks peter into the ocean. Nearby is the De Hoop Nature Reserve, an exciting wilderness of bleached dunes, craggy coast and more whales.
The West CoastThe West Coast of South Africa is remote, windswept and bordered by the cold Atlantic. For many years the black sheep of Western Cape travel tourism, it has been set upon by developers who seem all too ready to spoil the bleached, salty emptiness. The sandy soil and dunes harbour a distinctive coastal fynbos vegetation, while the coastline is almost devoid of natural inlets or safe harbours. Fierce southeasterly summer winds lash the coast and dank fogs descend in winter, though in spring wild flowers miraculously appear in the veld. The southern 200km of the region, by far the most densely populated part of the coast, has many links to Namaqualand to the north – not least the flowers. The area is well known for its watersports, hiking and birdwatching.
The CederbergA bold and jagged outcrop of the Western Cape fold escarpment, the Cederberg range is one of the most magical wilderness areas in the region. The jagged mountains rise with a striking presence on the eastern side of the Olifants River Valley, around 250km north of Cape Town. The high sandstone peaks and long, dry valleys manage to combine accessibility with remote harshness, offering something for hikers, campers, naturalists and rock climbers.
Top image: © Harry Beugelink/Shutterstock
The Garden RouteThe Garden Route, a slender stretch of coastal plain between Mossel Bay and Storms River Mouth, has a legendary status as South Africa’s paradise – reflected in local names such as Garden of Eden and Wilderness. This soft, green, forested swath of nearly 200km is cut by rivers from the mountains to the north, tumbling down to its southern rocky shores and sandy beaches.
The Garden Route coast is dominated by three inlets, of which the closest to Cape Town is Mossel Bay, an industrial centre of some charm, marking the official start of the Garden Route. Knysna, though younger, exudes a well-rooted urban character but has a major drawback – unlike Plettenberg Bay, its eastern neighbour, it has no beach of its own. A major draw, though, is the Knysna forest covering some of the hilly country around Knysna, the awe-inspiring remnants of once vast ancient woodlands.
Between the coastal towns are some ugly modern holiday developments, but also some wonderful empty beaches and tiny coves, such as Victoria Bay and Nature’s Valley. Best of all is the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park, which has it all – indigenous forest, dramatic coastline, the pumping Storms River Mouth and South Africa’s most popular hike, the Otter trail.
Brief historyKhoi herders who lived off the Garden Route’s natural bounty considered the area a paradise, calling it Outeniqua (“the man laden with honey”). Their Eden was quickly destroyed in the eighteenth century with the arrival of Dutch woodcutters, who had exhausted the forests around Cape Town and set about doing the same in Outeniqua, killing or dispersing the Khoi and San in the process. Birds and animals suffered too from the encroachment of Europeans. In the 1850s, the Swedish naturalist Johan Victorin shot and feasted on the species he had come to study, some of which, including the endangered narina trogon, he noted were both “beautiful and good to eat”.
Despite the dense appearance of the area, what you see today are only the remnants of one of Africa’s great forests; much of the indigenous hardwoods have been replaced by exotic pine plantations, and the only milk and honey you’ll find now is in the many shops servicing the Garden Route coastal resorts.
Storms River MouthIn contrast to the languid lagoon and long soft sands of Nature’s Valley, Storms River Mouth presents the elemental face of the Garden Route, with the dark Storms River surging through a gorge to do battle with the surf. Storms River Mouth Restcamp, sited on tended lawns, is poised between a craggy shoreline of black rocks pounded by foamy white surf and steeply raking forested cliffs, and is without a doubt the ultimate destination along the southern Cape coast. Don’t confuse this with Storms River Village just off the N2, which is nowhere near the sea. Even if your time is limited and you can’t spend the night at Storms River Mouth, it’s still worth nipping down for a meal, a walk or a swim in the summer.
