From the Blue Train in South Africa to the Belmond British Pullman in the UK, or the venerable Orient Express in Europe, trains have been closely associated with ocean travel since they first came to prominence during the industrial revolution.
Indeed, the Orient Express provided a fast and comfortable way to get from Istanbul to the major European port cities of Le Havre and Marseille via Paris, and even as recently as 2007, the luxury Belmond linked London with Southampton’s QEII Cruise Terminal, from which the ship of the same name would depart regularly for New York. Passengers fondly referred to it as ‘the boat train’.
And in South Africa, the famous Blue Train was originally intended to link the City of Gold (Johannesburg) with Cape Town, providing a way for ocean liner passengers aboard the old Union Castle Line vessels to travel from Cape Town to Johannesburg in resplendent luxury.
The Blue Train is widely regarded as the most luxurious train in the world.
It did this from the 1940s until the 1970s when ocean liner services between Cape Town and Southampton were discontinued.
All three of these train services remain in operation today, although as a standalone ‘bucket list’ tourist attraction or experience, rather than as a de rigueur means of meeting one’s ship. But, that’s not to say you can’t re-live the golden age of rail travel while snaking your way across sublime landscapes to meet your next cruise.
Here’s our list of the top 5 rail and cruise voyages for 2019:
Blue Train/Rovos Rail – Johannesburg to Cape Town
Cunard Line – Cape Town to Southampton
Rail journey departs August 10th, 2019 – Price: US $1,500
Cruise journey departs August 12th, 2019 – Price US $3,700
The Blue Train in South Africa is one of the most famous luxury trains in the world, operating a regular service between Johannesburg and Cape Town. This iconic train is a fantastic way to see the country and meet your ship in Cape Town in style.
However, a more authentic ‘golden of age of rail’ experience, more akin to the Orient Express, is to be found aboard Rovos Rail, which offers a more extensive network of luxury rail journeys around Southern Africa.
They have a Namibian journey, for example, for those who want to explore the best Southern African game safaris prior to a cruise. There’s another journey option across the plains of Botswana and Zimbabwe that also includes a trip over the bridge in front of the iconic Victoria Falls.
Their most popular and most regular route is the one that crosses South Africa’s replendant Garden Route, and it’s the same journey that the Blue Train does throughout the year. It’s a two-night trip from Pretoria to Cape Town.
You can do it at any time of year, meeting any number of the fourteen cruise lines sailing from Cape Town in 2019, but for the purposes of this article, we would suggest the Rovos Rail journey departing August 10, 2018 from Pretoria.
Known as the Jacaranda City for the thousands of jacaranda trees which line the streets, passengers are taken from here on a 1,600km whistle-stop tour of South Africa and all her highlights.
Travel through the grasslands of the gold-rich Highveld and its mountain zebras to the barren Great Karoo before slowly winding your way through the Garden Route en route to Cape Town.
The train, named the Pride of Africa, stops in the old Victorian village of Matjiesfontein, which used to be a major watering stop for the steam trains of yesteryear. The railway hotel remains, along with its splendidly Victorian bar.
There are many choices of cruise ship to take from Cape Town, but if you’re arriving in the Mother City aboard the immaculately 1930s-style Rovos Rail, then you need to board a cruise line that celebrates the golden age of ocean travel.
Cunard Line’s Queen Victoria (fresh from a major refit), will cruise from Cape Town to Southampton on August 12th, following the route of the old Union Castle Line ocean liners. The 16-night voyage sails up the west coast of Africa, along the evocatively-named Skeleton Coast, taking in the gorgeous coastline of beaches, mountains and intriguing coastal towns.
Orient Express – Paris to Venice
Azamara Club Cruises – Venice roundtrip
Rail and cruise package departs August 19, 2018 – Price US $6,800
When Azamara Club Cruises announced last year that they were offering a series of rail and cruise packages for 2018 that would include a trip aboard the Orient Express, the cruise world went made and every single one of them sold-out within days.
So, although 2019 dates haven’t been announced yet, it’s likely that Azamara will repeat this highly successful offering.
The package starts with a train ride from London to Venice, first aboard the British Pullman to Dover, across the channel aboard the Eurostar and then aboard the Orient Express from Paris to Venice in splendidly 1920s and 30s Art Deco style.
