Photograph by Getty Images
From the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is sophistication and splendid comfort. The classic midnight blue carriages were decorated by celebrated interior designers such as René Lalique (Dining Car 4141). As the world's most celebrated train, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express carries passengers across Europe in the style of a bygone era. The memory of the glamorous carriages, sumptuous cuisine, and personal service will stay with you forever.
Bombed, shot at, and marooned in snow drifts, the history of the Orient-Express dates back to October 4, 1883, with the inaugural run steaming from Paris to Guirigi, Romania; and passing through Strasbourg, Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest. The carriages have histories and individual characters of their own that may date back even farther: Each spent long years of service crisscrossing the frontiers of Europe, operating for a variety of prominent railway companies. Each retains its unique identifying number from its previous incarnation; for instance, Dining Car 4141 was originally a first-class Pullman.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express's fabled Paris-Istanbul run was inaugurated in 1921. Today the Orient-Express usually makes only one run to Istanbul, in September, when the Venice-to-Istanbul segment is added to the more frequently scheduled Paris-to-Venice route. Lunch and dinner are served at pre-arranged seatings in three plush dining cars, with white linens and glittering china and silver. Evening dress is black tie or dark suit. In the morning, stewards deliver a continental breakfast.
The carriages recently were completely refurbished to emulate the original features, but modern amenities have been added.
The striking red-and-gray Thalys is Europe's newest high-speed international train. It is regarded as the best link between Paris and Low Countries cities such as Brussels (1.5 hours), Bruges (2.5 hours), and Antwerp (2.2 hours). Thalys trains are a Franco-Belgian operation, with cooperation from Dutch and German railways. Operating at an average speed of 150 miles an hour (242 kilometers an hour), they are the world's fourth fastest trains (after Shanghai's Magrev, Japan's Bullet Train, and France's TGV). Moreover, your trip will be incredibly comfortable. Seats in first and second class are deep and spacious. A first-class ticket includes the price of meals—delicious breakfasts, cold plate lunches, and dinners with wine—all served at your seat on trays.
The Thalys service has become so popular that many trains are fully booked, despite the fact that there are 18 Paris-Brussels and 5 Paris-Amsterdam departures daily from the Gare du Nord. Service is being extended to additional cities as the network grows.
The Blue Train
The famous Blue Train makes the 994-mile (1,600-kilometer) run from Cape Town to Johannesburg (24 hours) three times a week in high season (summer) and once a week each way in the off-season. The train travels only at speeds up to 68 miles an hour (110 kilometers an hour). The slow, smooth ride allows you plenty of time to soak in the spectacular scenery.
There are two kinds of accommodations on the train: the deluxe suites with a lounge and full-tub bathroom and the luxury suites with a private shower and toilet. Each carriage has only four suites. Food and service are outstanding. When you first board, champagne awaits you in your compartment.
A red carpet literally is rolled out for travelers on the Royal Scotsman. At the station, a kilt-clad bagpiper wheezes a maximum of 36 passengers on board, where the first order of business is a champagne toast in the lounge/observation car.
Trips depart from either London or Edinburgh for one- to seven-day tours of England's west country, Scotland's highlands, or specialty destinations. A guidebook in each compartment describes the tour's itinerary, which might include visits to castles, museums, homes, golf courses, or gardens. These private visits usually are scheduled before or after regular hours; many owners or operators of the attractions conduct the visits. A special bus follows the rail route to ferry travelers between the train and the excursion sites.
On board, the most comfortable place to spend leisure time is in the beautiful 1908 observation car. The armchairs and sofas are plush, and newspapers are brought aboard daily. In the evening, travelers may partake of cocktails and hors d'oeuvres here before heading to the dining car, and occasionally a trio stages classical musical performances.
Dinners are either black tie or black suit events, with sittings in two dining cars that date from 1945 to 1960. The chef prepares four-star-quality meals with fresh ingredients purchased en route. Well-chosen premium wines complement the menu.
Al Andalus Express
The luxurious Al Andalus offers a relaxed way to explore southern Spain's beautiful Andalusian region. Distances covered on the seven-day round-trip from either Madrid or Seville are short, and the train generally travels from town to town during breakfast hours, leaving most of the day free for touring and the night undisturbed for comfortable sleeping.
