Table Mountain, South Africa
Personally, I blame Marc Jacobs-clad Adrien Brody in Wes Anderson’s The
Darjeeling Limited. There’s also the growing trend for a slower, more
experiential way of travelling, where the journey is as important as the
arrival – a reaction against those ridiculous long-haul short breaks that
have become so popular among ‘high rollers’ over the past few years. And
then there is the sheer number of opportunities out there – from the ‘luxury
touring train’ services that are effectively a reinvention of the maritime
cruise, to humbler day trains offering glorious scenery and a few precious
hours of downtime.
UK and Ireland
The Royal Scotsman
There are two reasons why the Royal Scotsman’s Western journey (royalscotsman.com)
is considered the loveliest in the British Isles. One is the route. Kicking
off in Edinburgh, it potters past Glasgow to join the West Highland Line all
the way up to the pretty fishing village of Mallaig, taking in
spine-tinglingly rugged swaths of the Highlands, glassy Loch Lomond,
brooding Ben Nevis and the glorious Glenfinnan Viaduct of Harry Potter fame.
Stops include one for tea at Inverlochy Castle and another to pop over to
the beautiful Isle of Bute.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.