Gorgeous Garden Route
My short escape from Cape Town took me to my homeland, the Garden Route. Shortly after an early breakfast, I left Cape Town and headed off towards Oudtshoorn and the Little Karoo. I stopped en route for a quick drink and a snack at a crazy little spot called Ronnies Sex Shop, a popular little restaurant-bar with great character, good food and welcoming atmosphere!
On arrival in Oudtshoorn some 5 ½ hours (430km) later I checked into the lovely Thorntree Lodge 12km outside Oudtshoorn on the road towards the Cango Caves. Louis, the lodge owner, greeted me with a warm welcome and then checked me into my cosy luxury cottage in the rose garden. I took some time to freshen up and then headed out for some adventure. The Cango Caves was a further 17km out of Oudtshoorn and I decided to join a 90 minute guided adventure tour taking me through the depths of these world-renowned caves. Dripstone caverns, vast halls and towering formations of stalagmites and stalactites fascinated me. The tour took us through narrowing moist chambers where the air was heavy and our nerves started churning. The passage way forced us to a crawl as we made our way through "the tunnel of love". We ended up on our stomachs crawling head first through "the devils postbox" only 45 cm in height only to pop out into large chamber, which eventually lead us out into the welcoming sunshine. With cave grime all over me, I returned to the lodge for a quick shower and then pre dinner drinks in the cosy fire lit pub and a fantastic dinner in the lodges' restaurant.
The following day after breakfast I tried my hand at riding an ostrich. The Cango Ostrich Farm just down the road from Thorntree Lodge is a great place to experience ostrich riding and to learn all about the ostrich farming industry, which made Oudtshoorn famous. My ride was entertaining to say the least and meeting the family special, a very friendly female ostrich by the name of Betsie, was a pleasure!
It was another beautiful sunny day in the Little Karoo https://www.premiergardenoffices.co.uk/. The perfect day for a scenic drive. From the ostrich farm I headed up and over the Swartberg Pass enjoying magnificent views of the little Karoo and continued to the quaint little town of Prince Albert and then on through the breathtaking gorge of Meiringspoort. At a waterfall, I enjoyed a tasty picnic lunch kindly packed for me by Thorntree Lodge. Towering cliffs with fascinating sandstone rock formations surrounded me. A 25 km tarred road winds along the floor of the gorge, crossing the Groot River 25 times. Each crossing, or drift, has its own name and story and this is depicted on a plaque at the Waterfall information site. After spending time exploring the area, I continued via De Rust and returned to Thorntree for the night. Dinner was enjoyed at a very popular little restaurant in town called Jemimas.
After packing my gear and saying my farewells to all at Thorntree, I headed off to the Cango Wildlife Ranch, a wildlife sanctuary and endangered species breeding facility - a fascinating stop recommended for all. They offer a very informative guided tour of the ranch (45 min to 1 hour) where one can see and learn about crocodiles, alligators, tigers, jaguars, lions and cheetahs. The Cheetah research sanctuary offers a cheetah encounter program, which enables one to touch the cheetahs. It's a humbling experience with these incredible animals. After my encounter with the cheetahs, I took a quick look at their snake farm before heading out of Oudtshoorn towards the Garden Route.
I travelled over the beautiful Outeniqua Mountains into George then along the coast past the Wilderness lakes and on to the quaint little town of Knysna (approx 125km and 1h40 min drive). I drove down to the popular little Quays Waterfront to find some lunch and stopped in at 30 Degrees South for a tasty seafood dish. After a stroll around the Waterfront I made my way to another stunning lodge situated right up on the hill looking over the Knysna Lagoon across to Belvidere Estate and the Outenique Mountains in the distance. Elephant Hide Lodge is a favourite of mine, its lovely luxury suites all boosting spectacular views. The Utermark family welcomed me in and made me feel at home. Ryan, his brother Craig and good friend Mark took me out dining at a great Italian restaurant called Mama Persello's and then we proceeded to check out Knysna's nightlife. Knysna is rich in excellent restaurants but not so great when it comes to nightlife - pubs with live music and entertainment. It happened to be a good night of the week and we found some entertainment at Harry B's with some locals playing good dancing music. Much fun was had!
The following day I was off to discover Knysna! I joined a 4-hour Eco-Experience to Featherbed Nature Reserve, a South African Heritage site. This included a return ferry trip across the Knysna Lagoon, a nature drive and guided walk through the reserve ending with a scrumptious buffet lunch at the Food Forest restaurant. Your local guide on board will share fascinating tales about the Lagoon, the early shipping industry and oyster cultivation. Featherbed Nature Reserve is home of a breeding programme of the rare Blue Duiker - one of the smallest antelope species in the world - the beautiful Knysna Loerie and the endangered Knysna Sea Horse. Visitors have the rare opportunity to view these creatures on the Reserve. The ferry returned home in the early afternoon.
