Taking an iconic rail journey is something most luxury travellers will do at least once in a lifetime, but which to choose? Katie Milton and Belinda Craigie survey the food, accommodation, atmosphere and cost of five of the world’s most opulent rail journeys.
Maharajas Express, Heritage of India, Mumbai to Delhi
A lustrous red carpet is rolled out for passengers as they board the Maharajas Express and the platform at nearly every stop along the journey is embellished with garlands and live musicians. Modelled on the private saloon cars of age-old Maharajas, this opulent burgundy sleeper train, which launched in 2010 and has been accumulating travel awards ever since, is one of India’s most luxurious modes of slow travel.
Its iconic Heritage of India journey takes travellers from Mumbai to Delhi, stopping at the country’s most distinguished sites, from the prehistoric cave paintings of Ajanta, to the palaces of Rajasthan and the resplendent Taj Mahal.
Rates for the Deluxe Cabin start at US$6,840 (about A$8947) per person twin share, making it about A$1,118 per day. The Presidential Suite is the highest level of accommodation on this eight-day, seven-night journey and will set travellers back US$23,700 (about A$31,150), which works out at about A$3893 per night. At 43.1 square metres, the suite spans an entire carriage and features two bedrooms, a private living area, a dining room and an ensuite with a bathtub.
On board, the Maharajas Express’s two restaurants serve a range of cuisines including authentic Indian and international dishes. The chefs aboard the train are accommodating of dietary requirements and will add as much or as little spice as you like. This all-inclusive fare provides travellers with a personal butler service, all meals and house-brand beverages, and guided off-train tours as included in the itinerary.
Belmond, Eastern and Oriental Express, Singapore to Bangkok
The Belmond Eastern and Oriental Express was originally built in Japan in 1972 and spent its early life operating on New Zealand railways. Since being purchased by luxury travel company Belmond, the 22-carriage train has operated through Southeast Asia, and is renowned for its classic three-day journey between Singapore and Bangkok. Refurbished with wood-panelled interiors, hand-tufted carpets sourced from local Thai rug makers, and elegant furnishings, the on-board carriages include an Observation Car, Saloon Car with a reading room, and Piano Bar livened with a resident pianist and local entertainment on select evenings.
Rates for the journey starts at US$2820 (about A$3714) per person, around A$1238 per day. Occupying half a train car, the Presidential Cabin measures 11.6 square metres and features an expanded bathroom, wardrobe and complimentary bar. The carriage functions as a private lounge throughout the day and at night the seating is converted into two single beds. Rates for the Presidential Suite start at US$6530 (about A$8601) per person, twin share, equating to about A$2867 per day.
A simple continental breakfast of yoghurt, pastries, cereal and fruit is served in the cabin each morning, and tea in the afternoons. Lunches and dinners, served in the two restaurant cars, are much grander affairs. Headed by Executive Chef Yannis Martineau, whose food philosophy is shaped by the exotic flavours of Southeast Asia, the menu on board is a fusion of Eastern and Western cuisine and is intended to mirror the scenic vistas along the journey. While all meals and itinerary excursions are included in the fare, wines and bar drinks are at an additional cost.
Belmond, Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Paris to Istanbul
Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is the most luxurious way to see Europe’s locales by rail. The train’s carriages were purchased in 1977 and restored for launch in 1982. Each original 1920s car has been created to have its own character, but all have the feel of glamorous 1920s luxury, with lacquered wood and vintage fabrics. Twin berths can be transformed to banquette seating for daytime viewing of the varied European landscapes passing by.
The train’s three restaurant cars are a glitzy affair, with white linen tablecloths, fresh flowers and polished silver cutlery as well as an evening dress code for patrons (minimum jacket and tie for men, with the equivalent for women) – tuxedo dress is encouraged. A Champagne Bar serves a selection of vintages in Lalique glassware or passengers can retreat to the melodic Bar Car ‘3674’ which has a resident pianist to set the mood for aperitifs or nightcaps.
