Susan McKeown’s family reunion in Port Elizabeth was followed by a driving holiday along the famous Garden Route.
A family reunion was long overdue. And so we made a plan to meet in Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.
We would travel from all over the globe: Ireland, England, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
The Irish contingent flew Cork- Heathrow-Johannesburg-Cape Town, and then there was a connecting two-hour flight to Port Elizabeth.
Our base was Pine Lodge Resort, in 10 serviced separate self-catering chalets close to the sea.
I love eating out when I’m on holiday but I enjoy cooking too, so we shared braais (barbecues) at each other’s cabins and cooked delicious meals — dishes from our childhood, like samp-and-beans, slow-cooked crushed maize with beans, and pap (much like polenta) served with shakalaka (a delicious sauce of onions, tomatoes, garlic, and whatever else you feel like adding).
We enjoyed the long evenings on our wooden patios, surrounded by thick sea scrub with the sound of the sea. (Watch out for the vervet monkeys — they pinch things through windows left open.)
Other nights, we went to the Ocean Basket for a wide choice of reasonable priced fresh seafood.
They could seat our large party at one convivial table outside.
The air was balmy and the sea pink and gold in the long sunset.
There are many lovely beaches in and near Port Elizabeth, widely considered to be one of the safest cities in South Africa.
Hobie Beach was our favourite swimming beach, the water a mellow 18-21 degrees in summer.
Every Saturday and Sunday and some weekdays, there is a vibrant craft market along the palm tree-lined beachfront. There are often drummers or dancers performing there.
Sardinia Bay Beach is a short drive from Pine Lodge outside the city where continually shifting dunes have covered the access road so you have to climb over the dunes to get to the clean, soft-sand beach, which is miles long.
There is a guarded car park here and if you can brave the waves, colder than temperate Port Elizabeth temperatures, and are careful not to go out too far, you’ll have an invigorating swim.
Another place not to miss is Schoenmakers Kop (Shoemakers’ Head). Its grassy slope overlooks a small rock pool, a perfect place for a picnic, and maybe to catch some fish.
After the family reunion, 12 of us drove the coastal Garden Route to Cape Town in three hire cars. We pre-booked this 11-night tour on the internet with GoSelfdrive tours.
They specialise in the Garden Route, and take care of the all details — late model hire cars ready for us, excellent B&Bs at each stop, and a useful information pack.
On our first day, there was a 170km drive to Tsitsikamma via the Groot River pass, through fynbos plateau and over the mountains, descending through indigenous forest to Natures Valley to walk along the lagoon and golden beach.
A quick stop near Bloukrans River (turn right at the sign Khoisan Village and Bungee Jump) to watch daredevils leap off the bridge on the world’s highest bungee jump.
We gazed from the dizzy height of the Paul Sauer Bridge, said to be highest cantilever bridge ever built, down, down into Storms River Gorge. Others stopped and walked in the forest to The Big Tree, 1,200-year-old Outeniqua Yellow wood.
Tsitsikamma — a Khoisan word meaning ‘place of abundant or sparkling waters’ — is an area of ancient indigenous forest with giant yellow woods and beautiful rugged coastline.
Deep gorges split the plateau as the rivers make their way to the sea, creating spectacular waterfalls, a very rewarding, hard trek to reach, but only for the fit.
We stayed one night at Tsitsikamma National Park and Storms River Mouth in comfortable self-catering timber cabins close enough to the roaring sea to feel the spray from the waves if the wind was right.
There is a small convenience shop and restaurant selling all one would need for self-catering.
Dassies, affectionately known as rock rabbits (hyraxes), run around freely and cheeky baboons occasionally visit.
Wooden pathways and stairs lead through the forest to the long suspension bridge over the gorge where the Storms River flows into the sea, a wild and beautiful place.
When I return, I’ll stay longer here and I’ll contact Untouched Adventures to take me kayaking on the Indian Ocean and to ride the Storms River by lilo.
Then it was 67km to Plettenberg Bay and it’s plain to see why it was named ‘Bahia Formosa’ — Beautiful Bay by Manuel De Perestrello in 1576.
We stayed at luxurious B&B, Bayside Lodge, welcomed by hosts, Adrienne and Bernie Esterhuyse, with sparkling apple juice and cool cloths for our hot faces.
They know the area well and offer good advice and suggestions.
