A long weekend on the Belmond Royal Scotsman is not for shrinking violets. The trip starts with a bagpiper in full regalia leading the way through Edinburgh Waverley station to the sleek burgundy sleeper train. Everyone, understandably, stops to gawp and take photos on their phones – and that happens a lot.
Like the Hogwarts Express, the Royal Scotsman appears by magic at the platform, with no clues on the displays or timetables around the station. As soon as the lovely staff replace your luggage with a glass of champagne you know you’re in good hands – and it’s not a token glass, it keeps coming and coming all weekend. Every time you get back on board from an excursion, sit down in the dining or observation car, or make eye contact with a member of staff, they take it as a cue to find you something delicious to drink or to eat, or both. On our excursions we were welcomed back with cognac-laced hot chocolate, sloe gin fizzes, hot toddies, and more champagne. The treats were many. I tried to be restrained on the Friday, but gave up by Saturday lunchtime.
Perhaps it was something to do with all that Laurent Perrier, but when we set off, my friend and I spent the next hour in a trance, mesmerised by the view, which we watched though the picture window from our extremely comfortable cabin beds. With the exception of Fort William’s succession of roundabouts, Aldis and Lidls, the whole journey was like being immersed in a brooding Victorian landscape painting. Eventually, rocked gently by the train, I had a nap and woke
up for afternoon tea. Then I had another lie down while we rolled into the Highlands.
The service is so prompt and the mealtimes so regular that you become institutionalised in the luxury routine straight away. I happily mentally checked out, and waited for the staff to tell me when lunch was served, to hand me an umbrella when I needed one, remember where I left my coat, and guess that I needed my postcards stamped and posted. I started to understand why celebrities cannot manage to do anything practical for themselves. It only took me an afternoon. I had worried that the train, whose owners Belmond also run the Venice Simplon Orient-Express, could not possibly live up to the Poirot-style fantasy that I had in mind, and that instead it would be tweedy and synthetic. Happily, it did not have that stage-set feel at all. Every corner is tasteful. As you walk through carriage after carriage, they are all sparkling, lit with gentle brass lights, and decorated with polished wood decorated with marquetry. The dining cars are full of beautiful linen, glasses and crockery. It achieves what luxury travel aims for – that balance of being immaculate and formal, but still feeling like home. Like the rest of the train, the cabins are wood-panelled, with the guest names handwritten elegantly above the door. Most have two single beds, with dainty reading lights, a shared desk, and an ensuite bathroom with shower, and a call button for service. The valet suggested bringing me breakfast in bed on Sunday morning and, as I was feeling a little worse for wear, he tactfully put some paracetamol by my napkin.
Days are taken up with travel and excursions. then dinner time starts at 7pm with drinks and canapés in the bar, as the dramatic scenery rumbles by in front of you. The food is out of this world, with fresh, seasonal ingredients that are picked up along the route. You can even have three courses at breakfast, if you have the room for it. The dining is communal and spread across two dining cars, with the dress code alternating each day between informal and formal. Following dinner, you can watch live music with a whisky in the Observation Car before rolling into bed.
I have never suffered such an atrocious holiday comedown as I did when ejected into Waverley station on the Monday afternoon. It was cold and miserable and there was no champagne to cushion the blow. My friend texted me the next day at 7pm, when they start the canapés on board every night: ‘normal life is terrible’.
The three-night Western Scenic Wonders journey, beginning and ending in Edinburgh, passing Loch Lomond, Ben Nevis, the Isle of Bute and Mount Stuart, costs from £4,350pp in May 2019, including all meals, drinks and trips. (0845 0772222, belmond.com).
Other luxury train journeys
The flamboyant air-conditioned cabins of the Palace on Wheels come in gold, ruby and sapphire palettes, while the restaurants and lounges are decorated in pink, gold and aquamarine. A train with a big sense of occasion, guests are welcomed with garlands of flowers and well-attended to throughout. An eight-day journey beginning and ending in Delhi, travelling to Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Ranthambore National Park, Chittorgarh, Udaipur and Agra, costs from £2,660pp (thepalaceonwheels.org).
This Belmond Andean Explorer service, owned by the same company as the Royal
Scotsman, travels from Arequipa and passes Lake Titicaca before reaching Cusco and returning. The cabins are similarly modern and stylish, and there’s a an open-air observation balcony from where to watch the mountains, lakes and alpacas. The two-night journey costs from £1,255pp, including food and drink. (belmond.com).
Blue Train, Africa’s most stylish transport, offers a well-stocked bar to watch the plains and mountains from. The cabins are air conditioned, with marble and gold en suite bathrooms. Ostrich, venison, and lamb are washed down by South African wines, with the Soweto String Quartet as entertainment. Wexas Travel has a 15-day Classic Cape, Blue Train and Safari itinerary from Pretoria to Cape Town from £3,460pp. (wexas.com).