The journey to your vacation doesn’t have to be a Herculeaneffort. Instead, make it the best part by riding the rails.
resently, people loathe a journey—and for good reason. Being stuck in a cramped environment, such as a car or airplane, for hours without the ability to move freely is a nightmare. And we won’t even delve into the other vagaries of travel, like long airport security lines, departure delays, overbooked flights, traffic, speed traps, the search for suitable food, etc.
But what if there were a way to turn the journey back into an adventure?
To help you fall in love with the journey all over again, here are five all-inclusive and ultra-luxurious lines.
GO ON SAFARI
The African Collage is a nine-day, 2,100-mile trip through the wilds of South Africa, starting in Pretoria and ending in Cape Town. You are exposed to some of the country’s most beautiful and remote landscapes while rolling down the tracks at a tame 60 kilometers per hour (a little more than 37 miles per hour) aboard the exquisitely appointed Rovos Rail Pride of Africa.
A major highlight of this tour is the path it takes through the heart of three different game parks: Singita Kruger National Park, Mkhaya Private Game Reserve and Hluhluwe Game Reserve. In each, the train slows to a stop, allowing the passengers to disembark and experience a safari for a short while. “The train takes you to places that are typically accessible only by small plane or helicopter,” says Eleanor Flagler Hardy, president of the Society of International Railway Travelers. “Open [safari] vehicles meet the train, and off you go into the wild, where you see zebras, elephants and lions. It’s amazing.”
The Pride of Africa train is stunning, and its staff pleases even the most discerning traveler. The coaches, which were originally built in the early 1900s, have been painstakingly restored with fine teak paneling, traditional furnishings and period correct décor. Each suite has twin or double beds, a lounge area, air-conditioning and a private bathroom with a shower. The menu features fresh local ingredients and traditional South African fare and is complemented by a selection of excellent South African wines.
Prices start at approximately $5,000 USD per person and include lodging, meals and safaris.www.irtsociety.com/journeyDetail.php?id=71
EXPLORE SOUTHEAST ASIA
Over the years and through a resurrection or two, the Orient-Express company has emerged as a global hospitality powerhouse, with hotels, trains and more in its roster. The Eastern & Oriental Express, one of its most popular train lines, perfectly replicates the opulence and style of the original Paris to Constantinople line, allowing passengers to step back in time to when the pace of life was slower, people dressed up for dinner and breakfast was served by a white-gloved steward. While in motion, you want for nothing. “The E & O Express is considered to be the most beautiful train in the world, with food and service to match,” says Hardy. “It is a gentler, more romantic form of travel.”
One of the most notable of Eastern & Oriental Express’ six tours is Epic Thailand. It offers a mix of adventure and luxury, running the railway’s entire 1,262 miles of track and beginning and ending in Bangkok. The journey takes passengers deep into the heart of the Southeast Asia and stops at sites rarely visited by tourists, giving riders a true taste of Thai culture. Local experts join the trip at several points to educate passengers about the upcoming destinations, which include Phanom Rung, a beautifully restored 12th-century Khmer temple perched on top of an extinct volcano, and Khao Yai National Park. The latter is of special interest to nature lovers because it features one of the largest intact monsoon forests in mainland Asia and is home to elephants, sambar deer, barking deer, gaur, Malayan sun bears, Asiatic black bears, tigers, leopards, otters and gibbons, as well as countless species of exotic birds.
The wood-paneled cabins are surprisingly spacious and include both a couch (perfect for afternoon naps) and a comfy chair in front of a picture window through which you can view the landscape privately. Each cabin is air-conditioned and has a private bathroom with a sink, shower and toilet. Dinner aboard the E & O is an event and requires a jacket and tie for gentlemen and cocktail attire for ladies.
Prices start at approximately $2,600 USD per person and include lodging and meals.
SAVOR A FINE DRAM
If one of your favorite pastimes is sitting back and enjoying a single-malt scotch, this is the trip for you. Also part of the Orient-Express company’s lineup, the Royal Scotsman’s whisky tour through Scotland was conceived in association with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, the self-proclaimed authority on single-cask, single-malt whisky. The society’s excursions in the heart of the world’s malt whisky capital are, as are all Orient-Express tours, designed for a discerning traveler who loves the finer things in life.
