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Paris’ Orient-Express Exhibit Paves Way for French Railways’ Modern Orient-Express Train

24 May

PosterLove the Orient-Express?

Then check out “Once Upon a Time the Orient-Express,” a joint project of the French National Railroads (SNCF) and Paris’ Arab World Institute. It runs in Paris through Aug. 31.

On display are a steam engine plus four original cars, through which you can stroll and literally feel what it was like to ride the famous train in its heyday.

Plus, if you’re willing to pay $165 per person and can snag a reservation, you even can dine in the opulent restaurant car, courtesy of Michelin-starred French chef Yannick Alléno.

OE1_WSJ2More important, according to news reports, is the SNCF’s announcement that it will run its own Orient-Express. Within five years, the SNCF says, the new, ultra-modern luxury train will run Paris-Vienna. Eventually, it will go all the way to Istanbul.

“The idea is to create a cruise on rail tracks,” said Patrick Ropert, head of the SNCF’s Orient-Express unit, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal.

SNCF paid $3.5 million to finance the Orient-Express exhibit. The railroad will direct its share of ticket sales towards its planned luxury train, the WSJ reported.

Commemorating the 130th anniversary of the famous train’s inaugural run, the exhibit was designed by Claude Mollard, who also designed the Centre Pompidou arts complex, among other projects.

“You enter the Orient-Express as if you were attending a play,” Mollard told the WSJ.

Orient-Express Diner

Orient-Express Diner

The visitor begins his journey on a reconstructed railway platform located on the Arab Institute’s forecourt, a short distance from the Seine River.

Above, he sees a gigantic steam engine, reportedly used in the 1974 movie “Murder on the Orient Express.” Whistle blasts and steam puffs add to the sensory experience.

Then he strolls through three original passenger carriages (a lounge, sleeper and bar car) and a diner — as if he himself were a passenger. As the train rumbles and sways, the visitor can hear snatches of conversation in Arabic and French—“even sneezes and snores,” according to a New York Times report.

Throughout is evidence of the famous train’s famous passengers: Graham Greene’s typewriter and his novel “Stamboul Train,” singer Josephine Baker’s costumes, copies of Agatha Christie’s famous murder mystery.

The party continues inside the Arab World Institute, where there are numerous displays, including a number for children.

NYTDespite the exhibit’s realism, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express still is the best way to “time travel” back to the golden days of rail travel.

Comprising restored, Art Deco cars from the 1920s and 30s, the VSOE’s annual Paris-Istanbul signature trip routinely sells out a year in advance.

Click here for more information on the VSOE. Or call us at (800) 478-4881 (U.S. and Canada) or (502) 897-1725 (elsewhere). For more information on the exhibit (in French), click here. To make a dinner reservation in the Paris exhibit’s Orient-Express diner, click here.

The parent company of the VSOE, incidentally, changed its name this spring from “Orient-Express Hotels, Trains & Cruises” to “Belmond.” The name change, derided by some in the press, was necessitated by the fact that rights to the Orient-Express name belong to the SNCF.

Belmond operates six luxury trains, including the VSOE, which, thankfully, was allowed to retain its famous moniker.

Orcaella Cruise Ideal Way to Meet the People of Myanmar

25 Feb
School children greet Orcaella guests during a shore excursion. All photos by Owen & Eleanor Hardy

School children greet Orcaella guests during a shore excursion. All photos by Owen & Eleanor Hardy

The party was already well underway.

Suddenly, from out of the darkness, an 82-year-old women, her face lined with age, approached IRT Society president Eleanor Hardy. She took Eleanor’s hand.

“Please forgive me for not dressing up. But when I heard you had come, I felt I had to get here as soon as possible.”

Stroking my wife’s hand, she said: “I have never felt the skin of a foreigner before.”

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Burmese school girls pause to say hello.

Impromptu, almost unbelievable moments such as this were common on our recent 12-day cruise in Myanmar (formerly called Burma).

The moments were all the more pleasant, as we enjoyed them from the decidedly Western – and opulent – “Orcaella,” the Orient-Express company’s new 25-cabin river cruiser.

Ironically, we might never have had these moments, were it not for a last-minute, change in plans. Orcaella’s “Gorges of the Far North” cruise on the Irrawaddy River saw nary a gorge. Low water levels and a damaged channel had blocked shipping north of Mandalay.

Burmese Seamstress

Seamstress in local market

So we spent most of our time south of Mandalay, visiting areas off the increasingly beaten Burma track, where tourists rarely, if ever, venture.

Over the course of 12 days, we were serenaded by school children from a remote village, rode ox carts, pony carts, unspeakably noisy, three-wheeled “tuk-tuks,” blasted around mountain curves in tiny trucks to view a shimmering sunset over the Irrawaddy.

IRT guests Orlando & Olga Herrera, left, and Ron Fisher and Evelyn Fitzpatrick make the dusty trek up to Gwe-Chaung fortress.

