Travel: top train trips
3 of the best places to ride the rails
Writer, blogger and train-travel obsessive Jools Stone cherry picks his favourite train journeys from around the globe – some close to home, and some farther flung
Cattle herd queues, hidden fees and draconian baggage restrictions: it seems we’ll put up with anything for a cheap escape, but while the budget airline bubble has yet to burst, you can always opt for a less stressful, more romantic way to go. Train travel gives you the chance to savour the journey. You get a much better sense of distance and place when shuttling past the scrolling landscape at ground level, instead of drifting through anonymous clouds while strapped into a giant airborne piece of aluminium. Here’s three journeys that should rekindle the romance of travel, without scorching your wallet.
North Yorkshire Moors Railway
One of the UK’s most popular steam railways, this is also one of the oldest. The 18-mile line from Pickering to Whitby opened in 1836 and can still be enjoyed today with hourly departures on most days during summer months. Its lovingly maintained stations and cheerily enthusiastic and authentically dressed volunteer staff make for a dreamy trip back in time along a route that sweeps right through the wide open, heather-clad expanse of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park.
The 95-minute journey is worth doing in its entirety, if only to spend the day in Whitby, a quirky, old-fashioned British seaside resort with a definite energy about it. You might want to stop off midway at Goathland station, which has some celebrity credentials as it stands in for Hogsmeade station in the first Harry Potter outing, while also finding time to moonlight as Aidensfield in somnambulist 60s-set cop series Heartbeat. A quick amble around the area reveals its suitability as a period location. Time here seems to have stood still since at least the 60s; there are few signs of the modern world as sheep laze about untroubled on the front lawns of the village homes.
Naturally, a fine summer’s afternoon rewards you with spectacular views across some of England’s most ruggedly attractive landscape, but an evening trip could be just the ticket for birthdays and special celebrations. Their four-course Pullman Fine Dining experience, available on most weekends, promises to give the Orient Express a run for its money, plus there’s special events throughout the year, such as the Swinging Sixties, Vintage Vehicle Weekend and Santa Specials.
The railway has a special charm of its own and you may find yourself seduced enough to stay for a week in one of their Camping Coaches at Goathland and Levisham stations, an authentic, wood-panelled carriage fitted out with all the amenities you’d expect of a self-catering cottage.
From £12 one-way, British Rail connections from Grosmont to Middlesbrough; see nymr.co.uk for info.
Sleeper to the Arctic Circle
Everyone should experience the childlike delight of a sleeper train once in their lives and the Swedish train from Stockholm, which whisks you high up into the Arctic Circle, all the way to Narvik, (technically Norwegian Lapland) is a suitably awe-inspiring induction.
The 17-hour-long journey from Stockholm along a virtually unbroken chain of birch trees and seemingly endless expanses of white provides the perfect setting for a little precious introspection, while the rhythm of the train lulls you gently to sleep in its very comfortable sleeper cabin, some of which come fully equipped with private toilet and shower facilities and all the hallmarks of swish Swedish design you’d expect. If you wake in the night you may find yourself face to face with a curious moose or reindeer, but rest assured that there will be few other distractions en route.
You may not want to leave your cosy cocoon of a cabin, but when you finally prize yourself out at Narvik you can explore the otherworldliness of the Arctic. Take the Fjellheisen cable car over 650 metres of peaks and fjords, chase the midnight sun in summer or come in winter and if you’re lucky maybe you’ll mesmerise yourself with a view of the Northern Lights. Bag a cheap flight with Ryanair from Edinburgh to Stockholm and let the adventure begin.
From around 910 Swedish Krona (about £90) one-way in a couchette. See sj.se for more info.
Rome to Sicily, via the sea
If you can spare the time and the money to travel by train, you begin to wonder why we even bother with flying. Of course those pesky oceans often put a spanner in the works, but where there’s a will, there’s a way – as the ingenious folk at Italian rail operator Trenitalia prove with their service connecting mainland Italy with Sicily. You can take a direct train from Rome to Palermo, Catania, Syracuse or the popular, upscale resort of Taormina.
Travel either in the daytime to make the most of the changing vistas as you venture through the prosperous north into the sleepier, dusty south along the Calabrian coast as the train hugs the sharp cliffs dropping into the sea, or on board the ‘Bellini’ sleeper. Either way you’re in for an experience at Villa San Giovanni, where the entire train is disassembled and then shunted onto a ferry for the short crossing of the Messina Straights. The crossing takes around 30 minutes before rattling on through the eastern coast of Sicily with a backdrop of distant mountains and the closer Mount Etna.
Advance ‘mini fares’ from around 26 euros (about £23). See trenitalia.com for more info.