After years of jet setting, travelers are looking to slow down and revel at vast landscapes and new cultures. What better way to do so than navigating fabled railroads in luxury? While the golden age of train travel might be behind us, a rail revival is taking place. High-end operators like Rovos Rail in Southern Africa and the Maharajas Express in India are recapturing the romance of a bygone era of train travel. When it first rolled out of Paris in 1883 bound for Istanbul, the Orient Express—the celebrated train created by Belgian Georges Nagelmackers—set the bar for glamorous train travel. Its elegant carriages carried royals, politicians, and artists while also inspiring imitators and novels, most notably Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
Orient Express was rebranded as Belmond, yet the company upholds and celebrates its train travel legacy. Nearly 100 years after the original, the Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient Express debuted. Today, it still crisscrosses Europe, stopping in such cities as Istanbul, Venice, and Paris. And in the three decades since, Belmond’s fleet has grown to include trains in the U.K., Asia, and South America. The Royal Scotsman, however, has become one of the most iconic. The fabled train is an aristocrat of rail travel, composed of nine vintage-inspired carriages, mostly Pullman cars from the 1960s. Single-, double-, and twin-bedded state cars are decorated with marquetry, rich green and crimson fabrics, and prints of Highland chieftains. All are serviced by personal cabin stewards. “For all intents and purposes, it has the accommodations and amenities of a full-service, five-star hotel,” says train manager Fred Laseen. “But the service is very personal. With 15 private staff to attend to 50 guests, I often feel like we’re hosting people for a party.”
The 720-mile Highlands trip passes through Dundee, Montrose, Inverness, and Perth. When guests depart from Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, they embark on a magical experience that simply can’t be captured traveling any other way. It doesn’t take long to go from the comforts of the city to pure highland countryside, which can be as harsh as it is beautiful. Seeing it all pass by from your window feels like watching a National Geographic documentary.
Bucket-list highlights of the trip include winding through the former Kingdom of Fife and crossing the awe-inspiring Forth Railway Bridge. Many consider the section of track leading to Kyle of Lochalsh the most scenic route in all of Britain. But passengers aren’t mere observers. One of the draws of train travel is the ease of getting off and on to explore otherwise hard-to-reach destinations. Guests can disembark in the picturesque village of Plockton for a boat ride to see the resident seal colony and get off in Garve to sample single malts during a tour of the Glen Ord Distillery, one of Scotland’s oldest. In Carrbridge, visit Ballindalloch Castle. Belmond has a close relationship with the lord and lady of the house, and guests are treated to a VIP tour of the fairytale-like building and grounds. Outdoor pursuits include Rothiemurchus Estate in Cairngorms National Park. Also on the agenda? Highlands games such as archery and clay pigeon shooting, or hikes through the vast wilderness. “Some guests prefer to stay on the train all day and sample our selection of over 50 whiskies, and that’s perfectly ok,” says Laseen. The upscale comforts of the train are indeed hard to resist. The Royal Scotsman has bragging rights of being the first train in Belmond’s fleet with its own dedicated spa carriage. Introduced in 2017, the Haybarn Spa is a partnership with cult British wellness brand, Bamford. The sanctuary on wheels showcases sustainable wood from Scotland and the Cotswolds, while two treatment rooms with picture windows allow guests to glimpse the countryside while enjoying a mani-pedi, customized facial, or a deep tissue massage. And the train typically travels longer distances at night and covers shorter track during the days, which can be decidedly easier travel for guests.
The Observatory Car has a rare open-air veranda where guests sip afternoon tea while still capturing Kodak moments. Ray Owens, the train’s Highland raconteur, brings Scotland’s culture to life through his lively tales. And by 7:30 p.m., during formal night parties, Members can swap their wellies and outdoor wear for cocktail dresses, tuxedos, or even kilts (guests can rent kilts ahead of their trip through Belmond). The sound of popping champagne corks signals happy hour while the day’s travel highlights are shared over caviar blinis and bubbly. Dinner, served in two formal dining cars, is a highlight of every evening. Michelin-trained Chef Mark Tamburrini orchestrates a Scottish feast anchored in such regionally sourced ingredients as Highland venison and prawns and oysters from Kyle of Lochalsh.
After dinner, the Observatory Car comes to life with nightly entertainment. Scottish clansmen come aboard to talk about their history, and Scottish folk groups often play music during platform parties. The staff even teaches traditional Scottish country dance moves. After a wee bit of whisky, guests are often linked arm-in-arm singing and dancing. “The friendships made on the journey are just as memorable as the journey itself,” says Laseen. “And that’s the real magic of train travel.”
On the Itinerary
Check into the Balmoral Hotel, and then get beneath the surface of Edinburgh via a private, four-hour walking tour. Explore the neo-classical architecture of New Town. Completed around 1850, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Take in the panoramas from Calton Hill, then wander up to the famous Royal Mile in Old Town, which runs from the imposing Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official Scottish residence of HM Queen Elizabeth II.
Tour the Royal Yacht Britannia. This floating palace has been moored in Edinburgh since it was decommissioned after clocking over a million miles. The self-guided audio tour starts at the bridge and takes you through five of Britannia’s decks, including the magnificent State Apartments, the crew’s quarters and the engine room. Members can even view Her Majesty’s Rolls Royces, and see inside the Queen’s Bedroom—a rare privilege not possible at any other royal residence.
The Belmond Royal Scotsman departs Edinburgh Waverley Station and travels north, crossing the Firth of Forth by means of the Forth Railway Bridge, one of the oldest cantilever bridges to be built. The train follows the east coast, passing through Arbroath, Montrose, and Aberdeen before arriving in the market town of Keith.
The train travels west along the Moray Firth towards Inverness, capital of the Highlands. Lunch is served en route to Kyle of Lochalsh, climbing to the breathtaking Luib Summit and Achnashellach Forest. Arrive at the village of Plockton for a boat ride to see wild seals or visit Eilean Donan Castle.
The train leaves Kyle, retracing part of Day Four’s route as far as Dingwall. Members will want to have their cameras ready for the enchanting views of Plockton’s whitewashed cottages and fishing boats. Disembark in Garve for a tour and tasting at Glen Ord Distillery. Rejoin the train in Inverness for lunch, then disembark in Carrbridge for a visit to Ballindalloch Castle or a round of golf on Ballindalloch’s nine-hole course.
Travel by coach to Rothiemurchus Estate in Cairngorms National Park. Choose to go fishing, clay pigeon shooting, or take an estate tour. Return to the train in Kingussie and enjoy lunch on the way south to Dunkeld. Here, Members disembark for a private tour of Glamis Castle and its gardens. On the last night, a formal celebratory feast is followed by Scottish country dancing.