These luxury sleeper trains bring back the romance of rail travel

Sip Champagne as the world’s great cities and landscapes unfold right outside your window.

By Chris Ashton, January 25 2024
These luxury sleeper trains bring back the romance of rail travel

Slow travel is one of the fastest-growing tourism trends – and it’s picking up speed. More than simply easing back on the accelerator, the concept is about taking time to learn, experience and fully immerse yourself in a destination.

While rail travel is often seen as a way from A to B, the upper end of the spectrum is a perfect opportunity to ‘take it slow’. Think vivid scenery and gourmet cuisine, stylish interiors and lounge cars made for socialising and sipping cocktails into the wee hours.

From Venice to Cusco, Cape Town to the Outback, these overnight luxury trains may hark back to simpler days but are actually exactly what we need in this ultra-modern world. That is, to switch off, relax and lose ourselves to the clickety clack of the track.

 

Eastern & Oriental Express – Singapore & Malaysia

Following an extended hiatus, the Eastern & Oriental Express from Belmond is set to make a triumphant return to the rails in February 2024 – and it’ll be doing so with two seasonal journeys: the Essence of Malaysia (November to February) and Wild Malaysia (March to October).

Onboard are two restaurants, a piano bar car and open-air observation car.
Onboard are two restaurants, a piano bar car and open-air observation car.

The train’s 15 dark green carriages will be seen departing Singapore’s Woodlands station before taking in destinations across Malaysia such as Penang, Langkawi and, for the first time, the Taman Negara National Park, before heading back to the garden city.

Cabins span three categories: Pullman, State and Presidential, all with private bathrooms.
Cabins span three categories: Pullman, State and Presidential, all with private bathrooms.

Onboard, days will be punctuated by encounters with local characters and artisans, who reveal ancient crafts and tell century-old tales in passionate detail, while the sound of Nanyang jazz and vintage Malay tunes accompany guests throughout the evenings.

Twilight Express Mizukaze – Japan

Japan’s western coastline is a gold mine of discovery: rich history and culture in Matsue and Izumo; beautiful scenery along the Sea of Japan. And what’s the best way to take it all in? The Twilight Express Mizukaze luxury sleeper train, of course.

The distinctive forest green train travels between Shimonoseki and Kyoto.
The distinctive forest green train travels between Shimonoseki and Kyoto.

Exquisite haute cuisine prepared with a side of theatre in an open kitchen, modern sleeper cabins dusted with nostalgia and traditional crafts, and an observation car to take in the sky, stars and ever-changing view are just a taste of what awaits.

Onboard tea ceremonies and live music feed your cultural appetite.
Onboard tea ceremonies and live music feed your cultural appetite.

There are five itineraries to choose from, ranging from two days and one night up to three days and two nights. Off-train experiences are part of it too, with a dedicated bus ferrying guests to the likes of serene Daijo-ji Temple and the magical Okayama Korakuen.

The Blue Train – South Africa

South Africa is synonymous with luxury safari lodges – the kind where waking up to spy a curious kudu or giraffe strolling past your window is a daily occurrence. Yet it’s also home to one of the world’s greatest sleeper train experiences: the Blue Train.

The Blue Train allows you to sit back and soak up the beauty of South Africa.
The Blue Train allows you to sit back and soak up the beauty of South Africa.

Weaving from the veld to the sea, the 54-hour journey from ‘Pretoria to Cape Town’ passes through an incredible array of landscapes, while the 19-hour ‘Pretoria to Kruger’ route is like a safari by rail. An off-train game safari is included as part of the latter’s experience.

The gourmet menu is complemented by an extensive South African wine list.
The gourmet menu is complemented by an extensive South African wine list.

On board? That’s no less impressive. The timber-clad suites – available as Luxury or De Luxe – feature a comfy lounge to settle in and admire the ever-changing view, together with a plush fold-out bed and private bathroom housing a tub. 

Luxury Suites come with personalised butler service.
Luxury Suites come with personalised butler service.

Public cars are tailor made for socialising, whether it’s the bar cart stocked with South African wines and spirits or the dining room plating up local fare from Karoo lamb to ostrich and venison.

