If you’re looking to explore SA’s wide-open landscapes without spending hours behind the wheel, then a luxury train holiday ticks all the right boxes. Why not book a suite onboard one of these rolling hotels?
1. THE BLUE TRAIN
Arguably the icon of luxury train travel in SA, the Blue Train traces its heritage to the days of SA’s 19th-century gold rush. While additional journeys to the Lowveld and beyond are often available, it’s the 1,600km run from Cape Town to Pretoria that remains the classic journey most worth booking. As the tracks unspool through the Cape winelands and on into the Karoo, guests enjoy 31 hours — often longer if there are delays — of air-conditioned comfort on the rails.
And comfortable it certainly is, from deep-buttoned armchairs in the communal lounges to a butler who’ll take care of everything from your luggage to your cocktail order. These are best enjoyed in the lounge car, where picture windows offer a front-row seat to SA scenery, before a slap-up dinner on the move. Fares are fully inclusive, and the impressive wine list is a rollcall of SA’s leading estates.
2. ROVOS RAIL
While the Blue Train speeds its way north, the vintage carriages of Rovos Rail offer a more leisurely approach. This family-owned enterprise marked 30 years in business in 2019, and what started out as a passion-project for founder Rohan Vos has evolved into one of the world’s leading luxury train services.
It’s especially famous for the classic charm on board, from characterful Edwardian carriages to an old-world approach to service and style. There’s no internet access, on purpose; guests are politely requested to leave their mobile devices in their suites. There are certainly worse ways to digitally detox.
Rovos Rail trains take three days to cover the distance from coast to capital, and the journey is all the better for it. You’ll have more time aboard, plus the option of two off-train excursions to explore both Matjiesfontein and the Big Hole at Kimberley.
Dinner is all wood-panelled glamour — collar and tie are essential for gentlemen — while the elegant lounge car offers wide picture windows and plush sofas. But the real highlight of a Rovos journey is to be found right at the back of the train, where the open-air observation deck allows guests to watch the track unspool endlessly behind the train. With a G&T in hand, this is rail travel as it was meant to be.
Alongside the classic Cape Town-Pretoria trip, Rovos Rail offers longer journeys to Victoria Falls, Durban, the Lowveld and across Southern Africa.
3. SHONGOLOLO EXPRESS
Rohan Vos purchased the Shongololo Express in 2016. After sprinkling some of his luxury rail magic it relaunched under the Rovos umbrella and today offers longer journeys aimed at travelers with a little more time on their hands.
The suites offer similar levels of space and comfort to Rovos Rail, but without a few of the extra perks such as fully inclusive drinks. The itineraries are also considerably longer, with 12- and 15-day journeys that traverse SA and venture as far afield as Malawi and Namibia.
There are leisurely days on board interspersed with regular off-train activities and excursions. Keen golfers should cast their eye at the Shongololo Express’s Good Hope itinerary, which offers unique access to some of the country’s finest courses on a 15-day meander through SA. If you have a serious case of wanderlust that needs attention, this might just be the cure.
4. CERES RAIL COMPANY
If time — or budget — is an issue, hop aboard the historic carriages of the Ceres Rail Company, which fires up restored steam locomotives to pull historic carriages on a journey from Cape Town to the winelands town of Ceres. It’s a trip back in time as the train puffs its way through two mountain passes to reach the glorious Ceres valley. After lunch (extra cost) at the Ceres Golf Club, the train returns the same day.