More than just a way of getting there, rail can be the foundation of an unforgettable vacation. Ben Lerwill examines some of the best journeys
It’s surprisingly uncommon, in these days of ubiquitous air travel, for the journey itself to become the focal point of a travel experience. It’s all very well jetting off to the next hot destination, but what about the very real pleasures of getting from A to B and seeing life pass by the window?
For devotees of rail travel, this opportunity to savor your surroundings is what makes it such a refreshing option. Almost every corner of the globe now offers some sort of high-end rail experience, a voyage where fine dining, slick service and slowly shifting scenery interplay to create a sense of traditional adventure. For travelers, the whole approach showcases a destination in a way that a freeway coach trip, or a flight at 30,00ft, just can’t match.
“On a train, you see sights you’d never see from any other perspective — the true nature of a culture,” explains Eleanor Hardy, president of the Society of International Railway Travelers, which offers tours worldwide. “All sorts of people love trains. We have younger adventure travelers and older luxury travelers. There’s no one place they’re from; no demographic to use to predict who will love rail travel. Travelers who love rail are open and adventurous and want to go to the heart of a country, not skim along the edges.”
The majority of the world’s classic trains — think of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in Europe, or the Rocky Mountaineer in Canada — combine dramatic cities and landscapes with an appreciation of unrushed travel. And the clear demand for this form of vacation has meant new deluxe options continue to be unveiled, from the Tren Al Andalus — a train relaunched in May 2012 in southern Spain — to the Pullman Rail Journeys service between Chicago and New Orleans, which began in November.
In many ways, traveling through a landscape by train is a simple concept allowing simple joys. There’s little that’s stressful about it. Reno Gazzola, director of travel industry sales at the Pullman Sleeping Car Company, points out that one of the key benefits of rail travel is the potential it gives for enjoying the ride.
“It’s a more ‘human’ form of travel,” he says. “You can move from car to car, sleep comfortably, and be as social or as private as you wish. And the rise of multi-generational travel affords us the opportunity to introduce it to a new generation.”
For those looking to give rail vacations a try, the following pages contain eight of the most unforgettable train journeys currently available to travelers.
Classic route: Adelaide to Darwin.
Lowdown: Carving a route through the center of Australia from the green surrounds of the Flinders Ranges to the tropical beaches of the Top End, The Ghan covers some 1,850 miles over the course of 48 hours. The train is believed to be named after the Afghan camel herders who helped the colonial British to explore Australia’s interior in the 19th century and is one of the country’s two classic cross-country rail experiences (the other being the 2,700-mile Indian Pacific between Sydney and Perth). It’s often cheaper and far quicker to fly between these two cities, so the train’s ongoing popularity says much about the rugged expanse of the outback and the allure of experiencing it from the comfort of a rail carriage. The Ghan also calls at Alice Springs, where it’s possible to break the journey with a tour out to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) and the red heart of the country. Three levels of accommodation are on offer, from the basic, twin-share Red class to the luxurious Platinum cabins, with their double beds, ensuite washrooms and 24-hour room service.
X-factor: Crossing a vast country through some of the most quintessentially Australian scenery imaginable.
Classic route: Delhi to Mumbai.
Lowdown: One of several opulent rail options to be found on the sub-continent, the Maharajas’ Express operates a variety of pan-Indian itineraries, all of which begin or end in Delhi and take in the Taj Mahal at Agra. The onboard design is intended to reflect the all-whims-catered-for lavishness of Maharaja-style living, so places an emphasis on attentive service, gourmet dining and modern comforts. Unsurprisingly, it’s not a budget option. India does luxury superbly, however, and since its launch in March 2010 the train has garnered a strong market standing. Bolstering the allure, the Express stops at a different destination each day for passenger excursions, with prominence given to the main tourist sights. The five routes traveled by the train each incorporate all three of the famous Golden Triangle stop-offs — Jaipur, Agra and Delhi — while other highlights include the Raj-era heritage of Lucknow, the lakes and palaces of Udaipur, and the chance to see tigers at Ranthambore National Park.
X-factor: Rail buff or not, there can be few better ways of seeing India’s most famous attractions in one trip.
Classic route: Vancouver to Banff.
Lowdown: The Canadian Rockies are quite simply one of the most handsome mountain ranges on the planet, offering the kind of blockbuster, snow-capped topography that can elevate a rail journey from enjoyable to unforgettable. As such, the Rocky Mountaineer train — which has rolled through some of the Rockies’ most scenic spots for more than 20 years — is now a fixture on luxury travel wish lists. Its best-known route runs east from Vancouver, crossing the semi-arid Thompson Plateau before arriving at the mountains proper, where the journey reaches its literal and metaphorical peak. Crossing mountain passes and thundering alongside rivers — it’s a wonder some sections of track were ever built — the route also offers passengers a great chance to spot Canada’s iconic wildlife. So as well as sitting back to watch canyons, glaciers and flower meadows drift by, travelers might also be greeted by the sight of elks, bald eagles or even bears. When you also factor in the onboard gastronomy, which focuses on regional produce such as Alberta beef and Okanagan wine, the reasons for the train’s enduring ‘bucket list’ appeal become even clearer.
