Rovos Rail train outside Matjiesfontein

Living It Up on the World’s Most Luxurious Train

I took a ride on the Rovos Rail.

Rovos Rail train outside MatjiesfonteinThe Rovos Rail, which bills itself as the world’s most luxurious train.

I don’t consider myself a “luxury travel” writer. I generally blog about everyday places and things I happen to be doing anyway, or things I could at least conceivably afford to do if I wanted to.

But every once in a while I receive an invitation to do something so luxurious and fantastic and magical that I simply can’t say no, because it would mean turning down the opportunity of a lifetime. Such was the case for my trip on the Rovos Rail.

The Rovos describes itself as “the most luxurious train in the world” and I have every reason to believe this. I rode the train for two days and two nights, from Pretoria to Cape Town, and I can’t imagine how the trip could have been much more luxurious than it was.

Rovos Rail carsThe old-school Rovos Rail cars on a brief stop outside Matjiesfontein, Western Cape.

The best thing about my Rovos Rail experience was I could invite a plus-one. So I invited my mom and it was an offer she couldn’t refuse. Convincing Mom to leave warm, sunny South Carolina in summer to fly eight thousand miles to chilly South Africa in winter would normally be a hard sell. Not this time though. Mom googled Rovos and the next thing I knew she was booking her ticket.

Heather and Mom on RovosMom and I on our favorite lounge car.

If you’re still reading at this point you probably just want me to get on with it and show you what riding on the self-proclaimed most luxurious train in the world looks and feels like. So here goes.

My Ride on the Rovos

Our journey started at the Rovos station in Pretoria, which is a fun place to hang out in its own right. The departure lounge is filled with plush furniture and we received sparkling wine (all you can drink, of course) on arrival. There is also a nice museum with cool model trains and informative exhibits about South African train travel.

Rovos station in PretoriaThe Rovos station in Pretoria. 

The Pretoria station is also home to the Rovos rail yard, where the Rovos staff work on restoring old locomotives and coaches for use in the Rovos fleet. Rovos founder Rohan Vos (“Ro” and “Vos” – get it?) was there, and he took everyone who was interested on a tour of the yard. It was fun to watch the old trains being transformed.

Rohan Vos on the tour of the yardRohan Vos leads our tour of the yard.

After the tour, we went back to the departure lounge and Rohan officially welcomed all the passengers. He called our names one by one and we boarded according to the location of our compartments.

I had never taken an overnight train trip before. I was really freaking excited.

Mom and I shared a deluxe suite, which is the middle-range compartment according to luxuriousness and price. The suite had one huge bed that divided into two twin beds, as well as a small sitting area and en-suite bathroom with a shower.

Deluxe suite on RovosOur deluxe suite.

Mom on bed in Rovos suiteMom tests out the bed, which our concierge divided into two beds at night.

The windows were my favorite part of the suite by far. They were huge and opened all the way. I could have spent the entire two days just sitting on that bed, staring out the window and watching the country go by. It was also amazing to lay in bed at night with the shades open and look up at the stars.

Our train had one dining car at the front. (This trip had 38 passengers, so only one 40-person dining car was needed. Some trains have as many as 70 passengers and hence carry two dining cars.) There were two lounge cars at the back of the train, the second of which had an observation deck where passengers could sit outside.

Lounge car on RovosThe rear lounge car with observation deck at the back.

Sunset on the Rovos observation deckSunset from the observation deck on the second evening.

Heather on lounge car in RovosThe other lounge car, which was my favorite because it was warm and always seemed to be empty.

Dining car on RovosThe dining car at the start of dinner. Note all the jackets and ties; evening dress code is semi-formal. This train car is nearly 100 years old.

View through the window in the Rovos dining carView of snow-capped mountains and vineyards through the window of the dining car on our last day.

Stops Along the Way

The train makes two two-hour stops — one on each day — when passengers can get out of the train. The first day we stopped in Kimberley, best known as South Africa’s diamond-mining capital, and the second day we stopped in the small Western Cape town of Matjiesfontein (pronounced something like MIKE-ees-fon-tane).

