Blue Train draws foreign plaudits
Passengers from overseas appreciate the grandeur of a bygone era and luxury of mod cons
Train manager Bonga Mhlonga welcomes us with a briefing about The Blue Train’s journey from Cape Town to Pretoria.
While most of our fellow passengers sip genteelly on champagne and orange juice, in the Blue Train lounge at Cape Town station, I’m so jittery my coffee is shaking out of the cup.
There is a very good reason why The Blue Train offers overnight accommodation at the Taj Hotel in Adderley Street as part of its package — to avoid the stress of getting to the station for an 8am check-in before the 27-hour northbound journey. We were so late that the train’s management called to find out where we were.
After the urban decay flanking the tracks in the city has been left behind, the views of the Boland mountains, vineyards and farms that meld into the wheat fields of the Swartland are stupefying through the giant picture windows of our wood-panelled suite.
The especially beautiful Hex River Valley is our view while enjoying brunch in the elegant dining car in one of two sittings, for up to 42 guests at a time.
Pan-seared scallops with parsnip puree and a cranberry reduction and a very fabulous cauliflower and truffle soup are the starters while aged fillet is served with a local blue cheese sauce and dusted in biltong. Sugar lovers might opt for the chocolate filled "cigar" or hot fudge pudding with caramel. I preferred cheese.
Fine South African wine is free-flowing and, like everything — except for the caviar and French champagne — is included in the ticket price.
The afternoon stop at Matjiesfontein to enjoy sherry at the historic Lord Milner Hotel bar is the first opportunity to stretch our legs.
"The world’s shortest tour of Matjiesfontein was a truly brilliant 45 minutes," says Nick Stone, of London, before adding: "The one drawback on board is not being able to open the windows and just have aircon which upsets my sinuses."
Another Londoner, Howard Cresswell, has been on other luxury train journeys such as the Rocky Mountaineer in Canada. "The Blue Train is good value for money because it feels less contrived and somehow more authentic to 1950s grandeur.
"The age and style of the rolling stock combined with sheer comfort of the cabin and comfy rear observation car is really special," he says.
“Quite literally I felt in touch with the soul of SA sipping tea in an armchair in the observation car.”
The Blue Train purports to be "a window into the soul of SA", and the foreign guests on board felt it had lived up to the hype.
"Quite literally, I felt in touch with the soul of SA sipping tea in an armchair in the observation car as we travelled through the beautiful wine region and then the wild Karoo chatting with fellow passengers while receiving service with a genuine South African warmth which made me feel at home," says Stone.
There were large groups from South Korea and America. An elderly couple arrived in Cape Town on the Queen Mary and were taking The Blue Train to their bush break before returning to England.
Unlike travelling by plane, ships and trains encourage interaction with other passengers. On The Blue Train, this happens over the endless meals and wines and in the glamorous observation and club cars.
The Blue Train is an engineering marvel with its air-cushioned coupling system that produces an eerily smooth and quiet journey, even at top speeds of 90km per hour.
The train is geared for business. There’s wi-fi and conferencing facilities, by prior arrangement, for up to 22 delegates. The suites have flat screens that provide the driver’s point of view, an electronic map that plots the journey and a selection of music, pre-recorded news and films.
Compared with the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, The Blue Train’s cabins are huge.
Suites are either two single beds with an en suite toilet and shower or with double beds. Deluxe suites are a bit larger and some have a bath. The butler service makes us feel spoiled.