More fun and adventure was to be had today! The Garden Route is renowned for its beautiful indigenous forests and spectacular coastal fynbos vegetation. It is imperative to get out and enjoy it! My afternoon was spent quad biking through the Featherbed Nature Reserve - a bit of an adrenalin rush mixed with some awesome views. I thoroughly enjoyed it!
Back at the lodge, I prepared for another evening out with the Utermark brothers and friends. Dinner was enjoyed at a top class restaurant on Thesens Island called Sirocco. Great food, superb views and good service was enjoyed by all!
Plettenberg Bay -
Snug and warm in my cosy bed, I lay awake planning my day. After my choice of a healthy breakfast of the best muesli in town, topped with tasty Greek yoghurt and drizzled with honey, I headed off to Robberg Nature Reserve near Plettenberg Bay to enjoy a 2 hour hike. The Robberg peninsula is covered in rich fynbos vegetation and boosts spectacular views out to sea and across the Robben beach to Plettenberg Bay 8km away. The bird life is great and one gets a chance to spot a large seal colony.
There is such a myriad of things to do in this area that I struggled for choice. After my hike, I settled for lunch at a popular restaurant overlooking the Bitou River Valley. Emily Moon is beautiful lodge with 8 separate private suites decorated in contemporary African style. The same style flows through to their lovely restaurant with cuisine to die for! After a relaxing superb lunch out on the deck, I continued to the Elephant Sanctuary out at the Crags where I enjoyed some interaction with a family of 6 well cared for African elephants. A guided program took me on a 1 hour "trunk in hand" walk with the ellies followed by an elephant back ride of about 15 min always accompanied by experienced trainers and a qualified guide who constantly shared interesting facts, their passion for the ellies obvious - an experience I would recommend to anyone of any age!
Monkeyland and Birds of Eden are right next door to The Elephant Sanctuary and are also well worth a visit. Monkeyland is the worlds first free roaming multi-specie primate sanctuary. It is an enclosed indigenous forest area about 26 rugby fields in size and has numerous primate species from all over the world. Accompanied by an experienced qualified ranger, I joined an informative 1-hour guided tour through the sanctuary.
Birds of Eden is the largest free-flight aviary in the world and is home to about 150 species from various parts of the world. After buying a booklet from the ticket office listing the bird species, I then roamed around the aviary on the raised wooden walkways that took one through the canopy of the indigenous forest. A little tea garden on a lake looked attractive so I sat down for a cup of tea while watching swans and ducks of all kind peacefully sail past me.
It was a busy day for me and I looked forward to a bit of quiet time. Just across the valley from Monkeyland was my overnight stop. The Hog Hollow Country Lodge staff welcomed me cheerfully on my arrival and check my in to my luxury suite with its own private deck and stunning views across a valley of dense forest with the Outeniqua Mountains in the distance. Peace and quiet! Aaah!
Pre-dinner drinks were served from about 19h00 out on the main deck around a large bon fire and a superb 5 course dinner served from 19h30. All the guests sat at the same table and had a chance to mingle and chat about their days' activities. Each course served was delicious, tantalising our taste buds! In retiring to my room I was welcomed back to a heated room, with a bed time story to read, my bed turned down and a small chocolate with a note saying "Good night, see in you in the morning". This left a smile on my face!
After a good nights sleep, I joined the breakfast table and was pleasantly surprised at the large variety of things on the cold buffet. There was even champagne on the table! I didn't even get to the hot breakfast! I looked forward to another night at The Hog.
Booked for a boat cruise at 09h30 but rough seas called it off. It was pity! It would have been great to enjoy some dolphin encounters in the bay. Anyway I enjoyed a scenic drive along the old passes road via Natures Valley along the R102 to Tsitsikamma National Park. The road gently meanders through dense indigenous forest covering deep river gorges and steep mountain slopes. Storms River mouth in Tsitsikamma offered wild seas and a dramatic rocky coastline. I took at stroll to the waterfall on the first section of the famous 5 day Otter Trail which starts at Storms River Mouth. The waterfall dropped into a lovely big pool of coke coloured water before falling away into the sea. There was a chilly wind blowing in from the sea and a storm brewing so there was no swimming for me today. I scanned the coastline for the elusive Cape Clawless Otter endemic to this area but they were hiding today. Having enjoyed some fresh sea air and a bit of exercise I returned to my car to return to my lodge. En route, I stopped at the Bloukrans Bridge on the N2 to watch some extreme adrenalin junkies throw themselves off the bridge! Bloukrans Bridge offers the highest bungi jump in the world at 216m. Their screams said it all and made me feel happy to be standing where I was, watching.
