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JR Kyushu’s Little ‘Sweet Train’ Big on Beauty, Fun, Good Taste

8 Jan
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The Sweet Train glides through Oita Prefecture. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

JR Kyushu’s newest railway confection is the Aru Ressha,  or Sweet Train. It’s one of a dozen special trains dreamed up by the creative minds of railway officials on Japan’s southernmost island.

While on my quest last month to experience JR Kyushu’s luxurious and wildly popular Seven Stars, I was hoping also to ride the Sweet Train — also a star in its own right.

http://www.irtsociety.com/journeyDetail.php?id=230

IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Like its “big sister,” the Sweet Train sells out months in advance.

Several weeks before my departure on Japan Air Line’s Chicago-Tokyo flight, I received the email I’d been hoping for:

“Good news!” wrote Simon Metcalfe, director of international sales for JR Kyushu’s Seven Stars train. “There’s been a cancellation on the Sweet Train. You and I will be going from Sasebo to Nagasaki.”

Several weeks later, Simon and I were standing on the Sasebo Station platform. The Sweet Train had arrived, and the place was bustling.

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Service is friendly, and the design is sumptuous, on the Sweet Train. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

“We recommend doing the Sweet Train before the Seven Stars,” Simon told me, as the Seven Stars’ level of service and amenities are superior.

But as a visiting foreigner (and American, where rail service is sparse), I found every aspect of the Sweet Train beguiling.

For what it is — a little more than two-hour ride with light lunch and four courses of desserts as beautiful as they are tasty — the Sweet Train is a must-do option if you get anywhere near Kyushu. The train’s design, food, service and scenery are superb.

And its history — which surprisingly involves the USA at the turn of the last century — is fascinating.

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The Sweet Train abounds with intricate, locally crafted woodwork. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Anyone who’s seen pictures of or been on the Seven Stars will immediately recognize the work of Sweet Train designer, Mr. Eiji Mitooka, who also designed the Seven Stars.

The Sweet Train reflects many Seven Stars elements: lighting and decor employing similar patterns (fabrics and wallpapers in rich hues, often with a nature theme); sumptuous woods and intricate details for those who take time to seek them out.
Rail enthusiasts, for example, must be sure to excuse themselves to wander back towards the lavatory. On the way, they’ll discover a cabinet with several scale-model steam engines and tenders.

And even the bathroom itself is richly decorated and not to be missed.

The self-propelled Sweet Train comprises just two cars. Car No. 1 has a more traditional, open seating plan. Car No. 2, where Simon and I sat, consists of private “booths,” accessible through sliding wooden doors.

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The Sweet Train serves a seasonal menu of delicacies from Kyushu. The center section of my bento box included vegetables in the shapes of autumn maple and gingko leaves. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Following a starter of orange juice and champagne, the fanciful parade of delicate food starts with a colorful box of meat, fish and vegetables, all sourced from Kyushu’s finest providers.

Then come three sweets courses, made from a variety of seasonal fruits, followed by a delicacy called mignardises (tea cakes).

The menu is the brainchild of Mr. Yoshihiro Narisawa, who has a famous restaurant named Narisawa in Tokyo.

The service on the Sweet Train, meanwhile, is top-notch: friendly, knowledgeable and indefatigable. The Sweet Train staff knows how to put on a show.

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A view out my window as the Sweet Train skirted Omura Bay. Note the delicately constructed wooden window shade. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Also — remember to drag your senses away from the plush interiors, scrumptious food and smiling wait staff — and be sure to admire the view: It’s as if it’s custom-designed for this train. The train skirts the broad, blue Omura Bay — gorgeous.

(Note: My Sasebo-Nagasaki trip was in November — autumn in Kyushu. The Sweet Train summer route is between Oita and Hida.)

And what’s the America / Sweet Train connection?

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A woman in traditional dress greets passengers in Nagasaki. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

In 1907, Kyushu Railways ordered a set of “luxury rail cars” from the Philadelphia manufacturer, J.G. Brill Co.  However, nationalization of the railway sidelined the cars.

