The Greatest Train Journeys On Earth
The Indian Pacific, Australia. Photograph courtesy of Great Southern Rail
Eight unforgettable rail trips to tick off your bucket list. Because you don’t need to take to the skies to have an adventure.
The golden age of travel is a phrase used to describe a time when service was silver and trunks were the size of small houses. When it comes to the railways, there have arguably been three. First, the steam age, when a mania gripped Britain and its dependencies, spreading track across the globe at a dizzying pace. Then in the 1920s and 1930s, the Orient Express redefined the expectations of rail travellers and inspired authors and screenwriters as diverse as Ms Agatha Christie and Mr Wes Anderson with carriages that dripped in romance and Art Deco splendour. The third age? You’re in it. From Peru to Japan, via classic routes across Europe and India, we are in the grip of a race to lay on more lavishly restored and newly built trains. The best suites rival those of the grandest hotels, while dining cars have attracted some of the world’s best chefs. At their best, luxury sleeper trains offer the mobility and lulling sensation of a cruise liner with the intimacy of a five-star boutique hotel. Here are eight journeys on six continents to satisfy the wanderlust in the discerning, modern rail traveller.
Belmond Andean Explorer, Peru
Photograph courtesy of Belmond
Sure, you could put on a pair of sturdy boots and take on the Inca Trail with the tourist hordes. Or, thanks to a new arrival from luxury train specialist Belmond, you could also marvel at the majestic Andes from the piano bar car, pisco sour in hand. The Belmond Andean Explorer is the first luxury sleeper train to chug through the Andes and offers one- and two-night journeys. The Peruvian Highlands tour starts in Cusco, the ancient Incan capital, and on day one takes in a stop at the archaeological site of Raqchi’i. Views of the soaring La Raya mountains roll by from the dining car as the sun sets before a night on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Guests then take to the water to explore the Uros Islands and enjoy a private beachside lunch. Further stops include the city of Arequipa, where volcanoes loom over an enormous cathedral, the 8,000-year-old cave paintings of Sumbay and the rugged shores of Lake Lagunillas. But the Art Nouveau interiors of the train itself, fitted as it is with more mahogany and marquetry than a Versailles drawing room, offer arguably the most Instagrammable sights along the way.
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Photograph courtesy of Belmond
It is the train to which all others must bow down, the grande dame of refined railway travel, which first chugged out of Paris in a cloud of steam in 1883. Between wars, the Orient Express acquired its reputation for luxury, drawing noblemen and royals to its gilded carriages for lavish journeys across Europe to Constantinople, where Ms Christie is said to have written Murder On The Orient Express. Its golden age expired some time ago, but in 1982, American-born hotelier and shipping magnate Mr James Sherwood rescued old carriages and relaunched the service as a nostalgic throwback. Later renamed Belmond, the company now also operates luxury sleeper trains in Britain, South America and southeast Asia. The flagship London-to-Venice journey starts in old British Pullman trains before switching to the Orient Express carriages for a one-night journey via Paris, Zurich and Innsbruck. Gleaming cabins revive every inch of velvet and dark wood of the train’s Art Deco golden age, and next year will be joined by three grand suites with private bathrooms and separate living quarters.
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The Indian Pacific, Australia
Photograph courtesy of Great Southern Rail
This is a big one. But it’s also no dawdler. You can traverse the entire breadth of Australia, from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean, in three nights. There is time to get off along the way, too, on the line from Perth to Sydney (or you can go the other way, of course). Once a favourite among retirees – a terrestrial cruise crowd – the carriages of the Great Southern Railway have been spruced up lately, and the Queen Adelaide restaurant car has been heaped with awards for its food and wine lists. The line follows the routes of prospectors and pioneers who ventured east and west from Australia’s great coastal cities, taking in verdant valleys and startling red rockscapes along the way. Day one, travelling east, comes to a pause at the gold mines of Kalgoorlie. The next morning, wander through the ghost town of Cook en route to Adelaide. The Blue Mountains are the star of the last leg before Sydney. And while some sleepers stable at night, the Indian Pacific keeps on rolling, offering the singular somnolence of a railway cabin as well as the suspense of drawn blinds the next morning.
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Rocky Mountaineer, Canada
Photograph courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer
Bonds of steel united a vast land of colonies 150 years ago. “Without railways, there would be and could be no Canada,” historian and national flag designer Mr George Stanley once wrote. Where better to mark the country’s big birthday, then, than in the tracks of nation builders? If you had the time, you could cross the whole country in one of the great transcontinental rail journeys. For a more manageable taste of Canadian wilderness, hop aboard the Rocky Mountaineer on its historic First Passage To The West route. The journey from Vancouver across British Columbia to Lake Louise and Banff in Alberta skirts the mountainous shores of Kinbasket Lake, winds down the Kicking Horse River, and past the foreboding flanks of Castle Mountain. Craigellachie is the unassuming site of the Last Spike, where the great Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1885, linking east and west. Stay in grand hotels along the way, including the famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. On board by day, recline in comfort under the train’s domed glass roof, eat in the dining car, or look back in time from the open-air vestibule in the last carriage.
