The golden age of rail travel might be well behind us, but across the globe, luxury trains are experiencing a renaissance. Some transport visitors to iconic destinations aboard storied trains that heave centuries of history along the rails. Others offer modern decor and experiential itineraries that cater to the contemporary traveler.
Either way, industry insiders agree that interest among travelers is on the rise.
It’s impossible to talk about high-end rail travel without acknowledging the Orient Express. The celebrated train created by Belgian Georges Nagelmackers first rolled out of Paris on in 1883, bound for Istanbul and a place in history with its sleeper cars decked in elegant furnishings and fine linens. Known as “the king of trains and the train of kings,” the Orient Express famously carried European royals, spies, artists and politicians, spawning legends, novels and imitators, some of which borrowed its hallowed nickname.
Today, its rightful heir is Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which crisscrosses Europe from March to October, stopping in cities like Paris, Berlin, Venice and Istanbul on itineraries that range from daytrips to 10-night extravaganzas.
The lavish train was launched in 1982 (nearly 100 years after the original), complete with vintage cabins, three restaurant cars and meticulously restored wood inlays and Lalique glass.
In the three decades since the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’ debut, Belmond’s fleet has expanded to include trains in Asia, the U.K. and South America. In 2016, the company unveiled the Belmond Grand Hibernian, which chugs across Ireland from whiskey tastings to private castle tours.
In 2017, the Belmond Andean Explorer began whisking passengers through the Peruvian altiplano in bright cabins with handwoven fabrics, local-stone bathrooms and oxygen masks should the elevation prove uncomfortable. Travelers explore islands on Lake Titicaca, view ancient cave paintings and relax in the piano bar car after dining on modern Peruvian fare.
A Wealth of Choices
A number of other recent launches have helped herald luxury rail’s revival around the world.
In 2013, Cruise Train Seven Stars debuted on Kyushu Island, claiming the title of Japan’s first luxury sleeper train. Just 14 of its suites are imbued with local craftsmanship and aesthetics, from delicate wooden screens to artisan washbasins.
The same year, Tren Crucero began rolling past volcanoes and cloud forests in Ecuador, transporting 50 guests who overnight at local haciendas and hotels on their way between the mountains and the Pacific.
In 2014, Imperial Russia began high-end journeys on the revered Trans-Siberian Railway, tracing 14-day routes from Moscow to Beijing; and in 2015, Canada’s Via Rail added the upgraded Prestige Class to departures of the Canadian, offering larger cabins, all-inclusive food and beverage, exclusive lounges and concierge service over the 2,700 miles from Toronto to Vancouver.
Most recently, Japan’s ultraluxury Train Suite Shiki-Shima departed on its maiden voyage in 2017 with a front observation car offering a conductor’s-eye view, deluxe suites with fireplaces and a lounge car designed to evoke sunlight coming through trees.
Travelers are seeking out rail for a variety of reasons: the geeky appeal of a rebuilt steam engine; the nostalgic allure of clacking along the track; the opportunity to slow down, disconnect and see an intimate view of landscapes that might otherwise be inaccessible to most visitors.
A Changing Marketplace
As luxury rail expands, the customer is changing. Years ago, the typical guest was an older traveler, at least in their 50s. In recent years, the clientele has begun to trend younger.
And client demands are evolving, as well. Some trains now offer more off-train activities, for which riders disembark to visit local communities, tour museums or ogle rhinos and elephants, as we did on a game drive through Nambiti Private Game Reserve. Others focus more on the onboard experience, the carefully crafted interiors and stunning panorama outside your window that changes with every second down the track.
The Belmond Royal Scotsman and Belmond Andean Explorer have new spa cars, and the Eastern & Orient Express is adding bike tours to some itineraries. Aboard the Belmond British Pullman, which offers daytrips into the countryside, celebrity chefs now make pop-up meals, “where everyone’s dressed up and there’s a real sense of occasion.”
Even the grand dame of luxury rail has had some work done. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express today glides through Europe with WiFi and air conditioning, something Nagelmackers couldn’t have possibly imagined when he unveiled the original 135 years ago. In March, the train will reveal new Grand Suites with elegant art deco interiors inspired by Paris, Venice and Instanbul.
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