With the approach of winter, my thoughts turn to travel-especially to sunny islands where I can snorkel, swim and enjoy walks through lush tropical vegetation. I have a special fascination for islands, probably because I live a good two hours drive from the nearest beach, and because Bucks County is part of such a large continental land mass.
On a recent visit to St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I stayed at the former Rockresort-Caneel Bay. During a tour of this spacious property I was surprised to discover that more than 100 employees work on the maintenance of the lush tropical gardens that hide the resort's beachfront cottages. It shows! Not only does the resort maintain its own private nursery for propagating plants, it has a resident horticulturist who seeks out exotic new plants from different parts of the world. I wandered leisurely through groves of fruiting banana trees, swaying coconut palms, and thick strands of richly-hued heliconias, with flower clusters up to three feet long, each floret resembling a lobster claw, from its oval, pointed shape and bright red coloration.
I liked St. John for its wild atmosphere. It's not nearly as congested as neighboring St. Thomas, and it's a lot more interesting to explore in a rented jeep. The place is full of history, and the scene of perhaps one of the greatest little-known tragedies in the colonization of the Americas, for it was on St. John that 1,900 slaves revolted against the 100 resident whites. They held control of the island for nearly six months, until overwhelming forces crushed their spirit to resist and they fled into the wilderness. There were mass suicides among the slaves, and those who were captured suffered cruel punishment, including burning, impalement and dismemberment.
Ruins of the sugar mills that formed the island's economy still survive, many of them maintained by the U.S. Park Service, which owns much of the island. At Caneel Bay beautiful old ruins have been made into gardens, the stone walls garlanded with lush vines.
During a stay on St. Thomas I checked into the new Grand Palazza Hotel, which resembles an Italian Villa, around a horseshoe-shaped bay. A Brazilian landscape architect has laid out beautiful lawns and terraces filled with tropical plants, and a crew of nine gardeners works full-time keeping the plantings healthy.
A 15-minute flight from St. Thomas is St. Croix, which is easier to get around than congested St. Thomas, and which has pleasant rolling hills where it is still possible to find a beach all to yourself. Here I found the Buccaneer Hotel full of so many interesting plants it resembles a richly planted botanical garden. One of the owners, Elizabeth Armstrong, works diligently to keep everything correctly labeled and conducts nature walks almost every day. She showed me a beautiful mature baobab tree in full flower. One of the largest and longest-lived trees in the world, the baobab has a bottle-like shape and looks like it is made from stone. I have never seen a baobab outside of Africa, where I once had to climb into the branches of a 3,000-year-old specimen to avoid a prowling lion! The baobab is known as "The Tree where Man was Born" because African tribes believe that under the baobab man first learned the process of germination in seeds (the seeds of the baobab are large, chocolate colored, and pollinated by bats). The Buccaneer has a boat dock where it's easy to catch a ride out to Buck Island for snorkeling along a beautiful underwater trail that leads through the most impressive coral canyons I have ever seen. In fact, the entire trail is a veritable underwater garden, with an impressive concentration of fish species gliding among the vast forests of elkhorn and staghorn corals.
For a totally different kind of island experience, consider Tresco, off the coast of Land's End, England. Twenty-five miles from the mainland, it is easily reached by helicopter from the mainland town of Penzanze. With a mild climate influenced by the Gulf Stream, Tresco rarely experiences frost and has one of the most richly planted gardens in the world. It contains large plant collections from Mexico, South Africa and New Zealand.
The Tresco Island Hotel is unobtrusive and almost blends in with the rocky scenery. Every room has spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean, and there are cliff walks that lead through sand dunes, along cliff-tops, through moorland and woodland. Cars are banned from the island, and bicycles are the most common mode of transportation-or walking.
The island is owned by Prince Charles, who goes there frequently to paint, but the Dorrian-Smith family has a 99-year lease, allowing it to farm the fertile fields and control tourism. The owners live in Abby House, a castle-like structure built from locally quarried stone and the salvage of shipwrecks. The gardens took shape almost a hundred years ago in an abandoned stone quarry adjacent to the house, and around the ruins of an old Benedictine monastery. During a leisurely stroll through the spectacular terraced gardens I have seen South African proteas in full bloom, South American amaryllis naturalized in huge colonies, and groves of Australian tree ferns.
I have visited Tresco several times-in June and October-experiencing good weather at both times, and the gardens were filled with color.