Stretching along the southern Cape coast is the Garden Route, a place of rare beauty and wild adventure and one of South Africa's great natural gems. One of the prime holiday destinations in South Africa is the Garden Route, a wonderful part of the world blessed with golden beaches and lakes, indigenous forests and tranquil lagoons. Although some parts of South Africa are better to experience in summer, there's no bad time to visit the Garden Route. Even in the cool winter months, tourists can expect far more sunshine than rain.The main attraction along this stretch of the coast is the wealth of natural wonders and adventure activities that awaits the outdoor enthusiast. From hiking and biking to sea kayaking and scuba diving, there's something to suit all leisure tastes.Although there are regular flights to George and Plettenberg Bay, the best way to appreciate the many scenic wonders and picturesque coastal towns is by car. With time on their side, enchanted visitors could spend weeks exploring the many small resorts. Like the surfing paradise of Victoria Bay where sun-drenched surfers ride the perfect wave peeling off the point. Or you can lose yourself in the fairytale seclusion of Noetzies and the castles near the beach.It's a misty dawn as I leave the outskirts of Cape Town and head up Sir Lowry's Pass. Drifting through the dreamy landscape, I cruise up the familiar road. At the top the blue mist breaks, bathing the clear peaks in soft shafts of light. It's good to feel the N2 beneath my tyres again.The beauty of the Garden Route beckons. I pass Mossel Bay and my mind wanders to good old days travelling carefree up the coast. That familiar feeling of freedom as I fly along the sun-drenched highway with time no longer being important. From George, it's a relaxed drive past the surfing set at Victoria Bay. Then a stop to admire the scenic vista of the Wilderness. After that it's sleepy Sedgefield and busy Knysna before the paradise of 'Plett'.The Garden Route and I go a long way back and whenever I arrive, memories come flooding back. Carefree childhood days and family fun in the sun. Then rebellious student holidays of roughing it in a tent with daily hangovers and midnight parties on the beach.The next morning I wake before sunrise and look out my hotel window at the gentle curve of Robberg Beach. A pale pink sun peeps above the cloud-speckled horizon. Offshore, a pod of dolphins dance and play. Early morning joggers and swooping seagulls are busy in the dawn light. The sea is smooth, the sky a dappled shade of silver, perfect conditions to kayak across the bay towards Robberg Peninsula.My guide for the trip is Johan Loots of Real Cape Adventures. With 25 years experience in surf lifesaving and K1 racing, this psychologist-turned-adventure man has a deep affinity for the sea. As we round the Beacon Isle rocks, I gaze at the black depths below and Johan seems to read my mind. 'Just last week we were paddling here and suddenly there were lots of small fins surrounding our kayaks. Baby hammerhead sharks. Sometimes we see bigger than that but as long as you're in a kayak, you're safe.'A lone kayaker stands silhouetted against the cloudy sky. Inky black depths turn olive green as we paddle closer to shore. We continue over the wreck of the 'Athena', lying in ten metres of water. Schools of fish are easily visible as they swim over the hull in the clear depths below. The sea is so calm that Johan decides we can paddle along the Robberg cliffs to view some of the sea life.Cape cormorants buzz our boats, shrieking as they swoop down to greet us. A colony of seals bask on the rocks where some have climbed about 10 metres up the steep rocky cliffs. Others flop into the water and swim in lazy circles beneath the kayaks.A slight cramp sets in as we turn into the breeze for the paddle back home. Nearing the beach, Johan gives clear instructions on how to safely get ashore. 'Wait for a wave to go past, then paddle like crazy. And keep the kayak straight or you'll capsize in the surf.'There are so many beautiful beaches along this coast that to visit them all would take weeks. One of the best is Brenton-on-Sea, a long expanse of virgin white sand, ten minutes drive from Knysna. If you're based in Plettenberg Bay and enjoy body surfing and collecting shells, take a drive down to Lookout Beach. Most mornings I'm up at sunrise, catching the perfect break, then walking down the exposed sandbanks towards Keurbooms River mouth.But without a doubt, the the most beautiful beach in the world is The Island on Robberg Peninsula. This long sandy spit and bulging rocky outcrop between two sweeping horse-shoe bays is home to a teeming community of seagulls. I walk down the vast deserted beach, past the squawking birds and astounding scenery and watch huge waves crash onto the rocks below. A little further out, a school of dolphins silhouetted in the silvery light leap and surf in the breakers.Thirty kilometres to the west of Plettenberg Bay, business