I have always loved the slow, rhythmic hum and hypnotic sway of a train. The allure of gazing, lost in thought, out of huge windows for endless hours – watching the ever-changing landscape from the comfort of your bunk or seat – has a pull like no other. There is no turbulence; no fear of lost baggage; no snaking queue at passport control. Train journeys to somewhere far, far away are the epitome of poetic old-world charm, and offer the ultimate taste of the slow life in an age when time itself has become a luxury.
But cheap they are not. Since the gilded age, luxurious long-distance trains have largely been the preserve of the holidaying gentry and their diamond-dripped wives – and even now, a ride on the likes of the Orient Express and its peers can set you back several thousand pounds a day.
But that needn’t be the case. You will still have to be in the mood to splurge a bit, but with a little research and a good exchange rate, the splendours of some of the world’s greatest mega-luxe train journeys needn’t completely break the bank.
One of the more spectacular options is veteran luxury train brand Belmond’s Andean Explorer. Weaving through the Peruvian Andes at a colossal 14,000ft, the Belmond locomotive transports passengers into a mystical world of quintessential South American grandeur. From the former Incan capital Cusco to the colonial charm of Peru’s great second city Arequipa – a metropolis guarded by three godly volcanoes – the Andean Explorer offers either one or two-night jaunts across the country that inject a dose of belle-époque glamour into your South American odyssey.
The route itself is heart-stoppingly unique, with pauses at Puno, the shores of Lake Titicaca and a night at Las Casitas, a Belmond pad in Colca Canyon, home to the Andean condor. It’s a secluded hideaway complete with top-notch spa, lush valley views, period bungalow chambers kitted out with terraces (think heated plunge pools), and some fantastic local artisanal food.
The train sets off at lunchtime and, as with most things Belmond, begins with booze (a pisco sour, naturally) and copious canapés in your cabin. As the landscapes evolve from cities to small towns and, finally, the first glimpse of the mighty Andean peaks, the world of the pullman begins to take centre stage: mammoth technicolour plains begin to branch out into crystal clear rivers that snake their way up into the mouths of turquoise and emerald-green lakes and lagoons; snow-topped mountain fortresses crown the moody clouds that tower over epic swathes of grassland; and exotic, wildly kaleidoscopic plants frame countless national parks and reserves neighboured by sleepy, misty villages. It is delicious and dramatic in the best way possible.
The train itself is as gorgeous as the views. Carriages are named after the local flora and, on first inspection, it is almost impossible to believe that these grand carts were built back in the 2000s. Interiors are all art-nouveau ceilings, lush mahogany panelling, intricate marquetry work and exhaustively detailed brass grilles (which cannily hide the air conditioning units).
Then there is all the delicious iconography. Look beyond the dashing blue of the train’s gleaming exterior and you will clock the chakana cross, a three-stepped symbol of the Inca times that represents the heavens, the earth and the deathly underworld.
It is emblazoned, quite literally, everywhere you look on this train: the stewards’ uniforms, the pretty napkins, the tables and even the plush robes in your marble-clad bathrooms. Elsewhere, muted chic rules the palette. The dining cars – Llama and Muña – are bright and elegant; the lounge car is a joyful mix of old and new, with a quaint little bar and a grand piano made for pisco-fuelled midnight singalongs. There is even an onboard spa.
You wouldn’t think it, but taking in all that scenery from the plush observation car works up quite an appetite – happily, as executive chef Diego Muñoz makes sure passengers are soon well versed in Peru’s gastronomic delights. When dinner rolls around, expect everything from freshwater prawns to hearty tenderloins on a menu crafted to the tunes of ancient Incan feasts.
But Belmond saves the very best for last. On the edge of lake Saracocha, passengers are treated to a magnificent sunrise, then whisked away to the Sumbay Cave, filled with incredible Palaeolithic paintings. Afterwards, the train begins to twist and turn back through the desert and grasslands of the lowlands, and on to Arequipa. It’s a journey you won’t forget.
The Andean Explorer, a Belmond Train (0845 077 2222; belmond.com) offers sleeper cabins from £1,100 per person. The price includes 24-hour steward service, all onboard meals, canapés and beverages, onboard entertainment and excursions.
Four more ways to do it
The Rocky Mountaineer
After a day or two being unapologetically pampered as you thunder from the deep blue shorelines of Vancouver to Banff, you will find there is really only one way to sum up a ride on the Rocky Mountaineer: total luxury. Interiors are slick and minimalist, seats roomy, windows enormous – and the views from the huge viewing platforms are nothing short of epic.
