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TrainReview’s top 5 African luxury trains

Photo by Ankush Minda

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Africa – a continent of incredible skies and vast landscapes that take in desert, mountains, savannah, and rainforest. There’s been no better time to visit the land where mankind took its first steps. It is home to an astounding array of some of the world’s most iconic species, including elephant, rhino, and lion, and now an equally fine selection of luxury trains, as we detail below.

5. Namibia’s Desert Express

Offering “Budget-Luxury” adventures into the Namib desert from Windhoek, the much underrated Desert Express gets passengers up close and personal with lions and other wildlife and a front row seat for some of the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets in Africa over the Namib Desert. Onboard passengers visit game parks and part take in an off-train desert bon-fire entertainment program. The Desert Express is an all sleeper train containing just 24 cabins. Each cabin, which can accommodate one, two or three passengers, contains an ensuite shower/toilet and comes complete with a uniquely shaped panoramic window. The train’s Spitzkoppe Lounge Car offers a full onboard bar service whilst the Welwitschia Restaurant serves three course dinners and cooked breakfasts.

4. Stimela Star

The Stimela Star is a private overnight train that links Victoria Falls with Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest nature reserve and home to 100 mammal and 400 bird species, including eight species of large carnivore. Utilising a lovingly-restored classic rolling stock that originally dates from the 1950s, the Stimela Star includes two sleeper carriages, a lounge car with fully-serviced bar, and a dining car among its 12 carriages, making it an incredible way of connecting a safari and a visit to the world’s largest waterfall. The Stimela Star’s new luxury service links to scheduled departures on the longer Victoria Falls-Bulawayo passenger train, while remaining reserved for its maximum of 24 passengers throughout. Each of the two sleeping carriages sleeps half the passenger number, in twin or single compartments. Though the Stimela Star does not have en suites, shared toilet and shower facilities can be found at the end of each carriage. More than comfortable for the single night’s journey between destinations, passengers are welcomed aboard with a drink and short orientation in the lounge car. A simple but delicious three-course dinner service begins at around 20.00 after canapes in the lounge car. Dinner is rounded off with coffee and liqueurs, when passengers have the chance to discover more about Victoria Falls, Hwange, and the history of the country’s railway system in the fan-cooled lounge. Having crossed the hills on the northern edge of Hwange, the Stimela Star arrives at its terminus at town of Dete, roughly half-way to Bulawayo, during the night. However, passengers are not awoken at this point, and the train remains here until morning. Passengers disembark after a hot breakfast and transfer to their safari camps within Hwange National Park.

3. Shongololo Express

The Shongololo Express began its luxury services in 1995. Though based at Rovos Rail’s private station in Pretoria, South Africa, it provides a means for visitors to explore much of southern Africa in levels of comfort unavailable by other means of transport on three journeys that each last between 12 and 15 days.

The Shongololo Express takes its name from the local word for millipede – the term used when the region’s indigenous population first saw train engines and carriages. Accommodating just 72 passengers in two categories of en suite double or twin private cabins makes the Shongololo Express an exclusive experience to say the least. The fully restored and refurbished vintage carriages only add to the ambience, giving the journey a romanticism that looks back to the earliest days of rail travel in Africa while providing all the comforts of the modern age.

Decked out with fine hardwood panelling and beautiful soft furnishings, the cabins offer both privacy and comfort, while the dedicated restaurant car prepares meals with a focus on traditional dishes made using fresh locally-sourced ingredients. Meals are served in one sitting within the restaurants refined surroundings, perfectly matched to fine South African wines. Though deliberately discreet, service by the onboard staff is friendly, and seeks to meet every passenger’s exacting needs. Each train also includes a lounge car, with a beautiful bar and enough comfortable seating for 36 people, a smaller additional smoking lounge, and an observation car with an open-air balcony in which to best spot passing wildlife and enjoy Africa’s incredible panoramas whatever the time of day.

