From jaunts across America to steam specials through Staffordshire, we offer our pick of great rail trips for 2021 .
UK and Ireland
Flying Scotsman and Tornado
With arguably the two most famous steam locomotives in the world running together on the national network for the first time – and along the Settle and Carlisle line, one of the most spectacular routes in the UK – this is surely mainline steam’s highlight for 2021. Four tours, all originating from different locations and running to Carlisle, are planned during October (20, 21, 27 and 28); passengers will get to ride behind Tornado one way and Flying Scotsman the other with the locos swapping at the border city.
From £135pp (a1steam.com/railtours)
Bespoke Cornish Explorer
Slow Travel start-up ByWay organises bespoke rail trips, making the journey part of the holiday. Their Cornish adventure begins inside a private cabin on the Night Riviera sleeper from London Paddington. The morning views over St Michael’s Mount near Penzance are breathtaking. Alight here and follow ByWay’s self-guided tour along the coast path, pausing at tiny fishing villages and swim-friendly coves. Included in the price are a kayak expedition, an open-top bus ride and a shuttle along the scenic St Ives Bay train line. Plus three nights in a luxury B&B. Upgrades and alternative routes on request.
From £361pp for a four-night package (byway.travel)
Reincarnated for the 21st century using an Intercity 125 set (the original units were scrapped in 1973) painted in the distinctive Nanking Blue livery, the luxury train offers comfortable seats with wide large windows, which offer good views of the passing scenery, and with its ability to run at 125mph, passengers can spend longer at a destination than on a normal rail tour. Unique in having a bar car, 11 tours are planned, a highlight of which is the “Cornish Coastal Pullman” trip, a run from Swansea to Penzance and back on Sept 25.
From £155pp (midlandpullman.com)
Lake District Extravaganza
This trip isn’t limited to steam by rail: as well as trips on the miniature Ravenglass and Eskdale and Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railways and standard-gauge Keighley and Worth Valley line, the itinerary also includes a visit to a steam traction engine gathering and a cruise on Coniston Water with Gondola, a steam-powered boat that’s owned by the National Trust. The tour – running from July 23 to July 30 – also includes travel along the Settle & Carlisle and Cumbrian Coast lines, though this is by service train rather than a steam-hauled charter.
From £1,522pp – single supplement; £515 (ffestiniogtravel.com)
On track in Derbyshire
Arena Rail Holidays offers this brand new tour. In September, its five-day Railway Tracks and Walking in the Peak District package will uncover Derbyshire via Chatsworth House, Bakewell and railway lines lost and found. The former includes the Monsal Trail. In 1981 these disused Victorian railway tracks became an eight-mile hiking trail that passes viaducts, tunnels and gorgeous old stations. At Wirksworth there’s a trip on the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway. Accommodation? Four nights in a country hotel (with heated indoor pool) that dates back to 1266.
From £595pp (arenatravel.com)
Scotland has some of the world’s most scenic railway lines which offer a relaxing way to explore the country. This 10-night Planet Rail tour begins with two nights in Glasgow before heading up the West Highland line for grandstand views over Loch Lomond, high above the loch-side road, to Oban. Three nights in the fishing port provide an opportunity to take a ferry to Eigg, Muck or Rum as well as visiting Oban Distillery, dating from 1794. The journey to Fort William for another three nights entails the dramatic crossing of Rannoch Moor, but for many the highlight will be the line on to Mallaig with its Harry Potter film associations. The tour ends with two nights in Edinburgh.
From £995pp (planetrail.co.uk)
Vintage Isle of Man
The Isle of Man is renowned for its varied railways which provide the perfect way to enjoy the coastal and inland scenery and reach the summit of its highest mountain, Snaefell. This six-day escorted tour operated by Great Rail Journeys covers the steam-worked, electric and horse-drawn narrow-gauge railways that have become one of the island’s major attractions. They take guests to such sites as the world’s largest waterwheel, set up in 1854 to pump water from mines, Peel Castle and a museum about the island’s Celtic and Viking past. A coach tour covers parts of the island the railway does not reach.
