Luxury on the line

Make tracks to South Africa for the rail journey of a lifetime, says Francisca Kellett
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The Independent Travel

Celebrating its 60th birthday this year, the Blue Train (00 27 123 348 459; www.bluetrain.co.za) is South Africa's contribution to the luxury train market - and with a much longer pedigree than most. Coasting in a leisurely fashion through some of South Africa's most spectacular landscapes, the Pretoria to Cape Town route originally served South Africa's diamond magnates, who travelled between their homes in the Cape and their fortunes in Northern Cape's diamond mines.

Today, the Blue Train functions as something of a five-star hotel on wheels, offering an additional route from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. There are actually several Blue Trains (two new trains were introduced in the late 1990s), but each has a luxurious colonial theme and personalised butler service for its 80 passengers. There is a choice of spacious suites, each featuring televisions, air conditioning, bathrooms, and large windows to allow wide views of the passing landscapes. A highlight is the smart dining room, known for its excellent cuisine, fine South Africa wines and traditional atmosphere - dressing for dinner is the norm. The wood-panelled club lounge serves pre- and after-dinner drinks and cigars, and high tea is available in the afternoon in the main lounge.

The original, overnight Pretoria-Cape Town route traverses South Africa's heartland, from the jacaranda-lined streets of Pretoria, through the shimmering plains of the Great Karoo, the fertile Hex River Valley, and on to the rolling vineyards of the Winelands. Stops are limited to 15 minutes, giving passengers a chance to stretch their legs, but not to explore any further. One exception is the diamond town of Kimberley, where (heading south) passengers get nearly two hours off, and can take a guided tour of the Big Hole, a gaping 800m-deep pit that was dug by hand by mining prospectors in the late 19th century.

The fascinating Mine Museum is next to the Big Hole, and for a sample of some of the area's most famous finds, head to De Beers Hall. Northern Cape Tourism (00 27 538 322 657; www.northerncape.org.za) is a good source of information on Kimberley and the Big Hole.

From here, passengers re-board and continue into the Karoo as the sun sets. Next morning, the approach to Cape Town is magnificent, descending from the Winelands with Table Mountain towering on the horizon.

On the return leg, the train stops for an hour at the historical Karoo town of Matjiesfontein ( www.matjiesfontein.com), declared a national monument in 1975. Here, the dusty streets are lined with perfectly preserved Victorian houses, of which the highlight is the Lord Milner Hotel, resplendent with turrets and wrought-iron balconies.

The two-night Cape Town-Port Elizabeth route, which runs along part of the Garden Route ( www.gardenroute.org), has just three departures every year. It passes through the Langeberg mountains and the Robertson and Swellendam vineyards, before hitting the coast at Mossel Bay and following the dramatic Indian Ocean coastline. At George (00 27 448 019 295; www.georgetourism.co.za), passengers can disembark for a couple of hours to explore the town.

The route then turns inland to the Little Karoo, stopping at Oudtshoorn (00 27 442 792 532; www.oudtshoorn.com), famous for being home to 98 per cent of the world's ostrich population. Passengers can join a tour of an ostrich farm or try riding an ostrich. After lunch passengers are transferred to the Cango Caves ( www.cangocaves.co.za), a magnificent network of calcite caves regarded as some of the finest in Africa. Tours of the caves last one hour and take in the largest and most impressive sectors of the system.

From here, the Blue Train continues through the Kammanassie mountains and ends the next morning at the coastal city of Port Elizabeth. The return leg also stops at Oudtshoorn and George.

The Blue Train runs from Pretoria to Cape Town on most Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (up to 13 departures a month), departing at 8.50am and arriving at noon the next day. The return journey runs on the same days, departing at 11am and arriving at 1.45pm the next day. A one-way, double deluxe suite costs from R7,500 (£628) per person, based on two people sharing, including all meals, drinks and excursions.

The Cape Town to Port Elizabeth route runs on 4 September and 4 December 2005, and 12 February, 12 March 2006, with return legs two days later. Trains leave Cape Town at 2pm on a Sunday and arrive at 9.30am on Tuesday, returning at 3.30pm that day and arriving in Cape Town at 11am on Thursday. A one-way, double deluxe suite costs from R8,500 (£712) per person, based on two people sharing, including all meals, drinks and excursions.

Francisca Kellett is the author of the 'Footprint Guide to South Africa'

BLOWERS ON THE BLUE TRAIN

We arrived promptly at Pretoria Station, ready for our 28-hour journey to Cape Town aboard South Africa's finest train. Porters in flowing shirts, which looked like leopard-skins, took our luggage, and we were swiftly shown into a spacious lounge and given coffee. At 8.30am we were taken to our suite in carriage five and at 8.50am on the dot the train left with 84 passengers onboard. Timing in South Africa is impeccable.

Our suite was equally impressive: just under 5m long with a comfortable sofa (which transformed into the bed), an easy chair, a huge window and an immaculate bathroom. Our steward was called Thabo: when reached on a mobile telephone, he could produce anything, more or less, at the drop of a hat.

We meandered through the South African countryside, enjoying lunch in the elegant dining car. All through the first afternoon, huge electrical storms built up on the left of the train and by the time we arrived in Kimberley for a two-hour stop the heavens opened. After looking round the diamond mining museums we were to have walked over to the Big Hole, the original diamond mine, but such was the weather, we had to give it a miss.

By morning, though, the train's observation car had come into its own: the mountainous scenery on both sides of the train was too lovely for words. As we breakfasted in the dining car one could only think that the Orient Express must have been eating its heart out.

Henry Blofeld is a BBC cricket commentator

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