In honor of a fun weekend enjoying the premiere of another J.K. Rowling story, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I thought I'd share more about our little experience in the wizarding world. Over in Scotland, the Jacobite Steam Train known to many as the "Hogwarts Express" is packing up its coal for the winter. However, if you are planning a Scotland trip for this upcoming summer, tickets for the 2017 season go on sale today, November 18th!
The train will run from May 1st to October 27th next year (with the exception of special Christmas rides) and all of those months are prime for visiting Scotland. We especially loved our September visit (as opposed to our last trip in March), because everything was so colorful with loads of purple heather and red rowan tree berries in bloom.
So here are my top tips for including this excursion into your Scotland itinerary.
1. Book by phone - It sounds so 1986 to say that, but for some reason West Coast Railways has some issues with their site and specifically the booking form. We had many failed attempts, and everything was easily sorted out via a phone conversation. Also, they were able to go ahead and put our reservation in a first class Harry Potter compartment. BRILLIANT! I had read prior that the only way to book those was to show up an hour early on the day of your trip, but apparently it can be done by phone also!
2. Carriage D is worth it for Potterheads! - So was the first class ticket price really worth it? I think it is surely a lovely train ride no matter what, but I just can't imagine coach being as fun as riding in a compartment for the first time (note: compartments are only in carriage D). There is no meal included or anything fancy, so don't set your first-class expectations too high! It's coffee, tea, and shortbread. But hey, we LOVE coffee, tea, and shortbread! With a toddler, we never risked not having food on hand. We picked up take-away breakfast on our walk to the train station, so that was a very good decision. On the return trip (which we didn't take) you can order afternoon tea boxes. The compartments don't look exactly true to the films, and after our trip I saw this video taken 5 years ago that I still can't figure out. If anyone knows where one of the compartments is open with no table like that, let me know! We rode the train, and it's a mystery to us! ha! We definitely didn't mind the added tables though! Having our breakfast and tea would've been much more difficult -- especially with a toddler.
3. The right side of the train is the left side - No, that's not a riddle or anything. From my research I heard so many mixed reviews about this train ride. People were either in love or hated it! From the majority of the reviews, the people who hated it were on the "wrong" side of the train without the amazing views. The "wrong" side (which I'm pretty sure is always the right side of the train) mostly has a view of the side of a mountain or trees. The compartments are all on the left (the side with the views), but if you aren't seated by the window you still may have to pass over your camera to a window-friend to get you a better photo.
In coach, there may even be room to switch seats quickly with those on the left side, but in the compartments it is hard for those seated toward to aisle to lean over the table. I had the luckiest seat in the compartment... F (forward-facing) row by the window, but that also meant I had to grab cameras from everyone to help them get better photos of the famous viaduct. I was a photo-machine though! I ain't gonna lie! I had a job to do, and I got it done! With a great seat, comes great responsibility!
4. Be ready for the Glenfinnan Viaduct - So Apparently the train slows down when you get to the famous and picturesque viaduct. With all of the cameras being thrown my way and the fact that it isn't very long, I didn't notice ANY slowing down! The train may slow slightly, but it still goes very, very quickly! Have your camera strap ready, because you'll get the best view if you lean out of the window a bit. But BONUS TIP!--don’t leave the windows open in the tunnel! I heard about this one second hand, but apparently you will be engulfed in coal smoke if you don't close the window.
5. Make sure this fits well in your itinerary - Scotland is full of so many amazing things, and if your trip is short (or if you're already coming up from England via train like we were) make sure this ride makes sense to tack on. We were planning on going to the Isle of Skye, so this also doubled as transportation to Mallaig where we took a ferry to our rental car on Skye. If you're not doing something like that, most passengers take the 84 mile round trip ride from Fort William to Mallaig for a snack break and then back to Fort William again. Fort William is near the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis, so if you are already staying near that area for other reasons, then that's also a good reason to check it out! If you aren't doing either of those things, don't forget this is just a train ride... a very whimsical steam engine... but still a train.
If the round trip doesn't make sense, there is also an area to park by the viaduct and walk to watch the train go across. Also, the train leaves from the one and only Fort William train station, so if you arrive there via another train like the Caledonian Sleeper it could be an easy transfer. *So that's another good reason to call and speak with a West Coast Railways booking agent. However, the afternoon trains stop running after the summer, and if the Caledonian arrived too late for you to get on the Jacobite, you could have to spend an entire day in Fort William (which is not Scotland's most beautiful town.) Some have said that their sleeper train arrived in time, and they were able to simply cross the platform to the Jacobite... I don't know how common that really is, but it sounds so perfect!
Other little notes:
- There is a luggage rack overhead!
- The table in the compartment (not true to the films) doesn't allow for lots of stretching space.
- Look for a broom at the Glenfinnan stop.
- Some lunch spots in Mallaig can be crowded due to all of the train passengers at once.
Taking all of these things into account, I don't see how anyone could be disappointed! It was definitely a highlight of our trip! If you are looking for a full-on Hogwarts experience, go to Universal Studios. This is an authentic, subtle, magical way to enjoy a historic train with beautiful and familiar views. The only mention of Potter is on the souvenir shop sign, but you may just see a few Gryffindor scarves in the crowd.