TRAVEL / Right side of the tracks

In Canada, the `Rocky Mountaineer' groans its way up fierce gradients; in Spain, you can cruise to Granada on `Al Andalus'. Jill Crawshaw picks the best rail holidays
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The Independent Culture

Snowcapped peaks and waterfalls form the backdrop of the Flam Railway in Norway, which starts at sea level and climbs 2,845ft over a distance of only 12 miles; the train's engine is specially constructed with extra power and several sets of brakes. The journey is included on a Norwegian State Railway seven-night "Troll Path" holiday, visiting fjords, forests and folk museums, and costing pounds 663-pounds 692, with flights, rail fares, accommodation and some meals included. Journeys on the fjord express, and the Bergen to Oslo trains, are part of the holiday.

NSR Travel 0171-930 6666


Vietnam's "Reunification Express" tour from Guerba Expeditions is based on the railway rebuilt to celebrate the independence of the country following the Vietnam war, during which it was largely destroyed.

The 15-day trip includes major highlights between the two capitals, Hanoi and Saigon, with stops en route for exploration. The itinerary: two days in Hanoi, overnight train to Hue, rail through the Hai Van pass, visits to Da Nang and Hoi An, then by coach to Quang Ngai, Nha Trang and Da Lat. The price of pounds 1,620-pounds 1,735 includes UK return flights, all travel, hotel and sleeper accommodation, and some meals.

Guerba Expeditions 01373 826611


"Learn to Drive a Steam Engine" weekend breaks are being offered throughout the summer by the Youth Hostels Association (YHA) at the Ironbridge Youth Hostel in conjunction with the Severn Valley Railways. The price of pounds 179 per person (over-18s only) includes two nights' full-board accommodation, a half-day course on the railway learning how to fire up and drive a steam engine, plus signalling and brake-van experience, as well as a ticket for all Ironbridge Gorge attractions and a year's free membership of the YHA.

Ironbridge Youth Hostel 01952 433281


The best bargain for under-26s, the Inter-Rail Pass provides for unlimited travel in 26 countries during a 28-day period, and costs pounds 249. Those who prefer to concentrate on fewer countries in less time can buy one-, two- or three-zone passes. A one-zone costing pounds 179 for 15 days gives unlimited travel in Spain, Portugal and Morocco, for example, or in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

For those aged 26 and over, an Inter-Rail 26+ Pass offers unlimited travel for pounds 209 for 15 days, pounds 269 for a month, with 19 countries including Scandinavia and the former Eastern European states. The cards can be bought at main line stations, and some travel agents. A passport or other proof of age is required.

Most countries also have their own individual rail passes; national tourist offices will supply details. France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria have some particularly good bargains and routes. In France, for example, there are special rail passes for under-16s, over-16s, frequent travellers, students and OAPs. The Eurodomino Rover offers unlimited rail travel on any three, five or 10 days within a month, from pounds 118. The Carte Couple allows discounts of 25 per cent for couples on the high-speed TGVs and specific journeys on regular trains. The Carte Kiwi is for under-16s, Carissimo for under-26s and Carte Vermeil for senior citizens, all with up to 50 per cent reductions.

Details from French Railways, 179 Piccadilly, London W1V OBA; or Rail Shop 0345 300 003


The Eastern and Oriental Express is the luxury rail service between Bangkok and Singapore, a 1,200-mile journey taking 41 hours, with two nights and a full day on board. The carriages have been lavishly refurbished in colonial style by the same team responsible for the Venice Simplon Orient Express (VSOE). A one-way ticket from the Magic of Orient costs pounds 760, though shorter segments of the journey from Kuala Lumpur and Penang cost pounds 600 and pounds 480 respectively. A two-week holiday, including the full rail journey, with return flights from the UK and hotel stays in Bangkok, Penang and Singapore, and some meals, costs pounds 1,536-pounds 1,618.

Magic of Orient 01293 537766


Described as the most luxurious train in the world - and priced accordingly - the restored Edwardian "Pride of Africa" sets off on 5 July on its rail safari from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, returning to Cape Town on 20 July. Voyages Jules Verne's one-way, 3,700-mile journey takes 12 days, with tours to Kimberley, Kruger, Victoria Falls and Zambian game parks on the way. The train carries 46 passengers in 12 wonderfully restored coaches, which are drawn by any of three vintage locomotives at various stages of the journey. The cost is pounds 5,074 northbound, pounds 4,954 southbound, including return flights, hotel accommodation in Cape Town and Dar es Salaam, full board on the train and sightseeing tours.

Voyages Jules Verne 0171-723 5066


The prima donna of India's rail network, the revamped, broad-gauged "Palace on Wheels" is due to re-start in September on one of the world's great exotic journeys, through Rajasthan from Delhi. Among the highlights of the tour, which can be arranged through Greaves Travel, is Jaipur, where passengers disembark and mount elephants to view the Amber Palace, the Lake Palace at Udaipur, the fortress of Jodhpur, then cross the desert to the Golden City of Jaisalmer - and as a fitting finale, to the spectacular Taj Mahal at Agra.

