There’s a romance to train travel that few other kinds of journeys can match. And whilst the Orient Express might have caught novelists’ attention, that storied train does in fact have a rival which is not only just as opulent but operates on even more fabulous routes. Put your most glamorous outfit on and climb aboard the Golden Eagle for the trip of a lifetime by private train.
The first and probably only challenge that a Golden Eagle passenger has is deciding where to go. The list of journeys reads like a bucket list of adventures: should I spend the fall in Hungary and then celebrate New Year in Vienna? How about a trip across Mongolia, timed to include the Naadam Festival? Having been fortunate enough to do more than half a dozen of these journeys, the 16-day Caspian Odyssey would be my first pick for a train enthusiast with a love of landscapes and culture. The route takes in the most dramatic and fascinating parts of the Caucasus and Central Asia, from Armenia via Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, to Kazakhstan.
The first thing I have to tell you about is the train itself, because this magnificent machine is both your hotel and your mode of transport. Decorated in royal blue and gold, it makes quite an impression wherever it goes. The social hub of the train is the Bar Lounge Car, a place not only to meet fellow guests and join together for a pre-dinner drink, but also to watch films, listen to expert lectures, and even take a foreign language class if you fancy picking up a few useful phrases ahead of your sightseeing tours. In the evening, a professional pianist performs on the grand piano, delivering a varied repertoire of jazz, classical music, and more.
You will take your onboard meals in the Golden Eagle’s Restaurant Car, an elegant space with golden curtains and upholstery, pressed white linen on the tables, fine porcelain, and crystal glasses. The Executive Chef creates menus with locally-sourced ingredients, often reflecting the culinary specialties of the region you are traveling through. On the Caspian Odyssey, therefore, black sturgeon and caviar will certainly put in an appearance! The accompanying wines are all chosen by Golden Eagle’s founder, Tim Littler, a true connoisseur.
With so many things to see and do both on and off the train, you probably won’t spend much time in your cabin apart from when you are sleeping, but there will nevertheless be times when you want to retreat and relax in private. The most spacious and luxurious option is an Imperial Suite, which is certainly fit for royalty, and indeed a number of European royals have been guests of the Golden Eagle. Each suite has a large double bed, two huge picture windows, a lounge area, and an en-suite bathroom with underfloor heating and a power shower. A complimentary bottle of Dom Perignon champagne will be waiting for you on arrival, so you can toast the start of the journey as the train pulls out from the station.
Golden Eagle’s other guests can choose between Gold and Silver Cabins, both of which are comfortable and well-equipped, though the latter is slightly smaller. These cabins are cleverly designed so that the daytime seating area can be converted into a double bed or bunks at night. One of the charming cabin attendants does the change-over for you whilst you are at dinner, so after a night cap in the bar you can simply wander back along the corridor, pull on your pajamas, and sleep. The gentle rocking of the train is your lullaby.
Every morning you will awake in a new destination, and the Caspian Odyssey itinerary includes some truly extraordinary stops, not least the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Mtskheta, Merv, Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. Sometimes it is the lesser known locations which make the greatest impression, though: just thinking back to the performance of traditional Georgian polyphonic singing in the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe sends shivers down my spine, and I’ll never forget the fierce heat from the flames of the Darvaza Gas Crater, a site nicknamed the Door to Hell.
At every stop, expert local guides meet the train and lead passengers on sightseeing tours. The taste of Tbilisi in Georgia will leave you hungry for a return visit because there’s so much to see and you can barely scratch the surface in a day. There is time to explore Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, with its gilded domes and equally shiny marble facades, and then a couple of days later to contrast that spectacle with the walled museum city of Khiva across the border in Uzbekistan. Khiva feels like a backdrop to a fairytale, with striped minarets looking down on tiled palaces and colorful bazaars. There has been a city here for more than 2,500 years and it was one of the most important crossroads on the Silk Roads, with traders and craftsmen from Turkey and Iran, Russia, China, and beyond all coming here and leaving their mark.
For many of the guests, though, it is the opportunity to visit Samarkand – this year’s World Tourism Capital – which convinced them to book the Caspian Odyssey. Alexander the Great declared it to be one of the most beautiful places he had ever seen, and two millennia later Samarkand still dazzles. Golden Eagle schedules the sightseeing program so that you can visit the Registan twice, appreciating the monuments in daylight and then again after dark when the facades of the three madrassas (religious schools) are floodlit. Along with the visit to the ancient Geghard Monastery in Yerevan, this is one of the most spiritual moments of the tour.
The 16 days go far too quickly, but it is remarkable to think how many different places you visit in this time. The Golden Eagle is the perfect way to travel between them, and the staff have perfected the curation of unforgettable experiences along the way.
Subscribe to Swanky Retreats Magazine’s DIGITAL version. Read the latest issue online or download it to your computer.