In Kimberly we got off the train and took a shuttle to the Big Hole — a retired diamond mine (basically a very big hole in the ground) that has been converted into a museum.

Kimberley train stationAt the Kimberley train station. The woman in pink shoes is Loren, who is also a Joburg blogger and was traveling with her mother, Bertha (white shoes). It was fun hanging out with another mother-daughter blogging couple on the trip.

The Big Hole in Kimberley
The Big Hole.

Matjiesfontein was my favorite stop because passengers were invited to alight (I love that word!) from the train about five kilometers before we reached the town and walk the rest of the way. This experience was awesome because: 1) We got out of the train just as the sun was coming up (the sun rises late in this part of the country in winter); 2) I could photograph the train from the outside in a really beautiful setting and then watch it pull away; and 3) It was wonderful to get some exercise after two days of bingeing on copious quantities of rich food (see next section).

Sunrise outside MatjiesfonteinSunrise outside Matjiesfontein.

Lord Milner Hotel in MatjiesfonteinThe famous Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein.

Inside the Lord MilnerInside the Lord Milner, which is said to be haunted.

John at Lord MilnerMom with John, the gregarious concierge at the Lord Milner.

Eating and Drinking on Rovos

I could probably devote a couple of blog posts to the Rovos dining experience alone, but I’ll do my best to explain it in brief.

This train trip is all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink, but not in a Cancun beach resort kind of way. All the meals are full-service and lunch and dinner are four courses each, with starter, main, cheese course, and dessert. The menus are focused on local ingredients and traditional South African recipes. Each course is paired with wine, and there is also an extensive wine list and large selection of liquor and bubbly.

Breakfast is generous and delicious. Afternoon tea with bite-sized cakes and delectable cucumber and smoked salmon sandwiches is served in the lounge cars every day at 4:30.

According to my informal count, we ate at least 20 courses between Friday and Sunday evening. Of those 20, I’d say 15 were out-of-this-world orgasmic and the other five were of just average deliciousness. Here are some photographic highlights. (I didn’t do food photography during dinner.)

Fruit on Rovos RailBreakfast fruit.

Breakfast on RovosMy favorite breakfast: soft poached eggs, smoked salmon, bacon, and grilled tomatoes.

Bobotie lunch starterLunch starter: bobotie with almond and fruit chutney.

Lunch main on RovosLunch main: hake with some kind of delicious crumb crust and lemony sauce and green beans.

Lunch dessert on RovosLunch dessert: mini melktert and koeksister.

Butter balls on RovosHandmade butter balls, served with every meal. I took this photo for Mom because she loved the butter balls.

Afternoon tea on RovosAfternoon tea. I wish I’d taken a close-up shot of a cucumber sandwich because I loved them so much. I guess I was too busy eating them.

We were sad to get off the train in Cape Town, but excited to see Mr. Vos himself waiting for us when we arrived. He shook everyone’s hand and thanked us for coming.

You might be wondering how much a Rovos Rail journey will set you back. As of July 2018, a trip from Pretoria to Cape Town in a deluxe suite costs R57,300 ($4350) for two people. (That amount will increase to R62,200 in October – browse all the rates here.) It’s a lot, no doubt about it.

Several people have asked me, “Is Rovos worth it?” I don’t know how to answer that. I was invited as a member of the media and I certainly couldn’t afford it otherwise.

But if you really love trains and you really love food and you really love travel, and if you’ve got the cash, then by all means go for it. I don’t see how you could have a bad time.

View from the Rovos observation deckWatching the world go by at 60 kilometers an hour.

My favorite picture.

My trip on the Rovos Rail was complimentary. Opinions expressed are mine.

