Board the Blue Train for the ultimate Cape escape

South Africa is a land of easy luxury and grinding poverty. Christina Patterson sees both sides from the Rainbow Nation's inimitable Blue Train

I knew that South Africa would be teeming with wonderful wildlife, but I didn't realize that quite so much of it would end up on my plate. Within hours of landing at Johannesburg, we're tucking into our first platefuls: lamb, thank goodness, and not the elephants we can see from our table. Yes, the Polo bar at the Westcliff offers a panoramic view of the forest and zoo. The elephants are, apparently, in love. After years of a sexless marriage, the female's interest has, the waiter tells us, been rekindled by her husband's macho feats with a log. They have, it seems to me, picked the perfect place for their second honeymoon.

Sadly, they don't get to experience the joys of a suite at the Westcliff: the huge, elegant sitting room, the bowls of fresh lilies, the marble bathroom and the bed so inviting that any thoughts of exploring the country fade in favour of soft pillows and white linen. My friends, however, have other ideas: a brisk walk and light shopping before hitting the hippest restaurant in town. So, refusing the services of one of the little buggies designed to drive you from suite to swimming pool to sundowners, we actually walk a few steps uphill to the streets surrounding the hotel. This is Johannesburg at its poshest: vast, gated houses in a range of (sometimes rather peculiar) architectural styles, all with massive, manicured gardens and alarms promising "armed response". This, in other words, is white South Africa.

At the Moyo restaurant that evening, in the smart suburb of Melrose, we get a taste of black South Africa, or at least some of its traditions. Rosemary, our waitress, wears a feathered head-dress and a loose smock. Her face is dotted with black and white spots and soon ours are, too. I order a Moyo Muddle, a slimy concoction of vodka, maraschino cherries and honey that has me reaching for the bread basket and harissa. The Springfield sauvignon is, however, delicious and so is the food. Over prawn and peanut soup and "ostrich berbere", we discuss the scandal that's dominating the front pages. Jacob Zuma, the former deputy president, is on trial for rape. It is, explains my friend from The Star, who lives round the corner, a litmus test for the new South Africa - its political sensitivities, controversy and alleged corruption.

The next morning, in Soweto, we learn more. Turnout in municipal elections the previous week had, according to our guide Peter Mashaba, been low. Weary of the broken promises and scandals, black South Africans are reluctant to endorse their govern- ment but also reluctant to vote against it. Around us, there is evidence of some progress. Not just in the mansions on the edge of the township, or the proliferation of red-brick boxes for the middle-classes, but also in the spanking new hospitals, university and schools. There are still, of course, those sickening swathes of shanty town: the shacks with no water or sanitation, patched together from old planks and rusting sheets of corrugated iron. There are also the neat little boxes built by the government to replace them. Many are empty. The very poor are unable, or unwilling, to pay any form of rates or rent.

Peter, who grew up in a township but now lives in a mostly white suburb, takes us to a market opposite the vast Baragwanath hospital, and then past the Regina Mundi church, still bullet-ridden from confrontations with the police. We stop off at Kliptown's Freedom Square, where in 1955 the Freedom Charter - the basis for the constitution for the new South Africa - was read to a vast crowd, and see the new tourist office. After that, it's on to Orlando West, Soweto's poshest suburb, for the grand villas of the great: Nelson Mandela, Des- mond Tutu, and, er, Winnie Mandela. (For many black South Africans, she will always be great.) Nearby, at the Hector Pieterson Museum, named after the schoolboy killed in the anti-Afrikaans protests of 1976, we see film footage of the struggle. Plaques point to the visible landmarks of a history that is still in the process of being made.

In the foyer, we meet Hector Pieterson's older sister, Antoinette, who was with him when he died. "Tiny", as she's called, works as a tour guide at the museum. Her brother, she says, was a victim and a symbol, but not a hero. Over lunch at a nearby café, however, she prefers to talk about other things. Her children are lazy, she tells me over mutton curry, pumpkin and that South African maize-flour staple, "pap", and her husband doesn't help her in the house. Her dazzling smile indicates that this is less a serious grouse than a spot of female bonding.