The train accommodates only 36 guests per journey, but it does so in plush, Edwardian-style carriages that are fully equipped. The welcoming staff serves modern takes on traditional Scottish cuisine that are prepared using local game, seafood and produce and complemented with some of the world’s finest wines. Served at beautifully dressed tables set with gleaming crystal and silverware, each meal becomes a luxe experience in itself.
For the connoisseur, the train stops for tours and tastings at renowned distilleries, including Glenlivet, Tullibardine and Glen Ord. Onboard the train, Whisky Society ambassadors lead regular tastings, allowing you to savor Scotland’s greatest exports as you roll past the country’s lush mountains, glens and lochs.
Prices start at $6,800 USD per person and include lodging, meals and tours.
TOUR THE SILK ROAD BY PRIVATE TRAIN
With a history that can be traced back to the second millennium B.C., the Silk Road is one of the world’s oldest and most storied trade routes. Since the time of Alexander the Great, it has provided a crucial thread between the East and the West. Today, silk trade goods are transported by plane, ship and truck, but it is still possible to follow the paths of Marco Polo and Genghis Khan. This journey includes two first-class trains—the Shangri-La Express and the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express—which cut a 6,835-mile swath through China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan before the trip ends in Russia 21 days later. It’s a serious route for the serious traveler.
The trip begins with a three-day tour of Beijing, then travelers board the Shangri-La Express. From there, day tours of Xian, Lanzhou, Dunhuang and smaller cities along China’s Great Wall introduce passengers to the highlights of Asia’s interior. Visitors see ancient art and artifacts, such as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas at Dunhuang, and experience music and camel rides in the Gobi Desert.
The Shangri-La Express offers passengers a comfortable setting with modern facilities and air-conditioned cars. However, it isn’t quite as luxurious or exclusive as some of the other trains on this list. The cabins come with upper and lower berths, a washbasin facility shared between adjoining compartments and bathing facilities available at each end of the sleeping carriages.
On day nine, the train crosses into Kazakhstan, and passengers transfer onto the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express for nearly two weeks of tours through some of the world’s oldest cities, including Samarkand, Uzbekistan, the Rome of the East, and Bukhara, Uzbekistan, and across the vast Siberian Karakum desert. Travel into Russia brings sobering World War II memorial sites at Volgograd and finally an action-packed two-day tour of Moscow.
In the Russian tradition, the Golden Eagle train is opulent. It features gold-class staterooms of 77 square feet and silver-class rooms of 60 square feet. That might not sound like much space, but it’s huge for train travel. Each cabin has its own bathroom with a shower (gold-class showers have a heated floor), a plasma TV and DVD and CD players.
Prices start around $22,000 USD per person and include lodging, food and accommodations in Beijing and Moscow at the beginning and end of the journey.
VISIT A WINTER WONDERLAND
If you can’t get enough of the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, there is also a tour across the nearly 7,000-mile rail line from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok on the Russian Pacific coast. Traveling its entire length is a 14-day adventure. The journey, which spans two continents and seven time zones, offers a rare glimpse at the rural Russian landscape, from the climb through the Ural Mountains (the boundary between Europe and Asia) to the wide, open steppes and broad rivers of eastern Siberia. It is considered by many to be the only way to truly take in the vastness and grandeur of the world’s largest country.
Among the many stops, visitors have a day in Irkutsk, known in the late 19th century as the Paris of Siberia because of its museums, theaters and political communities. Spend a full day taking in its most significant sites and museums, including the Decembrist house museum, which is dedicated to the memory of exiled aristocrats who were forced to flee to this remote outpost after the failed revolution of 1825. Then enjoy a day exploring Lake Baikal (the oldest and deepest lake in the world, which holds as much water as all the Great Lakes in North America combined), where in wintertime, you can go ice-fishing, ride a snowmobile or try your hand at piloting a dogsled.
This train is the same one used on the Silk Road tour, and its splendor cannot be overstated. Panoramic windows offer nearly endless views of the passing countryside. Sleeping cars are outfitted with such perks as a DVD player and under-floor heating. In the dining room, chefs serve regional specialties such as borscht and omul—a fish unique to the waters of Lake Baikal—and, of course, as much caviar and vodka as you could ever want.
Prices start around $15,000 USD per person and include lodging, food and tours.
CHUCK TANNERT is a writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in Cargo, Wired and CNET, among other print and online outlets.