Now enter Japanese model railway enthusiast Nobutaro Hara, who remembered the cars from his youth and made a model of the Brill train. Eventually the little train wound up in his model railroad museum in Yokohama.

Sweet Train designer Mr. Mitooka based his modern design on Mr. Hara’s model. And hence — this was probably the first time a full-sized train took inspiration from a model!

Want to ride the Sweet Train? We’ve reserved a few coveted places for participants to add the Sweet Train to our luxury Japan by Rail tour running Nov. 5-19, 2016 (which includes a four-day trip on the Seven Stars).

So far, everybody booked on our journey could not resist the sweets — on the Sweet Train.  We only have 16 places left on the main tour.

For a beautiful, full-color, 24-page brochure, please email your name and address to tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Or call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

A Shining Asian Constellation: Japan’s Seven Stars in Kyushu

4 Dec

Seven Stars mascot in “Blue Moon” car. IRT Photo by O. Hardy

“Who’s this?” I asked, spying a little dog lying patiently in a dark corner of the bar car.

“Oh, it’s a kind of joke by the designer,” smiled Mr. Hironobu Yanagawa, Kyushu Railway’s Assistant Manager, Cruise Train Headquarters.

Normally, I’d have overlooked the little canine sculpture.

But in the short time I’d been aboard the Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu, I’d already learned an important lesson: look for details.

Seven Stars at Amagase, Oita Prefecture. Photo © Terunobu Utsunomiya

In other parts of the train, I found more subtle “jokes”: tree frogs climbing a wall, wasps tending their nest, a simple white button nestled in a rich, gold picture frame.

And almost everywhere I turned, I saw stunning fabrics, gorgeous glasswork, richly hued posters, shimmering porcelain. Most spectacular of all was the intricate floor-to-ceiling woodwork from a variety of trees of varying colors.

Intricate kumiko lattice woodwork — and its delicate shadow — in the lounge. IRT Photo by O. Hardy

In sum, even my short, two-day ride on the Seven Stars yielded a plethora of extraordinary experiences — visual, culinary, musical — even spiritual, if you believe the train’s tagline: “a journey to discover a new way of life.”

Seven Stars, a special sightseeing train of Japan’s JR Kyushu, began life two years ago, and it’s never looked back. Despite its steep price, not even all the Japanese who want to ride can get tickets, much less the hapless foreigners clamoring for a ride.

That’s why The Society of International Railway Travelers® chartered the entire train for a four-day, three-night itinerary as part of our luxury Japan by Rail tour, which runs Nov. 5-19, 2016.

IRT Photo

I recently returned from a quick visit to Kyushu – Japan’s southernmost island – to enjoy a rare, non-revenue ride offered by JR Kyushu to a small group of journalists.

Granted, two days and a night were not nearly enough time to take in all this train has to offer. But it was long enough for me to declare without hesitation: the Seven Stars elevates the standards of world luxury train travel to an even higher level.

Seven Stars stands for Kyushu’s seven prefectures (similar to U.S. counties). The train has seven cars: the “Blue Moon” bar / lounge car whose entire rear wall is a giant picture window, dining car “Jupiter,” and four sleeping cars, each with three spacious suites measuring 108 square feet.

One regular suite is handicapped-accessible. The train also carries a wheelchair.

Deluxe suite with picture window. JR Kyushu Photo

At the other end of the train, the seventh car contains two “deluxe suites”  which can accommodate two or three guests each.

Deluxe Suite A is 226 square feet and boasts a private glass picture window at the end of the car. It is by far the most popular accommodation on the train, JR Kyushu says.

The other deluxe suite is beautifully appointed but, at 183 square feet, is slightly smaller.

Everything on the train was specifically designed for the Seven Stars, save one element (I won’t spoil your experience by naming it; see if you can guess.).

In the Blue Moon bar/Lounge car. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

This surfeit of over-the-top design elements is matched by an expert staff, who know how to combine Asian elegance and hospitality with genuine warmth.