is booming in the laid back town of Knysna. Once a sleepy village known only for its oysters, elephants, stinkwood and solitude, Knysna has developed into a bustling modern centre, complete with fancy shopping centres, a waterfront, upmarket hotels and luxury island housing estates.But there's also an alternative side to life around Knysna. Drive a few kilometres off the national road through the sprawling township and you enter another world. The colourful and friendly Rastafarian community live peacefully in the hills and welcome visitors and group tours to experience their unique way of life.Another educational place to visit in the area is the Knysna Elephant Park where visitors get a glimpse into the lives of the gentle giants who once roamed freely in the nearby forest. 'Our elephants are tame and have been rescued from game farms,' says owner Lisette Withers. We aim to educate the public and make them aware of the plight of the Knysna elephants. Our sunrise and sunset walks are a highlight but many people come here just to hug an elephant.'For mountain bike enthusiasts, a holiday along this part of South Africa's coast is a must. The Garden Route, with its indigenous forests and mountain streams, offers a series of exhilirating rides through breathtaking scenery. The reputation of the Harkerville trails, with their stunning single track and sweeping views over the Indian Ocean, is legendary among mountain bikers throughout the country. 'There aren't many places where you can cycle through single track, indigenous forest and fynbos, with panoramic views of the sea and also have the chance to see bush pigs, otters, a wide variety of birds and perhaps even a leopard,' says Stuart Smith of Plettenberg Bay's Bike Shop.We set out on the smooth single track and glide gracefully along the green path. A steady rain is falling and in places we splash through muddy pools, ramping over thick roots and sliding around wet bumpy corners. Crouching low, we cycle beneath low hanging vines and creepers. On several occasions I mistime my speed and nearly jackknife my bike when I brake.It's nearly dark and with heavy droplets falling from the foliage, it feels like we're cycling in an enchanted forest. Suddenly we catch sight of a large bushbuck before it disappears behind some trees. In these wet conditions it's difficult to keep control of the bicycle. I round a corner too fast and my rear wheel slips but I manage to skid to a stop before hitting a tree.There are many pleasant day trips to take around Plettenberg Bay. Early one morning we head out to Nature's Valley and spend a lazy day on the wide open sandy shores. After a long walk and lunch, we turn off the highway and drive along a short dirt road to Monkeyland, a primate sanctuary for orphaned and abused monkeys from all over the world. An informative guide walks us through the forest, pointing out the many species of primates, including capuchins, squirrel monkeys, gibbons, tamarins and lemurs from Madagascar. Back at the camp, Monkeyland's curator, Lara Mostert, is bottle-feeding Tiago, a 22-day old squirrel monkey whose mother wasn't able to care for him properly. 'We have had to hand rear him or he would have died,' says Mostert. 'But we'll teach him to be a wild monkey again soon.'No visit to the Garden Route is complete without a trip to the Tsitsikamma National Park. For the ultimate adrenalin rush, stop at the Bloukrans River bridge and take a leap of faith at the world's highest bungy jump. Just a few kilometres away is Stormsriver Mouth, the starting point for the Otter Trail, South Africa's premier hike.Underwater enthusiasts can scuba dive in the reserve that extends five kilometres out to sea and protects the water wonderland of reef and fish. There are also regular sightings of dolphins and in winter, southern right whales come inshore to breed.If you need a break from the beaches, or a rest from all the adventure activities, spend some time chatting to the locals. The people of the Garden Route welcome visitors to their shores with warm smiles and open hearts.David Cupido has fished the seas off Plettenberg Bay all his life. For forty years, he's worked the Indian Ocean waters, setting out to sea in the chokka boats. Or casting his line out from the Robberg surf. 'For a long time I worked on the deep sea boats, catching chokka, snoek and even tuna and game fish,' he says, baiting up his hook. 'Now I fish from the beach or the rocks. But I want to go back to the boats because that's where the big money is.' The friendly tattoed Rastafarian reels in his line and smiles at me warmly.'Every day I come fishing here, from lunchtime until late at night. Then I sell my catch to the restaurants or to people in the township. The fish aren't biting now but by tonight we'll be catching elf. We are poor fishermen but we worry no-one and no-one worries us. We enjoy our life here on the Garden Route.'Copyright © 2002 Jeremy Jowell. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.