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Railways to Heaven

The world’s best train journeys make you reluctant to reach your destination.


Perhaps the desire for instant gratification may be replaced by a yearning for more gentle pleasures. Maybe, for a time, we will not travel by aircraft, but revert to our great invention of the 19th century: the railway.

The trend is already in motion. A UBS survey of more than 6,000 people in the US, Germany, France and the UK found that 21 percent had reduced the number of flights they took over 2019. The Swiss bank said that if the trends were borne out, they could halve air traffic eventually.

There is an element of the Swedish concept of ‘flygskam’, or ‘flightshaming’, to thank for the rail resurgence. The Austrian ÖBB, Europe’s largest international rail company, saw a rise of 10 percent in 2018 over major lines such as Rome to Munich and Vienna to Zurich. In Scandinavia, flights between Malmo and Stockholm sank 10 percent in 2019, while train tickets sales rose a fifth. Domestic flights across Sweden fell by 4.5 percent in 2019 compared to the previous year and domestic flights in the UK have dropped a tenth between 2007 to 2017, according to data from Virgin Trains.

The well-heeled are starting to opt for more luxury railway journeys too, believes Gary Franklin, vice-president at trains and cruises at Belmond, a hospitality group that owns seven luxury trains. “After more than a year in lockdown, the way we travel will change. We see, even more, a resurgence of ‘slow travel’: the understanding that the journey is as important as the destination and, even more importantly, as well as travelling companions and experiences gained.”

He adds that in the wake of the pandemic, people will take the time to indulge in travel as a way to compensate for a year in lockdown; taking fewer trips but longer ones and with a more conscientious approach. “It’s a reflective, mesmerising experience aboard a train, discovering the legendary spirit of adventure.”

In the 1970s, travel writer Paul Theroux decided to travel from England to Asia entirely by rail. He documented his journey in the book The Great Railway Bazaar, which is regarded as one of the most romantic pieces of writing about train travel.

“If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination,” said Theroux. “A corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travellers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to.”

We look at five of the most impressive railways journeys in the world.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Belmond; Europe

Seeing the magnificent historic carriages of the Venice Simplon-Orient Express for the first time is breath-taking. The train journey re-opened in May this year after a pandemic-induced hiatus, with new one-day and one-night trips to destinations, including Rome, Florence, Geneva, Brussels and Amsterdam. Guests on this vintage 1920s train can enjoy stunning scenery and delectable cuisine sourced from each stop along the way through Europe. There is also the option to stay overnight at Villa San Michele, Florence, or Castello di Casole, Tuscany, on the Florence route to Paris.

Rovos Rail; Africa

Setting off from Pretoria or Cape Town, Durban or Victoria Falls, Rovos Rail journeys traverse five African countries; miles of interminable savannah, scattered inselbergs, big skies, all with five-star service.

With more than 50 staff on board, from chauffeurs to chefs, security guards to doctors and even a resident historian, this is a railway trip in a league of its own. The 12-square-metre Royal Suites come with clawfoot Victorian bathtubs and a minibar with ‘survival drinks’. Each passenger is given a pair of plastic goggles, so you can stick your head out of the train (tunnels and thornveld permitting).

You dress up for the privilege of reliving bygone days and bygone dinners. Four-course meals are served in the Pride of Africa’s beautifully restored cherry-panelled, teakwood-pillared Belle Époque restaurant with its singing cut-crystal wine glasses, bone china, starched linen napery, solid-silver cutlery and tassel-tied curtains.

Belmond Andean Explorer; Peru

Belmond’s Andean Explorer is South America’s first luxury sleeper. The train travels along one of the highest train routes in the world, gliding through breath-taking cities through the Peruvian Highlands from Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incan Empire, to Lake Titicaca (Puno) and white city of Arequipa.

Guests can disembark and explore natural wonders and ancient kingdoms on one- and two-night trips, such as the majestic Lake Titicaca or the ancient etchings of the Sumbay Caves among the relics of the lost Incan empire. The Colca Canyon is a biodiversity hotspot for the region’s native flora and fauna.

Inside, the carriages are decorated with local crafts complete with Peruvian tapestries (made from alpaca wool) on the bed. The train’s Piano Bar cocktail car has a grand piano setting the tone to discuss a day’s adventures, pisco sour in hand, and the backdrop of sensational panoramas over the snow-dusted La Raya mountains. Or, for those in need of a pick-me-up, there is a luxury spa car.

The Ghan; Australia

This train across Australia’s dusty red outback has been running for 92 years, evoking a frontier spirit and a romantic connection to the land. The 2,979km train journey is a three-night, four-day journey, starting in Darwin and stopping in Katherine, Alice Springs and Coober Pedy, culminating in Adelaide. At every stop, excursions are offered, such as cruising through the Nitmiluk Gorge; a scenic helicopter flight around Uluru; or an outback barbecue under the stars at Telegraph Station in Alice Springs.

With 50 staff and room for nearly 300 passengers, the red train is nearly 2km in length. The Ghan’s legend stems from the 1930s when the first Afghan cameleers arrived in Australia, which led the train to be named ‘The Afghan Express’ which was then shortened to The Ghan.

An extensive menu showcases Antipodean cuisine such as cured kangaroo, saltwater barramundi and bush-spiced apple chutney. In the neat bathrooms you will find the Appelles Apothecary toiletry range, made from Australian native ingredients and sourced sustainably.

The Presidential, Porto, Portugal

Built in 1890, the Presidential train first served King Luis as the Royal Train, and has since carried Presidents, heads of state, and Popes for over a century. After it was retired in the seventies as an exhibit at the National Railway Museum, entrepreneur Gonçalo Castel-Branco fell in love with it and decided to acquire it. In 2010 it was given a magnificent restoration. Next year it plans to resume its dining journeys with famous chefs through the Douro Valley, with a stop at Quinta do Vesuvio wine estate

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