For travellers who seek the finest that the world has to offer

Luxury on track aboard The Blue Train

This hotel on rails winds through the countryside of South Africa, showcasing a side of this diverse continent rarely seen by travellers on the safari trail.

David McGonigal climbs aboard The Blue Train to experience indulgence from Cape Town to Pretoria.

“We have a proper bath,” I may have squealed when first exploring our rail suite. The next morning I discovered that soaking in the bathtub while rattling through the South African countryside is a remarkable travel experience. But then, The Blue Train is no ordinary train trip.

The journey may take just over 30 hours to cover the 1600 kilometres between Cape Town and Pretoria but every minute is special. As soon as we stepped out of a Cape Town taxi at The Blue Train’s exclusive reception area within the train station, champagne appeared and our suitcases disappeared.

Then David, our butler, showed us to our cabin, one of just 26.

It was a perfect bonsaied hotel room in birchwood, brass and leather – with Wi-Fi. Fresh flowers were on the desk and our well-named bathroom had a marble floor and gold fittings.

During the day, we sat on our very comfortable lounge. While we were at dinner it miraculously converted to a cloud-soft double bed along with slippers and dressing gowns.

The Blue Train

The history of The Blue Train

Even a cursory glance at South Africa’s history reveals why The Blue Train has long been so luxurious. This rail line once carried gold and diamond mining magnates from Johannesburg and Kimberley to the port of Cape Town for their voyages back to Europe. They could afford any luxury so a dining car was introduced in 1933, the world’s first.

The train again raised the standard for rail travel in 1939 when air conditioning was installed. The line formally took the name Blue Train in 1946 with a new train in 1997 and a second in 1998 (when it switched to diesel and electricity).

Today, the old-world atmosphere of the train masks high-tech features like underfloor heating and the carriage stabilisation system that stops our champagne flutes from rattling.

There are, in fact, two Blue Trains, each departing Pretoria and Cape Town on Monday, Wednesday and Friday throughout the year. The other one has a Conference Car instead of our Observation Car, some wheelchair capability and a capacity for 80 passengers.

The Blue Train

Dining on board The Blue Train

The train departed right on time at 8.30am and we watched Table Mountain recede behind the Observation Car while we sipped champagne and nibbled canapés.

Much of the morning was spent exploring the whole length of the train. We observed the chefs at work behind the glass of the kitchen carriage and marvelled at the gift shop that has room for just two shoppers.

The dining car resembles an exquisite jewel box and the three-course brunch featured African game specialties like ostrich, crocodile and impala, all perfectly prepared and matched with excellent South African wines.

The onboard elegance was in direct contrast to the only stop of the northbound journey in Matjiesfontein. This was 45 minutes of intense entertainment that started with a comprehensive three-minute “city tour” by an old London double-decker bus accompanied by bugle-playing local.

He explained that Matjiesfontein was founded in 1884, to supply the trains with water. The town soon turned into a health retreat housing some 20,000 British troops during the Boer War. Its faded Victorian grandeur is popular again.

The Blue Train

We gulped down our sherry in the Lord Milner Hotel, as Rhodes, Kipling and Churchill may have done before us, and boarded the train with seconds to spare. We waved goodbye still laughing.

The big onboard event for the journey is dinner. Our pre-departure guide specified that, “Dinner is an elegant affair and men are requested to wear a jacket and tie and ladies elegant evening wear”.

Pre-dinner drinks were in the Lounge Bar that looks like an historic movie set. The dining car gleamed with formal settings of crystal and silverware on linen. The outstanding four-course meal and local wines well matched the presentation.

Satiated, we fell into bed to be lulled to sleep by the clickety-clack of the rails as the train pressed on through the night at a maximum speed of 90 km/h.

The Blue Train

The next morning we relaxed, with time enough to luxuriate in a hot bath as farms rolled past. Breakfast was equally leisurely and all too soon followed by lunch, before we were rolling into Pretoria railway station and reality.

The Blue Train perfectly intertwines a grand past with a luxurious present. It is certainly among the few great rail journeys of the world, a day and a half to savour.

*Prospective travellers should note that Matjiesfontein is the stop northbound only. The trains running in the other direction stops at a Kimberley diamond mine.

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This article appeared in Volume 21 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style Magazine