Royal Scotsman – Scotland

Self-described as a “grand highland fling”, Belmond Royal Scotsman invites guests to get swept up in the wild romance of the Scottish landscape, taking in soaring peaks and deep valleys, mirror lochs and crumbling castles that could look right at home in Game of Thrones (BYO dragons).

Step aboard the Royal Scotsman and rekindle the romance of travel
Step aboard the Royal Scotsman and rekindle the romance of travel

Comprising ten exquisite carriages, its mahogany-rich interiors mix Edwardian elegance with the pomp of a country manor. However, it isn’t purely reliant on historic charm – a freshly-debuted Dior Spa places it firmly in the 21st century.

Three pampering treatments available while whizzing through the highlands.
Three pampering treatments available while whizzing through the highlands.

As you’d expect, cabins feature liberal use of tartan, giving them an authentic Scottish atmosphere. Arriving in May 2024, Grand Suites are the newest and most lavish offering, with butler service and one complimentary spa treatment per guest included.

The Grand Suites will make their debut in May 2024.
The Grand Suites will make their debut in May 2024.

Instead of just admiring Scotland through a window, each day presents chances to hop off and explore, from visits of Eilean Donan Castle and Culloden Battlefield to wild swimming and enjoying a dram or two at some of the country’s world-class distilleries.

The Canadian – Canada

When you think of luxury rail travel in Canada, it’s more than likely the Rocky Mountaineer is the one that springs to mind. Yet there’s another option worth considering, and this one allows you to sleep on board.

The view is worth the price of admission alone.
The view is worth the price of admission alone.

By day, The Canadian is all about celebrating natural beauty as its winds through stunning landscapes from Vancouver to Toronto. But at night, in Prestige Class, it’s a chance to settle down and indulge with gourmet meals and a cosy bed angled to the view outside.

Prestige Sleeper class by day.
Prestige Sleeper class by day.

And what a view. Over a distance of more than 4,400 kilometres you’ll pass from urban sprawl to gentle prairie fields, rugged lake country and quaint towns framed by the snowy peaks of the Rockies.

The four-day journey allows plenty of time to dine and indulge.
The four-day journey allows plenty of time to dine and indulge.

Prestige Sleeper Cabins (of which there are just six onboard) are twice the size of the standard Sleeper Plus and also come fitted with a private washroom and L-shaped lounge. The finish is decidedly modern too, swapping heritage charm for a contemporary edge.

The Ghan – Adelaide to Darwin

This experience requires little introduction. The Ghan is the grand dame of the Australian luxury rail scene; an icon that has invited curious travellers to explore the beating heart of Australia in style since 1929.

The Ghan with the MacDonnell Ranges in the distance
The Ghan with the MacDonnell Ranges in the distance

Originally just from Adelaide to Alice Springs, it was extended to Darwin in 2004 and is now a truly transcontinental experience. Travelling amid fiery desert sands and remote townships, it’s a journey that gives passengers a greater appreciation for the wonders of the outback.

Platinum cabins include full-size ensuites and views from both sides of the train.
Platinum cabins include full-size ensuites and views from both sides of the train.

Choose Gold Service to enjoy all-inclusive dining and drinks, with an ensuite cabin that features upper and lower berth beds, or dial up the indulgence with Platinum Service and enjoy a cabin that converts from lounges by day to beds by night.

Platinum guests also have access to the exclusive Platinum Club bar and restaurant.

Off-train experiences, such as dinner at Alice Springs Telegraph Station, add to the Outback adventure.
Off-train experiences, such as dinner at Alice Springs Telegraph Station, add to the Outback adventure.

Rather than just watching the landscape pass by from your window (or the dining cart) you can get amongst it, with included off-train experiences such as a Nitmiluk Gorge cruise or walking tour of Simpsons Gap, as well as exclusive off-train dinners under the stars on select trips.

Andean Explorer – Peru

An additional vibrant feather in Belmond’s cap is the Andean Explorer – a sleek, midnight-blue train which stands out amid the rugged scenery of the Andes. But what it lacks in the ability to blend in, it makes up for with immersive experiences and opulent interiors.

The Andean Explorer houses 35 sleeper cabins.
The Andean Explorer houses 35 sleeper cabins.

Travellers are presented with a mix of four unforgettable one- or two-night journeys between Cusco and Arequipa, each one including all onboard meals and drinks as well as off-train excursions.

