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Riding the Rails

Luxury Trains Provide Elegant, Relaxing Way to Travel

By Patti Schmidt

Many of us look forward to vacation time all year, then find after the trip we're just as stressed and tired than we were before it started. It's the planning, budgeting, packing, catching flights or driving- doing all of the things you have to do before you get to the vacation — that contribute to your post-trip exhaustion. Your desire to do as much as you can on the trip makes matters worse.

Aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
Aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

If that sounds like the kind of trips you've been suffering through, try taking a luxury train on your next vacation. The rumble and rocking provide a calm background to beautiful scenery, top of the line accommodations, food and staff, and an interesting but not jam-packed itinerary. Most schedules allow for recreation and relaxation, and usually, the trip's focus is what you see outside your cabin window the train makes its scenic route.

You have a large selection of trips to choose from, as there's something on almost every continent: the more well-known and luxurious include Africa's Blue Train, which travels through the heart of Africa; The Orient Express, which visits Europe's fabled cities; and The Royal Scotsman, which makes a five-day tour through 1000 miles of the mountains and glens of Scotland.

But there are some lesser-known trips also worthy of interest: for example, Mexico's "Train Ride in the Sky," aboard the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway skirts the rim of northwestern Mexico's remote, majestic Copper Canyon, offering breathtaking views during a dramatic ride. This awesome rift with its adjoining, intricate maze of canyons is four times the size of Grand Canyon and one and a half times as deep. Acclaimed as a daring engineering feat, construction of the railway through these vast gorges of the Urique River began at the first part of the 20th century, abandoned for almost half a century, and then
completed in l961.

From the Gulf of California, the train ascends through canyons to Barrancas in the high Sierra Madre, winds along passes through gigantic boulders thousands of feet above sea level and soars across roaring streams on high bridges and trestles. The trip takes you through 86 tunnels, some of them a mile long.

Or what about beginning a rail trip in Milan's city center, where you will see Leonardo da Vinci's fresco of "The Last Supper" in the monastery adjoining the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie; the Duomo, one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world; and La Scala, the world's premier opera house? You'll also travel via train to Venice, where you'll board a tiny steamboat and chug down the Grand Canal; at the Piazza San Marco, you'll get off the boat to see St. Mark's Cathedral's five great domes, arches, and columns; and the Doges Palace. You'll also visit and tour Pisa, Florence, Assisi, Pompeii, Amalfi, Ravello, Naples, and Rome; enjoy overnight stays in top-of-the-line hotels; and have many opportunities to enjoy fantastic Italian cuisine; and to tour Italy's famous museums, palaces, castles, churches and other places of interest.

There are many terrific train trips to the world's best spots in splendor and comfort. A taste of three of the most famous, though, gives a good overview of the benefits of train travel.

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (it's official name), known most often simply as The Orient Express, is the oldest luxury train route. For more than a century, the Orient-Express has carried the most celebrated individuals of each generation — poets, writers, lovers and libertines — to the famed cities of Europe.

Throughout the journey, passengers are accompanied by a personal steward whose main concern is the passenger's comfort. A private, luxurious compartment offers panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Breakfast, afternoon tea and drinks are served in your compartment. French chefs offer "an ever-changing menu worthy of the finest restaurants" and a celebrated wine list includes the world's best vintages.

Dress is not as casual on the former American Orient Express, now GrandLuxe Rail Journeys. Day wear (but not jeans) is recommended, except for Royal Ascot, when formal wear is typical. Passengers wear a jacket and tie or evening dress at dinner.

On the Paris-Istanbul itinerary, the train leaves Paris on Fridays from Gare de l'Est, the original departure station of the Orient Express. Dinner is served while the train passes under the Swiss and Austrian Alps' snow-capped peaks. On Saturday, breakfast and lunch are served on board while the train nears Vienna and travels eastward to Budapest, Hungary through the lands of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Passengers disembark for dinner and an overnight stay at Budapest's Marriott Hotel.

After breakfast on Sunday, most passengers explore Budapest, a city divided by the Danube but connected by seven bridges. Lunch is at the celebrated Gundel restaurant. Passengers reboard the train to journey through rural Hungary before they cross the Romanian border during dinner.

Monday at breakfast finds the train rolling through Transylvania. Arriving in the mountain town of Sinaia, there's an opportunity to visit Peles Castle and have brunch before continuing to Bucharest for an afternoon tour of the city. Later, passengers relax and freshen up in comfortable day rooms specially reserved at a local hotel before reboarding the train for dinner, when they cross the Danube Bridge into Bulgaria.

On Tuesday, the train reaches Turkey. Breakfast finds the train crossing the Tharcian Plain and lunch is served as it follows the graceful curves of the Sea of Marmara. Later the train finally reaches its fabled Byzantine destination: Istanbul.

GrandLuxe Rail Journeys

GrandLuxe Rail Journeys
GrandLuxe Rail Journeys

On the former American Orient Express, recently renamed GrandLuxe Rail Journeys, travelers take eight to 11 day trips on a 15-carriage, restored passenger train, which includes mahogany and polished brass in the sleeping cars, inlaid paneling in the dining cars, and ebony, brass, and leather in the club cars. GrandLuxe Rail Journeys launched in 1995 after a $15 million renovation and runs in the tradition of the legendary Orient Express, whose inaugural journey from Paris to Istanbul in 1883 set the standard for rail travel worldwide. You can choose from seven different itineraries which trek through Canada and the U.S.

