The Blue Jewel

Peer from the ‘window on the soul of Africa’ aboard the luxurious Blue Train, offering an incomparable journey of scenic majesty, flawless service and gastronomic bliss.
lifestyle, travel, history, culture
Written By Adam Van Brimmer
Photography By Terry Duthu

The blue train is no longer behind schedule. The Blue Train is late.

Five-plus hours late. And Herbert Prinsloo, train manager, is distressed.

Yet no one shares his angst.

Guests sip rich South African wines and Blue Train Cocktails, a twist on the umbrella-drink masterpiece Blue Hawaii, while transfixed by the scenery beyond the train’s windows—the craggy Cape Mountains range, rolling vineyards and Cape Town’s soaring landmark, Table Mountain.

“Master is worried about guests missing flights and blaming The Blue Train,” says Simon Pule, the immaculately groomed barman in the Lounge Car, calling Prinsloo by his staff title. “I don’t think he should worry. Nobody seems anxious to get off.”

If ever a traveler welcomed a delay, this is it. Even those whose flight schedules will be impacted by The Blue Train’s late arrival at the Cape Town station appear loath to disembark. This nearly century-old luxury line casts a powerful spell with its burnished wood, polished brass, upholstered leather seating and impeccable service. Every minute is one to savor.

The Blue Train Cocktail.

The Blue Train covers 994 miles of historic track between South Africa’s capital of Pretoria and its “mother city,” Cape Town. The route design was utilitarian, offering the shortest course between the Cape coast and mineral-rich town of Kimberley and on to the gold-laden grounds of Johannesburg and Pretoria. That the journey takes passengers through slices of the most scenic landscapes on Earth, such as the Hex River Valley, the Great Karoo desert and Kamfers Dam wetland, is a fortunate coincidence, not a deliberate attempt to create a scenic railway.

The passage dates to 1923, when two trains painted blue with cream-colored shades, the Union Limited and Union Express, steamed along the Great African Railway.

“Wealthy passengers got off ships in Cape Town and onto the train to go up north to the gold and diamond mines and weren’t so concerned with what they saw out the windows,” Prinsloo explains. “Back then, the train was more commonly known as the Champagne Train, because the champagne always flowed.”

The line assumed The Blue Train moniker in 1946. A year later, King George VI, the man memorialized in the 2010 film “The King’s Speech,” toured South Africa. Traveling with his wife and two children—the first time an English monarch had toured a commonwealth nation with his family—King George VI chose the train and its luxurious appointments to move the royals through the country.

The honor raised The Blue Train’s profile. Its legend has only grown in the seven decades since.

Elegance on the Rails

Smiling porters in white gloves wait at the curb outside Pretoria’s Bosman train station, eager to tag luggage and escort guests up a red carpet and into The Blue Train’s private lounge. Hosts wait at the door of the blue-trimmed Station Lounge, ready to guide passengers to an open table or empty wingchair and serve coffee, tea or something stronger.

“A Blue Train trip is an elegant affair,” Prinsloo says later in his welcome to the 70-plus guests on hand for the scheduled 27-hour run between Pretoria and Cape Town. “And it starts from the moment you arrive.”

The Blue Train prides itself as a five-star hotel on rails. Each railcar is served by a butler. A fruit plate, a bottle of chilled champagne and fresh flowers await in each compartment. The suites are cozy and trimmed in finery from the wardrobe to the shower.

This nearly century-old luxury line casts a powerful spell with its burnished wood, polished brass, upholstered leather seating and impeccable service. Every minute is one to savor.

Butlers are on call from boarding time to disembarking and will expertly convert the compartment from sitting room to sleeping quarters, press evening wear in advance of the dinner sitting and serve meals for those who prefer to dine in privacy.

The personal service extends to the train’s public areas. The layout is simple yet smart, with public cars located at the front, back and middle with sleeper cars in between. Each public car has a dedicated staff, plenty of windows and comfortable wingchairs, sofas, barstools and armchairs.

The Observation Car stands in as the caboose, with a floor-to-ceiling window looking out the back of the train. The Lounge Car is mid-train, next to the kitchen and the Dining Car, and is home to the afternoon tea service. The Club Car is the forward-most carriage in the guest area of The Blue Train and the favorite of smokers.

