Ten of the world's best rail trips - and the DIY alternatives.
The experience: "The chocolate-and-cream British Pullman train departs from London's Victoria station and glides through Kent, commuters waiting on station platforms looking on enviously as brunch and bellinis are served on the way to the Channel. In France, a royal-blue train with brass insignia, served by uniformed and white-gloved attendants, is waiting to take you through the most fought-over acres of France to the capital while a four-course dinner is served.
"The dinner is made unforgettable by the sumptuous surroundings of the Lalique glass and wood-panelled dining cars as well as the quality of the food, a miracle of skill conjured up in the tiny galley kitchen." - Anthony Lambert
The details: The original Orient Express, inaugurated in 1883, ran between Paris and Istanbul and soon became a byword for elegance and Art Deco luxury. Today, it is still possible to travel on the train as far as Istanbul and to a host of European destinations. Most itineraries include Venice, but other places to which the train ventures are Paris, Prague, Krakow, Budapest, Bucharest, Stockholm and Copenhagen. A berth in a double cabin costs about $3989 a person for a two-day/one-night journey, including all table-d'hote meals.
2: Rocky Mountaineer, Canada
The experience: "Over my first breakfast, Bill explains that the real benefit of travelling on this train is that there are no changes or connections. He also says the top chef at one of Vancouver's best restaurants is now running the kitchen on the train. This soon becomes apparent. Delicately prepared scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, plates of fresh fruit, hot toast, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, tea and coffee are brought to our breakfast table. It is delicious and worth getting up for at half past five.
"As the train glides across the track, Bill suggests that if anyone sees a grizzly bear, a black bear, moose or eagles they should shout out their sighting, then we can all photograph them, although he qualified this by adding that we are unlikely to see a grizzly or moose as these are solitary creatures that live in the heart of the forest ... but you never know." - Laurence Marks
The details: The Rocky Mountaineer operates five rail routes. The First Passage to the West is the company's flagship route and takes guests between the coastal city of Vancouver and the Rocky Mountain resort towns of Lake Louise, Banff or Calgary, Alberta, while the Journey Through the Clouds route travels between Vancouver and Jasper, Alberta. On both routes, guests overnight in the historic rail town of Kamloops, BC. From $1487 a person for the two-day journey between Vancouver and Banff/Lake Louise, Vancouver and Jasper, or Whistler and Jasper, with Rocky Mountaineer.
The Rocky Mountaineer train British Columbia crosses over the Fraser River near Lillooet. Photo / Supplied
3: Maharajas' Express, India
The experience: "Something was missing when I stepped off the train, and it wasn't just a temperature reading in the low 40s. Where were the turbaned musicians, the dancers balancing bowls on their skulls, the smiling women dabbing vermilion dots on foreheads and draping garlands over shoulders?" - Michael Kerr
The details: One of five luxury trains operating in India, the 19-car Maharajas' Express provides an unrivalled way of seeing some of the best-known sights in the north and west in style. The balance between eating on and off the train, daytime train travel and excursions - by Mercedes coach - is well judged. There is a number of itineraries, including the seven-night Indian Panorama, which takes in Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Khajuraho, Varanasi and Lucknow. From $7456 a person through Maharajas' Express.
4: Blue Train, South Africa
The experience: "A fast train called the Union Express northbound and the Union Limited southbound was introduced in 1923, to link the Union Castle steamers arriving at Cape Town from Southampton with the goldfields of Jo'burg and the Transvaal capital at Pretoria. The original wooden coaches were replaced in 1937 with steel coaches built in Birmingham and painted a smart blue. Before long, the train became known colloquially as 'that blue train', and its name was changed officially to 'The Blue Train' in 1946. Meals and drinks (and even Montecristo Havana cigars) are included in the fare, and there is an extensive list of South African wines available." - MS
The details: The Blue Train route covers the hundreds of miles between Cape Town and Pretoria in 27 hours, with one stop in each direction - the fashionable old town of Matjiesfontein in the Karoo on the northbound journey, and the historic diamond-mining town of Kimberley on the journey back. The one-way fare, bookable through bluetrain.co.za, is $1603 a person. If you'd rather travel on the train as part of a tour with other travellers, try Great Rail Journeys. There is also a cheaper option to travel between Pretoria and Durban.
5: Eastern & Oriental Express, Southeast Asia
The experience "As the shining domes of 21st century downtown Bangkok receded into the distance we passed tiny shacks, families tucking into rice and vegetables and groups of waving children so close we could almost touch them. Quite what they made of us - champagne glasses in hand - was anyone's guess.
"Later on, in the piano bar, as the sights, sounds and scents of Southeast Asia flashed by, one of the female passengers delivered a splendid rendition of Lady in Red. Ties were loosened, inhibitions shed; the train's general manager revealed that these carriages had been the setting for proposals, a wedding, and 'lots and lots of indiscretions'. I had a feeling that there had already been one or two on this journey." - Adrian Bridge
The details: The classic route for this train - which was inspired by Shanghai Express, the 1932 film starring Marlene Dietrich - is the 2019km journey from Bangkok to Singapore (or vice versa), with stops at the River Kwai and Penang (the jewel of the Orient). From $3126 a person through Belmond.
