The Complete Guide: to luxury trains

For a stress-free, eco-friendly voyage, train travel is the way to go. From India to the Australian Outback, Anthony Lambert makes tracks for the trips in the most stylish of settings
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The Independent Travel

WHY PAY A FORTUNE TO TRAVEL SLOWLY?

Travelling by train, you can relax, read and eat in much greater comfort than flying while enjoying the passing landscape. It's a much more sociable way to travel, and you're reducing the environmental impact of your holiday. The enduring appeal of competently organised rail travel in elegant carriages has fostered a demand for special trains designed to put the pleasure back into a journey. There is something special about a good meal on a train with proper napery and silver.

Some trains are promoted simply on the strength of the experience of being on them; others are mobile luxury hotels, allowing you to do excursions that are generally included in the price. Specialists that can offer a wide range of options include Ffestiniog Travel (01766 512400; www.festtravel.co.uk); Great Rail Journeys (01904 521940; www.greatrail.com); Railway Touring Company (01553 661500; www.railwaytouring.co.uk).

WHOSE IDEA WAS IT?

Trains de luxe in Europe were the creation of George Nagelmackers, the son of a Belgian banker, who died a century ago this summer at his chateau outside Paris. It was while in the United States, getting over a broken love affair, that he came across the railway carriages operated by George Mortimer Pullman. Though Pullman's cars were not especially luxurious, they had a major advantage: they ran across the boundaries between railway companies to provide a seamless journey and obviate the need to change trains.

Nagelmackers took the concept of "through running" and extended it to the entire train so that only the locomotive - not the carriages - had to be changed at railway and national borders. He ordered five genuinely luxurious carriages from a Viennese builder with a view to starting Europe's first luxury train service, between Paris and Berlin. But the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 scotched the plan...

OH DEAR

The silver lining was that the first beneficiaries of the world's finest railway carriages were British travellers between Calais and Trieste. Delighted to avoid the risk of mal de mer in the Bay of Biscay as well as saving several days, they were mostly empire-builders bound for India and points east on a P&O ship or early patrons of Thomas Cook on their way to Egypt and the Holy Land.

It took another 13 years of vicissitudes before Nagelmackers struck gold with his most famous train, the Orient Express. It was inaugurated in October 1883 by his now importantly titled company, La Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits et Grands Express Européens (CIWL) - a name that would become world famous, to be seen on carriages as far afield as China.

Thanks to the patronage of royalty and Nagelmackers' genius for gaining publicity, the Orient Express soon became a byword for the best in rail travel. Its success encouraged more railways to grant concessionary rights for the operation of Wagon-Lits' sleeping and dining cars or complete trains. None eclipsed the Trans-Siberian International Express of 1900, which had a drawing- and smoking-room in each carriage of eight people, a library with books in English, French, German and Russian, a music room with grand piano, a hair salon in white sycamore, a gym with weights, rowing machine and exercise bicycle, and a chapel car.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

By the outbreak of the First World War, Wagon Lits had 32 luxury trains in service covering 35,000 miles of track. But the war curtailed most services, and many carriages were destroyed or had their beautiful interiors ruined. As trains were reinstated after 1918, many had to be re-routed following the redrawing of borders.

When the Second World War ended in 1945, the growth of air services began to erode the viability of overnight trains. Those who could afford the Wagon-Lits premiums tended to fly, so occupancy rates fell. The services that survived tended to be worked by utilitarian sleeping cars provided by the national railways.

The Blue Train (01403 243619; www.bluetrain. co.za) between Cape Town and Pretoria (one day/one night) or Cape Town and Port Elizabeth (two nights, one day) celebrates 60 years of operation this year. It was for many years the only luxury train in the world. Its colour derives from the sapphire carriages of South Africa's luxury "Union Trains" of the 1920s, and crystal still holds the Stellenbosch Riesling. A locomotive-mounted camera shows the driver's-eye view on a giant screen in the Club Car, and some suites have baths as well as showers. The two purpose-built sets carry 74 and 82 passengers, and fares start at R12,075 (£985), inclusive of drinks.

HOW DID FORTUNES REVIVE?

With the Palace on Wheels in India in 1981 (01258 580600; www.palaceonwheels.net). The original departures used a remarkable rake of original metre-gauge maharajahs' and viceroy's carriages. But their predominantly wooden construction soon began to suffer from such intensive use and they were withdrawn in 1991, to be replaced by a purpose-built broad-gauge train.

The 14 air-conditioned saloon carriages of the Palace on Wheels are named after Rajput states. Each has four twin-bedded rooms with ensuite lavatory and shower. Decor is designed to evoke the regal past.

