5 Train Excursions Worth the Journey
Take a ride marked by incredible scenery,
from Australia's desert Outback to Colorado's mountain splendor
By Emilia Benton
The Blue Train
There's something enthralling about watching the world fly by your window, and the novelty of taking the train has stuck with me, even through shorter trips like the commute from Long Island toward the beckoning Manhattan skyline during my college internship years.
When you explore a destination by train, you can relax and take in the scenery that lies along the way, all while enjoying the comforts within. Here we highlight five awe-inspiring rail expeditions, from a half-hour jaunt to the top of the Gornergrat mountain ridge in Switzerland to a two-day transcontinental trek across Australia. Hop on and enjoy the ride as part of an escorted tour -- find departures online, or call (800) 680-2858 to talk to a Vacations To Go travel counselor.
THE BLUE TRAIN
The train: What's known today as The Blue Train emerged in the 1920s, stemming from an unrealized dream to connect Africa's most southern and northern points by rail. The two original trains -- the Union Limited and Union Express -- catered to members of South Africa's upper class whose fortunes were made on the country's gold and diamond mining operations.
The train was conscripted into military duty during World War II. After civilian service was restored in 1946, the line became widely recognized for its royal blue and cream-accented livery -- "the blue train." Its rail cars were refurbished in the 1970s and upgraded from steam power to electricity and diesel in the 1990s.
The tour: "Five Star Rail Journeys -- The Blue Train" from African Travel is a two-day trip between Pretoria and Cape Town. Passengers can relax at the afternoon tea in the lounge car, sit down for gourmet meals at elegantly set tables in the dining car and enjoy a nightcap in the club car. When it's time to turn in, retreat to a cozy, well-appointed cabin with an en suite bathroom. Along the route, you'll stop in Kimberley, where you can tour the former Big Hole diamond mine.
The excursion starts at $1,390 and is offered as an extension to African Travel's other itineraries; we recommend pairing it with "Southern Explorer" a 10-day guided vacation priced from $3,895. This tour kicks off in Cape Town, a perfectly timed transition to follow your trip on The Blue Train. After taking in the city's inviting beaches and nearby gorgeous winelands, seek wildlife on a three-day safari in a private reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park. Then travel to the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe and take in one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, Victoria Falls. These cascades measure almost a mile wide and plunge 360 feet into gorges below. Departures for "Southern Explorer" and The Blue Train package are available through December.
Don't miss: Day 2 of "Southern Explorer" provides an optional cruise to Seal Island, an outpost in False Bay off the South African coast that's home to more than 75,000 Cape fur seals. You may spot a great white shark hunting for its next meal in these waters.
The train: Its name originates from the Afghan pioneers who imported camels to the Australian Outback more than 150 years ago to aid in settling the harsh, remote region. The 47-hour Ghan route runs between Adelaide on the southern coast and the tropical city of Darwin in the north on the Timor Sea.
The train features a charming, vintage-style restaurant car (where you can dine on locally raised lamb or barramundi caught off Australia's Northern Territory) and two cafes, as well as a bar and lounge to socialize and enjoy the passing scenery, like the vermilion ridges of the MacDonnell Ranges.
The tour: The 20-day "Exploring Australia" itinerary from Globus kicks off with two days of sightseeing in Melbourne, which includes lunch on the historic Colonial Tramcar Restaurant as it travels along the city's winding streets. Later, take in the sunset views of Uluru, or Ayers Rock. Guests pick up The Ghan in Alice Springs, the Outback town that marks the midway point of the rail route, and ride it overnight to Darwin. You'll check into Gold Star service on the train, staying in private sleeper cabins where upper and lower berths convert to seating by day.
Later, explore the waterfalls and walking trails at Kakadu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From Cairns, sail a catamaran to the Great Barrier Reef, where you can snorkel or step into a semisubmersible craft to investigate the abundant underwater populations of fish and coral. The tour concludes in Sydney. Rates open at $6,039, and the trip is available for booking through March 2017.
Don't miss: On Day 7, take a ferry to Kangaroo Island, one of the world's last unspoiled habitats. Its Flinders Chase National Park is a sanctuary for native Australian animals, including kangaroos, wallabies and koalas.
THE GORNERGRAT BAHN
The train: Conveying passengers through the sparkling Swiss Alps, Europe's highest open-air cog railway has run from the ski village of Zermatt to the top of the Gornergrat mountain ridge since 1898. Today, the Gornergrat Bahn is a modern, environmentally friendly train with a regenerative braking system that saves energy by producing electricity on the descent.