The Venice Simplon’s most famous journey is the five-night Paris to Istanbul route that only travels once per year. Starting from £12,250 (about A$19,470) per person, twin share (about A$3894 per day), the trip makes stops in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, before arriving in Istanbul, Turkey. Belmond can also include tailor-made experiences at each city stop on the journey, with options like a trip to the Szechenyi Baths in Budapest, or a cruise on the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Guests take continental breakfasts in their cabin and indulgent multi-course meals are served in the luxurious restaurant cabins at lunch and dinner. Executive Chef Christian Bodiguel and his team, collecting fresh ingredients from stops along the journey, present a menu featuring rich delicacies like lobster and saltmarsh lamb, and the finest cheeses and chutneys. The fare is inclusive of all meals but not drinks.
The vintage nature of the train means there are no showers on board. Guest cabins feature washbasins and overnight hotel accommodation along the way incurs an extra cost, bar one night included in Budapest. The other nights are spent on the train. The Venice Simplon journey from Paris to Istanbul departs 25 August 2017.
Great Southern Rail, The Ghan, Darwin to Adelaide
A long-time favourite of Luxury Travel magazine readers, this iconic Australian journey is operated by Great Southern Rail and has featured prominently in our Gold List awards over the years as winner of the Best Luxury Rail Journey category. The train today journeys between Adelaide, South Australia and Darwin, Northern Territory, traversing some 2979 kilometres of Australia’s heartland over three nights and four days.
Among the offerings, a Nitmiluk Gorge boat cruise in the Northern Territory not only shows off the stunning rocky ridges of the Katherine, but also allows passengers to experience Indigenous traditions with an expert guide – from creating an Indigenous painting, to using a woomera (a traditional Aboriginal spear-throwing device), and passengers can explore the Alice Springs Desert Park. Adventurous travellers can choose upgrades like a helicopter flights over Alice Springs or the Nitmiluk Gorge, a camel ride in Alice Springs, or a fixed-wing flight over Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
As for the train itself, guests can retreat to a luxurious and refreshing cabin with five-star touches, like a turndown service in the evening. Platinum or Gold Class fares are all-inclusive of food and beverages, with fully cooked breakfasts, two-course lunches and three-course dinners in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant car.
A Platinum fare in the high season will cost around A$3699 per person, one-way (twin share), working out to about A$1233 per day. Paying Platinum means you’ll be staying in a cabin that measures almost twice the size of a Gold Twin Cabin, transforming to a deluxe private lounge by day and a bedroom at night with a double or twin beds. A full-size ensuite with shower, transfers at the start and end of the journey, freshly prepared continental in-cabin breakfasts and a 90-kilogram luggage allowance per guest are some of the Platinum benefits. Access to the recently introduced Platinum Club carriage with a daytime lounge, deco-style bar, and dining area serving five-course breakfasts, lunches and dinners, is another plus.
Golden Eagle Luxury Trains, Trans-Siberian Express, Moscow to Vladivostok
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which, at a length of 9288 kilometres is the world’s longest railway journey. Golden Eagle Luxury Trains is well renowned for their opulent eastbound 15-day itinerary from Moscow to Vladivostok.
Embodying Imperial Russian grandeur, the 25-car steam locomotive is outfitted with plush seating and ornamental details with the showpiece of the train the Bar Lounge Car. By day the lounge hosts guest activities such as Russian language lessons and local history lectures and by night it transforms into a sophisticated bar with a resident pianist. An informal dress code is encouraged throughout the journey creating a blithe atmosphere on-board.
A buffet breakfast each morning is provided in the restaurant car with the option for hot food cooked to order. Gastronomic lunches and dinners served on board feature local ingredients and range from international cuisine to Russian delicacies such as black sturgeon and red Pacific salmon caviar.
Rates for the journey start at US$15,895 (about A$20,789) per person, which works out to about A$1385 per day. The Imperial Suites are the highest tier of luxury accommodation on board, measuring 11.1 square metres, and start at US$30,995 (about A$40,538) per person, about A$2702 per day. This is the only cabin to house a large double bed as well as a lounge area with a dressing table, small library and complimentary laundry service. Complimentary Dom Perignon is also served to those staying in Imperial Suites when they board the train.
The all-inclusive fare features an extensive and flexible off-train itinerary such as private viewings of the tsars in the Armoury Chamber in Moscow, tours of the Old Believers Village in Ulan Ude and overnight stays in five-star hotels. The Imperial rate is inclusive of a private guide and car service at most stops along the route as well as drinks in the Bar Lounge Car, which comes at an extra cost to both Gold and Silver passengers.