Liveried staff, the original features of the old Maharajah carriages (but mercifully with modern bathrooms), and Indian and European cuisine make the "Palace on Wheels" an impressive mobile home for a week. The cost of pounds 2,013 is fully inclusive on the train, but excludes air fares. Many other rail journeys in India are available through the same agent, which specialises in Indian travel.

Greaves Travel 0171-487 5687


A number of rail journeys in South America are offered by Journey Latin America. Among them are: the Expreso Arica from La Paz in Bolivia, through the bleak plains and canyons of the Andes to Arica in Chile; the Expreso Santa Cruz from Santa Cruz in Bolivia, through the Mata Grosso to the Brazilian border; and the Expreso Cuzco from Lake Titicaca, climbing up to over 14,000ft to Cuzco. A three-week tour, the "Pelicano", visiting the deserts, mountains, Inca ruins and jungles of Peru, Bolivia and Chile, includes three train journeys - the Arica-La Paz railway; by train through the Peruvian Central Valley to Cuzco; and the rail excursion up to the Lost City of Machupicchu. The tour costs pounds 2,370- pounds 2,486, including flights, transport, excursions, accommodation and some meals.

Journey Latin America 0181-747 8315


Journeys on Switzerland's cog-and-wheel railways, cable cars, funiculars, vintage paddle steamers and the Glacier Express are included in rail tour holidays offered by two specialist operators, Swiss Travel Service and Kuoni.

On the Swiss Travel Service's 10-night "Highlights of Switzerland" tour, you stay in Lucerne, Wengen, Zermatt and Davos, travelling by train and sampling the network of mountain railways in each centre. Lucerne, for example, has the steepest cog-and-wheel railway in the world, climbing to the 7,000ft summit of Mount Pilatus, while Zermatt has the highest cable car in the Alps at 12,530ft.

The day's Glacier Express journey passes over nearly 300 bridges and through 90 tunnels, and is considered one of the most spectacular rail journeys in the world. The 10-night, half-board holiday with flights, and first-class Swiss Rail travel, costs pounds 1,100. It includes a half-fare season ticket offering a 50 per cent reduction on the Swiss Transport network of lake steamers, railways, postal coaches and cable cars.

Swiss Travel Service 01992 456123

Kuoni 01306 742500


The narrow-gauge steam railways of Eastern Germany are the subject of a week's special-interest break in September, from Moswin Tours. The tour, accompanied by a bilingual guide and railway consultant, is based in Rabenau, and explores the five remaining narrow-gauge steam lines in Saxony. The price of pounds 665 includes flights, half-board accommodation and excursions, and the company can also arrange German rail passes - the regional pass offers five or 10 days' unlimited travel within a 21-day period, available in any of the 15 regions of reunited Germany, and can be used on any scheduled train in the chosen region. A five-day second-class regional pass costs pounds 59. The National Rail Pass (sometimes called the Eurodomino Rover pass) offers freedom of the entire German rail network, for three, five and 10 days in a one-month period. A five-day second-class rail pass will cost pounds 145.

Moswin Tours 0116 271 9922


"Al Andalus" is Spain's vintage luxury train, with lots of mahogany panelling, velvet upholstery and genuine 1920s decor, but modern showers and air- conditioning. The itinerary from Mundi Color starts with the flight to Madrid, stayng one night at the Palace Hotel, then taking the high-speed AVE train to Seville, where passengers board "Al Andalus" on its journey to Cordoba, Granada, Ronda and Jerez. There are sightseeing tours in each centre and some meals in local restaurants. The train stops at night to ensure peaceful rest.

After four nights on "Al Andalus", you return on the AVE to Madrid for a further night at the Palace before the flight home. The holiday costs from pounds 2,099 including flights, all meals on the train, the train journey from and back to Madrid, two nights in hotels, and sightseeing.

Mundi Color 0171-828 6021


Names like Jaws of Death Gorge Bridge, Deadman's Creek and Calamity Tunnel are graphic reminders of the price paid for laying railway tracks through the Rockies - the region on the itinerary of Travelpack Canada. Snow, ice, avalanches and wild animals hampered every mile of progress. Some gradients defy engineering ingenuity even now, hence the mile-long freight trains with three engines at the front, six in the middle and three behind.

Passengers can take the "Rocky Mountaineer", with observation decks, a diner car and sleeping accommodation, from Vancouver on a two-day journey to Jasper or Banff. This trip is included in a variety of rail adventure and Canadian Rockies holidays costing from pounds 599 for five days (excluding flights).

A marathon Trans-Canada excursion takes 10 days to travel the 3,000 miles or so, first aboard "The Canadian", a newly restored 1950s style train, from Toronto via the Great Plains and Manitoba to Jasper, then staying in hotels in Jasper, Banff and Lake Louise - and finally aboard the "Rocky Mountaineer" for the leg to Vancouver, with a night there and in Toronto. The 13-day holiday costs pounds 2,765 including transatlantic flights, rail fares, hotels, and some meals, or pounds 2,199 without the flights.

Travelpack Canada 0161 707 4404. Other firms with Canadian rail tours: Jetsave 01342 328511; Unijet 01444 4591910; BA Holidays 01293 617000; and Bales Tours 01306 885991 !