Imagine it’s the turn of the 20th century and you’ve settled into your beige carriage, wine glass in hand. You pull out a pen and notebook and jot down impressions of the mountains, rivers and steppes that pass by. Train travel fosters a greater connection to the land and fuels the imagination so it’s no surprise this mode of transport is experiencing a resurgence of popularity. Whether it’s a week-long journey across the largest country in the world or a few hours ride through the desert, here are seven epic rail adventures you need to experience in your lifetime.
1. The Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia
The idea of traversing this mammoth-sized country has captured the imagination of novelists, screenwriters and the moodily inclined in the century that the Trans-Siberian Railway has been in operation. The sight of the train winding through the tundra framed by snow-capped mountains leave quite the imprint. It’s a sturdy piece of machinery, having survived revolutions, wars and natural disasters. The 9,289km journey from Moscow to Vladivostok takes seven days to complete, along which the scenery changes dramatically, from birch forest to arid steppes to the taiga.
2. TranzAlpine, New Zealand
Unbeknown to some, the southern hemisphere is also home to picturesque alpine mountains that wouldn’t look out of place in a Swiss village. The scenery is best experienced aboard the five-hour Christchurch to Greymouth journey on the TranzAlpine, where, along the way, glacial rivers, beech rainforests and rolling hills tumble by. The train passes through the Otira Tunnel, which opened in 1923, to Arthur’s Pass. Many passengers disembark at Arthur’s Pass for its hiking trails while others continue to the final destination, Greymouth, for the rock formations and blowholes at nearby Punakaiki.
3. Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West, Canada
A land of glistening turquoise lakes, soaring mountains and twisting canyons, it’s hard not to be charmed by the Great White North. The two-day First Passage to the West route on the Rocky Mountaineer starts in Vancouver and makes a stop in the Kamloops before ending at Lake Louise in Banff. Order a glass of wine and enjoy the sight of raging whitewaters and mountain vistas sweeping past. In winter, there’s skiing in the Kamloops and during the warmer months, swimming, fishing and rock climbing. Once at Banff, go ice skating or soak in one of the many hot springs.
4. The Ghan, Australia
The curious-sounding name of this train service is said to have come from Afghan camel drivers who arrived in Australia in the late 19th century. Service between Adelaide to Alice Springs on the Ghan started in 1929, making it easier to shuttle goods and livestock between the two cities, though the extension up north to Darwin wasn’t completed until 2004. The journey takes two days, though there are options to extend to six or eight. The brilliant red train chugs through the vast orange-ness of the outback, stopping in places such as Uluru and Katherine, and on the final leg to Darwin, the scenery morphs from arid desert to lush mangroves and watermelon plantations.
5. Rovos Rail’s Namibia Safari, South Africa
With carriages decked in dark wood panels, emerald carpets and floral maroon sofas, it’s easy to imagine the 1920s aboard the luxury Rovos Rail. The popular Namibia Safari route takes nine days to journey from Pretoria, South Africa, to Walvis Bay, Namibia. It stops in Kimberley, an important gold mining town in the 1870s before zipping through the transcended orange and gold-tinged dunes of Botswana’s Kalahari Desert. The desert gives way to the skyline of Windhoek, Namibia’s capital then turns sublime again upon its approach to the sand spits and tidal lagoons of Walvis Bay on the Atlantic.
6. Belmond Hiram Bingham, Peru
Kick back with a pisco sour and be serenaded by a live band aboard the elegant dark wood veneer coach modelled after 1920s Pullman carriages but with modern-type ceiling windows that peer up at the towering green mountains of the Peruvian countryside. Named after the American explorer Hiram Bingham who popularized Machu Picchu, the luxury line, launched in 2003, takes passengers from Cusco to Machu Picchu in three and a half hours. The Belmond Hiram Bingham runs along the Urubamba River to the Andes where the Incan citadel awaits.
7. The West Highland Line & the Jacobite Steam Train, Scotland
Passengers might recognise this as the train that brought Harry Potter and his friends from Platform 9 ¾ to Hogwarts. The real-life service starts in Glasgow and ends in Mallaig and takes just over 5 hours, though many people choose to get off at various stops, such as Oban or Fort William, and hop back on the train the next day. The iconic movie shot of the Hogwarts Express takes place over the Glenfinnan Viaduct when the black and red steam train appears to soar in the sky. From this bird’s-eye angle, there are also impressive views of Loch Shiel and Ben Nevis, the highest mountain the British Iles, which also appear in the film.