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The railway legend carries passengers overnight along a serpentine route through the vineyards of France, the picture postcard towns of Switzerland and the imposing Alpine peaks. It was here in the mountains that Agatha Christie’s fictional Orient Express got stuck in the snow.
Passengers wake on the outskirts of Venice and have breakfast as the luxury train eases into the Floating City.
There are more than 390 cruises departing Venice in 2019, so passengers wishing to do the Orient Express journey combined with a cruise independently are spoilt for choice, but Azamara’s small ships are perfect for 7-nights exploring the less visited ports of the Eastern Mediterranean and the beautiful coastlines of Croatia.
Belmond British Pullman – London roundtrip
Option 1 – Cruise & Maritime Voyages
Rail journey departs September 14th, 2019 – Price US $450
Cruise journey departs September 15th, 2019 – Price US $2,900
Option 2 – Silversea Cruises
Rail journey departs September 26th, 2019 – Price US $405
Cruise journey departs September 26th, 2019 – Price US $7,800
We’re of the firm belief that if you’re going to board a train, it should at least be an overnighter, but the great Belmond British Pullman (operated by the same company that owns Orient Express) is located in a country that pioneered the ocean liner, and is too small for overnight train trips.
The Cunard Line ‘boat train’ may not be available anymore, but you can still travel in immaculate style around the UK aboard this beautifully restored train. Belmond offer a number of themed journeys, from luxury dinner trips and lunch sojourns through the countryside, to more extensive overnight tours of the Kingdom.
None of its journeys in 2019 take in Southampton, the main departure port for cruises from the UK, but they do all start and end in London, so we can improvise.
The Golden Age of Travel journey departs London Victoria station at 11.05am on September 14th, 2019 and snakes through Kent, the garden of England as passengers enjoy fine dining aboard vintage carriages, each made unique with intricate marquetry and art deco designs.
The train arrives back at London Victoria at 16.10 and you can spend a night in London before boarding Cruise & Maritime Voyages’ classic cruise ship Columbus for a 14-night cruise into the heart of Northern Europe, with port calls in the great capitals of Europe, including St Petersburg.
A second option is British Pullman’s Murder Mystery Lunch, departing London Victoria at 11.05 on September 26th. This journey involves a sumptuous lunch that includes a murder aboard the train, guests must then interview one another to find out ‘whodunnit’.
It arrives back in London at 16.10, providing plenty of time to catch Silversea’s Silver Whisper, departing from London bound for Boston at 11pm. The 13-night trans-Atlantic includes port calls in Ireland and Canada.
The Indian Pacific – Perth to Sydney
Celebrity Cruises – Sydney roundtrip
Rail journey departs November 4th, 2019 – Price US $7,800
Cruise journey departs November 8th, 2019 – Price US $2,200
The Indian Pacific’s route runs from Perth to Sydney, a grand rail journey of four days and three nights across a staggering 2,704 miles from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.
It’s a trip that offers introspection and a chance to get to know the people of this great country (many of the train’s passengers are themselves Australian). It’s also a journey that brings home just how vast Australia is.
The train is a haven of air-conditioned luxury thundering across some of the most inhospitable landscapes in the world, with amazing meals prepared on board, and comfortable beds to retire to each night.
When the train pulls into Sydney, there’s a full day to explore Australia’s largest city before boarding Celebrity Solstice, bound from Sydney to New Zealand, a roundtrip cruise of 12-nights.
A nation of rolling green hills and plunging waterfalls, New Zealand has been made famous as the set of the Lord of the Rings fantasy films.
The Celebrity Cruises itinerary includes calls to Milford Sound – the famous fjord in South Island that’s home to seals and penguins – plus Akaroa, an old French-colonial town at the foot of an ancient volcano, and the major cities of Wellington and Dunedin, the latter a beguiling mixture of Scottish and Maori heritage.
Eastern & Oriental Express – Bangkok – Singapore
Silversea Cruises – Singapore to Mombasa
Rail journey departs March 14th, 2019 – Price US $4,400
Cruise journey departs March 18th, 2019 – Price US $13,680
Singapore is a major cruise hub in Asia, and the former regional capital of Britain’s colonies in Southeast Asia.