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Pride Of Africa, South Africa
Photograph courtesy of Rovos Rail
Mr Rohan Vos, a wealthy South African car-parts dealer, wanted to rent an old train to take his family on the trip of a lifetime. When it became clear he would need paying fellow passengers to make the venture affordable, he ended up buying dozens of carriages. Thirty years later, Rovos Rail offers luxury travel across a network of natural wonders that includes Victoria Falls, the Kalahari Desert and the game reserves of KwaZulu-Natal. Most journeys begin at Capital Park in Pretoria, where a colonial-era station now stands as Rovos’s headquarters. The choice thereafter is broad. You could take a two-night journey across South Africa to Cape Town via the Kimberley diamond mines. Or embark on an epic 15-day voyage aboard the Pride Of Africa from Cape Town to Dar Es Salaam (or go the other way) via Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, which takes in Victoria Falls and the Great Rift Valley. Alternatively, a nine-day golf safari includes the fairways of Sun City, the Champagne Sports Resort and Durban Country Club as well as game viewing at Hluhluwe en route to Swaziland. Depending on your funds and friends, you could channel the founder’s spirit and charter your own train anywhere on Southern Africa’s rail network, within reason. Whatever you do, reserve a Royal Suite if you can. Each occupies half a carriage and includes a private bathroom with a clawfoot bath.
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Maharajas’ Express, India
Photograph courtesy of Maharajas’ Express
The rail-inclined visitor to India is spoilt for choice in a vast nation crisscrossed by more than 75,000 miles of track. Its sleeper trains are a rite of passage for touring backpackers, if not always remembered for the comfort of their bunks or the fragrance of their facilities. But there are exceptions. Chief among the higher-end carriages is the Maharajas’ Express, a seven-year-old venture that celebrates more than a century and a half of railway history. Its eight-day Heritage Of India journey links some of the country’s greatest sites from the comfort of a five-star rolling retreat. It begins in Mumbai and travels to Udaipur for lunch in the palace on the lake. The royal palaces and painted houses of Jodhpur and Jaipur follow before a game drive at Ranthambore National Park. Hop off again at Agra to marvel at the Taj Mahal before the final leg to Delhi. Other journeys head south to the beaches of Goa or to the great cities of Varanasi and Lucknow. On board, the presidential suite would indeed impress a Maharaja, covering as it does 50sq m and including a private butler and car during excursions.
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Train Suite Shiki-shima, Japan
Photograph by STR/AFP/Getty Images
You may need to have links to minor Japanese royalty to bag a berth any time soon on this new train, just launched by the East Japan Railway Company. Visually arresting inside and out, it brings the nation’s imagination and flair to a market dominated by Orient Express revivals, some of which steam very close to cliché. The observation cars (one front and back), with their triangular windows look like a Ms Zaha Hadid–Mr Philippe Starck collaboration, while the eight other cars containing just 17 suites make this one of the more exclusive ways to ride the rails. The train is the work of Mr Ken Kiyoyuki Okuyama, a veteran of automotive and bullet train design, while Michelin-starred chef Mr Katsuhiro Nakamura is responsible for the food, which changes to reflect the regions the train glides through. The best suite occupies two levels and contains a Japanese-style bath carved in cypress wood and a pair of binoculars custom-made by Swarovski, while the lounge car has a glass fireplace. Trains depart from a dedicated platform at Tokyo’s Ueno station and head north towards Hokkaido via terraced rice fields, mountains and coastlines.
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El Transcantábrico Clásico, Spain
Photograph courtesy of Renfe
Another revival from the 1980s that throws the clock back to the age of steam and gilded excess, this time in northern Spain, where Renfe, the national rail operator, operates luxury services along the coast on restored carriages, including a number of British Pullmans. The classic seven-night journey begins in León and heads northeast first to Bilbao, where tickets to the Guggenheim are included. After a stop, the train takes a sharp left and spends the rest of its journey on the coast on a railroad pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Regular stops and tours along the way take in less well-known but no less remarkable sites, including the Roman mosaics of La Olmeda in Saldaña, the medieval town of Santillana del Mar and the cave art at Altamira. On board, expect the bells and whistles to which the modern railroad traveller has become accustomed, including live music after dinner in the lounge car, where passengers feast on Asturian fabada, baked fish, Galician seafood and Castilian lamb.