10 once-in-a-lifetime train journeys

For many, the charm of slow travel trumps the convenience of flights. The experience of interacting with fellow travellers and soaking in the surreal sights of snow-dusted mountaintops, glacial lakes, paddy fields and imposing viaducts remains unmatched. From catching the northern lights from the comfort of your carriage to watching zebras trotting through green pastures, these train journeys are for those who wish to savour the world while crossing items off their bucket lists.

Aurora Winter Train, Alaska, USA

From mid-September to early May, aurora chasers have the chance to spot the northern lights from the comforts of this 12-hour rail expedition, while also taking in the snow-covered landscape of Alaska, dotted with moose and other wildlife. This 565km track runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks, also stopping at Denali National Park & Preserve. Travellers can also disembark at a few stops for activities like snowmobiling and dog sledging. Alaska Railroad offers several winter packages varying in days and experiences.

The Jacobite Steam Train, Scotland

This one’s for every Harry Potter fan awaiting that coveted letter. A highlight of the 135km roundtrip journey is the stretch that crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct—the famed bridge, with 21 striking arches and towering columns, which the Hogwarts Express runs over. Starting from Fort William near Britain’s highest mountain Ben Nevis, and running till Mallaig on the West Coast, the track cuts through stunning valleys, past lochs, quaint villages and the picturesque scenery that the Scottish Highlands are known for – plus the iconic view that every Harry Potter fan will recognise in a single glance. The train is operated by the West Coast Railways between April and October.

The Belmond Andean Explorer, Peru

Cross off the Peruvian Andes (and Machu Picchu) off your bucket list, without undertaking a trek. At 14,000ft, the Belmond Andean Explorer traverses through some of the world’s highest tracks between Puno, on the shores of the historic Lake Titicaca, to Cusco on a one- or two-night journey. The train—the first luxury sleeper in South America—features an open-deck Observation Car that’s perfect for passengers to enjoy mesmerising views as they savour some Pisco sour.

Glacier Express, Switzerland

For a front-row seat to a view of the Swiss Alps, opt for the Glacier Express. Along this journey –starting near the Matterhorn in Zermatt and concluding in the resort town of St Moritz – travellers can soak in breathtaking views through the panoramic windows. The Glacier Express offers one of the most dramatic views of the Rhine Gorge, crossing rocky mountains past the Upper Rhone Valley and the Oberalp Pass (the highest point of the trip at 7,000ft), and elegant villages and scenic streams along the way. On this train, there’s an Excellence Class that comes with a multi-course meal, local wines and a special seating area. If you plan to travel from Switzerland to Italy, give one of Europe’s highest tracks a try – the Bernina Express. This alpine route takes passengers from Tirana in Italy to St Moritz in Switzerland, making its way through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges, past pristine lakes, and stunning mountaintops that appear within reach from its panoramic carriages.

TranzAlpine Train, New Zealand

One of the most beautiful ways to explore New Zealand, KiwiRail’s TranzAlpine rightfully deems this 11-hour, round-trip, coast-to-coast route between Christchurch and Greymouth as one of their Great Journeys. Expansive stretches of farmland dotted with sheep and cattle, deep gorges and steel bridges, views of waterfalls and one of New Zealand’s longest tunnels await travellers on this spectacular ride, which cuts through the mountains that partition New Zealand’s South Island. Panoramic windows, skylight and reclining seats make it a trip to remember.

Rocky Mountaineer, Canada and USA

Rocky Mountaineer takes you through cascading waterfalls, dramatic canyons, glacial lakes, plunging gorges and roaring rivers—the sizable windows in the carriages extend from the passenger seat to the roof. There are also the luxurious GoldLeaf service cars equipped with dome windows and a large platform to enjoy unobstructed views of the outdoors, between April and October. Starting either in the Rockies in Jasper National Park or Vancouver, the train connects the west to the east in Canada. In the US, it travels between Moab in Utah and Denver in Colorado, with options to start/end in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, as well. All packages include luxury hotel stays as there’s no sleeping accommodation aboard the train.

The Ghan, Australia

The longest passenger train in the world, The Ghan runs through Australia’s Red Centre on a three-day, all-inclusive package. Travel 2,797km from Darwin in the north to Adelaide in the south (or vice versa), soaking in sights from the otherworldly Outback. Passengers can enjoy several off-train experiences en route, such as guided camel tours, helicopter rides and trips to the Cutta Cutta Caves and Katherine Gorge. They can also mould the itinerary to their liking, by opting for a smaller section of The Ghan from Darwin or Adelaide and disembarking in Alice Springs, or even extending the trip by adding excursions and hotel stays to the travel menu. Travellers can also opt for the Indian Pacific, another cross-country trip that takes you from Perth to Sydney and is run by the same company.

The Eastern & Oriental Express, Southeast Asia

Operating between Bangkok and Singapore, the E&O is Asia’s answer to the Orient Express. The train is finally resuming operations in February 2024 following a pandemic-induced hiatus. The open observation car and vintage décor of the cabins make the journey a unique experience. The train meanders through the rice paddies and jungles of Malaysia, over the legendary River Kwai in Thailand, passing by hilltop pagodas. Off-train experiences include snorkelling in Langkawi and excursions to Taman Negara National Park. The Eastern & Oriental runs all year round, taking four nights and three days one way, and two nights and three full days in the opposite direction. Guests can also opt for a short Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur trip aboard the E&O.

Dar es Salaam by Rovos Rail, Africa

This journey combines the romance of slow travel with the marvels of an African safari. The Rovos Rail journey takes explorers on a 15-day trans-Zambezi trip from South Africa to Tanzania, traversing through Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. The itinerary includes tours of the diamond towns of Kimberley and Pretoria, drives around Madikwe Game Reserve, an overnight stay at the Victoria Falls Hotel, and a bush walk at Chisimba Falls.

Seven Stars in Kyushu, Japan

Seven Stars takes you beyond the bustling tourist hotspots of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka to Kyushu, the most southerly of the country’s four largest islands. Pick from multiple itineraries (either three nights, four days or one night, two days) to imbibe everything that ‘seven’ represents—the seven prefectures of Kyushu, the seven-carriage train, and the seven major attractions of the island (nature; food; hot springs; history and culture; ‘power spots’ or places with healing properties to refresh the mind body and soul; humanity; and trains). The panoramic windows of the first and seventh cars are a signature feature of this luxurious train, perfect to admire the mountains and fields passing by.

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