Technicolor greens, brilliant saris, ancient temples: these are my clearest memories of riding India’s South Eastern Railway in 1996. I still recall the rickshaws and rivers full of locals bathing, as the tropical landscape passed in a constant, captivating blur.
My vivid memories speak to the power and allure of train travel. After all, a railway itinerary allows travelers the opportunity to experience a destination in a way that’s just not possible from the air.
Above the clouds, it’s hard to tell the difference between a Mexican canyon and a Norwegian fjord. From a train window, the passing vistas are completely distinct.
Sure enough, says Mark Smith, founder of the train travel Web site Seat 61, many travelers are frustrated with the airlines.
“People want to cut their carbon footprint, and they want to avoid the hassle,” he says. “They’re looking for a more relaxing alternative.” The evidence: visits to Seat 61 have increased 800 percent in the past three years.
But let’s be clear: some train routes serve up more scenery than others—a lot more. The ride from Calcutta was mesmerizing, but India’s natural beauty shines in its northern mountains as well. There, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway takes riders on an eight-hour ride through jungle and tea gardens to the base of the Himalayas, all from a 19th-century steam locomotive.
Closer to home, the Rocky Mountaineer traverses the dramatic Canadian Rockies from Vancouver to Calgary. The two-day route passes the snowcapped peaks of the Coast Mountain range, the rushing Fraser River, and down over the Continental Divide to Banff National Park.
Best of all, even the most spectacular train ride offers riders something many travelers crave these days: authenticity. “A flight across Vietnam is an identical experience to a plane ride in India, Canada, or Australia,” says Smith. “But a train trip gives insight into the culture of a country. The journey becomes part of the experience.”