I love virtually everywhere I travel, yet despite this, I rarely return to the same place in favour of exploring somewhere new. South Africa is one (actually, if you don’t count visiting family abroad, the only) place that has managed to buck that trend. It is one of those destinations I will bang on endlessly about and if you ask we where to visit (it’s a pretty big country), I will more than likely tell you the Garden Route. Wilderness is one of the towns along this beautiful stretch of coastline that I highly recommend a day trip to and I have rounded up some of the best places to eat and things to do in Wilderness here.
If you fly into George airport, a 20 minute drive up the road, this is not a town you will ever forget; the approach into Wilderness is dramatic and an unforgettable first view of all that Garden Route is known for. If you are travelling from Cape Town, you should get here in less than a 5 hour drive.
Things to Do in Wilderness
The hint is in the name here, the best activities in Wilderness all involve being outdoors and when it is this pretty, why wouldn’t you want to be? It is definitely not what I would describe as out in the “wild” though (thank god, as I have no desire to develop survival skills or start camping), this is wilderness in the sense of lots of natural beauty, yet with the local coffee shop still within reach.
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I am a beach girl through and through and this one is spectacular in every way. If you approach Wilderness from the West, you will get to see this huge stretch of sand in all it’s glory as you descend into the town; it is possibly the best view you will see along all of the Garden Route, trust me, that’s saying something!
Come at sunrise or sunset for a stunning time to go for a walk along the beach (which goes on for literally miles); you can do a bit of dream home shopping looking at the houses alongside the beach as well. The beach is also a popular place for kitesurfing as the waves here are great and there is often a breeze in the air.
Dolphin Point Lookout
This is a great place to stop and just admire the views across Wilderness coastline to the East and the Kaaimans River mouth and tidal estuary. Look down and you’ll see the old railway bridge crossing the river mouth. The Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe, the last operating passenger steam train in South Africa, used to travel across this route until 2006 when torrential weather damaged several parts of the coastal tracks and the service was eventually halted.
As you may have guessed, there is also a half decent chance you will spot dolphins and maybe even the occasional whale, although you’ll need good eyesight or a decent pair of binoculars.
Top Tip: The small parking area and lookout spot is right off the N2 highway, so you need to be approaching from the East (with Wilderness behind you) to stop. For the exact location, along with the locations for all my other top recommendations in this article, sign up to my Travel Resource Library for a downloadable Google Map of the Garden Route, along with a 7 day Garden Route itinerary.
A cute little shopping centre, there are a variety of restaurants, craft shops and art galleries here all clustered around a shaded courtyard. On Fridays between 4:00pm and 9:00pm they hold a night market with live music, market stalls and when we went, a bonfire as well.
Wilderness National Park
Located at the foot of the Outeniqua Mountains, this section of the Garden Route National Park has all the outdoor adventure activities you could possibly think of; hiking, canoeing, fishing, bird spotting, paragliding and abseiling to name but a few.
The landscape here is incredibly diverse and a perfect representation as to why this area of South Africa is referred to as the Garden Route; not only do you have the mountains to directly to the north and the beach to the south, there is lots of indigenous forest, the winding Touw River and the Wilderness lagoon.
The most westerly of the four camps in the Garden Route National Park is located here, Ebb & Flow Rest Camp. Whether you are staying at the accommodation or not, this is where the facilities are (including parking, bathrooms and picnic stops) and where many of the activities start.
Hiking in Wilderness
While I love a bit of activity, I prefer it on the more moderate than intense side, so hiking is generally my go to! There are five main hiking trails in Wilderness National Park, all between 3.5km and 7.2km round trip, all varying in level of difficulty. If you’re really keen you can turn them into multi-day hikes (less my speed unless there is a comfy bed, wine and a hot tub involved!) and add some canoeing on as well.
The Giant Kingfisher Trail, is the most popular one, starting at the Ebb & Flow Rest Camp. It passes a lovely waterfall, with the last section of the walk being via boardwalk. You can view this and details of the other four hiking trails here.
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Where to Eat in Wilderness
There isn’t loads of choice, but luckily they do a good restaurant in this neck of the woods, with a decent choice of cuisine, so finding great places to eat in Wilderness isn’t hard work.
