A nostalgic stay on the Santos Express

Rail travel enthusiast Brian Berkman has been on some of the most famous and glamorous train journeys in the world. He recently explored Mossel Bay’s delightful Santos Express, a stationary train that offers superb views of the sea at affordable prices.

A nostalgic stay on the Santos Express
The luxury Royal Suites are available at R1 300/night/couple in low season and R2 000/night/couple in peak season.
Photo: Brian Berkman

Idiosyncratic accommodation always garners attention, and the Santos Express is no exception. The beds, in former rolling stock, now have a permanent and immovable home above the sands of Santos Beach in Mossel Bay.

Accommodation ranges from basic single beds with shared ablution facilities to luxurious Royal Suite carriages with king-sized beds and en-suite bathrooms. Farmer’s Weekly stayed in the latter.

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Steeped in history
Portugese sailor Bartolomeu Dias was blown into Mossel Bay, or Golfo de São Brás, as he named it, in February 1488, missing his intended target of the Cape of Good Hope.

Today, the Maritime Museum just above Santos Beach houses a replica of the ship and a monument to the Post Tree, an ancient milkwood under whose branches passing sailors would leave letters in boots or iron pots for onward posting by sailors on different ships.

Travellers also came to Santos Beach in search of rest and sustenance, and the good news is that both can still be found here today.

The Royal Suite Carriage B offers a king-sized bed and an en-suite bathroom. The row of ceiling windows allows for airflow.

With a climate amongst the most moderate in the world, according to The Guinness Book of World Records, and a safe swimming beach with pleasant Indian Ocean temperatures, the area has much to recommend it. That Mossel Bay is also the gateway to the Garden Route is an added bonus, and the under-four-hour journey to get there by car from Cape Town is mostly picturesque.

There is a very grand-looking pavilion, built in 1916, on Santos Beach, and it is now home to the Jackal Restaurant. On the opposite side of the beach, just a few paces from the Santos Express, is the Mossel Bay harbour, where various companies offer high-speed sea adventures and fishing expeditions, and eateries tempt the visitor with various cuisines.

The show-stopper, simply on account of its unexpectedness, is a converted double-decker ‘London’ bus selling fish and chips. A few steps away is an oyster bar, while at the end of the pier is Kaai 4, a mash-up of a family braai spot and an island-style grass-roofed bar. A giant statue of Nelson Mandela made of salvaged iron adorns the entrance.

The Marbled Wagyu and The Sea Gypsy are yet another two restaurants here and, like the others, offer outside seating overlooking the ocean. Any closer and you’d be in the water!

One of the most splendid things
about staying in a De Luxe carriage is that it approximates the wonderful vintage luxury found in the carriages of Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa, one of the most celebrated trains in the world.

In Royal Suite Carriage B, in particular, there is an intriguing basin in the en-suite bathroom. An engineering marvel, this fold-up basin made by James Beresford & Co. in Birmingham, was commonly used in royal train suites, Lenichia Willemse of the Santos Express told Farmer’s Weekly.

It has no plughole in the sink; instead, it empties as it closes, tipping its contents with barely a spill. For rail enthusiasts, experiencing this basin is a real pleasure. There is also a Victorian-style slipper bath and a high-pressure shower in the bathroom.

The two Royal Suite carriages (four suites in total) were built in 1919 and 1921, and feature some wonderful early art deco notes in the form of the lights and handsome hooks on which to hang items.

A particular pleasure in the carriage we had is a row of ceiling windows for airflow. As
the entire train is within a fenced area topped by electric wires and security staff surround the entire complex, we felt quite comfortable leaving the window open to bring in the sea breeze and the sound of the crashing waves.

If seaside sleeping is not your regular experience, you may find that the soothing lapping of waves on the shore turns to noisy crashing as the tide comes in. Noise-cancelling ear buds are recommended in this case. All the windows have timber shades that do well to create a cool and dark atmosphere.

Accommodation in the simplest part of the train will remind people of their journeys on the Trans-Karoo train in its heyday. These more modern carriages look as pristine as the day they were built, with gleaming white melamine cladding. You can find a single bed compartment here for as little as R245/night in low season and R320/ night in peak season.

The De Luxe suites are R1 300/night/couple in low season and R2 000/night/couple in peak season. A hot breakfast is included in the Royal Suite rates.

There are many established trees long the train tracks that provide shade, but they may also block the sea, beach or mountain view, depending in which carriage you find yourself or, indeed, on which side of the train you are billeted.

Royal Suite guests have their own outside balconies with easy chairs and can park directly next to the suites in a remote-controlled gated enclosure. There is a bar fridge and a kettle, and plug points are provided, but guests are warned not to plug in a toaster, for example, which might trip all the electrics in the complex.

Wi-Fi is available in the main reception. There is no TV or sound system, but there is good cell phone reception in the area.

There is so much to do near the Santos Express that a one-night stay here cannot do the area justice.

Visit SantosExpress.co.za.

*Prices were correct at the time of publishing.