Going loco - Great rail holiday experiences
My most guilty train experience came one morning as I enjoyed a champagne break- fast on the British Pullman while passing through the London suburbs. Downcast commuters gazed enviously as I raised a glass, before piling into their sardine cans.
I felt like royalty. Ever since I steamed off as a child on the Red Rose express from Liverpool, I've been fascinated by trains and travelled as far as Australia to ride in them. But there are still many famous trains I've yet to try, and the range grows every year to satisfy public demand to travel in style.
Orient-Express, operator of several luxury trains including the British Pullman, brought back the golden era of train travel in the 1980s, when the BBC screened its first Great Railway Journeys of the World programme. Some people have ticked off every journey in the four series, following in the tracks of Michael Palin, Clive Anderson & co.
You don't have to be a champagne- guzzling wannabe aristocrat, as there are several styles of rail holiday. You can spend over £5,000 on a trip just around Scotland, or rough it with ordinary folk taking their chickens to market. Most journeys fall somewhere in between, either on privately-operated tourist trains or reserved carriages on national rail networks.
Many tour operators are now involved, although there are only a few rail spe- cialists. No wonder these holidays aresometimes described as land cruises, as they share many characteristics including a leisurely pace to enjoy the views, sumptuous food and "shore" excursions. On some trains you sleep onboard in cabins which convert to seated accommodation by day; others oper- ate day trips only, or with accommodation in hotels.
An example of the latter is Canada's Rocky Mountaineer (www.rockymountaineer.com), its main route being between Banff and Vancouver with one night spent in Kamloops. Gold Leaf class passengers enjo the best views in glass Dome Carriages, as the train crosses the Rockies and descends to the Pacific or vice versa.
Australia's most iconic trains criss-cross this vast country - the Indian Pacific from west to east (Perth to Sydney); and the Ghan from north to south (Darwin to Adelaide, via Alice Springs) (both www.gsr.com.au).The Ghan was named after the Afghan camel herders who first beat a path into the Outback, and the route was extended from Alice Springs to Darwin as recently as 2004.
You sleep onboard these trains, with staff converting the seats into beds as you dine. You can have a reclining seat rather than a sleeper berth, but that's not recom- mended on long journeys (68 hours from Perth to Sydney!) when you've reached a certain age.
The scenery is not as attractive as in Canada, but the bar and lounge carriages are con- vivial and some of the journey is in darkness. "Whistle Stop" excursions are available along the way, including the ghost town of Cook in South Australia (on the Indian Pacific) whose population is just four.
The Blue Train (www.bluetrain.co.za) is a luxury experience running from Pretoria to Cape Town in South Africa, with cabins onboard and an observation lounge at the rear for uninterrupted views. There are sev- eral other trains in southern Africa, including the Pride of Africa, which takes a longer route between the same cities.
In India, the only comfortable way to trav- el overland is by train, so why not travel like a Maharaja in the Palace on Wheels (www.palaceonwheels.net)? This also has cabins onboard, operating a circular tour from Delhi via Jaipur, Jodhpur and Agra, for the Taj Mahal.
A very different experience awaits on the Trans Siberian Express across Russia, and there is now a luxury alternative to the rough-and-ready service train that links Moscow with Siberia, Mongolia and China. GW Travel (www.gwtravel.co.uk) oper- ates a private train called the Golden Eagle on the Trans Siberian route, and also offers tours on the Pride of Africa, Canadian Empress, Deccan Odyssey (India) and Shangri-La Express (China/Tibet).
Many of the most popular rail holidays are on regular service trains, but on an escorted toureverything is done for you while you interact more with "ordinary" passengers and the often bustling scene at stations. Popular trains in the US include the Coast Starlight (Seattle-Los Angeles) and Southwest Chief (Chicago-Los Angeles) operated by Amtrak (www.amtrak.com), while the Copper Canyon railway in Mexico is another very scenic run (Chihuahua-Los Mochis).
In Europe most holidays are on regular service trains, but standards are high and people who want go green or avoid flying can start their trip with Eurostar from London St Pancras to Paris or Brussels.
The Alpine countries are especially popular, with Switzerland's Glacier Express (www.glacierexpress.ch) narrow-gauge train offering a lovely trip between Zermatt and St Moritz via the Oberalp Pass (6,670 feet). This is a day trip, and one of several scenic Swiss lines that can be combined on a rail holiday.
Norway also has some very scenic railways, including Oslo to Bergen with a side trip on the Flam Railway (www.flaamsbana.no/eng) - one of the world's most steeply-graded routes which descends to a fjord. It can be combined with the Arctic Circle Express, a sleeper train to Narvik featured in the BBC documentary Joanna Lumley in the Land of the Northern Lights.
Closer to home
You can enjoy scenic rail journeys much closer to home, especially in the Scottish Highlands which you can reach by sleeper from London. The highlights are the West Highland route from Fort William to Mallaig - where the steam-operated Jacobite train (www.westcoastrailways.co.uk) operates most days from June 27-August 30 - and the "Road to the Isles" from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh.
Kyle is where my love affair with scenic railways began, as I gazed across to Skye and realised that the sea was crystal clear unlike in my home town of Liverpool. And I got there before Michael Palin!
Rail Holidays facts
- Great Rail Journeys (01904527110, www.greatrail.com),the biggest specialist, has Worldwide and European brochures plus a lower priced Treyn Holidays programme. The six-day Glacier Express & Swiss Highlights tour by Treyn costs from £695.
- Titan Hi Tours
(08009885853, www.titanhitours.co.uk) is one of the operators featuring the Blue Train in South Africa. A 14-day holiday including two days on board costs from £3,275.
- A one-way,two-day trip on the Orient-Express from London to Venice costs from £1,550 (08450772222,
www.orient-express.com ) .A day trip from London to Bath costs from £285.
- Railtrail (01538382323, www.railtrail.co.uk ) operates a seven day Queen of Scots tour using service trains, including the Jacobite steam train and Kyleline, from £979.
Other useful contacts:
Ffestiniog Travel - See the World by Rail (01766 772030, www.festtravel.co.uk)
GW Travel (0161 928 9410, www.gwtravel.co.uk)
Explore (0844 499 0901, www.explore.co.uk)
French Travel Service (0844 84 888 43, www.f-t-s.co.uk)
International Rail (08700 841410; www.internationalrail.com)
Railbookers (0844 482 1010; www.railbookers.com)
All prices and details were correct when published, please check before you take a rail holiday.