It is all very upmarket but not at all stuffy, with an ethos of relaxed North American comfort trumping all the millennial modcons (no Wi-Fi here).
Where Mother Nature is concerned, you are in for a real treat. Expect mammoth grassy plains branching out into the ice-capped mountains of avalanche country, snaking turquoise rivers which in a heartbeat transform into wild cascading rapids, and if you look really hard, the occasional grizzly bear – the train stops if the driver or your host spots one – and moose along the way. Meals feature an array of local classics, from prime cuts of Alberta beef to seared snapper sourced along the route. You won’t actually sleep onboard, but rather spend the night in Kamloops, Banff and Jasper, where accommodation comes in the form of rustic alpine chic or cosy ski-centric retreats.
The Rocky Mountaineer (0800 195 01950; rockymountaineer.com) offers two-night journeys from £1,050 per person, based on two sharing, including meals, drinks, snacks, service and sightseeing tours.
The Presidential Train
Since it began traversing the tracks between Sao Bento and Quinta do Vesuvio in 1890, this train has carried presidents, heads of state, monarchs and popes – so rest assured you are in good company. You will spend a whole day on board, passing through some of Portugal’s most spectacular spots – including the country’s top-notch culinary destination, the Douro Valley – while dining on fresh fish, meats and vegetables alongside exceptional Niepoort wines.
Just as the occasion demands, the accompanying tableware bling is ultra-flashy. The kitchen uses Küppersbusch equipment; the china is Vista Alegre and all the crystal comes direct from the house of Riedel. Scenery? As the train glides through the east, mountains soar, green and fire-coloured vineyards glow and lakes glisten below the deep blue skies. It all sounds very idealistic, but alas, this train really is heaven on wheels.
The Presidential Train (00 351 9146 39516; thepresidentialtrain.com) offers a one-day gastronomic experience for £631 per person for a full day on the rails, celebrating the best that Portugal has to offer via some of its best scenery.
Cape Town to Pretoria, South Africa
Rovos Rail offers a handful of the most bank-account-busting train journeys in the world, but luckily for travelling Britons, the current strength of the pound against the rand means they are now at their most affordable. Bargain aside, Africa’s answer to the Orient Express really is an education in luxury steam travel. The full Pride of Africa Royal Experience – which runs for more than 2,000 miles across the continent from Dar es Salaam to Lobito – will set you back thousands of pounds, but instead of travelling the whole route, you can do individual sections of it on a tailored itinerary – giving you a taste of its world-famous service without maxing out your credit card.
The most popular section is Cape Town to Pretoria (or vice versa), which takes three days and stops at Matjiesfontein, for a stroll through its historic village, Kimberly, the Diamond mine museum and the Big Hole. Onboard, suites come complete with a sofa, twin or double bed and a little en-suite with a shower – though, for a little extra, the deluxe option gets you a lounge area, champagne and an even bigger window to frame those marvellous views. There is no TV or radio on board – but who needs them when you are gliding through the goldenfield of Witwatersrand?
Rovos Rail (00 27 01231 58242; rovos.com) offers sleeper cabins (sleeping two) from £1,320 for the three-day journey – working out at just £330 per person per night.
Covid rules: For full details of entry requirements and Covid rules for your favourite destinations, see telegraph.co.uk/tt-travelrules. Refer to gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice for further travel information.
With the pound still going strong against the Aussie dollar, a ride on the Ghan from Adelaide to Alice Springs really is the definition of a slice of the good life on the cheap. The two-day, one-night journey north from Australia’s wine country to its red centre skittles through the most diverse landscapes the country has to offer – from the deep green pastures and rolling vineyards of the south to the rich red, astronomic splendour of the mammoth outback. Extra nice touches come courtesy of multi-course, regionally inspired food and fine wines, served in the onboard art-deco-glam – and rather romantic – Queen Adelaide Restaurant. The menu changes often according to the seasons, but regulars include fresh portions of saltwater barramundi and tasty grilled kangaroo fillet.
Early the following morning, the train rolls gently into first stop Marla, where you will disembark to watch the sun rise over the outback (cameras are a must). Back on board, brunch is served as you cross the state border into the Northern Territory through the terracotta MacDonnell Mountain Ranges, until at last you arrive in Alice Springs, hub of the Australian desertlands and the largest town located near to mystical Uluru.
The Ghan (00 61 8007 03357; journeybeyondrail.com.au) offers sleeper cabins (sleeping two) from £733 for the two-day journey – working out at a steal of £183 per person per night.