Escorted Tours: On the fast track

Escorted Tours: On the fast track

Timing is key to choosing the right rail tour, finds Katie McGonagle

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Speed is of the essence on most train journeys – whether it’s a daily commute to work or a fun day out with friends, we just want to reach our destination in as little time as possible.

But that all changes when it comes to the world’s rather more impressive rail journeys: if travellers have dreamt about seeing the snowy heights of the Bernina Pass or traversing the vast red expanse of the Australian Outback, the last thing they want is to watch it whizzing past the window in a blur.

That’s why knowing how much time they are wiling to spend on the train is key to picking the right rail tour.

Here, we take a look at train journeys lasting just a few hours, a few days or longer, so they can choose the adventure that’s right for them.

Day Tours: Easy does it

Rail tours don’t have to be epic adventures in far-flung lands to be worthy of attention – the British Isles is home to a host of charming journeys.

“The UK is one of the best places to explore by rail,” according to Grand UK sales director Harold Burke, who says rail tours such as Secrets of the Manx Isle, which includes a handful of shorter journeys, are most popular with its over-55s audience.

“This tour epitomises the attraction for train enthusiasts, as it covers both modern and vintage eras of rail travel, including nostalgic rides on steam and electric railways.”

The seven-day tour takes the Snaefell Mountain railway to the island’s highest point, from where it’s possible to see England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland on a clear day, and the Isle of Man steam railway to the beach at Port Erin (from £729).

The age of steam is not over on the mainland either, if Rail Discoveries’ five-day Yorkshire by Steam itinerary is anything to go by.

This nostalgic tour takes the North Yorkshire Moors Railway through rolling countryside – once the backdrop for ITV drama Heartbeat – and the Keighley & Worth Valley railway through the rugged hills and wild moorlands of Bronte country (from £295).

But it’s in the Scottish Highlands that British rail travel really comes to life, with tracks cutting through wild, mountainous landscapes otherwise inaccessible by road.

Newmarket Holidays finds its five-day Scottish Highland Railways tour always receives great feedback from customers, bringing together the famous West Highland Line from Fort William to Mallaig, charming Strathspey steam railway, and one of Scotland’s most scenic journeys, from Inverness to the Kyle of Lochalsh (five days, from £429, including flights to Edinburgh).

Product director Teresa Taylor says: “This hugely popular holiday includes three rail journeys, all of which offer stunning varied scenery and the chance to travel through areas totally inaccessible to cars and coaches.”

Taking the Kyle Line journey, over dramatic mountains and lochs, with Skye visible just across the strait, was enough to inspire Railtrail Tours founder Dave Felstead to set up his travel business 35 years ago, and the journey remains an integral part of the Highland Rail Voyager tour to this day.

New to Railtrail’s portfolio this year – combining two of Scotland’s greatest assets – is a Scottish Highlands Steam & Malt Trail, which not only journeys along both branches of the West Highland Line in autumn to see the scenery at its best, but ends with a journey across the Glenfinnan viaduct on the Jacobite steam train.

And best of all? Passengers aren’t driving, so they can enjoy a wee dram at the Oban and Glengoyne distilleries along the way (five days, from £445).

Across the Channel, the Continent is home to some of the most iconic trains from the golden age of rail travel – and none more so than the Glacier Express through the Swiss Alps.

Glacier Express

Famously the slowest express train in the world, this scenic service takes seven-and-a-half hours to travel 180 miles from the foothills of the Matterhorn at Zermatt, through the 2,033m-high Oberalp Pass to chic Swiss town Saint Moritz.

It’s the focal point of Diamond Rail Holidays’ Glacier Express Winter Magic tour, though it’s just as beautiful – albeit in a different way – in summer, when Collette’s Alpine Lakes and Scenic Trains tour operates. These itineraries also feature the Golden Pass panoramic train and breathtaking Bernina Pass train across the Italian border.

Ffestiniog Travel’s equivalent – Florence, Lake Garda & Swiss Alps – includes a six-hour leg of the Glacier Express from Samedan to Brig, adding a Global InterRail Pass for unlimited travel in Italy and first-class Swiss Pass for good measure (from £2,375 for 14 nights).

A Few days: See and stay

For real rail enthusiasts, it’s not a proper journey unless you pack a toothbrush, with longer routes giving passengers time to see the scenery change while they revel in the romance of travelling by rail.

Harking back to the elegance of the 1920s, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is probably the most famous train in the world, with original art deco dining cars, vintage cabins, sublime cuisine and lively onboard entertainment.

The London to Venice route takes two days, and since the original carriages have a washbasin but no en suite facilities, that’s about the right amount of time for most people.

