The Blue Train is undoubtedly South Africa’s most iconic and recognised luxury train and one that makes a vacation combining a safari in the north and the sophistication of Cape Town in the south all the more feasible and appealing.
So TLE packed our Louis Vuitton with our favourite finery and got on board this 5 star hotel on wheels for a luxury land cruise of old school glamour, fine-dining and decadent extravagance!
Why take The Blue Train
The Blue Train is an once-in-a-lifetime style journey that covers the 1,600 kilometres between Cape Town and Pretoria in the north. It’s an indulgent and unique way to start or end a safari experience in South Africa, and undoubtedly a memorable way to take in some of the country’s exceptional scenery
The Journey Begins
We started our experience at Cape Town Station – like many urban transport hubs, it didn’t exactly ooze glamour, especially before eight in the morning. Yet The Blue Train has its own dedicated departure lounge, where one can leave your luggage with one of the uniformed porters, receive one’s boarding pass and then sit back relax with an early morning coffee.
From the comfort of one of the lounge sofas, I discreetly looked around at my fellow guests with whom I was going to share the train for the next 27 hours or so. An international mix; informal, young honeymooners whispering playfully to each other; retired married couples each engrossed in broadsheet newspapers; well-dressed, middle-aged travelling companions sharing a few laughs; and a couple of families with impeccably turned-out kids.
Walking along the platform we stopped to snap a few memories with our phones – the train’s blue paintwork was gleaming, embellished with polished gold motifs. Porters helped us on board and led us to our cabins.
This wasn’t my first time travelling on a luxury train, and I was intrigued to see how this relatively new locomotive would be presented. Many of the world’s luxury trains have a historic heritage and continue to use vintage carriages. However although the Blue Train’s rail route dates back to the early twentieth century, the present Blue Train was re-launched in the late 1990s and has modern carriages with panoramic windows – although of course it maintains its signature blue colour dating back to the 1930s.
Yet once inside it had a decidedly vintage glamour ‘look and feel’. Cabins are panelled with hardwood veneers with marquetry detailing as one might expect; seating is plush with luxurious fabrics, with silk and velvet cushions and there were vintage style gilt wall lamps completing the look.
The majority of the cabins (about three per carriage) are De Luxe Suites measuring a modest 2 metres wide by 4 metres, with twin beds and ensuite shower room. Certainly compact, but the large window (with fabric roman blinds, and electric venetians) together with the ingenious use of space made it feel cosy and relaxing; twin sofa chairs with side table converted into very comfortable twin beds.
In fact I have to admit to sleeping exceptionally well on the train! Maybe it was all the food, wine and merriment – but the mattress was comfortable and it was undeniably romantic to be lulled to sleep by the gentle movement of the train as it chundled along at a very leisurely 60 kilometres an hour.
It’s advisable to pack light if possible with small or soft cases as the available storage is understandably limited. There is a shelf for small suitcases and a narrow wardrobe with safe.
The cabin was well-presented with personalised welcome letter, fresh flowers, fruit and complimentary mineral water. The air-conditioning was a little tricky to control, either being too hot or too cold, but after a while the Butler managed to find the right balance.
There was a telephone for calling the Butler and other cabins (and for international calls, at extra cost). There was a TV too, and Wi-Fi although the service was a little erratic. On our journey guests were only offered an hour’s connectivity which for a 27 hour trip seemed a little absurd, especially considering the price of the experience, although I am now advised that the service is being upgraded and provided without limits. This is definitely worth checking when you book.
The washroom had touches of luxury, with gold-coloured fittings, thick cotton, monogramed towels, complimentary amenities, bathrobes and slippers.
On each train there are a few Luxury Suites, larger at 5.13 metres long and the bathrooms include a bathtub. On our trip these seemed to have been allocated to the Honeymooners, so it’s worth booking ahead if you want a larger cabin.
There was a knock at the cabin door; it was Angela, my dedicated Butler, seeing if I was settling in alright and wandering if I’d like a drink. As a cabin Butler, Angela dealt with any issues that arose throughout the trip, delivered refreshments, prepared the cabin for night-time, with a turndown service including water and chocolates and fresh towels, and also serviced the cabin in the morning. In my experience Angela was truly professional and genuinely friendly. What’s more it was a real luxury in the morning when Angela came to the door with a tray of coffee and hot chocolate.
In fact service on-board The Blue Train was excellent throughout the journey, although I must say that a few members of the staff were overt experts at obsequiousness.
Don’t Forget to Tip!
The first time a team member commented on the detailing of my shirt and my shoes I was flattered; by the third time personal compliments were offered, I began to feel slightly uncomfortable. On a short trip like this I appreciate the staff has little time to build a rapport with guests, yet there were moments when the kindness seemed very contrived. If you want to leave a gratuity, the fairest way is to leave an envelope in the Gratuity Box, which will be shared to all members including those behind the scenes.
