Sam Lewis looks at the growing appeal of some of the world’s most iconic train journeys and why slow trains are catching on fast
Shanghai’s bullet train may be capable of reaching speeds of over 186mph, but at a time when many of us are tired of being in a hurry, taking a slow train has enormous appeal.
So much so that in 2009, several million Norwegians tuned into a TV station which aired 10 continuous hours of footage from the front of a train traveling from Oslo to Bergen. Although in the US, the 10-hour Slow TV show was later edited to a mere one hour, the mesmerizing effect was readily apparent.
For anyone who wants to experience the real deal, there’s an ever-growing choice of great train journeys worldwide. In addition to iconic trains such as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Rocky Mountaineer and Blue Train, new trains and itineraries continue to emerge.
New for 2015, Golden Eagle Luxury Trains is launching a 12-day Heart of Iran tour, while Cox and Kings has revamped the luxury Deccan Odyssey in India, in addition to more itineraries.
Launched only a few years ago, Ecuador’s Tren Crucero is proving very popular with its journey through the Andes, visiting traditional haciendas, local markets and historic sites. Meanwhile, in Japan, one of the newest luxury trains to debut is the Seven Stars, which makes a large circuit around Kyushu and its hot springs.
In summer 2016, Belmond Grand Hibernian will debut to become the first luxury overnight rail experience of its kind in Ireland. Catering for up to 40 guests, it will tour the country’s dramatic coastal scenery and cities, with daily excursions to historic estates, world-class golf courses and the famous haunts of Ireland’s legendary writers, musicians and artists.
While excursions are an integral part of any rail journey, for many travelers it’s the time onboard the train they savor most. Eleanor Hardy, president of The Society of International Railway Travelers (IRT), believes train travel is inspirational because it “focuses on a journey punctuated by fine dining, high quality service and the beauty of your surroundings.” Plus, there’s a level of intimacy that enables passengers to meet people from all over the world.
However, Hardy says the experience comes at a price. “It attracts a luxury level traveler because of the price tag — many cost $1,000 per person per day, depending on the type of compartment booked.” The plus side, she says, is what’s included. “It’s really good value if you compare it to a cruise. A lot of train trips are all-inclusive with nothing extra to pay.”
And with operators such as IRT offering attractive commissions, the price tag is, of course, a lucrative opportunity for agents, too.
We suggest: Maharajas’ Express in India, Delhi to Mumbai
Why: A palace on wheels, this opulent train makes every passenger feel like a maharaja and last year it was named ‘World’s Leading Luxury Train’ in the World Travel Awards. Numerous excursions offer the chance to see Indian gems ranging from tigers to the Taj Mahal. Guests can explore iconic palaces, forts and UNESCO sites, go in search of wild animals on a 4WD safari, sip sundowner cocktails amidst sand dunes, cheer at an elephant polo match, or play a challenging round of golf. Additional add-ons include the opportunity to book Ayurveda-inspired spa treatments at five-star hotels en-route, allowing every guest to get pampered from top to toe.
The train: Lavish interiors blend modern day amenities with a bygone era, with wi-fi and flat-screen TVs complemented by traditional pastimes such as reading and games in the library. Spacious suites cater for 88 guests, and even the lowest category compartments come with a personal butler. Expect fine dining at its two restaurants, with gold-edged plates and Swarovski hand-cut crystal glasses serving the world’s best wines.
Sample: The eight-day/seven-night Heritage of India journey costs from $6,840 per person, staying in a deluxe cabin. Suites range between $9,890-$23,700. Price includes meals, beverages, guided tours and entrance fees. maharajas-express-india.com
We suggest: Glacier Express in Switzerland, St Moritz to Zermatt
Why: There are quicker ways of making the 180-mile journey through the Alpine heartland, but why rush when the scenery is so spectacular? Savor the views of snow-capped peaks and sugar-frosted forests aboard what’s dubbed ‘the slowest express train in the world’ with an average speed of 22 miles per hour. Highlights include views of the Landwasser Viaduct, the 1,300ft-deep Rhine Gorge and the Oberalp Pass where a rack-and-pinion system is used to climb and brake the train to and from the highest point at nearly 6,700ft.
The train: Once a steam-powered locomotive, the train is now an elegant mix of old and new with panorama carriages. Local specialty meals are served at your seats, and include tilted glasses.
