Tag Archives: South Africa

S. African Splendor: Our Luxe Ride with Rovos Rail, Part II

25 Apr
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Rachel Hardy, the author, with Alpheus, a member of Rovos Rail’s impeccable wait staff. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

If you haven’t yet read the first installment of this story, we suggest you go back and read it here first. Or, read on for day two of our journey on Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa!

It’s day two of our Pretoria-Cape Town adventure aboard Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa.

And what can I say but “Yum!”

We start with a leisurely breakfast in the dining car. Guests can order a freshly prepared omelet, sausage, bacon, mushrooms or roasted tomatoes. Fruit, cereal, yogurt, homemade breads, coffee and tea are also on offer.

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Tables set for breakfast in the dining car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

After our meal, we make a beeline for the observation car.

Joe, the train manager, had advised us the evening before that we might see flamingos shortly before arriving in Kimberley this morning.

And indeed, we’re lucky. There they are — in the thousands — feeding in a shallow lake right next to the tracks. An excited crush of guests fills the observation car to witness the spectacle.

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Angela Walker and other Rovos guests keep their eyes peeled for flamingos. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Soon afterwards, we arrive in Kimberley, the birthplace of South African diamond mining, where we disembark for a short tour.

The mine is a yawning crater lake. Appropriately named the “Big Hole,” it’s the largest man-made excavation site in the world. It’s bizarrely beautiful, despite being a place of enormous human suffering. After a quick to visit the Diamond Mine Museum, we rejoin the train.

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Rachel at the “Big Hole” in Kimberley. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Back on board, we make for the dining car — and lunch. Outside our window, the scenery is changing. We’re entering the Karoo, a semi-desert region defined by vast, open plains.

Impala, wildebeest, and springbok flash by. Miles ahead, a thunderstorm threatens, creating a shallow rainbow that seems to arc right alongside the train.

After another wonderful meal, we drift back to our cabins for a nap. Others head to one of the public cars to read or simply gaze at the African scenery flashing past.

Having enjoyed our luscious lunch, I’m not particularly hungry for what comes next—afternoon tea — even if it is served at 4:30 p.m. But how often do I have afternoon tea?

Served in both lounge cars, it includes fresh fruit, finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam and decadent pastries. I especially eye the scones.

Given the train’s all-inclusive nature, I consider a before-dinner drink as well.

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Rachel and Angela dressed for dinner. IRT Photo.

Dinner is yet another lavish affair. If anything, it’s even jollier, now that guests have gotten to know one another. Alpheus, our server and unofficial staff “hype man,” alerts us to a cocktail hour after dinner in the rear bar car.

Sure enough, the observation car is full and lively. The bartender offers an array of drinks: in addition to his fully-stocked bar, choices include mojitos, tequila sunrises, margaritas and the local “Springbokkie” (Amarula and crème de menthe), our favorite here in South Africa.

The party’s in full swing as we depart for our cabins around 11, exhausted but happy.

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Pride of Africa outside Matjiesfontein. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The next morning, I’m one of the early risers who choose to disembark for a three-mile walk into Matjiesfontein, a quaint Victorian village where the train stops for several hours. I’m struck by the town’s stark beauty. Its dramatic desert hills are dotted with brush. I spot occasional animals in the distance.

I also note the town’s historic hotel, shops, cafes, and a small transportation museum boasting vintage autos and rail cars.

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Pride of Africa on the Matjiesfontein platform. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

After we re-board the train and sit down for lunch, our train descends the face of an escarpment, and the scenery abruptly changes.

The Pride of Africa chugs through a series of four tunnels (the longest is over eight miles), then pops out into a totally different world of large mountain ranges and lush vineyards. We’re approaching beautiful Cape Town.

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Rachel & Angela on the open-air observation car with Cape Town’s Table Mountain coming into view behind. IRT Photo.

We enjoy the observation car one last time, as the city’s iconic Table Mountain looms sharply into focus.

Too soon, we pull into the station. There to welcome us is Mr. Rovos Rail himself: Rohan Vos, owner and mastermind of Rovos Rail.

We pose for a quick photo with Mr. Vos and his staff — and then it’s back to reality.

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Rovos Rail owner Rohan Vos, far left, poses with his staff and IRT’s Angela Walker & Rachel Hardy outside the Cape Town train station. IRT Photo.

If you are ready to book your own Rovos Rail adventure, or if you have questions, please call us at (800) 478-4881 — (502) 897-1725 if you’re outside the U.S. or Canada. Or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Click here to a link to more info about the train, with all itineraries listed. We look forward to welcoming you aboard!

Rachel M. Hardy is a luxury travel advisor and VP, Sales & Marketing, for the Society of IRT. Angela Walker is a 20-year veteran of The Society of International Railway Travelers, and has been on many of our World’s Top 25® Trains. She is a luxury travel advisor and VP, Operations. Both are based in our Louisville, KY headquarters. They have just returned from a month-long study tour examining trains, hotels and experiences in Europe and South Africa.