The renovation has allowed twice as many travelers as before to travel the best routes during peak seasons, but still only 100 passengers make each trip, attended by more than 30 highly trained professional staff and crew. Classically trained chefs prepare gourmet food, and a pianist provides music during cocktail hour, which features complimentary hors d'`oeurvres. Historians and lecturers also educate passengers on the route being traveled.

The views from the GrandLuxe dome cars — trains whose roofs are large domed-shaped windows — are said to be stunning. The GrandLuxe Rail Journey is the only train that begins and ends the rail journey in the United States, and the domed cars show the country at its best. One benefit, customs and immigration formalities are handled as you are one of few to pass the U.S.-Mexico border by train — something not done since the 1930s.

Some routes will take you through New England and Quebec to see the leaves turn in Autumn; an 11 day, 10 night transcontinental trip from Washington D.C., via Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, San Antonio, Santa Fe, the Grand Canyon, to Los Angeles; or through the Great Northwest & the Rockies.

Dress is casual and dresses and jackets are not required in the evening or at dinner. Tables in the two dining carriages are set with china, silver, crystal, and linen. Besides the dining cars the train has two club cars with baby grand pianos. An historic observation car at the end of the train allows for a great view.

The Royal Scotsman

The Royal Scotsman
The Royal Scotsman

The Royal Scotsman, a four or five day tour through 1000 miles of mountains and glens of Scotland, hosts 36 passengers and 14 tartan-attired staff in nine remodeled pre-war and post-war carriages. All trips offered on the Royal Scotsman include an intimate excursion along some of Britain's little used railway lines, visits to private homes, castles, and local places of interest.

Comfortable tartan sofas and upholstered armchairs fill a remodeled observation car. Each dining car offers passengers a private, club-like atmosphere, with for two, four and six set with white linen tablecloths and crested Royal Worcester china, fresh flowers and glistening crystal. Most of the evenings are elegant, formal affairs, and after-dinner entertainment includes a Scottish fiddler, live clarsach music and dancing to the tunes of a Highland band.

A companion bus follows each train, providing transportation to famous houses, castles and gardens where visitors enjoy champagne and special tours, including Glamis Castle, ancestral home of the Queen Mother and the legendary setting for the Shakespeare play, "Macbeth." At the end of each day the train retires to a country station or quiet siding.

The sleeping cars emphasize comfort and space. Passengers spend nights in the Victorian-style sleeping spaces, which are fitted with brass, polished burl walnut, etched mirrors, fine damasks, soft carpets and private baths. Each cabin has lower beds, a dressing table, a full-length wardrobe, a hairdryer, electrically controlled central heating, cooling electric fans, windows that open and an electric call button to contact your steward.

In a classic four day tour, The Royal Scotsman leaves Edinburgh and travels north on the world-famous West Highland line. The hmotor coach, accompanied by an expert guide, takes passengers to Inverawe Smokehouse to see how fish and meat are cured and smoked, and to sample these delicacies in the company of the Campbell-Preston family. The evening's informal dinner is followed by entertainment in the observation car.

The next day the train departs early morning for Perth, one of the ancient capitals of Scotland, for a brief tour of the city before joining the main line northwards to the Scottish Highlands. On the way, the train passes the delightful town of Pitlochry, with the ethereal Blair Castle heralding the start of the train's progress through countless mighty glens.

At Carrbridge, passengers can visit Ballindalloch Castle, set in the magnificent surroundings of the Spey Valley, the much loved family home of the Macpherson-Grants, families united in the early 18th century. Passengers are met at one of the very few privately owned castles to be lived in continuously by its original family by Mrs. Clare Macpherson-Grant Russell herself. The train stables for the night at the Boat of Garten on the private Strathspey Railway, where the snowcapped peaks of the Aviemore and the Cairngorn Mountains fringe the horizon. Dinner is formal.

The next day's first visit is the Royal Zoological Society's Highland Wildlife Park, set in 260 acres of beautiful Stathspey and home to many animals and birds indigenous to Scotland. Passengers view endangered species and others that are extinct in the wild.

The afternoon includes a visit to Eilean Donan, Scotland's most romantic castle, used as the setting for the film Highlander. Built around 1220, the castle was occupied by troops dispatched by the King of Spain to help Bonnie Prince Charlie. Dinner is formal and is followed by a performance on the Clarsach, the Scottish Harp.

Day four begins with a visit to the Isle of Skye, where Claire Macdonald of Macdonald welcomes you to Kinloch Lodge for a cookery demonstration. In the afternoon, a visit to a whisky distillery provides a truly Scottish finale to the day.

The Royal Scotsman tour draws to a conclusion as the train sets off from Keith through the Granite City of Aberdeen on the final leg of its journey south to Edinburgh.

With itineraries like these, you can see why train travel passengers are often repeat customers — one trip is often all it takes to become hooked on the romance of riding the rails.

If You Go...

Venice Simplon Orient-Express
Contact Venice Simplon Orient-Express

GrandLuxe Rail Journeys
35715 US Hwy 40, Suite D302
Evergreen, CO 80439
Domestic Reservations: 1.800.320.4206
nal Reservations: 1.303.962.5400

The Royal Scotsman
Contact The Royal Scotsman