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Old-fashioned opulence on the Blue Train

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Old-fashioned opulence on the Blue Train

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Blame it on Agatha Christie. The Blue Train from Cape Town to Pretoria caught our eye.

Ever since reading Murder on the Orient Express, we’ve hankered to chuff along in an opulent vintage train.

We’d love to sip chilled bubbly, nosh on oysters and generally indulge in the elegance of a bygone era while watching the world go by, before retiring to our private rolling sleeping quarters – staffed by a butler of course.

We almost had the chance to live that dream on the Blue Train on our trip to South Africa last year. Our plans ultimately took a different turn (we headed straight out on safari to see hunting lions in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve). But here’s what we learned about the “champagne train” ~

All aboard in Cape Town!

We would have started our South African visit in Cape Town. We’d spend several days (a week if we could) – hiking up flat-topped Table Mountain, eyeballing penguins at Boulders Beach and sipping fine wines in the surrounding vineyards.


Capetown – photo Joachim Huber

South Africa - Boulders Beach penguins

Penguins at Boulders Beach – photo Bas Leenders

For a luxury holiday or trip, we’d want to bed down at the five-star oceanfront Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa, in Table Mountain National Park, or maybe, since we’ve stayed at and loved the One & Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, Mexico, the urban chic One & Only Capetown – you can book both (along with the Blue Train and a deluxe safari) through Emirates Holidays.

And then we’d board the Blue Train…

Rich train history

The Blue Train dates back to the 1920s, when two luxury trains steamed along between Cape Town and Johannesburg.

These luxury trains catered to the new upper class, whose pockets were filled with the wealth reaped from diamond and gold mines.

The sapphire blue carriages boasted everything from electric lighting and ceiling fans to card-playing rooms, bells for summoning the coach attendant, and hot and cold water flowing on tap.

Luxury took a backseat during World War II.

But in 1946, the trains were relaunched to coincide with King George VI’s visit to the country and officially named the Blue Train. Refurbishment took place in the 1970s. Then in 1997 and 1998, two spiffy new trains started riding the rails, after switching from steam to electricity and diesel power. Particular attention was paid to the suspension and braking systems to ensure a quiet, smooth ride (and a sound sleep at night).

Blue Train South Africa - logo

Luxury Blue Train South Africa – photo 2010 World Cup Shine

Luxury on the Blue Train

On this new incarnation of the Blue Train, we’d stay in a cozy luxurious “suite.”

All passengers are treated to suites with polished wood-paneled walls, brass fittings, upholstered closets, twin or double beds that fold down (complete with crisp lavender-scented bed linens and goose down duvets) and, get this, bathrooms with Italian marble countertops, gold fixtures and showers.

Larger “luxury” class suites even also have long bathtubs. Oh, and butlers too.

Blue train suite with double bed

Blue train deluxe suite – photo 2010 World Cup Shine

Luxury Blue Train South Africa - bathroom

Blue Train bathroom – photo 2010 World Cup Shine

Luxury Blue Train - butler

Blue Train butler – photo 2010 World Cup Shine

As there’s free WiFi, we could check email if we wished.

But the stunning Karoo landscapes – sweeping arid plains, dotted with rocky outcrops and ringed by blue mountains – would probably keep our eyes glued to the panoramic windows.

Blue Train - looking out the window

photo credit – Blue Train

Blue Train - Observatory Carriage photo 2010 World Cup Shine

And we’d be wooed by almost non-stop opportunities to tuck into some exceptional cuisine. For brunch the first day after boarding, maybe we’d start with salmon tartare, followed by grilled kinglip (a popular eel-type fish found in South African waters), washed down with champagne.

Dinner is a formal silver-service affair.

Ladies are asked to please gussy up – a little black cocktail dress? Gents must wear a jacket and tie.

We’d sample Knysna oysters, crayfish, Karoo lamb and ostrich fillet. And James, please pour us some more of that lovely champagne, thank you so much.

Luxury Blue Train - dining

Blue Train dining – photo Simon Pielow

Journey from Cape Town to Pretoria

Along the way, we’d stop at the tiny Victorian town of Matjiesfontein for a short tour by double-decker bus and a glass of sherry at the local pub.

In 1884, a young Scotsman snapped up some land beside the rail line, with the idea of creating a fancy rest stop for travelers heading into the hinterland. And the local bar did indeed see the likes of Cecil Rhodes, Rudyard Kipling and Lord Randolph Churchill (Winston’s father) toss back a drink or two.

When the Boer War broke out, Matjiesfontein became a military base camp for thousands of British troops. Today, though, the town is a sleepy place with no more than 400 residents. And it wouldn’t take long to see the post office, vintage car museum, hotel and pub.

The Blue Train is really where we’d want to spend our short time anyway. It’s only a 27-hour trip from Cape Town to Pretoria – but long enough to live out our Agatha Christie-inspired train fantasy, before disembarking to reality.

Luxury Blue Train - South Africa map

Map of the train journey – photo Simon Pielow

Fun facts about the Blue Train

  • It’s rumoured a Friesland cow was once kept onboard so train passengers could have fresh milk at breakfast.
  • Famous guests who’ve traveled aboard the Blue Train include Nelson Mandela, Mia Farrow, Quincy Jones, Imran Khan, Naomi Campbell and Desmond Tutu.
  • The train never goes faster than 55 mph (90 km/h) to keep the noise level below 55 decibels (quieter than normal conversation).
  • Want to buy some bling? The Blue Train has its own jewelry boutique selling diamond and tanzanite jewelry.
  • A separate coach has a high-tech conference facility for 22 passengers.
  • Expect dew-fresh flowers onboard.
  • Under-floor heating warms the train during cooler months; individually controlled A/C keeps suites cool when it’s hot outside.
  • Vegetarian, Kosher and Halaal meals are available on request.
  • Matjiesfontein is home to the first house in South Africa to boast a flush toilet.
  • The Blue Train chugs along 994 miles (1,600 km) of tracks between Cape Town and Pretoria and back.

Disclosure: This post has been made possible by Emirates Holidays. We hope to live out our “Murder on the Orient Express” fantasies (not the death part, but the champagne and vintage train part) one day on the Blue Train.

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Shannon Kircher

Friday 21st of October 2016

We just returned from South Africa and had an incredible experience on The Blue Train! It really is such a perfectly crafted journey from start to finish with great service, gorgeous landscapes (especially as you're nearing Cape Town!) and over-the-top attention to detail. I want to go back now!

Janice and George

Monday 24th of October 2016

We're jealous :-). We'd love to experience The Blue Train for ourselves... (Researching about it was lots of fun though.)

Irene S. Levine

Tuesday 18th of February 2014

Looks like a great train trip!

Janice and George

Tuesday 18th of February 2014

Yes, National Geographic lists the Blue Train as one of the top 10 train trips in the world :-).


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