The whistle sounds, the doors close, the train swerves. You sit under the glass-domed observation car, butterflies flutter with the promise of adventure. A waiter walks by with champagne. Today’s luxury train class offers a much-needed antidote to the compact, clinical cruelty of commercial flight.
Yet the best luxury train travel doesn’t just encase passengers in imported finery; they also build bridges between travelers and destinations through locally sourced wine, spirits and food. Crossing the Karoo in South Africa, for example, you sip Chenin. In Paris, share a bottle of bubbles with new friends at the onboard champagne bar. Traveling up the Douro Valley, savor Port while watching the train tracks unfold in the starry night. In the spirit of TS Eliot, “it’s the journey that counts, not the arrival”.
Here are seven wine-soaked luxury rail vacations on distant tracks.
The Venice Simplon-Orient Express, Europe
Authors Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming have immortalized this historic train in their works of fiction. Fortunately, the actual experience comes close to the elegance of their pages.
Servicing the fashionable corridor between London and Istanbul, with stops like Paris and Verona, the Venice Simplon-Orient Express itself is the reason to ride. White-gloved hands receive your luggage on board and, on the train, the decor recalls the stylized geometry of the Art Deco era which comes to life in sumptuous fabrics and wallpapers.
This trip also offers one of the best on-rails wine selections in Europe, with a rich cellar of French and Italian labels. The executive chef, Jean Imbert, prepares dinner throughout the trip. Think lamb from the salt marshes of Mont Saint-Michel or lobsters from Brittany. Along the road, guests converge at dusk in the Champagne Bar as a prelude to an evening of destination-worthy dining.
The Royal Scotsman, Scotland
The Royal Scotsman takes its passengers through Scotland’s rugged countryside at a sleepy pace. Settle in with a Scotch to watch the lochs and castles float past your sleeping car window. Elegant cabins lined with marquetry have plush beds upholstered in Scottish wools and tartans, textiles worthy of a country home.
Train schedules run between April and July with varying routes. A guided Scotch malt whiskey tour takes guests to Tomatin, Glenlivet and Tullibardine distilleries. The Western Scenic Wonder trip focuses on scenery.
Naturally, the Royal Scotsman’s whiskey selection outshines the competition with over 50 selections broken down by regional style. The creative cocktails shine, as do the Scottish gin and beer selections. Laurent-Perrier is the “house” champagne, with still wines from Europe and South America. The meals testify to the local richness: Scottish oak-smoked salmon and Rannoch Moor venison make frequent appearances.
The Haybarn Spa car offers facials or massages with panoramic views.
Andean Explorer, Peru
On a trip from Cusco to Arequipa, travelers aboard the Andean Explorer can cover 25,000 miles of mountainous terrain, Pisco Sour in hand, in two days. As you cross the glorious Andean plains, you’ll pause at Lake Titicaca, a vast pool of blue kissing the sky at 12,500 feet above sea level. Back on board, hang on to the open-air balcony perch atop the observation car.
Two dining cars welcome guests to soft leather armchairs for a feast of lively Peruvian flavors and local wines and spirits. Chefs source local quinoa, beans, corn and squash along the route, while the national drink, pisco, features prominently in cocktails. Most of the wines come from Chile and Argentina in South America.
After a night of partying, book the Andean Ritual, a cleansing wrap of flowers and coke in the Picaflor Spa car.
The Presidential Train, Douro Valley, Portugal
Portugal’s scenic Douro Valley is tailor-made for wine-soaked train journeys. Through a picture window, watch the undulating ribbons of vineyards unfold above the majestic Douro River.
On the presidential train, chefs prepare multi-course meals featuring local flavors and Douro wines. A partnership with Niepoort informs much of the wine list. On the beautiful Vista Alegre China, guests in the cleverly designed cars can savor tender cod drizzled with Portuguese olive oil and sip a floral Touriga Nacional in Riedel crystal.
Opt for the full-day Presidential Experience, which departs from Porto and ends with a private wine tasting at the famous Quinta do Vesuvio.
Rovos Rail, some African destinations
Rovos Rail spotlights iconic routes across the continent with five-star service, fine wine and mahogany-panelled sleeping cars.
Wine lovers should consider the three-night, four-day trip from Pretoria to Cape Town, which offers breathtaking contrasts in scenery. You’ll pass the scenic semi-desert terrain of the Karoo before breaking through the verdant valleys of the Cape Winelands.
On board, sample South African blends of Chenin Blanc, Pinotage and Bordeaux red. At dinner, the chef showcases local ingredients and the flavors woven into local game meat amid elegant Edwardian-inspired interiors. Take a seat on an open-air balcony to admire Table Mountain before disembarking in Cape Town.
Rocky Mountaineer, Canada
From Fraser River salmon to Okanagan Riesling, Rocky Mountaineer showcases the food and wine of its western Canadian roots.
A day-only train with no sleeper cars, the Rocky Mountaineer serves breakfast and lunch on board, making evening stops in small towns where guests stay overnight in hotels. Of the four routes, First Passage to the West remains a popular connection between Vancouver and Banff. The train crosses mountain passes and canyons, lakes and mirror forests, offering spectacular scenery.
Differences between service levels, Silver Leaf and Gold Leaf, are defined by viewing spaces, dining service, hotels, and the number of staff available per guest. Both, however, offer free wine. Most of the selections are Canadian, affecting the different regions of the Okanagan Valley such as Penticton-Naramata.
During the day, hosts tell stories of historic sites, such as pointing out where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven. They also talk about flora, fauna, and wildlife beyond the glass-domed viewing cars, giving guests a deeper appreciation of the setting.
The Great Southern Rail, Australia
Journey Beyond operates multiple routes through Australia’s breathtaking landscapes. The 2023 four-day, three-night Great Southern voyage connects Brisbane to Adelaide with wine country excursions. When traveling south, you’ll visit Coffs Harbor for an outdoor dining experience, Hunter Valley for an introduction to Semillon and Shiraz, or Port Stephens to see the Stockton Sand Dunes. You’ll stop in Melbourne for a choice of city experiences, including sipping on great wine bars. Disembark in Adelaide and head to the vineyard-covered Adelaide Hills.
The reverse journey from Adelaide to Brisbane offers off-train experiences in the Grampians, Canberra and Coffs Harbour. On board, choose from Platinum or Gold Service cabins; however, most of your time will be spent in convivial lounges sipping on an all-inclusive selection of Australian wines and ports. After a bottle or two of Shiraz paired with Australian dishes at the Queen Adelaide restaurant, everyone quickly makes friends.