This has been without doubt one of the best holidays we have ever taken - and it has some strong competition. Stunning scenery, excellent food, luxurious accommodation and friendly people have combined to make this a truly unforgettable trip. There are problems here and the frequently seen townships are a very stark reminder of that. There are some places where we have felt uncomfortable, but very many more where we have felt very welcome and at home. Some of the little cafes we have stopped off at en route are a great example of just how hard so many people are trying here to make the best of what they have. The faultlessly solicitous service everywhere is also a happy memory - everyone, no matter what their job is, has been making a great effort to do it well.
The Cape Grace Hotel is a very comfortable hotel with great facilities, including a whisky bar with a huge variety of whiskies available to taste. It is more expensive than the Victoria & Alfred though and the location isn't as good. either. The swimming pool was very welcome at the end of a long journey and a good place to relax before making the trip home.
Better weather today meant we could take the 4x4 trip through the fynbos clad slopes of the Grootbos nature reserve. They are doing a wonderful job here conserving unique vegetation made possible by the four soil types they have - six flower species are only found in Grootbos. So many of the flowers have medicinal value as well as great beauty. Most of the proteas had finished flowering, unfortunately - they are at their best in October usually. Christmas in Cape Town. It took 3 and a half hours to get back from Grootboos to Cape Town in the end - much longer than we had anticipated because of heavy traffic. It looked very different from three weeks ago - Christmas had arrived here while we had been on our travels!
We arrived to a very warm and friendly welcome at Grootboos Private Nature Reserve and were shown to our suite. The lodge has panoramic view across beautiful Walker Bay, which is a protected site, accessed by permit only. The suites are beautifully decorated and the food is absolutely fantastic. Of all the lovely places we have stayed on this trip so far, this is definitely one of the best.
A five hour drive out of Knysna down the remainder of the N2 Garden Route took us through miles of golden fields dotted with neatly stacked, circular hay bales protected by mountain ranges. It struck us that the drive after the end of the Garden Route was actually much more scenic, despite all the hype. Our arrival at Grootboos Private nature reserve was the highlight of the day. This was Paradise found!
We hiked the Robberg Peninsula today - a really lovely walk. The weather was overcast, which was a bit of a shame, but it was warm and dry at least. There are a lot of lovely coastal and forest walks around Knysna - much nicer than the built up areas all around the coast from here to Plettenberg Bay (Plett). In parts of the Garden Route aalong the coast, there are townships on both sides of the road - not at all scenic. Lots of properties here have electric fences protecting them and most shops/hotels etc seem to have 24 hour armed respond security. A quarter of the back page of the Visit Knysna tourism flier has safety advice for tourists. All common sense stuff, but disconcerting nonetheless
The St. James of Knysna hotel was comfortable and our room was enormous - but the atmosphere was a bit staid/old fashioned. It was also a long way out of town. We would have been better staying at a B & B closer to the centre of town. We had to get a cab to the restaurant where we were meeting friends - it is not advisable to walk it.
This morning was our last 5am start and our last game drive. It was time for us to say "Goodbye Shamwari - Hallo Knysna". Sicla was on a mission to find me more elephants - not too difficult to track with the large prints their feet make. They are rather like huge marshmallows!
After four days of 5 am starts and an hour and a half drive back through driving rain in an open truck, we woke at 4am to a big thunder storm - the lightning lit up the tent and thunder rolled all around for some hours. In view of the weather, we decided to abandon the 5am game drive and take some much needed down time this morning. Good call - one of the other vehicles turned back after just 1 km! We have seen so much here already after three days that missing out on one game drive didn't seem like a big deal anyway. On reflection, 3 nights would have been sufficient - even with good weather every day.
We have spent the last couple of days on a Shamwari Photographic Safari. These are led by Ryan and his Dad Iky (Iky's Photograhpic) who, with the impressively expert help of Frank our ranger and driver, patiently showed us how to get the very best out of our cameras and capture the beauty of this wild and fascinating place. The photographic safari added greatly to our overall experience of Shamwari and I would wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone interested in photography - whether inexperienced amateurs like us looking to invest some time in learning more about the art - or experienced photographers looking to share their passion and enhance skill.