Her tone is, in fact, echoed in a magazine called Move!, aimed at the black South African woman. "It's often so difficult for us black women to speak up," says Sbu Mpungose in her editor's note. "We are scared to say exactly how we feel or give our opinions." The magazine is peppered with advice on how to be independent, how to conduct your love life, how to avoid AIDS and how to get a "dream job", as an assistant in a call centre. Among the "five secrets you should not tell" are the familiar ("don't tell your girlfriend that your boyfriend has a small penis") and the more surprising: "If your friends don't know your English name already, delete it from your ID book and take that name to the grave. Let your bad English name be history - just like the apartheid years." *

* Back at the Westcliff, all the black staff seem to have English names. Our fellow diners at La Belle Terrasse restaurant are mostly white, but according to Gaby Palmer, the hotel's press officer, the clientele is usually more mixed. It is, apparently, largely made up of locals out for a special occasion or just a treat. Over dinner we see why. The wine - a Rustenberg John X Merriman - is fabulous and so is the food. Yet more meat for me: cutlets of quail followed by beef. I will, I decide, as I stagger back to my suite, never eat again.

At six the next morning, waiting for the car to take us to Pretoria, we're all feeling a little delicate, but decide that what we need is starch - what we need is, in fact, the pretty panoply of home-made pastries laid out before us. Weaving in and out of the traffic, it's a decision we begin to regret. In the departure lounge for the Blue Train, we're offered sparkling wine and canapés and we actually say no. It's not yet nine o'clock and there are limits. The limits evaporate when we climb aboard. Truly, the train, celebrating its 60th birthday, offers the luxury, and opulence, of another era. We shriek with delight over our beautiful compartments, each with its own mini wardrobe, telly and tiny bathroom. We also shriek with delight at the "club lounge". In spite of our resolutions, we're soon toasting our trip in sparkling wine and biltong. Perhaps the Queen, who made the same journey with Princess Margaret in 1947, did the same.

I suspect that the Queen might not have had snails sauteed in garlic, flamed with brandy and finished off with a creamy sauce quite so soon after, or indeed the beef fillet Stellenbosch. She certainly would not have felt the need to take part in the "win a diamond" competition that forms part of our afternoon stop-off in the mining town of Kimberley. Our elderly guide makes us peer over "the big hole" of one of the biggest diamond mines in the world. "If your daughter's boyfriend offers a diamond that's less than one carat," he says, "you tell him to go away." Indeed. Dinner in the restaurant car later is so sumptuous - mussels in filo and lobster - that we begin to feel that our "formal wear" might well be enhanced by a rock, or two, or three.

After an excellent night's sleep and a fabulous cooked breakfast, we see the scenery change: from the wide, wild plains to a rolling verdant landscape and finally the looming mass of the sandstone plateau known as Table Mountain. Today, it has its "table cloth", the thin ridge of cloud that hovers just above its flat surface, and spills, like a freshly iced Christmas cake, just over the edge.

At the foot of the mountain is the Mount Nelson hotel, an imposing array of pink buildings at the end of a palm-fringed drive. It's the hotel used by Oprah Winfrey, Bono and Charlize Theron, and you can see why. The decor is elegant without a hint of kitsch and the gardens are a wonderful surprise: huge banks of flowers - roses, jasmine, hydrangeas, hibiscus - that are a riot of dizzying colour. This is an English cottage garden with an African twist and it's simply stunning.

So, it turns out, are our rooms. "Room" is, perhaps, not the word for the palatial suite that I will, for the next few days, call "home". Recently redesigned by Graham Viney, it's a gorgeous mix of the contemporary (coir carpet, stripy sofa and soothing cream and duck-egg blue colour scheme), the traditional (antiques, Chinese vases and bookcases actually filled with books) and the sheer luxurious.

The Mount Nelson is so comfortable that it's hard to leave. Lunch on the terrace segues into a spot of sunbathing, followed by cocktails in the Planet Champagne Bar. At dinner, in the Cape Colony restaurant, I eschew ostrich carpaccio, smoked crocodile medallion and grilled loin of springbok for a terrine of duck foie gras and yet another fillet of beef. Extremely tasty and the portions aren't so overwhelming that you can still, just about, force down a morsel or two of dessert. The breakfast and lunch buffets are, however, fatal. Faced with a breathtaking array of patisserie, fruits, salads, meats, fish, puddings and cheeses, how on earth do you choose? The answer is you don't. And you make damn sure that those trendy bathroom scales are used only for your luggage.

