A (RAIL) ROAD LESS TRAVELLED

Discerning travellers are falling in love with the romance of slow-paced train journeys all over again.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Discerning travellers are falling in love with the romance of slow-paced train journeys all over again. 

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Composer George Gershwin, who composed the famed Rhapsody in Blue, found inspiration for the piece from the roar of a train’s steam engine and the clatter of its wheels in 1924. American author Tom Zoellner, in an attempt to encapsulate the poetic notion of train travel, traversed the world by locomotive to write his 2014 book Train: Riding the Rails that Created the Modern World – From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief.

As we become more welltravelled and jaded, as our appetites for less cookie-cutter travel increase, so does the demand for holidays that include, or are centred around, a railway. Train travel, it seems, has a timeless romanticism that no other mode of transport can replicate. 

Jane Chang, head of marketing communications at Chan Brothers Travel, notes that there has been an average of a 20 per cent year-on-year increase in demand for rail holidays over the last five years. Convenience appears to be the biggest draw.

“Rail holidays in Europe feature high-speed trains that connect tourists from city centre to city centre, thus allowing them to make the most of their trip with the flexibility of extension in each city,” she explains.

Other packages popular with Chan Brothers’ customers feature expeditions to Tibet (Qinghai-Tibet Railway), South Africa (Royal Livingstone Express) and New Zealand (Taieri Gorge Railway).

Likewise, at Dynasty Travel, rail pass bookings to Europe and Japan have increased by about 20 per cent, compared to 2015.

“Singaporeans are getting more adventurous, and want to venture into lesser-known areas in cities across Europe, Japan, Taiwan and Korea,” says Alicia Seah, director of public relations and communications at Dynasty Travel. “These travellers are usually 25 to 40 years old, highly tech-savvy and willing to experience the unexplored.”

And of course, there are the views you’d never get from a flight. “A scenic train ride can be a whole vacation on its own, as some rides off er spectacular scenery, like during fall,” says Alicia.

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ALL ABOARD!

These scenic train routes make for some of the most rewarding trips – and great reading time! – in the world. Get ready to be blown away.

KICKING HORSE PASS IN THE CANADIAN ROCKIES.

From Vancouver to Jasper.

Travel by: Rocky Mountaineer (http://scenictravel.com.sg/tour-packages/land-tour/ rocky-mountaineer).

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There are numerous train lines that cut through the Rocky Mountains, but this is probably the most significant. It’s not only historically important for its role in connecting Canada from coast to coast in the 1800s, but is also the most visually stunning among the routes, as the azure sky, dramatic mountains and rushing rivers (like the iconic Kicking Horse River) all converge for miles of jaw-dropping scenery. Luxury rail operator Rocky Mountaineer offers the only passenger rail service serving this historic route now. Depending on your chosen itinerary, it transports you to picturesque towns such as Banff and Lake Louise, and Jasper National Park and Yoho National Park. A seat in the glass-domed coaches on the train’s premium Gold Leaf section is your best bet to capturing all of nature’s splendours – black bear sightings are apparently quite common in summer!

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READ: Icefields by Thomas Wharton

This awardwinning thriller from the Canadian novelist is told through its physician protagonist’s journal entries and scientific notes as he tries to uncover the mysteries of the Arcturus glacier in the Canadian Rockies. Here’s a tantalising plot detail: during his first encounter with the glacier, he sees a winged human figure trapped within.

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BERNINA EXPRESS ROUTE.

From Chur in Switzerland to Tirano in Italy.

Travel by: Bernina Express (www.rhb.ch).

The hard-working Bernina Express takes travellers along the highest railway in the Alps (it reaches 2,253m above sea level), past glistening snow-capped peaks and various regions in Switzerland and Italy, negotiating 55 tunnels and 196 bridges as well as the occasional steep incline – all in a relatively short time of four hours. The sight of endless miles of Alpine countryside giving way to Baroque churches and aristocratic mansions as the train makes its way from Switzerland to Italy is breathtaking. A visual delight: the hulking, stonewalled Ospizio Bernina station located at the highest point on the railway line (approximately 2,310m above sea level) and on the shores of the milky-blue Lago Bianco reservoir. Little wonder then that the Bernina Pass has been awarded Unesco World Heritage Site status.

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READ: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.

One woman’s attempt to escape from her numerous failed relationships and her friends’ disapproval brings her to the luxurious Hotel du Lac in Switzerland. There, surrounded by the grandeur of nature and a motley crew of quirky characters, she slowly finds her footing in life again. A must-read for anyone who’s felt like escaping their own lives.

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BLUE TRAIN ROUTE.

From Pretoria to Cape Town in South Africa.

Travel by: Rovos Rail (www.rovos.com).

