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Romancing the Rails: The Best in Luxury Train Travel

Feel as if you’ve traveled back in time under the nostalgic spell of the world’s great luxury trains.

Train travel inspires a glamour of yesteryear, with a captivating allure that is hard to describe. Maybe it’s the way the world rolls by through the window, carving out time for contemplation. “On a train, the rarest of all treasures is time itself. Time to unwind, to indulge, and to rejuvenate,” says Themba Masheula, brand manager for South Africa’s historic Blue Train.

Removed from the inevitable interruptions faced by riders of planes or buses, trains offer a luxury of time and space seldom experienced elsewhere. The best train trips maintain the spirit of the past and embrace the surrounding landscape, offering a unique way to experience a journey. On the most picturesque historic routes, it’s almost possible to imagine the carriages as a kind of time capsule, separate from the world but moving through it, preserved in the romance of the journey.

Here are a few which embody that unique luxury, combining nostalgia, history and adventure, in the way only trains can.

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THE ORIENT EXPRESS
“This is no ordinary train. This is the legendary Orient Express.” So goes the introduction from the 1974 film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 classic, “Murder on the Orient Express”.

The quintessential train, the Orient Express has been immortalized many times in pop culture, from being featured in “The Spy Who Loved Me” in 1963 to the recent rendition of the classic story starring Johnny Depp and Dame Judi Dench.

The route was first traveled in 1883, and the Venice-Simplon Orient Express has revitalized the railway’s most extravagant era by restoring carriages dating from the 1920s.

Today, the train runs between many of Europe’s great capitals; at its longest, traveling from London to Istanbul. The carriages are maintained lovingly, replete with luxuries such as a white-gloved cabin stewards, a Champagne bar, and a baby grand piano.

Interiors are paneled in exquisite hardwood, illuminated by Art Deco ornamentation, and contrasting hues of royal blue carpets interspersed with gold lettering.

Elegant dinners are served nightly, and guests are encouraged to invoke the Golden Age of travel while onboard by dressing in formal attire. Expect a decadent menu, live music and Champagne flowing plentifully.

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THE TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY
Extending from Moscow to Vladivostok, this journey is at the top of many travelers’ bucket lists. It’s the longest railway in the world at 5,772 miles and spanning eight time zones. The Trans-Siberian was completed in 1916 as a way to make Siberia more accessible.

There are actually several trains that take this epic journey, but the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express is the only one offering private suites, outfitted in royal blue and gold.

The railway winds through Russia retelling history, passing through Yekaterinburg where the Tsar Nicholas II was executed with his family, into the Ural Mountains. It passes Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, and travels on to Mongolia’s capital, Ulaan Baatar, the home of Genghis Khan.

It carries visitors across many landscapes, cultures and scenes, traveling from the pointed onion domes of Moscow to the distant lands of Vladivostok via Siberia. Punctuated by the endless steppes of Siberia and Mongolia, it is an incredibly epic journey.

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THE ROCKY MOUTAINEER
There are few landscapes as majestic as Canada’s Rocky Mountains, and the breathtaking vertical peaks and wild forests are all the more stunning from a train car. In the Gold Leaf class, the views from the second-story glass dome are unparalleled.

While the Trans-Canadian Railway spans the entire country, the Rocky Mountaineer is the only way to truly experience the scenery of western Canada. Although the cars are modern, the route was constructed in the 1880s as a way to bring British Columbia into the Canadian Confederation, and it’s hard not to marvel at the intrepid builders who laid tracks through these perilous mountain passes.

Providing one of the most unique ways to see a mountain range in the world, the railway’s tracks weave through the peaks and valleys for an incredibly close view of the landscape. Sometimes bears or moose are spotted deep in the forest.

The trip into Banff is especially spectacular, where the palatial Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise provides a spot to enjoy an exquisite British afternoon tea.

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THE MAHARAJA’S EXPRESS
Turbaned attendants bow in greeting, wearing bright gold and ruby uniforms. A small brass band plays as dancers with jingling skirts sway softly. It’s a scene that could be straight out of the 16th Century miniature paintings that line Rajasthan’s royal forts where the Maharajas once ruled.

The Indian Railways were brought by the British in 1844, and they have remained a beloved form of transport ever since. There are several routes available on the Express, but the most epic starts from New Delhi, snaking through the royal city of Rajasthan and ending up in Mumbai.

The Maharajas’ Express evokes the grand days of train travel, with carriages lined with wood panels, brass fixtures, and plush seating. Every effort is made to make passengers feel like royalty, from the red carpet that’s rolled out when the train reaches a station to the elegant dining and bar car, where you can while away the hours watching the scenery roll by.

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THE BLUE TRAIN
Dating from the 1920s, the Blue Train exudes old-world glamour, with a wood-paneled bar car and elegant suites. In the days of the British Empire, a railroad was planned linking Cape Town to Cairo, but instead, a portion of railway was built to unite South Africa’s administrative centers Pretoria and Cape Town.

The train earned its name with a royal blue coat of paint, which creates a stunning visual effect as it snakes through the green and grey grasslands. Although it’s no longer powered by a steam engine, the train’s old-fashioned opulence still imbues the journey with romance.

Beginning in the administrative capital of Pretoria, the train rolls out of the bustling urban landscape into endless plains, where small farms and golden hills pass by. The highlight of the trip comes when the distinctive silhouette of Table Mountain drifts into view, welcoming visitors to the heart of the city.

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