Some of the time, we manage not to eat. While we're on our "cultural city walking tour", for example, which takes us through the botanical delights of Company's Garden, past the Parliament building ("All Shall Have Equal Rights" say posters in its grounds), the slavery museum and the Dutch reform church. "When Desmond Tutu was made Archbishop, people said, 'He's black, will he be intelligent enough?'" says Ursula, our guide, as she shows us round the cathedral. "Everyone says they were there at the protests," she tells us, "but they're rewriting history. Modern South Africans," she adds "are suffering from political amnesia."

Samuel, our guide the next day, and one of South Africa's four million "coloureds", is less outspoken. "Khayelitsha township, population one million," he says, as we drive past mile after mile of squalid slums, in exactly the same neutral tones as those he has used to offer the geological history of Table Mountain. We're on our way to a wine tasting at Waterford, a vineyard deep in the lush, green countryside of Constantia. That glimpsed world feels a million miles away, as we sit in the sunshine and sip a gorgeous array of rosés, chenin blancs, and cabernet sauvignons. It feels even further away at Terroir, a restaurant in nearby Stellenbosch where I have one of the best meals of my life. Such, of course, is tourism in this land of breathtaking beauty and cruel contrasts.

On our final day, we make a necessary pilgrimage, to the place where the seed of the new South Africa was sown. Our guide at Robben Island is Benjamin, a political prisoner at the prison from 1980 to 1991. When his pregnant girlfriend was shot, in the student protests of 1976, he joined the ANC in exile in Angola. Now, he spends his life showing tourists around, explaining the different regulations on food portions for "coloureds" and "Bantus" and pointing out the flowers in the exercise yard that Nelson Mandela planted. Doesn't he find it a burden to relive this history every day? "No," he replies with quiet dignity. "In a few years, people will be exaggerating the stories. It is important to tell them."

Back at the Mount Nelson, we have a final taste of luxury in the form of its famous afternoon tea. The crossing was choppy and I'm feeling a little queasy, but I manage. Yes, I manage to squeeze down some of the dainty little sandwiches, the delicate sponges dusted with sugar, the fruit tarts and the scones. So, I remember, as I take a bite of a spectacular baked cheesecake, did Samuel's mother. He took her, he told us, to tea at the Mount Nelson and she cried. "Son, I never thought I'd see the day," she said. "I just never thought I'd see the day."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Kuoni Travel (01306 747 008; www.kuoni.co.uk) offers tailor-made holidays to South Africa. Three nights' B&B at The Westcliff, one night on the Blue Train and three nights' B&B at the Mount Nelson Hotel starts at £2,143. This includes flights to Johannesburg with Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com), returning from Cape Town with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com).

To offset the environmental harm of a return flight from London to Johannesburg, you could pay £19.50 to Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org).

GETTING AROUND

The Blue Train (00 27 12 334 8459; www.bluetrain.co.za). One-way tickets start at R7,860 (£712).

STAYING THERE

The Westcliff, 67 Jan Smuts Avenue, Westfcliff, Jo'burg (00 27 11 481 6000; www.westcliff.co.za). Doubles from R2,767 (£250), room only.

Mount Nelson Hotel, 76 Orange Street, Cape Town (00 27 21 483 1000; www.mountnelson.co.za). Doubles from R3,636 (£330), including breakfast.

EATING & DRINKING

Moyo, 5 Melrose Square, Jo'burg (00 27 11 684 1477; www.moyo.co.za).

Terroir, Kleine Zalze Estate, Stellenbosch (00 27 21 880 8167; www.kleinezalze.com).

VISITING THERE

Hector Pieterson Museum, 8288 Maseko Street, Soweto (00 27 11 536 0611). Open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday until 4pm; admission R15 (£1.40).

Slave Lodge Museum, Cape Town (00 27 21 460 8240; www.museums.org. za/slavelodge). Monday-Friday 8.30am-4.30pm, Saturday 9am-1pm; admission R7 (65p).

Waterford Wine Estate, Blaauwklippen Road, Stellenbosch (00 27 21 880 0496; www.waterfordwines.com). Open Monday-Friday 9am-5pm, Saturday 10am-3pm. Tastings from R15 (£1.40).

Robben Island, Cape Town (00 27 21 409 5100; www.robben-island.org.za). Open daily 9am-3pm; R150 (£14) including transportation to the island and guided tour.

FURTHER INFORMATION

South Africa Tourism (0870 155 0044; www.southafrica.net).

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