The whistle blows, the doors click closed, the train lurches forward. You settle in beneath the glass-domed observation car, butterflies aflutter with the promise of adventure. A server comes by with Champagne. Today’s class of luxury train delivers a much-needed antidote to the compact, clinical cruelty of commercial flight.
Yet, the best luxury train journeys don’t simply ensconce passengers in imported finery; they also build bridges between travelers and destinations through locally sourced wine, spirits and food. Crossing the Karoo in South Africa, for instance, you sip Chenin. In Paris, split a bottle of bubbles with new friends in the onboard Champagne bar. Chugging up the Douro Valley, savor Port while watching the train tracks unspool into the starry night. In the spirit of T.S. Eliot, “the journey not the arrival matters.”
Here are seven wine-soaked luxury train vacations across far-flung tracks.
The Venice Simplon-Orient Express, Europe
Authors Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming immortalized this storied train in their works of fiction. Fortunately, the real-life experience approximates the elegance on their pages.
Servicing the fashionable corridor between London and Istanbul, with stops including Paris and Verona, the Venice Simplon-Orient Express itself is the reason for riding. White-gloved hands receive your bags as you board, and, on the train, decor harkens back to the stylized geometry of the Art Deco era come to life anew in sumptuous fabrics and wallpapers.
This journey also offers one of the best wine selections on Europe’s rails, with a cellar rich with French and Italian labels. The executive chef, Jean Imbert, sources dinner along the trip. Think salt marsh lamb from Mont Saint-Michel or lobsters from Brittany. Along the route, guests converge at dusk in the Champagne bar as preliminary to an evening of destination-worthy eating and drinking.
The Royal Scotsman, Scotland
The Royal Scotsman pulls passengers across Scotland’s rugged countryside at a sleepy pace. Settle in with a Scotch to watch the lochs and castles float past your sleeper car window. Stylish cabins lined with marquetry feature plush beds topped in Scottish wools and tartans—textiles fit for an estate house.
Train programs run between April and July with varied itineraries. A Scotch malt whisky tour brings guests to Tomatin, Glenlivet and Tullibardine distilleries. The Western Scenic Wonder trip focuses on landscapes.
Naturally, the Royal Scotsman’s whisky selection bests the competition with over 50 selections divided by regional style. Creative cocktails shine, as do Scottish gin and beer selections. Laurent-Perrier is the “house” Champagne pour, with still wines sourced from Europe and South America. Meals speak to the local bounty: Scottish oak smoked salmon and Rannoch Moor venison make frequent appearances.
The Haybarn Spa car offers facials or massages with scenic views.
The Andean Explorer, Peru
On a journey from Cusco to Arequipa, travelers aboard the Andean Explorer can glide through 25,000 miles of mountainous terrain, Pisco Sour in hand, over the course of two days. Crossing the glorious Andean Plains, you’ll break at Lake Titicaca, a vast pool of blue kissing the sky at 12,500 feet above sea level. Back on board, snag the open-air balcony perch atop the observation car.
Two dining cars seat guests on supple leather chairs for a feast of lively Peruvian flavors and local wines and spirits. The chefs source local quinoa, broad bean, corn and squash along the route, while, the national drink, Pisco, features heavily in cocktails. Most wines come from South America’s Chile and Argentina.
After a night of celebration, book the Andean Ritual, a cleansing wrap of flowers and coca in the Picaflor Spa car.
The Presidential Train, Douro Valley, Portugal
Portugal’s picturesque Douro Valley is tailor-made for wine-soaked train travel. Through a picture window, watch undulating ribbons of vineyards unfurl above the mighty Douro River.
On The Presidential Train, chefs turn out multicourse repasts of local flavors and Douro wines. A partnership with Niepoort informs much of the wine list. On lovely Vista Alegre China, guests in the smartly designed cars can tuck into tender cod drizzled in Portuguese olive oil, and sip floral Touriga Nacional from Riedel crystal.
Go for the daylong Presidential Experience, which departs Porto and concludes with a private tasting at renowned Quinta do Vesuvio.
Rovos Rail, Select African Destinations
Rovos Rail highlights iconic routes across the continent with five-star service, fine wine and mahogany-paneled sleeper cars.
Wine lovers should consider the three-night, four-day journey from Pretoria to Cape Town, which offers breathtaking contrasts in landscapes. You’ll pass from the scenic semi-desert terrain of the Karoo before breaching the verdant valleys of the Cape Winelands.
On board, enjoy South African Chenin Blanc, Pinotage, and Bordeaux-style red blends. At dinner, the chef highlights local ingredients and flavors woven into local game meat amid elegant, Edwardian-inspired interiors. Grab a spot on an open-air balcony for views of Table Mountain before disembarking in Cape Town.
Rocky Mountaineer, Canada
From Fraser River salmon to Okanagan Riesling, the Rocky Mountaineer showcases the food and wine of its Western Canadian roots.
A daylight-only train minus sleeper cars, the Rocky Mountaineer serves breakfast and lunch on board, making evening stops in small towns where guests overnight in hotels. Of the four routes, First Passage to the West remains a popular connector between Vancouver and Banff. The train wends through mountain passes and canyons, past mirrored lakes and forests, offering spectacular scenery.
Differences between levels of service, Silver Leaf and Gold Leaf, are defined by viewing spaces, meal service, hotels, and number of staff on hand per guest. Both, however, feature complimentary wine. Most selections are Canadian, touching on the different areas of the Okanagan Valley like Penticton-Naramata.
During the day, hosts tell tales of historic sites, like pointing out where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven. They also speak to the flora, fauna, and wildlife beyond the glass-dome viewing cars, providing guests a deeper appreciation for the setting.
Great Southern, Australia
Journey Beyond operates several routes across Australia’s breathtaking landscapes. The 2023 four-day, three-night Great Southern journey connects Brisbane to Adelaide with excursions into wine country. When traveling southwards, you’ll visit Coffs Harbour for an outdoor dining experience, Hunter Valley for an introduction to Semillon and Shiraz, or Port Stephens to see the Stockton Sand Dunes. You’ll stop in Melbourne for a choice of city experiences, including sipping at great wine bars. Disembark in Adelaide and head for the vineyard-covered Adelaide Hills.
The journey in reverse, from Adelaide to Brisbane, offers Off Train Experiences in the Grampians, Canberra and Coffs Harbour. Onboard, choose from Platinum or Gold Service cabins; however, most of your time will be spent in convivial lounges sipping from an all-inclusive selection of Australian wines and Ports. After a bottle or two of Shiraz paired to Aussie dishes in the Queen Adelaide restaurant, everyone makes fast friends.