World's Fanciest Sleeper Cars
If you’ve boarded an Amtrak train recently, rolling palaces with doting cabin stewards, king-size beds, and marble and gold interiors may seem like a fairy tale from a bygone era. But though the current economic doldrums have put a dent in the industry, luxury trains have found a place in the 21st century and are still plying major routes on the world’s most developed rail systems. And this over-the-top luxury is seen most clearly in sleeper cars.
“The standards and expectations of rail passengers just keep going up,” says Eleanor Flagler Hardy, president of the Society of International Railway Travelers, a tour and publishing company. Intense competition for a small pool of affluent travelers has led to better and more sophisticated food and service in recent years, making for what she calls an “addictive experience.”
Luxury train travel expanded rapidly in Europe and beyond in the 1980s when private companies began to buy up and restore antique rail cars. Beyond the “standard” features such as individual climate controls, a stocked refrigerator bar, and a safe for your bling, the most luxurious sleeper compartments are set apart by their generous size (the Deccan Odyssey’s Presidential Suites are nearly 200 square feet), commodious beds (king size on the Pride of Africa), rich furnishings (antique brass radiators and Turkish drapes on the Royal Canadian Pacific), and attendants who provide wake-up calls, deliver breakfast, tidy your room, and remember your drink preference.
For now, anyway, this is a strictly overseas experience (though you can charter a private rail car in the United States). It’s not that American companies haven’t tried to create a luxury line: the most recent such venture—a partnership between Amtrak and GrandLuxe Rail Journeys that traveled between Washington and Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago, and Chicago and San Francisco—launched in 2007 but stopped running after less than a year.
So, until some brave company resurrects luxury train travel in the States, you’ll have to go abroad for your fix. Here’s where to rest your head.
Danube Express, Hungary
With bragging rights to the most lavish sleeper cars in Europe, the two-year-old Danube Express has 83-square-foot Deluxe compartments with everything from heated towel rails and antique brass fittings to en suite bathrooms. Thoughtful details include dimming lights and—while they may not seem unusual at first glance—easy-to-open windows, a rarity in train travel. The refurbished cars, which were once used by Hungarian government dignitaries, travel major routes between central European capitals (popular stops include Dracula’s Transylvania castle).
Deluxe Detail: Full-length wardrobes and mirrors.
Deluxe sleeper car fares start at about $3,777 per person for a four-day, three-night trip.
Pride of Africa, South Africa
Owner Rohan Vos greets passengers as they board, and this personal touch and careful attention to detail follow the Pride of Africa on its various routes through wildlife reserves, the Kalahari Desert, and Victoria Falls. At 172 square feet, the Pride of Africa’s Royal Suites come with separate lounge areas and en suite bathrooms (some with full Victorian bathtubs). Cabin refrigerators are stocked with complimentary libations, but don’t hesitate to buzz one of the punctilious attendants for a cocktail.
Deluxe Detail: King-size beds.
Royal Suite for the Cape Town–Pretoria (two nights) route: $2,973 per person for double occupancy.
Royal Canadian Pacific, Canada
While it can’t lay claim to the biggest or most luxurious sleeper cars around, the RCP’s Art Deco staterooms stand apart for their serious pedigrees: Winston Churchill, King George VI, and Queen Elizabeth II all slept here. Compartments are lined with Russian Circassian walnut inlaid with intricate maple carvings, and original brass radiators and period furnishings such as Turkish drapes add to the ambience. The train stops overnight to allow you to slumber peacefully under your goose-down duvet. In the morning, open the blinds to watch the snow-covered Rockies slide by.
Deluxe Detail: Each compartment is individually designed.
Six-day, five-night journey through the Canadian Rockies: $7,853 per person.
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Europe
These immaculate 1920s-era cars are a museum piece on wheels: the Lalique glass panels, wood-burning stoves, and Art Deco marquetry made Agatha Christie swoon. Cabin Suites, composed of two interconnecting cabins, can be divided into a lounge with a banquette sofa, footstool, and table in one room and separate sleeping quarters in the other. Original furnishings, crisp linens, and attentive 24-hour service add to the magic aboard this legendary train. To make up for the fact that there are no showers and the toilet facilities are shared, the train stops at five-star hotels every other night to keep guests feeling civilized.
Deluxe Detail: Press a silver button, and blue-uniformed stewards bring you afternoon tea.
Paris–Venice round-trip (two nights): $6,620 for double occupancy of a suite cabin.
The Eastern and Oriental Express, Thailand
The E&O’s two Presidential Suites capture colonial-era opulence in 125 square feet: think cherrywood and burr elm walls inlaid with intricate Thai and Malay motifs. Each suite is configured as a private lounge during the day, with a banquette-style sofa, rattan chairs, and a window-side desk. At night, attendants convert the space into sleeping quarters.
Deluxe Detail: A complimentary in-cabin bar.
Bangkok–Singapore route, Presidential Suite: $4,420 per person.
The Ghan, Australia
The world’s only truly transcontinental train has upped the ante on luxury. With the 2008 introduction of its Platinum Class, the Ghan now offers 11-foot-long sleepers with en suite bathrooms, full-size showers, and rich décor and furnishings such as polished Tasmanian myrtle walls, plush pile carpeting, and fold-down desks. Stewards convert your cabin daily from private lounge with table and ottomans to cozy sleeping quarters.
Deluxe Detail: Platinum Class cabins have windows on both sides of the compartment.
One-way Platinum Class cabins: $2,987 per person.
Blue Train, South Africa
Guaranteed: you will want to stay on the Blue Train beyond its 27-hour journey between Pretoria and Cape Town, possibly just soaking in your Luxury Suite’s deep bathtub. At more than 17 feet long, the suite is a showcase of mahogany paneling, with an ample armoire, fold-down writing desk, and state-of-the-art entertainment center that includes movie channels, GPS mapping, and a link to a conductor’s-eye-view camera. Prop up your feet on a cushy footstool, push a button to raise the enormous picture window’s electric blinds, order filet mignon and lobster from room service, and dine with front-row seats of the African landscape.
Deluxe Detail: Marble-floored bathrooms with gilt fixtures.
Luxury Suite rates range from about $1,477 per person for double occupancy in low season to about $2,731 for single occupancy in high season (Sept. 1 to Nov. 15).
Royal Scotsman, Great Britain
The Royal Scotsman’s State Cabins are Edwardian fantasies of varnished wood, polished brass, and fine fabrics. Windows open to let in the bracing Highlands air, and the train berths every night to ensure deep slumbers. Your cabin comes with all the tangibles: tartan décor, marquetry walls hung with old-fashioned prints, a dressing table, full-length wardrobe, and antique ceiling fans. Meanwhile, efficient and thoughtful service might include coffee with a touch of Baileys before bed or the day’s newspaper when you wake.
Deluxe Detail: New, fluffy white towels appear in your en suite bathroom daily.
Two-night trips through the Scottish Highlands start at $2,170 for single occupancy; $3,610 for double.
The Deccan Odyssey, India
Aboard this rolling pleasure palace, Presidential Suites are decorated with carvings and fabrics that reflect regional landscapes, architecture, and handicrafts. Sprawling across half of a train car, each of these mini palaces features a separate sitting room, a flat-screen television, a stereo system, and a fully stocked pantry. Onboard amenities include a fitness gym and a spa with Ayurvedic massage and steam baths.
Deluxe Detail: Not one, but two bathrooms in the Presidential Suite.
September–April, a weeklong trip through India’s Maharashtra and Goa states costs $750 per night for single occupancy in a Presidential Suite; $1,300 for double occupancy. These rates increase by $200 and $350, respectively, during the rest of the year.