All Aboard for Luxury
In an age where airlines dominate and fast transportation is prized, train travel is a pleasure few experience. The luxurious railways of today allow you to take in scenic landscapes, relax in your cabin and be transported back in time. Trains aren’t the quickest way to reach your destination, but there are few better ways to see the countryside with a cast of intriguing characters.
GAYOT’s list of the Best Luxury Trains offers exciting excursions on five different continents. From breathtaking adventures through the Indian subcontinent to treks across the untouched Canadian Rockies, these trips are sure to mesmerize even the most seasoned traveler.
To satisfy your wanderlust, you’ll also want to check out our curated list of the world’s must-see destinations.
By Alain Gayot
Beginning in 1883, the Orient Express set the standard for Gilded Age travel on the European continent, offering luxury service between Paris and Istanbul. Today, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express keeps the spirit of its namesake alive with fin de siècle elegance aboard restored train cars from the 1920s and 30s. A variety of journeys link top tourist destinations like London and Paris, making the train perfect for honeymooners or business travelers looking for an overnight getaway after a long week of meetings.
If this elegant train had been designed as the set for a movie, there’s no question as to who would have written the script. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is pure Merchant-Ivory, devoted to authenticity and steeped in the refined world of the aristocracy. No blue jeans, no tennis shoes, no mobile phones in public spaces … in other words, no unseemly intrusions from the modern world.
Among the train’s collection of Continental European routes is a run between Paris and Venice. This overnight experience incorporates dinner; breakfast served in your compartment against the bucolic backdrop of Switzerland; lunch taken in the Italian Dolomites; and late afternoon tea sipped as you cross the Venetian Lagoon. Enveloped in the slower pace of a bygone era, we took our morning meal in a dining car adorned with elaborate mahogany inlays and Lalique light fixtures, while outside cows grazed serenely in alpine meadows and cute, clean villages passed by. Later in the day, the landscape evolved into endless sweeps of vineyards.
The original Orient Express made its first trip in 1883 from Paris to Romania, and the Orient Express route was established in 1919. The train was like an intimate, itinerant manor house for blue-blooded travelers, but by the mid-20th century, the upper crust was in decline and the luxury rail lines of Europe were reaching the end of their glory days. This bastion of the golden age of travel might have faded away entirely were it not for Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Hotels chairman, James B. Sherwood, who purchased two old Pullman cars at a Sotheby auction in 1977. Total restoration of these and other historic cars resulted in the revival of the Orient Express in 1982.
Because the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express contains cars from Europe’s most prominent lines, it is difficult to separate it from the history of train travel on the continent. The train is comprised of up to 17 carriages, all of which date back to the early 1900s and still feature their original old coal heaters. In keeping with tradition, each has its own identifying number; Bar Car 3674 was built as a dining car in France in 1931, and Dining Car 4141 was constructed as a first-class Pullman and decorated by René Lalique in 1929. Sleeping accommodations are equally character-filled, from 3425, which was part of the Orient Express service used by King Carol of Romania for his love affairs, to 3544, which served as a brothel during WWII.
While not crafted for the movies, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has seduced its fair share of movie makers, offering berth for characters as varied as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Disney’s Cruella DeVil. The reason for this is simple. When seeking a glimpse of Europe’s cultured past — whether you’re a director or sybaritic globetrotter — you will not find a more genuine experience.
Now you can see Ireland by train aboard the Belmond Grand Hibernian. The first luxury steam engine of its kind to grace the the Emerald Isle, its carriages are inspired by Dublin’s Georgian architecture and the elegant Observation Car is a wonderful place to mingle with fellow travelers. The train accommodates up to 40 passengers in private en-suite cabins so journeys aren’t overcrowded. On board you can look forward to fine dining, live music, engaging storytellers and hands-on craft sessions while lush views sweep by cabin windows.
All journeys begin and end in Dublin and come in two-, four-, and six- night voyages. Each excursion will show you the beautiful sites of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, from ancient castles to lively cities.
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3. The Ghan
Adelaide SA, Australia
Traversed by few and inhabited by even fewer, the Australian Outback remains one of the most desolate, inhospitable regions in the world thanks to its extreme aridity and soaring temperatures. However, guests aboard The Ghan get a rare glimpse into Australia’s “Red Centre” as they enjoy luxury service between Adelaide in South Australia and Darwin in the far north.
A stop in Alice Springs, in the heart of the Outback, allows visitors a chance to explore the natural beauty and indigenous culture of the region. Guests can book off-train excursions that include BBQ dinners, river cruises and tours of wildlife refuges and painted rock sites.
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While the “Darjeeling Limited” may have been the product of filmmaker Wes Anderson’s imagination, you can embark on your own Indian excursion aboard the Golden Chariot, which offers luxury train tours through South India.
These trips delve into the rich history and lush flora and fauna of the region, from UNESCO-protected temples to opulent palaces to a tiger reserve in the jungle. After a day spent exploring, passengers can wind down with a drink in the lounge or a soothing Ayurvedic massage at the on-board spa.
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No need for snowshoes and a parka on this Canadian Rockies adventure. With Rocky Mountaineer, you can experience the dazzling scenery of British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, from the comfort of a reclining chair. With excursions that take travelers through coastal rainforests, past glacier-fed lakes and over rushing rivers and snowy mountain passes, Rocky Mountaineer offers a glimpse into the otherwise inaccessible Canadian wild.
Keep in mind that because there are no sleeper cars, overnight trips stop in Kamloops, Whistler or Quesnel, British Columbia, before ending your destination in either the mountain towns of Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper or the vibrant city of Vancouver. Book a trip on a GoldLeaf train (their premium service) and enjoy gourmet meals in a lower-level dining room along with unobstructed views from the second-level glass-domed coach as you recline with wine or hot coffee and take it all in.
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Pretoria, South Africa
This luxurious train connects all major South African cities. It offers guests — which have included presidents and kings — an unforgettable glimpse into the African wilderness. Depending on which route travelers choose, The Blue Train itineraries include stops at historical colonial sites, golfing on world-class courses or bush excursions with qualified guides. On-board, guests can expect luxury suites with big screen TVs, elegant dining rooms sound tracked by smooth jazz or a string quartet, and gourmet meals prepared with local game and produce.