Just as iconic, the Rocky Mountaineer carves a line through Canada’s most impressive peaks. Popular routes include the Journey Through the Clouds, which ticks off landmarks such as Pyramid Falls and Mount Robson, and First Passage to the West, which traverses the Continental Divide. Both are two-day journeys with an overnight at a hotel in Kamloops.

Rocky Mountaineer Exshaw

It’s always worth considering a rail journey rather than a domestic flight – not only does it mean clients see more than just clouds, but it can turn an otherwise unexciting transfer into a flagship part of the holiday.

The cross-continental journeys of The Ghan and Indian Pacific, for example, can link up multi-centre Australian itineraries without clients feeling like they are wasting their precious time Down Under transiting through airports.

Travel 2 product manager Michael Creighton recommends taking a Rovos Rail trip in South Africa, instead of flying from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

“There are a number of short rail journeys, with the main route from Cape Town to Pretoria or vice versa,” he says.

“This journey takes two nights, providing just enough time to have a real rail tour experience, yet short enough to fit into a tailor-made tour of South Africa.

“The train passes through some of South Africa’s most scenic areas, from Cape Town and the Winelands to the vast expanse of the Karoo, before finishing in Pretoria. There are sightseeing stops en route at the historic town of Matjiesfontein or at Kimberley to visit the diamond mines.”

Epic Journeys: Bucket list

Road trips tend to reign supreme in the States, but Route 66 isn’t the only way to cut across the continent. Amtrak’s California Zephyr travels nearly 2,500 miles from Chicago to San Francisco, via Denver, Salt Lake City and Sacramento, so clients get a real sense of how the country transforms as they travel west.

Funway’s East Coast to West Coast rail tour builds in time to explore, featuring hotel stays in each city (12 days, from £679, excluding flights).

Great Rail Journeys’ mammoth 21-day USA Coast to Coast tour also includes the Zephyr, but adds three other Amtrak journeys – Capitol Limited, Southwest Chief and Coast Starlight – along with the historic Durango & Silverton Railroad, Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and Grand Canyon Railroad, for the ultimate rail adventure.

Over in Asia, the Eastern & Oriental Express doesn’t quite have the same pedigree as its European sister – its history stretches back only as far as the 1990s – but that doesn’t make it any less luxurious.

The main route is a two-night run from Singapore to Bangkok (three nights in reverse), but this year a ‘land-cruise’, The Fables of the Peninsula, has been added.

The 60 guests start with a stay at the famous Raffles Singapore Hotel, followed by a five-night journey through Malaysia and Thailand, with excursions to Kuala Lumpur and Penang, a night at a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands, and a tour of rural community Huay Yang.

But the most epic route in the east must surely be the Trans-Siberian Railway, which is not only the longest rail journey in the world but also the best way to appreciate the vastness of Russia. The railway encompasses three main routes: the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Vladivostock, and Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian, which take different routes to Beijing.


The Vladivostock trip features six nights onboard, but tours should always incorporate time off the train so passengers don’t just rush through the Siberian scenery.

For clients with a cultural bent, rail tours can open up new destinations. The Golden Eagle Danube Express famously became the first European private train to enter Iran, on its 11-night Heart of Persia itinerary last year, visiting some of the country’s most ancient cities.

For clients still anxious about travelling through Iran, the luxury train also runs The Balkan Explorer, a 12-day tour from Istanbul to Venice, via Greece, Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia, taking in destinations not previously visited by a private train.

Sample Product

Diamond Rail Holidays offers a five-day Glacier Express Winter Magic tour from £799, for departures in February or March 2016. The price includes return Eurostar travel from St Pancras International, four nights’ bed-and-breakfast accommodation in Interlaken, and a tour manager.

Insight Vacations features an all-inclusive Gold Luxury tour, Grand Canadian Rockies, which includes two days on the Rocky Mountaineer. Prices start at £5,625 including flights, 12 nights’ bed and breakfast, UK transfers and a tour leader.

Travel 2 offers three nights’ bed and breakfast at the SunSquare Cape Town hotel, followed by two nights’ all-inclusive in a Pullman Suite on the Rovos Rail’s Cape Town to Pretoria route, from £1,599. The price includes outbound flights to Cape Town and returning from Johannesburg in September.

The 14-day Moscow to Beijing Trans-Siberian Railway Group Tour from Regent Holidays includes six nights onboard the train, with time to explore Lake Baikal, Terelj national park and an overnight stay in Ulaanbaatar. Prices start at £1,700, including accommodation, transfers, train travel, excursions, visas and an English-speaking guide.


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