The grandeur of South Africa is best encapsulated in the 1,600km trundle between Pretoria and Cape Town – from the haunting, desolate desert lands of the Great Karoo to the lush vineyards of Cape Town’s winelands. A seven-day itinerary on the luxurious, Victorian-inspired Rovos Rail includes pit stops at the perfectly preserved Victorian village of Matjiesfontein, and Kimberley, the capital of South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, and its famed Diamond Museum – home to relics preserved from the city’s diamond rush era of the 1870s.

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READ: Icarus by Deon Meyer.

The latest in the series of thrillers by top-selling South African crime fiction author Deon Meyer is mostly set in Cape Town, and doesn’t shy away from highlighting the country’s reputation for corruption and its apartheid past. A fun pulse-pounder that you’ll want to devour.

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PERUVIAN ANDES.

From Cusco to Arequipa in Peru.

Travel by: Belmond Andean Explorer (www.belmond.com/ belmond-andean-explorer).

Set to launch next May, South America’s first luxury sleeper train will take passengers through the Peruvian Andes from Cusco, the capital of the ancient Inca empire, to Lake Titicaca and Unesco World Heritage Site Arequipa. The route is touted as one of the highest in the world, reaching an altitude of 4,800m, and offers dramatic views of canyons and floating islands. Various train journey options allow you to choose your desired amount of nature interaction. The Peruvian Highlands option, for example, is a three-day, two-night journey that departs from Cusco and ends at Arequipa, where you can marvel at archaeological remains of the Inca empire and taste spicy Peruvian dishes respectively.

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READ: Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams.

In this unorthodox travel guide, magazine editor Mark Adams attempts to retrace the steps of Hiram Bingham III, the explorer who claimed to have discovered the ruins of Machu Picchu in 1911. Along the way, he tries to unravel the mystery of the origins of the ruins, and gives a delightfully candid account of his experience with Peruvian culture.

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SINGAPORE TO BANGKOK.

From Woodlands Train Checkpoint in Singapore to Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok.

Travel by: Eastern & Oriental Express (www.belmond.com/ eastern-and-oriental-express/rail-journeys).

Right in our own backyard, a slower pace of travel between urban jungles exists. The railway track starts at the Woodlands Train Checkpoint, meanders through Malaysian jungles to Kuala Lumpur, then crosses into Thailand with a stop at the infamous Death Railway over River Kwai, before ending the journey at Hua Lamphong railway station in Bangkok. The views you enjoy are admittedly not as grand as their European counterparts, but glimpses of kampungs, sprawling plantations and ancient temples along the way afford a nostalgic look at the wilder side of  these metropolitan cities. The old-timey Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Express, with its colonial-inspired fittings, makes you feel like you’ve entered a time warp.

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READ: The Bridge over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle

This story of the plight of British prisonersof- war (POWs) and their attempt at sabotaging the construction of the notorious Burma-Siam Railway may be largely fictitious, but it still affords a grim look into the appalling conditions suffered by POWs during World War II.

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WEST HIGHLAND LINE

From Glasgow to Oban in Scotland

Travel by: ScotRail (www.scotrail.co.uk)

Scotland’s most remote lands are best experienced on the West Highland Line – considered one of the world’s greatest train routes. Traversing past rolling mountains, shimmering lochs, old castles and moors makes for an other-worldly experience, especially when you pass the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct, Loch Shiel, Loch Eilt and the Ben Nevis mountain – all of which had cameos in the Harry Potter films, when Harry rode the Hogwarts Express to school. At the end of the three-and-a-halfhour journey to Oban, a seafood feast – the harbour town is famous for its shellfish – awaits.

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READ: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

In the second book of the Harry Potter series, Harry and Ron fly Arthur Weasley’s car alongside the Hogwarts Express to school – which you can imagine just by looking out the window.

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TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY

From Moscow to Vladivostok in Russia

Travel by: Russian Rail (www.russianrail.com) or Golden Eagle Luxury Trains (www.goldeneagleluxurytrains.com)

The world’s longest railway journey is a daunting one that spans more than 9,000km, taking you across 14 regions and 90 cities, and taking approximately six days (with brief stops) to complete. The Rossiya train operated by Russian Rail is a more affordable, non-stop option, while the Golden Eagle Luxury Trains offers extended posh itineraries that include day trips into the cities along the way. Either way, the views outside your window are the indisputable highlights: picturesque ancient cities, sweeping landscapes (dazzlingly white in winter, a luxuriant green in warmer months) and the grand Lake Baikal, dubbed the Pearl of Siberia.

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READ: Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene

The American writer tries to make sense of his infatuation with the notoriously inhospitable nation – unfriendly people, brutal weather and all – by travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway. By doing so, he gives a snapshot into the oft-mysterious country. You may just fall in love with Russia yourself.