An epic rail journey may be just the ticket when we are free to travel again, writes Patricia Maunder
Are you ready to blow that long-accumulated travel kitty on a bucket-list rail journey loaded with luxurious decor, five-star food and cinematic scenery? Get in quick for next year's departures as places are already selling out, or play it Covid-safe with a 2023 booking on one of these storied trains. Approximate per-passenger prices are in New Zealand dollars.
Where: Numerous European routes
Since the Express d'Orient first travelled from Paris to Istanbul in 1883, this name and its various permutations have been synonymous with luxury rail journeys. Today's Venice Simplon-Orient-Express comprises 17 restored carriages from the 1920s and 30s – the train's heyday. From Art Deco frosted-glass panels to white-gloved dining-car waiters, it's a nostalgic celebration of a slower, more glamorous era of travel.
Limited, old-fashioned bathing and toilet facilities no longer cut it, so most journeys are now one night. However, once a year the Paris-Istanbul experience is revived across six nights, mostly spent in hotels (departing August 26, 2022), and Grand Suites complete with the train's first showers, introduced in 2018. Early this year, new Grand Tour routes taking in cities such as Amsterdam, Rome and Geneva added to the temptation of seeing Europe in vintage style.
Where: Mostly western Canada
Been there, done that? Think again, because North America's most celebrated train service offers four routes, and options have evolved since it began in 1988. An all-American journey was introduced for the first time in August. From Moab to Denver, Rockies to the Red Rocks takes in canyons and mountains, the Colorado River and dramatic desert rock formations including arches and hoodoos.
The classic Canadian two-day journeys head from Vancouver up into the Rocky Mountains' jagged, snow-capped peaks, coniferous forests, wild rivers and glacial lakes. Less well known is the three-day Rainforest to Gold Rush, which lingers in this wild landscape, taking in Jasper National Park and Whistler. It's contemporary comfort and spaciousness all the way on all routes, especially aboard GoldLeaf Service glass-domed carriages, and nights are always passed on terra firma.
Where: Australia, north to south
Covering nearly 3000 kilometres between Adelaide and Darwin, this three-day outback adventure is one of the world's longest rail journeys. The train itself – named after Afghan cameleers formerly seen in Australia's deserts – is also long, at 747 metres. So there's ample room for passengers in sleek mid-century-meets-contemporary carriages fitted out in earthy tones.
The Ghan's excursions include scenic flights over Uluru, and the Nitmiluk Gorge cruise to an Aboriginal rock-art site. To maximise such off-train experiences, including a visit to underground mining town Coober Pedy, book the four-day Expedition. There are also one-night journeys starting or ending in the Red Centre town of Alice Springs for minimalists. A new day trip between Adelaide and the Clare Valley wine region was recently announced, with limited departures until November 26. It's selling fast, so may return in 2022.
Where: North-west and central India
Travelling in India can be grimy and chaotic. Not on this train, named the World Travel Awards' Leading Luxury Train seven times since it launched in 2010. Twenty-three carriages accommodate just 88 passengers, each of whom are treated royally with butler service and red-carpet welcome ceremonies at each stop. In the Presidential Suite, comprising an entire carriage, service is turned up to levels worthy of maharajas and maharanis.
The four Maharajas' Express journeys focus on the state of Rajasthan, which means Land of Kings, so itineraries are rich with palaces, palatial forts and that famous palace for the dead, the Taj Mahal. Between cultural excursions in fabled cities such as Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur, relax in the lounge and restaurant cars among red-turbaned waiters, mirror mosaics and Limoges plates, ostentatiously edged with gold.
Where: Mostly Scotland
Scotland isn't a big place, but somehow time drifts by for up to eight days on this train reminiscent of an Edwardian country house. Rest and revel among shelves of books, marquetry and tasteful textiles, with subdued tartans only appearing here and there, including the waiters' waistcoats. From the welcome by a bagpiper in full regalia, to sipping single malts in the lounge-observation car as Highland scenery slips by, you're never in doubt this is Scotland though.
There are also bonny excursions to castles, whisky distilleries and historic sites, or perhaps a round of golf. Among the Royal Scotsman's journeys are those dedicated to whisky, or heritage homes and gardens, and an annual Grand Tour of Great Britain (departing September 29, 2022) which also explores English cathedrals and a Welsh steam-train adventure. After all that, you may want to recuperate in the onboard spa.
The Blue Train
Where: South Africa
Fancy taking a bath on a train with a flute of Champagne? Even The Blue Train's standard accommodation has baths, in en suites with gold-plated fittings and Italian marble. Among other decadent touches are butlers for all, complimentary Cuban cigars (smoking in the Club Car Lounge only) and heavy silverware, gleaming like fond memories of grand old hotels. From daily high tea to dinner that might include ostrich and oysters, it's the good life on wheels.
