Photographer: Michael Shapiro

You can take a journey back in time — and enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery in the world — by taking a trip on one of the 10 Great Little Trains of Wales. 

Talyllyn’s black locomotive glistens in the Welsh mist, hissing steam as an inferno roars in its belly. Behind the coal-fired engine are four lovingly crafted wooden cars, perched atop rails 27 inches apart. My heart leaps — it looks like a Thomas the Tank Engine train set come to life, and I can’t wait to get on board.

“Welcome,” booms John Smallwood, the greeter for Talyllyn Railway, which has been running its steam locomotives since opening on Wales’ west coast in 1865. Dressed in a red jacket adorned with a golden Talyllyn logo and a pink carnation pinned to the lapel, Smallwood tells us that our Victorian train will have three cars with brasswork from 1860s.

Talyllyn’s rail line, like many of Wales’ narrow-gauge rails, was built in the 19th century to haul slate from mountain mines to the coast, where it was loaded onto ships. As Wales’ slate trade waned after World War II, many of these rail lines fell into disrepair. By the 1950s some were in danger of being lost, so volunteer groups across Wales mobilized to rebuild the historic rail lines as tourist trains; the slate wagons were replaced with passenger cars.

Suddenly, with a trill of the conductor’s whistle and a cough of silver steam, we’re off, gently chugging into the resplendent Welsh countryside. Talyllyn is actually a part of a collection of 10 railways that comprise the Great Little Trains of Wales. These rail lines are an ideal way to peek into the hidden corners of this indomitable nation — featuring emerald forests, gushing waterfalls, shuttered mines, imposing castles and mountaintop views — as well as a means to slipping back to a time when travel was more slow-paced and leisurely, leaving ample time to absorb your surroundings.

Some of the rail lines even have guest-driver programs: In a single day, you can learn how to operate the steam engine, and then — under strict supervision, of course — drive the train over hill and dale, your friends and family riding along in the passenger cars.