The best seats aboard Rovos Rail's Pride of Africa are undeniably on the back deck of the observation car. They're just wooden benches, really, average in design, but this open-air balcony is where you feel the train. This is where you watch the track spit out behind you like an infinite ladder, where you rock to the vehicle's steady rhythm, where you soak in the details of passing the landscape, from the flowers sprouting amid track-side trash to the dogs lying lazily in sunny backyards.
An hour into my three-day journey from Durban to Pretoria, South Africa, I have already laid claim to a patch of bench and arrived at the distinct conclusion that this is the place to be.
The highlight of a Rovos Rail journey is watching the scenery whiz by from the simple wooden benches in the open-air balcony of the observation car.
The champagne and gin and tonics are flowing, while fellow guests exchange where-are-you-froms and we rumble through Zulu villages in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. We are lightly liquored up, entranced by the passing scenery and gently giddy with the anticipation of a journey that will cover roughly 435 miles, from the Indian Ocean, past the Drakensburg Mountains to The Jacaranda City.
The train enters a tunnel cut into one of those countless hills, and for a few seconds everyone is silent, marinating in darkness. When we burst out the other side, a hazy bridal veil of a waterfall is pouring over the edge of a ruddy cliff at least 100 feet up. There's a collective gasp, then a moment of silent confirmation: Yes, this is why you take the train.
Founded in 1989 by Rohan Vos, Rovos Rail operates four trains that embark on journeys around Southern Africa on itineraries lasting anywhere from 48 hours to 15 days.
Giraffes spotted during Rovos Rail’s Durban Safari.
On the Namibia Safari, guests travel 2,000 miles from Pretoria to the Namib Desert, stopping to tour the mining city of Kimberley, visit the expansive Fish River Canyon and overnight among the salt flats and red dunes of Sossusvlei. On our Durban Safari, we squeezed in a pair of game drives between all the multicourse meals, arriving in Pretoria very full and with a new appreciation for baby rhinos.
On all of Rovos' departures, guests are ferried in graciously appointed trains with wood furnishings, classic decor and en suite baths. Dinners are formal and paired with excellent South African wines, and passengers are attended by an exuberant crew (one to every five or six guests) who greet them after every excursion with flutes of Champagne.
Cellphones and laptops are confined to private cabins, and there's no WiFi service onboard.
"We're trying to bring back the art of drinking," our train manager, Renolda Motha, says in jest by way of explanation.
Rovos Rail general manager Damian Sadie puts it another way: "We've essentially captured what train travel was like in the 1920s and added what Africa has to offer."
Rovos is not alone in recapturing that magic. The golden age of rail travel might be well behind us, but across the globe, luxury trains are experiencing a renaissance. Some transport visitors to iconic destinations aboard storied trains that heave centuries of history along the rails. Others offer modern decor and experiential itineraries that cater to the contemporary traveler.
Either way, industry insiders agree that interest among travelers is on the rise, and the key to continuing the growth of luxury rail is to make a romanticized travel trope relevant again.
Channeling a long, proud tradition
It's impossible to talk about high-end rail travel without acknowledging the Orient Express.
The celebrated train created by Belgian Georges Nagelmackers first rolled out of Paris on in 1883, bound for Istanbul and a place in history with its sleeper cars decked in elegant furnishings and fine linens. Known as "the king of trains and the train of kings," the Orient Express famously carried European royals, spies, artists and politicians, spawning legends, novels and imitators, some of which borrowed its hallowed nickname.
The lushly appointed bar car on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express includes a piano.
Today, its rightful heir is Belmond's Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which crisscrosses Europe from March to October, stopping in cities like Paris, Berlin, Venice and Istanbul on itineraries that range from daytrips to 10-night extravaganzas.
Now an icon in its own right, the lavish train was launched in 1982 (nearly 100 years after the original), complete with vintage cabins, three restaurant cars and meticulously restored wood inlays and Lalique glass.
"Those carriages are works of art," declared Gary Franklin, Belmond's managing director for trains and cruises.
In the three decades since the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express' debut, Belmond's fleet has expanded to include trains in Asia, the U.K. and South America.
In 2016, the company unveiled the Belmond Grand Hibernian, which chugs across Ireland from whiskey tastings to private castle tours.
In 2017, the Belmond Andean Explorer began whisking passengers through the Peruvian altiplano in bright cabins with handwoven fabrics, local-stone bathrooms and oxygen masks should the elevation prove uncomfortable. Travelers explore islands on Lake Titicaca, view ancient cave paintings and relax in the piano bar car after dining on modern Peruvian fare.
Today, Franklin said, Belmond carries more than 60,000 passengers annually aboard its seven trains. But in addition, a handful of other recent launches have helped herald luxury rail's revival around the world.
In 2013, Cruise Train Seven Stars debuted on Kyushu Island, claiming the title of Japan's first luxury sleeper train. Just 14 of its suites are imbued with local craftsmanship and aesthetics, from delicate wooden screens to artisan washbasins. The same year, Tren Crucero began rolling past volcanoes and cloud forests in Ecuador, transporting 50 guests who overnight at local haciendas and hotels on their way between the mountains and the Pacific.
In 2014, Imperial Russia began high-end journeys on the revered Trans-Siberian Railway, tracing 14-day routes from Moscow to Beijing; and in 2015, Canada's Via Rail added the upgraded Prestige Class to departures of the Canadian, offering larger cabins, all-inclusive food and beverage, exclusive lounges and concierge service over the 2,700 miles from Toronto to Vancouver.
Most recently, Japan's ultraluxury Train Suite Shiki-Shima departed on its maiden voyage in 2017 with a front observation car offering a conductor's-eye view, deluxe suites with fireplaces and a lounge car designed to evoke sunlight coming through trees.
The bar car in the Belmond Andean Explorer, launched in 2017, is appointed with colorful textiles.