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  • Reply violetonlineisonline July 25, 2018 at 4:04 pm

    I did this train on one of its first routes, JNB to Komatipoort, maybe 20 years ago. It was amazing, an inaugural trip, with a brand new very nervous chef. I remember our lamb shanks being a bit tough and everyone’s shanks were flying around the dining car.
    But it was perfect then, and looks beyond perfect now.

    • Reply 2summers July 25, 2018 at 4:07 pm

      Ha! That’s a great story. I hate cliches but this really was once-in-a-lifetime.

      • Reply jeaniehhi July 25, 2018 at 7:17 pm

        Hopefully we can do another but, if not, I agree. Especially as I sit in my air-conditioned house with no mountains around, eating my one course lunch that I had to prepare myself with no butterballs on the table. Heather, thanks SO MUCH for sharing once-in-a-lifetime with me🍷🚞❤️

        • Reply 2summers July 25, 2018 at 7:19 pm

          No butterballs! That’s tragic.

  • Reply Stephanie July 25, 2018 at 4:06 pm

    Sounds like an amazing experience. But yowsers the price! You could feast and ride a train in India for ten days on that, as a family of five. I am sure it is worth it, lucky you, to have had the opportunity!

    • Reply 2summers July 25, 2018 at 4:07 pm

      I know. It’s a lot. That’s African luxury travel for you!

  • Reply Gillian July 25, 2018 at 4:09 pm

    how wonderful it sounds….would love to be able to afford a trip like this. would also love to hear your off-the-record comments of what the other passengers were like etc… all tourists?

    • Reply 2summers July 25, 2018 at 4:18 pm

      Haha, I spent so much time looking at the other passengers and trying to imagine all their stories. Quite a few tourists, definitely — mostly Americans and Europeans of course — but also quite a few South Africans! I would say maybe 1/3 South African.

  • Reply Mike 5 July 25, 2018 at 4:14 pm

    Somehow the “item” in the background of the pic with the gregarious concierge and your mom – draws my attention. Lol

    • Reply 2summers July 25, 2018 at 4:16 pm

      Hahaha! I knew at least one person (probably a guy) would notice that. There were a lot of bikers there — I think Matjiesfontein is popular for Sunday breakfast runs from CT 🙂

  • Reply Mike 5 July 25, 2018 at 4:19 pm

    Your “Surprise” day trip must be scheduled for October. (Wait and see) 🙂

    • Reply 2summers July 25, 2018 at 4:23 pm

      I have no idea what that means but I look forward to finding out!

  • Reply dizzylexa July 25, 2018 at 4:21 pm

    It must have been great to share this with your Mum. I love overnight train trips, did a lot when I was in boarding school.

    • Reply 2summers July 25, 2018 at 4:24 pm

      I really want to do more! Of course nothing else will ever measure up to this but I’d love to try some “regular” trains now 🙂

  • Reply Eva Melusine Thieme July 25, 2018 at 7:38 pm

    That’s SO awesome! Not only the trip and pictures, and the fact that I’ve always wanted to do that, but also that I got to “meet” your mom this way!

    • Reply 2summers July 25, 2018 at 7:40 pm

      Aww, Sine I suddenly miss you!

    • Reply Jeaniehhi July 25, 2018 at 8:44 pm

      I’d like to meet you, too.

      • Reply 2summers July 25, 2018 at 8:51 pm

        You should meet. You’re both tennis players

  • Reply Rosemary July 25, 2018 at 7:39 pm

    Fabulous! I have done the Shoshaloza Meyl Premier Class a couple of times and it is excellent value for money- would highly recommend. I love the open carriage and the stop-overs that Rovos offers. Thanks for sharing this- wonder how it compares to the Blue Train which was the gold standard when I was growing up.

    • Reply 2summers July 25, 2018 at 7:42 pm

      Another friend of mine was telling me about her experience on Shosholoza – I really want to try it now. Mom read an article comparing the Rovos to the Blue Train…Apparently the biggest difference is that Blue Train carriages aren’t as old so you don’t have that old-time train feel. And the windows don’t open 🙂

  • Reply mvschulze July 25, 2018 at 11:06 pm

    Thanks for the great description and photos! Looks like a beautifully classic lux train experience. PS, the name of the departing town reminds me of a wonderful skit by the Smothers Brothers back in the ‘60’s,on the road to Pretoria!

