Cities like Cape Town and Joburg attract thousands of visitors each year, and quite rightly so. But this extraordinarily diverse country is stuffed with glorious, lesser-known destinations, such as Knysna – a sleepy, sun-drenched and splendid harbour town on the Garden Route, South Africa’s most famous stretch of lush coastline and stunning beaches. By booking a summer holiday here, not only will your efforts be rewarded by fabulous food and wine, but also warm hospitality and a sense of having discovered something a bit different.
WHERE TO STAY
Turbine Boutique Hotel and Spa
The grande dame of Knysna is as fabulous and seductive as ever. Part of a Heritage Walk on the picturesque Thesen Island, few hotels are as synonymous with their destinations as the Turbine Boutique Hotel and Spa. Frankly, if you don’t end up overnighting in one of this former power station’s guest rooms, just behind the massive turbines on the balcony and the intriguing steel pillars and pipes that form its quirky décor, it’s almost as though you were never in Knysna at all.
This unusual, more-is-absolutely-more pocket of bare bricks, whitewashed walls and rooms shaped around its beautifully restored industrial past has come to embody all those reasons we travel to Knysna in the first place. Once inside, the splendour swirls all around you – think machinery and pipes painted in vivid red, blue, green and orange, matched by dining chairs in different bright colours. Straight ahead, there’s a sultry lobby space; a little off to one side, you might detect the reassuring rattle of cocktails being vigorously shaken and expertly stirred at the Gastro Pub.
Eclectic minimalism is how we’d describe the style of the 26 rooms. Six of them have balconies overlooking Thesen Island and Knysna Lagoon, and two have baths with views of the island’s canals. There’s also a romantically decorated honeymoon suite with a balcony that looks onto the swimming pool. While each room has its own individual personality, what they all have in common is that detail is of the essence: There’s free Wi-Fi, a well-fitted kitchenette with an espresso pod machine and honeymoon-big and deep beds so sleep is long and blissful. Layering of soft colours, texture and assiduously polished antiques with contemporary craftmanship create a refined earthy feel. The rooms are also stuffed with thoughtful additions, from lightly scented sea salt crystals from Charlottle Rhys for the bath to cosy blankets to keep you warm on the leafy garden-view terraces.
The buzzy restaurant, Island Café, is a true haven for any food lover. The ambience is both simple and elegant, and the chef turns out delectable dishes such as seasonal soup, line fish in a harissa cream sauce and passion fruit panna cotta served with passion fruit coulis. A baked tomato starter – cocktail tomatoes baked with basil pesto and feta, served with toasted bread – sum up the restaurant’s approach: Honest flavours and market-fresh ingredients. It can be playful – as in the main-course chicken supreme pasta made with tomatoes, garlic and Parmesan or the sticky toffee pudding served with ice cream – but mostly it’s just plain good. Of course, there’s also excellent wines and beer on tap. If you’re looking for a cosy place with a quiet corner, the utterly unpretentious Gastro Pub upstairs is like stepping into a countryside inn. Live sport is served up alongside quality craft beer, and the massive lifting hook and chains dating from the power plant days make an interesting talking point.
For breakfast, a balance of texture, colour and flavour is executed with beautiful precision. With a healthy slug of yoghurt, honey toasted almond flakes, the fruit smoothie here borders on dessert. But the hotel is known for its Eggs Hollandaise – poached eggs topped with your choice of bacon, salmon or gypsy ham, cream cheese and a gloriously golden hollandaise sauce. Savour it, along with a vanilla flavoured coffee or crème caramel tea, slightly rustic croissants, cured meats, smoked salmon and a selection of cheeses in the dining room late into the morning – meaning you may just skip lunch.
Whether for a day of indulgent relaxation or for a session with a particular treatment in mind, after breakfast we recommend booking into The Turbine Spa, which is undeniably fabulous with natural light, astonishing views and gorgeous BABOR products. The Knysna Journey – a deluxe foot scrub and massage followed by a deeply relaxing full body massage – is the treatment to book. And with the lagoon right outside, a walk afterwards completes any experience. The spa also offers facials, massages, grooming services as well as manicure and pedicure treatments if you do want to make a day of it.