The main 31-hour journey is between Cape Town and Pretoria, where masses of purple jacaranda flowers bloom in spring. In between see Table Mountain, vineyards, flamingos and the Big Hole during a stop at a Kimberley diamond mine and museum. A 19-hour overnight trip from Pretoria to Kruger National Park was introduced in 2016, bringing together five-star luxury and the safari Big Five.
Seven Stars in Kyushu
Best known for its bullet trains, Japan launched this much more sedate option in 2013. Exploring the large island of Kyushu, it's all about elegance and exclusivity with just 14 suites including two deluxe options larger than many Tokyo hotel rooms. Prospective passengers must apply for tickets and hope for a lottery allocation.
Although constructed recently, Seven Stars in Kyushu evokes East-meets-West tradition with endless polished wood and golden lighting. Service is impeccable and meals, especially the exquisite Japanese dishes, are worthy of Michelin stars. Choose from two- and four-day journeys, with one night spent at a ryokan (Japanese inn) on the latter. Excursions along the way include a porcelain workshop, Edo-period castle and an active volcano.
Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express
Where: Mainly Russia
The Trans-Siberian Railway is the world's longest train route, stretching 9289 kilometres, across eight time zones, from Moscow to Vladivostok. It has inspired travellers' tales about sharing cramped quarters with locals, who become friends over vodka during endless days crossing the Russian steppes. Or, you could take this once-in-a-lifetime journey on the Golden Eagle. It's like a high-end cruise on wheels, with a Bar Lounge Car pianist and fine food, including caviar served in a restaurant carriage with Imperial-inspired decor.
Cultural lectures are offered during the 13 days on board. Excursions include a tour of the Mongolian capital, Ulaan Baatar (the one non-Russian stop), and drinking Champagne in the Ural Mountains, with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. On the steam-powered Winter Wonderland journey introduced last year, off-train excitement includes horse-drawn sleigh rides and ice-fishing on Lake Baikal.
Eastern and Oriental Express
Where: Southeast Asia
You may have travelled on this Japanese-built train in the 1970s when it was New Zealand's own Silver Star. Utterly transformed into the Eastern and Oriental Express in 1993, it's now an idyllic evocation of colonial Indochina with patterned silks, parquetry and a piano-bar car. Another pleasant spot for cocktails is the indoor-outdoor observation carriage, where vistas of lush jungle, tea plantations and temples are enhanced by tropical breezes.
Back inside, air-conditioning is among this elegant train's many modern comforts. There are also en suite bathrooms with showers in all cabins, where passengers are gently rocked to sleep between Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The full three-day route stops at the Bridge on the River Kwai, where options include a floating Thai cooking class. The New Year's Eve package (departing December 29, 2022) pauses in Penang instead.
You could be virtuous and walk the Camino de Santiago's northern route between San Sebastian and Santiago de Compostela like the pilgrims of old, or give into vice and take this indulgent train instead. For eight days, the El Transcantábrico gently wends its way along northern Spain's Atlantic coast. Excursions include Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum, prehistoric cave art and of course, the medieval cathedral town of Santiago de Compostela at the start or finish.
Being a special Spanish experience, El Transcantábrico offers outstanding food from Asturias, Cantabria, Galicia and the Basque Country, fine local wines, live music and dancing. This train evokes the golden age of rail travel with a little modern Iberian brio, from restored 1923 Pullman lounge cars, to suites that offer another chance to soak in a bath while riding the rails.
Where: Christchurch to Greymouth, New Zealand
From: $110 - $150
Sit back and relax for a 223km ride of the rails between Christchurch and Greymouth (or vice versa should you be wrapping up a holiday on the West Coast) aboard the acclaimed TranzAlpine Train. Just under five hours in total, settle into your bump-proof reclining seat and get ready for the show. You'll have plenty of time to press your forehead against the panoramic windows and gaze across the views. You know the ones - jaw-dropping NZ landscapes the rest of the world raves about. Kissing the edges of the ice-fed Waimakariri River; the Southern Alps a constant (yet well-received) intrusion and up to eight stops at remote stations en route, once the locomotive pulls into Greymouth, we bet you'll be giddy with adoration, too
Pack your comfiest noise-cancelling headphones for in-seat audio commentary as well as your spiffiest camera. The open-air viewing carriage always leaves a lasting impression and more so if you catch every highlight on "film". There's also a fully licensed cafe loaded with hot meals, sandwiches and because this is New Zealand, big pies and barista-made coffee. For extra special dining, The TranzAlpine's popular Scenic Plus Class is currently on hold while a brand new experience is fine-tuned for 2022. Rumour has it there will be an extended tasting menu featuring West Coast and Canterbury flavours.
Check alert levels, border restrictions and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz and safetravel.govt.nz