My Favorite 5 – Scenic Train Journeys

It’s no secret that I love train travel. The relaxing pace, comfort food and chance to soak in spectacular scenery from eye-level are particularly appealing. And while I haven’t yet traveled by rail in South America, I have taken more than 30 unique long-distance train trips through five continents. In this post I share my favorite scenic journeys collected from a lifetime love of rail rhythms.

5. Brisbane to Cairns, Australia – I first took this trip in 1995 aboard a special weekly holiday train called the Queenslander, which featured an onboard lounge car with an entertainer providing commentary and music along the 29-hour journey (including an unexpected comical appearance by yours truly!). One highlight was the onboard meal service, especially fresh seafood brought aboard in Bundaberg for dinner. Another was the slowly building anticipation of visiting the Great Barrier Reef, as the train steadily chugged north toward the Tropic of Capricorn. Though not majestically scenic, the overall experience of the train and its final destination earns a spot on this list. This train has now been replaced by the Spirit of Queensland which makes the run five times weekly in 25 hours.

Norway fjord cruise

4. “Norway in a Nutshell” and the Flam Railway – This trip makes my list, not specifically for the train trip, but for the incredible variety of scenery jam-packed into a single day. We journeyed by train from Bergen east to Myrdal, before changing trains to board one of the world’s steepest regular railways down to Flam, a route that follows along rushing rapids and waterfalls. At one point the train even crosses over a tunnel built for the river to flow underneath the train, as a train tunnel was more difficult to engineer. The next leg was a jaw-dropping boat ride inside two narrow fjords, before connecting with a beautiful bus ride uphill through an incredibly steep canyon to Voss. The final leg of the trip rejoined the main rail line back into Bergen by evening in time to board the world-famous Hurtigruten coastal ferry, another classic sea journey. Wow!

3. Rocky Mountaineer Calgary to Vancouver, Canada – This two-day journey is unique in that the train stops for the night, allowing travelers to experience all the scenic glory of the Canadian Rockies during daylight hours. A private company bought the rights from Canada’s VIA Rail to operate this special service in 1990 and has been successful in creating a true travel experience (the original train passed through the best scenery at night). Highlights include unique spiral tunnels, many species of birds and towering mountains. Because this is a special tourist route, it also includes meal service, onboard narration and overnight accommodations at a hotel midway through the journey. Not a budget travel option by any means, but the company does offer two classes of service.

Knysna Garden Route steam train in 2003

2. The Garden Route, Cape Town to Knysna, South Africa – This journey was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, as I traveled with my mother aboard the luxurious Rovos Rail in 1996. Not only has she passed on from cancer, but the railway itself no longer runs to Knysna because of 2006 flooding. However, the experience of departing Cape Town, one of my favorite cities, and being pulled by an antique steam engine during the final leg of the coastal journey, is branded in my mind forever. We even met a celebrity, singer Lou Rawls, who was traveling through Africa at that time.

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1. Bernina Express, Italy to Switzerland – In a small country full of spectacular scenery, this trip is my very favorite. While some rightly rave about the Glacier Express, Golden Pass Panorama, Jungfraujoch “Top of Europe” and other unique mountain railways, this daytime journey from northern Italy through southeast Switzerland tops my list of not only Swiss trains, but also all scenic railways. I loved the spiral bridge at the beginning, as well as the ever-changing climate zones we traveled through before arriving in the town of Chur to say goodnight to the train.

What’s your favorite train trip?

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