The Orient Express, founded in 1883, evokes all kinds of opulent images, and with good reason: As it ran routes between Paris, Strasbourg, Vienna and Bucharest, the original hotel-on-tracks became second-home to royalty, celebrities, and fictional murderers. The legacy of rail-car luxury was cemented.
Yet the train's standards declined in the post-WWII years and it finally, uh, ran out of steam in 1977. In fact, the business of luxury trains (and ocean liners) had started to decline in the 1950s, with the advent of air travel. By the 1970s, the entire premise of luxury-rail travel had bottomed out. But just as cruise ships have made a comeback and now resemble five-star hotels at sea, high-end trains are back in vogue as well.
From European Alps to Russian Steppes, Canada's Rockies to Africa's savanna, it's now possible to travel by rail through some of the most beautiful, far-flung parts of earth in the kind of comfort passengers in the 1930s golden age of rail travel could only dream of.
Fittingly, it was the revival of the Orient-Express that triggered this resurgence. Rail enthusiast James Sherwood, Chairman and Founder of Orient-Express Hotels, bought two art deco 1920s Orient-Express carriages at an auction in 1977 and spent $16 million over the next five years restoring them — and 35 other vintage sleepers, Pullmans and restaurant cars he purchased — to magnificent period-era detail.
Renamed the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Sherwood's train debuted in 1982 (with Liza Minnelli as one of its passengers), and in the 25 years since has proved so popular that overnight jaunts such as London-Venice cost over $3,000, sell out months in advance and are widely hailed as the most romantic rail journeys on earth.
Other operators have followed close behind. Taj and Palace hotels in India each manage a luxury train on the subcontinent, and entrepreneurs in South Africa and Russia have bought and restored once-abandoned rolling stock and turned them into rolling luxury hotels.
In fact, five-star amenities and mod-cons are now standard on tourist trains. The lavish Deccan Odyssey, which launched in 2004 and travels from Mumbai through coastal Goa and inland Maharashtra, not only has gourmet chefs trained by Taj Hotels, but a conference car with internet access and an Ayurveda spa with a team of masseuses to tend to aches and pains. Not that you should have any, given you're traveling through rural India in a bubble of designer comfort, not on an elephant.
In fact, boutiques, gyms, bars and even lecture cars are now standard on many long rail journeys — just as on cruise ships. Tim Littler, British founder of luxury train tour company GW Travel, and owner of the Trans-Siberian Express (which he purchased after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early '90s), books academics on his three-week Silk Route journeys from Moscow to Beijing to give history lectures en route. "My journeys are land cruises," says Littler. "I saw what cruise ships were doing and did the same."
If you're assuming, by the way, that a trip through rural Siberia on former Soviet rolling stock can't possibly be luxurious, in April 2007 Littler unveils the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, a new 21-carriage train built by a Russian company that will replace some of the older cars on his three-week Trans-Siberian and Silk Route tours.
But Orient-Express remains at the forefront of luxury train travel, operating no less than six luxury tourist trains on three continents. "Like the most high-end cruise ships, the secret is to offer something unique," explains Alistair Ballantine, U.S. Director of Sales and Marketing for Orient-Express.
Thus, while the Venice Simplon evokes all the old romance of the original Orient-Express, the company's Royal Scotsman service that operates out of Edinburgh offers passengers a rare insider's view of the Scottish gentry. A luxury coach travels alongside the train to take passengers to single-malt distilleries, salmon smokehouses, and grand Highland castles such as Glamis, childhood home of the late Queen Mother.
And a journey on the O-E's Northern Belle through the north of England includes an evening on board the Royal Yacht Britannia, once the ocean-going home of the Royal Family.
Of course, even for the most luxurious trains, one limitation is space; unlike hotels or cruise ships, they have to fit the size of tracks. At 124 square feet, the Presidential Suite on Asia's Eastern & Oriental Express is enormous for a train, but it doesn't compare to the top deck cabins on, say, the Queen Mary 2. And while Tim Littler sees certain advances such as double-decker carriages, duplex cabins and even glass-roof domes in the future, it's unlikely we'll see golf driving ranges or swimming pools next to the dining car anytime soon.
Yet, this too, is an inherent advantage. Due to their size and length, rooms and passenger numbers on luxury trains are limited, meaning they will remain exclusive. After all, virtually anyone can enjoy an ocean cruise these days; only the elite go by rail.
So get ready to ride with our picks of 10 of the most exclusive train journeys on earth.