IRT guests Orlando & Olga Herrera, left, and Ron Fisher and Evelyn Fitzpatrick make the dusty trek up to Gwe-Chaung fortress.

Many of us opted for a dawn “Balloons Over Bagan” experience, an unforgettable journey to admire an aerial panorama of the ancient city’s over 2,000 pagodas in near silence.

Society President Eleanor Hardy with baby.

Society President Eleanor Hardy with baby.

Others enjoyed – or endured, depending on one’s tolerance of riding a bus for almost three hours each way over winding, bumpy roads – a first-ever tourist visit to an elephant camp, high in the hills.

Our trip included visits to bustling Yangon and Mandalay, and their gorgeous pagodas, with an unending array of golden spires and Buddha statues. Buddhism is central to the lives of most people we encountered. One can see it in the immense crowds visiting the temples: families, teenagers, children, old people, monks and nuns.

Young boys dressed like Prince Buddha prepare to become monks.

Young boys dressed like Prince Buddha prepare to become monks.

With few exceptions, we were met by graceful, smiling, shy but proud Burmese. Those in the small villages had seen few if any Westerners.

One day we witnessed a Noviciation ceremony, in which Buddhist monks solemnly welcomed village boys into their order. Dressed in shiny, colorful robes, the boys paraded to the temple surrounded by family and friends, accompanied by loud music. The finishing touch: the monks shaved the boys heads, as proud family members looked on.

Burmese families flocked to their temples everywhere we went. The women wore brightly colored, floor-length skirts. Most of the men wore traditional “longyis,” also floor-length, a kind of wraparound skirt knotted at the top.

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Mother and child in small village market

Burma is one of Asia’s poorest countries. But no one we encountered – and we saw oceans of people – looked underfed, without clothing or shelter.

Granted, we were tourists in country run by a military dictatorship and were unlikely to be led to scenes of squalor. Other parts of Myanmar are experiencing factional squabbling, even violence. And, according to the UN, life expectancy in Myanmar is 68 for women, 64 for men.

And true, their buses were stuffed with humanity. Their quarters were modest. Away from Yangon and Mandalay, one was as likely to find them driving ox- or pony carts as cars or motorbikes.

Young Buddhist monks

Young Buddhist monks

Yet their friendliness and spirituality were infectious. And – courtesy of the good ship Orcaella – we saw the Burmese up close: fishing from their slim boats, bathing in the river, praying at their temples, and, most of all, smiling at us, without a hint of ennui.

In the end, that’s what makes a visit to Myanmar unique. I’ve been in the travel business over 30 years, and never have I encountered such welcoming, warm people.

Of course this can’t last forever. But while it does, it’s a life-changing experience for those lucky enough to visit. And there’s no more luxurious way to do so than aboard the Orcaella.

(For details about life on the Orcaella, please click here.)

For a link to the journey, please see: http://www.irtsociety.com/journeyDetail.php?id=198

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Announces 2014 Istanbul Sales

21 Jun

Hungarian military band greets Paris-Istanbul Orient-Express in Budapest. IRT Photos by O. Hardy

Continue reading

Pullman Rail Journeys Reborn on Fabled City of New Orleans

20 Jun

02-IMG_1934By Zane Katsikis

Revise the Pullman name? Bring back Pullman’s first-class service? With up-to-date Pullman cars based in Chicago?

Even if the magician behind all this was Ed Ellis, I was skeptical. Many people had tried such schemes before and failed.

Ellis is the visionary leader of Iowa Pacific Holdings (IPH). Formed in 2001, IPH is involved in a growing number of main- and short-line freight and passenger rail ventures throughout North America and elsewhere.

IPH prides itself on its expert operation of successful, for-profit, rail-related services. And it doesn’t shy away from running passenger trains. In all, IPH controls 10 passenger rail operations in the U.S., Peru and the United Kingdom. A year ago in April, IPH took the plunge with its Pullman Sleeper Car Company, LLC (PSCC).

Pullman Rail Journeys chose New Orleans as its first destination for several reasons.

First, Ellis grew up in Paducah, KY, near the Illinois Central main line connecting Chicago and New Orleans, and he’s partial to it. Second, and more practically, Amtrak’s daily train to Louisiana, the City of New Orleans, has capacity to haul extra cars, and New Orleans terminal has space for extra cars as well.

Pontchartrain Club started out as a coach, built by the Pullman Company in 1917 for the Illinois Central Railroad. Photo by Zane Katsikis

Pontchartrain Club started out as a coach, built by the Pullman Company in 1917 for the Illinois Central Railroad. Photo by Zane Katsikis

One day in late April, I stepped off Amtrak’s California Zephyr in Chicago, ready to try out Ellis’ revived Pullman service. Union Station was extremely busy, and neither Red Caps nor harried Amtrak information agents could help me find the Pullman lounge. Finally an Amtrak police officer directed me to the Pullman Rail Journeys booth in Amtrak’s First-Class Metropolitan Lounge.