The week-long tour begins in Delhi and visits the Rajasthan cities of Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Sawai Madhopur, Bharatpur and Agra, Ranthambhor and Keoladeo Ghana national parks and Chittaurgarh Fort for a series of excursions by coach, elephant and camel with meals taken in the train, hotels and royal palaces. Overnight prices from US$240 (£132); a week's journey from US$1,680 (£922).

For a two-day tour with steam haulage behind the world's oldest broad-gauge working steam locomotive and a single night in a hotel, the Fairy Queen (020-8903 3411; www.indiarail.co.uk) takes you to Alwar for the Sariska tiger reserve.

The eponymous locomotive was built in 1855 in Leeds for the East India Railway, and it is remarkable that it is still up to the 290km round trip, albeit hauling only a couple of coaches with 50 passengers. The locomotive was returned to service in 1997 and operates a limited winter programme of trains between October and February. The cost is £100 per person based on two sharing.

The success of the Palace on Wheels encouraged thoughts of a train for southern India, and in 2004 the Deccan Odyssey (0800 032 7748; www. deccan-odyssey-india.com) entered service. Eleven of its 21 air-conditioned coaches offer accommodation for 50 passengers with ensuite toilet and shower as well as extras such as CD players. A spa car offers ayurvedic massages, manicures and steam baths, and there's a gym as well as the usual lounge and bar cars. On-board management is by the Taj hotel group. Starting and ending in Mumbai, the seven-night itinerary makes a 1,600km tour of Maharashtra, taking in an ashram in Pune, a son et lumière at a palace, forts, the Ellora and Ajanta caves, a winery and the beaches of Goa. *

AND IN EUROPE?

Besides the Orient Express (see box), there has been a steady stream of emulators. Closest in Europe - though more of a mobile hotel - is Spain's Al Andalus Express (00 34 91 570 16 21; www.alandalusexpreso.com). It is named after a Wagon Lits train, and has 14 carriages, some dating from the 1920s. They have been renovated to incorporate air-conditioning and ensuite showers and lavatories in the sleeping cars. The train operates a four-day itinerary for up to 74 passengers through Andalucia from Seville, stopping at Cordoba, Bobadilla and Granada. Tucking into duck with local wine while watching a landscape of olive trees and cork-oaks drift past the window is a great way to see the country.

In Hungary, a spin-off from the state rail system operates a historic nine-coach train known as the Royal Hungarian Express, composed of a Wagon Lits car of 1926 and carriages used by Hungarian heads of state. Hungarian specialities and wines are served in the mahogany-panelled dining car, and there are two presidential suites with private shower; other compartments have use of showers at the end of the carriages.

It is run by Mav Nosztalgia, but booking for the train is only through specialist railway travel companies, which often devise itineraries that take the train into neighbouring countries. Contact Great Rail Journeys (01904 521940; www.greatrail.com) or the Railway Touring Company (01553 661500; www.railwaytouring.co.uk).

IN BRITAIN?

Orient-Express (020-7960 0500; www.orient- express.com) operates three trains in Britain. The British Pullman is composed largely of Pullman cars from the 1920s and 1930s and operates day and weekend excursions from London Victoria. Destinations include cities such as York and Winchester, Cowes for the regatta, Blenheim and Leeds Castle, and Cornish gardens.

Its counterpart, the Northern Belle, operates tours from 32 stations throughout Britain to a similar range of places and events, including St Andrews for a weekend of golf or Edinburgh for the military tattoo. It also operates four-course dinner excursions with champagne and wine. Its coaches are more modern, but their decor has been designed to evoke the "cruise" trains that were a feature of inter-war railway travel.

A recent addition to the Orient-Express portfolio is the Royal Scotsman (0131-555 1344; www.royalscotsman.com), which eclipses all other luxury trains for the opulence of its carriages - and the cost. The specially converted train carries just 36 guests for anything from a one-night "Wee Dram" to a seven-night "Grand North Western", which takes in the best of Scotland's railway lines and sights.

Excursions include private visits to country houses, boat trips to watch seals, guided walks and even a spot of golf. The sleeping cars provide 16 twin and four single bedrooms finished in marquetry with dressing table, full-length wardrobe and private bathroom with shower, washbasin and toilet. The train is stabled every night in a quiet siding or station.

Set menus are cooked by Frankie Quinn, newly arrived from the Andrew Fairlie restaurant at Gleneagles. All food and drink is included in the prices, which range from £610 to £4,680.

ON TRACK IN AFRICA?