When I misplaced my iPhone charger, for example, Mr. Yoshiharu Aritou,
the train manager, insisted on giving me one of his (For the record, I’m sending it back to him, along with a heartfelt note and bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon.).

Moreover, the Seven Stars staff is bilingual and couldn’t be friendlier. Menus and signs are in English and Japanese. (Our November tour, of course, will be conducted in English.)

Also near perfect is the Seven Stars kitchen, which turns out delicacies as beautiful as they are tasty. I enjoyed three meals on the train: two lunches and a dinner, all of them set menus.

One course of my Bento lunch. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Kyushu is known for its variety of seafood, vegetables and fruits, and I was happy to let the Seven Stars chefs choose for me.

Here are just a few of the offerings from our “Heartfelt bento lunch from Bungo, Oita Prefecture:

“Red sea bream cured with Ryuhi Kombu…Egg tofu with wakame seaweed, Assortment of separately prepared vegetables, Food of the season [in my case, autumn] cooked in paper made with kozo tree fiber…”

The spirits from the Blue Moon bar were equally inspired. I made a point of ordering a Blue Moon cocktail, whose contents included Japanese shochu, a liquor made from sweet potatoes.

It was mixed with some of the tastiest juice – was it grapefruit or tomato? – I’ve ever had.

One of my favorite menu items was actually French-inspired: a chocolate sphere served at tea time. The thin, edible outer shell revealed a rich, creamy center: decadent and delicious.

Seven Stars chocolate dessert unopened (top) and opened. IRT Photos by Owen Hardy

(For the true dessert-lover, try JR Kyushu’s new Sweet Train, which I also sampled on my visit. More about that in another Track 25 post.)

Click here for Seven Stars’ off-train excursions and what to expect in your Seven Stars cabin

For more information on our luxury Japan by Rail tour running Nov. 5-19, 2016 (which includes a four-day trip on the Seven Stars), please email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

Nature, Hot Springs, Cuisine Star in 7 Stars Kyushu Itinerary

4 Dec

Dinner aboard the Seven Stars calls for semi-formal attire. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Click here to see previous post:  Seven Stars’ introduction, staff and culinary delights

A main raison d’etre of the new Cruise Train Seven Stars is to showcase the natural and artistic beauty of Kyushu. The train’s off-train excursions do not disappoint.

The island of Kyushu is known for its volcanic hot springs (or onsen), and guests on our four-day trip next year will spend their second night off the train at a fabulous resort with their own private onsen. (So there’s no need for sheepish tourists to worry about bathing au naturel with strangers, albeit of the same sex.)

Clouds drift below Mt. Aso, an occasionally active volcano, whose elevation is almost a mile high. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Our group enjoyed onsens on two successive nights near Yufuin, which is on the four-day itinerary. I made the most of my onsen experience, enjoying the steaming waters three times.

Once I learned the proper etiquette, I found the experience delightfully soothing. (And don’t worry; we’ll have complete instructions for guests on our luxury Japan by Rail tour, which runs Nov. 5-19, 2016.)

The Seven Stars logos, works of art in themselves, were carefully hand-crafted. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

I also visited Mt. Aso, an opportunity our guests will have on their final Seven Stars day. Arising at 6 a.m., I boarded the special Seven Stars motor coach for the multi-switchback ride to the top of this ancient, occasionally active volcano.

It was well worth my early rising. The skies were clear, with low clouds filling the spaces between the mountain range’s five peaks. To complete the experience, Kyushu’s famous “red cattle” were grazing in a nearby field, mooing contentedly.

Once back at the Aso railway station, I found a bounteous feast of fresh, locally sourced vegetables, fruits, eggs and meat awaiting us at the trackside, specially built “Kasei” (Mars) restaurant.

Our guide walks in the tranquil garden of Kakiemon Kiln. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

We also visited Kyushu’s famed Kakiemon Kiln in Arita, whose exquisite ceramics the Dutch East India Company began shipping to Europe in the late 17th century. The ceramics works is still family owned.