I started the journey in appropriate style with a few sparkling mimosa cocktails in the elegant Lounge Car, an opportunity to get to know some of the fellow passengers, and watch Africa glide by the panoramic windows – the experience was already becoming truly captivating.
Unfortunately the Observation Car, with windows on three sides, normally at the back of the train was not on our service – again it’s important to check this before booking as inconsistencies in service, facilities, and arrival times can occur.
Yet once I reached the dining car I was smitten – There’s something quite magical about a luxury train dining car – the beautifully set tables with gilt lamps, pressed lined table cloths, polished silverware and sparkling glasses. A glass of rosé bubbles from the award-winning South African ‘House of Krone’ seemed the appropriate way to start Brunch and I happily continued with an easy-drinking, delicious Sauvignon Blanc by boutique winery, ‘Bouchard Finlayson’. Seating is at tables for two on one side of the carriage and tables for four on the other – all tables come served with some of the best views in South Africa.
It felt magical to sit at the table as the sights of Africa passed by. The beginning of the journey particularly has some spectacular scenery, and one of the greatest privileges of taking The Blue Train is view the majestic mountains and verdant valleys of the Western Cape pass by before reaching the more arid north.
The Brunch menu included first plates of Camembert with cranberry reduction; scallops with cranberry reduction; a soup course; and then a choice of baked Scottish salmon; dry aged beef; or chicken supreme. To finish things off, we were offered chocolate or fudge pudding and a selection from the cheese board.
The food was well presented. As with a sea cruise, aboard this rail cruise there was no shortage of beautifully presented, tempting food.
On the first day, the food offerings included breakfast pastries; Brunch; a traditional afternoon tea, with finely cut sandwiches, scones, cream and jam; and a dinner. The following day started with a fully cooked breakfast, and then snacks.
However, by the end of the journey I couldn’t help but feel that the menus could have been modified slightly to better suit the obvious constraints of preparing the meal on a train. There were a few notable disappointments with the food. For example the scallops dish at Brunch was not a success, with most people asking it to be exchanged – scallops are hard to prepare in the best of kitchens, let alone in a train galley.
All meals, drinks, cocktails and refreshments are included in the train experience (excluding French Champagne and Caviar).
After lunch the train makes a scheduled stop to visit to a historic railway community – the well-conserved 19th century Matjiesfontein. Once a thriving Victorian railway stop-over, the village with hotel, museum etc. is now a National Monument. For my taste the visit was quite odd – guests were obliged to take a ride on a vintage British double decker bus around a car park, and then offered a glass of sherry at the hotel bar whilst the guide played the piano and sang songs. All very touristy and forced, but it seemed to go down well with some of the guests. On the south bound service, the train stops at the Kimberley Diamond Mine Museum.
The continually changing view from the carriages is not all pristine landscapes and vintage towns of course. Occasionally, as the train passes the poverty of townships and deprived villages, one has stark reminders of the reality of life for many in South Africa. These fragile looking homes, made with salvaged materials, with outside loos, and uncollected rubbish strewn across the land is a strong reminder of the inequality that remains in South Africa. Despite the smooth running train, the scenes deliver a jolt, heightened somehow as one sits as an advantaged voyeur within the luxury of a Blue Train carriage.
Dressing for Dinner
With my travel documents came confirmation of the obligatory dress code on-board. Smart casual at all times; and for dinner formal, including for men, a jacket and tie. I reluctantly packed a tie, but that day I actually rather enjoyed dressing up for supper. Since there was about 40 of us on-board, dinner was served as one sitting in the dining car, creating a lovely atmosphere and a sense of occasion.
The elegantly presented menu included starters of caramelised fois gras with grilled apples; and oriental seafood parcels with a warm fennel salad. The main plates included pepper crusted springbok with a pistachio lamb cutlet; prosciutto wrapped monk fish; and seared duck breast. For those with a sweet tooth, there was Swiss chocolate fondant or a deconstructed lemon meringue; oh and of course that splendid cheese board again!
All the best parties…are in the smoking car
Despite the obvious lack of smokers amongst the guests, many of us retired to the Club Car Lounge, the smoking car, to enjoy post dinner digestives … and a Montecristo Havana cigar. I know, really, what was I thinking?! I must have been caught up in the sheer decadence of the whole affair – and really that’s the best way to enjoy The Blue Train.
The northbound Cape Town to Pretoria experience starts at R13,795-00 (South African Rand) per person sharing a deluxe suite – at the time of writing that equates to about £670.00.
2016 will see The Blue Train re-launch its Pretoria to Hoedspruit service, making the wildlife reserves and games lodges of the Greater Krugar National Park and Sabi Sands even more accessible.