In the second of our astounding train journey series, we explore the captivating world of luxury locomotives as they chug past a wide array of destinations. The beguilement of a soulful train journey has never seemed sweeter than amidst a global pandemic.
Romance, glamour and face masks. These three words define the world of luxury train journeys, at least in 2021.
Travelling on a luxury locomotive blends elegance and ebullience, with its liveried waiters, ornate coaches and gently rocking intimacy. Mindful voyages is the theme of 2021 as we shrug off the grim cloak of 2020 and re-explore the world. Journeys on trains that sport boutique-hotel tropes are as slow as any can get. The romance begins as soon as you step onto the platform where the train awaits you, as The New Yorker writer, Anthony Lane, writes in his evocative essay, The Enduring Romance of the Night Train, “patiently, with a theatrical air of suspense”.
Outside, what is often described as “rolling landscape” whizzes past as the train cruises towards its various destinations. Within are cabins with minimal-to-colonial décor (depending on the train) and room service menus filled with pies, omelets, cheeses, and a parade of wines and spirits.
South America’s first luxury sleeper train, the 24-cabin Belmond Andean Explorer, makes its way through the high plains of the ancient Peruvian Andes. The next journey is in April 2021 so there is enough time to plan and book one.
The train: A hand-painted ivory exterior glints under the Peruvian sun as the train snakes its way through the ancient country. It hints at the craftsmanship inside: timber finishes, linen-covered walls, leather seating and bathrooms fashioned from local stone.
Accommodation: In the kitted-out cabins of Belmond Andean Explorer, guests can cosy up in hand-woven alpaca wool blankets on the panoramic-view observation deck. The interiors are marked by twin or double cabins decorated in a soothing blend of signature Peruvian accents. They sport in-built oxygen for additional comfort at high altitudes. Hand-woven fabrics and soft Alpaca-style textures mark the cabins. An ensuite bathroom and shower indulge travellers with a luxurious bathing experience even at 4,000ft. The Suite Cabin, a soothing retreat, is fitted with a compact wardrobe and an ensuite bathroom.
Dining: Enroute, guests are served local highland and Andean specialities cooked by expert local chefs in the two dining cars. After dinner enjoy Pisco Sours in the lounge. The bar and the dining cars—Llama and Muña—are in calming shades of blue and white. The backdrop of the rolling Andes Mountains, as the train streaks past, is perfect for gourmet experiences. Within, luxuriant leather is in perfect symphony with artisanal millwork.
The train chugs out of Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, and travels to the floating villages of Lake Titicaca, the condor-filled Colca Canyon, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Arequipa. One of the first stops on a high-altitude journey that stretches from Arequipa to Cusco, is Raqch’I, an Inca archaeological site infused with history. Sunset can be enjoyed over the La Raya mountain range.
Lake Titicaca, a stopover on the second day, has several floating islands built by the local Uru people. Uros, a striking man-made island, has been woven from reeds that are continuously replenished. On the third day, you will travel to Sumbay Caves, home to 8,000-year-old cave paintings.
Arequipa on the last leg of the journey has striking bazaars filled with several potato varieties and hand-churned cheese ice cream — called queso helado.
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The Blue Train
Known as a “window to the soul of Africa”, The Blue Train is a glimpse into the heart of the subcontinent and its wide Savannah grasslands, deserts and mountain landscapes.
The deep indigo coloured The Blue Train is infused with history. It was among the series of trains that began their journey in the 19th century when the discovery of gold and diamond mines transformed the fortunes of much of the subcontinent—from Cape Town to Cairo. Elite traders travelled on these trains not just for business but also for leisure.
In 1997, a new Blue Train was introduced on its traditional route, between Cape Town, Pretoria and northwards, towards Victoria Falls, even as the heritage steam engine gracefully bowed out to an electric one.
If you book one of the three Luxury Suites per coach, a personal butler will usher you aboard. Twin or double bedded suites, outfitted with luxurious bathtubs and a private digital interactive entertainment system, will be your home on the 7-day journey.
The De Luxe coaches have four suites. One of these has a double bed and a lavish bathtub with handheld shower, while the others have twin beds with showers. The De Luxe Suite is a subtly-lit room of indulgence, bedecked with goose-down and 100% percale-cotton bedding, individually-controlled air-conditioning system, under-floor heating, opulent marble and gold-fitted bathroom, a scented bath and plush monogrammed towels.
The ‘hotel on wheels’ offers a gourmet South African dining experience, with chefs laying out a treat of Karoo lamb, ostrich, venison, Knysna oysters and other award-winning Cape cultivars, artfully presented in delicate crystal or on fine china. There are also vegan options and Halaal meals for those who desire one.
The Club Car is a gentleman’s lair with its burnished, wood-panelled interiors within which a traveller can enjoy a Cuban cigar to round off a perfect evening and end the day of exploring with cognac or drink of their choice. A game of backgammon, chess or cards, the lure of the big screen or a tome from the library’s selection, await.
The train links South Africa’s vast south to its north and travels around the mountain ranges that dot the country through the arid desert landscapes, over untamed savannah grasslands teeming with wildlife.