Peruvian flavours are front and centre in the two dining cars: Llama and Muna.
Peruvian flavours are front and centre in the two dining cars: Llama and Muna.

Belmond has taken great care in adding Peruvian design elements to its cabins, including soft hand-woven textiles and artworks. Ensuite bathrooms also come as standard, as do built-in oxygen tanks for those having trouble acclimating to the high altitudes.

Suites feature a double bed and seating area with two chairs.
Suites feature a double bed and seating area with two chairs.

As it snakes through the Andes you’re treated to close-up views of rolling grasslands and rugged peaks from the large windows, along with visits to majestic Lake Titicaca – home of the famous Uros floating islands – and Sumbay Caves, filled with rock art.

Indian Pacific – Sydney to Perth

Another Journey Beyond train is the Indian Pacific. However, rather than travelling on the same north-south rails as its counterpart, this one instead spans the length of the country between Sydney and Perth. And yes, the same gilded perks are found once you climb aboard.

The journeys takes you through landscapes you wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.
The journeys takes you through landscapes you wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.

Over the course of four days and three nights you’ll follow the path of bush pioneers and gold prospectors, while also stepping off with visits to the likes of Adelaide, Broken Hill and Rawlinna – a remote town bordering a station home to up to 80,000 sheep across a mere 2.5 million acres.

Platinum Club guests once again have a dedicated dining cart.
Platinum Club guests once again have a dedicated dining cart.

During the Winter months, Platinum and Gold Service guests are also invited to disembark to partake in drinks and canapés served around a bonfire beneath the wide Nullarbor sky.

Train Suite Shiki-Shima – Japan

The Japanese are renowned for their flair for innovation and technology – but even they have outdone themselves with the Champagne-gold Train Suite Shiki-Shima.

Debuted in 2017, the exclusive JR East train which operates throughout central Honshu (the main island of Japan) is a thing of rare beauty.

The Champagne-gold train carves an exquisite path through the landscape. © East Japan Railway Company
The Champagne-gold train carves an exquisite path through the landscape
© East Japan Railway Company

Acclaimed Japanese industrial designer Ken Kiyoyuki Okuyama, known for his work with the Ferrari Enzo supercar, brought his signature style to the 10-car sleeper train, giving it the feel of a luxury vehicle or yacht. With just 34 guests onboard, there's plenty of space for passengers to relax.

The first and last carriages on the Shiki-Shima train are observation cars. © East Japan Railway Company
The first and last carriages on the Shiki-Shima train are observation cars
© East Japan Railway Company

Cypress wood bathtubs, floor-to-ceiling windows, working fireplaces… it's like no idea was off-limits, yet it remains a masterclass in restraint and subtlety too.

Colour and texture abound in the Deluxe Suite Room. © East Japan Railway Company
Colour and texture abound in the Deluxe Suite Room
© East Japan Railway Company

Each cabin, from the slate-grey and timber Suite Room to the two-floor Shiki-Shima Suite with tatami mat floors, is finished to an exceptional level of detail.

And, with menus designed by a Michelin Star chef, you’re in for an experience that tastes as good as it looks too.

Treat your tastebuds to Michelin-quality cuisine. © East Japan Railway Company
Treat your tastebuds to Michelin-quality cuisine
© East Japan Railway Company

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express – Venice to Paris

Created in 1883 by the Belgian company Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL), the original Orient Express once operated luxurious rail journeys through Europe and Asia between London and Istanbul. It ceased operations in 2009. However, its spirit lives on.

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express preparing to leave the station
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express preparing to leave the station

The Venice-Simplon Orient Express by Belmond – which utilises some of the original CIWL carriages from the 20s and 30s – transports guests back to an age of glamour and nostalgia, with spellbinding one to five-night itineraries visiting Paris, Venice and Istanbul. 

London is another port of call, though Brexit-related issues will see a temporary pause on the route from March 2024 until a faster border processing system is introduced. 

The aptly-named Grand Suite onboard the VSOE
The aptly-named Grand Suite onboard the VSOE

Featuring grand single, twin, double and interconnecting suites, as well as a dining car serving exceptional local produce, there’s no better place to try out your Hercule Poirot impression.