From £675pp, including ferry from Heysham (greatrail.com)
Steam through Staffordshire
The Churnet Valley Railway offers a vintage steam through a hidden Staffordshire valley. Children adore the British Rail Mark 1 coaches with picture window views across the Peak District. Steamies love the engines, which include an ancient Ohio-built locomotive, exported to China in 1946. Churnet Valley Railway was fully booked during 2020. The heritage line still found time to inaugurate two new offerings: a Staffordshire breakfast trip (oatcakes, poached eggs, local sausages) and a Sunday lunch train. Service is first class.
From £20 for a Staffordshire breakfast 20-mile return trip (churnetvalleyrailway.co.uk)
Go West in Ireland
Ireland’s railways are benefiting from substantial investment, and its scenic lines should attract increasing numbers of tourists. This anticlockwise nine-day Ffestiniog Travel tour of Ireland – running from June 24 to July 3 – begins with the afternoon ferry from Holyhead to Dublin for two nights before crossing the country to Galway, the final stretch of railway skirting the bay. Overnight stays in Limerick, Tralee and Cork follow with visits en route to the West Clare Railway, Vandeleur Walled Garden, the Foynes Flying Boat Museum, Blennerville Windmill and the re-creation of the wonderfully eccentric Lartigue monorail at Listowel, source of some famous “Irish” stories.
From £1,858pp, including ferry from Holyhead (ffestiniogtravel.com)
Mountaintops of Switzerland
This escorted nine-day tour takes in some of Switzerland’s most celebrated mountains and railway journeys. After an overnight stop in Basel, the tour takes to the water at Interlaken to reach the lake pier serving the wonderfully atmospheric Grandhotel Giessbach, reached by its own funicular and redolent of the belle époque. A day is spent on the steam-worked rack railway up Mount Rothorn before taking the Bernina and Glacier Expresses with stays at the summit hotels on Muottas Muragl and Pilatus, with a panorama loved by Queen Victoria. A day in Lucerne precedes the return journey via an overnight stop in Strasbourg.
From £3,055 including first-class train travel from London (Standard Premier on Eurostar) (greatrail.com)
Brand new Tyrolean Explorer
This mountain-topping no-fly voyage is new for 2021. It takes in the greatest Alpine scenery that Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Italy have to offer. Read cable cars, medieval squares, emerald valleys and Black Forest. The journey gets straight to the action with a daytime whizz from St Pancras to Baden-Baden. It then goes on to hit every mountain highlight: the Arlberg and Brenner Passes and the lonely Italian-German town of Bressanone. Tailor Made Rail keeps it simple by giving self-guided guests a wallet containing hotel vouchers, tickets and all documentation.
12 days from £1,299pp (tailormaderail.com).
New Scandinavia to Berlin sleeper
Snalltaget offers this novel idea for a twin-centre train break in 2021. The Swedish line’s new sleeper service calls at Scandinavia’s most happening capitals, Stockholm and Copenhagen, before depositing passengers at Hamburg and Berlin. Being Swedish, Snalltaget’s operation is entirely online. Book your evening meal reservation in dining car Krogen (“the pub”). Or pick up pre-ordered wine, beer and breakfast bags from the conductor’s compartment. Comfy private cabins can be reserved for one, two or three guests. Snalltaget’s online booking system also allows the purchase of through tickets to 30 Deutsche Bahn destinations plus Prague.
£132pp based on two sharing a private compartment (snalltaget.se).
Norway’s Nordland Railway
It’s Norway’s longest passenger route. The 450-mile Nordland Railway runs from Trondheim to Bodo. It’s a trip so telegenic that Norwegian TV screened the entire 10-hour journey, minute-by-minute, a Slow TV special. By day, the Nordland skirts fjords, forests and rivers alive with fish. Spot islands, waterfalls and lost-in-time stations. On summer nights, expect midnight sun as passenger wagons punch through the Arctic Circle. Or northern lights from October through March. All sights are best seen from a twin-berth sleeping compartment, where passengers may order dishes like hot smoked salmon with pickled red onions (£12).
