Experience the world from a unique vantage point—gazing through the window of a train or leaning on the rail of a river cruiser. The 2017 programme of journeys aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has now been launched, while the new season for exploring Myanmar’s great waterways has just begun.
“Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance,” sang Paul Simon—but isn’t it much more fun more to be riding one? Nothing quite beats the thrill of speeding along the rails in a strange new country, looking out of the window at the changing landscapes and unfamiliar faces, thundering over mighty bridges, plunging into the sudden darkness of a tunnel, all to a rich soundtrack of hoots, whistles and rattles.
It only vaguely matters where you are heading—the very fact that you are simply going, escaping, doing something different seems enough to justify the journey. Embarking on an adventurous train ride lifts you out of the routine world and into an exciting new realm of possibilities and surprises.
It helps, of course, if your train is glamorous and atmospheric, like the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which has been making romantic overnight trips between London and Venice since 1982. This undyingly popular jaunt is not just an excuse for some nostalgic partying in your best tuxedo or feather boa. Restored from original stock dating from the 1920s, complete with ornate marquetry and Lalique glass panels, its vintage carriages feel more like time travel.
A lot of the pleasure in this style of rail journey comes from the sociable atmosphere on board: everyone has chosen to be here, a conspiracy of fun-seekers eager to make the most of their time in a luxurious cocoon where the staff, dressed in period uniforms, are at the heart of the revels.
Added romance comes from the way trains follow their own secretive routes, wheeling away from roads to penetrate deep into nature’s hallowed places. “Would you like a pisco sour?” asks a smiling, white-jacketed waiter as you stand in the observation car at the rear of the Belmond Hiram Bingham as it weaves through the snow-capped Andes to the fabled Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. Why not? Peru’s punchy national drink seems the perfect companion as the train’s gleaming blue-and-gold carriages run alongside the swirling, tea-coloured waters of the Urubamba River.
At times it feels like you’re riding on your own private snake, winding through a hidden world that throws up sudden glimpses the camera rarely catches but the mind always remembers. It might be the morning sun igniting the golden cornfields of the Sacred Valley, the steep hillsides staircased with centuries-old terraces, or a friendly wave from a cloaked and behatted herdswoman tending her llamas.
While railways are one of mankind’s greatest inventions, to get close to nature nothing rivals taking to the water. Gliding off on a long river cruise offers a different kind of satisfaction, one where you are forced to tune into the rhythms of life on the river bank. Few voyages do this better than those made in Myanmar by sister ships Belmond Road to Mandalay and Belmond Orcaella.
Cruises on board the latter, as you sail up the Chindwin River to Homalin or follow the Ayeyarwady River north to the gorges at Bhamo, give you time to appreciate the astonishing peace, beauty and spiritual richness of this gentle country, with its gilded stupas and picturesque rural scenes.
Every day brings another memorable encounter—a visit to a school, an extraordinary temple—and the gentler pace means you have time to enjoy the birdlife, watch the sun rise over waters speckled with fishermen in tiny canoes and savour the delights of sailing upriver on a starlit night.
At such moments you realise that, while the sightseeing scorecard is getting a healthy tally of big ticks, something deeper has occurred. Your holiday has flipped over into travel, from looking to feeling, and you are now in a pleasure zone of discovery and contentment that you could live in for weeks.
It’s a sensation the writer John Steinbeck dwelled on when he made a mammoth road tour around the United States in 1960. “People don’t take trips,” he mused in Travels with Charley: In Search of America, “trips take people.” And whether it’s rattling over railway bridges on the way to Venice or sailing past the gleaming spires of Mandalay, once you hit that spot you’ll know what it is that turns a journey into an adventure you’ll never forget.
by Nigel Tisdall