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On Track

It’s always been a civilised way to travel, and if you pick one of the top scenic train journeys you can watch the world unfold before your eyes in maximum comfort. Anthony Lambert discovers some of the most rewarding experiences along extraordinary routes

Andean Explorer Peru

It took the experience of Belmond – operator of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and the Royal Scotsman – to launch South America’s first luxury sleeper train. Complementing its day train, the Hiram Bingham that runs to the ruins of Machu Picchu, the Andean Explorer also serves the capital of the Inca Empire at Cusco. It winds through the austere beauty of the mountain valleys of the Andes to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, for a launch excursion to the floating reed islands of the Uros. Before moving on to Arequipa, a visit is made to the Sumbay Caves with wall paintings thought to date from 8,000–6,000BC and discovered as recently as 1968. Journey’s end at Arequipa is no anti-climax since the old colonial heart of the city is a World Heritage Site, although Unesco is critical of some destruction of heritage. Passengers have the option of exploring the Colca Canyon, staying at Belmond’s luxury retreat La Casitas. As a bespoke tourist train, the Hiram Bingham lacks the authentic charm of the Orient Express coaches but makes up for it with a high level of pampering: a spa car, library, shop and an observation car serving the 35 en-suite cabins.

Must stop The grand colonial mansion of Inkaterra La Casona, Cusco, Peru, is a 16th-century manor house that once lodged Simón Bolívar. Its 11 suites have fireplaces and heated floors while its public rooms are decorated with colonial furniture and original murals. Doubles from £272.


Travel Details

The train runs from April, with four itineraries lasting 1 or 2 nights. From £2,995pp.

Maharaja's Express India

Scoring a goal from an elephant’s back in a chukka of polo is one of the more novel experiences provided by this luxury train, starting in either Delhi or Mumbai. A noisy blare of congratulatory brass instruments accompanies each goal on the polo ground of the Maharaja of Jaipur, whose 18th-century collection of stone astronomical instruments is a World Heritage Site. His hunting grounds are today’s Ranthambore National Park, famous for its 70-plus tigers, which is visited in a pre-dawn Jeep tour from the train. The wealth of some maharajas is evident from the immense Durbar Hall built by the Maharaja of Gwalior in time for the visit of Edward, Prince of Wales in 1875; the weight of its two 3 tonne chandeliers caused such concern about the load on the structure that it was tested by ten elephants using a purpose-built ramp 2km long. Other architectural treasures on the tour include the Taj Mahal, the erotic carvings at Khajuraho and Fatehpur Sikri – surely the world’s shortest-lived capital at just 15 years after its water supply failed. The train itself is all one could ask of a mobile sanctuary from the heat and dust of India: air-conditioned, all en suite, two lounge cars with plenty of diversions, two dining cars serving both Indian and western food, and exemplary service.

Must stop Haveli Dharampura in Old Delhi provides an authentic sense of the lives of courtiers at the Mughal court who created these mixed-use homes, part residence, part commercial. This converted haveli (grand townhouse) with 14 boutique- style rooms has its own restaurant. Doubles from £93.

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Travel Details

One 3-night and three different 7-night itineraries are available to book between October and April, from £2,900pp.

Rocky Mountaineer Canada

In their 32 years of operation, Rocky Mountaineer trains have become one of the world’s bucket-list experiences, the only dilemma being which of the three routes to take. Two of the options share the same tracks from Vancouver to Kamloops for an overnight stop and a sense of small-town life in British Columbia: Journey through the Clouds heads north-east to Jasper past Pyramid Falls and over Yellowhead Pass; while First Passage to the West heads east to Lake Louise and Banff, taking in Shuswap Lake, the white waters of Illecillewaet and Kicking Horse rivers and the crossing of Stoney Creek Bridge. The latter route is the most popular, but the four-night Rainforest to Gold Rush route, with overnights in Quesnel and Prince George, offers a greater variety of landscapes than either of the journeys through the heart of the Rockies. Life aboard is a delight – the crew are founts of knowledge about the area’s history and wildlife, and you’re likely to meet people from half a dozen countries in the first half hour. The food, especially in GoldLeaf Class, is up there with the best Vancouver restaurants, with BC’s great wines flowing.

Must stop The chic Opus Hotel in Vancouver’s Yaletown combines comfort and style with vibrant colour schemes and rooms designed with five ‘character profiles’ in mind. Doubles from £189.

RM JTC Mount Robson HERO NH 20161

Travel Details

Routes operate between April and October, with dozens of packages, some involving a cruise along The Inside Passage. A fourth route, operating in the US, Rockies to the Red Rocks, runs between Moab and Denver through Ruby Canyon and across the Continental Divide. A 3-night Canada itinerary from £1,195pp.

