Knysna - The Garden Route, Part 1
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
With wine sweating from our pores after three weeks in Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, and the Robertson Valley, we headed back towards the coast. The next leg of our travels would take us along South Africa’s famous Garden Route. Stop 1: Knysna!
What’s the Garden Route?
If you’re heading to South Africa, you’ll probably have a friend (or friend of a friend) who’s been there. They’ll provide you some travel recommendations, and there’s a good chance these recommendations will include a, “Make sure to travel the Garden Route!”
We’d heard this advice plenty - both from American friends and South Africans during our time in Cape Town. But, as outsiders, we didn’t have a clear sense of what, precisely, the Garden Route entailed (Chipp’s initial thought was a British-countryside-esque-tweed-jacket-wearing stroll through some country gardens - not quite accurate).
Turns out, the Garden Route’s a few-hundred-kilometer stretch of stunning beaches, lush green hills, and deep river gorges along South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast. Spanning from Mossel Bay in the west to Stormsrivier in the east, the area is an outdoor adventure mecca - white-water and open-ocean kayaking, shark-cage diving, bungee jumping, to name a few awesome activities.
For the less adventurously-inclined, the Garden Route offers plenty of opportunities to just relax and take in the stunning surroundings, as well. Dotted with quaint, coastal towns offering incredible views and delicious seafood, you can (and we did) spend plenty of time just sipping drinks and eating great meals - no adrenaline necessary!
Gospel Music Overload and a Drive to Knysna
Looking at the map, we couldn’t tell one Garden Route town from another. After doing a little research, we settled on Knysna largely because it’s conveniently located in the middle of this scenic stretch, making logistical sense for different day trips. (NOTE: Knysna’s pronounced Nye-znah, not Ki-niss-nah, as we initially thought…).
But, this trip also exposed us to four-ish hours of the driver’s personal music selection, which turned out to be a CD with a mix of Afrikaans-, German-, and English-language gospel music. After the third time listening to the same ten tracks, it dawned on us that we were in this for the long haul.
When we eventually arrived at Thesen Island, home for our stay in Knysna, we’d lost track of how many loops of the CD had played. But, one thing’s for sure, Gott ist wundervoll!
Life on Thesen Island
Thesen Island sits in the middle of Knysna Harbor, connected to the mainland by a narrow, drivable causeway. As a gated resort community, it’s part Balboa Island, part Coronado, and part Memberberries (i.e. “Member feeling safe?” / not-so-subtle, post-Apartheid dog whistles).
Regardless of the somewhat off-color nostalgia in its promotional material, Thesen Island is absolutely beautiful. There are canals carved throughout the entire island, so every house and condo building has water access - perfect for a quick dip, dropping in a kayak, or mooring a boat. And, for us, it’d be a great place to both relax and explore the broader Knysna area. Some highlights from our time there:
Canal kayaking: The owner of the condo we rented generously let us use his two-person kayak. Slowly meandering through the maze of canals, checking out the beautiful houses, and hopping in for a dip whenever and wherever we wanted - nice afternoon “exercise.”
Rugby. On TV. In a bar: So this one’s more for Chipp, but Jenna definitely came around to it. As a rugby fan in the US, finding a rugby match on TV at an American bar proves somewhat challenging - not so in South Africa. We stayed in Knysna right in the middle of the Six Nations rugby tournament, an annual, northern hemisphere competition. Being close to the same time zone as these countries (albeit on the bottom of the globe), we could head over to a Thesen Island bar Friday and Saturday nights to watch matches.
It may seem trivial, but it’s quite an awesome experience for an American rugby fan to be able to sit in a bar and watch rugby. Oh, and we were introduced to the South African technique for shooting tequila. Instead of salt and lime, they chase shots with a piece of fresh pineapple doused in Tabasco - immediate sweet followed by a lingering heat… Delicious!
Saturday afternoon seafood specials: If you walk back towards the mainland along the Thesen Island causeway, you get to Knysna’s harbor, a built up area of restaurants, bars, and boat launches. One of these restaurants offers an incredible seafood plate special every Saturday afternoon.
Mossel Bay, the western end of the Garden Route, is well-known for its wild (as opposed to farm-raised) oysters. For pennies on the dollar, we’d spend hours sitting on an outdoor patio, listening to live music, drinking wine and beer (Chipp needed a break from the wine…), and crushing massive servings of oysters, calamari, sardines, and other local delights.
A Beer and Gin Tour of Knysna
Wanting to venture out from our Thesen enclave, we spent an afternoon strolling around the Knysna harbor and up the surrounding hills into the city’s industrial area. Similar to many renovated industrial zones in the US, this one is slowly transitioning from abandoned factories to craft breweries, cafes, and other elements of the general hipster ecosystem.
We started at Red Bridge Brewing Company, Knysna’s first microbrewery. With a great courtyard drinking area surrounded by a cafe on one side and leather workshop on the other, we couldn’t have asked for a better happy hour spot. In the late afternoon sun, we worked through a (hefty) sampling of the different beers. While delicious, they all had fairly low ABVs. So, ready for something a little higher octane, we headed over to our next stop: the Knysna Distillery.
Home to South Africa’s famous Knysna Gin, the distillery doubles as an awesome cocktail bar. Strolling over there from the brewery, we posted up at a table inside and proceeded to taste our way down a great, gin-themed cocktail menu. This was a strange phenomenon for Chipp, who’d never drank gin. But, when in Rome… He’ll be the first to admit - he’s been converted. Maybe it’s the South African summer heat, but a good, cold gin drink just hits the spot.
The distillery also uses the traditional, flame and copper pot method to make its small-batch gins. And, in a first for both of us, we got to actually taste some of the aromatics. Apparently, a loud bell-ringing in the distillery means that the botanical pot’s open for tasting. After a batch of gin is ready, the master distiller will open up the still-steaming pot, exposing a tray of piping hot botanicals for bar patrons to taste. While we were there, this tray had a massive batch of almonds, softened by the infusion process - pretty spectacular bar snack.
American Football - It’s Where the Money Is…
Later that night, well-lubricated with local beer and gin, we linked up with a group of South Africans hanging out at the distillery. One of the guys had gone to college in the States. When Chipp told him he’d played rugby at school, the guy seemed fairly confused, leading to this interaction:
South African guy: “You played rugby in college? Why?”
Chipp: “Because it’s an awesome game, and I met some great friends playing.”
South African guy: “Yeah, but why didn’t you play American football? That’s where the money is.”
Chipp, looks down at his lanky, out-of-shape frame: “Well, I wasn’t quite built for the NFL…”