My train consisted of two cars. One was sleeper Chebanse, an 8-roomette/6-bedroom sleeper formerly owned by Florida East Coast Railway. The more important car was at the tail end: heavyweight round-end observation/lounge/sleeper Pontchartrain Club, built in 1917 for the Illinois Central Railroad. Both cars were smartly painted in classic IC colors. I was even more pleased when lead porter Paul Carter directed me to bedroom C on Pontchartrain Club.

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A Pullman waiter serves passengers in the round-end observation car at the train’s rear. IRT photo by Zane Katsikis

Ellis and IPH say they want to recreate the “Pullman Experience” of attention to detail, comfort and style. And walking to the observation area of Pontchartrain Club, I couldn’t help noticing the difference from Amtrak’s standard stainless steel and ubiquitous plastic décor.

I quickly settled into a plush easy chair near the round end. Almost immediately, waiter Jeremy Kniola offered me a glass of crispy Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. I relaxed in my armchair as I watched the City’s back-up move out of Union Station.

Soon we were heading south on the former Illinois Central mainline. Waiter Kniola called us to dinner, and we took our places around the well-appointed Pontchartrain Club table. Only six passengers — the entire passenger load that day — joined me. (Pullman Rail Journeys says it’s still in its “shake-down” phase. While it doesn’t turn away paying passengers, it’s focusing on getting the word out to the travel industry.)

Chef somebody or other prepares the evening meal. IRT photo by Zane Katsikis

Pullman Rail Journeys chef prepares the evening meal. IRT photo by Zane Katsikis

Dinner was my trip’s highlight. Executive Chef Dan Traynor spent close to a year studying Pullman’s high-quality menus, service and recipes. Moreover, in a previous life, Chef Traynor worked aboard the dome cars of the Holland America cruise line in Alaska. He understood the art of cooking in miniscule spaces.

Chef Traynor caters to many taste palates, as our menus confirmed. A relish tray preceded the salad course. Then we enjoyed a selection of four main courses including grilled seasonal vegetables for the non-carnivores among us. An off-train commissary prepared most of the dishes, which were then finished on board.

I polished off my dessert of frozen chocolate mousse with raspberries, as we rolled over former Illinois Central track through Kankakee and Rantoul, Ill. The roadbed was glass smooth.

While the train was stopped at Champaign-Urbana, I made my way to my bedroom. During my pre-bed ablutions, I concluded that Pullman Rail Journeys would be a much-heralded success, if the evening and dinner’s quality could be replicated on every trip.

21-IMG_1958The long, early-morning station stop at Memphis aroused me from my slumber. But I couldn’t leave the train to stretch my legs, as the Pullman cars extended beyond the end of the Memphis platform! No matter. The 400-mile-ride from Champaign-Urbana to Memphis had been comfortable; I hadn’t detected any unnecessary movement in the old car. I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

I showered, dressed and headed to the lounge end of Pontchartrain Club. Though no newspaper was available, I took advantage of the fine onboard Wi-Fi service to check on life beyond the rails before taking my seat for breakfast.

11-IMG_1947The meal was tasty, with freshly prepared fried eggs served with ham, fresh fruit and a glass of grapefruit juice, all accompanied with freshly brewed Bridgeport Coffee. But the meal proved to be an “adventure.”

The 126-mile, single-track mainline south of Memphis to Greenwood, Miss. is in poor shape. Waiters had trouble pouring liquids. Keeping plates on the table was a challenge. Looking out Pontchartrain Club’s big windows, I noticed many railroad work crews: a hopeful sign. (In fact, the track’s current owner, Canadian National, recently said it plans to bring the tracks back to Class 1 standards.)

I retired to my room for an early-morning nap. Later, I returned to the lounge to watch the languid, verdant Mississippi countryside roll by outside the large windows.

Lunch was announced a few minutes after the Hazlehurst, Miss. stop. Once again, we found ourselves around the large table for another fine meal. My main course was excellent: capellini Pomodoro — angel hair pasta with a tomato cream sauce, tossed with roasted cherry tomatoes, fresh basil and mozzarella.

Shortly after our stop at quaint Hammond, La., we came to the scenic highlight of the trip: the dash across 630-square-mile Lake Pontchartrain. For 45 minutes, The City of New Orleans was an ocean-going vessel, leaving parallel highways out of sight.

We crossed numerous bridges and viaducts, allowing us glimpses of Louisiana’s wild wetlands. Somewhere out there in the mangrove swamps near the tracks, Conductor Moore told us, were snapping turtles and alligators sunning themselves on downed trees.

All too soon — 30 minutes early, in fact — we backed into New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal. Leaving the station, I made my way to the new Loyola Avenue streetcar stop just outside the station. Looking back, I wished Ed Ellis and his dedicated colleagues well. It had been an excellent trip.

This service deserves to succeed.