Inlandsbanan Sweden

This is probably Europe’s wildest train journey, travelling through remote forested country and crossing the Arctic Circle. The railcars trundle up the spine of the country for only a few months of the summer, leaving the tracks to trains of timber and freight the rest of the year. As on many tourist trains, a cosmopolitan clientele adds interest to the journey and the meal stops en route, although a buffet on the train serves hot and cold drinks, sandwiches and snacks. The scenery has been compared with the Trans-Siberian for the prevalence of forest, punctuated by rivers and lakes and the occasional farm. Stops are made at the larger stations for refreshments or meals, with orders taken on the train and telephoned ahead. The train hosts also keep passengers informed about the places and sights along the way, which are likely to include reindeer and elk (and, if you’re very lucky, bear or wolf). Other stops are made to visit museums set up in the station buildings: at Sorsele to learn about the reasons for building the railway, built between 1907 and 1937, and at Moskosel for an insight into the lives of the navvies who constructed the line.

Must stop Arvidsjaur is a charming small town, and the Norrland-style Hotell Laponia offers a range of summer activities as well as a sauna and gym. Doubles from £56.

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Travel Details

Routes operate between mid-June and late August. The 1,066km between Mora and Gällivare can be done in a day and a half with an overnight in Östersund, but most people choose a 5, 8 or 9-night trip with hotel accommodation included. A 5-night itinerary from £620pp.

Rovos Rail South Africa

It’s astonishing what can grow from one man’s passion for train travel. The brainchild of Rohan Vos in 1989 and still a family business, Rovos Rail has become a byword for exploring the sights of southern Africa in utmost comfort. Steam may have given way to electric and diesel traction, but standards haven’t wavered. From the moment you join the pre-departure champagne reception in the elegant lounge of the colonial-style station at Capital Park in Cape Town, it is attention to detail that impresses. The vintage wood-panelled coaches evoke a time of elegant inter-war travel, and there are no radios or televisions on board – though the Royal Suites include baths and a concession is made for AC throughout. The varied itineraries travel the rails of nine countries, with game drives and natural history a major part of most, and golf, battlefields and city tours featuring in others. For those keen to rack up the miles, the two best tours are Cape Town to the Indian Ocean at Dar Es Salaam, and the Tanzanian port west to the Atlantic at Lobito, travelling over the Benguela Railway rebuilt after Angola’s long civil war.

Must stop The TreeHouse Boutique Hotel in Cape Town is within an easy walk of many local attractions yet offers panoramic views over the city and ocean. Its 14 guest rooms are lavishly equipped. Doubles from £152.

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Travel Details

The train operates year-round on 2-14-night trips. Besides the four Royal Suites, there are Deluxe Suites with a lounge area and Pullman Suites with a sofa seat that becomes a double or twin beds. Itineraries from £1,407pp.

Seven Stars Japan

This seven-car train with 14 suites began its tours of the southern island of Kyushu in 2013. It takes opulence to new levels, with lavish use of wood, latticework, engraved glass, art and textiles framing the panoramic windows. Beds convert into sofas by day, and even the washbasins in the en-suite shower room are works of art from the Kakiemon kiln in Arita – one of the places visited as an off-train excursion. The lounge car at the back of the train includes a piano bar but it is the carriage’s end wall of glass that provides one of many ‘wow’ moments. Five chefs create a seven-course dinner, and the strict dress code of suit or black tie helps create the sense of occasion associated with luxury train travel. One- and three-night itineraries are offered, the longer one travelling the Hisatsu Orange Railway, one of the most scenic lines in Kyushu, and there are long stretches set right beside the East China Sea. Guests on the longer journey leave the train for a night in a traditional ryokan Japanese inn, albeit those that match the train’s luxury for style and comfort, with a plunge into one of Kyushu’s famous hot springs.

Must stop Hotel Origo Nakasu in Fukuoka is a small well-located hotel with four railway or metro stations within a 15-minute walk, and half a dozen tourist sights within10 minutes. Doubles from £83.

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Travel Details

With capacity for only 28 passengers, demand outstrips supply and tickets are allocated using a lottery system during a three-week booking period in October via the website. Itineraries from £1,970pp.


Glacier Express Switzerland

Whoever imagined mountain landscapes could be so varied? From the moment the train doors close to arrival 297km and nearly eight hours later, you will never be out of sight of Alpine peaks, yet there is no hint of monotony. Glacier Express is Europe’s most popular tourist train, linking the famous resorts of Zermatt and St Moritz in panoramic-windowed comfort. For those travelling in Excellence Class, there is a seven-course lunch to enjoy as the train winds through deep river gorges and scales hillsides that seem impossibly steep – until you grasp the idea of spiral tunnels and horseshoe curves to gain height. The brilliance of the engineering and the beauty of the scenery has given the eastern end of the railway World Heritage Site status. The train passes the source of the Rhine in wild country, skirts the immense limestone cliffs that tower over the river as it rushes through Switzerland’s Grand Canyon, crosses the Landwasser Viaduct and then climbs to the Albula Tunnel before dropping down into the lovely Engadine valley and the journey’s end among the glitz and glamour of St Moritz.

Must stop The Chedi in Andermatt is close to the station and one of the most luxurious hotels in the Swiss Alps. Doubles from £576.


Travel Details

Daily departures: one each way in winter and up to three in summer. One-way from £125pp.

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