£17 per seat; £56pp in a twin sleeper compartment (vy.no).
Brussels to Vienna night train
Reintroduced in 2020 after a 17-year hiatus, the Brussels to Vienna sleeper service is a game changer. That’s because it allows afternoon passengers on the London Eurostar (a two-hour hop from Brussels) to arrive in Central Europe for breakfast. Choose a family-friendly couchette or opt for a sleeker sleeper cabin, which has en suite showers and lavatories. Both classes have a push-button waiter service: pair a pint of Goldbräu (£3) with goulash mit brot (£4). From Vienna, fast onward services zoom to Bratislava, Budapest and Croatia.
£97pp based on two sharing a sleeper cabin (oebb.at).
Harz Mountains and Rhine Gorge
The poet Heinrich Heine was so captivated by the Harz Mountains that he wrote a guidebook to them in 1824. Since Germany’s reunification, its steam-worked narrow-gauge railway network has attracted visitors from across the globe, and especially for the dramatic climb up the Brocken. This 10-day escorted tour combines travel over the varied lines of the system with the architectural delights of Wernigerode, Quedlinburg and Goslar, the last two are World Heritage Sites for their decorative timber-framed houses. The return is broken by three nights in the Rhine Gorge at Assmannshausen for a cruise along the river and visit to a local winery in Rüdesheim.
From £1,495 including first-class train travel from London (Standard Premier on Eurostar) (greatrail.com)
Flavours of Bilbao, San SebastiAn & Bordeaux
Culture and gastronomy are the themes in these rail-linked cities around the Bay of Biscay on this six-night tour. Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum has been a catalyst for the city’s reinvention as a centre for great art and food, though its industrial past has bequeathed such fascinations as the world’s oldest transporter bridge, of 1893. San Sebastián has become a contender for the finest foodie city on the planet, many of its restaurants and pintxos bars found in the city’s belle époque buildings. Bordeaux’s wealth through wine is reflected in one of Europe’s largest area of 18th-century architecture and one of the finest art galleries in France with works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Renoir, Corot and Zoffany.
From £775pp excluding flights, starts June 1 (inntravel.co.uk)
White Nights by Steam
This tour deserves the overused phrase “journey of a lifetime”. Flanked by nights at Moscow’s Four Seasons hotel, the 15-day tour behind a variety of Soviet-era steam locomotives takes its passengers deep into the Arctic Circle on one of the world’s most luxurious trains. Visits from the train are made to the fortress of Pskov and its 11th-century cathedral, Catherine the Great’s summer palace in Pushkin, an open-air museum of wooden architecture, a nuclear-powered icebreaker in Murmansk, the White Sea island monastery of Solovetsky, Archangel, Vologda and Yaroslavl – largest and oldest Golden Ring city.
From £10,395 excluding flights, June 16-30 (goldeneagleluxurytrains.com)
New England in the Fall
Arriving in Boston, the escorted 10-day tour begins with three nights on Cape Cod that include a ferry excursion to Martha’s Vineyard. Amtrak – this year celebrating its 50th anniversary – is taken to reach Portland, Maine, and a coach through the White Mountains to Conway for rides on the world’s first rack railway, up Mount Washington, and the Conway Scenic Railroad to appreciate New England’s nature at its best in the vivid golds and yellows of autumn. The final two nights are spent in Boston with a guided tour of the main sights in the city founded in 1630 by Puritan settlers from the Lincolnshire town.
From £2,495 including flights (greatrail.com)
Big in Bangkok
Wave goodbye to Bangkok’s fin de siècle Hua Lamphong Station. Because later this year, the ultra-modern Bang Sue Grand Station opens as a nexus for every high-speed and sleeper service in Thailand. With 26 platforms, the largest rail hub in South East Asia is a serious undertaking. From here, travellers can hop on new Chinese-built first class sleeper cars for Chiang Mai, which costs £40 for the 13 hour voyage north. Equally fun is a four-hour rattle through jungle (both urban and verdant) to the former royal resort of Hua Hin. Disembark at the resort’s Thai temple railway station. Hua Hin’s highlight is Mrigadayavan Palace, which has 23 staircases and a private seashore.
