It’s amazing how much comfort you can cram into a carriage rolling along a gauge just 3ft and 6 inches wide. South Africa’s Blue Train is rightly regarded as perhaps the world’s most luxurious rail journey. Butler service, en-suite soundproofed compartments (with gold tinted windows), double beds with down duvets, marble-tiled bathrooms (many with full bath tubs), panoramic observation lounges, gourmet meals – no wonder its known as a moving five star hotel. There are two trains in operation - one catering to 74 guests in 37 suites, the other for 58 guests in 29 suites – operating on the main scheduled route from the administrative capital of Pretoria to Cape Town. Travelling at 90 km/hr, enjoy 27 pampered hours and spectacular scenery until you reach your final station. The Blue Train also operates two other routes: to Durban, and to the malaria-free Pilansberg National Park.
Not to be outdone, India’s Maharajas Express treats its 88 passengers like royalty, literally in the case of the presidential suite, which spans a whole carriage. Recalling an era where India’s grand Maharajas built their own lines to shepherd them in lavish carriages, the Express combines old world luxury with modern conveniences like a business centre, spa and gym. It offers five itineraries, ranging from the seven night Heritage of India, Indian Splendor and Indian Panorama to the three night Treasures and Gems of India. All visit destinations like Jaipur, Ranthambore and Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. My own rail journeys in India (in packed, sticky 2nd Class Sleepers) were memorable, but not for the right reasons. If you’re willing to pay, oh, several thousand times more for a ticket, why not treat yourself like a king?
We live in a large country, but when I took the 4-night, 3-day VIA Rail Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto, I could finally see just how large we’re talking about. Travelling 4466km through the Rockies and Prairies, expect to roll through four time zones, not seeing any signs of civilization for hours. The train’s weekly configuration changes depending on demand, but always has panoramic and double-story panoramic dome cars, excellent meals, clean bathrooms, fun activities and friendly staff. Recalling the 1950’s glory years, the stainless steel carriages have the pastels and feel of another era, especially the rear Park Car, with its distinctive dome and view of the tracks you leave behind. Currently undergoing refurbishments as part of VIA Rail’s almost $1 billion investment, The Canadian is rightly a national treasure, popular with both locals and international visitors.
Although these are two separate train journeys exploring two different continents, I’ve put them together because the same company owns them, and once you hear the word “Orient”, it’s easy to get confused. More so since there was an actual train known as the Orient Express, running between Strasbourg and Vienna, but that ceased operation in 2009. The Venice-Simplon is a luxury train operating from London to Venice, in vintage carriages dating back to the 1920’s and 1930’s. Restored to their former glory, cabin suites are heavy on the polished wood, with washbasins, banquette sofas and ever-attentive stewards. Swap out Europe for lush jungles and exotic temples, and hop aboard the more modern The Eastern and Oriental Express, which journeys between Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Laos. With its in-suite bathrooms and airy teak observation cars, itineraries range from 2 to 6 nights, offering various opportunities for temple visits and other excursions.
With its vast distances and sparse population, Australia is tailor made for an epic train journey. The Ghan, named after the late 19th century Afghan cameleers that created the route, traverses almost 3000 kilometres north to south and vice-versa from Adelaide through Alice Springs to Darwin. The 3 day/2 night crossing caters to a range of budgets, from the twin Red Service Sleeper Cabins with their compact lounge chairs (folding into sleeping berths), to the 25 en-suite Platinum Cabins, with in-cabin dining, attentive stewards and twin or double beds. Beginning with the ridges and plains of South Australia, the landscape transforms into the red earth and sweeping skies of the Central Australian outback. Day or multi-day excursions are on offer from Alice Springs, before continuing into the more tropical regions of Northern Australia. The train runs twice a week in each direction June to August, and once a week during the remainder of the year.
China boasts the world’s fastest passenger train, the CRH380A running from Shanghai to Nanjing and Hangzhou at an astonishing 480 km/hr. Think more rollercoaster and less leisurely train journey. For less of a blur but all the thrills, consider the Qinghai-Tibet, an engineering marvel that connects the city of Xining to Lhasa, Tibet. It’s the first railway to navigate the mountains and treacherous terrain that encompasses Tibet. Once you cross the Tanggula Pass at 5072 metres above sea level, you’re officially on the world’s highest railway, rolling through the world’s highest tunnel, and stopping at the world’s highest railway station. With stunning views across the mountains and permafrost, the journey is literally breathtaking. At this altitude, breathing can become an issue, but the cold-resistant carriages were built for such challenging environments, and carry oxygen supplies on board for each passenger, along with an onboard doctor.
Repeatedly named as one of the world’s great train journeys by everyone from National Geographic to Conde Nast Traveler, The Rocky Mountaineer belongs to North America’s largest private rail service, running 1000 km through some of the world’s best scenery. Unlike VIA’s Canadian, which continues onto Toronto, the Rocky Mountaineer is designed to showcase the glorious Rockies in all their glory, with guests seated in two-level glass-domed panoramic dome cars, while interpreters point out wildlife and sites of interest. Guests spend the night in the company’s hotel in Kamloops before continuing their journey from Banff/Jasper to Vancouver, or vice versa. Along with the outstanding meals, let the cocktails flow!
When creating this list, I erred on this side of luxury, only because I’ve spent many days travelling on some of the world’s more challenging train rides, and while the memories are precious, I wouldn’t necessarily wish them on my readers. Trains are great, but not when they’re scary, like the time I peed at gunpoint on the Russian-Mongolian border. It took me three weeks to journey from Beijing to St Petersburg on two of the world’s most legendary rail networks. Along the way I raced horses in Mongolia, swam in the world’s deepest lake, and was almost tasered by some corrupt cops. Rudimentary carriages were OK, even if the attendants were smuggling starched clothing in our pillows. Meals consisted of instant noodles, instant mash, and anything else we could whip up with graciously provided hot water. I grew to appreciate the sneer of the attendants, and the taste of vodka, which was cheap and plentiful. An incredible adventure, definitely. But not for everyone.
The Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad, more affectionately known as El ChePe, carries locals and tourists over 400 miles through the Sierra Madre mountains and the magnificent Copper Canyon. Departing Los Mochis in the morning and arriving in Chihuahua late in the evening, the train crosses 36 bridges (one at over 1000 feet) and 87 tunnels. It stops at 13 stations along the way, allowing travellers to hop on and off to explore the region. There are two classes to choose from, with the Primero Express offering a dining car as opposed to the Economico’s snack bar, but it’s the scenery that provides the tastiest fodder. Mexico’s most scenic train chugs alongside stunning jungle, mountains, canyons waterfalls, and even high desert.
The Scottish Highlands are yours for the taking. By yours, I refer to the 36 guests pampered in absolute luxury aboard the Royal Scotsman. The train offers 2 to 7 night itineraries that take in the majestic Highlands, along with themed trips like the 4-night Classic Whisky Journey in conjunction with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Enjoy gourmet bliss in the mahogany-panelled dining car, and make sure to pack a kilt for alternating formal nights (if you forget, you can still hire one). Twin, Double and Single cabins are equipped with in-suite bathrooms, with the plush sofas in the observation car perfect to watch quaint villages and medieval castles pass you by.