The emphasis of the train journey is on scenic areas and historic or cultural attractions—the Alhambra in Granada; the eighth-century Mezquita, a huge mosque turned cathedral, in Cordoba; Spain's oldest bullring in Ronda; sherry cellars in Jerez; and much more. The train runs only during the relatively less crowded spring and fall months, so your experiences at the attractions will be less hectic. These are also the seasons of somewhat milder temperatures than in summer, although the train itself is fully air-conditioned.
One of the prettiest luxury trains, with exquisite marquetry and soft colors, the Al Andalus has five special cars that the French built in 1929 to take the King of England on a journey to the French Riviera. The train's superbly restored vintage mahogany-paneled compartments accommodate 80 passengers. Passengers bathe in two unique cars, completely fitted out with spacious private shower/dressing rooms. Attendants clean the rooms after every bather, and the wait is never more than a few minutes. Terry robes and slippers and a bag for carrying toiletries are provided.
Thoughts of the Trans-Siberian Express conjure up romantic images from Dr. Zhivago. In reality, the train is a vital lifeline that links Moscow to Vladivostok on Russia's Far East coast, crossing the Ural Mountains and Siberia's taiga and steppes along the way. The railway's long stretch across Russia makes it the world's longest train route.
As the train travels the railway's incredible length—more than 5,625 miles (9,000 kilometers)—it passes through a huge diversity of landscapes and cultures. You may wish to hop off the train at a few points to meet locals or dip your toes into magnificent Siberian Baikal Lake, or you may just want to sit back and enjoy the train ride.
It takes more than six days to travel the length of the Trans-Siberian railway. Accommodations are spartan by Western standards, but it is still an amazing adventure.
The Royal Canadian Pacific
Introduced in 2000, the Royal Canadian Pacific ranks as North America's finest touring train, offering passengers an unparalleled six-day journey through the Canadian Rockies. The train travels 635 miles (1,015 kilometers) round-trip from Calgary, making stops so passengers can visit Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park, the re-created gold rush town of Fort Steele, the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump World Heritage site, and other lovely attractions. The train accommodates only 23 passengers in its five handsome walnut- and mahogany-paneled carriages drawn from the Canadian Pacific Railway's fleet of fully restored 1940s business cars. The "Mount Stephen"—the train's social hub—includes a reading room that was once a smoking room used by Winston Churchill. The "Royal Wentworth" served as part of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth's Royal Train.
The dining experience is first-rate. Meals are served in two dining rooms at tables that seat either ten or twelve people. The menu features sumptuous repasts. Live music highlights evening entertainment, just right for the stop on the serene banks of Crowsnest Lake.
The British Pullman
Throughout the year in the U.K., Orient-Express offers day trips and short excursions on a vintage train pulling smart and elegant British Pullman carriages. Each of the 11 cars is a masterpiece with its own name and character. Five-star brunches and dinners are served in spacious individual seating accommodations, and attentive stewards cater to your every need. Trips to Bath, Oxford, and other regional cities and short overnight breaks to Cornwall are among the itineraries, as are special outings to stately homes, gardens, castles, and sporting events, mostly originating from London.
The Rocky Mountaineer
The Rocky Mountaineer pioneered daylight-only rail touring through the Canadian Rockies. Its two-day, all-inclusive trip between Vancouver and either Banff or Jasper proved so successful that two trains, each carrying about 500 passengers, now cover the route from mid-April to mid-October and again in snowy December. The train overnights in the mining town of Kamloops, where passengers are treated to dinner and hotel accommodations. In the morning, one section of the train goes to Banff and the other goes to Jasper. Whether you start or finish in Vancouver, you should definitely take a few days to explore the national parks.
The Ghan is a living legend in Australia. It takes the ultimate journey through the very heart of the continent. When the Ghan first departed Adelaide for Alice Springs in 1929, it was always intended that the train would someday travel through to Darwin. In 2004 the dream became reality.
Traveling through endless vistas of dry outback, the overnight trip from Adelaide to Alice Springs covers 969 miles (1,559 kilometers). Darwin is another night and 882 miles (1,419 kilometers) down the tracks. The train crosses the Macdonnell Ranges, the Great Victoria Desert, and sheep and cattle stations. You can take off-train excursions to learn about desert flora and fauna. As the train heads much farther north into the Northern Territory, the landscape changes, becoming more mountainous and lush.
Accommodations include berth compartments and reclining seats. Meals are served in the dining car.
2015 Traveler Photo Contest
Explore the top photos, share your favorites, and browse all entries.