Five affordable flight-free adventures, from island-hopping in Greece to an epic voyage to China

Mark Smith
Your journey need not stop in Paris - GETTY

With the UK committed to reducing its carbon emissions to “net zero” by 2050, aviation’s environmental footprint is in the spotlight. But cutting out flights need not mean endless weekends in Paris. Mark Smith, The Man in Seat 61, recommends some more adventurous itineraries.

Morocco

You can leave London in the morning and reach North Africa the following evening, without setting foot on a plane – if you can resist the temptation to stop off in Paris, Barcelona or Gibraltar.

Leave London St Pancras on the 07:55 Eurostar, with time for lunch at the Train Bleu restaurant at the Gare de Lyon, opened in 1903 and probably the most glamorous station buffet of all. No curled sandwiches here, just beware the rum baba, liberally doused in Martinique rum.

After lunch, take an upstairs seat on the 14:07 TGV Duplex to Barcelona, a 200mph double-decker that dashes down the Rhone Valley at 186mph, then slows right down across the south of France, past Béziers’ hilltop cathedral and flamingos feeding in the shallows of the étangs (lakes) around Narbonne. Near Perpignan the train passes the Fort de Salses, Catalan-built but held by the French since 1642. The train then joins the Perpignan-Barcelona high-speed line and accelerates to 200mph, the snow-capped peak of Mt Canigou visible all the way to Girona as the train rounds the southern end of the Pyrenees. The train arrives at Barcelona Sants at 20:34; the four-star Hotel Barcelo Sants is conveniently located within the station.

Next morning, one of Spain’s superb AVE high-speed trains leaves Barcelona Sants at 08:30, and with a change at Antequera you reach Algeciras, across the bay from Gibraltar, at 18:05. There’s just time to catch the last ferry to Tangier, the 21:00 from Tarifa, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangier town, arriving 21:00 Moroccan time. Head for the venerable Continental Hotel, straight from the pages of Agatha Christie, on the edge of the old medina as you walk from the port.

Fort de Salses Credit: getty

Next day, Africa’s first high-speed train – a version of the same TGV Duplex that runs from Paris to Barcelona – will whisk you to Casablanca in 2h10. Change for the real Marrakech Express, another 2h40 to the red city at foot of the Atlas Mountains.

Book London-Barcelona and Barcelona-Algeciras at www.loco2.com. London to Paris from £58 return, Paris to Barcelona from €39 each way, Barcelona to Algeciras from around €55. Tarifa to Tangier starts at €18 each way, with free transfer bus from Algeciras.

Jemaa El-Fna in Marrakech Credit: GETTY

Greece

Greece is just a train ride to Italy and an Adriatic cruise away. Take the 09:24 Eurostar to Paris and the 14:41 high-speed TGV from Paris to Milan. The TGV races across rural France, then slows right down for a meander through the scenic French Alps, crossing into Italy at Modane and reaching Milan at 21:50 – but consider stopping off for a while in Turin, one of Italy’s most elegant and under-rated cities, reached at 20:15. 

Next morning, take the 07:35 fast Frecciabianca train along the Adriatic coast to Bari. The ferry terminal is next to Bari’s pleasant old town, a 25-minute walk or short taxi ride from the station. Check in for the ferry to Greece; it sails daily except Sundays at 19:30, with a range of en suite cabins on board.

Strolling the deck after breakfast next morning is perhaps the nicest part of the trip, watching Ithaca and Kefalonia drift past to starboard on a glistening blue sea. The ferry arrives at Patras on mainland Greece at 13:00, and OSE’s (Greek Railways) bus-train combo will get you to Athens in three hours. And from Piraeus, the port of Athens, Mykonos and Santorini (and lesser-known gems like Tinos) are just a few more hours away by ferry.

Book London to Milan and Milan to Bari at www.loco2.com. London to Paris starts at £58 return, Paris to Milan at €29 each way, Milan to Bari at €29.90 each way. Bari to Patras by ferry starts at around €63 each way with a basic deck place or €127 with a bed in a cabin, www.superfast.com. Patras to Athens by bus-train combo costs around €20 each way, bought locally.

The coast of Kefalonia Credit: GETTY

Sicily and Malta

Why not combine Italy with Malta, and perhaps stop off in Rome or Florence on your way back?