The fifteenth-generation boss proudly showed us his business, with his little son, the sixteenth generation heir, skipping along with us. Afterwards, Kakiemon XV, as he’s known, invited us to his tea house, set among the subtle green hues of his carefully manicured garden.

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Seven-sided Seven Stars basin, produced by Kakiemon Kiln. JR Kyushu Photo

Proudly, he told us of his late father, Kakiemon XIV, whose final creation before his death were the intricate, seven-sided wash basins which grace each of the standard Seven Stars cabins.

Meanwhile, back on the Seven Stars, I took careful inventory of my compartment.  In keeping with the train’s striving for perfection, even the windows are special.

My compartment’s two windows each had five separate sections: an outer layer of glass, followed by a second layer of thin, wooden slats; then two sliding traditional Japanese windows with paper panes; then, two heavier sliding wooden windows. The final layer was a light gauzy curtain of gathered material.

Standard suites include a writing desk, with pull-out section for additional room (not shown here) IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

My room contained a minibar stocked with wonderful Japanese juices, green tea, “Swan Cider Tomosu” in its tiny bottle, Asahi “Dry” and Santory “The Premium Malts” Pilsner Beer, and other bottles whose names were written only in Japanese, but whose contents were delicious. (Drinks from the minibar are on the house, by the way.)

My compartment also contained two plugs, one in the bathroom and one in the bedroom, plus a 3-socket multi-plug unit, so you can plug in your iPhone, iPad and iMac all at once (as I did).

Standard suite bathroom, above. All bathrooms have showers with cypress wood paneling and typical Japanese toilets with multiple controls. The train also has one handicapped accessible suite and bathroom. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

Also, attention, U.S. and Canadian travelers: Japan’s electrical outlets are identical (almost) to ours, so leave your adapters at home. And WiFi is available throughout the train and works quite well (except in tunnels and other such places).

Also provided in my compartment: toothbrush, razors, cotton balls and two different types of Japanese toiletries. When I couldn’t decide which set I wanted, my cabin attendant happily gave me both.

All the compartments, including the deluxe suites, contain twin beds separated by a night stand. My bed was quite comfortable and easily accommodated my six-foot frame.

One final aspect of the Seven Stars experience also deserves mention, and maybe sums up this over-the-top-train: the music provided each evening in the bar car by a violin/piano duo.

When you book a Seven Stars trip, you’ll receive a confirmation accompanied by a request from the musicians: “please tell us one piece of music you’d especially like to hear.”

In a fit of enthusiasm, I fired off a return email: “The third movement from César Franck’s Violin Sonata.”

“What?” my friend Sam, a retired music professor, exclaimed. “That’s pretty difficult music.”

Violinist and pianist hold forth in the Blue Moon bar/lounge car. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Several weeks later, aboard the Seven Stars, I met the musicians and mentioned, a bit hesitantly, that I was the one who’d requested the Franck.

Without skipping a beat, the pianist began the introduction, and the violinist – without music – began the virtuosic opening. He was on solid ground, and I sat listening, entranced, for the next several minutes.

They ended the piece with a drawn-out pianissimo.

“Bravo!” we yelled, nursing our drinks, as the Kyushu twilight lingered outside the bar car’s picture window. (See video below.)

Bravo, indeed, I thought: to the staff, designers, planners, artisans, chefs, JR Kyushu and even to the citizens of this small but beautiful island, who are so proud of “their” train.

The Seven Stars is a true work of art.

The Society of International Railway Travelers®’ luxury Japan by Rail tour, for which we’ve chartered an entire Seven Stars 4-day, 3 night itinerary, runs Nov. 5-19, 2016. For more information or to book, email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

 

 

In Search of the Seven Stars, Society of IRT Travels to Japan

13 Nov
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The Seven Stars in Kyushu luxury train will be a major feature of IRT’s 2016 Japan tour. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

I leave today for Fukuoka, Japan to ride the world’s latest – and some would say most exclusive – luxury train.

Since its introduction in October, 2013, the 28-passenger Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu has been wildly popular.

How popular?

Kyushu Railways regularly holds lotteries to see who gets to ride the Seven Stars, spending up to $1,700 a day.

