Planning a trip to South Africa can be daunting. It's a huge country offering great diversity in every sense of the word, and for most of us it's a very long way from home. You're tempted to pack as much as possible into a visit: cities, townships, beaches, safari, vineyards, trains, gardens, national parks... you name it and South Africa has it. When we had the opportunity to visit South Africa for nearly three weeks, we did just the opposite and focused on a single region: Cape Town and the southwest coast.
This turned out to be one of our slow travel adventures. We needed a break from work and just wanted to relax and absorb the local culture. We left refreshed and with a desire to return and experience other parts of the country in a similar way.
Our itinerary was fairly simple with plenty of time in three primary destinations. Depending on your schedule, you can easily adjust the number of days in each location.
Cape Town and Cape Peninsula: Plan to spend four or five days. This will give you plenty of time to explore this stunning city known also as the Mother City, especially the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAA) which opened after our visit.
Cape Town has numerous accommodation options for all budgets. We stayed in a moderate hotel in De Waterkant neighborhood, close to the waterfront and other attractions.
Speaking of attractions, even with several days to spend you’ll need to pick and choose based on your interests. A few key sites are:
The waterfront area, including lovely shops and restaurants, museums and the departure point for boats to Robben Island. Do not miss the Robben Island tour. It's worth the views from the boat, and you'll never forget the story of the struggle for human rights and equality.
The historic area, including the outdoor market at Greenmarket Square and the Company’s Garden area, an expensive green zone with wonderful gardens, museums, monuments, and historic buildings, all with views of Table Mountain.
Night life – We happened to be in Cape Town for New Years Eve and had a wonderful time on the rooftop of Beaulah Bar, a gay bar offering dancing and shows.
On our last day in Cape Town we picked up a rental car and prepared for our road trip. South of Cape Town extends the Cape Peninsula all the way to Cape of Good Hope. Spend a day visiting this area or plan to pass through as you head out of town to points east.
The west coast of the Cape Peninsula includes popular resort areas and beaches, but development stops as you head toward the Cape of Good Hope. As you return up the east side of the peninsula, be sure to stop in Simon's Town for a brief visit.
Stellenbosch Wine Region: Plan for two or three days. This world-famous wine growing region will stun you with great food, amazing views, and of course fantastic wines. For me, the town of Stellenbosch itself was a bit boring, but the surrounding area and the vineyards are very much worth the visit.
There are plenty for accommodation options in the Stellenbosch area, suitable for all tastes and budgets. We stayed at The Wild Mushroom, a lovely boutique bed and breakfast offering incredible views. Their delicious and hearty breakfast will fuel you up for a day of sightseeing. They'll also help you make restaurant reservations. We had a wonderful meal at Longridge Winery outside Stellenbosch. The sunset view over the vineyard was stunning.
The Garden Route: This is a nearly 200 mile (300km) stretch of coast extending east from Mossel Bay, about a 4 hour drive from Cape Town. Some visitors pass through on a day tour or overnight visit. I highly recommend spending more time to fully enjoy all that the area has to offer. We stayed for eight days.
We chose to rent a private home directly on the coast outside of the town of George. Although it was only 15 minutes from town by car, getting to the house required an adventurous drive down a winding narrow road across tiny bridges. You really feel isolated.
This was probably one of the best vacation properties we have ever rented in terms of the view and comfort level. The area of widely-spaced homes included hiking trails through the bush and forest down to tiny cove by the name of Ballots Bay. However, you also have the Victoria Bay area and plenty of other options close by.
We stayed in George for 10 days, shopping at the lovely Outeniqua Farmers Market on Saturday and enjoying meals at local restaurants - although we mostly stayed in and prepared meals while enjoying wonderful South African wines, watching birds soar and hyraxes (small mammals distantly related to the elephant!) play among the rocks.
For shopping in George do not miss a visit to Wonki Ware pottery. Di Marshall founded the small pottery factory over a decade ago as a local initiative to employ women from disadvantaged backgrounds. The handmade pottery is wonderful with a range of designs and textures.
The Garden Route is known for a collection of stunning botanical gardens and the George Botanical Garden is well worth a visit.
Further east along the coast we enjoyed visiting the Sedgefield and Knysna areas. The coast is stunning and the vibe is very relaxed, a surfer's paradise. Be sure to head out to Eastern Knysna Head for the views and a nice meal. In this area outdoor and adventure sport enthusiasts have plenty of options, including the Garden Route and Tsitsikamma national parks.
Rainbow rating (out of 5): 🌈🌈🌈🌈 In Cape Town and the main touristy areas you are very unlikely to encounter discrimination, and there are laws in place to protect you. However, conservative social beliefs do exist among some groups and in less-developed areas.