The experience: "Fittingly, passengers on the inaugural run of the new 21-car Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express included HRH Prince Michael of Kent, first cousin twice removed of (and dead ringer for) the last Tsar, Nicholas II. Beneath the Stalin-era murals of zeppelins and fighter planes in the cavernous imperial waiting room at Moscow Kazansky station, Prince Michael, speaking flawless Russian, welcomed the joint Russo-British enterprise and, accompanied by Princess Michael, climbed aboard. It was the day after the funeral of Boris Yeltsin. What could have provided more concrete proof of the extent to which Russia changed under his rule than the official launching of a British-specified, Russian-built train by a man who was a direct descendant of the last Tsar?" - AL
The details: Golden Eagle Luxury Trains offers both the classic Trans-Siberian route from Moscow to Vladivostok and the arguably more spectacular Trans-Mongolian from Moscow to Beijing via Ulan Bator. Places on the latter cost from $19,827 a person in an en suite Silver Class cabin, including eight nights' all-inclusive on-board the train and four nights' full board in mostly five-star accommodation.
The Maharajas' Express. Photo / Supplied
7: The Desert Express, Namibia
The experience: "At first I think it is a mirage: a lone figure, shimmering in the heat, loping through the emptiness of the Namib desert. In the distance it is a dark spectre, diminishing as it jogs towards a towering sand dune. I rub my eyes. I have just woken on the overnight Desert Express train from Windhoek. Is it an illusion, a trick of heat and dust, or the spirit of a long-dead San Bushman returned to his hunting grounds?
"Neither: it's Cedric, a steward on the train and a keen footballer, who is running up the dune to make sure it is safe for passengers to trek up after him and view the Atlantic Ocean from its summit. Journeys on the Desert Express tend to be a bit out of the ordinary." - Gavin Bell
The details: The Desert Express covers 354km from Windhoek through Namibia's central highlands, across savannah, desert and gravel plains to Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast. A longer safari option includes Walvis Bay and game drives in the Etosha National Park. There is no fixed schedule and services are not always guaranteed. The more people travelling, the more likely the service will run. One-way tickets cost $400 a person sharing a twin cabin, bookable through Expert Africa.
8: Kyushu Seven Stars, Japan
The experience: "One of the best emails I've ever had read as follows: 'Fancy doing the launch trip of the Kyushu Seven Stars: Japan's first all-new hi-tech luxury sleeper train, coasting through the lush landscape of the southern Japanese island of Kyushu?' Well, let me think for a moment. Yes, please!
"The Kyushu Seven Stars aims to rival luxury train journeys such as the Orient Express, and they've thrown everything at it. There's handcrafted woodwork and delicate art throughout. There are musicians, magicians and on-board staff who have spent a year in prelaunch training. There are showers lined with aromatic hinoki cypress wood, ceramic sinks inspired by Satsuma porcelain, bamboo blinds and shoji, Japanese paper screens. Yes, please!" - Bee Rowlatt
The details: The first fully fledged luxury train in Japan offers two itineraries on the southern island of Kyushu, with the next available departure dates in March 2015. Places on the two-day/one-night trip cost from $2505 a person; and for the longer four-day/three-night tour, from $5611 a person. Bookable direct at cruisetrain-sevenstars.jp/en.
9: The Hiram Bingham, Peru
The experience: "Although, at just 97km, the journey by train from Cusco to Machu Picchu is hardly epic, it does involve travelling at a leisurely pace through some spectacular landscapes -- deep gorges, rushing rivers, luscious forests -- against rugged mountain backdrops. All this while being served Pisco Sours and a three-course lunch involving dishes such as mashed fava beans, hen breast with yellow chilli pepper and the 'Sacred Valley Corn Cheese Cake'.
"Proceedings are enlivened by a three-piece band belting out popular classics such as ba-ra-rumba (cue spontaneous dancing in the carriage next to the observation deck). Not the most stylish experience of all time (dinner jackets definitely not required), but fun - and one hell of a way to reach the sacred site of Machu Picchu." - AB
The details: The Hiram Bingham (named after the American explorer who discovered the "Lost City" in 1911) travels from Poroy (just outside Cusco) to Aguas Calientes, the town from which Machu Picchu can be reached by bus, and vice versa. The journey takes just under three-and-a-half hours one way and costs from $954 a person one-way, including meals. While you can do it as a day-trip, it is better to break the journey and spend at least a night close to the ruins (if the budget stretches to it, in the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel directly next to the Machu Picchu site).
10: El Transcantabrico, Spain
The experience: "El Transcantabrico is billed as a five-star 'cruise on rails'. There was indeed a pleasant whiff of exclusivity each time we passed through a separate gate on to the platform where the train was waiting. Staff in uniform stood in line to see us off on our excursions and were there again when we returned, looking as if they might break out into a salute at any moment.
"Once, I caught sight of someone wiping the brass handles of the doors just before we embarked. On some stretches, men leant on their forks to watch us pass. We idled through people's backyards and farmsteads, examining their washing and their husbandry. Five days of sedate travelling took us through the green bucolic landscape of Cantabria to the mountains of Asturias and the wild inlets of Galicia. A cyclist could have kept up.
"The inspiration for this laid-back tour of 'Green Spain' was a thundering monster known as the Hullero, or coal train, that used to transport coal from Leon to the iron and steelworks of Bilbao. In 1980, the writer Juan Pedro Aparicio travelled rough on the Hullero, sharing the cooking pots and the stories of the men who drove and rode in her. His romantic account of that journey, El Transcantabrico, started a movement to save the line." - Elizabeth Grice
The details: El Transcantabrico covers about 643km between Leon and Santiago de Compostela, journeying via Bilbao and Santander in northern Spain on narrow-gauge tracks, with excursions by luxury coach each day to parts the train cannot reach. Two nights on-board from $1233 a person; seven nights from $4310.