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Hot Rails

Smita Iyengar makes an exquisite 24-hour journey from Cape Town to Pretoria in The Blue Train, South Africa’s Palace on Wheels

It is designated only for the upper crust cognoscenti. Most people who have travelled in The Blue Train, South Africa’s equivalent of the Palace on Wheels, are in no doubt that they have just experienced luxury at its zenith.

After the VIP check-in at the Blue Train snacks-and-drinks reception Lounge at Cape Town station, the silken smooth ride starts at exactly 11 am. As soon as the train starts rolling past verdantly manicured, bright green vineyards and estates, vast mountain backdrops, lush meadows, stark bushvelds and tunnels, you realise why this ride is touted as one of the finest in the world.

The first destination inside the train is The Lounge Bar which offers the best South African Wines, international spirits and snacks. An informal gourmet lunch awaits you later.

Then, having reached your suite, you are ushered in with professional ceremony. A butler on call 24 hours of the day ensures that you are pandered to like a monarch. Chilled mineral water, 24-hour snack service, plush sofa seating with writing accessories on table, sensuous cotton-linened beds, a box of chocolates, international phone call connectivity and an overall sense of comfort keeps you on a high throughout the journey.

The train, which has consistently earned World Travel Awards, accommodates 82 guests and has a total of 18 carriages with 14 serving guest suites. It has a Lounge Car for breakfast and meals, a full-fledged dining car in the centre with lavish seating plus a Club Car and Cigar Diwan that spells aristocratic aplomb.

The interiors are adorned with gold and premium brass etched embellishments. Wood paneling, laminated veneer facades, world-class light fittings, meticulous marquetry and attention to fine detail radiate class.

Accommodation is in two categories in the train. Deluxe suites with a double bed and Luxury suites which are more spacious, have two single beds, television, CD player and choicest toiletries. Bathrooms are tiled with Italian marble, venetian blinds are remote controlled, there are electronic safes, compact wardrobes and softly carpeted flooring.

The last carriage of The Blue Train is the observation car which doubles up as a small conference room and meeting chamber, complete with the latest audio-visual and tele-conferencing facilities. From the car, one can revel in the South African scenery as you sip a coffee or tea.

Food is continental for breakfast, high tea has scones, pastries and fine blend teas while the evenings are formal black tie dinners with a mouth-watering variety of international and South African dishes. These include cuisine like Karoo Lamb, Knysna Oysters, Crayfish and superb premium wines like Brampton, Sauvignon Blanc, Glen Carlou Estate wines, Haute Cabriere sparkling wines and the classy Peter Barlow Cabernet Sauvignon 1999. After a signature dinner, aromatic Habanas, Monte Cristos and Cohibas call the cigar-shots at The Lounge car. Then, over a fine Hennesssy cognac, the night slips into velvet seduction.

The highlight of the sojourn is a one-hour chilly and windy excursion into the quaint and historic station town of Matjiesfontein on a roofless London Bus. You visit the Lord Milner Hotel, Logan’s Hotel and The Masonic Lodge. It’s town graced by celebrities like Lord Randoph Churchill, The Sultan of Zanzibar and former President Nelson Mandela.

Noontime the next day, the Blue Train rolls effortless into Pretoria Station at 12.41 on the dot. An unforgettable experience has ended. But not for those who are addicted to the ride who are known to taken the ride again and again.

NOT A CHEAP RIDE

The Blue Train is completely booked throughout the year. To maintain such class, the fares don’t come cheap. The Pretoria-Cape Town high season fare for Luxury suite is US$1300-1770 one-way, Deluxe US$ 1180-1600 one-way. off season, the rates are scaled down by US$180 each. Fare includes all meals, drinks, snacks, cigars, excursions but excludes champagne and caviar.

GETTING TO SOUTH AFRICA

The most convenient connection to South Africa from Mumbai (and India) is South African Airways (SAA) which flies four times a week (Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Sundays) non-stop direct from Mumbai to Johannesburg International (8hrs, 40mins). Excellent on-board meals and choicest SA wines are on offer in the flight. There are frequent day-long SAA connections from Johannesburg to Cape Town and other airports. From Cape Town International to Cape Town Station to board the Blue Train is 45 minutes. Alternately one can ride The Blue Train from Pretoria, one-and-a- half hours from Johannesburg.