With all due respect to Japan’s Shinkansen, catching a slower train is gaining in popularity worldwide. Perhaps it's because many of us are tired of living at breakneck speed, or maybe we're in search of a more authentic way of travel.
Or maybe, just maybe, T. S. Eliot was on to something when he said, “The journey is as important as the arrival.” Because when that journey is on a luxury train—transporting you in style through isolated and rugged terrain that's often difficult to explore by other means—it forces you to slow down, breathe deeply and experience the world with eyes wide-open.
While many luxury trains are original 1930s Pullman carriages converted to combine modern comfort with authentic atmosphere, others offer futuristic viewing bubbles—a treat for all ages to spot snow-tipped mountains looming overhead.
In most cases, luxury train travel is similar to cruising: the route has been carefully considered, your meals are meticulously prepared, and experts with all sorts of degrees and diplomas are on hand to explain points of interest.
For those who are all aboard this idea, here’s a spotlight on some of the world’s best luxury trains that might help punch your ticket.
The Route: An epic eight-day/seven-night journey that begins in Delhi and stops in Agra, Ranthambore, Jaipur, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Balasinor before arriving in Mumbai.
The Lowdown: Nothing less than a palace on wheels, this opulent train makes every passenger feel like a maharaja. Launched in 2010, its lavish interiors seamlessly blend modern day amenities with a bygone era. Expect fine dining at its two restaurants, with plates edged with gold and Swarovski hand-cut crystal glasses filled with some of the best wines in the world. Spacious suites in a range of categories cater to 88 guests, and even the lowest come with supersized windows and a personal butler. After savoring the incredible views, there's a spa and gym, plus numerous excursions transporting you to some of the country's iconic palaces, forts and World Heritage Sites. Go in search of tigers on a four-wheel safari, be entertained by local dancers, cheer at an elephant polo match, or play a challenging round of golf.
Wow Factor: An iconic Indian experience with tigers and the Taj Mahal.
The Route: Running over 180 miles between St. Moritz and Zermatt, there are quicker ways of making this scenic Swiss journey, but none quite so pleasant as this seven-and-a-half hour train ride that allows passengers to hop on and off at various points, including Chur, Switzerland's oldest town, and the charming mountain resort of Kandersteg.
The Lowdown: Once a steam-powered locomotive, the Glacier Express, dubbed “the slowest express train in the world,” is now a modern affair with first- and second-class panoramic carriages with local specialty meals served at your seat. The train travels year round through the Alpine heartland of Switzerland, revealing shimmering peaks and sugar-frosted forests in winter and meadows carpeted in wild flowers in summer. But it's the sheer engineering feat of the railway that’s really impressive. As the train snakes its way through 91 tunnels and crosses 291 bridges, it potters past highlights such as the Landwasser Viaduct and the 130-foot-deep Rhine Gorge, all while incredulously using a rack-and-pinion system to climb to the highest point on the route — the Oberalp Pass at 6,706 feet.
Wow Factor: The knockout views of the majestic Matterhorn in Zermatt.
Belmond Royal Scotsman
The Route: The Royal Scotsman offers various journeys into the heart of the Scottish Highlands, beginning and ending in Edinburgh, with durations from two to seven nights.
The Lowdown: You can't get more traditionally Scottish than this train — guests are welcomed onboard by a Highland piper, the interior is swathed with authentic tartan upholstery and you can even borrow a kilt for the duration of the journey. Emulating a luxurious home away from home with just 36 guests, there are cozy sofas perfectly positioned by windows offering glorious views of the rugged countryside punctuated with castles, villages, glens, misty mountains and lochs. An open-air observation carriage gives passengers the chance to breathe in the fresh air, take photos or admire the night sky, but most trips incorporate plenty of stops and excursions. Some involve local personalities and experts who talk on subjects as diverse as salmon fishing and whisky, while others include activities like clay pigeon shooting. The energetic few can even hop off the train to hike Glen Nevis. Passengers eat in one of two dining cars where informal and formal dinners are held on alternate nights and showcase Scotland's famous natural larder — salmon, shellfish, game and Aberdeen Angus beef — while evening entertainment creates a convivial Scottish atmosphere.
Wow Factor: Formal dinners with everyone wearing kilts and cocktail dresses, and sipping Scotch whisky to the sound of bagpipes.
The Route: The two-day trip to Banff begins in Vancouver and travels through Canada’s Rocky Mountains with overnight accommodation in Kamloops and a stop at Lake Louise.
The Lowdown: The Canadian Pacific Railway united Canada from east to west, a critical feat in the country’s history. This is the only passenger rail service on this historic route, which also transverses the Continental Divide through a variety of landscapes, from waterfalls and snowcapped peaks to glacier-fed lakes and green valleys. Rocky Mountaineer trains don’t offer sleeping berths (they stop in the evening for people to check into a hotel), and three classes of service are available with delicious meals and regularly served snacks. The most luxurious carriages feature two-level glass-domed coaches affording scenic views and a storytelling guide who alerts passengers to passing points of interest. There's also an open-air section where guests can take snapshots of swooping ospreys and leaping salmon — plus black and grizzly bears if they're lucky.
Wow Factor: The spectacular starry sky and Lake Louise, possibly the most beautiful glacial lake with a striking turquoise color.