The worlds greatest train journeys

Aimee Spicer ( 08 June 2017 )

The golden era of rail travel is alive and well today. Monica Porter samples the delights of world's greatest train journeys.



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Join the queues at any airport and you’ll be left in no doubt – as you shuffle along – that the romance of air travel is a thing of the past. 

Luckily, there are some wonderfully romantic train journeys to make up for it

Since we invented them, trains have occupied a much-loved place in our culture. From the intrigues aboard Agatha Christie’s Orient Express to the station-platform love affair in the classic film Brief Encounter, they have fired our imagination and engaged our emotions. 

Twenty years ago I took a train journey with my mother through the Rhine Valley to visit an old family friend in Cologne. 

We had lunch in the dining car over a bottle of Riesling, gazed out at the lush vineyards and talked about the past.

 It was possibly the most bonding moment we ever shared in our generally thorny relationship.

There are great train journeys to be had in most regions of the world. What can be better than relaxing and looking out at ever-changing scenery – be it snow-topped mountains, the Russian steppes, African savannah or, indeed, lush vineyards.

What better way to see the world than by taking a scenic train journey? Find out more here.

Make tracks through the mountains

One of the most celebrated journeys is through the Canadian Rockies, with its towering peaks and pristine lakes, waterfalls and thundering rapids. 

The Rocky Mountaineer train follows the historic 19th-century route from Vancouver to Banff and Calgary, as well as the more northerly route to the unspoilt little town of Jasper. 

This award-winning modern train is also famed for haute cuisine in the elegant restaurant car and the ‘guest lounge’ with its wrap-around windows for panoramic views.

Closer to home, but as enjoyable, are the journeys through one of Europe’s most scenic countries, Switzerland. Foremost is the Glacier Express, which winds its way through the dramatic, high-altitude landscape from Zermatt to St Moritz. 

Taking eight hours to cover a mere 180 miles, it has been dubbed ‘the slowest express train in the world’. It crosses 291 bridges, goes through 91 tunnels (including the longest narrow-gauge tunnel in the world), crosses both the Rhône and the Rhine, and traverses the Oberalp Pass.

The Golden Pass route linking Lake Lucerne to Montreux, on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva (known as the Vaud Riviera), is another picturesque journey, via the rustic village of Zweisimmen in the valley beneath the glitzy ski resort of Gstaad. 

And from Montreux you can board the delightful Chocolate Train. This first-class only excursion train operates between June and October, serving coffee and croissants in vintage belle époque carriages as it rumbles gently through the bucolic countryside to the medieval cheese-making town of Gruyères. 

There the train pauses while you visit a cheese factory and the 13th-century castle, before continuing to Broc, home of the Cailler-Nestlé chocolate factory, where you can observe chocolate production, sample the finished product and buy some of it at factory prices.

Discover Canada's west coast city of Vancouver and the majestic Rockies on a 15 night tour Find out more here.

An Australian adventure

Equally unique is Australia’s classic rail journey across the Outback – from Adelaide on the south coast to Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory – via the famous town of Alice Springs, which lies halfway (and not forgetting a side-trip to the icon of Ayers Rock). 

This is the way to get a real sense of the majesty and sheer magnitude of the continent’s rust-red centre.

The train is the Ghan, a name abbreviated from its old moniker of Afghan Express. In the 19th century, Afghan camel drivers arrived in Australia to help find a route to the country’s unexplored interior, and their camel trains trekked the same path later taken by the railway. 

The Ghan has a distinctive red engine and an emblem depicting a camel with its Afghan handler. There are comfortable sleeper cabins (in three classes), and a smart restaurant car serving excellent food. 

In the cosy, club-like Outback Explorer Lounge, travellers can relax in comfortable chairs, read, socialise, enjoy a drink, and do a little kangaroo-spotting while rolling through the Outback.

Discover the highlights of Australia on a once in a lifetime adventure. Find out more here.

Safari with a difference

Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa train safaris through southern Africa could be the world’s most luxurious train journeys. 

The company’s beautifully rebuilt classic trains carry a maximum of 72 passengers each, accommodated in 36 spacious suites furnished in period style from the days of serious luxury train travel: the Edwardian era. 

There are sumptuous wood-panelled dining, lounge and observation cars, and 24-hour room service.

The Pride of Africa routes link some of the continent’s most alluring destinations, from Cape Town at its southern tip, to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, the game reserves of Mpumalanga to the Victoria Falls, and the deserts of Namibia to the flourishing cane fields of KwaZulu-Natal and Garden Route along the Cape coast. 

At various stages of the journey the trains are hauled by steam, diesel or electric locomotives. And that, dear readers, is how to put the romance back into travel in the 21st century. 

Less EasyJet, more Phileas Fogg. Most flights these days are forgettable, but you’ll always remember the time you took the overnight sleeper from London and awoke in the pale light of Inverness. There’s something magical about it.

I got hooked on the magic as a youngster, when I first saw the film Some Like it Hot. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, disguised as women, join an all-girl jazz band which travels on the sleeper train from Chicago to a gig in Florida. 

The band’s singer, Marilyn Monroe, pops into Jack’s curtained sleeping berth, they conjure up some bootleg whisky and before long an impromptu party is in full swing. “I tell you my dear,” pipes Jack (aka Daphne), “this is the only way to travel.” 

And I had a feeling he might be right.

A once-in-a-liftetime adventure awaits on Saga's 'Ultimate Africa' tour Find out more here.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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