X-factor: Grizzly bear-spotting over a glass of Champagne.
Classic route: Zermatt to St Moritz.
Lowdown: Unforgettable rail journeys don’t have to break the bank. The trip from Zermatt to St Moritz takes you through some of the most inspiring Alpine terrain in Europe, and the seven-hour journey can be a fantastic way of arriving in style for a winter skiing vacation or summer hiking trip. Levels of comfort on board certainly aren’t wanting either, all of which makes the price — from €130.80 ($169) for adults, with under-six’s traveling free — great value. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this route, however, is the engineering involved in its creation. On the way to St Moritz the train crosses close to 300 bridges and passes through around 90 tunnels. It also encounters both the Rhine and Rhone rivers, and journeys through the 6,706ft Oberalp Pass.
X-factor: Showcases the region in all its mountainous glory.
Classic route: Pretoria to Cape Town.
Lowdown: The Blue Train is a classic example of a world-class rail experience that can be incorporated into a wider vacation itinerary. Its best-known route is Pretoria to Cape Town with an early morning departure, meaning you can watch the day unfold over the spectacular semi-desert of the Karoo before waking up in the winelands, arriving among the beaches and rugged landscapes of Cape Town at noon the next day. A stopover at Kimberley in the Northern Cape lets passengers learn more about the diamond rush era. The journey takes around 27 hours, so is ideal for high-end travelers in search of something special to lift a South African vacation. It’s an all-suite train, complete with lounges and a fine dining car. Butlers are on call 24 hours a day and the overall levels of luxury have helped it bag numerous awards since its launch in 1998. Other routes from Pretoria include a journey to Durban and a trip to the Bakubung Game Lodge, with a two-night stay and daily game drives.
X factor: One of the world’s most iconic luxury trains, with journeys short enough to be built into a broader South African adventure.
EASTERN & ORIENTAL
Classic route: Singapore to Bangkok.
Lowdown: Venturing through the steamy heart of Southeast Asia, the Eastern & Oriental travels between two of the region’s most dynamic cities, taking passengers through jungle, rice paddies and tropical greenery. The train itself is the sister of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and offers the same levels of onboard comfort, with passengers traveling through the green hills of Malaysia while sipping a cocktail, or reclining in the observation car as southern Thailand rolls by outside the window. The classic route passes through some notable spots, such as the legendary bridge over the River Kwai and the colonial Malaysian island of Penang. Both offer the chance to learn more about the rainbow mix of cultures and histories that make up Southeast Asia. As well as the four-day, three-night journey between Singapore and Bangkok, the train also has a separate Epic Thailand itinerary, exploring the country’s north, and a further program taking in Vientiane, the capital of neighboring Laos.
X factor: The stately comforts of the Orient-Express brand transported to this rainforest-green region of Southeast Asia.
TREN AL ANDALUS
Classic route: Begins and ends in Seville.
Lowdown: European rail travel has been given a boost by the Tren Al Andalus, a ‘palace on wheels’ that was relaunched in May after extensive renovation of its 1920s carriages, which were originally used by the British royal family to travel from Calais to France’s Cote d’Azur. The train’s six-day itineraries provide passengers with a wonderful way of getting the most from Andalucia, taking in the region’s history, gastronomy and range of cultural influences, not to mention its varied scenery. The south of Spain has as rich a story as any region in Europe, its Muslim past having resulted in a wealth of stunning architecture. The route begins in Seville, renowned for its colorful fiestas, before moving on to Cordoba, Cadiz and Granada, home of the Alhambra palace. The Donana National Park’s wetlands and the mountain town of Ronda are further highlights along the route.
X factor: A new service in a fascinating corner of Europe.
Classic route: Cusco to Machu Picchu.
Lowdown: There was a time when the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu could only be reached by foot. Not these days. For those travelers who don’t like the thought of trekking through the Andes, the Hiram Bingham train represents the most exclusive option for getting to the ruins. Named after the American explorer who rediscovered the site in 1911, the train makes the round trip from Cusco six times a week, allowing for a leisurely day out. As well as the return journey, the ticket price includes meals, drinks and musical entertainment. It departs from, and returns to, Poroy Station, less than half an hour by car from Cusco — the whole itinerary lasts around 12 hours. The train itself is part of Orient-Express, with carriages furnished in the style of 1920s Pullman trains.
X factor: Visiting one of the world’s most mystifying sights in true comfort.
PUBLISHED IN THE WINTER 2012/2013 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork