Embracing a slower pace is easy on these coastal train routes snaking through lush jungle, past sloping vineyards and along windswept beaches and vertiginous clifftops.
Published September 18, 2023
• 7 min read
This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
Swap planes for trains and embark on adventures that are so much more than just a way to reach a destination. Whether it’s multi-day journeys catching glimpses of waves crashing into cliffs or quick, scenic bursts of sparkling seas, these coastal train routes will make you appreciate life in the slow lane.
1. Coastal Pacific
Christchurch to Picton, New Zealand
Setting off from Christchurch on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, the Coastal Pacific train takes just over five hours to wind its way up towards the pretty little port town of Picton. Largely a sightseeing service, its carriages are fitted with panoramic side and roof windows so passengers can fully experience the slideshow of farmsteads, vineyards and windswept beaches. With an open-air viewing carriage, there’s opportunity for unrestricted photography, too.
It’s worth breaking up the journey at Blenheim’s vineyards or the town of Kaikōura, home to a population of sperm whales and one of the few places in the world where visitors are almost guaranteed to see their tails flipping out of teal-green water against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains.
How to do it: The train operates from 21 September-28 January (Thursday to Sunday), and 1 February-28 April (Monday to Sunday). A one-way ticket costs from NZ$177 (£83).
2. The Mandovi Express
Mumbai to Madgaon, India
One of the greatest rail journeys on India’s vast network, the Mandovi Express departs the megacity of Mumbai at around 7am and canters down the Konkan coastline to Goa, the Arabian Sea twinkling on one side, the Sahyadri hills rising on the other. Home to a renowned pantry car, this service is a haven for those wanting to tuck into chicken lollipops, fresh samosas and deep-fried okra, while fellow passengers play cards and sing Bollywood hits, and chai vendors clank up the aisles with their vats of tea.
How to do it: The Mandovi Express departs daily from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, taking around 12 hours to reach Madgaon. A one-way ticket costs from £5.
(From Mumbai to Goa: a journey aboard The Mandovi Express.)
3. The Riviera Railway
Cannes, France to Ventimiglia, Italy
A regular commuter service running multiple times a day, this double-decker hums out of Cannes, taking 90 minutes to run along the backs of terracotta-coloured villas and apartment blocks, allowing passengers a glimpse into the private affairs of the French Riviera’s residents. Dogs doze under seats, students scroll phones and retirees carry baguettes in paper bags, while palm-fringed curves of golden sand expand on the right, the Ligurian Sea sparkling in the sunshine as the train crosses the border into Italy.
In summer expect to see bronzed bodies dangling off pontoons, surfers paddling in the sea and bright pink bougainvillea tumbling down like waterfalls. Consider breaking up the journey at Antibes or Juan-les-Pins for a slice of pissaladière, a traditional flatbread from the South of France with onions, olives and anchovies, and a stroll along their quiet shores before hopping back on for the final stretch to the Italian market town of Ventimiglia.
How to do it: A one-way ticket costs €14.30 (£12). Tickets can be purchased from the station on the day of travel or bought in advance from Omio.
4. The Reunification Express
Hué to Da Nang, Vietnam
Like an iron spine, Vietnam’s key railway line runs the length of the country from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and a two-night adventure chugging north to south is one of the world’s greatest journeys. The highlight is the two-and-a-half-hour stretch between the former imperial capital of Hué and the thriving port of Da Nang.
As the train inches uphill through jungle, bananas appear like fat green fingers, along with the smell of morning dew from leaves slapping at the open windows. At twists and turns, flashes of blue appear between the bamboo foliage until the train curls around a clifftop and the South China Sea appears in a glorious blaze, creamy sand and sunlit bays running the length of the ride to Da Nang.
How to do it: A one-way ticket in an air-conditioned soft seat costs around £4.
(A journey through history on board Vietnam’s Reunification Express train.)
5. Coast Starlight
Sacramento to Los Angeles, USA
Showcasing the finest Amtrak has to offer, the Coast Starlight begins its journey to Los Angeles in Seattle, but it’s the second day’s scenery from Sacramento that draws passengers to the panoramic windows of the sightseer lounge, Californian chardonnay in hand.
With a raucous dining car serving everything from coconut-crusted shrimp to flat-iron steak with port wine sauce, the train is abuzz with strangers making friends, students playing guitar and politics being dissected. As the train clings to the cliff edge, the sea billows from green to blue, waves fizz up flour-soft beaches, and the journey ends with the train closing in on LA as the molten-red sun melts into the horizon.
How to do it: Departing Sacramento at 6.48am, the train arrives into LA at 9.11pm. A one-way ticket costs from $61 (£48).
6. St Erth to St Ives
A 10-minute burst of beauty, this journey from the village of St Erth to the seaside town of St Ives brings passengers up close and personal with the Cornish coast. Rattling along the river Hayle estuary, the train strains uphill past sand dunes, following the curve of Porthkidney beach — where the water gleams with a welcoming turquoise hue. From an open window, passengers can smell the salt in the air as the train winds high above Carbis Bay, sunbathers stretched out across its golden sands, before drawing into St Ives.
How to do it: A one-way ticket costs £3, which can be purchased from South Western Railway or at the station on the day of travel.
(How to plan a family rail adventure around Europe.)
Monisha Rajesh is the author of Around the World in 80 Trains, published by Bloomsbury, £10.99.
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