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The Seven Stars Deluxe Suite A. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

I’ve tried my luck with the lottery, to no avail. That’s why I’m joining a group of European journalists next week for a special ride.

The Society of International Railway Travelers insists on personally experiencing trains before they are listed on our World’s Top 25 Trains list. And the Seven Stars will be a major element of our November, 2016 Japan tour. (Click here to get on the first notification list.)

What makes the Seven Stars so special? To judge from the photos and videos I’ve seen, the train’s design rivals anything riding the rails today. (See video below.)

Plus the itinerary luxuriously showcases the charms of Kyushu, renowned for its hot springs, impressive cuisine and natural beauty.

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Artwork courtesy of JR Kyushu

I’ll also be testing JR Kyushu’s wonderfully named Sweet Train on a two-hour ride between Sasebo and Nagasaki. Designed by the same person as the Seven Stars, Mr. Eiji Mitooka, the Sweet Train features “French-inspired confections that are served during the journey,” according to the Japan Times.

I can’t wait!

Finally, I’ll be flying Japan Air Lines’ Business Class Chicago-Tokyo-Fukuoka round trip. If it’s anything like my last JAL flight, my experience of Japan will begin the moment I enter the cabin.

I’ll be back in this space three weeks from today with my report. In the meantime, please click here to be updated on our 2016 “Japan and the Seven Stars” tour.

Working with our Virtuoso specialists, Windows to Japan, we’re crafting what we think is a magnificent itinerary.

It carefully combines trains, cultural experiences, overnights at ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), visits to gardens and shrines and stunning natural beauty. It takes place at a time when the fall leaves should be spectacular.

And the icing on the cake? Our Nov. 14-18, 2016 Seven Stars in Kyushu luxury rail tour. (Did I mention we’re the first U.S. company to charter the Seven Stars?)

First-come, first-served!  I hope you’ll join us.

Questions: please call 800-478-4881 or 502-897-1725. Or email: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Owen C. Hardy is founder and CEO of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

Rovos Rail’s “Pride of Africa” — 30 Years of Luxury Adventure

16 Oct IRT_Tourbook
IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy and Rovos Rail's Alicia Taljaard pose with the company's lavish

IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy and Rovos Rail’s Alicia Taljaard pose with the company’s lavish “Journeys” magazine. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Rovos Rail’s 15-day Cape Town – Dar es Salaam “luxury adventure” ranks among the top 5 rail trips for many IRT travelers.

But for Alicia Taljaard, Rovos’ Sales and Marketing executive, the best trip bar none is the African Collage – and starting in 2017, she tells us, the trip will be extended “from nine to ten days to enhance guests’ experience.”

“It’s our most scenic trip,” says the 11-year Rovos Rail veteran, who visited the IRT offices recently.

“It’s perfect for the safari enthusiast, and the scenery on that trip is unbeatable.

South Africa's Garden Route is unbeatable for its scenery, which ranges from towering mountains to dramatic seashores. IRT Photo by John Fiorilla

South Africa’s Garden Route is unbeatable for its scenery, which ranges from towering mountains to dramatic seashores. IRT Photo by John Fiorilla

“You have the mountain passes and the Garden Route, a very lush, beautiful area along the coastline of the eastern to western Cape.

“Then there’s the vineyards and the ocean…” Continue reading

IRT’s Angela Walker Takes on Tahiti and the Society Islands

30 Sep

Eight days from now, IRT’s Angela Walker travels to paradise.

Here’s what she has in store:

Angela, IRT’s VP Operations, and senior luxury travel advisor, will fly to Papeete, Tahiti. and board the m/s Paul Gauguin, winner of countless travel awards. She’ll cruise for 8 days among the Society Islands in the dreamy South Pacific.

Bora Bora, anyone?

You may have received a small booklet — “Tahiti, French Polynesia & the South Pacific” —  about this tiny, exclusive cruise line. (If not, drop us a line, and we’ll send you a copy.)

Turn to page 15 for a description of Angela’s impending journey. Her account will appear in Track 25 shortly after her return.

