Before the advent of the automobile, most travelers traversed the countryside via rail. Whether Stateside or overseas, tourists and locals ate in opulent dining cars, reclined in wood-paneled lounges and slept in lavish staterooms with all the comforts of home—if your home was a palatial estate. While cars have made rail travel almost obsolete in the United States, trains are still a great way to get around overseas.
Every summer, throngs of American tourists head to Europe with their Eurail passes in hand, ready to see the continent the way locals do. But these trains don’t offer luxury. Several rail journeys exist that exude the opulence of yore, with guest amenities that rival the world’s finest luxury hotels. Here are our favorites:
Orient Express: Mystery writer Agatha Christie immortalized it in print and no luxury train travel story is complete without the biggest outfitter of them all, the Orient Express. Orient Express services three continents—Europe, Asia and South America—and has been offering luxury trips since 1883. Many first-timers head on the Royal Scotsman or the British Pullman because such trains offer scenic daylong journeys through the United Kingdom. But arguably the most popular Orient Express itinerary is the six-day, five-night Venice Simplon. Trains run from London to Venice and guests stay in restored Art Deco carriages that evoke Christie’s time—each carriage has its own long and fraught history. Cabins double as a private lounge and a sleeping compartment, with an upper and lower bed and windows with views of the majestic scenery. Doubles have their own sinks as well as 24-hour butler service. French chefs prepare sumptuous meals in three dining cars.
Maharajas Express: Princely palaces. Spiritual temples. Sacred cities. India’s Maharajas Express hits them all. This new luxury journey—the inaugural trip took place in March 2010—takes riders on a seven-night, six-day journey from Delhi to Kolkata. You’ll see the Taj Mahal in Agra, the sacred city of Varanasi, the temples of Khajuraho and the Ganges River. It’s the first pan-Indian luxury train, with room for 84 passengers in 20 deluxe cabins, 18 junior suites, four regular suites and one palatial, single-carriage presidential suite. The cabins are some of the world’s most spacious, with twin or double beds, eco-friendly bathrooms, LCD TVs and air-cushioned suspension. Two restaurants, a safari-themed bar and a manly club lounge complete the experience.
Blue Train: Africa has many natural wonders and you can see a few of them on the historic Blue Train. The 27-hour journey starts in Pretoria, South Africa, and ends in capital, Cape Town, with a stopover in Kimberley or Matjiesfontein, depending on the departure point. The Blue Train has been traversing South Africa since 1923, with various routes in and out of the country, but due to political unrest and other factors, only makes the domestic journey today. Guests spend the night in colorful suites appointed with deep-soaking tubs or handheld showers and full or twin beds that double as lounge chairs during the day. The train also offers a four-night Pretoria-Durban route with two nights onboard and two nights at Durban’s Zimbali Lodge. Golfers will love this journey for the Zimbali’s 18-hole course, one of South Africa’s finest.
Royal Canadian Pacific: You don’t always have to go overseas to experience train travel the way it was meant to be. Canada’s Royal Canadian Pacific has journeys throughout western Canada incorporating fly fishing, wildlife and golf. Our favorite is the Rockies Experience. This six-day, five-night itinerary starts and ends in Calgary, Alberta. Travelers enjoy Banff, Lake Louise, the Waterton-Glacier and a scenic helicopter ride above the mountains. The wood-paneled rooms are stately but varied in accommodations with doubles, twins or bunk beds, depending on the level of service. All rooms have en-suite baths, luxurious bathrobes and Aveda toiletries. Chef Alain Maheux creates culinary delights sure to win fans.