23 March 2016 by Rui Ribeiro
Twice voted as South Africa's favourite small town, Knysna (pronounced ny-znah), with its bright blue lagoon and carpeted rocky outcrops encircled by rich yellowwood forest, is a picturesque setting for the Western Cape’s signature oyster festival. Each July, this laidback town on the Garden Route comes alive to play host to everything from countryside marathons to wine tastings. And, of course, the much-revered oysters of South Africa take centre stage. Over thirty vendors serve naked, garnished and cooked treats that showcase the very best in freshly shucked goodness. However, as the festival proves increasingly popular, it’s becoming imperative to know when to go and where to look for that accommodation pearl.
Since the festival’s inception in 1983, it has grown into a ten-day extravaganza comprising over 100 events and activities. There are exhibitions from local photographers and artists, bowls games, a bridge tournament and even a geocaching competition. The two-day cycle tour, for example, is now one of the largest on the continent. You can also hit the azure waters with a jazz cruise, swimming competition or a dive session. Alternatively, indulge in that great Rainbow Country pastime and fire up the braai to grill up the best of the local catch.
For the oysters themselves, you’ll find a full selection of bars, restaurants and bistros that put on a range of unique combinations on top of traditional delicacies. Perhaps tuck into a medium cultivated oyster topped with tea infused red onion marmalade and avocado mayonnaise or try an oyster burger, spread with passion fruit jelly. What’s more, festival deals abound; you won’t have to search far for a complimentary glass of bubbly or brewery tour.
As the festival lasts over a week, be sure to check ahead to make sure that your visit coincides with what you want to see – it’s open from 11am to 10pm on weekdays (1pm to midnight on Friday) and 8am to 6pm on Saturday. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the headline events will occur on the two shoulder weekends; for a full guide pick up literature on the festival at any of the Garden Route tourism offices. And, if you’re travelling with little ones you’ll be happy to hear that there are plenty of family-friendly activities ranging from face painting to live children’s entertainment. Also, be aware when driving that – thanks to the rotary tour – you’re going to have to be especially aware of cyclists.
As hotels fill up quickly, it’s important to book well in advance. For stays within the town, look to Kanonkop House; overlooking Knysna’s picture-perfect lagoon and sandstone cliffs, its contemporary rooms and pool are some of the best around. If you’d rather stay out of the bustle Tsala Treetop Lodge, a scenic half an hour’s drive away, is truly something special. Ten canopy-level suites – complete with infinity pools – are set high above the forest floor featuring oversized balconies and an innovative glass, timber and stone construction. For something more traditional there’s Lairds Lodge Country Estate where high ceilings frame traditional stonework that points towards shaded verandahs.
If you’re travelling to the festival, you’re not going to want to miss out on the best of its pristine Garden Route location. Here, dramatic coastal jags and golden crescents of sand are the front to a verdant interior made up of national parks and swathes of vineyards. Head a little further inland and the mountains of the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma ranges form an impressive backdrop for adventure hikes and kayak excursions among the region’s rivers and lakes. Head just a few miles east of Knysna to reach the Garden Route National Park where nature trails lead past beaches and through forests to intertidal lakes – a playground for canoeists, sailors, anglers and windsurfers alike. Further east you’ll find private game reserves home to the Big Five while to the west it’s impossible to ignore the spectacular Table Mountain vistas and trendy suburbs of Cape Town.