The world’s finest nostalgic rail journeys
The other is the train itself – the tartan-upholstered Royal Scotsman, managed by Orient-Express, is a country-house hotel on rails sleeping 36, with two elegant dining carriages and an observation car with a veranda viewing platform. Running from April to October, the Royal Scotsman offers journeys of two to seven nights, covering several routes around the Highlands. New for 2013 is the Classic Whisky Journey (departing April 21), in association with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which will include visits to Scottish stilleries led by a whisky expert.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of luxury but nevertheless a rival for the most exquisite views, the Translink from Belfast to Derry (translink.co.uk, £11 each way or £16.50 for a day return) in Northern Ireland was cited by Michael Palin as ‘one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world’. After an eight-month closure for upgrading, the service reopens this month and is an excellent way to arrive in Derry – this year’s European City of Culture. Be patient until Coleraine, after which you will be rewarded with beautiful ocean views and some of Ireland’s loveliest sandy beaches along Lough Foyle. Then there is the dramatic Bine-venagh Mountain and the waterfall-spattered cliffs at Downhill before the track eventually skirts the edge of the Foyle Estuary as you glide into the city centre, past Derry’s new Peace Bridge.
The east-west Indian Pacific line in Australia
With such vast tracts of wilderness, rail is an excellent way to explore Australia, especially as there are two routes that slice perfectly through the country: the elegantly luxurious Ghan, which runs from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north; and the Indian Pacific (so called because it joins the two oceans), which travels east to west between Sydney and Perth (both greatsouthernrail.com.au).
Formerly called the Afghan Express, after the teams of camel-drivers who were instrumental in opening up Australia’s interior in the late 19th century, the Ghan offers a 1,864-mile adventure taking three days, stopping halfway at Alice Springs and providing the most extraordinary natural contrasts.
There’s the fertile south with its wine country and railway towns, then the bush and rolling sand dunes of the Red Centre, where you can hop off to see Uluru, have a go at quad biking and more, then finally the tropical north with its old gold-mining towns, spectacular wetlands and escarpments. The train combines modern suites finished in polished Tasmanian myrtle with double beds, writing-desks and panoramic windows with an Edwardian dining carriage and the Outback Explorer Lounge.
The Indian Pacific travels 2,704 miles in about 65 hours, from Sydney through Adelaide to Perth. One minute you’re enjoying the cliffs, valleys, forests and waterfalls of the Blue Mountains, the next, the arid New South Wales outback, arriving at Broken Hill, a mining town turned artists’ colony, the following morning, and on to Adelaide, Kalgoorlie and then Perth, which is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney.
The lounge car in South Africa’s Blue Train
There are two excellent luxury trains in South Africa. Both glide up the centre of the country between Cape Town and Pretoria (near Johannesburg), taking in some of the most spectacular scenery on the continent. The fastest and poshest is the all-en-suite Blue Train (bluetrain.co.za), which covers 994 miles in 27 hours, with one stop in each direction – the fashionable old town of Matjiesfontein in the Karoo on the northbound journey, and the historic diamond-mining town of Kimberley on the journey back. It’s the glitzier of the two, with baths in many of the suites, personal butler service, unlimited, outstanding food, drink and handmade Cuban cigars, and, on many of the trips, an observation car. The alternative, Rovos Rail (rovos.com), is equally lovely in a more classic way and feels like stepping back into the Victorian era. As well as Cape Town to Pretoria, its routes in southern Africa take in Namibia and Tanzania.
Join Michael Buerk on Rovos Rail for a privileged insight into the workings of the Rainbow Nation. This is one of the world’s great and most luxurious train journeys, wending its way through the epic landscapes of South Africa. Michael Buerk, meanwhile is one of Britain’s most recognisable broadcasters. He covered the final years of Apartheid, the uprisings in the black townships, the draconian state of emergency, and the final dismantling of white minority rule.
The Golden Chariot in southern India
India has a string of luxury trains on offer, whisking people to some of its most remote corners with a minimum of air-conditioned, dust-free fuss. Several services – generally launched to much fanfare – have come and gone, but the stalwarts remain. While the trailblazer, the Palace on Wheels (palaceonwheels.co.uk), is still a wonderful way to explore Rajasthan, the best is probably the Golden Chariot (thegoldenchariot.co.in), which offers two different circuits in southern India, the most enticing being an eight-day journey between Bangalore and Goa, taking in the beautiful, less-explored state of Karnataka on a route that would be virtually impossible to do by road. The trip also combines explorations of cities and temple towns with a tiger safari and a laidback beach holiday. Interior design is royal-palace inspired, and its 44 elegant, air-conditioned cabins have hand-carved wooden panels and hand-woven silk sheets.
