South Africa has many beautiful landscapes that delight tourists, and due to its immense territory, seeing the entire country is quite a feat. Which is the reason why The Blue Train is such a fantastic option as it transports you from one end of the country to the other. Lightfoot Travel’s Matt embarked on this lovely journey from Cape Town to Pretoria and tells us the tale of The Blue Train.
So what’s the concept?
A 27-hour train journey between the north-eastern city of Pretoria (just outside Johannesburg) and Cape Town. The train goes back-and-forth between these routes on a regular service, but also offers a few other routes involving further-flung areas of South Africa and its near neighbours, for which the train can also be chartered. But the major, year-round route is between the two big-city hubs.
Describe the journey:
The route has been plied for well over a century, initially to link the Cape with the new, wealthy gold and diamond mining settlements in the Free State, plus the significant northern cities. A sense of this historic genesis is maintained, with butler service, relatively formal dinners, silver service and period design and furnishings. There is no rush once guests are on-board: although the train runs through the night, the pace is leisurely and there are numerous stops throughout the itinerary, both at designated stops and for logistical reasons involving other trains. With the experience only offered on an-all inclusive basis, there is plenty of opportunity for languid pre-dinner drinks or nightcaps and Havanas in the cigar lounge (the one carriage on which smoking is permitted).
How are the creature comforts?
Prior to the First World War, the luxury stakes were drastically enhanced, and this happened again post-Second World War, when the train was also painted in the blue and cream colours that inspire its name. Since 1997, there are two “Blue Trains”, beautifully upgraded to preserve the vintage, colonial theme and design with modern luxuries and a healthy slice of decadence. There are Deluxe and Luxury cabins, all en-suite and some with bathtubs (the Luxury options tend to be a little more spacious than the Deluxe). The living area has plenty of dark wood panelling, with a writing desk, large windows and some comfortable chairs that are converted into twin or double beds overnight. The bathrooms boast Italian marble, walk-in showers and luxury wellness products. It all adds up to a classic, colonial feel, but there are also TVs, air conditioning, electric blinds and Wifi in each room. Each room also has a private butler who will be on hand to help you out with anything from ironing and coffee breaks to furnishing those who have forgotten their tie with an emergency stand-in!
How do guests pass the time?
Much of the enjoyment is in watching the world go by at a languid pace, taking advantage of an opportunity that is scarcely afforded amongst the hectic demands of modern-day life. Passing through some of the least visited and inhabited areas of South Africa, the wide open plains (veld) and farmsteads are often reminiscent of dustbowl America, and it’s also fascinating to observe the larger towns and cities, with their adjacent, evocative townships that remind you of the still stratified nature of society in South Africa. In the areas closer to Cape Town, especially the Winelands, everything becomes greener and more beautiful, with verdant vineyards, mountains and gorges right by your window. It’s a heady mix of culture, history, scenery and outright relaxation! There is an observation carriage to take all this in through floor-to-ceiling glass while enjoying afternoon tea at the rear of the train, two bars and the restaurant, where all meals are served.
Are there activities?
The southbound route stops at the major mining settlement of Kimberley, taking in the renowned “Big Hole,” a massive mining hole that is no longer used but still impressively showcases the scale of the work that took place here in previous times. There are also a couple of museums and a colonial church in Kimberly, which can be explored during a visit of roughly 90 minutes. Northbound, there is a stop at the charming, quaint colonial hamlet of Matjiesfontein, with its prettily restored post office, cafes and museum. But this experience is not for thrill seekers: it’s all about slowing down and appreciating the chance to take in the sweeping, unchanged landscapes at an undemanding pace with exceptional food, beverages and service.
What about the food?
This is arguably the number one attraction! South Africa’s trademark, unfussy fine dining is in evidence and it’s an all-inclusive experience, with an impressive selection of outstanding wines to choose from. Lunch (rather misleadingly referred to as “brunch”) and dinner selections might incorporate smoked salmon, cold seafood soup, ostrich steaks, braised lamb, Cape trout and a wonderful selection of desserts and cheeses. There is also high-tea, with a selection of enticing cakes and pastries, plus a delicious breakfast before arriving at your destination.
And the evening entertainment?
The cigar bar, observation carriage and non-smoking bar next to the restaurant become the firm focus of attention! The atmosphere throughout is convivial and relaxed, with ample opportunity to chat with fellow guests and staff. On the other hand, dinners are “formal”, at least in terms of dress code, with gentlemen required to don a jacket and tie, and women adopting their evening dresses. Even then, the ambience is entirely unpretentious, and this little nod to the heritage of the train and its route feels like a well-conceived part of the fun.
How does it fit into an itinerary?
Many visitors to South Africa might overnight at a Johannesburg airport hotel or step straight on a connecting flight, but really – why would you? Spending a night on the Blue Train, either at the beginning or end of your trip, will eliminate a night in a boring hotel, provide you with something very different from the usual South African highlights of Cape Town-wine-safari and, fundamentally, it’s one of those archetypal, world class train-travel experiences that anybody who loves this mode of transport will have spent half of their life dreaming about.