Stormy seas and dark forests frame this little lagoon-side town on Africa's southernmost coast. Knysna - the name means "place of water and ferns" in the Khoekhoe language, and is pronounced "Nice-nah" - has everything from seahorses and oysters to art galleries and coffee shops. The town is in the heart of the Garden Route, a scenic strip of some 135 kilometres of coastline marked by spectacular views and wildlife, not to mention indigenous forest, clear freshwater lakes and white sand beaches.
Knysna is an ideal base to explore this area, which is also known for its cuisine. Beware, though, that it gets pretty crowded in the South African summer as the cities empty and people head to the coast for their holidays. Winter (June to September), although chilly, is a good time to visit as tourists are few, prices drop to entice off-season visitors and there are welcoming fireplaces in most restaurants and B&Bs. In mid July, there's the Oyster Festival, a nine-day foodies event that includes one of the country's best-known cycle marathons.
Once the centre of a shipbuilding industry, the wooded hills used to be teeming with elephants. Today, a few are said to still exist deep in the forest, and the occasional reported sighting creates much excitement around town.
A comfortable bed
Under Milkwood (www.milkwood.co.za; 00 27 44 384 0745) is a cluster of chalets that lie on the eastern shore of the lagoon, overlooking the Heads, as the forbidding cliff tops that guard the estuary mouth are known. In low season, chalets cost from 1,450 South African rand [Dh516]) per night, including taxes. Cabins overlook the water, and restaurants are in walking distance.
On Thesens Island, close to the Knysna Waterfront, is a recently converted power station, Turbine boutique hotel and spa (www.turbinehotel.co.za; 00 27 44 302 5745), which offers five-star accommodation surrounded by several restaurants and galleries, and tourist activity such as watersports and boat hire. A standard suite costs 1,195 rand (Dh560) per person, per night, based on two sharing, including taxes.
Find your feet
Most people start a visit with a trip to the Knysna Waterfront, a former harbour converted into shops and restaurants at the water's edge. The development wraps around a boat marina with yachts and several ferries, some of which are for hire, or available for lunch and dinner cruises across the lagoon. The main street lies directly behind the Waterfront. Stroll over the defunct steam train railway (a crucial part of the track washed away in floods in 2005) and into Gray Street, and you are in town.
A kilometre or so from the Waterfront, the land rises steeply into hills, from where the entire town, lagoon and sea beyond can be seen. Fichat Street, at the top end of Gray Street, can be reached on foot and provides a good vantage point. The occasional spout of a whale can be seen during the breeding season from October to February.
Meet the locals
Hippies, Rastafarians, African traders and stern Anglo farmers mix freely in this friendliest of towns. It's here where South Africans come to tune in, and drop out. The trendies will be found at Isle de Pain, a Belgian bakery on Thesens Island. The Friday Night Market, off Welbedacht road, is where local traders, crafters, farmers and hipsters can be found, chatting over boerewors (a local beef sausage) or curry.
Book a table
This is oyster country, so head to 34 Degrees South (www.34-south.com) at the Waterfront, a large emporium that sells everything from designer bread to clothing. The restaurant itself is perched on the edge of a canal that winds through the centre, and you can watch boats putter past as you down wild oysters for 20 rand (Dh9) each.
Line fish caught daily is a house speciality (99 rand; Dh45). Ostrich fillet, another regional delicacy, is also on the menu (149 rand; Dh80).
The African market at Woodmill Lane in the centre of town is where traders from all over the continent can be found selling their wares, from masks to textiles. Gray Street is sprinkled with boutiques, galleries and shops of all kinds: check out the Leather Rose for designer accessories, all handmade from exotic animal hides, including crocodile, ostrich and python.
What to avoid
Knysna Mall is a modern monstrosity with chain-store shops in the centre of town. What were they thinking? And beware the endless speed control cameras and traffic police that seem to lurk behind every bush. Speeds vary between 60m and 80km and you need to keep your wits about to keep track.
Thesens Island, connected by a humped bridge to the mainland. Formerly a collection of fish- and wood-processing factories, it now hosts shops, restaurants and hotels, criss-crossed by canals.
Dozens of forest trails and picnic spots, especially the one at the abandoned Millwood gold mine, with its graveyard that bears tombstones of long-dead prospectors. In all there are 22 different hikes that take from an hour to a full day to complete. These are free, although some require permits obtainable at the starting point of the hike. A useful map of all the routes can be obtained at the Knysna Tourism Bureau located in Main Road, just off Gray Street. And who knows, you may even see one of the mysterious forest elephants.