If there’s one thing we learn from Agatha Christie about travel on the Orient Express, it’s that you risk being brutally murdered in your bed. The Kenneth Branagh version of Murder On The Orient Express hits the big screen this week and promises to be an epic whodunit. But Hollywood’s finest, including Branagh, Johnny Depp and Judy Dench will have to share the limelight with another star character, The Orient Express itself. The world famous train is renowned as the most indulgent and luxurious form of transport possible, as opulent as it is inefficient (it takes 9 days, or you can fly in around 5 hours), this is no Govia Thameslink to Luton.
However, travellers hoping to jump onboard will be disappointed to learn that the Orient Express disappeared from railway timetables in 2009, though it is occasionally revived. But the good news is that there are plenty of equally luxurious alternatives. Here are some of The Handbook’s favourites.
Two of the world’s greatest romances, railway travel and the subcontinent collide in The Maharajas’ Express. Although seemingly harking back to a time gone by, The Maharajahs’ Express actually launched in 2010 to provide luxury rail travel throughout North West India. As you’d expect no expense is spared in providing guests with every possibly amenity, from roll-top baths to a choice of two onboard restaurant cars. The lavish half-mile train, set over 14 carriages, takes in the sights of Rajahstan and generally runs from Bombay to Delhi or loops out of Delhi.
Probably the only ‘trans’ welcome in Putin’s Russia, the Trans-Siberian Railway vies with the Hogwarts Express for title of world’s most famous railway. Slicing through the truly vast continent that is Russia, the route starts at Moscow in the West and ends on the Eastern coast at Vladivostok. The Trans-Siberian Express, operated by Golden Eagle is the epitome of luxury, all cabins are en suite with the latest mod cons, which contrasts with the locomotive hauling the xx car train the breadth of the worlds widest country, which is a beautiful steam train heightening the out-and-out romance of a route that travels over the Urals, the magnificent steppe and along the shore the world largest freshwater lake.
Named after the seven prefectures of Kyushu, the southern island of Japan often known as the gateway to Asia, the Seven Stars is the perfect gateway to Japanese luxury culture. With just twelve suites, each with its own bathroom and sitting room, this is an intimate and special experience. Billing itself as a ‘cruise train’ Japan’s first luxury train channels the grace of first class cruise liners, with fabulous food, a lounge and dining car offering panoramic views of the island’s active volcanoes, beaches and natural hot springs.
First launched in 1929 The Ghan runs from Adelaide in Australia’s South to Darwin in the North. The train runs weekly and is one of the truly great railway journeys and takes travellers deep into the heart of this great continent. Traversing deserts and breath-taking sceneries The Ghan is a unique way to enjoy Australia. With regular stops en-route, Australia’s vastness is punctuated with sightseeing and excursions.
If your experience of British rail travel is a cold bacon butty and a polystyrene cup of milky PG Tips then think again. The Royal Scotsman is the epitome of all the best British luxury traditions. Each of the vintage Pullman carriages have been fully refitted to high modern standards. So high, indeed, that there are even two spa rooms on this luxury hotel on wheels. The restaurant car menu is the best of Scottish cuisine and perfectly cooked for a fine dining experience, surrounded by the Edwardian splendour of the Belmond Royal Scotsman. All, of course, distractions from the main event: the stunningly beautiful Scottish scenery.
Travelling at a steady 37 mph through some of the world’s most stunning scenery, Rovos Rail bills itself as the most luxurious train in the world and it might well be right. Surrounded by wood panelling and waited upon hand-and-foot guests can soak up Southern Africa in style, from South Africa to Namibia and Tanzania. Operating various routes and taking in some of the world’s most notable sites (including Victoria Falls) guests can relax, enjoying the luxury of their ensuite cabins (some feature Victorian style bathtubs), or sink into sofas in the observation carriage waiting for the next meal, taken in the pre-1940s dining carriage.
Although not strictly a sleeper, the Rocky Mountaineer does deserve mention. With no cabins, the entire train is given over to fine dining and viewing, with guests instead stay in stunning 5* hotels en-route. The train carves through the Canadian Rockies allowing the chance to view some of the most inaccessible sites on the planet, from the comfort of a luxury train. As the mountains and canyons go by sip on cocktails or indulge in the dining car on food specially made from locally sourced ingredients from the Pacific Northwest and cooked by a team of onboard chefs. Each night guests stay in some of Canada’s most beautiful hotels which are definitely, to borrow a ghastly but appropriate phrase imported from North America, ‘upscale’.
Fans of The Darjeeling Limited can star in their own Wes Anderson film on the Deccan Odyssey as it traverses India from Bombay to Calcutta via Darjeeling. India’s broad gauge railways allow for more space than their European counterparts, making extra room in the spacious cabins, or for the on-board spa, bar, lounges, two dinging cars and even a conference car. Guests can enjoy sights from the Taj Mahal to Varanasi on what they call their ‘limousine on rail’. All the food is provided by the Taj Group so guaranteed to be some of the best in India.
To South America where the Belmond Andean Explorer glides from Cusco, the capital of the Inca Empire, across the lofty Andean plains to the white city of Arequipa. Take in the region’s spectacular highlights en route, including Lake Titicaca and Colca Canyon from the Andean Explorer’s beautiful carriages, which used to operate in Australia as the Great South Pacific Express. Now fully refitted the opulent surroundings inside are nearly as impressive as out, while the muted palate oozes luxury inside and contrasts with the vibrant colours outside. The two restaurant cars serves local dishes created by chef Diego Muñoz.
In a country that embraces technology and design it should come as no surprise that the Skiki-shima isn’t your ordinary sleeper. While other luxury trains focus on rekindling faded glories, the Shiki-Shima is ultra modern, a magnificent ten-car double-decker modern palace, designed by Ferrari and Maserati industrial designer Ken Kiyoyuki Okuyama. No expense is spared, the suites include maisonette sitting rooms while the restaurant menu was devised by Katsuhiro Nakamura, Japan’s first Michelin-starred chef. The modern geometric patterns of the windows contrast with the calming traditional artisan created interiors. Relax with a cocktail listening to the pianist in the piano bar and watch Japan sail by.
Forget being squashed into your fellow-Londoner’s armpit on the Circle Line, this is the perfect commute. Reviving the golden age of travel, the stylish Indochina-inspired Victoria Express offers a daily overnight service between Hanoi and Lao Cai, allowing travellers to arrive perfectly refreshed and ready for a full day of sightseeing or business meetings. The train is elegantly wood panelled throughout and the onboard restaurant “Le Tonkin” features traditional Vietnamese and Western cuisine under the direction of Chef Nguyen Tien Duc.
Of course, all these options are to some degree inspired by the enduring legend of the Orient Express, if not directly then in the imagination of the travellers who enjoy them. In our opinion there is no better or more romantic way to travel than snuggled up in the lap of luxury onboard a train heading into the wondrous unknown.