Paul Gaughin Cruises is one of several adventure and luxury-level expedition cruises IRT has selected to expand our travel offerings. We hope you like learning about them.

In the meantime, call us with your questions, comments or reservation requests: (502) 897-1725, (800) 478-4881 or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Society of IRT Wins Gold, Silver Travel Weekly Magellan Prizes

26 Sep
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A cheerful group of Italian nuns, returning from a holiday at Venice’ Santa Lucia Station, were delighted to see the gleaming Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.  They celebrate the fun of taking the train and its universal appeal. Poster design by Stephen Sebree; IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

The Belmond Grand Hibernian, Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, The Silk Road…the names connote mystery, romance and luxury.

And, artfully displayed as vintage travel posters, they won a 2015 Travel Weekly Gold Award for The Society of International Railway Travelers®.

The Society also won a Silver Award for its lavish, 100-page tour book, The IRT Society’s Best-Loved Railway Journeys.

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“The IRT Society’s Best-Loved Railway Journeys 2014-2015” won a 2015 Travel Weekly Silver Award.

“The Magellan is the award to win if you’re in the travel business,” Travel Weekly says. This brings to 17 the number of Magellan Awards garnered by the Society.

IRT 2015 Hibernian Postcd LR

IRT celebrated the exciting news of the world’s newest luxury train, Ireland’s Belmond Grand Hibernian, with this poster.  Service is scheduled to begin in August, 2016. Poster design by Stephen Sebree; Photo courtesy of Blarney Castle, Ireland.

The Society shared the honor with such industry leaders as Lindblad Expeditions, Seabourn, National Geographic and Micato Safaris.

“From design to marketing to services, The Travel Weekly Magellan Awards honor the best in travel and salutes the outstanding travel professionals behind it all,” the award sponsors said. “It’s the Oscars of the travel industry.”

MGW Logo copyThe Society of International Railway Travelers® salutes graphic artist Stephen Sebree, owner of Moonlight Graphic Works, who has been collaborating with IRT Society Founder and CEO Owen Hardy for 32 years.

“Steve’s vision and creativity perfectly capture the mystery and romance of luxury rail travel,” Hardy said. “He has been integral to our success.”

Below, we proudly display several of the other winning Gold Award entries.

IRT 2015 Silk Rd Postcd LR

The Society of IRT celebrated its 30th anniversary with the 3-week, 2-train extravaganza, “The Silk Road,” stretching from Beijing through Central Asia and ending in Moscow. Owen Hardy spotted this calligrapher while strolling through the Summer Palace in Beijing. Poster design by Stephen Sebree; IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

IRT 2015 Danube Postcd LR copy

Big news from Europe came last year in the form of the newly recommissioned Golden Eagle Danube Express as a true luxury train. IRT’s Angela Walker loved the new elegant feel of the dining room. Poster design by Stephen Sebree; IRT Photo by Angela Walker

IRT 2015 Maharaja Postcd LR copy

Keeping track of the world’s luxury trains is a full-time job.  IRT’s Angela Walker traveled to India to capture the magic. Poster design by Stephen Sebree; IRT Photo by Angela Walker

While wandering the streets of Florence, Italy, Owen and Eleanor Hardy heard this captivating violinist long before seeing him. This poster celebrates the beauty and humanity of travel on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. It has long held its spot on The Society of IRT's World's Top 25 Trains® list. Poster design by Stephen Sebree; IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

While wandering the streets of Florence, Italy, Owen and Eleanor Hardy heard this captivating violinist long before seeing him. This poster celebrates the beauty and humanity of travel on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. It has long held its spot on The Society of IRT’s World’s Top 25 Trains® list. Poster design by Stephen Sebree; IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

Wondering how you can get these beautiful posters and postcards? Unfortunately, they’re not for sale.

But they are given as small gifts to our guests. Please inquire how you can become one!

For more information on the Society’s luxury rail tours, as well as travel off the rails on other romantic icons such as the square-rigged sailing yacht Sea Cloud, please call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725; email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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