ONCE, on a luxury train journey from Venice to London, I sat in the dining car alongside a couple who looked very grumpy indeed.
She was pouting. He was in a sulk.
It couldn’t have been the menu – which offered a splendid repast of freshly cooked food. They must have had an almighty row, I thought. But all of a sudden the mood changed. There couldn’t have been a happier pair in the carriage.
They leant across to explain to me. The man had arranged for an engagement ring to be frozen in a block of ice, which the dining car steward slipped into his girlfriend’s cocktail. Now, the tension lifted, they were set to be married.
That trip wasn’t any old train journey, I was aboard that most romantic of services, the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, and that little vignette offers a hint of the magic that luxury train travel can confer.
It’s not surprising that increasing numbers of people are choosing to take a break aboard a luxury train. What a contrast to the dismal services we are forced to endure as commuters.
Think of a first-class seat in one of the panoramic cars of the Glacier Express as it rolls gently through Switzerland’s fairy-tale Alpine scenery. Or viewing the vastness of the Australia outback from your berth on the Sydney-Perth Indian Pacific, one of the world’s last continental coast to coast trains. Or a sumptuous meal aboard South Africa’s Blue Train, with the panorama of the veldt rolling by. Or regally traversing the sensuous landscapes of India aboard the Maharajas’ Express
In this era of watching your carbon footprint, luxury train travel means you can help ensure your ecological credentials remain intact – and many long-distance train journeys can begin and end without setting foot on an aircraft at all, thanks to the Channel Tunnel. Planet Rail, one company promoting luxury trains, has already gone carbon neutral for all its European bookings.
Then there is something even less definable – harking back to the golden era of the railways, before travel became plasticky and standardised, when there would be silver service and starched tablecloths in the dining car and a uniformed steward to turn down the covers in your berth before retiring.
Nowhere is this better encapsulated than aboard the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, simply the most glamorous, luxurious and thrilling service on the planet. Other superlatives are plentiful. Here in magnificent Twenties art-deco carriages is world-class service, the finest haute cuisine freshly cooked food on board, sensational alpine scenery, and for those with an affinity for style and glamour, a piano bar for the evenings.
For the truly sybaritic, there are three Grand Suites, which unlike the classic Twenties carriages incorporate private facilities and command an almost euphoric sense of grandeur. As the publicity says: “Be swept up in a sense of unbridled indulgence, previously known only to travel royalty of the golden age.” Not cheap, though. Tickets offered by one company for a forthcoming return trip to Vienna, with some accommodation added, are advertised at £23,000.
Nudging the Orient Express’s reputation as the world’s best known luxury service is South Africa’s Blue Train, gliding majestically since 1923 between Pretoria and Cape Town on its 994-mile, 27-hour journey, showing off the sensational scenery of the Veldt. Its quaintly named rival, Rovos Rail (after its founder Rohan Vos), is itself sometimes dubbed “the most luxurious train in the world”, with a wider range of routes than the Blue Train, and sometimes hauled by a vintage steam locomotive. The Royal Suites, which take up half a carriage, have their own private lounge area and a bathroom en-suite with a Victorian bath and separate shower.
“The trend here,” says Julia Spence, a travel expert who has been promoting luxury train travel for many years, “is for trains to get ever more comfortable.” People, she says, especially want their own ensuite facilities, not a shower down the corridor. It’s no wonder there are so many trains in every continent in the world vying for the accolade “most luxurious”.
One such train is the Golden Eagle, the most comfortable way to traverse the Trans-Siberian Railway, the 5.753-mile steel artery across Russia from Moscow to Vladivostok, crossing eight time zones as it slices through the country’s vast and little-visited interior.
Forget the local stopping trains, instead you can travel in the style of the Tsars, in one of the Imperial Suites, with fine dining and even an on-board doctor. Want exclusivity? You can even hire the whole train for five days to travel, say, from Moscow to St Petersburg for 40 guests for a mere £139,000.
