Rovos Rail vs Blue Train

Jannie Herbst recently took a ride on the luxury Rovos Rail train service – just a handful of months after taking in the sights and sounds of the Blue Train. So which is better, then?

You and your spouse are invited to experience a journey on Rovos Rail, the most luxurious train in the world.” The voice on the phone was that of Querida Nel from the marketing office of this world-famous private rail company in Capital Park, Pretoria. It didn’t take long for the penny to drop. I’d written an article (April issue) about my family’s experience on the Blue Train. We had enjoyed it tremendously, and were full of praise for the staff and superb service we received.

Now Rovos Rail was keen to show what it had to offer. It was almost as if Querida was saying “You ain’t seen nothing yet… come ride with us and then talk again.” I have always been fascinated by trains. Especially those noisy, majestic, puffing ones that spout plumes of steam and smoke and I don’t think there has ever been a kid, in the golden age of steam trains, who did not announce it was his ambition to be a train driver.

Trains from that almost forgotten era conjure up nostalgic images of well-dressed passengers being transported over long distances, while enjoying lavish cuisine in luxurious dining saloons. Fast forward a couple of weeks and the wife and I strolled down a red carpet outside Rovos Rail in Marine Drive, opposite the Cape Town railway station. We were met by charming and immaculately dressed staff who efficiently took care of our luggage, and were then led to a lounge where two musicians set the mood with chamber music while our fellow travellers indulged in canapés and sparkling wine.

The reception was grander than the Blue Train welcome, and train manager Joe Mathala welcomed each of the 41 passengers by name; a nice touch. Joe also pointed out a few rules. Cellphones, laptops and tablets were to be used only in the privacy of your suite and one needed to dress for dinner. That meant at least a jacket and tie for the gentlemen and cocktail dresses for the ladies – the same as on the Blue Train. Guests were also requested to keep suite windows shut at stations as a theft deterrent. This was not a problem on the Blue Train where the much larger windows cannot be opened.

A short stroll led us to the train which bore the name Pride of Africa. Our pleasant hostess, Dominique, showed us to the Groote Schuur suite where our luggage was waiting. The sheer magnificence of the coach, as on the Blue Train, is imposing – the craftsmanship, the detail in the finishes, and pride it exudes is overwhelming. The rebuilt sleeper coach with its wooden panels, remodelled and refurbished to mint condition, offers every modern convenience and comfort. The spacious suite boasts privacy, comfort and luxury, with fittings of the highest standard. Period fittings in the en-suite bathroom and shower combine with modern technology, with hair dryer and plug for shaver.

Both Rovos and Blue Train suites are good, but the latter is slightly better with its unusually wide windows. It is also worth mentioning that while baths (as an alternative to showers) are available on the Blue Train, you need to upgrade to a Royal Suite on Rovos, where both a shower and a bath are available. We discovered a bottle of bubbly in the mini bar before the wheels started rolling. As the Pride of Africa slowly pulled out of Cape Town station, our glasses were charged and, surrounded by luxury, we were feeling rather smug – and why not?

In my Blue Train report, I mentioned the absence of the ‘clickety-clack, clickety-clack’ which is synonymous with train journeys. Air cushion suspension and double-glazed windows completely silences any sound from the outside world. The coaches on Rovos Rail all started life in the 1920s and ’30s and so it is to be expected that one will be aware of more clanks and shakes from the tracks. Without taking anything away from the modern marvels of air suspension, for me the ‘clickety-clacks’ form part of the charm of train travel. When we joined our fellow travellers in the lounge car, the atmosphere could only be described as jovial. The young and charming Rovos staff members were interacting with their guests – something which immediately set them apart from their Blue Train counterparts.

It was lunch time and, being a good trencherman, the thought crossed my mind that Rovos was really going to have to perform if they were to impress more than the Blue Train chefs. A selection of top wines was displayed in the galley (in the middle) of the dining car and ready to be served by the energetic stewards. There was no main dish, but first up was traditional South African bobotie served with chutney and apricots, with julienne pepper and kiwi fruit salad. The portions were just right and delicious. That was followed by a lemon-grilled prawn skewer on a green salad and then a drunken Pecorino dish. We finished with melktert and koeksisters – this was definitely gourmet country but I decided to wait until the evening meal before making a call on the food.

As with the Blue Train, we stopped at the quaint little village of Matjiesfontein for about an hour, and when we got mobile again, it was time to get ready for dinner. At night, the dining car takes on a completely different look. Elegantly attired patrons and impeccably dressed waiters, together with the glittering silverware and shining wine glasses give off a sumptuous atmosphere. You are now in a faraway world. The menu: grilled queen scallops with lemon hollandaise sauce was followed by a main course of slow-roasted and deboned Karoo lamb shank with mashed potatoes, green bean parcel and mushrooms. I was in seventh heaven but then came Boland Camembert-style cheese, melon preserve, chives and shortbread. All of this was topped off with Cape brandy pudding and cinnamon cream – it was bliss.

By now we were on friendly terms with an assortment of Germans, Swiss, Norwegians, Fins, Chinese, Englishmen and fellow South Africans. A party was inevitable – and another full day and a half of being pampered lay ahead. Unlike the Blue Train, Rovos halts at sidings overnight, to ensure a good night’s sleep for its passengers. With its modern suspension, Blue Train passengers can sleep peacefully even while the train travels through the night. The following two days continued as the first. Suffice to say we were spoilt rotten and when we huffed and puffed into Capital Park, after a steam locomotive was hitched to the front for the last part of the journey, it was hugs and kisses with fellow travellers who just 50 hours before had been complete strangers.

(for South Africans only)

Rovos Rail
Pretoria to Cape Town (or vice versa) R13 197 per person sharing for two nights
Blue Train
Pretoria to Cape Town (or vice versa) R9 370 per person sharing for one night plus one night in five-star hotel in either Cape Town or Pretoria. Plus one-way flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg (or vice versa) including transfers.

So, which train is the better option?
The welcome: no comparison, RR wins by a long shot Exterior appearance: a matter of taste, but RR would get my vote
Interior finish: it’s got to be a tie
Food: both are excellent but the BT has more menu options and this gives it the edge.
Ride quality: the BT wins by a country mile but when it comes to the staff, RR turns the tables – it is as though you’ve known them for years.
Off-train excursions: it’s got to be RR as you visit both Matjiesfontein and the Kimberley Mine Museum while on the BT you get one of the two – depending on the direction of travel.

Everything you eat and drink is included in the price on both trains. Cuban cigars are offered on BT. There’s no WiFi on RR but it is available on BT.

Make no mistake, both trains offer an unforgettable experience, but if I were to go again, the choice would be Rovos Rail. The fact that you are on the train for more than 50 hours (compared to 27) makes the journey more of a holiday, and after all, luxury travel is about the journey and not the destination.