A rival to the Blue Train was set up by Rohan Voss in 1989. Rovos Rail (020-7228 8283; www.rovos.com) uses remodelled, air-conditioned historic vehicles - half dating from the 1920s - in two dark green and ivory trains of 20 vehicles accommodating up to 72 passengers and a third train of 13 coaches with 42 berths for private charter. Two open verandas allow uninterrupted views, and all suites have a private shower or bath. Its private terminal station at Capital Park in Pretoria is worth a visit in its own right, and the overall standard of service and food is exemplary.

Rovos Rail's varied itineraries take in countries neighbouring South Africa. They last from 24 hours to a fortnight, with one of its five working steam locomotives taking turns with diesel and electric traction. Prices start at R7,380 (£602).

The air-conditioned calm of the Desert Express (020-8232 9777; www.desertexpress.com.na) in Namibia is the perfect way to appreciate the landscapes of this astonishingly arid country that has you wondering how they found enough water for thirsty steam locomotives. The nine-coach modern train made its first run in 1998. Its customary route is an 18-hour journey between the capital at Windhoek and the attractive coastal town of Swakopmund, still redolent of the brief German colonisation. It pauses for a visit to a game lodge and a feeding of lions, with a walk among coastal dunes after breakfast the following morning. Longer journeys to the famous Etosha Pan and to Luderitz and the ghost town of Kohlmanskop are offered. Fares for a shared double start at N$1850 (£156).

THE ROCKIES IN COMFORT?

Rocky Mountaineer Railtours (020-7616 9999; www.rockymountaineer.com) runs over the Canadian Pacific route through the Rockies, generally regarded as even more spectacular than the more northerly Canadian National route taken by VIA's Canadian service (001 514 989 2626; www.viarail.ca). Overnight stops are always in hotels, often in the former Canadian Pacific hotels now owned by Fairmont. Its GoldLeaf cars offer better facilities and service than RedLeaf and have the advantage of being double decker, with panoramic windows on the upper level and dining facilities below. Prices in GoldLeaf start at C$1,099 (£489).

DOWN UNDER?

The civilised way to cross the Nullarbor Plain is by the Indian Pacific (0870 751 5000; www.gsr.com.au), which covers the 4,352km between Sydney and Perth in 64 hours. The Ghan (0870 751 5000; www.gsr.com.au) runs on a line fully opened only last year from Adelaide via Alice Springs and Katherine to the coast at Darwin, a 2,979km north-south crossing of the continent. Though not on a par with other luxury trains, Gold coaches offer ensuite showers and toilets and food, plus modern Australian cuisine.

ANYTHING NEW?

Inaugurated in 2000, the Victoria Express (00 84 4 747 2597; www.vietnamstay.com) leaves Hanoi in the evening with a restaurant car and two sleeping cars attached to the normal train, arriving the following morning at the border town of Lao Cai for the Victoria Sapa Hotel at a nearby hill village. It's a remarkable train for Vietnam and most passengers complain that the 10-hour journey is too short. Tickets cost from US$75 (£41).

From May 2006 passenger trains will be revived over the fantastically scenic line between North Vancouver and Prince George by Rocky Mountaineer (001 604 606 7245; www.whistlermountaineer.com). The Whistler Mountaineer will offer a three-hour journey to the skiing and summer resort, skirting Howe Sound and climbing through the Cheakamus Canyon. The train will include full-length, single-level dome cars and an open-air observation car. Rocky Mountaineer has commissioned a new diesel train for the wonderfully scenic journey beyond Whistler through the Fraser River canyon to Prince George with an overnight stop at Quesnel before turning south east to reach Jasper.

ALL ABOARD: THE RESTORATION OF THE ORIENT EXPRESS

When James Sherwood bought at auction a nucleus of former Wagon Lits carriages, he planned to revive the Orient Express, which had made its last run in May 1977.

Sidings and carriage sheds across Europe had been scoured for more restorable examples, and work was nearing completion. The story of the replacement of marquetry panels, etched glass, seat moquette and interior fittings is a tribute to the carriage builders' skill and the standards set by Sherwood. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (020-7960 0500; www.orient-express.com) launched on 25 May 1982. Since then, it has become one of the world's great tourist experiences. There was no concession to modern amenities in the restoration of the train, so it offers an authentic experience of train travel between the wars.

The compartments are small, and have only a washbasin in a corner cupboard, but the elegance of the carriages is unrivalled. Pre- and post-prandials are served in the bar to the sounds of a baby grand piano, and the three dining-cars serve outstanding food. Most passengers take their ease between Paris and Venice, where many stay at the complementary Hotel Cipriani, also owned by Orient-Express. But the train also operates occasional forays to Rome, Prague and Istanbul, the last retracing the classic route of the train and entailing hotel overnights in Budapest and Bucharest. Fares range from £1,350 for Venice-London to £3,725 for Paris-Istanbul, including all food but not drinks.

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