We’re now several months into this whole “new normal” thing and if you’re like me, it’s getting really old, really fast.
We’re supposed to be out there vacationing at our dream destination, learning about other people and places, and soaking up the scenery and culture.
While the current state of affairs may have put a temporary halt to many a planned adventure, there are still many ways to travel and social distance at the same time. Here’s a list of journeys that will make you forget all about these trying times.
Gold, Silver, and Bronze
We often associate these precious metals with a specific era in history or as a way to measure achievement, like in the Olympics (something else that was cancelled this year due to the pandemic).
Of course, no one really strives to win the Bronze – no, we want the Gold. So, of course, a Golden Age is always the one we look upon most fondly, the perfection of a time we’ll probably never see again.
It’s the same with eras of train travel, and for most of us, the “Golden Age” of the rails brings to mind glamour and civility, passengers decked out in their finest clothing, never in a rush, actually looking each other in the eye as they have real conversations.
This Golden Age of passenger trains started in the late nineteenth century and continued a bit after the First World War.
But, ironically, Golden Age trains were kind of boring in their design, though still glamorous and mysterious.
Pullman owned most of the passenger trains in their heyday, but sleeper cars held several passenger bunks and offered little privacy, save a curtain that could be drawn as you drifted off to sleep.
And they didn’t travel at a very high rate of speed, nor did they come with all the luxurious amenities now offered. You could get a good cup of joe, maybe a decent breakfast, but time spent on the train was not the best part of the journey.
When automobiles started becoming increasingly a part of the American landscape, then with the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Golden Age of the train was left to memory.
Ridership decreased, so in an effort to draw passengers back to the rails, railcars became flashier, faster, and more luxurious – “moderne,” not “modern” – with Art Deco features, high-end accommodations, and more variety and quality of dining.
Pullman was the first to develop private luxury cars, but they were for the wealthy, like a fancy hotel room on wheels. You were treated like royalty, and it almost seemed a shame when you finally arrived at your destination.
But eventually, most of us abandoned the rails for road trips – or the airlines that would whisk us away to our destination much more quickly.
Gone was the experience of the journey in getting to our destination. Now, the travel part of our travels is more an inconvenience and nuisance than part of the adventure.
Amtrak didn’t help matters much with their drab, gray train cars and cramped, uncomfortable coach seats. And forget about getting your own private rail car – that experience belonged to the past.
For those of us who love history and tradition and human decency – sadly, more and more part of a bygone era – the luxury of train travel is making a comeback.
And booking your own private rail car is the perfect way to social distance during these crazy times.
Amtrak is still pretty much the titan of the modern railway, but under new leadership and in response to falling demand for rail travel, they’re hitching onto an old idea.
Several private rail car owners are working with Amtrak to attach their private cars to passenger trains, wherein Amtrak would receive a certain fee for mileage and services.
The American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners is one such company working with Amtrak to offer luxury accommodations and travel packages. This may be one of the only experiences where “Amtrak” and “luxury” can be used in the same sentence.
A private car can be chartered on one of several rail lines, but “charter” is almost always synonymous for “expensive.” Really expensive.
Then there are the real luxury train travel companies who offer the best of the best with trips through Europe, Africa, and the Orient.
One can dream…
Ah, what private rail car adventure should I take first?
Yes, the most famous of all trains, the Orient Express, is back as the Venice Simplon Orient Express with appropriately decked-out private cars that will take you over the route of Detective Poirot and the gang. Just remember – trust no one and watch your back.
Or the Belmond Andean Explorer through Peru perhaps? This journey boasts luxury cars with all the amenities of a pricey hotel and travels through some of the most incredible scenery in the world.
Ancient lands of the Incas and Aztecs, stunning lakes, and the Andes Mountains can be viewed from your private getaway.
The Rovos Pride of Africa has several packages available with both north and southbound routes that offer plenty of exotic scenery and history.
And these cabins promise something you won’t get on most trains, even the most luxurious ones – a full-sized bathtub to soak in after a long day of trekking through stunning landscapes.
If these sound a little too exotic – and a little too out of your budget (join the club) – there’s always the Royal Canadian Pacific. A good starter journey before you hit the rails to more far-flung locations.
You’ll still get the royal treatment by a full staff on RCP – and it’s still pricey. These fully restored historic cars once carried real royalty like then-Princess and now-Queen Elizabeth.
This line will take you through the breathtaking Canadian Rockies, with nightly stops “sometimes in the wilderness” so you can stargaze and see a real-live moose and plenty of other wildlife.
Just beware of the bears. They aren’t picky eaters.
Sean Connery, take me away!
The Royal Scotsman promises to take you on a “Grand Highland Fling,” complete with every amenity you can imagine.
And being of Scottish descent, this would be my top pick.
We even have our clan tartan and a family castle that still stands back in Scotland somewhere. But I guess I’m just one of thousands of descendants of “my” clan because they don’t care what my name is. I still have to stand in line and pay admission like everyone else.
Each private rail car on the Royal Scotsman has its own en-suite bathroom, luxury linens, and the warm, rich décor you’d expect of Scotland – tartan plaid bed coverings, gleaming wood paneling and furnishings, and shining brass fixtures, each like its own mini Scottish “country house.”
I can almost smell the scent of heather as I scroll through the photos of these cabins, dreaming of rolling green hills, craggy cliffs, and the mist rolling in.
There are several “journey” packages promising rounds of golf with men decked in poufy plaid golf pants, argyle socks, and those hats with the little pom-poms on top.
There’s white water rafting and hiking through the countryside and, of course, tours of whiskey distilleries.
As I read through the Scotsman’s website, I can hear Sean Connery’s signature brogue in my head listing all the amenities and adventures that await me. (I’ll take both the James Bond version or the older, more distinguished gentleman of 80s and 90s films – I’m not picky.)
And then I took a look at the prices for a trip of just under a week – from over the equivalent of $5,000 USD per passenger for a shared cabin with bunks, to the most luxurious of luxurious for around $12,000.
For that price, it better come with a Scottish gentleman decked in his finest kilt (and you know what they say about kilts) to be my own personal butler and tour guide. But I didn’t see anything about that listed under “amenities.”
Like a punch to the gut, I realized I wouldn’t be getting my Highland Fling this year, or probably ever. But it’s still fun to look.
Respect the Rails!
What’s really surprising is that most of this summer’s journeys on these private rail cars are either sold out or have limited availability. I guess there are plenty of wealthy people out there who have the ability to cough up these exorbitant prices.
Maybe I can stow away in one of their trunks. I’m short, and it would be well worth it just to spend a day on the Royal Scotsman – or any of these luxury trains of a bygone era.
If you are one of the lucky few who can afford passage, there’s something I want you to do for me.
Ladies, put on that pencil skirt, silk stockings, and heels (yes, they kill our feet, but that’s not the point). Don’t forget to set your hair in pin curls and put on one of those vintage hats with the little veil on top.
Gentlemen, I expect a three-piece suit, tie clip, gleaming cufflinks, and a hat of your own.
These trains that harken back to the Golden Age — when men and women were glamorous and polite before society started circling the drain — deserve nothing less.
If you board in a pair of jeans and sneakers, I’m coming after you. Unless you have an extra steamer trunk and are willing to let me stow away with you. Then I might let your poor choice of attire slide.
I promise I’ll sit quietly in the corner, six feet away, and just take in the experience of a lifetime…
… The “click-clack” of the car as it glides over the tracks and the sun streaming through the window as the fog lifts and the rolling hills begin to appear.