I took a ride on the Rovos Rail.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At 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.
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).
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.)
Lunch starter: bobotie with almond and fruit chutney.
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.
My trip on the Rovos Rail was complimentary. Opinions expressed are mine.