I originally wrote this article for the February 2005 Wide World Books & Maps Newsletter. If you click on any of the book links at the bottom of the article, you will find yourself at Wide World's site where you can purchase the books. -Terrell
Take the A Train... or the Blue Train or the Trans-Siberian Express or...
Simone's in-laws rolled into town this week on a visit from Iowa and I mean that literally. They don't like to fly and driving from the Midwest across the Rockies this time of year is a little too adventurous for them. That leaves the elegant solution of the train. It takes a little longer but they arrived relaxed and rested after a couple of days on the rails. They told us that Amtrak has some great deals if you know where to look including two-for-one deals and regional passes (don't miss that coupon in the Chinook Book). Their trip got me thinking. It's been too long since I've been on a train. May be I should plan a trip myself...(begin dream sequence).
As long as we're dreaming, let's dream big. When I asked around the store for "best train" suggestions, the names I heard first and loudest where both in South Africa: Rovos Rail and the Blue Train. Both trains describe themselves as the ultimate luxury rail "cruise" experience. Fine linens, champagne and caviar, ensuite full-sized baths, burled wood paneling...the list seems endless. And oh yeah, you're moving. Rovos offers trips to Namibia and Victoria Falls while the Blue Train stays mostly between Cape Town and Pretoria. So sit back, watch the country roll by and imagine your diamond mines are paying for this. The off-season rate on the Blue Train from Cape Town to Pretoria starts around $2,700. That's one day and one night. It certainly would be a once in a life-time experience. Of course, South Africa is not the only place to offer luxury train service. A quick Google search got me to some other exciting options. How about the GrandLuxe Rail Journeys trip through the Rockies, Sierras, and Napa Valley? Seven days from Denver to San Francisco through spectacular scenery aboard refitted cars from the golden age of American rail travel (the forties and fifties) complete with a piano lounge. You can share a vintage Pullman sleeper for just $4,290. Per person. Or you could choose the grand old lady of luxury train travel: the gleaming blue and gold cars of the Venice Simplon Orient Express, boarding in Paris with stops in Budapest, Bucharest and Bulgaria on your way to Istanbul. If you plan to murder someone on the train, try to make it someone rich. This six day excursion will set you back $7,690. Add another $2,200 if you want a compartment to yourself. The once a year departure falls at the end of August, so plan carefully.
OK, wait a minute. Unless I win the Powerball or become the next Mrs. Donald Trump, these are train rides I'm never going to experience. But suppose I do without the Egyptian cotton sheets, guest lecturers and snooty car attendants. Can't I make these same spectacular journeys for more reasonable amounts of money? Sure I can. Take for instance, that ultimate dream of train travel enthusiasts, the Trans Siberian Express. Seattle outfitter MIR Corporation (an excellent company that we highly recommend) has a fifteen day, private "hotel on wheels" trip from Moscow to Vladivostok that starts at $6,195 and goes all the way up to a bank-account blowing $16,995. If you're willing to do without a comfortable bed, bring your own food or purchase it along the way, take your chances with seatmates who may be with you for days, and embrace a looser standard of personal hygiene, you can do that same trip for somewhere between $320 and $650 depending on how and when you book. Are you getting more from the MIR trip? Sure, such things as visa services, expert guides and hot showers are included. Should you forego a great experience because you don't have $6,000? Absolutely not. There are plenty of regularly scheduled train trips that don't include luxury accommodations but do offer spectacular scenery and local color for quite reasonable rates.
Again I queried my coworkers on their favorite train experiences and came up with some great answers. Heather spun a magical tale of a winter trip across Hokkaido where she was wrapped in cozy warmed seats and complimentary slippers while she watched deer running through the snow outside the train. Louise also sang the praises of Japanese trains, saying everyone should ride a bullet train at least once to satisfy the need for speed. We all agreed that practically any train in Switzerland can provide a memorable experience. (In my internet research for this article, I found a message board on Rick Steves' website where people have been arguing for the last four years about the best Swiss train.) Several people cited the incredible sea views of the Genoa to Marseille run (or even on to Barcelona) that takes you along both the Italian and French Rivieras. The Trainways site for Australia advertises some awesome treks--4352km from Sydney to Perth--for very reasonable amounts of money that have really sparked my interest in trains down under. They even have a six-month rail pass for just over $500. And of course, the Americas have some of the best trains still going, at least for now. The trains through Copper Canyon in Mexico, through the Andes in Peru or the Rockies in Canada all offer never-to-be-forgotten views. Even here in the Northwest we are rich in great trains. The Columbia River Gorge is a classic train ride. And the ride from Seattle to Vancouver is one of my favorite short getaways with terrific water views all the way north for a very modest price.
Ready to ride the rails? Here are some books and websites to get you on your way: