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Acclaimed author and travel writer Paul Theroux once wrote, “I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” Since the inception of the railroad in the early 1800s, trains have allowed travelers to sit back and soak in the sights and scenery for miles on end. Looking to hop on the rails for your next post-pandemic adventure? All aboard as we explore seven historic routes where the journey itself is the destination.
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (Europe)
Made up of a fleet of refurbished, luxurious Art Deco train cars built in the 1920s and 1930s, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express transports passengers not only through historic and cultural meccas of the European continent, but also back in time. Train cars feature gleaming original wood panelled interiors, antique fixtures, and plush seating and sleeping berths, along with a few updated conveniences — high-end cuisine served in dining cars equipped with modern kitchens, marble baths, and air conditioning. Rambling through iconic cities, sleepy villages, lush vineyards, and spectacular mountain scenery, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express offers several options for the journey. You can embark in London or Paris and travel to Venice or Prague, among other routes.
Cass Scenic Railroad (West Virginia)
From May through October, refurbished original steam-powered locomotives puff along the mountains of West Virginia from the town of Cass, along the same tracks built in 1901. First constructed to carry lumber to a local mill, the Cass train now shuffles visitors down this historic route to the recreated 1940s Whittaker Station logging camp. The Cass train then climbs up the steep slopes to Bald Knob, one of the highest points in West Virginia, passing a natural spring to refill the steam for the engine along the way. After stopping to enjoy the views, passengers turn back to complete the 4.5-hour roundtrip journey. The massive well-oiled pistons on these beautiful historic trains and the nostalgic sound of the steam engine’s chug and conductor’s whistle are almost worth the trip alone.
Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad (Colorado)
This iconic train has appeared in dozens of acclaimed Hollywood movies, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but it was originally built to service the prosperous silver mining communities of southwest Colorado. Running just over 60 miles of track and rising over 10,000 feet at a steep incline, the Cumbres and Toltec line was once the longest and highest steam railroad in the country. Today, the lovingly maintained historic Victorian train cars, which include open-air gondolas to take in the panorama of the Wild West, carry passengers from Chama, New Mexico, along the 6.5-hour route up the narrow gorges of the San Juan Mountains, to Antonito, Colorado. A National Historic Landmark on rails, the Cumbres and Toltec offers an important glimpse into America’s past, along with views sweeping over hilltops and as far as 800 feet down aspen-covered mountainsides. The train runs from Memorial Day through October, and is most spectacular in the late summer and early fall, when the hillsides turn to gold, and statuesque elk can often be spotted among the woods.
Tren de la Fresa (Spain)
Between Spain’s capital city of Madrid and the nearby town of Aranjuez, the Tren de la Fresa (Strawberry train) runs seasonally from April through June and again from September through October. Originally constructed to link the city to the royal palace of Aranjuez, this train route was inaugurated over 150 years ago and is the second oldest in the country. Its name derives from the strawberry fields and rolling farmland the tracks meander through, after passengers leave behind the bustling streets of Madrid. Aranjuez is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, notable for its stunning gardens and palace, but what makes this historic train ride extra memorable are the local greeters, dressed in colorful traditional 19th-century dresses, who welcome visitors at the station with baskets of fresh berries to taste immediately upon arrival. Fresa con Nata (strawberries with whipped cream) is a local treat many visitors enjoy here.
Indian Pacific Train (Australia)
Boasting the longest stretch of straight train track of any railway line, Australia’s Indian Pacific train ride may well offer one of the best ways to visit the country — or cross any continent, for that matter. The route runs approximately 300 miles, from Sydney on the Pacific Ocean across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth on the Indian Ocean, and takes a total of 70 hours to complete each way. Operating for close to half a century, the Indian Pacific offers unparalleled scenery across a myriad of landscapes, from plains to deserts and bush as well as the opportunity to see wildlife along this epic route, and is widely considered one of the greatest rail journeys in the world.
Reunification Express (Vietnam)
Although Vietnam’s Reunification rail line was originally built by French colonialists in another era, today these tracks, as the name suggests, transport locals and tourists alike between two hubs of a reunified nation once severed by the Vietnam War. The two-day train trip running from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City takes about 30 hours each way, with several stops during the journey. Train cars feature updated air-conditioned sleepers with comfortable seats for passengers willing to pay for VIP tickets. Enjoy a languid glance at local life unfolding in the rice patties, fishing villages, busy urban streets, and lush, infinitely peaceful jungle surroundings.
Trans-Siberian Golden Eagle (Russia)
Beginning in Moscow and running for over 5,700 miles to the Pacific port of Vladivostok, this epic railroad adventure crosses seven time zones in Russia. One of the most impressive engineering achievements in modern history, the journey takes a minimum of seven days to complete — longer, with stops to explore along the way. One of the highlights is the five-hour stretch around Lake Baikal — the deepest lake in the world, holding 20% of the planet’s freshwater — and through the spectacular snow-capped mountains surrounding it. The track then snakes its way along the northern borders of Mongolia and China before arriving at its final destination. Along the way, travelers can take side trips to admire the Mongolian steppe and meet eagle hunters, visit the Great Wall of China, and get a feel for the vastness and rich culture and history of this part of the world. Built over a century ago, this rail line was, and still remains, the longest in the world.