There’s something undeniably romantic about long distance train travel… ignore the rattling and clunking of the carriage and soak up the ever-changing views from your berth window, the leisurely pace, and the sweet anticipation of the final destination.
Sadly, sleeper trains are on the decline, but there are still some awesome overnighters you can do by rail.
You can fly to Australia’s Red Centre. But a plane hop doesn’t do justice to the endless unfolding of crimson and umber that reminds you where – and how small – you are. Reaching this big nation’s belly by train allows a proper appreciation of its scale, and of the hardships endured by those who went before. The Ghan, which links northern Darwin to southern Adelaide, is named for the Afghan cameleers who hoiked goods to in-the-middle Alice Springs before the railway existed. For four days, watch the red rock and roos roll by, and be glad you’re not covering the 2979km on foot.
New Delhi–Agra, India
If the thought of jostling with the hoi-polloi on a regular train makes you shudder, the Palace on Wheels (palaceonwheelsindia.com) is for you. Seven days of travelling like an Indian raja – luxurious quarters, 24-hr butler service – should spoil you for life. The experience takes you on a tour of ancient Rajasthan, a fabled realm of maharajas, majestic forts and lavish palaces. Starting in New Delhi and ending at the Taj Mahal in Agra, the journey includes such highlights as the jewellery capital of Jaipur, India’s tiger country and the Lake Palace at Udaipur. It’s a mammoth stretch, taking seven days from start to finish, so be prepared to make yourself comfortable and relish all that royal heritage in style.
Toronto–Prince Rupert, Canada
This isn’t a train ride, it’s a history lesson. Canada was populated by rail; when immigrants arrived on the eastern seaboard, they travelled onwards on the pioneering tracks heading west. The Canadian is the big daddy – the five-day, thrice-weekly, country-spanning service from Toronto to Vancouver, crossing great plains, Rocky Mountains and a lot of splendid empty in between. To up the epic-ness, change onto the Skeena service at Jasper. This is Canada’s most scenic ride, wending amid the high peaks and stopping at truly remote, fascinating townships en route.
Hanoi–Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Though this train runs on tracks built by French colonialists in the 1930s, its spirit is 100% Vietnamese. They call this top-to-toe line the Reunification Express, because when it resumed service in 1976 – after years of US bombardment – it rumbled across a freshly reunited nation. And what a rumble, a 1726km journey from the frenetic streets of northern Hanoi to sizzling southern Ho Chi Minh City, via the shores of the South China Sea, the formerly country-dividing DMZ, historic Huế, sandy Nha Trang and untold numbers of rice paddies, water buffaloes and bucolic scenes.
Few modes of transport rival the romance of the railway, except maybe boats. Fortunate, then, that this Italian overnighter combines both. The sleeper train from the Eternal City to Sicilian Syracuse (Siracusa) – via some cracking Calabrian coastline and gurgly Mt Etna – is physically hoisted onto a ferry in order to cross the Straits of Messina. The passage takes about 30 minutes: you can either catch some fresh Mediterranean air on deck or stay in your couchette, squirrelled away in the ferry’s hold, riding a train on a boat for the most multilayered of travel experiences.
London, England–Fort William, Scotland
Close your eyes on a chaos of traffic-jammed, office-crammed streets; open them again on a morning of heather-daubed, deer-scampered mountain and moor… The Caledonian Sleeper (sleeper.scot), which runs from London to northern Scotland, isn’t a train ride, it’s an escape – an overnight teleport from hubbub to Highlands. After Edinburgh, the route splits into three strands, bound variously for Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William; the latter is the most spectacular, wending via Loch Lomond and over Rannoch Moor – where the tracks float atop a sponge of roots and brushwood – to arrive at the foot of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest peak.
Nice, France–Moscow, Russia
Linking the Mediterranean to the Moskva River, this is Europe’s longest train journey – 3315km and almost 50 hours of rattling across the continent. Look out the window: there’s the sparkling French Riviera, the Italian exquisiteness of Milan and Verona, the snow-tickled Alps around Innsbruck, grand Vienna, the Czech-Polish border city of Bohumin, the Belarussian capital of Minsk and Smolensk, one of Russia’s oldest cities. It’s an educational unspooling of West-meets-East, showing where borders have softened, and where they have not (you’ll need a visa just to pass through Belarus), and reminding you why it’s far more fun to go by train.
Johannesburg–Cape Town, South Africa
The Blue Train is jolly nice indeed. This opulent tourist loco glides between Pretoria and Cape Town, showing off South Africa’s spectacular scenery in style. But you pay for the wood-panelled privilege – about US$1400 to be precise. Which seems a bit unnecessary when the perfectly serviceable Shosholoza Meyl (shosholozameyl.co.za) does virtually the same journey for less than a twentieth of the price. The cheaper trains run from Johannesburg, but otherwise follow an identical route. Granted, there are fewer butlers on board, but you’re more likely to get chatting to the locals.
Moscow, Russia–Beijing, China
The Trans-Siberian isn’t the most classic sleeper, it’s the most classic train fullstop. It’s a leviathan locomotive, taking its time to cross the planet’s least hospitable terrain, chugging via unpronounceable Russian cities, the world’s deepest lake and chilling yet oddly captivating Siberian sprawl. There are three lines of the railway; the most interesting is the Trans-Mongolian route, which links Moscow to Beijing via Ulaanbaatar. That said, much of the point is experiencing life on the train itself, buying sausages from station vendors, learning card games from your carriage mates and chatting until dawn over hot tea – or a vodka or three.
Chicago–San Francisco, USA
Named after the ancient Greek god of the west wind, the California Zephyr blows westward too, carrying carrying pioneer spirit (if no longer real pioneers) from Chicago to Emeryville, near San Francisco, via an array of heavenly views. On its 3924km journey, it negotiates snow-sprinkled mountains, raging white-water, vertiginous gorges, hostile desert and an engineering marvel of tunnels and switchbacks. It even masters the Continental Divide. This is the route that, in 1869, first linked the east and west of the USA.