I remember watching the classic movie ‘Murder On The Orient Express’ and, despite the homicidal content of its title and plot, I enjoyed seeing the likes of Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman bustling from carriage to carriage with all the elements of luxury at their fingertips, even whilst in transit via railway. Three-course meals, exotic cocktails, cigarellos, crisp turned-down linen, freshly laundered suits, newspapers delivered in the morning; it seemed there was nothing these guests couldn’t request on board a long-distance passenger train that might only otherwise be afforded in a five-star hotel. Thanks to this popular film, based on a novel by Agatha Christie, the Orient Express has become synonymous with intrigue and luxury travel.
So when I heard that I was about to board the Blue Train that would take me from Cape Town to Pretoria, and that this was the South African version of the Orient Express, naturally I was intrigued to know just how luxurious long-distance travel can be. Let me tell you, on this particular mode of transport, it’s Luxury with a capital ‘L’. From the moment I stepped onto the station platform, just past the quaint sign being used as a sitting post for local pigeons, I felt like a character in a romantic adventure flick. In fact I’d wished I’d worn a bowler hat and carried a walking stick for the occasion, but alas my one Louis Vuitton suitcase would have to suffice to help me play the worldly traveller part.
A porter saw to it that my luggage was immediately stowed in my deluxe suite, this being a fully carpeted soundproofed compartment with its own en-suite bathroom, room to move of about two metres squared, twin beds, and gold-tinted picture windows. It’s amazing what they manage to fit in these luxury train suites, each decked out with telephone, television and air-conditioning, and a bathroom fully equipped with basin, shower and enough shelving for an overnight bag’s worth.
About a third of the size of a typical apartment bedroom, I’d say I was comfortable enough for a full day’s travel, and indeed every need was taken care of by a personal butler who is on call at all times. It’s no wonder the Blue Train is often referred to as a “moving five-star hotel” with your every whim catered for. As an example of its superb service, I called my butler to have him collect a shirt and slacks to launder, and the garments were picked up and delivered freshly pressed within 25 minutes. You don’t even have go tipping your butler for every good deed, since it is recommended to save the tips to put into an envelope and then drop into a box just before alighting.
Cuisine on board is an irresistible tribute to culinary mastery on the move. Brunch is served in two sittings, the first at 11am, the second at midday. At night, too, guests can choose from two meal sittings, the first at 7pm, the second two hours later. In keeping with the train’s luxury aesthetic, it’s recommended that men wear a jacket and tie, and women dress in elegant evening wear. The food is glorious, from Salmon Tartare for brunch, to the most tender of sirloins for dinner. And the wine menu is impressive – a mix of quality South African and international varieties. Between courses, guests are welcome to mosey on to the train’s Club Car. As a smoker on board, I was made to feel right at home in the Club Car. After dinner, myself and a couple of the other boys on board retired to this section for coffee, Cognac and Cuban cigars, and let me tell you we were tempted to keep the party rolling until the next morning. For those who want to avoid smoke, the alternative Lounge Car offers room to move, with high tea thrown in for good, posh measure.
If you’re lucky, your train ride will include a stop at picturesque Matjiesfontein where on arrival you’ll be invited for a glass of sherry at the bar (the glass engraved with the Blue Train logo as a memento to keep). The Victorian buildings and original nineteenth century lamp posts and signs of Matjiesfontein give you the uncanny feeling that you’ve stepped into a colonial time warp. There’s even a tomato-red double-decker bus that motors up and down the old high street inviting you to board for a trip to the quaint Lord Milner Hotel, famous for its traditional English teas. Also, if there’s time, you can investigate the vintage car museum, or stroll to the edge of town to witness the spectacular panorama of a semi-desert.
The trip from Cape Town to Pretoria is 1,600 kilometres long. At the end of my journey, stepping on to the platform at Pretoria, my luggage being carried by a trusty porter, I turned to get one last glimpse at the beautiful cobalt blue beast that had just taken me diagonally from south-west to north-east across four-fifths of inner South Africa. I’d wished my trip was longer and would have had no qualms in continuing on to Kruger National Park for some keen wildlife spotting. But alas, overnight accommodation was already booked, and a flight home planned for the next day. Anyway, I hope to catch the train again next time I’m out South Africa way.
The Blue Train Contact Information
Pretoria: +27 12 334 8459/60
Cape Town: +27 21 449 2672