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Blue Train: South African Star Shining Brighter Than Ever

By Owen C. Hardy

IRT’s Owen & Eleanor Hardy on the Blue Train

The Blue Train expertly conjures up one’s inner international celebrity. It’s a quality I well remember from my first Blue Train ride 13 years ago.

One of the IRT Society’s World’s Top 25 Trains, it runs weekly in each direction between Pretoria and Cape Town, South Africa.

A week ago Monday, I climbed back aboard the Blue Train for another trip, Pretoria-Cape Town, and I discovered that this “celebrity factor” is perhaps more than just coincidence.

Jan September

Our steward, Mr. Jan September, regaled my wife Eleanor and me with stories of the famous personages he’d served over the years: Margaret Thatcher (“you  could tell she was a very powerful person, but she made me feel very comfortable”), Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former South African President Nelson Mandela, American musician Quincy Jones, British runway model Naomi Campbell, and American film stars Danny Glover and Farrah Fawcett.

September was hardly name-dropping. Rather, we got the impression that he and the rest of the Blue Train staff are accustomed to treating all their passengers like visiting royalty.

Blue Train deluxe compartment

Our deluxe compartment—the “standard class” on the train—was both spacious and stylishly decorated, with two twin Murphy beds, a nightstand with drawers in between, and room enough for three or four small pieces of luggage above the interior bed. We were also thankful for our in-room safe, double-door closet, full-length mirror, and armchair.

As I’d recommend for any train trip, pack light for your Blue Train voyage—we handed over our bulkiest three bags for storage in the baggage car at the outset of our trip. But the Blue Train accommodations are anything but claustrophobic.

The décor, which includes handsome polished wood walls, brass fixtures, and the ubiquitous Blue Train “B,” is emblematic of the understated elegance throughout the train.

Chocolate Pot “Mandela Microwave”

Our Blue Train dining experience was divine, from our first morsel served in the train’s VIP lounge—a perfectly flaky ham croissant and a hot apricot tart—to our last dessert, a succulent dark chocolate “pot” with alternating fillings nicknamed the “Mandela Microwave” after the famous passenger, who requested it after every meal. The wine, beer, and liquor selection is thoughtful and extensive, too, especially considering that all alcoholic beverages are included in passenger fare.

And, though we were somewhat skeptical about the “crowd” factor when we learned that all 58 places on our voyage would be occupied, the quality of service never wavered.

New friends in the Blue Train diner

Indeed, we thoroughly enjoyed our fellow passengers. They were of all races, creeds and colors and hailed from all over the world—perhaps symbolizing the aspirations of the new South Africa.

Owen in the cab

The Blue Train staff was friendly and competent. Wandering down the platform to the massive electric locomotive, I was invited inside the cab by its driver, who insisted I take his seat so he could photograph me. The dining attendants and stewards, elegantly dressed in the traditional uniform, were obviously proud of their famous train—most considered the Blue Train a lifetime career.

In fact, there was so much going on—meeting people in the rear lounge car with its immense windows, enjoying afternoon tea or exquisite meals and fine South African wines—we almost forgot to look out the window at the passing scene.

To seasoned luxury train travelers, this tension between “inside” the train and “outside” is sure to be familiar. So much to soak in, and so little time in which to do it! The trip covers 994 miles and lasts an all-too-brief 27 hours.

There were some hiccups. The electrical outlet in our bathroom didn’t work; neither did the steward call button.

And the Blue Train VIP lounge at the Pretoria railroad station is tricky to locate, even when you’re in its general vicinity. That meant a few nervous minutes at the end of our hour-long taxi ride from Johannesburg’s Westcliff Hotel, which was 15 minutes longer than we’d planned.

Future Blue Train travelers take note: as you face Pretoria Station, the Blue Train Lounge is at the far left of the building and is mostly hidden by a parking lot. A subtle Blue Train “B” finally led us in the right direction – and into the capable hands of the Blue Train staff.

These minor issues did little to take away from our experience: luxurious accommodations, delicious meals, friendly and knowledgeable staff, and the fascinating South African countryside rushing by outside our windows. Our experience left little doubt: the Blue Train well deserves its place as one of the World’s Top 25 Trains. For a look at our June, 2011, trip,  see this: Photo Album of the Blue Train.