This year the Golden Eagle is due to take a special journey into central Asia, sweeping across the southern heartlands of the former Soviet Union with its “Republics of the Silk Road” tour – an opportunity to travel in style to some of the most fascinating but least visited parts of the ancient world, including the Five “Stans” – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan
Not to be outdone, India has its own offering for the most sumptuous train, with its Maharajas’ Express having been voted World’s Leading Luxury Train for seven consecutive years at the World Travel Awards, the Oscars of the travel industry. Though it takes its branding from the era of the Maharajas, the 14 guest carriages are, fortunately, modern, with several private suites. There is even a Presidential Suite built on an entire carriage, incorporating a separate sitting-cum-dining room, a master bedroom and bathroom with shower and bathtub, a twin bedroom and bathroom with shower.
The Maharajas’ eight-day Heritage of India journey is one of the nicest ways of lapping up India’s top historic sites without getting your sandals dusty. On the journey from Mumbai to Delhi you visit the magical city of Udaipur, the desert region of Rajasthan, the principality of Jodphur and the medieval city of Bikaner. You can also experience the beauty of the Taj Mahal, search for the Bengal tiger in the Ranthambore national park and be taken in by Jaipur’s quintessential Indian charm.
Further east, fans of the Orient Express have their very own train, the Eastern & Oriental Express. This grand 19-coach sleeper runs between Bangkok and Singapore and is just as luxurious than its European sister. Take your pith helmet and enjoy fantasies about Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and old colonial peninsula days, while enjoying spacious and modern coaches, with full en suite facilities. Get yourself a Singapore Sling and enjoy the sensuous warmth of the oriental night from the open verandah at the back of the train.
Those who would rather doze in a bed than in a sleeping car berth may prefer to ride the Rocky Mountaineer – a thrilling two-day journey by private train over four different routes through the Rocky Mountains, over the old Canadian Pacific line to Vancouver, which created the modern nation of Canada in 1885. Here the intermediate night is spent in an hotel before setting off again past glistening lakes, swathes of green forest, foaming rivers and a profusion of wildlife.
Fans of vintage North American trains can book a “Gold Leaf” ticket to ride and dine in traditional-style Dome Cars, like glass bubbles on top of the coaches. If you are lucky, the driver will slow down and stop if he spots some grizzly bears by the lineside.
Different, too, is the Andean Explorer, another sister train of the Orient Express. South America’s only luxury sleeper train glides from Cusco, the capital of the Inca Empire, across the lofty Andean plains to the white city of Arequipa taking in the region’s spectacular highlights en route, including Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest large lake, and Colca Canyon. Unlike many other luxury sleeper trains that play up to a “heritage” theme this has a contemporary feel rather like a boutique hotel.
Heritage, by contrast, is very much the keynote of the Northern Belle, the only luxury train, to ply throughout Britain. Based in the north of England, the service was named to recall the Belle trains of the golden era, such as the weekly Northern Belle operated by the LNER in the 1930s. Fine dining is the order of the day – there are no sleeping cars. Using coaches painted in the Pullman car livery of umber and cream, it operates a varied itinerary of day excursions and weekend trips ranging from the Chelsea Flower Show to the Edinburgh military tattoo.
Another great British day excursion is aboard the Jacobite train from Fort William to Mallaig in the West Highlands of Scotland, where a 1930s steam locomotive will bear you over the Glenfinnan viaduct made famous in the Harry Potter books on the “railroad to the Isles”.
Most thrilling day excursion of all is the Glacier Express, which takes an eight-hour, 181-mile journey through the heart of the Swiss Alps, from Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn to St Moritz. In the winter, it’s a snowy wonderland of a journey, over 291 bridges and through 91 tunnels, including the 9.6-mile Furca tunnel, 4,600 feet above sea level. The essential way to travel is in Excellence Class, which offers a five-course meal, a guaranteed window seat and the services of a concierge.
Perhaps the Glacier Express’s biggest claim to fame is that it is officially the slowest express train in the world. And slow travel is perhaps the greatest delight of the world’s luxury trains, where it is almost always better to travel than to arrive. As the essayist A. P. Herbert once said: “Slow travel by train is almost the only restful experience left to us.”
Michael Williams’s book “The Trains Now Departed: Sixteen journeys into the lost delights of Britain’s railways” is published by Arrow Books, price £8.99