Jet-Set Bohemian: Return to the Rails

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Jet-Set Bohemian: Return to the Rails

A jet-set lifestyle doesn’t have to be all private planes and decadent digs. In our Jet-Set Bohemian series, we blend the best of high and low for just the right balance … enticing everyone from backpackers to luxury boutique hotel lovers to come along for the ride.

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As one hand helped me up the teetering staircase on to the train, the other was delicately balancing a narrow flute fizzing with bubbles. One of my favorite ways to be greeted is with a glass of Champagne, but when that Champagne is part of an African-inspired aperitif on board a 1930s-era Edwardian train in South Africa, even better.

A fashionable group in sequin-lined cocktail dresses and sports coats cozied up on plush leather chairs and along the balconies, watching dusk settle in as we departed from the Durban train station and into the surrounding countryside. Waiters in tails made the rounds, offering glasses of local sparkling wine and classic cocktails, adding an Old World air to the experience.

Rovos Rail dining car courtesy of Rovos Rail.jpg Photo courtesy of Rovos Rail

Before dinner was announced, I sidled from the bar and down the winding hallway, eager to explore the dark wood-paneled sleeper coaches with their Victorian claw foot tubs and Mad Men-esque mini bars. Forget TV and Wi-Fi. Although the cars here have been restored, they haven’t lost any of their 20th century charm, looking the same way now as they did when they were built back in the 1930s.

Just as with fashion, vintage is all the rage with travel as steamer trains make a comeback offering everything from lengthy white tablecloth dinners to week-long journeys across continents like Europe and Africa, with sleeping arrangements just as stylish as you’d find in five-star hotels.

I had a very small taste of life on board Rovos Rail in South Africa, with a four-course dinner party and wine pairing, where I was informed more than a few times before I arrived that dress code is strictly enforced. While this style of dinner is one way to relive the golden age of travel, another is on one of the 28-year-old company’s eight routes across Africa, which range from three-day trips between Pretoria and Cape Town to 15-day journeys from Cape Town through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, with stops at game lodges along the way.

Shongololo Express courtesy of Rovos Rail.jpg Photo courtesy of Rovos Rail

Rovos has a rep for its lavish digs, but its new steamer, Shongololo Express is much more laid-back. The 72-passenger train was completely revamped last fall and acts as more of a land cruise, setting off on longer journeys across Southern Africa splitting time between train travel and off-roading adventures to venture deeper into each destination. Dining cars still inspire a throwback-travel theme, but instead of formal seated dinners, cuisine here centers on local flavors found across the continent, serving up fare from authentic African to Cape Dutch and Malay.

A few years ago when I first visited Zambia, I had another chance to dine on the rails on the restored Royal Livingstone Express, a five-carriage train that’s devoted mostly to dinner parties. The steamer sets off from the Old Mulobezi Railway, now known as Bushtracks Siding, and leisurely makes its way along the “Cape to Cairo” mainline. The highlight here is staring out at the scenery while sipping on your drink of choice. It’s classic colonial chic with leather-lined booths and silver dinner service inside dining cars dating back to the 1920s. Views from every window offer photo-worthy shots, but the best seats are in the back of the observation car along the veranda viewing deck, just a few steps away from the bar.

After reaching the border of Zimbabwe, pausing along the Victoria Falls Bridge, the train retraces its tracks slowing down in the heart of the bush for a five-course dinner of braised game shoulder and roasted lamb, served alongside The Royal Livingstone’s very own collection of wine.

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Belmond Orient Express courtesy of Belmond Management Limited.jpg Photo courtesy of Belmond Management Limited

In Europe, train travel centers more around practicality. In France, for example, it can be quicker (and cheaper) to hop on a train than to drive or even fly. While some trains are known for their scenic rides, such as Switzerland’s Glacier Express running between Zermatt and St. Moritz, most are pretty basic and there’s not a lot of distinction between “first class” and the rest of the cars.

For a ride as romantic as you see in the movies, set off on the iconic trip from Venice to London on board Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. The Art Deco train has kept that classic notion of European rail travel alive with its Roaring Twenties-style cabins and tuxedo-outfitted crew. The 1920s, restored, restaurant cars bear French names and themes like Côte d’Azur and Etoile du Nord with fitting embellishments such as stylish, from Lalique glass panels to elegant marquetry.

Head to the bar car, dubbed 3674, swathed in shades of blue and gold, where you can take a seat and take a sip back in time, indulging in a classic cocktail while sporting some of your finest evening wear. When you’re ready for Champagne, no expense is spared here with vintages from some of the top maisons—Taittinger, Laurent Perrier and Louis Roederer Cristal—poured in crystal flutes just as timeless.

Lane Nieset is Paste’s Jet-Set Bohemian columnist and a freelance writer covering all things travel from her home base in Nice, France.

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