Get the inside track on luxury with the 10 best rail journeys
1 Eastern and Oriental Express
This journey between two of South East Asia's great metropolises is a fine way to see the diverse cultures and landscapes of the region. The three-night trip between Bangkok and Singapore passes through paddy fields, plantations and swathes of tropical rainforest that contrast sharply with the modern towers of steel and glass at the train's start and terminus. Because it follows a very different course to the main roads, some of the places en route feel quite isolated and remote. On board, meanwhile, is very luxurious. The carriages are panelled with ornately carved wood. The cabins have air conditioning, en suite bathrooms and large windows. Yet the dress and tone are not as formal as the train's sister vehicle, the Orient Express. The food, a combination of Asian dishes with influences from around the world, is excellent.
Bangkok to Singapore (www.orient-express.com; 00 44 20 7960 0500) in a state cabin costs US$3,463 (Dh12,712) per person, based on two people sharing. The price includes meals, tea, coffee and excursions.
2 Danube Express
The Danube Express starts where the old Orient Express ended - in Istanbul. In the course of an eight-night journey (two of which are spent in a four-star hotel in Budapest), the train travels through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and ends in Warsaw, Poland. The landscape is diverse and beautiful, while cities such as Budapest have splendid baroque architecture. Arriving in Budapest's magnificent Nyugati station is a delight. The train itself has eight cars and carries just 42 passengers. Some of the cars once belonged to the Hungarian government and transported Communist leaders, such as Kádár János. They have been rebuilt and refurbished to house deluxe cabins with en suite bathrooms and air conditioning.
The Bosphorus to the Baltic journey (www.danube-express.com; 00 44 1462 441 400) costs $8,799 (Dh32,317) per person, full board, based on two sharing a deluxe cabin.
3 The Maharaja's Express
Launched in 2010, this luxury train is a superb way to see some of India's most famous sites. All three routes begin and end in New Delhi, last about a week and take in places such as Agra, Jaipur and Varanasi. The train itself is an extravagant pursuit of comfort and grandeur. The cabins are beautifully furnished, with very large windows as well as air conditioning and LCD televisions. The extreme is the presidential suite, which, with its two bedrooms and large living room, takes up an entire carriage. The junior suites are less expensive yet still very spacious. There are two restaurants serving Indian and continental cuisine, as well as various bars and lounges to relax in.
A junior suite on the Classical India route (http://www.the-maharajas.com//; 00 91 22 6690 4747) costs $7,700 (Dh28,259) per person, including meals, beverages and excursions, based on two people sharing.
4 El Expreso de la Robla
This train follows a similar, if shorter, route to El Transcantábrico, the legendary Spanish train operating since 1983. It is newer and considerably cheaper. Taking four days and covering nearly 500km, El Expreso de La Robla goes from Bilbao to León and back. It snakes through the heart of Basque country, climbing to more than 900 metres. While a buffet breakfast is served on the train, lunch and dinner are provided in towns and cities along the route. The train also pulls into a station every evening, giving you the opportunity to explore the area. Being stationary at night also increases your chances of a good night's sleep. The train's wood-panelled sleeping carriages are compact, well designed and have air conditioning.
The La Robla journey (www.elexpresodelarobla.com; 00 34 902 555 902) costs $1,078 (Dh3,956) per person, based on two people sharing, including meals and tours. The route operates from March to October.
5 Blue Train
You can drive the route between Pretoria and Cape Town in South Africa for a fraction of the price, but the Blue Train is all about the lavishness of the journey. It is without doubt one of the most luxurious railway routes in the world. One train carries 74 passengers, while the other carries only 58. Every coach has a butler. The cabins have en suite bathrooms with marble tiles and gold fittings. The food is an excellent selection of regional produce, from Karoo lamb to ostrich fillet, while the wines are sourced from some of the world's finest vineyards, including the Western Cape (a region you pass through around breakfast time). Rivalling the splendour within are the views: waterfalls, mountain ranges, moonrise over the Karoo - all best seen from the panoramic windows of the observation car at the back of the train.
A one-way trip (www.bluetrain.co.za; 00 27 12 334 8459) costs $1,735 (Dh6,372) per person, including meals, beverages and excursions, based on two people sharing a luxury suite in low season.