Enjoy impeccable service and attention to detail
Enjoy impeccable service and attention to detail

Seven Stars in Kyushu – Japan

Another Japanese train worth travelling for is the Seven Stars in Kyushu. Yet most travellers outside of Japan have no idea it even exists. But exist it does – and it is striking.

Impressive views require an equally impressive observation window
Impressive views require an equally impressive observation window

Launched in 2013, the seven-car JR Kyushu passenger train is like the golden age of travel reinvented for the modern era.

The Blue Moon dining car is a lavish affair.
The Blue Moon dining car is a lavish affair.

Travelling along the 3,000km Hisatsu Orange Railway line, the port-red train takes guests on a four day round-trip through the seven prefectures of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands. Lush forest, scenic coastline, and historic cities are just a few of the trip highlights.

And on board? That’s the real star. The train blends elements of Japanese and Western design to create a timeless and elegant meeting of the old and new.

The Deluxe Suite features a blend of Western and Japanese design
The Deluxe Suite features a blend of Western and Japanese design

Think delicately-carved timber and polished brass, nightcaps in the Blue Moon lounge car, a pianist tickling the ivories in the background, and the starry night sky viewable through panoramic windows overhead. And that’s before we even get to the fine details.

Because, in order to keep traditional craftsmanship alive, Seven Stars features bespoke architectural and design features including Kumiko – small, thin pieces of wood fitted together by hand to create elaborate designs – and Arita ware pottery. Every item is breathtaking in its detail.  

Looking for a luxury train experience without the overnight commitment? These scenic day trips will put you on the right track. 

AV
AV

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

16 Apr 2013

Total posts 49

The most disappointing thing about Australian trains, is, there are no 'open air' viewing platforms unlike many others around the world.  Quite frankly, this is the main reason I haven't and won't travel on these trains.  There is nothing quite like feeling the breeze in an open-air carriage.

24 Oct 2020

Total posts 4

There's very good reason why Australian tourist trains " don't " offer open air upper decks.  The main reason I believe is " passenger safety ".  Compared to other Countries that offer open air upper decks, Australia is the ( biggest ) Island Continent on Earth, & it's weather conditions can vary far greater than elsewhere on Earth; e.g. depart from any State Capital in sudden atrociously wet weather - what's the point of ending up a freezing, bedraggled soaked wet kitten, then later same day boiling/burning like a lobster or lamb roast under the harshest UV in the world.  

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

09 Jun 2016

Total posts 17

Seems like a simple solution, if the weather is bad- don't use the carriage, if the weather is good- do use the carriage.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

26 Nov 2012

Total posts 123

Well it’s your loss because the Australian trains are an amazing way to experience this country. You really understand how vast this place is when you’re on them. And they are a lot of fun, unlike the foreign ones. 

SKT
SKT

25 Aug 2022

Total posts 3

What a fabulous article Chris - thank you!   So many wonderful train trips to put on my bucket list! 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer P1

23 Aug 2014

Total posts 139

Thanks Chris - you have brought my retirement forward by 2 years 😩😩

Pleasure to be of assistance. Which has caught your eye as the 'first train from the station'?

SKT
SKT

25 Aug 2022

Total posts 3

I've done the Eastern Orient Express and loved it - I think first next would be the Venice-Simplon Orient Express where it all began.  :-)  

Having been on the Simplon Orient Express London to Venice twice I can say it lives up to every expectation. In a sense it is "old school" luxury train travel ( no showers, a lot of movement in the carriages, shared dining on at least one of the meal sittings) but that really is part of the experience. The service is beyond question, the scenery in Europe from the train is spectacular, the food devine.  An amusing tit bit is that at night when travelling into Paris, through Paris and out the other side each time the train goes through a crossing the lights in the carriages are brightened so that those outside can see what they are missing out on! A big highlight was the fresh breakfast passed on to the train in the alpine regions as we moved towards Venice. Outstanding trips. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 Mar 2019

Total posts 22

Surprised to see the E & O Express has omitted Thailand from its itinerary.  The journeys up to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, up through Isan, and from Bangkok down through Southern Thailand are some of the most memorable rail experiences in SE Asia now with no luxury travel option.  E & O used to run fantastic trips along all of those routes.  Singapore to Malaysia, essentially a 3-night jaunt from Johor Bahru north up through the Peninsular seems a good deal less exciting! 