Whether it’s the desert landscapes of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, the incredible roar of Victoria Falls on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, or the wonders of Swaziland and South Africa you seek to explore, the Shongololo Express will let you do it with ease.

2. The Blue Train

Perhaps the most famous of the African luxury trains we detail, South Africa’s Blue Train is also one of the most luxurious trains in the world, and has welcomed both monarchs and presidents to its refined interior spaces.

Relaunched and fully-restored in the 1990s, The Blue Train’s royal blue carriages make their way along 1600 km of track between the high-rise splendour of Pretoria and the stunning natural setting of Cape Town over 27 hours. Guests in the palatial fully-carpeted and soundproof private compartments are able to take advantage of a full butler service, two lounge cars in which to relax, an observation car, and en suite bathroom facilities – including full-sized bathtubs in many cabins. Large panoramic windows, in which to observe the incredible variety of landscapes between Pretoria and Cape Town (South Africa’s ‘mother city’) come as standard, along with the refined soft furnishings and magical personal touches that include a pre-chilled welcome bottle of champagne.

You’ll be joined on any journey onboard the Blue Train by no more than 73 other guests, ensuring there’s never a feeling of being overcrowded. What’s more, the Club Car lounge reminds many of a gentlemen’s club due to its polished wood and leather décor, and acts as the perfect backdrop to delve into a book from the onboard library or share travel stories with fellow passengers.

The bonhomie continues into the dining car, with dinner often said to be the most memorable aspect of an already unforgettable journey. The regularly updated menus are designed to offer guests onboard The Blue Train the freshest of local ingredients, whether lamb from the Karoo, or oysters from Knysna. Set on fine china and accompanied by sparking crystal glassware, its hard to fault the Blue Train or its sublime heritage.

1. Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa

Our number 1 pick of Africa’s luxury trains is Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa – giving passengers the chance to explore much of southern Africa without the need to sweat it out in uncomfortable conditions, with journeys to Namibia, Victoria Falls, and even Dar es Salaam, Angola and the DRC! Far more important than the Pride of Africa’s speed is the style and elegance in which the journey is completed. As a result, ‘luxury’ is the key word in all Rovos Rail’s journeys, which make use of pristine, fully-remodelled and completely refurbished classic wood-panelled carriages. With many dating back to the colonial heyday of the 1930s, these class carriages make Rovos Rail one of the largest private collectors of vintage carriages anywhere in the world. The mainstay service of the company, the Pretoria to Cape Town journey (and vice versa), has been stunning passengers since the early 1990s. Rovos Rail’s two trains – each carrying a maximum complement of passengers of 72 – comprise 20 lavishly refurbished carriages. They manage to successfully combine the elegance of the golden age of travel in the early 1900s with the modern amenities and conveniences expected of travellers in the twenty-first century. The trains are air conditioned throughout, and each of the 36 cabins have en suite bathroom facilities. In keeping with the train’s heritage, there are no radio or television sets on board, or WiFi provided, with guests asked to use electronic devices only in their private accommodation. However, the train is anything but stuffy or outdated thanks to its careful decoration, from the sumptuously-used fabrics of its private cabins to the tableware of its restaurant car.

Two finely-decorated lounge cars (one smoking and one non-smoking) are a space for passengers to relax in each other’s company from the comfort of deep sofas and wing-back chairs while taking in the spectacular landscapes beyond, with windows that open to allow in the sounds, sights, and smells of this incredible continent.

Whether you’re heading out on safari or wanting to explore the fantastic cities of southern Africa, be sure to do so in luxury aboard these fantastic African luxury trains!

Don’t forget to check out TrainReview’s pages on each of the five trains featured in this article to see real traveller reviews and photos. If you’ve travelled on any of these trains lately – or we’ve inspired you to do so – be sure to come back share your story and help other travellers by posting a review and your photos on TrainReview. Enjoy the ride!

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