I recently enjoyed a terrific holiday in South Africa. You can read my trip reports here:
- Review: Iberia A330 Business Class from Madrid to Johannesburg
- Review: Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff, Johannesburg
- Review: River Lodge, Lion Sands Game Reserve
- Review: Royal Malewane, Thornybush Private Game Reserve
- Review: Kapama Karula, Kapama Private Game Reserve (to be published later)
- Review: Rovos train from Pretoria to Cape Town (today)
- Review: 12 Apostles hotel, Cape Town
- Review: Cape Grace, Cape Town
- Review: Ellerman House, Cape Town
- Review: South African Airways A340 Business Class from Cape Town to Johannesburg
- Review: British Airways A380 First Class from Johannesburg to London
Today (February 15, 2017): Review of the world’s most luxurious train, Rovos Rail.
- Official website: Rovos Rail
Although most tourists travel around South Africa by car, those who have more time (and money) may want to ride one of the world’s most famous luxury trains. Rovos Rail, Africa’s answer to the Orient Express, is a luxury steam train company that offers a series of epic journeys across the spectacular scenery of South(ern) Africa. The trains – which may be hauled by diesel or electric locomotives – carry a maximum of 72 passengers in 36 superbly appointed suites with ensuite bathrooms. With discreet and friendly service, five-star cuisine and a selection of South Africa’s finest wines, Rovos Rail harks back to a simpler, more elegant era encompassing the timeless grace and high romance of African exploration. This is my review of Rovos Rail’s most popular trip, the 3-day, 1600 km (1000 mi) journey from Pretoria to Cape Town across the Karoo’s endless desert landscapes and the Western Cape’s verdant valleys.
Rovos Rail features in my top 10 list of the best things to see and do in South Africa.
In this review (more info below the Youtube clip & slideshow):
- Pros & things I like
- Cons & things to know
- My verdict
PROS & THINGS I LIKE
- One of the journey’s highlights is the departure from the private station at Capital Park, Pretoria. The once bustling hub of steam locomotion in the old Transvaal is now the headquarters for Rovos Rail. The gracious colonial-style railway station serves as the departure (or arrival) point for all train journeys. The property boasts a gift shop and interesting railway museum but the eyes of rail enthusiasts will be mostly be drawn to the vast carriage and locomotive sheds where teams of dedicated personnel maintain the trains. Before departure, passengers are offered Champagne and hearty snacks in the station’s Victorian-style salon.
- When you disembark and/or embark, Mr. Rohan Vos (or one of his representatives) will be there to meet you personally. Mr Vos is the owner of Rovos Rail, the company that he started in 1989. His story is quite remarkable, as his family now owns and runs the most luxurious trains in the world without any previous experience in train travel or tourism. During my journey, Mr. Vos welcomed everyone before departure at the Capital Park station and called out the names of all passengers in carriage order, after which his staff escorted you to your carriage and suite. He was there again in Cape Town upon arrival to oversee the whole process.
- Boarding the train is like stepping back into time. The opulent train decor with its mahogany panelling recalls the ambiance of colonial glamour and the elegance of prewar travel (while featuring all modern conveniences you can think of). The early 20th century furnishings reflect the era in which the carriages were built and exude the romance of a bygone era.
- The general make-up of the train – dubbed the ‘Pride of Africa’ – is quite simple. From the front to the rear, there is a locomotive, generator car, staff car, guest sleepers cars, lounge car, two connecting dining cars, kitchen car, soms more guest sleepers cars, smoking lounge and an observation car at the tail. The latter features large windows and an unique open-air balcony when you are in need of some fresh air or simply want to enjoy the grandiose landscapes from the outside.
- The lounge car is placed in the middle of the train ahead of the dining cars. Here, deep sofas and wingback chairs invite you for nodding off for an afternoon snooze. The lounge cars also house a small, discreet gift shop on one side. As with all the cars, the lounge car is air-conditioned, yet the windows can be opened allowing in the sights, sounds and scents of Africa.
- The beautiful dining cars are characterized by carved roof-supporting pillars and arches. Extensive use of wooden trimmings in combination with button-leather seats create an opulent ambience and recall the beauty of a bygone age.
- There are three types of accommodation available on the train: Pullman, Deluxe and Royal suites. During my three-day journey, I stayed in an air-conditioned Deluxe suite (10 sq meters or 108 sq feet), which was located in the front part of the train and accommodated two passengers in twin beds (placed in a L-configuration). The suite had a cozy lounge area and en-suite bathroom with shower, hair dryers and shaver plugs. It featured wood-panelling with windows and shutters that opened to the endless views. The suite was equipped with a writing surface and a personal safe for valuables. There was also a bar fridge filled with beverages of my choice.
- With room service 24 hours a day and a nightly turn-down service, the train feels like a hotel-on-wheels. A well-stocked amenity kit is available in your cupboard upon boarding the train, in addition to a snack bag. There is also a limited laundry service on board comprising of household washers, dryers and steam irons, which is useful when your Rovos Rail journey is part of a longer trip through Southern Africa.
- The excellent onboard cuisine is one of the journey’s many highlights. Meals are served in one sitting only in the charming Victorian atmosphere of the dining cars and are complemented by a selection of fine South African wines. There’s an accent on fresh local ingredients and traditional dishes such as game are a specialty. The fixed menus included lamb, ostrich, prawns, lobster and salmon. Breakfast is between 07h00 and 10h00, lunch at 13h00, tea at 16h30 and a formal, four course dinner at 19h30. A gong heralds lunch and dinner.