Prices for the Pullman Rail Journeys accommodations range from $500 for a single, upper berth in a sectional sleeper (with curtains; bathroom and shower down the hall) to $2,850 for two sharing a Master Bedroom, which includes en suite shower, sink and toilet. The private service is attached to the rear of Amtrak’s daily City of New Orleans. The train departs Chicago at 8 p.m., arriving the next day in New Orleans at 3:32 p.m.; it departs New Orleans at 1:45 p.m., arriving in Chicago the next day at 9 a.m. For more information or to book, call IRT.  The Society  can book this for you as an independent one-night trip or as part of a multi-leg rail package.

For over 30 years, IRT International Editor Zane Katsikis has traveled the world by passenger train. In addition to writing about his rail travels, he works in the food and wine industry. We are delighted to welcome Zane’s great reporting and photographs to Track 25!

Venice’ Cipriani, Florence’ Villa San Michele Round Out a Week of Orient-Express Excess

11 Apr
VSMBreakfastWeb

The breakfasts are sumptuous at the Villa San Michele. IRT Photo by O. Hardy

(To read part one of Eleanor & Owen Hardy’s “Romantic Italian Holiday,” please click here.)

The Villa San Michele, Florence

The magic begins the moment you arrive at Florence’ airport or railway station, when you are met by your driver for your private transfer to the Villa San Michele. Nestled on a hilltop surrounded by trees and terraced gardens, it overlooks the city of Florence, spread out before you like a sepia-toned Renaissance map.

Eleanor and I succumbed. Avid gardeners, we spent our first day walking the Villa’s gardens, filled with lemon trees and roses. We swam in the heated pool, perched above the building. That evening, we dined alfresco in the loggia on the superb Tuscan cuisine, as we watched the Duomo catch the last of the sun’s rays.

The next day is reserved for sight-seeing. If you’re like us, you’ll take full advantage, perhaps visiting on your own the more well-known sights: the Uffizi Gallery, the Accademia Gallery, the Boboli Gardens, then letting your private guide drive you further afield to some of Florence’ more exclusive attractions.

The Hotel Cipriani, Venice

You repeat this gentle schedule in Venice, following your first-class transfer via Trenitalia ETR 600 high-speed train.

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The Cipriani. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

This time it’s the Cipriani, whose overwhelming delights keep you from leaving-even with “The Most Serene Republic of Venice” beckoning. Following a warm greeting from the front desk-we’d arrived at midday-we were escorted to a waterside table for an alfresco lunch, preceded by sparkling, cold Bellinis-peach nectar mixed with champagne-one of the Cipriani’s signature drinks.

Our dinner at the more formal Fortuny restaurant probably ranks as our anniversary week’s peak dining experience. Eleanor declared her scampi the best she’d ever tasted. (More than one admiring diner from nearby tables asked her what she’d ordered.)

The two balconies of our deluxe two-room suite overlooked the lagoon-perfect for room-service breakfasts. Inside, the Moorish-themed décor featured incredible silk and glass Fortuny lamps, pale green Moorish trim on the walls and delicate Venetian mirrors.

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Breakfast at the Cipriani. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

Dining at the Cipriani is reason enough to travel to Venice. Our first night we ate at the Cip’s Club, a floating restaurant built on pontoons. The sky turned rose over the Grand Canal, as boats glided past and candlelight danced on the tables.

Speedboat to Paradise

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The Cipriani’s classic speed boat. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Meanwhile, if you can tear yourself away from the restaurants, check out the Cipriani’s swimming pool, the largest in Venice. We began our day with touring – water taxi to Murano, a visit up the bell tower, a lovely afternoon dancing, listening to music and enjoying a light lunch at the Café Florian on San Marcos Square. The experience was delightful but intense, what with the hordes of tourists, especially when a cruise ship docked.

What to do? Directly opposite San Marcos’ Square, we boarded the hotel’s free shuttle, a classic wooden speedboat, back to the Cipriani. Travel time was all of 10 minutes (the service is available around the clock and departs every 10 minutes.).

“The open-air bar overlooks the pool, giving this gorgeous place the atmosphere of a Mediterranean resort,” Eleanor wrote in her diary. “The pool is heated to a perfect temperature. You feel so buoyant in the salt water, you could swim all day. It’s a blessing to escape far from the madding crowds.”

For more information on how you can take your own “Romantic Italian Holiday,” click here. To read a short account of our Orient-Express trip, please click here. To see a photo gallery of our Orient-Express adventure, click here.

Orient-Express Tops Week- Long Romantic Italian Holiday

11 Apr
VSOE-postcard

© The Society of International Railway Travelers®

Problem: How do you soak up the splendors of Florence and Venice without being drowned in the sea of tourists they attract?

Solution: Treat yourself to paradise hotels that mind your privacy, yet allow you preferred access to their home cities’ many glories.

Then slip out of town on a five-star rolling hotel to London: the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

This was our romantic Italian holiday, a celebration of Eleanor’s and my 30th wedding anniversary:

•    Two nights in Florence at the Villa San Michele, a former monastery turned five-star hotel;

•    Two nights in Venice at the Cipriani, iconic waterside pleasure palace overlooking the Grand Canal;

•    Two days and a night on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, capped off by high tea on the British Pullman into London.