Dar Es Salaam to Lake Tanganyika
A 36-hour adventure of a lifetime for £25. Tanzania’s Central Line is a far cry from Epping to West Ruislip. Instead it weaves through East Africa on tracks first laid by German colonists over a century ago. Purchase chicken and rice and Safari lager from the bar car. Or grab cold drinks from stretch-your-legs towns en route. The railhead port city of Kigoma was also German built. Stay for Mark Rothko sunsets over Lake Tanganyika. Or for a final adventure board the MV Liemba, launched in 1915 as the Graf von Goetzen and currently the world’s oldest passenger ferry, which putters down the lake to Zambia once a week.
Purchase tickets from Dar es Salaam station for £25.
The Old Patagonian Express
Best known as the railway that gave Paul Theroux the title to his South American rail odyssey, The Old Patagonian Express, the 251-mile line between Esquel and Ingeniero Jacobacci traverses majestic landscapes so remote that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid holed up there when fleeing Pinkerton agents. This 14-day tour entails seven days of special steam-hauled charters and visits over the whole line, flanked by time in Argentina’s vibrant and pulsating capital Buenos Aires and charter trains over the line through the “Lakes District” between San Carlos de Bariloche and Ingeniero Jacobacci. In Buenos Aires visits are arranged to museums and the railway station “cathedrals of steam” built with Derbyshire ironwork.
From £5,760, including flights, November 5–18 (ptg.co.uk)
The 14-day tour using trains between cities begins with three nights in Marrakech and a day tour to the 18th-century fortified town of Essaouira. The three nights at a riad in Fez, where the medina is a World Heritage Site with a university founded in 859, includes a day visit to Taza. Three nights on the coast at capital Rabat allows time to explore the historic citadel and medina, and take the new tram to Salé for its unusual square minaret. A two-night stay in Tangier includes a morning tour to the lighthouse on the Strait of Gibraltar as well as the city’s labyrinthine medina and kasbah. Africa’s first high-speed line, opened in 2018, is taken for the return to Marrakech.
From £1,995, including flights, November 4–17 (ffestiniogtravel.com)
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with Egypt Extension
Many of the scenes of Lawrence of Arabia’s legendary assaults on the Hejaz Railway are visited during this pioneering 10-day visit to a country busily expanding its railways. Beginning in Bahrain, the tour takes the train from Dammam to Riyadh, with various railway, architectural and cultural visits en route and in the capital. The extraordinary mud citadel of A’Arif Fort is among the places visited in Ha’il, reached by train from Riyadh, before road-based visits to Nabataean tombs, Elephant Rock, and remote sites of rusting locomotives and trains lying where Lawrence derailed them over a century ago. From Medina the 281-mile Haramain high-speed railway, opened in 2018, is taken to Jeddah for the flight home or a seven-day visit to many of Egypt’s principal sites using trains wherever possible.
From £3,925-£6,890, November 19–28 (ptg.co.uk)
Caspian to Black Sea
This east to west tour begins on the Caspian Sea at Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, where highlights are the 12,000-year-old carvings at the Gobustan Petroglyph Reserve and the fire temple at Ateshgah. A sleeping-car train is taken to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, for two days of cultural and culinary activities. Caves, canyons and a boat ride to a waterfall are among the attractions visited from Kutaisi before reaching the Black Sea at Batumi. Here the highlight is the magnificent complex of stone buildings forming the Gelati Monastery, founded in 1106.
From £1,897, including flights, September 7–18 (ffestiniogtravel.com).
Golden Triangle with Shimla
While the Railway Touring Company is best-known for its UK steam-hauled daytrips, the company also markets holidays abroad, and highlights of this trip includes a run along the narrow-gauge line from Kalka to Shimla along the “Toy Train” line – which features 105 tunnels along its 60-mile route as it winds through the foothills of the Himalayas – plus mainline steam out of Delhi, and an opportunity to visit the country’s National Rail Museum.
Runs from September 9-22; prices from £2695pp (a single supplement costs £650) (railwaytouring.net)
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