    • Reply 2summers July 26, 2018 at 7:19 am

      Ha! I’d love to see that skit. There are so many Afrikaans town names like that – I saw a lot of them on this trip.

  • Reply autumnashbough July 26, 2018 at 12:26 am

    How fabulous. I am jealous and also hungry now.

    Was it easy to sleep on the moving train or not?

    • Reply 2summers July 26, 2018 at 8:12 am

      Fabulous is really the only word for it.

  • Reply Kerry Wilson July 26, 2018 at 8:10 am

    Would love to do that trip. We did the economy version on the Shosholoza Meyl and it was great although more simple rooms and food. But the luxury of relaxing ( no where to go nothing to do) for 2 whole days and the rattle of the train at night somehow made me sleep well. So I can only imagine what it was like in luxury.
    We got off the train at Matjiesfontien for 2 nights and it was bliss. The concergie sings on the old piano for the guests at the bar. you can walk and visit the site where the British Soldiers camped for the Boer War.

    • Reply 2summers July 26, 2018 at 8:11 am

      Yes, John also played the piano for us in the bar. He was hilarious and I loved how he called my mom ‘Blondie’ 😂

  • Reply eremophila July 27, 2018 at 11:39 pm

    Oh! How could you not have invited me?!!
    But I forgive you ☺
    I adore train travel and this small passenger number would suit me also.
    Can you get a trip on any other similar trains?😀

  • Reply Lani July 28, 2018 at 6:10 am

    HI Mom!

    Wow. That looks AUH-mazingggg. One day I’d love to experience a luxury train. Train travel is so interesting, so old-school, slow, slow, slow, but still fun.

    Train travel in Thailand is not so posh, even VIP and first class. I would know; I’ve done it 😛 They are also notoriously late.

    Cambodia was interesting because they stopped using the trains, during the war, so it was like half-done.

    I liked American train travel, but it’s really quite different isn’t it? The feel of it, I mean. And so expensive for such an old form of transport!

    • Reply 2summers July 28, 2018 at 6:22 am

      Yeah I think that’s the most interesting thing about train travel – every system and every train is so different. I like riding the train in the US too but couldn’t even compare it to this – it’s like a different form of transport altogether. And yes, so slow! The train never goes faster than 60km/hour.

  • Reply Maryke Wasserman July 30, 2018 at 7:09 pm

    This all looks amazing, and what a great experience to share with your mom, but seriously the price… R57000 FOR A TWO DAY TRIP. Even if you dedicate R10000 for the food alone (which equates to R500 per 20 courses… each). That still leaves you with R23500 per night.
    I know of 5 star Lodges that charge less per night.
    And yes, it’s all about being one of the select few able to say they’ve done this.
    I’m just struggling to wrap my head around that number.

    • Reply 2summers July 30, 2018 at 7:29 pm

      Yes. I agree with you, it’s a difficult number to fathom.

  • Reply Maryke July 30, 2018 at 7:11 pm

    This all looks amazing, and what a great experience to share with your mom, but seriously the price… R57000 FOR A TWO DAY TRIP. Even if you dedicate R10000 for the food alone (which equates to R500 per 20 courses… each). That still leaves you with R23500 per night.
    I know of 5 star Lodges that charge less per night.
    And yes, it’s all about being one of the select few able to say they’ve done this.
    I’m just struggling to wrap my head around that number.

  • Reply Loren August 7, 2018 at 11:38 am

    Aaaah – what memories! Such a beautiful blog post capturing all the special moments (even the pic of Mom and I in Kimberly ;)) xxx

    • Reply 2summers August 7, 2018 at 11:44 am

      It feels like so long ago now!

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