The steamy, silver service vignette from Wes Anderson and Hitchcock’s locomotive reverie; curtains of dollhouses framing an ephemeral, spellbinding landscape of snowy forests, frozen lakes and snow globe villages; of Art Deco cabins configured with Debrett and tuxedos in mind.
There’s something endlessly glamorous about train travel with bells and whistles. They evoke a delightful sense of nostalgia and adventure that has inspired poets, writers and some of cinema’s most iconic scenes – from James Bond’s first encounter with Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, to Harry’s first glimpse of Hogwarts. Potter as the Express passes over the overpass.
And what could be more comfortable than the whimsical theater of winter from a grilled carriage with velvet trimmings and chilled glasses of champagne? From meandering through the Swiss mountains overlooking lakes to gliding through grim snow-covered tundra, here are the best winter train journeys.
Venice Simplon-Orient Express, a Belmond train
A paragon of rail glamour, the Venice Simplon-Orient Express is the ultimate hot ticket, with a locomotive pedigree dating back to 1982. A new route now sees its Deco carriages gliding through Europe in December, with stops in Florence, Paris, Venice and Vienna. And while exploring these alluring towns during the holiday season is enough to justify the trip, soaking up the silver countryside from the warmth of a private cabin, or over a silver service dinner (with menus prepared by chef Jean Imbert) is a journey back to the golden age of train travel. Prohibition-era champagne and cocktails continue in bar car ‘3674, as does the piano player, late into the night as the train winds through silent, snowy forests and midnight brunch arrives under the form of lobster rolls and truffle club sandwiches.
The Rocky Mountains, Canada
Unbeknownst to many, a section of the Canadian National Railway rushes through the Rocky Mountains from Vancouver to Calgary. This week-long epic offers several stretches of Unesco World Heritage sites from the plush confines of First Class, and with a Skyline and Park observation car. And it’s not just about gliding through this majestic landscape of jagged peaks and pine-draped valleys. Passengers hop off at several stops, including the Columbia Icefield en route to Lake Louise, Sunwapta Valley, and Banff Sulfur Mountain, aboard the Banff Gondola. Moose, bears and elk are known to break views of snow-capped pines, while some may be lucky enough to witness the joyous Northern Lights dancing across the winter sky. It should be borne in mind that some sections of the route are traveled by coach (even trains have their limits).
Glacier Express, Switzerland
A winter’s tale that winds through dramatic alpine scenery between the towers and frozen lakes of St Moritz to the gentler, Hans Christian Andersen-worthy ski resort of Zermatt. This eight-hour epic features snow-capped pine forests; lonely mountain huts belching billows of smoke; and nearly 300 bridges with the kind of views that are printed on Swiss chocolate boxes as the train soars over 2,000 meters above sea level. Book with the Ultimate Travel Company for four nights of winter wonderland, take in the twinkling views over a three-course dinner in the First Class cabin, and book the trip with a spa-focused Engadine Valley stay at Waldhaus Sils and Zermatt’s Belle Epoque Parkhotel Beau Site. Alternatively, snow-lovers can ride up St Pancras for Switzerland’s pretty Engadine region via Zurich – zipping into St Moritz to lay their head at the Suvretta House turret.
Semmering Railway, Austria
As the world’s first Unesco World Heritage-listed railway, it’s no surprise that the views from the humble, suburban-style seats of the Semmering (forget the afternoon teas) are breathtaking. stunning beauty. A true technical feat of the 19th century, the Simmering crosses valleys, forests and mountains, shimmering under a blanket of snow. Between Gloggnitz and Semmering, passengers are treated to hours of winter theater from their privileged perch along 16 awe-inspiring viaducts – some dizzying and seemingly carved into steep, sheer cliff face – and more than 100 arched stone bridges. The train meanders, connecting Vienna to southwestern Austria, but it’s the most scenic stretch of the track – and remarkably affordable to boot.
Nordland Railway, Norway
Norway’s longest continuous rail journey, Nordland, or the Arctic Circle Express, glides through a wide range of landscapes, from the lush, pixie-green forests of Trondheim to the icy fringes of the North Pole and the mountain-flanked city of Bodo . Along the way, huge viewing windows reveal storybook scenes of reindeer trudging across barren tundra, rugged mountains against a melancholy sky, and fjords so cold and glassy the train is perfectly reflected in them. Wide-eyed passengers are treated to eight hours of this northern nature spectacle, with regular sightings of the Northern Lights in winter and the legendary Midnight Sun during the summer months. The locomotive drama was spectacular enough for a Netflix documentary: The Northern Line.
West Highland Line, Scotland
The best of the West Highland Line from Blighty, Scotland, traverses resplendent scenery – glens, ancient forests, lochs and a rugged, melancholy coastline – from Glasgow to Fort William. It then heads further north to the fishing port of Mallaig (the ferry terminal for the Isle of Skye). Climb aboard the Caledonian Sleeper at Euston (a refreshed Prelude, showers and all the creaky, unloved charm of the West Highland Line). The thrill of waking up from a whiskey-induced slumber in a field upon a field of shimmering white is enhanced by a hot bowl of Scottish porridge or traditional fry. Majestic stags can be spotted towering over the snowy, scrubby valleys, and the elevated track through the bleak, peaty bog of Rannoch Moor, stagnant with frost, gives the illusion of floating above the landscape. It is the final leg of the journey, where the Caledonian terminates at Fort William and a connecting train continues to Mallaig, that the scenery is most enchanting. The imposing ruins of old Inverlochy Castle loom just after leaving Fort William and the train zips along the banks of the lochs and over the Glenfinnan Viaduct featured in the Harry Potter films.
Flåm Railway, Norway
A dizzying rollercoaster-style ride through the otherworldly fjords and mountains of western Norway, The Flam Railway barely lasts a full West End show, and yet the scenery it conjures up in the process. road is a sold out material. Starting from the end of Aurlandsfjord at sea level, the train then climbs high into the mountains (nearly 3,000 feet) until it reaches the village of Myrdal, a photogenic cluster of hyttes (cabins) of ox blood. Steep cliffs, frozen waterfalls, lonely churches and isolated mountain huts are all visible from vintage cabins, and the ranger allows a five-minute photo stop at Kjosfossen waterfall – just too pretty to pass . It’s worth noting that Myrdal is also on the Bergen line (so those taking the Olso-Bergen train will also get the Frozen-worthy spectacle of nature).