We all loved the comfortable beds, the excellent breakfast and cooling dips in the salt swimming pool.
We chose the Fat Fish Restaurant and over really fresh fish and chips, planned our route for the next day.
Plettenberg Bay has good art and craft markets; don’t miss Simunye Crafts and Old Nick and remember you can always ship purchases home — try www.u-bag.com
It’s only 33km to Knysna, so we visited Monkey Land, Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary and Birds of Eden.
I walked with 11 different species of wild monkeys scampering along the forest floor or hanging from branches overhead in this free-roaming multi-specie primate sanctuary.
Birds of Eden, a free-flight bird aviary (50 metres high, covering 23 000sq meters of forest) and has up to 3,500 specimens of more than 280 species, the main focus being African birds.
My sister, Imogen, wanted to stay forever, she loved this place so much. In Knysna, we stayed at Azure House with stunning views of the sea.
We went on to Wilderness, visiting, and walking with the gentle giants at Knysna Elephants on the way.
We stayed two relaxing nights at Mes Amis, my mother’s favourite B&B. Built on a cliff top, it looks out over dramatic seascape with steps down to a beach that seems to go on forever.
At Wilderness, there are lovely walks in the National Parks.
We ate at Salinas Restaurant — highly recommended — beautiful sea views and a good menu.
There was a long 222km to inland Swellendam to Augusta de Mist Country Retreat, a heritage-listed home and my favourite B&B, with each room like an art gallery.
The private outside shower, looking up into the branches of a huge old oak tree, was perfect for a hot day.
Michel and Henk are very hands-on owners and delightful company. I was pleasantly surprised to find a homemade piece of carrot cake waiting for us in our room when we returned from a walk, a lovely touch.
The freshly baked bread, homemade preserves and excellent coffee make their breakfast stand out a mile from the rest.
I loved arty Swellendam, surrounded by misty mountains, its stately Cape Dutch architecture and coffee and craft shops.
It has a fascinating history so the Drostdy Museum is well worth a visit.
The young ones went on a hike to a waterfall through the beautiful Bontebok Nature Reserve. We dined at De Vagabond where I ate mouth-watering Cape Malay chicken curry.
A week into our road trip, we travelled 228km to Hermanus, with a 100km detour to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa, where Indian and Atlantic oceans meet.
In Hermanus, we stayed at Auberge Burgundy, a lovely French provincial style B&B. A big disappointment here was the over-chlorinated swimming pool.
Hermanus has some fascinating art galleries, showing that the South African art scene is bursting with talent and thriving.
Then it was 140km to Cape Town.
The last four nights were in Cape Town, the “Mother City”, with spectacular Table Mountain and its surrounding peaks providing a background of ever-changing light and cloud.
This city needs its own article, with its unique landscapes, lively street bands, markets, Two Seas Aquarium, cable car up the mountain to a 360 degree view, extensive Waterfront precinct, great food, botanical gardens and fascinating history.
Taking the cable car and seeing the sunset from the top of Table Mountain on the last night of our tour, was inspiring and very memorable.
We stayed at Maarten’s Guest House in Fresnaye with beautiful views of all the ships anchored close by the shore. This is a good base to explore Cape Town from. Maarten was a very warm and accommodating host.
Pine Lodge Resort - Port Elizabeth - www.pinelodge.co.za
Tsitsikamma National Parks and Storms River Mouth - www.krugerpark.com/self-catering/storms-river-mouth-restcamp/
Bayside Lodge - Plettenberg Bay www.baysidelodge.co.za/
Azure House - Knysna - www.azurehouse.com
Mes Amis - Wilderness - www.mesamis.co.za/
Augusta De Mist Country House - Swellendam www.augustademist.com/
Auberge Burgundy - Hermanus - www.auberge.co.za/
Maartens Guest House - Fresnaye Cape Town - www.maartens.co.za/
Go Selfdrive Tours - +27 (0) 44 382 3290 Email - firstname.lastname@example.org www.goselfdrive.co.za
Uber has taken off in a big way in South Africa, it is by far the cheapest and safest way to taxi around Port Elizabeth or Cape Town which can be a nightmare to negotiate if you don’t know the cities, download the app at www.uber.com/
The craft markets in Port Elizabeth are a lot cheaper than the markets in Cape Town.
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