Traveling by train is still one of the best ways to see the country.
Train travel is one of the cleanest, greenest, and often prettiest modes of transport for seeing the world. Less carbon is burned when riding the rails vs. flying or driving alone and thanks to technology, traveling by train has picked up speed over the last hundred or so years. Even train cars are being revamped into a comfortable, if not luxurious experiences, and a re-inspired interest in train travel by tourists has put the pressure on the old school classic train lines to renovate as engineers construct super trains to carry passengers through cleverly curated routes showcasing some visually stunning and historically epic landscape.
I recently boarded the Rocky Mountaineer train with my mother for a mother-daughter adventure. (Trains are low-key, yet still stimulating for that kind of cross-generational adventure.) Together we set out on a journey to conquer a chunk of Canada’s Rockies. We left from poetically rainy Vancouver (where we learned to embrace the constant drizzle), and took in some truly dramatic topography from within the Rocky Mountaineer’s two-level car.
Trekking with their GoldLeaf Service (there’s SilverLeaf and RedLeaf too), we were privy to an adjoining 180-degree glass viewing dome on the upper level, and a ground level dining car with an open-air observation car below. Our two-day passage from Vancouver to Banff, Alberta (with an overnight stop in the quiet and charming Kamloops), follows the original Canadian Pacific line.
What’s uniquely exclusive about the route is that it is inaccessible to cars. It’s just you and your fellow passengers (and the train), plus a collection of seen and unseen black bears, moose, elk, long horn sheep, and other wildlife hanging out trackside. Because of the seclusion, when chugging along the tempestuous Fraser River there’s plenty to see: lush rain forest, majestic mountains with serrated summits, red-rocked desert, and glacier-adorned lakes pass by all within a few hours.
What sets this kind of train travel apart from rail rides on Amtrak and Eurail is that there’s actually hot, gourmet food made-to-order onboard. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all local and seasonal. (Think: Sock-eye salmon, caribou and buffalo.)
Seduced? Here’s a few other interesting train trips to consider boarding around the world in an attempt to lessen your impact on the planet and commune with the beautiful country that surrounds you.
Within Alaska is a half-day sojourn along 114-miles of jaw-dropping coast. The double-decker domed cars of the Alaska Railroad pamper with white tablecloth dining which pairs well with the vistas. Fjords, snow-tipped mountains and the requisite voyeuristic assortment of moose, bears and wolves never get old.
The Orient-Express’s Hiram Bingham Train
The Inca Trail by foot is exhausting just thinking about the 45km hike over four-days to Machu Picchu from Cusco, Peru. Aboard Orient-Express’s Hiram Bingham train, one of the shortest luxury trains in the world at just four hours, the locomotive does all the climbing – nearly 2,500 meters above sea level to reach the ancient Inca ruins. Food and cocktail party fun are background to the staggering views of the majestic Andes – a significantly more glamorous experience from the physically challenging Inca Trail hike.
Via Rail Canada
Finally a train with free onboard Wi-Fi! VIA Rail Canada trumps Amtrak with its technological connectivity. The amenity comes in handy for cross-country riders between Toronto and Vancouver who briefly tire of the dramatic Rocky Mountain landscape outside. Antsy passengers can also stop off at a variety of stops between Sudbury Junction and Lake Winnipeg and catch the return trip as VIA is loose with the whole hop-on-hop-off mentality. They cater to ultimate comfort too with sleeper berth and sleeper cabins complete with private bathrooms so passengers can catch sight of moonlit bears and whatever else creeps out in the night.
All I know of Amtrak is the Northeast Corridor line, which has left many a passenger unhappy. Out West, Amtrak’s lines seem to please more passengers – at least with views. (Tip: Always go for the larger sleeper cars.) There’s the California Zephyr, a long distance train traveling between Chicago, Illinois and Emeryville, California. Although not known for being perfectly pleasant on the inside, many consider the Zephyr to be impressively scenic and one of the best ways to see America. Then there’s the Empire Builder, which hits the northern states between Chicago and Seattle, passing through the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana along the way. The Coast Starlight also boasts impressive eye candy as it rides the West Coasts following beaches decorated with deer and other wildlife between Seattle and Los Angeles. www.amtrak.com
Africa’s Rovos Rail
If you can come to terms with the colonial feel of the Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa while chugging up the continent from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt then this is a rail ride of a lifetime. There are suites vs. cabins so lounging in the room is comfortable. The suites come with a fully stocked bar fridge, en suite bathrooms and hair dryers. The 72-person cap is a nice touch and makes for a more intimate experience.
Sweden’s Green Machine or Gröna Tåget
This one’s about speed and green more than leisurely holiday travel. Appropriately called the Green Train, Sweden’s Gröna Tåget technologically dazzles with a magnetic motor that reaches up to 183 mph and boasts an improved energy consumption of up to 30 percent better than most trains.
Trans Siberian Railway
Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway is massive, covering 9,000 kilometers. Most passengers ride the Russian rails leisurely to then wander through Moscow, along the Silk Road and explore the Russian Arctic. If time is of an essence, stay on board for the roughly ten days the entire trip takes.
The Maharajas Express
The Maharajas Express in India is ideal for voyeurs who still want a little distance from India’s intense reality and a great position to be in when overwhelmed by traveling through the oft visually assaulting country. Through the train’s gilded looking glass bubble are routes like the 8-day Princely India, which covers Western India from Mumbai and Delhi, to Ranthambore, Jaipur, Udaipur, and without a doubt, the Taj Mahal.