HappyNuns

Italian nuns admire the Orient-Express at Venice’ Santa Lucia station. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

We did this three years ago this May, and we’re still giddy.

In fact, we loved it so much, we made it into an offical IRT trip. The Society’s Orient-Express Romantic Italian Holiday is pure poetry.

The package includes hotels and transfers between railway stations, airports and hotels, plus tours. It also covers Florence-Venice transport via first-class Eurostar high-speed train and the complete Orient-Express trip, including all on-board meals and British Pullman fare.

You get what you pay for, and this doesn’t come cheap. But it’s perfect for honeymoons, anniversary celebrations, or any other occasion demanding over-the-top luxury and romance.

SilverwareDiner

A waiter sets the table for lunch during a brief halt in Paris. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

The Orient-Express

The Orient-Express is the star of the show; Eleanor and I fell in love with this train after our 2005 Paris-Istanbul trip. There is so much to admire:

•    Restored, 1920s-vintage cars: Our favorites are the three diners. The “Côte d’Azur” sports genuine Lalique crystal panels, while the “Étoile du Nord” displays elegant marquetry. Our favorite is the “L’Oriental,” whose gleaming, ebony walls, adorned with colorful animal paintings, remind one of an exquisite Chinese lacquered box.

•    Attentive yet discreet service: Jake, our steward, a cheerful, young New Zealander, kept us aware of waterfalls, castles, and bridges worthy of a photograph; and he was never too busy to point out to his obviously train-obsessed charges such details as our car’s old-fashioned, coal-fired heating system or the narrow, steward’s bed tucked into one corner of the aisle.

RedDrinkWaiter

Toddy time on the Orient-Express. IRT photo by E. Hardy

•    Atmosphere: everything about the Orient-Express exudes “class.” The stewards, waiters, barmen and train personnel are resplendent in their uniforms of royal blue or white. Even the passengers rise to the occasion. Most of them dressed formally for our lavish dinner through the Alps. And they mixed amiably afterwards in the lounge car, as the pianist played Cole Porter, George Gershwin and other classics late into the night.

•    Windows that can be rolled down, a rarity in today’s world of hermetically sealed travel: One can actually feel the wind in one’s face, smell the new-mown hay in the Dolomites, and practically taste the frozen, moonlit Alpine peaks late at night.

•    The British Pullman: Many travelers don’t realize that the trip between the Channel and London requires a separate train, and what a train it is. The restored, 1920s- and 1930s-vintage day carriages are true museum pieces, each one unique down to the painstakingly laid floor tile depicting classical Greek scenes in the bathrooms.

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British Pullman. IRT photo by O.H.

And your three-hour British Pullman ride to London gives you ample time to enjoy your high tea of champagne, wine, finger sandwiches, freshly baked scones with clotted cream, cakes, breads and more.

But wait a minute. What if you choose to ride the Orient-Express first, from London to Venice, say? Isn’t the rest of the week a bit anti-climactic?

Not at all. Happily, the Orient-Express company owns both the Villa San Michele and the Cipriani. We found the same over-the-top service and attention to detail at the company’s “stationary hotels” as we did aboard its “rolling hotel.” The experience is seamless.

To read our next installment —  “Riding the Orient-Express off the rails — please click here.

Aboard the Star Flyer, Authenticity Abounds

16 Jan
DSC_0375-StarFlyerHeadon

All photos by Eleanor or Owen Hardy. © The Society of International Railway Travelers.®

The giant sailing ship rolled lazily in the Pacific Ocean as I climbed the ever-narrowing rope ladder to the first spar. Climbing higher, I carefully squeezed each foot into a rung. I dared not look down.

Finally, I arrived at a platform. I hoisted myself up.

“Ho, ho, ho,” a fat, red-suited man greeted me. “Welcome aboard!”

It was Santa Claus!

Over the Christmas holidays, my wife, 2 daughters and I spent a week cruising Costa Rica’s Pacific coast on the Star Flyer, a 360-foot, four-masted barkentine.

(Wait a minute! you say. What’s a train man doing on a ship? Just this: many of our rail travelers ask us for cruises, safaris, hotels, you name it. Now, through our Virtuoso membership, we can offer them, often with special perks. Star Clippers, in fact, is a Virtuoso partner.)

The Star Flyer is an authentic sailing ship whose foremast boasts square sails. With her identical sister ship, the Star Clipper, and their “big sister,” the 439-foot Royal Clipper, they compose the entire Star Clippers fleet. They’re certainly among the world’s most authentic sailing cruise ships.

DSC_0408-OwenSantaAuthenticity was important to me, because, a thousand years ago, I worked on such a ship. But even those who don’t know a beam from a barnacle will love the Star Flyer. What it sacrifices in glitz it more than makes up for with charm, friendliness and adventure.