Today's game drives would reward us with sightings of 4 of the Big 5 (rhino, buffalo, elephant, cheetah and leopard). This morning, an hour or more's driving was rewarded by a cheetah sighting. The kill was fresh - somewhat distressing (more so as the prey was a pregnant female springbok) until you get used to the fact that you are watching the natural world all around you as it happens in real life here. The light was right and we were - with some valuable guidance. From our very talented guides - able to take some great shots.
We were up at 5 to start our morning game drive. What a way to spend your birthday! This morning, we saw black rhino (very rare - this was the first in the open sighting our guide had seen in three years); elephants, giraffes and cheetah - all in one morning! Awesome. This morning had been good, but it got much better on the evening game drive. We spent an hour - just the two of us with three guides - watching lions - King of the Bush. Such a privilege.
Bayethe Lodge is a little further away from the game reserve than some of the other lodges, but is quieter and better for an adults only experience. The tents were very comfortable - though we were glad we had packed some warmer clothes. An open air shower would have been even better - but the private hot tub was a great facility. Shamwari looks after you very well indeed. Early morning and evening game drives are part of your package and specialist photographic safaris are also available. Safaris are catered for on a full board basis, so only your drinks are additional. The restaurant is good and the mixture of private tables and group dining works well.
A cheerful chap called Brian drove us all the way up the coast through Port Elizabeth and on to Shamwari Game Reserve. It took 5 hours in all. Bayethe Lodge is tented accommodation (although you would never really know you were actually in a tent!) set in very peaceful surroundings of rich vegetation giving a real feeling of seclusion with spectacular views of the African bush. The inspiration for the name of Bayethe Lodge comes from the Afrikaans "By-ye-thi" - "I salute you".
The Fernery was booked as part of the hike package. We would have stayed longer if we could as the facilities were excellent. A day or so extra down time at this part of the trip would have been quite welcome - particularly after the exertion of the hike. The Fernery has a lovely swimming pool area surrounded by peaceful gardens - a lovely place just to hang out for a few days.
We left the comfort of the Misty Mountains Resort and set off on the second day of our hike, through wild garlic, curry plant, pelargoniums, yellow daisies, arum lilies and trees I have never a seen before. We saw: iron wood (heavier than water so it doesn't float); stink wood (used for furniture, and smells when cut) and knot wood - which looked like something from prehistoric times. We passed through banks of pretty coral fern, which is (somewhat unbelievably given its delicacy and the distance) harvested for export to florists mainly in France, Germany and Holland.
The Misty Mountain Reserve was the second hotel we stayed in on our two day Dolphin Trail Hike - a perfect place to stay in all aspects. Our room was called Tortoise - were they trying to tell us something about our hiking speed?! There was great attention to detail here - even the the plugs had a tortoise on top
We met up with our fellow hikers - three couples from Germany who fortunately all spoke very good English. We set off on the day's hike and saw a pod of dolphins almost as soon as we started (video to follow!). We walked across three suspension bridges (for once, I took my eyes off the beautiful ocean and concentrated on putting one wobbly foot in front of the other). Once we had made the crossing, a long, steep ascent followed. It was hot and this part of the hike was the most challenging. We were rewarded by "high tea` which was served in china cups! These had been drive up to the top - our two African guides had carried water etc. For the trip - but obviously not all the tea cups!
From Oudtshoorn, we drove for about an hour through some beautiful scenery to drop off the off the hire car at George airport, stopping off at the impressive Fancourt Golf Club en route to satisfy Tim's curiosity. Two and a half hours later, the pre-booked transfer car had dropped us at the Storms River Tsitsikamma Section of the Garden Route National Park (GRNP) ready to start our two day hike - The Dolphin Trail.
