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A journey by rail delivers a smorgasbord of natural wonders and local culture via a wonderfully antiquated mode of transport. Whether it’s riding a packed commuter train into Delhi or luxuriating in a private carriage on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, train travel is back in vogue and there’s something for everyone. From two-hour city hops to week-long odysseys through the desert, these are the most memorable rail routes out there.
The Canadian, Canada
Crossing the world’s second-largest country in just four days, this transcontinental train transports you through Canada’s rugged landscapes between Toronto and Vancouver. Leaving the beaux-art style halls of Toronto’s Union Station behind, you’ll pass Ontario’s wild and glassy lakes before hitting the so-called prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, with a stopover in Winnipeg. The highlight of the journey has got to be the leg through the Rocky Mountains, when alpine lakes, snow-covered peaks and the lush forests of Jasper National Park will leave you struggling to tear your eyes away from the window. Then it’s onwards into British Columbia, and the train’s final destination.
The Jacobite Train, Scotland
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, a trip on the Jacobite will fulfil all your wannabe-wizard fantasies. Departing from Fort William near Ben Nevis, this 84-mile journey to the fishing town of Mallaig stops at picturesque villages such as Glenfinnan and Lochailort, before swooping towards the Isle of Skye. Most notably, the train crosses the 21-arched Glenfinnan Viaduct – the very recognisable route taken by the Hogwarts Express. The bridge overlooks Loch Shiel and, if you’re lucky, the steam train will pause for a few minutes giving you time to get snap happy with a killer view. The two-hour service only operates from May to October – catching it on a clear summer day is hard to beat.
Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia
Connecting Moscow and Beijing, the epic route of Trans-Siberian Railway famously traverses eight different time zones. In as many days, you’ll leave Moscow’s avant-garde architecture and raw youth culture behind and journey through the endless Russian steppe, past the Ural Mountains and towns seemingly forgotten by the rest of the world. Then it’s into the Gobi Desert and along the shores of Lake Baikal before finally reaching Mongolia.
Colombo to Badulla, Sri Lanka
Lush landscapes mean Sri Lanka offers some of the most scenic rail travel out there, with one of best the routes being heading east from the capital of Colombo. Taking you to Badulla in the hill country, where you’ll pass through misty forests and tea plantations, the journey encompasses Kandy, Nanu Oya and Ella, the portion between Haputale and Ella being the most impressive. If you’re after a sea breeze, board the coastal train from Colombo to Matara (the southern tip of the island). Relatively hassle-free and pretty cheap, these steam trains go slow, stopping at characterful train stations along the way, when the rustic cabins fill with vendors selling everything from freshly mango to crispy papadums.
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Europe
Once an international line between Paris and Istanbul, today the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express offers trips from London to Paris and Venice, among others. The original 1920s, art-deco cabins are done up with fine fabrics, glossy wood panelling, plush seating and antique fixtures, and are serviced by impeccable stewards in bellboy uniforms – it’s proper Grand Budapest Hotel stuff. With a Parisian champagne bar and seasonal menu of freshly prepared plates, the whole thing screams luxury, but you’ll want to turn your attention outwards to catch a glimpse of the Alps, Romeo and Juliet’s Verona and Venice’s grand plazas.
California Zephyr, US
Probably the most picturesque train journey in the US, the Zephyr whizzes you from Chicago’s towering skyscrapers to laid-back San Fran. Passing the Rockies and Sierras, this three-day odyssey is ripe with contrasts; you’ll pass through the flats of Nebraska, Colorado’s canyons, the Utah desert and Sierra Nevada’s snow-capped peaks before finally reaching the Cali coast. Depending on your budget, choose between a reclining coach seat, cosy bunk beds or an en-suite bedroom.
Since the British Empire, India has had one of the most efficient rail networks in the world. Images of commuter trains overflowing with people hanging off the sides may abound, but if you want to explore this vast country properly, this is the way forward (without the hanging). A popular northern route takes you from metropolitan Mumbai to the markets of Delhi via colourful Rajasthan, with the opportunity for some tiger-spotting in Ranthambore National Park on the way. Trains are crowded and don’t have air-con, but these local services are by far the most authentic way to experience India, and meet plenty of locals en route. The other option is the luxurious Indian Maharaja Deccan Odyssey, which includes two dining carts, a bar and lounge – plus a very heavy price tag. Those in the south can jump on the Goa Express.
Hisatsu Line, Japan
With some of the most high-tech trains around – featuring seats that swivel around so you never have to go backwards – boarding a Japanese coach feels like something out of a sci-fi movie. To experience this state-of-the-art travel and catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji, book a seat on the bullet route from Tokyo to Kyoto. If you’re keen for adventure and want to experience some local culture along the way, take the Hisatsu Line on Kyushu Island – it’s the country’s southernmost island and known for active volcanoes, unspoilt beaches and hot springs. The century-old route connecting Yatsushiro and Hayato runs north to south via onsen resort Hitoyoshi, small picturesque towns with old wooden stations such as Yatake, the Kirishima mountains and ends near Kagoshima Bay where views of volcanic Sakurajima await. For a Japanese take on the Orient Express, opt for the Seven Stars train – on this journey, the views will be complemented by silk screens and local seasonal food served on board.
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