Travel

8 Best Scenic and Luxurious Train Rides in the World

Glass dome ceilings and lots of wine make for superb views.

Journey Beyond Rail
Journey Beyond Rail
Journey Beyond Rail

Imagine the joy of road tripping-namely staring out a window at epic landscapes-minus having to dodge drivers, follow navigation directions, or worry about whatever the absurd price of gas is at this moment. Indeed, there are many enticing reasons to take trains right now. Even planes (faster, sure) are exhausting these days, with TSA, lost baggage, delays, and cancellations. Say you make it through all that, just to get to a crowded main cabin with tight seats that barely recline, far-removed views you have to squint at, and mostly just a whole lot of clouds out the window. That’s where luxury trains swoop in. It’s like getting all the benefits of right-in-your face vistas, kicking back and relaxing on your journey, plus the service you’d get on a cruise ship-but without the icebergs, hordes, and norovirus.

We have to admit, some trains are a cut above others. No one wants to sit on what could amount to a glorified bus for a few hours. Luxury trains evoke a glorious era of opulence while exploring large swaths of land, usually while sipping wine and sleeping in style.

Here are the best of luxury trains on every continent besides Antarctica (sorry, you adrenaline junkies), to indulge in a couple days of slow travel.

Rovos Rail
Rovos Rail
Rovos Rail

Rovos Rail, Southern Africa

Whether you have two nights or 15 days, Rovos Rail is prepared to introduce you to some of Southern Africa’s most spectacular sights aboard their elegant trains. Their journeys cross the lower part of the continent, going as far north as Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. And don’t worry, there is plenty of South African wine to go around. The train decor is reminiscent of a bygone era, with a smoking lounge, observation car, and a lounge car to keep guests entertained.

At night, guests sleep on board in various suites, while days are filled with adventures through places like Victoria Falls, Etosha National Park, and numerous spots known for iconic African wildlife. This is not only one of the most unique ways to go on Safari, but to experience parts of Africa that are easy to miss otherwise.

Journey Beyond Rail
Journey Beyond Rail
Journey Beyond Rail

The Ghan, Australia

Roughly 85% of Australians live near the country’s coast, but that doesn’t mean the interior isn’t worth visiting. Besides inspiring a generally-disliked steakhouse, Australia’s Outback is stunningly beautiful, with wildlife, landscapes, and culture for seemingly endless miles. The Ghan, operated by Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions, is a luxury train that crosses those miles from Darwin in the north to Adelaide in the south (or vice versa) on their signature four-day, three-night trip.

The route follows the trail of the Afghan cameleers who made a permanent road through Australia’s red centre. Stops include Alice Springs and the opal mining town of Coober Pedy, and there are also daily opportunities for excursions to places like Uluru. The train itself offers private, comfortable cabins staffed by attendants, plus three finely crafted meals every day in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant.

Hiram Bingham, A Belmond Train
Hiram Bingham, A Belmond Train
Hiram Bingham, A Belmond Train

Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu, Peru

Of all the ways to visit the Lost City of the Incas, the Hiram Bingham train is undoubtedly the most stylish. This Belmond train ferries passengers aboard 1920s carriages through Peru’s Sacred Valley, to and from the base of Machu Picchu. A decadent lunch is served on the way there, while a four-course meal is presented on the twilight return. Excellent cocktails are available at the stylish bar-a perfect pairing with the live music for which the train is known. Catch the band in the bar, and groove to the music on the observation deck behind it.

Rocky Mountaineer
Rocky Mountaineer
Rocky Mountaineer

Rocky Mountaineer, Western Canada

The very thing that makes Western Canada so spectacular is also why it’s such a challenge to traverse: the profoundly dense natural environment. Fortunately, Rocky Mountaineer takes away all the struggles created by craggy peaks and thick forests, allowing passengers to enjoy the jaw-dropping sights without ever having to bushwhack. It wouldn’t be uncommon to spot a bald eagle while sipping a glass of Okanagan wine as you’re crossing a bridge over a river. That’s a combination of things difficult to attain without being aboard Rocky Mountaineer.

While the Canadian Rockies can be relied upon to put on a good show, Rocky Mountaineer sure builds upon it. Their GoldLeaf service is a work of art, offering coaches with glass domes for ceilings, which you can enjoy while dining on locally sourced ingredients and sipping that wine, ofc. They offer several routes (including a new one in the U.S.), during which passengers ride the rails during the day and sleep in hotels at night.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Europe

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is a 1920s art deco icon, eliciting nostalgia with its 17 restored vintage carriages, each with its own unique history. It crosses throughout Europe, stopping in historic cities like Paris, Venice, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. There are many journeys to take, but once a year, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express makes a five-night journey between Paris and Istanbul, including overnight stops in Budapest and Bucharest.

Recently, the train introduced additional Grand Suites-named Vienna, Prague, and Budapest-which feature private bathrooms with showers, double beds, and a living area with underfloor heating. The new suites will launch in June 2023. As travelling across Europe goes, this train continues the legacy of the golden age of travel, remaining an excellent journey to this day.

Eastern & Oriental Express, A Belmond Train
Eastern & Oriental Express, A Belmond Train
Eastern & Oriental Express, A Belmond Train

Eastern & Oriental Express, Southeast Asia

Resuming service in 2023, the Eastern & Oriental Express is a Belmond train bringing passengers through the heart of Southeast Asia. The train travels from Singapore to Bangkok without having to transfer at the Malaysia border. Guests sit aboard a green train with a polished wood interior accented by classic, simple design. Meals reflect local cuisines and are served in the ornamented dining cars. These train journeys incorporate off-board excursions, so guests can get the most from their time in the region.

@shikishima_official
@shikishima_official
@shikishima_official

Shiki-Shima, Japan

The Japanese rail system is renowned worldwide, but it’s not all punctual commuter and bullet trains. The Shiki-Shima is designed with relaxation and exploration in mind, ferrying passengers in style to Southern Hokkaido, a region renowned for its natural beauty. The train experience is an elegant one, with upscale dining and thoughtfully designed suites that are simple, stylish, and make you aware of the outdoor surroundings. Check out the observation car, which matches the gentle magnificence of the natural world outside.

Flickr/Luxury Train Club
Flickr/Luxury Train Club
Flickr/Luxury Train Club

Maharajas’ Express, India

Enjoy the singular experience of India’s hospitality aboard the elegant Maharajas’ Express. Their three or seven day journeys predominantly tour Rajasthan in northwest and central India. Sleep in comfortable cabins and enjoy the dining and wine services. During the day, guests can explore India’s top tourist destinations like the Taj Mahal, or take in a spa session at a hotel near where the train has pulled in for the day.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Ali Wunderman is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.