I’ve always been enchanted by trains, especially those noisy, majestic, puffing ones. They conjure up nostalgic images of well-dressed passengers being transported in luxurious fashion while enjoying fine cuisine in lavish dining saloons. What a way to travel! So I gave it a go – and shared some history in the making.
Luxurious passenger trains have been around for more than a century. The first of its kind (and most famous) was probably the 1883 Orient Express that ran between Paris and Varna on the coast of the Black sea. Agatha Christie’s 1934 detective novel, Murder on the Orient Express, was set against the backdrop of this magnificent steam-driven train and its obvious opulence.
The first time I rubbed shoulders with a train of affluence was in 2004, as a guest of Renault, during their launch of the Laguna on the Blue Train. I pledged that I would be back for a bigger and better ‘bite’ of this irrefutable bucket list journey, but the prices were just too steep.
But then a booking agent contacted me with a special rate for South Africans: R12 740 per person sharing, down from the ‘normal’ R17 000. The package included the journey from Pretoria to Cape Town, transfer to the five star Taj Hotel for one night, transfer to Cape Town Airport and return flight to Lanseria. It also included all drinks and snacks. We were in.
The family affair with my wife Maryke and two grown-up sons Jan and Carel, kicked off on a Wednesday morning at 6.30am when we paraded down the red carpet of the Blue Train reception hall at the Pretoria station. After registration, Alex was appointed as our personal butler for the journey. He showed us to our luxury suite where our luggage was already waiting. The sheer magnificence of the train is imposing – the craftsmanship, the detail in the finishes, and pride it exudes is overwhelming.
We hadn’t even settled in when Alex arrived with a bottle of Villiera Tradition Brut sparkling wine. Not a bad start to the morning, I thought. The pollution on the outskirts of the station, and again at Germiston, brought us back down to Earth, but soon we were out in the country and the green pastures and lush bush was evidence of recent rains on the Highveld.
One thing that I couldn’t help noticing was the smoothness of the ride. The clickety-clack, clickety-clack, so synonymous with a train journey, was absent. The air-cushion suspension and double glazed windows completely silences any sound from the outside world, this despite the maximum speed of 84km/h.
As we left the city behind for our 27-hour voyage, we started exploring. At a total of six the South Africans were outnumbered by the foreign passengers from England, America, Australia, Italy, Finland and Germany. There were two identical lounges – one for smokers and one for non-smokers. The panoramic, continuous windows give the most amazing views.
There was a party mood all around. We indulged our senses in the amazing canapés, drinks, aromas and views – all in abundance. The waiters are top-notch and ensure a glass doesn’t ever get close to being empty.
It was time for lunch. Guests are divided into two groups. We were part of the second sitting. A selection of top wines are displayed in the middle galley of the dining car and ready to be served by the energetic stewards. As a starter, we all opted for the crumbed Camembert, served with toasted cashew nuts. It was delish! Scottish salmon with sweet potatoes, Asian vegetable and herb coulis followed for Maryke and me while the boys got stuck into springbok shank. Divine. We finished off with a chocolate cigar served with a Sharon compote and sorbet. Sublime. (I should mention that there were quite a few other dishes, including soup, to choose from.)
Back in the deluxe suite (not referred to as cabin or compartment) we checked out the finer details. The air-con and TV – on which you can watch various pre-loaded movies or switch to a view of the camera mounted at the front of the train – are modern, but the finishes exude old-world charm with rich wood panelling and brass fittings. There’s a sofa, armchair, two small ottomans and a table. While guests are enjoying dinner, the double bed is folded down, swallowing the couch in the process.
The bathroom features marble surface finishes and white fluffy towels. There is a toilet, bath with hand shower and a hand basin. It didn’t take long for Alex to appear with more sparkling wine. At the other end of the train the boys are having the time of their lives in one of the two lounge cars.
In no time we reached Kimberley. We were supposed to tour the museum and see the great hole, but due to frequent stops along the way (due to apparent power outages), we arrived too late. No matter, we were in a party mood – and it was time to get ready for dinner. Jan and Carel especially bought themselves suits and ties for the occasion. We really went to town for this.
By 9.15pm we sat down for dinner. The dining car takes on a different look for dinner. The elegantly attired patrons and impeccably dressed waiters, together with the glittering silverware and crystal wine glasses infuse an atmosphere of sumptuousness… of being in a world far away.
The menu is a splendid affair. Caramelised foie gras served with grilled apples, charred pineapple, oat granola and apple sauce. Then, for the main, it was pepper crusted springbok fillet coupled with pistachio lamb cutlet in a barley casing. The boys preferred the confit de canard (duck). Again the food scored a 10. We wined and dined to our heart’s desire, but started suspecting that something was amiss. We still hadn’t left Kimberley Station.
As we were tucking in to our deserts and cheese platter, train manager Herbert Prinsloo visited each table with an official looking cream envelope. He knelt down at our table and announced that – for the first time in the existence of the Blue Train – they had to turn back. There was no other option: a goods train had derailed on a single line at a place called Hutchinson (about two hours from De Aar). The damage was extensive and the clean-up operation could take days. Our 14 carriages and 52 guests had to return to Pretoria.
Of course we were disappointed. Plans were arranged to get us to Cape Town but this was not an option for us. We weren’t trying to get to a destination; we wanted to enjoy the journey. After some negotiations, we had a deal. The four of us would fly to Cape Town and be transferred to the Taj Hotel for one night’s stay. The following morning the two sons would set off to visit friends for the weekend while Maryke and myself would be transferred to Cape Town station to embark on the full Blue Train expedition back to Pretoria. I was happy.
After a late, stretched-out and delicious breakfast, we arrived in Pretoria at 1pm. Our flight to CT departed at 4pm and three hours later we were sipping cocktails in the very grand Taj Hotel.
At 7.30 the following morning we reported at the station for the return journey to Pretoria. This time we stopped at Matjiesfontein and embarked on what is called ‘The World’s Shortest Tour’ a bus ride around the block to the Lord Milner Hotel with comments and information by the legendry Johnny Baiepraat. The journey from Cape Town to Pretoria was equally impressive and back in Pretoria we were satisfied and fulfilled. My Blue Train experience lived up to my expectations albeit with a twist.
Luxury trains in other countries
Golden Eagle Luxury Trains offers various voyages to Eastern Europe. One of them is presumably the world’s most exotic train ride: The Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Vladivostok. It costs $20 600 (R329 600) per person sharing. The journey is 15 days long with three five-star hotel stops in fascinating locations.
The Venice Simplon Orient Express’ popular overnight trip between London and Venice costs $3 500 (R56 000) per person sharing. India offers various luxury trains, but the best is probably the Palace on Wheels, which offers various choices. The popular Royal Rajasthan is an eight-day trip that costs about $4 375 (R70 00) per person sharing. Unlike most other luxury train packages, this one does not include drinks – not even soft drinks.
Text and photos: Jannie Herbst