Sample: First-class tickets cost €262 ($296) per person, second-class €149 ($168). A three-course lunch costs €43 ($48). glacierexpress.ch
We suggest: Trans Siberia/ Mongolian Railway Line, Moscow to Beijing
Why: Although the main Trans Siberian line starts in Moscow and goes east to Vladivostok, arguably the most interesting option is to follow the Trans-Mongolian route, starting in Moscow and ending in Beijing, enjoying the highlights of Russia, Mongolia and China. This journey transports passengers into the heart of Siberia, with views of rivers, lakes, forest and mountains, before stopping at Irkutsk to visit Lake Baikal, the world’s largest body of fresh water. In addition to Mongolia’s endless steppes and the Gobi desert, the trip typically takes in Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital, before ending in Beijing with the chance to explore the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and Ming tombs.
The train: There’s no one train called ‘The Trans-Siberian Express’ — this is actually the name of the railway line, so several trains operate along this route. transsiberianexpress.net features a Highlights of Trans Siberia tour on the Rossiya train 002 for the Moscow-Irkutsk leg. The journey continues on train 006, followed by train 024 on the Ulan Bator-Beijing leg. All the trains come with first- and second-class compartments (featuring power sockets for laptops and mobiles), a restaurant car, toilets and washrooms at the end of each corridor.
Sample: The 12-night Highlights of Trans Siberia package starts from $2,192 per person, based on two traveling second-class in low season; first-class in high season costs from $3,243 per person. The price includes tickets, transfers and five nights in a three-star hotel, but excludes meals.transsiberianexpress.net
We suggest: Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa, Pretoria to Cape Town
Why: The fun and active itinerary is ideal for children aged eight and over and is also perfect for those traveling with grandparents on a multi-generation vacation. The scenic journey doesn’t cross any borders, so no visas are required for US citizens, and the price represents excellent value for money as the rand has slipped significantly against the US dollar. Highlights include several game drives in Kruger Park, Mkhaya Game Reserve and Hluhluwe, where passengers get the chance to spot the Big Five. The journey also includes a trip to Addo Elephant National Park, home to over 450 elephants, antelope, Cape buffalo and black rhino, as well as an ostrich farm in Oudtshoorn. There’s also the option to play five challenging golf courses, including an Ernie Els layout, and visit the KWV brandy distillery.
The train: Passengers can expect restored Edwardian carriages with dark woods and period fittings, and an open-air deck where passengers can view the scenery and wildlife. Dining cars have a distinct Victorian atmosphere, where guests feast on traditional dishes and local ingredients, including game, complemented by fine South African wines. Chefs are also on hand to help parents devise a children’s menu.
Sample: The 9-day African Collage: From the Mountains to the Sea itinerary, covering 2,100 miles, starts from $4,333 per person, sharing, excluding flights. This price includes all meals, transfers, sightseeing and safari tours in open vehicles. rovos.com
Belmond Royal Scotsman: Experience authentic Scottish hospitality on a luxurious train that’s more akin to a grand country home, with just 36 guests and activities that include whiskey tasting, salmon fishing and clay pigeon shooting. Plump sofas are perfectly positioned to afford glimpses of the rugged countryside, punctuated with castles, villages, glens and lochs. Guests are welcomed onboard by a Highland piper, the interior is swathed in authentic tartan upholstery and passengers can even borrow a kilt for the duration of the journey. belmond.com
Blue Train: This vivid, blue, five-star train covers 994 miles in 27 hours, stopping en-route from Pretoria to Cape Town, to tour the historic diamond mining town of Kimberley. Savor the views and the food, feasting on a five-course banquet in the elegant dining car and enjoying high tea
in the charming lounge. Deluxe cabins feature 100% percale cotton bedding, air conditioning, under-floor heating, and an opulent marble and gold-fitted bathroom. bluetrain.co.za
Hiram Bingham: The ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu may take your breath away, but so will this 84-passenger Belmond/Orient Express train, departing from Cusco. Travel in stylish, 1920s-style Pullman carriages and tuck into a three-course brunch served on crisp white tablecloths covering polished wooden tables. The three-hour journey passes in a flash, but the views of the Andes from the observation deck will stay with you forever. perurail.com