The ship boasts a staff of 72, many of them seasoned Star Clippers veterans, who hail from Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Sweden, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. The ship can carry up to 170 passengers; our cruise was a comfortable 105.

The meals are ample and extraordinary, but don’t expect “specialty restaurants.” For that matter, don’t expect a casino, a workout room, or Broadway shows either. On the Star Flyer, the fun is more home-made.

DSCN0143-FamboAtDinnerThe dining room is open seating. The dress code is relaxed, although many of the passengers on our cruise, who hailed equally from N. American and Europe, spiffed up for dinner. Breakfast and lunch are buffets with everything anyone could want. Dinner offers a choice of three options, including a separate cheese course, dessert and an incredible, palate-cleansing sorbet, whose flavor changed nightly.

I give special kudos to the on-board bakery, which turned out some of the best breads, rolls and pastries I’ve had anywhere. And since we were traveling over Christmas, we also enjoyed a sumptuous array of cookies, petites fours, cakes and a genuine gingerbread house.

DSC_0530-HappyHelmsmanIf the Star Flyer were a train, we would have considered our category 2 cabin large. For a cruise ship, however, it was small – probably 125 square feet, with a single porthole.

But our double bed was comfortable, the shower gushed with ample amounts of hot water (the Star Flyer “manufactures” 80 tons of fresh water daily) and the two 110-volt outlets made converters unnecessary (although I was glad I brought my 15-foot extension cord).

The crew is friendly. They smile as they work – surely a good sign. Chances are, your captain will be one of the Müllers, Jürgen or Klaus, who are identical twins (how to tell them apart? Klaus plays the bagpipes).

Our adventure began minutes after boarding at Puerto Caldera. The captain invited us topside for the daily “sail-away,” the thrilling moment when sails unfurl, the anchor is hoisted and the crew scampers to its tasks. Over the loudspeaker, we heard phantom sailors singing a low, minor-key dirge (Vangelis’ music from the 1992 movie “Conquest of Paradise” about Christopher Columbus) Goosebumps ran down my spine.

DSC_0281-StarFlyerSideVierwWe headed out to open sea — with sails unfurled and auxiliary power humming. The wind was barely blowing.

Therein lies the only drawback to the Star Flyer’s authenticity: in order to use its sails, a sailing ship must have wind blowing in the right direction and at sufficient speed. That doesn’t offer much wiggle room for a cruise ship keeping to a strict itinerary, as off-board activities are offered daily.  (Captain Klaus advised me that I should choose a Caribbean itinerary for the best chance of experiencing true sail power.)

DSC_0225-BelayingPinsI soon dismissed my pouting, however, and enjoyed the ship’s flapping sails for what they were: objects of beauty, just like the teak decks, polished brass fittings, highly varnished woodwork and brilliant, red-and-white Maltese flag snapping at the stern.

We “sailed” all that first day. Several passengers spotted porpoises off the stern. At the forward end, others had stretched out on the rope mesh fitted over the bowsprit, allowing them to gaze straight down into the ocean. They watched some 100 porpoises playing among the bow waves – including a baby reluctant to follow its mother when it was time to go.

Other passengers relaxed in or near the ship’s two miniature swimming pools. Still others read books, iPads, etc. on the many deck chairs about. Some enjoyed drinks in the outdoor Tropical Bar amidships.

Other onboard activities included lectures by the captain and crew, dancing to music provided by the Hungarian pianist “Charly,” a talent show, “Pirate Night,” climbing the mast and, of course, Christmas Eve.

Maybe that was the truest test of the Star Flyer’s soul: how to celebrate this most personal of all holidays, with so many of us away from our dry-land homes.

DSC_0483-SunsetThe celebration started that afternoon, when I encountered Santa in the rigging. At dinner, Captain Klaus read a brief but heartfelt address – almost a prayer – before dinner, thanking God for the love that binds all the world’s peoples, whatever their race, creed or culture.

After dinner in the lounge, Santa gave out gifts, and we sang Christmas carols. And after that, we went up on deck.

The moon was nearly full, its light streaming along the water. Elsewhere, we gazed at the stars, as the deck gently rolled under our feet. A light breeze whistled through the rigging.

On the Star Flyer that night, with my wife and daughters at my side, I felt as close to heaven as I’m likely to get on this earth. You can’t ask for more authenticity than that.

(Next time: Tracking the wily sloth, as we discover wild Costa Rica on the Star Flyer.)

Golden Chariot’s New Tour: Indian Summer in the South

2 Apr

Dining car on S. Indian's "Golden Chariot" deluxe train Photo: Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation

Sloth bears and elephants are on display in their natural habitats during a special summer itinerary just announced by the Golden Chariot, a tourist train run by south India’s Karnataka State Tourism Development Corp.

The 7-night, 8-day summer package, “Pride of the South,” departs April 16. The Golden Chariot’s season normally operates September-March.

The tour covers Karnataka’s best-known tourist destinations, including three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and wildlife sanctuaries.

The special offer includes dinner at Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel, located at the foothills of Chamundi, Mysore, after a special cultural show that showcases Karnataka’s rich culture, the tourism department says.