Take any afternoon Eurostar and enjoy an evening in Paris. Next morning, head for Milan on the 10:37 TGV, reaching Milan Porta Garibaldi at 17:50 after a pleasant run through the French Alps.

Now take Italy’s longest sleeper journey, Milan to Sicily in a cosy private sleeper or four-berth Comfort couchette, leaving the magnificent Milan Centrale at 20:10. Take snacks and a bottle of wine for a midnight feast. Next morning you’ll wake around Paola as the train runs along the coast, heading for Italy’s ‘toe’. At Villa San Giovanni the train reveals its special party trick – the cars are shunted onto a ferry to cross the Straits of Messina to Sicily, one of the few remaining places where trains go onto boats. You can go up on deck during the crossing, returning to your sleeper as the ferry docks at Messina. The last leg of the trip is along the Sicilian coast with sea views one side and the smouldering Mt Etna on the other. Siracuse is reached at 15:48.

To get to Malta, take a local train to Pozzallo and the fast ferry. Virtu Ferries sail most days, although the times vary. Their fast catamaran takes 1h45, and sailing into Valletta’s famous harbour is the best way to arrive.

Book London to Paris, Paris-Milan and Milan to Siracuse at www.loco2.com. London to Paris starts at £58 return, Paris to Milan at €29 each way. Milan to Siracuse starts at €44.90 per person in four-berth couchettes or €69.90 in a two-berth sleeper. Pozzallo to Malta starts at €150 return, www.virtuferries.com.

Catch glimpses of Etna Credit: GETTY

Moscow and St Petersburg

Every Thursday night, a long train of modern Russian sleeping-cars – plus a swish Polish dining-car – leaves Paris Gare de l’Est at 18:58, crossing Germany, Poland and Belarus to arrive in Moscow’s Belorussky station two nights later at 10:58. The air-conditioned sleepers have two-berth and four-berth compartments, and there are several VIP sleeping-cars with compartments featuring toilet and shower. Fares start at €313 bought at the Russian Railways website www.rzd.ru.

From Moscow it now takes just 3h50 to St Petersburg by Sapsan high-speed train, with fares from around 2,880 rubles (£35) bought from www.rzd.ru.

For the return, take an Allegro train from St Petersburg to Helsinki. Four departures per day taking 3h30 with fares from €29. Then sail from Helsinki to Travemünde in Germany with Finnlines, a two-night cruise. Fares start at around €200 with cabin berth, booked at www.finnlines.com. Travemünde to London can be done in a day by train, with fares from €69.90 booked with German Railways www.bahn.de/en.

Moscow's golden domes Credit: GETTY

Trans-Siberian

A ride on the Paris-Moscow Express needn’t end in Moscow. Train number 2, the Rossiya, leaves Moscow for Vladivostok every second day, a six-night 9,259km journey to the Pacific. A bed in a four-berth sleeper starts at around 21,430 rubles (£260), booked direct with Russian Railways www.rzd.ru. From Vladivostok, a ferry sails to Donghae in South Korea or Sakaiminato in Japan. Vladivostok to Japan is a 2-night crossing, with fares from around $235, www.dbsferry.com/eng/main/main.asp.

Alternatively, two trains a week link Moscow with China. The Trans-Mongolian express (train 4) leaves Moscow Yaroslavski station every Tuesday night using Chinese rolling stock, cutting across the Gobi desert and taking six nights for the 7,622km to Beijing. The Trans-Manchurian (train 20) leaves Moscow every Saturday night taking seven nights for its 8,986km journey. The cost is around £600 including a bed in a four-berth sleeper, depending how you book. In this case it’s best to go through an agency, for example www.realrussia.co.uk or http://www.svezhyveter.ru.

From Beijing, high-speed trains run to Xian, Shanghai and Hong Kong in a matter of hours, easily booked at www.china-diy-travel.com. A twice-weekly train links Beijing with Hanoi in Vietnam every Thursday and Sunday (two nights soft sleeper for £240, www.chinahighlights.com), from where daily trains run to Saigon (soft sleeper £40, www.baolao.com), for buses to Cambodia and Bangkok, for onward trains to Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. How adventurous do you feel?