If you can’t get enough of those beach views, this is your place. The raised decl at Salina’s is a great place to have a cocktail and watch the sunset and if you’re peckish, a diverse menu that will have something for everyone on it (including a dedicated kids menu).
Beware if it is windy, you may want to admire the view from the inside to avoid felling like you’re in a hurricane.
The location here is stunning, a beautiful boutique guest house and award winning restaurant right by the river. It is a very intimate and personal experience run by a husband and wife duo who split the front of house and kitchen roles between them, making it a perfect place to go for a romantic night out.
The food is nothing short of outstanding; the menu is five courses of locally sourced, beautifully plated South African fusion with optional wine pairings (I LOVE having wines paired with food). Serendipity only has a handful of tables so book in advance (we went in high, although not peak, season and there are almost a 3 week wait) and make sure you give plenty of notice if you need to cancel, they don’t turn their tables or accept walk-ins.
Hoekwil Country Café
A popular place to stop for coffee and a snack or light meal while enjoying mountain views. This casual eatery also has a small grocery store with lots of locally produced goods attached to it. Try their baked cheesecake, voted the best in the country.
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The Girls on the Square
I love this restaurant and lots of other people do as well judging by the obscene number of awards they have run over the years. Their menu is really diverse; the standard excellent seafood and oysters you find in many of these parts, along with a range of steaks (try the trio of ostrich, venison and beef) and some even some curries to boot.
Try and sit outside if you can, the canopies are lined with fairy lights among the trees and it makes for a lovely atmosphere. There is also something very “American” about the service here, it had a polished and efficient formality about it that isn’t common in these parts. Not a bad thing by any stretch, but just quite interesting!
Only open Thursday to Saturday for dinner only, this tiny log cabin decked out with sparkly fairy lights serves up a damn good steak (rumoured to be the best on the Garden Route) and sometimes other BBQed meats in a casual, kitsch and delightfully informal environment.
Delicious and authentic Italian food with an outdoor terrace and big open French doors, perfect for people watching. When I say Italian food, I don’t mean a menu that could be from anywhere from the world and a couple of pizzas and pastas thrown in; this has every Italian classic and lots of lesser known classics; be prepared to have a difficult choice on your hands.
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Where to Stay in Wilderness
I’ll level with you, while I enjoy a day trip to Wilderness, it is not where I would personally choose to stay. While nowhere on the Garden Route can be described as wild (this time in the party sense rather than the nature sense!), Wilderness is particularly quiet. On top of this, there isn’t any luxury or mid to higher end hotels, so if you travel on the more comfortable side, this isn’t where you want to be.
The exception to this is if you were to be renting a house directly on the ocean, there are some particularly spectacular places here and let be honest, waking up to the sea right outside my front door every morning I could be tempted to overlook the quietness of Wilderness. Try Beach Villa Wilderness for some options.
I would personally recommend staying either in Knysna or Plettenberg Bay, which also have some fairly stunning accommodation options in between.
Best Time to Visit Wilderness
Anywhere along the Garden Route is best visited in their summer if you love good weather, so that’s anytime between October and March. If you can avoid December and the first couple of weeks in January (South Africa’s summer holiday when the kids are off school) they you will find it quieter and cheaper.
If whale watching is your game, then you need to be here between May and November to have a chance at seeing the whales migrate down the coast. Be aware that Wilderness can get quite windy, especially on the beach which can reduce the temperature quite significantly, even in summer.
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Final Thoughts: What to Do in Wilderness
For me, this is the best kind of wilderness; wild yet not remote. If you are a big outdoors and adventure activity person you will absolutely love it here. If, however, you’re more like me and like your outdoor activities to be on the more moderate side, I definitely wouldn’t recommend basing yourself here unless you are lucky enough to snag one of those beach side villas.
One way or the other, this is definitely one of the top places to see on the Garden Route, if only for that beach alone.
– View & book accommodation in Wilderness here.
– Check flight routes and prices with Skyscanner. If you are coming from an international location, you will need to connect from one of the major transport hubs to George Airport (a 20 minute drive west of Wilderness.
– From the UK, British Airways fly from London Heathrow to Cape Town and Durban (three times a week to each) and Johannesburg (twice every day).
– Click here to buy your Lonely Planet Guide for South Africa.
– You can check out my full list of tried, tested and recommended Travel Resources here.