6 Venice Simplon Orient Express
The Orient Express is synonymous with the glamour and allure of 20th-century train travel. It has a rich pedigree, both real and imagined: the legendary Stamboul Train of Graham Greene's 1932 thriller and the setting for Agatha Christie's famous 1934 detective novel, it has transported spies, kings and film stars. Launched in 1982, the VSOE sought to recapture the spirit of a journey on the Orient Express, whose name in fact referred to a few different routes across Europe. The modern classic is the overnight journey from Venice to London via Paris. Dinner - in formal dress of black tie and gown - is served against the backdrop of the Italian Dolomites and Swiss Alps, while in the morning there is just time for a sumptuous breakfast before the train arrives at Paris's Gare de l'Est. The cabins, furnished in Art Deco style, and the staff, ever-attentive in their old-fashioned livery, round off this lavish homage.
Venice to London (www.orient-express.com; 00 44 20 7960 0500) costs $3,316 (Dh12,180) per person, full board, based on two people sharing. The route operates from March to November.
7 Polar Express
This overnight journey heads up through Sweden from the capital and beyond the Arctic Circle, making it one of the northernmost express trains in the world. Its destination is Kiruna, a small Lapland town. Here, the sun does not set from the end of May to the middle of July, creating a period of perpetual day. Between September and April, there is a hotel made of ice and excellent views of the Northern Lights. The train itself is pleasant and efficient. First-class private compartments have an en suite toilet and shower. The main reason for taking this journey, though, is to chart the progress into the Arctic zone, passing through the gradually changing landscape to the cusp of the tundra.
A return journey between Stockholm and Kiruna (www.sj.se; 00 46 771 75 75 75) costs $715 (Dh2,624) per person in a first-class cabin.
8 The Royal Scotsman
Carrying only 36 passengers, each with their own plush, plaid-covered seat in the train's Pullman observation car, this route revels in its exclusivity. For the distance it covers - around 1,000km, depending on the route - it is one of the most expensive train journeys in the world. It is a paragon of sumptuousness and splendour, from the tartan-clad piper welcoming you on the platform to the mahogany-panelled dining cars. The menus at the formal dinners are peppered with items such as salmon, caviar, shortbread and Aberdeen Angus beef. All this opulence contrasts sharply with the invigorating bleakness of the mountains, moors and lochs passing by the window. The three-night "western tour" leaves Edinburgh and heads up into the highlands and across Rannoch Moor, one of the country's last great wild territories.
The "western tour" (www.royalscotsman.com; 00 44 20 7960 0500) costs $5,681 (Dh20,866) per person, full board, based on two people sharing. The trains run from May to October.
9 Bernina Express
Like the famed Glacier Express linking the health resorts of Zermatt and San Moritz, the Bernina Express is another remarkable, narrow-gauge track winding its way through the Swiss Alps. The train belies its speedy title. Travelling at an average of 32km per hour on the four-hour route between the Chur and Tirano just beyond the Italian border, the train crosses 196 bridges and passes through 55 tunnels. It reaches a height of 2,253m at the Ospizio Bernina before making its way down into Italy. Special carriages offer panoramic views over the landscape of mountains and glaciers, which has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2008. The circular viaduct at Brusio - a beautiful curving feat of engineering - is another highlight of the trip.
A one-way ticket from Chur to Tirano in the first-class panoramic coach (www.rhb.ch; 00 41 81 288 65 65) costs $110 (Dh404) per person.
10 The Canadian
This epic journey from Toronto to Vancouver takes four days and passes through the gamut of Canada's diverse and magnificent scenery. Up through the lakes of Ontario and over through the Rockies, the train's stainless steel cars wind their way across the vastness of Canada. Sleeper touring class includes meals and use of the skyline car - its glass-domed roof offers excellent views. The cabins are compact and are fitted with private washrooms. Shower rooms are available in each car. The accommodation is decent but the scenery is the real star of this journey: sweeping valleys, towering mountains, rolling forests and immense lakes.
A one-berth cabin (www.viarail.ca) in sleeper touring class costs $2,417 (Dh8,878) and includes meals. The train runs three times a week throughout the year.
Published: May 14, 2011 04:00 AM