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Best Luxury Train Trips in India

© Greaves USA

Seeing India by train may be the best way to experience the country’s soul.

One of the most useful things the British left in India post-Empire was its rail system. Today, in a country with a population of 1.2 billion in a space a third the size of the U.S., motorways choked with hooting traffic and rural byways blighted by potholes and wandering sacred cattle, railways are not just useful—they’re essential.

While the system is fairly Byzantine (40,000 miles of track operating across four different gauges), trains traverse even remote parts of the country, stopping at 6,800 stations from Goa in the south to the northern Himalayas—and, starting in 2016, into Srinagar in Kashmir via the world’s highest railway bridge. Among the 12 million people who use trains every day are an increasing number of foreign visitors, enjoying luxurious “palaces on wheels” constructed by wealthy maharajahs more than a century ago.

In these opulent vehicles—and new, high-tech versions of historical originals—cabins often have polished-wood panels, en suite bathrooms lined in marble and elaborately decorated dining cars, so visitors can explore in princely splendor. Even better, routes have been devised to take in cultural sights that would be difficult to reach by road, allowing visitors to see the country in considerable comfort without the hassle of hot car journeys, hotels, flights and repacking.

There are hundreds of types of rail journeys across the country; which you choose depends on your time frame, standards and desired destinations. One of the finest trips is aboard the little Darjeeling Himalayan Railway—but it takes seven hours to go just 50 miles. If you fancy a short, inexpensive rail experience, tickets across Delhi cost only 30 cents. And if you dream of seclusion, a private royal carriage with staff can be chartered from Sujan Luxury Hotels starting this month (sujanluxury.com).

While some of my most precious memories of India involve journeys on standard trains—being given a ticket bearing the words “Happy Journey,” sharing warm chapatis (flatbread) with fellow passengers, sipping spiced tea bought from the chai wallah—the operators I recommend offer a more luxurious and gentle introduction to the country.

Operators specializing in luxury travel to India include Greaves Tours (greavesindia.com), Cox & Kings (coxandkingsusa.com), Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombieandkent.com) and Peirce and Leslie (peirceandleslie.com). Other useful resources include the Luxury Trains (theluxurytrains.com), Indian Railways (indianrail.gov.in) and the informative website run by railway guru Mark Smith (seat61.com).

All prices are based on double occupancy in low season and do not include extras such as tax, gratuities, alcohol, post and pretour accommodations, extra excursions and flights.

Lisa Grainger is a frequent visitor to India and writes regularly for The [London] Times Magazine, The Daily Telegraph, Ultratravel, and Marie Claire.

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