WalksWalking is the main activity at the Mouth, and at the visitors’ office at the restcamp you can get maps of short, waymarked coastal trails that leave from here. These include steep walks up the forested cliffs, where you can see 800-year-old yellowwood trees with views onto a wide stretch of ocean. Most rewarding is the three-kilometre hike west from the restcamp along the start of the Otter Trail to a fantastic waterfall pool at the base of 50m-high falls where you can swim right on the edge of the shore. Less demanding is the kilometre-long boardwalk stroll from the restaurant to the suspension bridge to see the river mouth. On your way to the bridge, don’t miss the dank strandloper (beachcomber) cave. Hunter-gatherers frequented this area between 5000 and 2000 years ago, living off seafood in wave-cut caves near the river mouth. A modest display shows an excavated midden, with clear layers of little bones and shells.
If you’re desperate to walk the Otter Trail (5 days; 42km; book through SAN Parks), which begins at Storms River, and have been told that it is full, don’t despair. A single person or a couple do stand a chance of getting in on the back of a last-minute cancellation, so it may be worth hanging out at the Mouth for a night or two.
SwimmingSwimming at the Mouth is restricted to a safe and pristine little sandy bay below the restaurant, though conditions can be icy in summer if there are easterly winds and cold upwellings of deep water from the continental shelf.
Knysna Elephant ParkHeading east from Knysna along the N2, you come to the Knysna Elephant Park. The park was established in 1994 to provide a home for abandoned, orphaned and abused young elephants, and opened to the public in 2003. The youngest of its charges are reared by park staff, who hand-feed them forty litres of baby formula a day, and sleep next to them at night. Of the activities on offer, the most popular are the roughly hour-long tours, which leave every half hour, where you’ll get the chance to touch and feed one of the pachyderms. You can also take a two-hour ride on an elephant or a guided nature walk of the same duration alongside one.
Plett's beachesVisitors principally come to Plett for its beaches – and there's a fair choice.
- Central Beach Right at the central shore of the bay, this is where the fishing boats and seacats anchor a little out to sea. The small waves here make for calm swimming, making it an ideal family spot.
- Keurbooms Beach On the northern side of the Keurbooms Lagoon, the beach feels less developed than those on the other side and stretches for over 10km along a section of coastline where you can see groups of dolphins playing in big breakers.
- Lookout Beach One of the nicest stretches of sand for bathers, body-surfers or sun lizards, Lookout Beach has a marvellously located restaurant, from which you can often catch sight of dolphins cruising into the bay.
- Lookout Rocks To the southeast of Lookout Beach, attracts surfers to the break off a needle of rocks known as the Point.
- Robberg Beach Just south of Beacon Island, the beach stretches for roughly six soft, sandy kilometres to the Robberg Peninsula, offering excellent long beach walks. It's also accessible by road at several points along the way.
Whaling and gnashing of teethFor conservationists, the monumental 1970s eyesore of the Beacon Island Hotel, on a promontory on the southern side of the Piesang River mouth, may not be such a bad thing, since previously the island was the site of a whale-processing factory established in 1806 – one of some half-dozen such plants erected along the Western Cape coast that year. Whaling continued at Plettenberg Bay until 1916. Southern right whales were the favoured species, yielding more oil and whalebone – an essential component of Victorian corsets – than any other. In the nineteenth century, a southern right would net around three times as much as a humpback caught along the Western Cape coast, leading to a rapid decline in the southern right population by the middle of the nineteenth century.
The years between the establishment and the closing of the Plettenberg Bay factory saw worldwide whaling transformed by the inventions of the Industrial Revolution. In 1852, the explosive harpoon was introduced, followed by the use of steam-powered ships five years later, and the cannon-mounted harpoon in 1868. In 1913, Plettenberg Bay was the site of one of seventeen shore-based and about a dozen floating factories between West Africa and Mozambique, which that year between them took about ten thousand whales.