The itinerary includes “Hampi by Night,” a program featuring specially illuminated monuments.

Guests also visit the nearby Daroji Bear Sanctuary, Asia’s first and biggest dedicated to the sloth bear.

As reported in The Hindu, the special Golden Chariot itinerary also includes an elephant interaction program at Kabini, special cultural shows inside the train and complimentary spa services.

April 12 is the cut-off date for booking. Per-person cost for the tour is about  $2,800 (single); $2,100 (double) or $1,660 (triple).

For more information, please email tourdesk@irtsociety.com or call (800) 478-4881 within the U.S. or Canada; elsewhere, please call (502) 897-1725.

Note: The Society of International Railway Travelers® has not had an opportunity to ride the Golden Chariot, although we hope to do so before the end of the year. We will publish a detailed report after that time.

Al-Andalus: Palace On Wheels Rides Again

5 Mar

One of the lovely dining cars on the Al Andalus.

Story written by Regina Winkle-Bryan

In Spain, and especially in Southern Spain, citizens understand that “good things come to those who wait.” Time seems to move without hurry on the Iberian Peninsula, where patience is a virtue and a survival skill. We’ve been waiting for eight years for the Al-Andalus train to make an appearance on the rails once more, and spring of 2012 marks the end of its hiatus. Now managed by FEVE and Renfe, the renovated Al-Andalus will be presented in Cadiz March 17, 2012, at the bicentennial celebration of the 1812 Spanish Constitution. Following this official launch, the Al-Andalus will begin touring on May 6, and will make several trips each month until early December.

Dubbed a “Palace on Wheels,” the luxurious Al-Andalus is outfitted with a bar, tearoom, and two dining cars, all decorated in ‘Belle Epoque’ style. Up to 64 guests may lodge in the train’s 20 Superior and 12 Standard all en-suite cabins. The Al-Andalus cuts through some of the country’s most celebrated landscapes and visits a history-rich area of Spain where Judaism, Islam and Christianity collided. This is heart of the robust Spain we know from books and postcards, the Spain of hand-held fans, sunshine, flamenco, siestas, tapas and macho bullfighters in elaborate dress.

Once on board the Al-Andalus, everything is included in the rate, from your evening glass of dry Jerez sherry to the many village tours offered during the six-day expedition. Riders set out from Seville, the largest metropolis in the south of Spain, popular for its vibrant Feria de Abril festival and Royal Alcázar. From Seville, the Al-Andalus proceeds to Córdoba where guests are offered a city tour taking in the Mosque, Cathedral and Jewish Quarter, followed by dinner in a typical Cordobés eatery.

The following five days on Al-Andalus provide similar opportunities in the towns of Baeza, Úbeda, Granada, Ronda, Cádiz, Jerez, Sanlúcar and Doñana Park. Click here for the full itinerary. Highlights include a stopover at Jerez’s Real Escuela Andaluza de Arte Ecuestre for a dressage show as well as a tour of Granada’s mind-blowing Alhambra, one of the country’s most legendary monuments.

The Al Andalus traversing southern Spain.

Al-Andalus is the newest of Spain’s numerous tourist trains. High-end lines such as El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, and El Transcantábrico Clasico, tour Spain’s rugged northern coast and Basque Country. However, Al-Andalus is the only train of its kind in the south.

Getting There: Fly to the Spanish capital of Madrid on Delta or Iberia. From here you could fly on Iberia to Seville, but taking Renfe’s high-speed train AVE will get you there in two and a half hours while allowing you to glimpse more Spanish scenery. AVE leaves from central Madrid’s Atocha station dropping you off in downtown Seville.

The Society of International Railway Travelers can take care of all details for your trip — from train reservations to hotels. For a full itinerary, along with dates and pricing, visit The Society of International Railway Travelers’ website.

2012: Lapping up Luxury as World’s Top 25 Trains Unveiled

18 Nov

When it comes to the World’s Top 25 Trains, luxury leads the way in 2012.

The Society of International Railway Travelers® is proud to announce its annual picks of the best of the best, and the trend towards true “five-star-hotel-on-wheels” status is unmistakable. Consider:

  • With its upgraded dining service and gigantic Imperial Suites, the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express now is truly golden—and so we’re thrilled to award it luxury status. Congratulations to GW Travel of the UK, its operator!
  • The Canadian is adding new, luxury-level deluxe class service summer 2012;
  • Despite rumors of its being on the auction block, South Africa’s Blue Train continues its decades-old tradition of top-notch service, food  and on-board amenities, now with three luxurious Botswana safari camp add-ons;
  • Queenslander Class on Australia’s Sunlander expands to three departures in each direction weekly, even as a modernized, new Sunlander prepares to take over in 2014.
  • Spain’s luxurious Al-Andalus is scheduled to return to the broad-gauge rails next year; if the past is any indication, it’s likely to be fantastic (we won’t know for sure until we review it next spring). But if Al-Andalus joins the “Top 25,” which train gets the boot? Stay tuned!

