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Have you ever entered a hotel suite so swanky that you didn’t want to leave? Now imagine if that same suite carried you to dazzling destinations, without you ever having to step foot outside. Such is the appeal of luxury train tours. In lieu of on-foot excursions and crowded tourist traps, you’ll find yourself floating from point A to B on a river of steel, savoring the scenery outside your window as much as the fine wine flowing from the bar car.
The analog quality of this slower mode of transportation feels like a balm in an age of constant connectivity and fractured attention. Add to this the growing trend of upscale accommodations — some of which could qualify as works of art on wheels — and suddenly this regal take on rail travel has secured its position at the top of our adventure bucket list.
Because train travel is spent almost entirely within the confines of a few well-appointed cars, thoughtful design and high-end service become all the more important. Locally sourced furnishings and foods ensure you still feel connected to the places whizzing past your picture window. Collectively, these choices culminate in an exquisite experience that is as transportive as it is transporting. Stepping into a high-end railcar can feel like entering a world apart, one that seamlessly blends a reverence for the past with modern-day comforts.
Take leading luxury travel brand Belmond. The art deco glamour of the company’s Venice Simplon Orient Express — a nod to the 1930s novel Murder on the Orient Express, which first enshrined the route’s ritzy reputation — is the stuff of legends. As is the train’s midnight brunch, a post-party service of chichi fare like lobster rolls, truffled club sandwiches and Champagne. It isn’t the first high-end train service in modern times (that distinction belongs to South Africa’s Rovos Rail), but it remains the best known of Belmond’s high-end railway offerings around the world.
Farther north, the brand’s Royal Scotsman draws inspiration from the stately castles of the Scottish Highlands, with carriages clad in dark polished wood and tweed upholstery in the same varied greens that blanket the hypnotic hills rolling by outside. When not enjoying the sumptuous cabins, you’re treated to haute cuisine in luxe dining cars Raven and Swift, where head chef Mark Tamburrini prepares contemporary dishes like salmon, venison and other local delicacies — all washed down with the finest malt whiskies, of course.
And for its Andean Explorer in Peru — one of the highest train routes in the world — Belmond endeavored to create carriages as magnificent as the surrounding vistas along the journey through Cusco, Puno and Arequipa. In order to connect the interiors with such stunning landscapes, designer Inge Moore of London-based Muza Lab opted for soft alpaca ivory and slate grays to echo the Andean cliffs, complemented by throw pillows featuring brightly colored Peruvian textiles. Days aboard the Explorer include indulging in Andean-inspired spa rituals, taking in fresh air and mountain panoramas on the observation deck, and enjoying pisco sour nightcaps in the piano lounge (a staple of all the toniest trains).
The aforementioned Rovos Rail, which currently operates six trains across Southern Africa ferrying passengers to destinations like Cape Town and Victoria Falls, gives back to the community by equipping local craftspeople with valuable carpentry skills to design its mahogany interiors. The pioneering brand was the first to outfit trains with posh amenities — think double beds and en-suite bathrooms with Victorian tubs — when it debuted more than 30 years ago. Today, it remains the most luxurious train in Africa and one of the top five in the world thanks to its opulent suites, deluxe dining programs and picturesque journeys.
In Japan, the artistry on display throughout the Seven Stars in Kyushu makes each room feel more like an interactive museum than railcar. The intricate woodworking along the walls and room partitions is custom made by the Kinoshita Wood Factory, beckoning you to feel the craftsmanship with your own hands. Actual works of art can be found in the en-suite bathrooms in the form of limited-edition Sakaida Kakiemon porcelain wash basins. Between such exquisite attention to detail, scenic views of the South China Sea, and top-shelf tea and sushi service, it’s no wonder that passage aboard the Seven Stars will set you back $11,000.
As this travel trend continues to take off, operators are teaming up with top brands and creatives to turn the train industry’s emphasis on distinctive design into an opportunity for companies to market themselves via kitted-out carriages.
For instance, last year an inaugural Aman train journey began carting guests from Jakarta, Indonesia, to the luxury hospitality group’s Amanjiwo resort near Yogyakarta, a Javanese center of arts and culture. Interiors boast traditional batik tapestries and Javanese paintings, plus Amanjiwo resident anthropologist Patrick Vanhoebrouck hops aboard to offer insights into Javanese history, architecture, spirituality, artistic traditions and more during the seven-hour excursion.
In Vietnam, five-star hotel brand Anantara has attached its own stylish carriage to the end of an existing train traversing one of the country’s most popular routes. The Vietage car ferries globetrotters between Da Nang and Quy Nhon, connecting two of the hotelier’s glamorous properties. From the outside, the Vietage looks identical to the other cars. But inside, you’re immersed in a sleek, modern space clad in light wood and rattan. A swanky marble bar is a hot spot for socializing with other passengers — that is, when you’re not enjoying highlights like soothing shoulder massages and elegantly plated Vietnamese fare with a French twist.
This spring, the Royal Scotsman unveiled a first-of-its-kind Dior-branded spa car, an homage to the fashion designer’s love of Scotland. It features a menu of tailored treatments inspired by the Highlands, like the D-Elements massage that employs semi-precious hot stones and a body mist emulating the country’s famously cloudy climate.
Even Hollywood is getting in on the action. Belmond recently brought in famed American filmmaker Wes Anderson to lend elements of his singular style to one of the carriages of its British Pullman train. He created a bespoke design for the Cygnus carriage that evokes the same colorful, timeless feeling of his movies.
Even with all the style and sophistication these trains provide indoors, you’re still likely to find yourself glued to the window throughout your excursion. Endless scenes of breathtaking landscapes replace the usual Instagram scrolls and Netflix binges. Something happens when you adjust to the pace of slower travel, a world where daily appointments are replaced with long, languid afternoons spent amid enchanting scenery and fashionable company. You’ll feel transported back in time and begin to tune into all the beautiful nuances of the day. You may have to leave those details behind when your train tour comes to an end, but you’ll carry with you a newfound appreciation for slowing down and remaining fully present. After all, it’s the journey, not the destination.