Pule, the Lounge Car barman, has worked in each of the public cars in his five years aboard The Blue Train. Each has its own personality, he says.

“The Observation Car is the quiet car, the place to read or stare out the windows and take in the scenery, while the Club Car is more for the social crowd,” he says. “This right here, the Lounge Car, is the place to be, though. You can relax but still have some great conversation.”

The personable staff is a significant contributor to The Blue Train’s allure. They come from all over the country—the coast to the bushveld, the sprawling townships to the remote villages—and are a mix of native Africans, white Afrikaners and what South Africans call coloureds, whose ethnicities trace to southern Europe, Asia and other regions located along the Indian Ocean.

Staff members speak a variety of South Africa’s 11 official languages. As a sign of respect for one another, whoever initiates a conversation does so in the native tongue of the person he or she is talking to.

Leon Dutoit, an Afrikaner and a favorite in the Dining Car, has worked for The Blue Train’s parent company since 1984. “I’m nearly part of the furniture,” he says, “and proud to say I serve here.”

The Blue Train claims to be among the first in history to offer a dining car, and the cuisine mantra is “every taste is a memory in the making.”

The clientele is even more diverse. While the train draws heavily from Europe and the United States, visitors from India, China, Japan, Brazil, the Middle East and India are regulars.

The Blue Train, as barman Blessing Chikutinwe says, knows no cultural boundaries.

“The King of England rode the train, Nelson Mandela rode the train, Desmond Tutu, Margaret Thatcher, Paul Simon, Quincy Jones, Naomi Campbell,” he says. “You never know who will walk into this car.”

Culinary Charm

The menu features local specialties, such as sea scallops harvested near Cape Town.

The buzz of anticipation has been growing since the first sated guests passed through the Lounge Car en route to their suites.

“You must try the springbok,” one tells those enjoying an aperitif before dinner’s second sitting.

“Start with the foie gras,” says his companion.

“And whatever you do, don’t pass on the lemon merengue deconstructed,” they advise.

The Blue Train claims to be among the first in history to offer a dining car, and the cuisine mantra is “every taste is a memory in the making.” The chef delivers. Local specialties such as springbok, which is the meat of wild antelopes that graze in massive herds across the bushveld, along with African king prawns and Karoo lamb are served, all on fine china.

The white-jacketed wait staff presents four courses—soup, appetizer, entrée and dessert—with two choices for each of the final three courses. And the wine list is almost exclusively South African, highlighted by pinotage, a smoky red wine, and sweet dessert varieties such as Constantia, a favorite of Napoleon while in exile off the African coast at Saint Helena.

Lunch and breakfast are equally succulent, and the tarts, cakes and cheeses served at afternoon tea threaten to spoil one’s appetite for supper. Hence the universal recommendation by the staff to pick dinner’s second sitting.

“Eat and drink as much as you can handle,” Prinsloo says, “and you’ll still want more.”

The same can be said for the scenery.

Beauty on the Move

The stark beauty of the Great Karoo flows by for hours, a brown plain dotted by towering stone buttes and quaint hacienda-style houses.

Gradually, the landscape becomes more rolling. The Klein Karoo, its lush foothills blanketed with desert flowers of purple, white and gold, extends west to the sheer slopes of the Hex River Mountains’ seemingly impenetrable walls.

The Blue Train slips into those rocky facades, passing through the first of four tunnels. Staring out the train’s windows as it emerges from the westernmost portal some 20 minutes later, one can’t help but wonder if the tunnels weren’t wormholes, transporting the train to a different part of the world.

The desert is gone. The flowers, too. Instead, vineyards of green stretch across a rolling valley framed by mountain ranges. What was visually pleasing is now visually stunning. Each stop of the train, each delay in the journey, is now welcome.

As Table Mountain looms larger out the window, marking the end of the line, the jovial mood assumes a trace of melancholy.

“This is the way to travel,” says Janice Nelson, an American visiting with her husband, David. “We’ll get there when we get there. No rush.”

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