“The trend really does seem to be headed in the direction of ever greater luxury,” said Eleanor Hardy, president of The Society of International Railway Travelers®, which compiles the annual “Top 25 List” and has been evaluating the world’s great trains since 1983. “Congratulations to all the trains and their staffs for earning this well-deserved World’s Top 25 Trains medallion.” The award is based on frank reviews of owners, staff, editors and our travelers.

Read them in our publication, available for immediate download here.

Eleanor Hardy and Blue Train chef

Eleanor Hardy, president of the Society of IRT, shares a laugh with the chef on board Africa's Blue Train. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

“My associate Angela Walker (the Society’s Vice-President, Operations) just returned from northern Spain, where she was highly impressed by the El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, the new narrow-gauge luxury service running between Santiago and San Sebastien. Her suite occupied half a railroad car!”

These developments follow on the heels of last year’s introduction of the Maharajas’ Express in India. Its Presidential Suite, which occupies an entire train car, makes it the largest train accommodation in the world. Spend a mere $22,000 per person, and you too can enjoy two bedrooms, two bathrooms (the master includes a bathtub), and a large parlor with couch, table, chairs and desk.

India, in fact, leads the world with the greatest number of “Top 25 Trains,” totaling four. Besides the Maharajas’ Express, they include Rajasthan’s Palace on Wheels, the Delhi-Mumbai Deccan Odyssey and the tiny (and decidedly non-luxurious) Toy Train, which runs (occasionally) high into the foothills of the Himalayas to Darjeeling.

Another leader in the luxury train realm is the Orient-Express company, which is responsible for no less than six of the IRT Society’s “World’s Top 25 Trains” — five of them definitely luxurious:

  • The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, regularly running from Paris to Venice, less often to such gems as Prague, Vienna and Budapest and — once a year, if you book far enough in advance — all the way to Istanbul;
  • The Royal Scotsman, with room for just 36 passengers, offering an intimate, panoramic taste of the best its namesake country has to offer;
  • The British Pullman,whose 1920s-vintage cars ferry passengers to the continent between London and Folkesone; it also offers day outings with historical, culinary, wine, murder mystery — even steam locomotives — as themes

    Girl in red dress on the Eastern & Oriental Express rear open-air car

    The Eastern & Oriental Express' rear open-air lounge car is a favorite photo spot for passengers. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

  • the Eastern & Oriental Express, normally running between Bangkok and Singapore, but occasionally making week-long trips throughout Thailand and beyond (one of which — “Epic Thailand” — is next year’s Society group tour;
  • the Hiram Bingham, making the three-hour trip in style between Cusco and Machu Picchu in Peru;

N. America has just one appearance on the “World’s Top 25″ list, but it’s a stunner: the Royal Canadian Pacific, based in Calgary and operating on a very limited basis—just three trips in 2012.

Bianca Vos on Rovos Rail

Bianca Vos, daughter of Rovos Rail founder Rohan Vos, works full time for her dad. Here she is on the IRT Society's 'Owners' Choice' Cape Town-Dar es Salaam tour last July. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Last but far from luxurious least is South Africa’s Pride of Africa, run by Rovos Rail, which offers probably the world’s most incredible luxury-rail experiences. Operating all over S. Africa as well as, occasionally, to Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, the train overcomes inhospitable climate, lack of infrastructure and a maze of red tape to offer an almost seamless product. Once you’ve ridden with Rovos Rail (which, with 25 IRT Society members, Eleanor and I did last July from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam) you won’t want to see Africa any other way.

The emphasis on luxury in no way denigrates the others on the “Top 25″ list. The Budapest-Istanbul Danube Express, Switzerland’s Glacier and Bernina Expresses and Norway’s tiny Flåm Railway all are not-to-miss European railroad experiences.

China’s Shangri-La Express can’t be called a luxury train. But it sure beats riding a regular Chinese train and likely will continue to do so until the much-vaunted Chinese Tangula Express luxury trains begin running (if ever).

Diners on Rocky Mountaineer

IRT Society travelers Gary and Joann Campbell dine aboard the Rocky Mountaineer Goldleaf dome. IRT photo courtesy of Gary Campbell

Over in the Western Hemisphere, Peru’s Andean Explorer offers an unforgettable all-day ride, along the top of the world, from Cusco to Lake Titicaca; farther north, Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer offers a great, all-daylight ride (our advise: splurge for a spot in the GoldLeaf dome).

Half a world away, finally, great railway experiences can be had in Australia, the only continent that can boast two trans-continental trains: the Sydney-Perth Indian Pacific and the Adelaide-Alice Springs-Darwin Ghan. Platinum Service, introduced several years ago, makes the going even better.

So there you have it: the World’s Top 25 Trains for 2012. Again, to download our publication now, click here.

What’s that you say? You have a differing opinion? Please tell us. What are your “Top 25?” Now’s the time to join the conversation!

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