South African Splendor on Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa

20 Apr
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Rovos Rail guests await their train at Rovos Rail’s private Capitol Park Station.  IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

By the time we arrive at Rovos Rail‘s private station in Pretoria, my colleague, Rachel Hardy and I are both brimming with excitement. We are about to embark on a 3-day journey to Cape Town on one of the world’s most luxurious trains: Pride of Africa. We are here to discover if this train, on our World’s Top 25® Trains list for decades, is still up to snuff ahead of IRT’s special group trip on Rovos Rail in November, 2019. By the time we arrive in Cape Town, we have decided that the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

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Rachel Hardy and Angela Walker with a Rovos Rail hostess. IRT Photo.

The check-in process is a breeze. Rovos Rail hostesses greet us with champagne and juice as our luggage is whisked away by friendly porters. We are ushered inside the beautiful old station to relax and enjoy the view through the stately French doors. Gently swaying palm trees line the platform, and beyond, the famous Rovos Rail train cars fill the tracks as far as the eye can see.

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Rovos Rail porter smiles as he loads luggage on our train. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

A short time later, Rovos Rail’s visionary and idiosyncratic owner, Rohan Vos, summons interested guests for a tour of the grounds. (Mr. Vos began Rovos Rail in 1989 against almost insurmountable odds. His story – Rovos Rail’s story – is fascinating and could fill an entire book. It is only fitting that ‘Rovos’ is a portmanteau of his first and last names!)

The station — abuzz with the activity of more than 400 Rovos Rail employees – sprawls over 60 acres. From the sales offices to the kitchens to the maintenance platforms – where we watch carriages being transformed from dusty old shells into sleek, green Pride of Africa cars – Rovos employees in a variety of green uniforms hurry to and fro, painting, welding, sawing, hauling, cleaning and doing all other manner of task.

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Rovos Rail employees at the station. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

A variety of animals (goats, emu, ostrich, donkeys and cows) hover around the periphery and impart a distinctly Old World air to the scene. Also on the station grounds: a small museum with Rovos memorabilia going back 20 years, a lovely gift shop and storage facilities.

Mr. Vos leads us to the locomotive depot, where he describes the painstaking restorations his team has accomplished over the years. He also explains the train’s bogies and braking system in some detail – a real treat for rail fans – before shepherding us back to the station for our departure.

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Rohan Vos gives a behind-the-scenes tour before departure. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

By now, we’ve come to appreciate Mr. Vos’s hands-on approach – so no one is surprised when he himself delivers the welcome speech and explains the rules of life on board. One point he particularly stresses: mobile phones and computers are prohibited in public areas.  He wants this to be a social occasion, and, as he explains, cell phones are the modern day adversary of good conversation.

He suggests we put our electronics in our safe and forget about them for a few days – a challenge for us, and surely some other guests. We settle with putting our cells on ‘Airplane Mode’ so we can continue to (discreetly) use our phone cameras without guilt.

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Rachel gets a visit from the dining staff and chef. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Mr. Vos invites each of us aboard by name, and our hostesses greet us and show us to our cabins. Rachel and I each have a Deluxe cabin to ourselves. Mine is laid out with two L-shaped twin beds (a configuration that is slowly being phased out in favor of side-by-side twin beds with an aisle in between), while Rachel has a large double bed.

In each of our cabins is a table with two chairs, a large wardrobe with safe, ample storage space for luggage under bed and overhead, and a spacious bathroom with sink, toilet, and shower.

Large picture windows – some of which open to let in the breeze – run the length of our cabins.

 

(In addition to Deluxe Cabins, which clock in around 118 square feet, the train offers Pullman Cabins (diminutive but doable at 76 sq. ft.) and enormous Royal Suites, which are 172 sq. ft. and feature a larger bathroom with deep claw foot bathtub and large living area.)

After a cheerful briefing from our hostess, Louwrene, and a visit from the dining supervisor and chef to inquire about dietary requirements, we set off to explore the public cars at the rear of the train.

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Rachel and guests enjoying the observation car before dinner. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

We first encounter the smoking car, which is entirely enclosed in glass and surprisingly devoid of bad smells. (Smoking is also allowed within the confines of your cabin.)

Next, we find a quiet, comfortable lounge car with couches and armchairs, which quickly becomes the ‘go-to’ spot for guests looking to read and nap after lunch. A small gift shop is tucked in one corner.

The last car on the train is by far the most special: it is divided between a traditional counter bar with stools, a lounge area with banquette seating (our favorite place for playing the many board games available), and, best of all, an open-air observation platform with bench seating, accessed through a sliding glass door.

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Rovos Rail open-air observation car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

As we are making our rounds, the train manager, Joe Mathala, greets us enthusiastically and strikes up a conversation about his long and storied career with Rovos. He quickly rattles off the other Rovos trains currently in service – where they are now, where they are headed, what time they will arrive – and regales us with behind-the-scenes tales.

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Joe Mathala, train manager, made us feel at home. Pictured here with guests at lunch in the dining car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The South African sun sets rapidly over the increasingly rural landscape, and we retreat to our cabins to dress for dinner. On Rovos Rail, dinner is a formal affair. Jacket and tie for men and cocktail attire for women are required, at a minimum, and everyone happily obliges.