There is also romance in less luxurious sleeper trains. Recently I traveled overnight in an Indian sleeper train. This was air-conditioned and the toilet was okay. Each passenger had a curtained off area, There was the fun of being in with families travelling to together, kids running along, food and drink from vendors.

05 Mar 2015

Total posts 418

Each to their own, but one man's "fun" is another man's "torture", families with kids running around, vendors hawking food and drink, no thanks. It certainly sounds colourful but I would rather be in a more serene setting.

I love train journeys. Although not as luxurious as the sleeper trains, I've recently been on the fast train from Frankfurt to Milan which took almost 8 hours.  Lovely scenery along the way on the Switzerland side. Train was a bit crowded by I choose the quiet carriage to avoid kids.  Would definitely opt for a train journey instead of flying if I can avoid it.   

I've been on lots of trains, most of them not luxury though.  Back in 2015, I chose to travel from Hampshire in England to Vienna by train, still using one crutch after a hip replacement.  I crossed London by taxi, and stayed overnight in Cologne and Zurich.  I have been on the Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin and flew back to Victoria and I've been looking at doing the trip again.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Feb 2017

Total posts 13

The other to put on your list is the Coste Verde Express, across the northern coast of Spain. We did it recently from Bilbao to Santiago de Compostela & it’s incredible!! It’s real bucket list material! This is Spain’s version of the Orient Express with original 1927-1930 Pullman carriages on narrow gauge rail. All top class, with double beds & en-suites in every cabin & 4 course meals for bkf, lunch & dinner. Not to mention how amazing the staff were, so warm, welcoming & nothing was too much trouble. There’s lots of stops at lovely coastal towns/cities to explore thru the Basque, Cantabria, Asturias & Galicia regions. They are so close, yet so different to each other & their food & culture will surprise & thrill you! So different to the more touristy south of Spain. It’s also more affordable than the Orient Express & twice as long, so in our opinion the best value train journey with all the nostalgia of the old era of luxury train travel. You’ll have to book well in advance, as it’s popular but you’ll remember it forever!

03 Apr 2022

Total posts 3

I am at odds with AV, who 'whinges' about there being no open-air viewing platforms, when he knows zilch about Australian trains and the raison d'etre for their omission. The presence of over-head catenary and limited clearance in many suburban areas negates their inclusion in the consist of intercity passenger services. If such were possible you can be sure that Journeys Beyond would so equip 'The Ghan', 'Great Southern' and 'Indian Pacific'.

03 Apr 2022

Total posts 3

A recent trip [Platinum Class] aboard "The Ghan'" ex Adelaide to Darwin was a real winner for me, recalling the days of yore when I lived in North America, travelling aboard such fabled luxury trains as "Panama Limited" [Chicago to New Orleans], "20th-Century Limited" [Chicago to New York City], "The Canadian" [Vancouver to Montreal], "Empire Builder" [Chicago to Seattle] and "Sunset Limited" [Houston to El Paso, before the downgrading in the early 1950s]. Once remembered, but never forgotten.

23 Jul 2017

Total posts 97

I just have to smirk when the writer refers to tiny villages on both the Ghan and Indian Pacific routes as "towns", e.g. "Rawlinna – a remote town bordering" a sheep station in South Australia. There is no village, let alone a "town". The closest place on either route that has more than a few hundred inhabitants is Alice Springs with between 26,000 and 30,000 or thereabouts so could qualify as a "town".

"The Ghan is the grand dame of the Australian luxury rail scene; an icon that has invited curious travellers to explore the beating heart of Australia in style since 1929". There was no "grand dame" about the Ghan between 1929 and 2004. It was the Afghan Express and a pretty "rough" ride. No glamour train then, but a real outback adventure.

Somehow advertising has given the Ghan premier position over the Indian Pacific, the longer route. It, too, began as a regular commuter train - although for over 4,352 km that's one long commuter distance. The Indian Pacific is just as much a 'glamour' train as its sister, the Ghan. Have fun on either or both, but note these are the trains retirees love. Don't be fooled by the photos of a younger generation of travellers. They're the minority.

Enjoy!


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