Hlangana Lodge is a very pretty and comfortable lodge on the outskirts of Oudtshoorn. There is no restaurant on site, but a complimentary shuttle into town was provided. The lodge has a peaceful pool area and gardens. Best of all, it has an absolutely excellent laundry service! We left relaxed and refreshed with a case full of clean. fresh laundry all neatly pressed and folded for the price of a couple of cups of coffee back home. What's not to like?!
Oudtshoorn – Cango Caves and Ostriches Cango Caves Oudtshoorn is an interesting place and it is worth spending at least a day here - or better still two, if you…
It took us 5 hours to reach Hlangana Lodge. There was little traffic and the route was indeed scenic. We passed a woman carrying a large cardboard book on her head - no hands - better deportment than you see on most high streets back home. Several people had woolly hats on - odd as it was over 30 today. We also saw an ostrich running wild, with 3 chicks. The highlight though was the baboon troop running across the motorway. We were looking out for them as there were notices warning you not to feed the baboons. Hard to photograph through the car window and we didn't want to slow down too much or stop for obvious reasons.
We are moving on today and have a long(ish) 4 and a half hour drive ahead to Hlangana Lodge in Oudtshoorn, so are making an early start. Route 62 is a good alternative to the very popular Garden Route along the coast. It is supposed to be quieter, but no less picturesque - we'll find out today.
Each course on the Le Quartier Francais Tasting Menu was as much - if not more - a work of art than part of a meal. The chef prides herself on using local produce and this was certainly a sample of some of the best South Africa has to offer. We each had a different menu chosen for us, which was unusual in itself. Even the wines that accompanied it were different for each of us. Three hours slipped happily away as we enjoyed the theatre of the banquet. The experience needs to be booked well ahead and is only available on certain nights. The hotel restaurant is also a great choice off the Tasting Room is not open.
Le Quartier Francais is a really beautiful hotel. Luxurious, yet informal and relaxed. The staff are happy to organise trips for you locally. The swimming pool area is very restful . The hotel is located conveniently close to the Main Street which means you can choose to dine at a variety of different restaurants if you wish. The restaurants at the hotel are excellent too though, so aim to sample those during your stay if you can. You can choose between fine dining and a more relaxed option. All in all - a really lovely place to stay for a few days.
We picked up our hire car and navigated the short hour and a half drive to our next stop in Franschhoek. It was very hot today - up to 35 and Summer has only just started here. They say it has started hot though - February (their hottest month) isn't usually much hotter than this. August - mid Winter here - is about 15 degrees on average but can drop just below freezing at night on occasion. I don't think many people who live here all the time understand what cold can really feel like?! Le Quartier Francais is a really beautiful hotel. Luxurious, yet informal and relaxed. This afternoon, they organised a trip for us to a winery that is part of their group.
We took a Peninsular Tour to the Penguins today, finishing at the African penguin colony at Boulders Beach. The coastline was pristine - miles and miles of clear blue waters, huge waves and very few people around - perfect. The penguins were a fascinating sight - quite immune to all the attention they get from the tourists. No-one was swimming in the sea. Maybe because the water is very cold here in Summer (it is warmer in Winter, oddly?) - or maybe because sharks are common in these waters. Sharks are so common they employ shark watchers to sound the alarm if they spot one.
A city bus hop on hop off 2 day pass is very good value and a great way to see all the sites. A sunset cruise and a trip round the harbour on a boat are both included. We'll save the sunset cruise until tomorrow. The blue route goes to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, which are a must see World Heritage site. The area is famous for its fynbos (fine bush) and there were some stunning examples in these very well kept gardens. Thought for the day - Nelson Mandel's mantra - "Rise Above" - above apartheid, struggle, bad news, loss - whatever has gone wrong, you can overcome it so long as you have the right mindset.
We are staying at the Victoria & Alfred Hotel which is perfectly situated in the heart of the V&A Waterfront and offers spectacular views of the harbour and Table Mountain. By the time we had unpacked, it was dark and the waterfront looked really lovely all lit up.
Where to Stay in Cape Town Victoria & Alfred Hotel - Accommodation Review The Victoria & Alfred Hotel is a fantastic hotel and our favourite of the two luxury hotels…