As convenient as airlines can be, the act of flying often sucks the joy out of getting there, wherever 'there' might be. After enduring the endless security lines, the tedious boarding process, and the subpar airplane food, we arrive at our destination cranky, tired, and often a little disoriented. Not so with train travel. Assuming you have the luxury of time, trains can be one of the most enjoyable ways to explore a new country, with their slower pace and more civilized atmosphere.
More and more travelers are now rediscovering the magic of trains, and luckily, supply is meeting demand. Countries are investing in their rail networks as a viable source of tourism revenue, and promoting off-the-beaten-path destinations as stop-offs along the way. Want to wander through Vienna en route to Stockholm? Or spend two weeks visiting natural wonders in western USA? These new train routes could be worth looking into.
Since 1911, intrepid passengers have cruised inland along the Noyo River aboard the California Western Railroad, a 40-mile route between Fort Bragg, CA and Willits, CA. The rail service was originally created to ferry timber to and from the Pacific Coast, and indeed the route itself winds through stunning redwood forests in the Noyo River Canyon. These days, the 'Skunk Train,' as it's commonly known (thanks to a pungent odor emitted by the old trains' exhaust gases), is one of the state's most popular train routes, despite its brevity. A tunnel collapse earlier this year forced a temporary closure, but as of this month, the one-of-a-kind historic rail service is open to passengers once more. Choose from a Saturday evening "Sunset BBQ Excursion," ($70) which involves a stop-off in Northspur Station, or a simple 4-hour trek between Fort Bragg and Willits ($49).
As we know, national parks are a constant source of inspiration for many US travelers, so we're paying full attention to one of the newest escorted rail tours being offered at Vacations By Rail. "Western Treasures & Natural Wonders" is a 14-day trip that skirts the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks – as the title suggests, a tidy overview of the west's greatest natural wonders. The itinerary is nothing if not dizzying, though the train ride itself should help break up the experience of jumping from one breathtaking site to the next. Daytrips to each location include ground transportation, meals, and guided tours.
Zip through the Canadian Rockies on board the Rocky Mountaineer, a long-running Pacific Northwest train service that recently debuted a "Coastal Passage" route that connects Seattle and Vancouver to the scenic mountain range. Thanks to a partnership with Norwegian Cruise Line, passengers can start off in Calgary, travel to Seattle, and then board a cruise ship that will carry them up the Pacific coast to Whittier, Alaska. Crossing the 280 mile Canadian Rockies route usually takes two days, including overnight stops in places like Kamloops or Quesnel – a unique experience in itself, since passage by automobile is too difficult, but sitting in a glass-roofed luxury Gold Leaf coach, the scenery will be particularly vivid. And by the time you've reached Seattle, your adventure will be only half over!
In April, the famed Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (pictured) began experimenting with a few new Scandinavian routes. The result? Great success. On their way from Venice to Stockholm, passengers bypass the Swiss alps, as well as iconic European cities like Vienna and Budapest, eventually winding their way up north through Denmark and Sweden – compared to flying, which takes just a few hours, the five-day journey offers plenty of opportunities to soak up the passing scenery. In typical Orient-Express fashion, the restored 1920s cabins are decked out in crystal and polished wood, and breakfast is brought to your compartment each morning. The website offers multiple variations on the Venice-Paris routes, and though 2014 dates haven't yet been confirmed for the Scandinavian routes, a rep tells us they will definitely be happening.
Since 2006, the Qinghai-Tibet railway has been connecting China's eastern provinces with the Tibetan plateau, not only bridging an important transit gap, but also creating an accessible mode of experiencing the region's dramatic landscapes. The 1,215 mile-long line traverses the treacherous Tanggula Pass, which happens to be the highest railway in the world, and requires specially-built trains to handle the high elevation (a doctor is always on board in case passengers fall ill). In July, Explore Tibet announced the new Chengdu-Lhasa route, an 8-day trip that includes visits to traditional Tibetan Buddhist sites like Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple. The tour company also offers an 11-day journey from Beijing to Lhasa – just watch out for altitude sickness!