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, South Africa, on one of our trips to the African continent.
Our plans ultimately took a different turn.
While we ended up visiting Cape Town, we headed straight out on a Big Five safari in Sabi Sands Game Reserve without traveling on the train.
But here’s what we learned about the “champagne train.”
Board the Blue Train, South Africa, in Cape Town
You’d most likely want to start your visit to South Africa in Cape Town.
There are tons of fabulous things to do in Cape Town.
You can hike up Table Mountain (or do as we did and hike on top of the mountain, after taking the cable car up).
You can also eyeball penguins at Boulders Beach and go wine tasting in Stellenbosch.
For a luxury visit, stay at the 5-star oceanfront 12 Apostles Hotel and Spa in Table Mountain National Park.
And then – 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).
Luxury on the Blue Train
On this new incarnation of the Blue Train – if we were to enjoy this journey – 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.
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.
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!
The Blue Train routes
This luxury South Africa train offers two routes.
The main route is between Cape Town and Pretoria – a journey of 31 hours.
In certain months, the Blue Train also travels from Pretoria to Hoedspruit in Kruger National Park – a 19-hour journey.
This allows you combine a luxury train experience with a safari in Sabi Sands or Kruger.
Blue Train from Cape Town to Pretoria
On the route from Cape Town to Pretoria, the Blue Train stops 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.
And here’s an interesting factoid: Matjiesfontein was home to the first house in South Africa to boast a flush toilet.
The second stop on the train journey from Cape Town to Pretoria is Kimberley.
Here, passengers visit the Kimberley Mine Museum and tour the famous 740-foot-deep Big Hole (the open diamond mine that closed in 1914).
The Blue Train is really where we’d want to spend most of our short time though.
As mentioned, it’s only a 31-hour trip from Cape Town to Pretoria.
But it’s long enough that we could live out our Agatha Christie-inspired train fantasy – before disembarking to reality.
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.
- The Blue Train chugs along 994 miles (1,600 km) of tracks between Cape Town and Pretoria and back.
Booking the Blue Train:
For more information or to book tickets, see the SA-Rail Train Tours South Africa website.
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. What about you?
Photo credits: Blue Train, South Africa (except #8)
About the authors
Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.
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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 :-).