The tiny island nation-state is the end-point of the Eastern & Oriental train’s Bangkok to Singapore service, which follows a rail journey that became popular for British colonialists in the early 20th century when catching an ocean liner from Singapore back home to the UK.
Nowadays, this 1918-built railway remains an important link between the two cities, and the Eastern & Oriental is the most stylish way to experience it.
The journey is a three-day, two-night one. While express trains between Bangkok and Singapore would have taken just 48 hours back in the day, the Eastern & Oriental takes its time meandering through thick Malaysian jungle and across the famous 1923-built causeway linking Singapore to the mainland.
The journey also includes a brief detour up a branch line to view the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai. Guests leave the train for a short river cruise under the Bridge while the train carriages are hauled across the Bridge for the photo opportunity. The Bridge is still used by three passenger trains each day, although they only as far as Nam Tok, not all the way to Burma.
In Singapore, you can leave the train and head straight for the Singapore Cruise Centre, which is part of the large Harbourfront Centre. This is where most cruise ships depart from Singapore, including our chosen Singapore to Mombasa cruise aboard Silver Whisper.
But, you don’t have to cruise beyond Asia, of the 225 cruises departing Singapore in 2019, 124 are roundtrip, and with two Bangkok-Singapore journeys a month operated by Belmond, there’s bound to be one matching your itinerary.
For our 16-night cruise across the Indian Ocean with Silversea, you’ll need to spend a night at the famous Raffles Hotel, built in the late 1800s, before boarding Silver Whisper on March 18th, 2019.
Rocky Mountaineer – Pre-cruise Vancouver roundtrip
Princes for 2019 season start at US $5,049
Holland America Line’s longstanding relationship with Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer is one of the best-known cruise-rail combinations in the world. The train carries 1.7-million people every year across four spectacular routes in Western Canada, and these rail journeys can be purchased as a pre-cruise rail package through either Rocky Mountaineer or Holland America Line.
Rocky Mountaineer has two travel classes, Silver Leaf and Gold Leaf. The only real difference is that Gold Leaf passengers have a double-deck carriage, with an observation lounge on the second level and the dining room on the lower level.
Part of the fun of a long-distance rail journey is sleeping aboard the train, so it’s disappointing that Rocky Mountaineer stables for each night of the journey and puts passengers up in five star hotels, but this is likely a selling point for many who don’t like sleeping aboard a moving train.
After admiring the landscapes of Western Canada, it’s time to voyage through the fabled Inside Passage, and Holland America Line is the natural choice. There are more than 40 cruise and rail packages for the 2019 season, the cheapest is the 12-night First Passage to the West (3-nights Rocky Mountaineer) combined with an 8-night cruise aboard Volendam.
Royal Scotsman – Scottish Highlands Tour
Rail journey departs August 26th, 2019 – Price US $6,900
Cruise journey departs August 31st, 2019 – Price US $4,050
No cruise and rail list is complete without including the beautiful Royal Scotsman, a luxury train operated by Orient Express’ owners Belmond. For 30 years it’s been carrying passengers through the Scottish Highlands in total luxury.
Its Scotland’s Classic Splendours journey (from £5,200) is a four-night tour of the country’s most famous sights, including the castles of Eilean Donan and Glamis. While Scotland’s dramatic landscapes are the main draw, the co-star to this trip is the train itself, which accommodates just 36 passengers in its mahogany-lined carriages, offering the luxurious appointments of a Scottish country-house hotel and a guest-to-staff ratio of three to one.
Game and fresh fish is served gourmet style in the elegant dining car, there’s a pianist and a wide range of whiskeys available in the lounge car, and there’s even a Bamford Haybarn Spa on-board. All of this as you glide across the remote beauty of the Highlands.
Cruises around Scotland are more limited than most other destinations, because this is a coastline for nature lovers that want to get in amidst it, rather than sit back and watch the scenery.
Hebridean Island Cruises’ shore excursions focus on hikes and tender adventures into the heart of Scotland’s rocky coastline. The A Taste of the Outer Isles” itinerary is a four night cruise from £3,060, departing August 31 that explores some of the most beautiful and underrated parts of Scotland.
Categories: Cruise Lifestyle