For a more bite-sized experience, try the day-long chug through the lower reaches of the Eastern Himalayas in West Bengal between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling, aboard the Darjeeling Toy Train (dhr.in), an atmospheric vintage narrow-gauge train that looks like Thomas the Tank Engine and costs about £3.50 in first class and 60p in second.
Forget leisurely sightseeing, at 300km/h, Japan’s Bullet Train (bullettrain.com) between Tokyo and Kyoto seems faster than a speeding bullet and twice as sleek. Yes, there are gorgeous views of Mount Fuji (ask the conductor exactly what time you’ll pass it and on which side of the train, or you’ll miss it), and you get the chance to compare the architecture of the bigger cities you pass, such as Nagoya, with the smaller towns, but it’s more about the choice of regional bento boxes from Ekiben-ya Matsuri at the station in Tokyo to enjoy on your journey; the impeccably dressed, courteous conductors who tip their hats each time they check a ticket; the cleaners dressed in pink who hop on at each station for a quick dust; and the almost absurd smoothness and punctuality of the train service itself. There are two bullet trains – one takes 140 minutes to reach Kyoto, the other 160 minutes.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
It would be madness not to include London to Venice aboard the classic Art Deco Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (vsoe.com) – a benchmark in vintage loveliness and the perfect beginning or end to a short break in Venice. The one-night trip starts mid-morning on the first day and arrives late afternoon the next, in both directions. After leaving London Victoria aboard the British Pullman, brunch on table, bellini in hand, you glide across the Channel in regal splendour before boarding the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in time for a four-course dinner served by white-gloved, liveried stewards in one of the beautifully restored wood-panelled restaurant carriages.
Your cabin, meanwhile, has been transformed into a cosy bedroom, for you to retire to. The next day you can admire the Swiss Alps over breakfast. A morning of pottering on board is followed by a leisurely lunch then an afternoon viewing the Italian Dolomites and taking high tea before the train crosses the Venetian Lagoon and pulls into Santa Lucia station. A number of variations include, for example, Paris to Istanbul, Venice to London via Kraków and Dresden, and – new this year – a series going into the heart of Scandinavia, including Venice to Stockholm via Copenhagen.
When the former British Rail employee and co-founder of the travel company Great Rail Journeys Howard Trinder launched the Danube Express (danube-express.com) in collaboration with Hungarian Railways four years ago, he claimed it was the most luxurious hotel-on-wheels in Europe. At first glance, it doesn’t look like it, but its bedrooms are en suite, which is a major boon when you consider that on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express although cabins have running water, loos and showers are at the end of each carriage.
Sleeping 50, the Danube Express combines modern comforts with a central European retro-chic and a colourful cast of Hungarian staff that on my trip included Attila the charming head waiter, a jolly pianist, and a waitress we soon learnt would happily waltz anyone around the saloon carriage given the slightest encouragement. It runs three routes across Europe, including (new for this year) Istanbul to Prague, which takes in eight countries in 10 days, and a three-night Central European Journey from Budapest to Prague, covering six cities.
At more than 6,000 miles, the Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs from Moscow to Vladivostok and passes through eight time zones, is one of the world’s longest train routes (it is usually claimed to be the longest, but nit-pickers will know that there are a couple of longer ones). What’s exciting is that it’s a proper working line, carrying freight, commuters and real travellers across Russia and, in many cases, on to China or Japan aboard connecting trains from Vladivostok.
If you like the idea of the journey but can’t quite face the gritty realism of it all, consider the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express (goldeneagleluxurytrains.co.uk), Russia’s only fully en-suite private train. Doubling the usual travel time from seven to a more leisurely 15 days, the trip allows time for a night in Moscow at the beginning and one in Vladivostok at the end, plus some interesting guided off-train excursions, such as a private concert in the middle of Siberia.
Stop-offs include Irkutsk (‘Paris of Siberia’), Lake Baikal (the world’s deepest, it holds 20 per cent of the planet’s fresh water) and Ulan Bator (the capital of Mongolia). If your hunger for adventure isn’t sated by the time you reach Vladivostok, you can hop on a ferry and be in South Korea within 36 hours. The really hearty might consider Tran-Siberian train number 4, the weekly Chinese train from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia that takes seven days and costs from £555 second class, one-way.
The Swiss Glacier Express
It may be one of Europe’s slowest ‘express’ trains, but the Glacier Express (glacierexpress.ch) in Switzerland is one of its most scenic and by far the most civilised, and it costs from about €113 each way, which for Switzerland isn’t bad. Running between two of the country’s best ski resorts, Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn and St Moritz in the Engadin, the train covers 180 miles in seven and a half hours – an average of 24mph, ideal for taking those artistic landscape shots through its panoramic windows and skylights.