Inevitably, a rapid decline in humpback populations began; by 1918, all but four of the shore-based factories had closed due to lack of prey. The remaining whalers now turned their attention to fin and blue whales. When the South African fin whale population became depleted by the mid-1960s to twenty percent of its former size, they turned to sei and sperm whales. When these populations declined, the frustrated whalers started hunting minke whales, which at 9m in length are too small to be a viable catch. In 1979 the South African government banned all activity surrounding whaling.
Whale- and dolphin-watching in Plettenberg BayElevated ocean panoramas give Plettenberg Bay outstanding vantages for watching southern right whales during their breeding season between June and October. An especially good vantage point is the area between the wreck of the Athene at the southern end of Lookout Beach and the Keurbooms River. The Robberg Peninsula is also excellent, looming protectively over this whale nursery and giving a grandstand view of the bay. Other good town viewpoints are from Beachy Head Road at Robberg Beach; Signal Hill in San Gonzales Street past the post office and police station; the Beacon Island Hotel on Beacon Island; and the deck of The Lookout restaurant on Lookout Beach.
Outside Plett, the Kranshoek viewpoint and hiking trail offers wonderful whale-watching points along the route. To get there, head for Knysna, taking the Harkerville turn-off, and continue for 7km. It's also possible to view the occasional pair (mother and calf) at Nature's Valley, 29km east of Plett on the R102, and from Storms River Mouth. For more information about whales, see the section on Whale-watching and other activities.
The Knysna elephantsTraffic signs warning motorists about elephants along the N2 between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay are rather optimistic: there are few indigenous pachyderms left and, with such a large forest, sightings are rare. But such is the mystique attached to the Knysna elephants that locals tend to be a little cagey about just how few they number. By 1860, the thousands that had formerly wandered the once vast forests were down to five hundred, and by 1920 (twelve years after they were protected by law), there were only twenty animals left; the current estimate is three. Loss of habitat and consequent malnutrition, rather than full-scale hunting, seems to have been the principal cause of their decline.
The only elephants you're guaranteed to see near Knysna are at the Knysna Elephant Park or the Elephant Sanctuary, both near Plettenberg Bay.
The WinelandsSouth Africa has over a score of recognized wine routes extending to the Karoo and way into the Northern Cape, but the area known as the Winelands is restricted to the oldest wineries outside the Cape Peninsula, within a 60km radius of Cape Town. The district contains the earliest European settlements at Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and Somerset West, each with its own wine route, on which you travel from one estate to the next to taste the wines. On the hillsides and in the valleys around these towns you’ll find a flawless blending of traditional Cape Dutch architecture with the landscape. The Winelands are best covered in a car, as half the pleasure is the drive through the countryside; without your own transport, you could take a day-trip to the Winelands with one of several Cape Town-based companies.
The most satisfying of the Winelands towns is Stellenbosch, which enjoys an easy elegance, beautiful streetscapes, a couple of decent museums and plenty of visitor facilities. One of the region’s scenic highlights is the drive along the R310 through the Helshoogte Pass between Stellenbosch and Paarl, the workaday farming town of the region. Smallest of the Winelands towns, with a rural yet sophisticated feel, Franschhoek has the most magnificent setting at the head of a narrow valley, and has established itself as the culinary capital of the country. The major draw of the sprawling town of Somerset West is Vergelegen, by far the most stunning of all the Winelands estates.
Tackling the WinelandsOf the several hundred estates in the Winelands, the wineries in our selection were chosen not primarily because they produce the best wine (although some do), but for general interest – beautiful architecture or scenery – or just because they are fun. When planning, bear in mind that although all the wineries offer tastings, many offer a lot more, such as restaurants, picnics and horseriding. Choose an area to explore and don't try to visit too many wineries in a day unless you want to return home in a dizzy haze. Most estates charge a fee for a wine-tasting session (anywhere up to R40) and some only have tastings at specific times; see the individual accounts for more details.
The definitive and widely available John Platter's South African Wine Guide (also available as an iPhone app) is a useful companion, which provides ratings of the produce of pretty well every winery in the country.