World famous trains offer alternative to driving | Column

Traveling today, particularly if it involves the airlines, can be a hassle to say the least.

Driving vacations have lost some of their luster with the high price of gas.

One great alternative is to explore by train. Train tours take you back to the golden era of luxury train travel, with dining cars set with fine linen and crystal, and observation cars offering panoramic views. Although Amtrak tarnished that image a bit, trains are still a great way to travel. Train tours roll through some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes and can travel where cars can’t, so passengers enjoy scenic and interesting views that would otherwise be inaccessible.

On some train tour itineraries today, passengers stay onboard the train overnight. Passengers on these trips have their own private sleeping rooms, small but comfortable and generally well appointed. While they sleep, they’re carried to the tour’s next stop.

Other train tours utilize the train only to get from one place to the next. When each day’s train travel ends, passengers disembark and stay in hand-picked hotels. Classic train vacations include: Trans-continental train trips via the American Orient Express in the United States, train vacations through Mexico’s Copper Canyon, Alpine train tours on the Glacier Express in Europe, luxurious train trips with the Royal Scotsman in Scotland, and train travel aboard the Great South Pacific Express in Australia.

Train tours are available throughout the world and can give you a view of history and life different from our own. Whether starting right here in Seattle or on the Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver, B.C., there are some fascinating places to see by train. For the more adventuresome, here are what many consider to be some of the best train trips in the world.

• The Denali Star, Alaska. Seeing a state that’s almost two and half times the size of Texas can be daunting unless you do it via the Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star. Passengers travel a 365-mile route of scenic unspoiled backcountry between Anchorage and Fairbanks, catching glimpses of Mt. McKinley (weather permitting) and wildlife. You’ll make old-fashioned whistle stops including the legendary Denali National Park.

• The Napa Valley Wine Train, California. While getting behind the wheel after multiple wine tastings is a risk many staunch wine lovers are prepared to take, the Napa Valley Wine Train, departing daily from downtown Napa for trips through the celebrated wine region’s rolling countryside, offers an enjoyable, DUI-free alternative. Enjoy a gourmet lunch in one of its lavishly restored 1915-1917 Pullman dining cars before heading to the wine-tasting car, where a choice of 100 wines awaits.

• The Bergen Line, Norway. Northern Europe’s highest railway passes through scenic fjord inlets, and past snow-capped mountains and glaciers, on a 300-plus mile journey (much of which is above the timber line) between Bergen in western Norway and its capital at Oslo. The seven-hour voyage exhibits many feats of engineering en route — including passage through a spiral mountain tunnel.

• The Blue Train, South Africa. No one can deny the South African countryside is an amazing scene to wake up to see. It does have a worthy rival in The Blue Train’s onboard luxury. The train touts passenger cabins with such features as deep-soaking tubs, fine linens, marble-tiled bathrooms and digital entertainment centers. The train operates a handful of itineraries from Pretoria.

• Eastern and Orient Express, Southeast Asia. A trip that traverses Asia can be exotic and exhilarating, but can also be intimidating, especially for first-timers. You can find peace of mind being shuttled on the Eastern and Orient Express, which offers several different itineraries to major Southeast Asian cities in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Laos.

• The Ghan, Australia. In the 1800s, emigrant Afghans on camelback sparked development in Aussie’s remote desert outback, acting as guides on expeditions and starting construction on a dream transcontinental railway. That dream has since been realized in the form of The Ghan, an 1,850-mile, two-night train ride operated by Australia’s Great Southern Railway.

• The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, Russia. Holding the title as the world’s longest single-service train (at 5,800 miles), it runs from Moscow, through the Siberian tundra, to Vladivostok in 14 days.

• Hiram Bingham Train, Peru. Mystical Machu Picchu no longer mandates four-day treks along the challenging Inca Trail, or aboard overcrowded backpacker trains. Instead, the Hiram Bingham luxury rail ushers travelers to and from the steps of the sacred site from Cusco six days a week in just 3.5 hours.

• TER Méditerranée, France. Although the French are known for their high-speed, high-tech TGV trains, you’ll find some of the most authentic French experiences along their slower, regional tracks. A well-kept secret is their Mediterranean line, TER Méditerranée, which straddles the French Riviera coastline as it rolls from Marseille to Ventimiglia, Italy.

• Tokaido Shinkansen, Japan. No list of great train rides would be complete without Japan’s high-speed “bullet trains,” or “Shinkansen.” Their sleek futuristic design, incredible speed, high frequency, and on-the-dot departures and arrivals put the Shinkansen in a league of their own. The popular Tokaido Shinkansen line’s Nozomi train reduces the 320 miles between Tokyo and temple and shrine-speckled Kyoto to a mere 131-minute journey, traveling at speeds of 168 mph.

• And the future: The American Magline Group, a private partnership championing a magnetic levitating train, or “maglev,” that would soar at a maximum speed of 310 mph — 180 mph on average — from Disneyland to Las Vegas received a $45 million infusion from a transportation bill signed by President Bush in early June.

Jerry Vaughn is president of World Voyager Vacations in Federal Way:

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