First launched as a summer service in 1930, it became year-round in 1982. The comfortable modern carriages you travel in today (cosy in winter, air-conditioned in summer) were introduced in 2006. Now there are two trains per day in winter, more in summer, and you can bring your own picnic or be served a complete meal (with wine) on a tablecloth with real crockery at your seat.
I’m also looking forward to the newly relaunched Al-Andalus (trenalandalus.com), a remodelled 1920s train offering a six-day round-trip from Seville taking in the best of Andalusia, including Córdoba, Granada, Cádiz and Jerez. Another gem to be launched this spring is Tito’s Train in Serbia (visit montenegroholidays.com for more information), a day-long journey through scenic mountain forests aboard the 1950s state carriages of Josip Broz Tito, the founder of Yugoslavia, which will travel from Belgrade to Bar in Montenegro. The trip includes breakfast, a three-course lunch (with wine and plum brandy) and a local guide to bring the history of the train and the region to life.
The California Zephyr
One of the most scenic train journeys in North America is the California Zephyr (amtrak.com/california-zephyr-train), which follows the pioneers’ trail west from Chicago to San Francisco. At 2,438 miles it follows the canyons of the Colorado river down the western slope of the Rockies, across the deserts of Utah and Nevada and through the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. You can do the trip in two days and two nights, or better still, hop off at any of the 35 stops (Salt Lake City, Reno and Truckee, the leaping-off point for Lake Tahoe, to name three).
For a Canadian ‘take’ on the Rockies, try Rocky Mountaineer (rockymountaineer.com), which runs five rail routes, both east- and westbound, all offering snowy peaks, glacier-fed lakes and dramatic gorges and the chance to spot wildlife such as black bears. Journeys range from three and a half hours to three days. Three go through British Columbia and Alberta to Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper and Calgary, one from Vancouver to Whistler and – new this year – one from Seattle to the Canadian Rockies. Service on the comfortable modern train is excellent, and travel is during daylight hours, so nothing is missed. It has been known for drivers to slow down for some particularly significant wildlife sighting.
A trip to Machu Picchu in Peru is always going to be a treat, but you could up the ante by travelling from Cusco via the dramatic valley of the Urubamba river, on the Orient-Express-run Hiram Bingham (orient-express.com), named after the explorer who discovered the ruins of the Inca citadel in 1911. The elegant train has two dining cars and an observation car, and the trip can be taken either as a day excursion with tea at Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge or with an overnight there. Brunch, live music, gourmet dinner and a guide are included. It will, however, set you back about US$668 for a return, and you may be interested to know that you can do the same journey on the backpacker version, the Expedition train (perurail.com) for US$96 return.
Ecuador’s train system has had a complete overhaul in the past five years, and launching this May is Tren Crucero (contact Journey Latin America for more information), a renovated luxury steam-hauled train that will operate weekly along the spine of the Andes on a track known as ‘the avenue of the volcanoes’, stopping-off at national parks along the way.
Ten tour operators for train journeys
Abercrombie & Kent (0845-485 1518; abercrombiekent.co.uk)
Bales Worldwide (0844-488 1182; bales.co.uk)
Bridge & Wickers (020-3642 9121; bridgeandwickers.co.uk)
Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk)
Great Rail Journey (01904-521936; greatrail.com)
Journey Latin America (020-3432 1504; journeylatinamerica.co.uk)
Luxury Train Club (01249-890205; luxurytrainclub.com)
Railbookers (020-3327 0761; railbookers.com)
Taber Holidays (01274-875199; taberhols.co.uk)
The Ultimate Travel Company (020-3411 7710; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk)
Some tips for Europe
An InterRail pass (interrail.eu) allows unlimited travel for a month and costs £552 (£365 for 12-25s, £276 for 4-11s, and £498 for over 60s; under-fours travel free; three-, four-, six- or eight-day One Country InterRail passes allow unlimited journeys for that many days within one month: a three-day pass for Bulgaria is £48, for Spain, £157 (high-speed services require reservations).
For the best ticket prices book early – up to 120 days in advance for Eurostar, 90 days for most Western European countries and 60 days for most of Eastern Europe. A Swiss Pass (swiss-pass.ch) allows unlimited travel on consecutive days on national and most private networks, from £195 for four days (£146 for 16-25s); a Swiss Flexi Pass gives unlimited rail travel for non-consecutive days in a month, from £186 for three days (no concessions for 16-25s). Rail Europe (raileurope.co.uk) is an excellent resource.