36 Sawtooth Lane, Thesen Island, Knysna
044 302 5746
WHERE TO EAT
Editor’s pick: Sirocco Restaurant
A fancy fish joint where you can feast on the bounty of the sea with views to match
With sweeping views of the harbour, Sirocco Restaurant is a fitting place to enjoy fresh oysters and other crowd-pleasing seafood dishes. The vibrant space blends the rustic aesthetic of an oyster bar with the polish of a modern brasserie, making it a most worthy date spot on Thesen Island. The swish setting isn’t let down by the food, with the majority of the lengthy menu being super-fresh and super-exquisite seafood. Served with a delightful vodka and coriander chutney on the side, a fresh selection of oysters is available daily, and they’re best enjoyed with a glass of wine on the sleek patio. While Sirocco Restaurant has the menu for a quick oysters-and-wine fix, it’s also a popular spot for a multi-course feast. Our top tip is to skip traditional starters and take your pick from the sushi menu: Each piece is like a work of art, and all fish and other ingredients are exceptionally fresh. Seared, smoked or tempura fried, you can’t go wrong when you’re in the hands of highly skilled chefs. For mains, share the showstopping Sirocco Seafood Platter which serves two – think stunningly succulent baby soles, crumbed calamari heads and tubes, mussels and prawns grilled in olive oil, served with savoury rice, fries and a trio of dipping sauces. What’s more, the wine list is populated with inviting, hard-to-find wines, beers, ciders and spirits. The Bloedlemon gin and tonic on tap, served with fresh orange and cucumber slices, also pairs well with the seafood dishes thanks to the citrus flavours.
TH28, Long Street, Thesen Island, Knysna
044 382 4874
Tapas & Oysters
A cheery, colourful tapas and oyster bar with a laidback atmosphere that makes you want to kick back
Knysna’s dining scene has exploded in recent years, with more options and cuisines to choose from than ever before. But sometimes you just want some cold, fresh oysters and a nice glass of wine. For some serious slurping, head to Tapas & Oysters on Thesen Island for the freshest raw oysters and views over the Knysna Lagoon towards the iconic Knysna Heads. Whether you prefer cocktail sized, medium or large coastal oysters; whether you slurp them down on their own or with delicate mignonettes – this waterside restaurant has been one of the town’s most in-demand options for local oysters that are sweet, briny and fresh since opening. Always full with a mix of locals and out-of-towners, its vibe is oyster bar perfection, with a simple, retro interior and an excellent selection of tapas. We recommend splurging on a few favourite dishes to sample a bit of everything, from the chicken tenders served with a honey mustard dip and the jalapeño poppers stuffed with seasoned cream cheese, to the prawns grilled in garlic butter and the deep-fried calamari strips. If you’re a fan of late-night oysters, the restaurant is open until 21h00 every day. Pair them with a cold glass of wine – such as the refreshing Leopard’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc with herbaceous notes – or a classic martini and you’re in oyster bar heaven! At Tapas & Oysters, the kitchen proves that less is more.
31 Safron Lane, Thesen Island, Knysna
044 382 7196
A bivalve haven for those looking to take their oyster love to the next level
Affordable, high-quality seafood brings people to this Knysna Waterfront spot. At 34 South, elegant nooks and sleek lighting set the stage for the standout menu. Choose from two seating experiences: The traditional white-tablecloth-equipped dining room or the lively outside deck, where you’ll find us dunking queen prawns in lemon butter and sucking down steamed abalone in an Asian broth with shimeji mushrooms and mange trout. The oyster menu is a marvel of both flavour and presentation, with every morsel – from the tempura oysters and the oysters grilled in garlic to the rich, creamy oyster soup – a delectable work of art. Knysna has some of the best oysters around, and at 34 South you can enjoy these little delicacies in style. There’s the Sushi Oyster – a salmon rose topped with a poached pickled oyster and wasabi mayo; the Asian Oyster dressed with ginger, garlic, rice vinegar and sweet soy sauce; and the Mexican Salsa Oyster bathed in tequila, tomato cocktail and a spicy Mexican salsa, to name but a few of the dressed oysters. The sushi menu is equally impressive: Creative rolls like the Red Rainbow Roll made with Peppadew and cream cheese or the West Roll with smoked salmon, crab and avocado are worth a try. Or, you can go traditional with fresh and beautifully ensembled rich salmon sashimi. A menu of cooked appetisers is available too, for sushi-averse dining companions.
Shop 19, Knysna Waterfront, Knysna
044 382 7331