The route between Cape Town and Pretoria is a long 31-hour journey through the lush Limpopo, home to the sprawling Kruger National Park in which you can track South Africa’s Big5.
Russia and Siberia
Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express
The world’s greatest railway journey, the Trans-Siberian Railway runs like a steel ribbon across Russia, connecting east and west from Moscow over the Urals, the magnificent and endless steppe and alongside the shore of the world’s largest freshwater lake.
The 5,772-mile journey from Moscow to Vladivostok is best undertaken in the depths of winter when the snowed out landscape is at its most beautiful. The chance to travel across the largest country on earth on a perception-shifting adventure is not to be missed.
The ensuite train allows travel in opulence.
Panoramic windows ensure the best views of the passing countryside. It hosts live performances by pianists playing Tchaikovsky, even as passengers watch the gradually changing scenery.
The Russian band plays classic Soviet marching songs as an army of stewards in immaculate blue uniforms guide travellers to their assigned carriages.
Among the most luxuriant of accommodation is the Romanov Suite that features two bedrooms, a private lounge and dining room, a complimentary minibar, a personal chef who will whip up Russian classics, chauffeur-driven transport and a private guide.
Guests in Gold Class enjoy 77 sq. ft of space that features a double lower bed and a single upper bed, ensuite bathroom with power shower, and other modern accoutrements.
Around 1900, when the new Trans-Siberian Railroad began, a few of the first-class dining cars and station buffets were sumptuous, serving gourmet dishes, fine wines and French brandy to well-heeled travellers. But during the seven decades of the 20th century, eating on Russian trains was a proletarian experience. This, of course, has changed. Today, multi-course meals in the two ornate dining cars are prepared by Russian chefs.
Onboard the Golden Eagle, chefs dish out regional and classic Russian dishes, interlaced with international ones that are served by tuxedoed staff in two elegant dining cars. There are lessons offered about proper caviar presentation and the matching of vodkas infused with pine nuts and cranberry with Zakuska, traditional accompaniments that include cured pork lard, pickled vegetables and holodet, a stewed beef jelly.
The voyage features exceptional excursions, like a tour of Mongolia’s capital city and a dip in the freezing waters of Lake Baikal. From the climb through the Ural Mountains (the boundary between Europe and Asia) to the wide-open steppes and broad rivers, travelling on the Trans-Siberian is an opportunity to absorb the vastness and grandeur of the world’s largest country.
The Golden Eagle travels through architecturally stunning countries of Russia, Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In Kazan, travellers visit the towering Kul Sharif Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the country, which was constructed in the 16th century as part of the UNESCO-recognised Kazan Kremlin.
Image Lake Baikal
On the outskirts of Ulan-Ude, travellers stopover at a traditional village of the Old Believers, a religious sect that was exiled to the depths of Siberia in the 1600s. Lake Baikal is a highlight of the journey, allowing intrepid travellers to take an early morning dip in crystal clear waters.
Palace on Wheels
The storied Palace on Wheels, run by Rajasthan Tourism and Indian Railways, is marked by palatial décor. It is a train tailor-made for royalty.
India’s first luxury train can be attributed to the largesse of Maharaja Gaj Singh, the titular head of Jodhpur royalty, who converted a personal train used by his family into a luxury train that would take travellers on a journey of a lifetime through the state’s former princely states. To the original train were added luxury coaches from colonial-era trains used by the rulers of princely states of Rajputana, Gujarat, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Viceroy of British to travel.
There is every contemporary amenity on-board: running water and internet connection, although the WiFi is not reliable as the train travels through regions without 3G or 4G coverage.
Colonial wooden furniture, draped pink curtains, rugs, silver cutlery, and staff wearing traditional Rajasthan turban mark the imperial experience aboard the train. The train palace is outfitted with a saloon in each compartment, complete with a mini pantry and lounge, two restaurants and a bar. Each cabin is accoutred with ensuite baths and wall-to-wall carpeting.
Large panoramic windows line the train’s two restaurants where guests dine on traditional Rajasthani specialities and international options. Draped curtains fall like silken fabric on each table, evoking the halcyon days of rail travel. The menu includes classics such as gatte ki sabzi and lal maas. The focus is on local and seasonal produce.
The train leaves Delhi’s Safdarjung Railway Station and reaches Jaipur on the second day.
The city is littered with historical monuments and palaces. The luxury locomotive’s guests will be ferried to the City Palace, visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Jantar Mantar, the Albert Hall Museum, the majestic Amber fort which stretches for miles and miles, besides the fabled jewellery, carpet, pottery and textile markets.
Among other stops: Ranthambore is home to several tigers and ruins of old palaces within what is now a protected sanctuary; the lake city of Udaipur, where you will visit Saheliyon-ki-bari; the dunes and desert sanctuary of Jaisalmer; the blue city of Jodhpur with its indigo houses and ancient bazaars; the Keoladeo bird sanctuary, and finally, the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders, in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, where the journey culminates before the train makes its way to Delhi.
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