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Angela in the Victorian-style diner. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The dining car is a 1920s-style Victorian beauty with teak pillars, shuttered windows with tasseled drapes, romantic, soft lighting, and beautifully-set tables with crisp white dining cloths, china, and crystal. Red anthurium flowers add a natural adornment to each table.

The service is excellent; we are well-attended by four able dining staff who bounce back and forth from the kitchen car to the tables, serving, pouring and clearing, all with a smile.  Joe is also ever-present, assisting his staff while still managing to mingle with the guests.

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Alpheus, our sever, pours wine at dinner. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Throughout the journey, the prix fixe menus – four courses expertly paired with South African wines – highlight local specialties, including fresh seafood, ostrich fillet, and Bobotie (spiced mince beef oven-baked with a layer of egg custard). Rachel, a vegetarian, also gave the culinary team five stars for inventiveness and flavor.

We loved the desserts, especially the decadent Koeksister (in Afrikaans, “fat sister”) – fried dough soaking in sweet, drippy grease – paired with a traditional South Africa melktart, dusted with cinnamon.

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My cozy bed, laden with gifts from Rovos Rail, turned down for the night. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

After dinner, we retreat to our cabins to find gifts from Rovos Rail arranged on our turned-down beds: crystal glasses to keep, bottles of champagne, and chocolates. (As if we needed more food!)  The gentle rocking of the train lulled me to sleep as soon as I hit the pillow.

 

Stayed tuned for part two of our Rovos Rail report, which will be published within the next week. Subscribe to our blog here.

Or, if you are ready to book your own Rovos Rail adventure, call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Angela Walker is a 20-year veteran of The Society of International Railway Travelers, and has been on many of our World’s Top 25® Trains. She is a luxury travel advisor and VP, Operations.  Rachel M. Hardy is a luxury travel advisor and VP, Sales & Marketing, for the Society of IRT. Both are based in our Louisville, KY headquarters. They have just returned from a month-long study tour examining trains, hotels and experiences in Europe and South Africa.

 

Rovos Rail’s “Pride of Africa”: 30+ Years of Luxury Adventure

28 Jul
Rovos Rail

The Pride of Africa’s wood-paneled bar car boasts comfortable seating, a convivial atmosphere and – best of all – a large, rear outdoor deck, perfect for viewing the wild African landscape. Photo by Nels Freeman

Rovos Rail’s 15-day Cape Town – Dar es Salaam “luxury adventure” ranks among the top 5 rail trips for many IRT travelers.

“That’s probably still our favorite trip,” T. Hoberg of Cincinnati, who has booked 19 trips with IRT, told us today.

But for Alicia Taljaard, Rovos’ Sales and Marketing executive, her favorite is the shorter African Collage.  (And it will be the IRT Society’s Owner’s Choice itinerary in 2019, departing Pretoria Oct. 30 — click here for more info.)

“It’s our most scenic trip,” says the 13-year Rovos Rail veteran, who’s a regular visitor to the IRT office.

“It’s perfect for the safari enthusiast, and the scenery on that trip is unbeatable.

South Africa's Garden Route is unbeatable for its scenery, which ranges from towering mountains to dramatic seashores. IRT Photo by John Fiorilla

South Africa’s Garden Route is unbeatable for its scenery, which ranges from towering mountains to dramatic seashores. IRT Photo by John Fiorilla

“You have the mountain passes and the Garden Route, a very lush, beautiful area along the coastline of the eastern to western Cape.

“Then there’s the vineyards and the ocean…” Continue reading

Rovos Rail’s “Pride of Africa” — 30 Years of Luxury Adventure

16 Oct
IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy and Rovos Rail's Alicia Taljaard pose with the company's lavish

IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy and Rovos Rail’s Alicia Taljaard pose with the company’s lavish “Journeys” magazine. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Rovos Rail’s 15-day Cape Town – Dar es Salaam “luxury adventure” ranks among the top 5 rail trips for many IRT travelers.

But for Alicia Taljaard, Rovos’ Sales and Marketing executive, the best trip bar none is the African Collage – and starting in 2017, she tells us, the trip will be extended “from nine to ten days to enhance guests’ experience.”

“It’s our most scenic trip,” says the 11-year Rovos Rail veteran, who visited the IRT offices recently.

“It’s perfect for the safari enthusiast, and the scenery on that trip is unbeatable.

South Africa's Garden Route is unbeatable for its scenery, which ranges from towering mountains to dramatic seashores. IRT Photo by John Fiorilla

South Africa’s Garden Route is unbeatable for its scenery, which ranges from towering mountains to dramatic seashores. IRT Photo by John Fiorilla

“You have the mountain passes and the Garden Route, a very lush, beautiful area along the coastline of the eastern to western Cape.

“Then there’s the vineyards and the ocean…” Continue reading

Blue Train: South African Star Shining Brighter Than Ever

9 Jul

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. 

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