It is often said that “it’s not the destination, but the journey that counts.” I have never fully subscribed to this theory, at least when it comes to travel. In my experience, there are some destinations that involve a long and unrewarding journey but make up for it in the end.
On the other hand, there is a valid point to the expression. From an environmental standpoint, the way you travel is much more important than where you are going. There are also some trips where the journey itself is far more than a way to get from A to B.
Rail fits the bill on both counts. It is an environmentally-friendly way to travel, while the world’s best train journeys are breathtaking in their own right. The Trans-Mongolian railway is not the fastest way to get from Beijing to Moscow, but thousands of people do it every year. The Rocky Mountaineer in Canada even has a glass-domed roof in the dining car, the better to admire the stunning mountain views as the train takes you from Vancouver to the ski resort town of Jasper.
Yet, according to Wanderlust, the best rail journey in the world is in Scotland. The magazine included a rail journey category in its travel awards for the first time this year. The stretch of railway from Glasgow to Mallaig – where you can get a ferry to the famously beautiful Isle of Skye – won by a wide margin of votes. It got the gong for the stunning scenery, beating rail trips to Lake Titicaca or Machu Picchu in Peru, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in India, The Ghan from Darwin to Adelaide in Australia and others.
I took part of this trip in reverse recently, from Mallaig to Crianlarich, the junction in the Highlands where you can transfer to the Glasgow-Oban train. My, oh my. I can see why it won.
I spent most of the first half of the journey dashing from one side of the train to the other, marvelling at the sheer rocky hills rising to my left and the silvery lochs (lakes) surrounded by greenery. At this time of year the foxgloves are in bloom, providing a flash of purple along the train tracks. As we went deeper into the Highlands, we passed through peat bog scattered with white fluffy flowers waving in the wind, known aptly as bog cotton, framed by the blue of distant mountain peaks.
At Glenfinnan we passed over a giant viaduct, well known to Harry Potter fans. In summer you can actually go on the Jacobite steam train transformed into Hogwarts Express for the movies. It does a once-daily trip from Fort William, at the foot of snow-capped Ben Nevis, to Mallaig and back, but you need to buy a special ticket and book in advance.
There is no fuss about the West Highlands Railway – for ticketing purposes it’s just a normal part of the ScotRail network. My ticket to Crianlarich cost £23.60 on the day of purchase – it’s often cheaper when you buy in advance.
Rail is a fantastic way to see Scotland. The train journey from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh is also extremely scenic, though not a patch on the West Highlands Railway. Major cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen are well-connected with each other and with England. It is only a five-hour journey from Glasgow to London and there are sleeper services from London to most major Scottish cities.
Sometimes it definitely is the journey that counts.