The train climbs more than 4,800 feet in its short 33-minute journey, traversing bridges and tunnels amid 29 peaks, including the famed Matterhorn. Take in the panorama from the viewing platform at Gornergrat's summit, where you'll also find one of Europe's highest hotels, the 3100 Kulmhotel Gornergrat (perched at 3,100 meters, or about 10,170 feet, above sea level), as well as a restaurant and shops.
The tour: The name of our top tour pick, from a new line of deluxe getaways by Insight Vacations, says it all: "Majestic Switzerland Luxury Gold." Guests arrive in Zurich and check into one of its grand hotels, the Storchen Zurich, whose reputation for hospitality dates to the 14th century. After a night's rest, you'll make a jaunt across the border to the principality of Liechtenstein, one of Europe's smallest countries. Return to Switzerland and ascend the Julier Pass to arrive at the chic resort town of St. Moritz in the Engadine Valley.
On the morning of Day 5, board another storied Swiss train called the Glacier Express for a nearly five-hour ride through majestic, snowcapped mountains in the heart of the Swiss Alps; the next day you'll experience the Gornergrat Bahn. The 11-day tour currently has seven available departures from June to September, with rates from $5,085.
Don't miss: Insight provides opportunities to indulge in Switzerland's chocolate and cheese. Begin at Maison Cailler in the village of Broc to witness the stages of chocolate production (complete with a taste test, of course) before moving on to the town of Gruyeres to gather around a comforting pot of fondue with your travel companions.
THE ANDEAN EXPLORER
The train: The Andean Explorer provides a breathtaking ride through the magnificent mountains, highlands and sacred sites that make up Peru's Andean landscape. Modeled after the elegant Pullman trains of the 1920s, it offers dining cars and a bar car for the 10-hour trip from Cuzco to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca.
The tour: The 12-day "Empire of the Incas: Peru & Bolivia" hosted by Tauck, begins in Lima, Peru, and ends in La Paz, Bolivia, the world's highest capital city. Start with a visit to the colonial center of Lima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where highlights include the Archbishop's Palace, the Government Palace and the Museo Larco, which displays an archaeological collection of gold, silver and earthenware.
The Vistadome train delivers Tauck travelers to Aguas Calientes, Peru, a jumping-off point to the intriguing ruins of Machu Picchu, perched at 8,000 feet in the Andes mountains. Built by the Incas in the 15th century and abandoned about 100 years later, the settlement was "lost" to the outside world until local farmers brought U.S. historian Hiram Bingham to the site in 1911.
The Andean Explorer excursion is scheduled for Day 8; guests receive Premier Class service and enjoy lunch and afternoon tea on board. Available from April through October, this tour starts at $5,390.
Don't miss: A stop in Peru's Sacred Valley of the Incas offers the opportunity to visit the Awanacancha farm, where visitors can learn the differences between the llamas, alpacas, vicunas and guanacos that are so ubiquitously associated with the Andes region.
THE DURANGO & SILVERTON NARROW GAUGE RAILROAD
The train: Operating in southwestern Colorado, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was completed in 1882 with the main purpose of transporting silver and gold ore from the San Juan Mountains. However, operators knew the line came with priceless views and welcomed passengers aboard as well.
The train survived mine closures, a devastating 1889 fire in Durango, financial troubles, snowslides, a tour of duty during World War I and a 10-year shutdown in the early 20th century. Hollywood gave the line a boost in the 1950s, featuring the Old West town of Durango and the train in movies like "Viva Zapata!" and "Around the World in 80 Days." The railroad earned National Historic Landmark status in the 1960s. Today, its vintage steam locomotives and rolling stock travel at a top speed of 18 mph, covering the 45 miles between Durango and Silverton in about 3.5 hours.
The tour: Guests ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad on Day 5 of "The Colorado Rockies," a nine-day tour by Collette. The trip begins, though, with a closer look at the Southwest's natural splendor. First up are panoramic views of peaks and canyons in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park. Then cross the border into Utah and head to the red-rock country of Canyonlands National Park, where the sandstone mesa known as the Island in the Sky affords superb views from more than 1,000 feet up. Also explore the town of Moab, UT, a popular filming destination for Western movies. Many departures run May through September, with rates from $2,299.
Don't miss: While visiting Manitou Springs, CO, tour guests climb aboard the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the world's highest cog railroad. This 8.9-mile trip will take you to the top of Pikes Peak (approximately 14,110 feet).
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in January/February 2016. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.