- Rovos Rail operates on an all-inclusive basis: everything on board, including Champagne and the exquisite food, is included in the train ticket.
- The train has a dress code. During the day, the dress is smart casual. Evening attire is more formal – for the gentlemen a jacket and tie is a minimum requirement while for ladies cocktail/evening dresses or suits are suggested. This gives a very classy touch to the dining experience in the beautifully restored and maintained dining cars.
- Unlike other trains that travel at high speed, Rovos Rail has a policy of traveling at 60 km (40 mi) per hour. This leisurely pace brings the beauty of the passing landscape to life, and it makes traveling on the badly maintained South African trail tracks more comfortable. Speed is even reduced to 20 km (12 mi) per hour on the worst sections.
- The three-day, 1600 kilometer (1000 miles) from Pretoria to Cape Town travels via epic landscapes, from the grasslands of the gold-rich Highveld to the haunting barrenness of the Great Karoo. It trundles through spectacular mountain ranges and the scenic winelands before arriving at Cape Town, the Mother City of South Africa, cradled by the imposing bulk of Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head. Highlights of the journey include a visit to the historic village of Matjiesfontein (an authentic perfectly preserved Victorian Village) and a stop at Kimberley, where you have an opportunity visit to the Diamond Mine Museum and the world’s largest man-made excavation, the Big Hole.
- This is how the Pretoria to Cape Town schedule on the train looks like:
- Day 1; 3 pm: depart Rovos Rail Station, Pretoria. Travel south through the goldfields of the Witwatersrand.
- Day 1; 7.30 pm: Dinner is served in the dining cars.
- Day 2; 7 am: breakfast is served until 09h45.
- Day 2; 9.45 am: arrive at the atmospheric railway station of Kimberley. Disembark for a tour of the renowned city, the Diamond Mine Museum and the extraordinary Big Hole.
- Day 2; 12.30 pm: Depart and continue on overnight through the Karoo.
- Day 2; 1 pm: Lunch is served in the dining cars.
- Day 2; 4.30 pm: Tea in the lounge or observation car.
- Day 2; 7.30 pm: Dinner is served in the dining cars.
- Day 3; 07 am: Breakfast is served until 10h00.
- Day 3; 8.25 am: Disembark at the quaint village of Matjiesfontein for an opportunity to stroll through this historic settlement. 1
- Day 3; 10.30 am: Depart for the Hex River Pass.
- Day 3; 1 pm: Lunch is served as the train climbs down the face of the escarpment and into the winelands to Worcester.
- Day 3; 4.30 pm: Tea in the lounge or observation car.
- Day 3; 6 pm: The train arrives at Platform 24 at Cape Town Station.
- Rovos Rail employs young, charming, enthusiast, and professional staff members who deliver impeccable service. They take great pride in maintaining a very high standard, are always near to offer assistance yet allow the privacy required to relax and chat.
CONS & THINGS TO KNOW
Rovos Rail promotes itself as ‘the most luxurious train in the world’. It’s quite an experience indeed, with excellent service, very good food, and opulently decorated train cars that are reminiscent of the splendor of a bygone area. However, the journey may not appeal to everyone, and here’s what to know when you consider a journey with Rovos Rail:
- The journey is prone to delays due to trains not running to schedule. The latter is mostly caused by factors that are not controlled by Rovos Rail – such as (bad) maintenance of the South African railway tracks – although technical failures may happen as well since the equipment used is old and antique (but that’s part of the charm). Off-train excursions cannot be guaranteed and will only be undertaken if time and circumstances permit. Departure and arrival times are approximate and cannot be guaranteed. During my journey with Rovos, the train stood still in Johannesburg for more than 4 hours, but the lost time was made up at night when the train kept running instead of standing still, and we arrived on time in Cape Town.
- Due to delays, the train may move all night (to catch up the lost time), which can be quite noisy and hampers a good night’s sleep. The message is to be prepared with ear plugs and as Rovos Rail owner Mr Vos himself stated in his welcoming speech, you can always enjoy a late night tipple to assist you to sleep on a moving train.
- The use of mobile phones, laptops and essentially anything that has the ability to disturb other passengers is confined to the privacy of the suites (which is a great thing). In maintaining the overall philosophy of the Rovos Rail company, there are no radios or television sets on board and – more troublesome – WiFi is not available. I do understand the decision to eliminate radios and tvs in an attempt to recreate the luxury train of the past, but being cut of by the internet for two entire days with not much else to do was quite an ordeal for me. I do believe that availability of WiFi on the train would enhance the three day journey, and especially appeal to the younger generation of travelers.
- Smoking is allowed, albeit only in the privacy of your suite and in the Club Lounge. Since the train is all wood and carpet – and thus not the most fire-proof environment – I am not sure whether that is a good idea, but I am confident that the Rovos Rail team has thought this through since safety is their first priority.
- Dinner and lunch service are organized very strictly: a bell is rung and everyone has to proceed to the dining cars. A little more flexibility could be nice in my opinion, although I realize that this may be hard to implement from an organizational point of view.
- The rail journey mainly attracts an older clientele, with an average age of 50+. I believe this has more to do with the product offered by Rovos Rail (lack of modernity, WiFi, and exciting excursions) than with the train journey itself. If Rovos Rail want to attract a younger public, I believe they may have to rethink a little their product but I am not sure if that is their ambition, since their trains ride pretty full.
- Design: 8/10
- Room: 8/10
- Food: 9/10
- Breakfast: 9/10
- Service: 10/10
- Value for money: 9/10
- Overall experience: exceptional: 9/10