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.
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.
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.)
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.
The 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.
The 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!
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;
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.
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.
• 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.
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.
Editor’s note: To read Part I of Ms. Walker’s adventures, please click here.
The staff on the Al-Andalus is gracious and attentive, including the manager, Marcelino, who was careful to note the occasional kink in the trip for future improvements (we were traveling on the first consumer departure since the train’s refurbishment, so kinks were not unexpected!). Announcements are made in Spanish, English, and French. All staff members could speak basic English (and most spoke excellent English), which was a relief to the monolingual on board.
Our on-train meals –breakfast daily and four other multi-course dinners – were delicious, though not for the health conscious. Some travelers may wish to request half portions or other dietary needs before departure. Off-train meals in top-notch restaurants gave us a taste of the local Spanish cuisine, where aromatic pork and delicious fish dishes abound.
The musical acts that performed in the Al-Andalus lounge car – an excellent singer on the second night and a lively trio of traditional singers and flamenco dancers on the last night – were extremely entertaining and a real highlight for most passengers. The musicians did not begin playing until close to midnight, which proved too late for some early-to-bed passengers. But late nights and long, leisurely meals are part of experiencing the “Spanish way.”
The weather in late April was consistently warm and occasionally downright hot. I’d recommend traveling on the Al-Andalus no later than early May and no earlier than September to avoid both the heat and the crowds. Off-train tours will sometimes run a bit long for some passengers, and a good deal of walking is involved, but almost all sites we visited were well worth the exercise.
In short, the Al-Andalus is a great choice if you want to take in a wide sweep of southern Spain and are prepared for the occasional long day of touring in order to do so.
You will be well tended in the process – both onboard and off.
For more information and for reservations on the Al-Andalus, visit The Society of International Railway Travelers’ website or call us at (800) 478-4881.
Editor’s note: To read Part I of Mr. Anderson’s adventures, please click here.
After deciding to book the Epic Thailand trip on the Eastern & Oriental Express (persuaded by Eleanor Hardy’s Track 25 blog), I opted to add the short Singapore-Bangkok route to the beginning of my adventure so that I could experience and see even more of this fascinating South Asian region. But unexpected hiccups while en-route to Bangkok left me wondering whether I’d make my primary Epic Thailand departure…
Our Singapore-Bangkok itinerary was thrown off course first by a stalled local train in Malaysia and then by an engine failure just across the Thai border (the E&O is contracted by law to use only Malaysian and Thai Railway locomotives), putting us significantly behind schedule, so much so that the side trip to the Kwai River Bridge was abandoned so that we could make a more timely arrival into Bangkok. So although I’d be able to join the IRT group departing on the Epic Thailand tour the next morning (Phew!), I was disappointed that I’d missed seeing the famous Kwai River Bridge.
My disappointment, however, was short-lived. The Eastern & Oriental Express staff arranged a complementary private car and guide to drive me out to Nam Tok upon my return to Bangkok, following my week-long Epic Thailand adventure. This was just one more shining example of the E&O’s outstanding commitment to customer service and satisfaction.
Despite Bangkok’s horrendous traffic, the trip to the Kwai Bridge was worth every exertion. Once across the bridge, I saw the two plinthed steam locomotives on site and had time for a brief visit to the cemetery before our return trip to the capital.
For more information and for reservations on the Eastern & Oriental Express, visit the Society of International Railway Traveler’s website or call us at (800) 478-4881.
Embarking on the Al-Andalus for the first time from Seville was a bit of an adventure, as my traveling companion Shawn and I had to feel our way around the Santa Justa station in lieu of proper signage. But once on board, the train was a welcoming and luxurious oasis that was well worth the initial confusion.
After being welcomed with champagne in the lounge, we settled into our Superior cabin, equipped with a lovely golden couch – which folded into a comfortable and roomy double bed at night – a writing table and chair, a spacious closet, and a full en-suite bathroom. The modern touches, such as vacuum toilet and individually controlled air conditioning do not take away from the beautiful Belle Époque design – striking sconces accentuate the carefully crafted inlaid wooden flower designs throughout the train.
Most of the Al-Andalus sleeping cars were built in France in the late 1920s, as were all four public cars: lounge, two diners and bar car, which are as comfortable and beautiful as the sleepers. The dining and bar car is lovely in tones of red and gold, while the lounge car is a more muted gray with large welcoming couches.
We could have spent a week enjoying the comforts of the train alone, but the many stops along the way – Cordoba, Baeza, Ubeda, Granada, Ronda, Cadiz, Jerez, Sanlucar, and Sevilla – provided an exciting and whirlwind six-day tour through southern Spain. Granada’s stunning Alhambra, built by the Moorish rulers in the 14th century, was among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites we took in on our journey, as was the famed Seville Cathedral – third largest in the world.
Some stops were difficult to navigate with a group (the small and winding streets of Cordoba, for example), but the Al-Andalus guides did an excellent job of keeping everyone lively and on track. Most travelers on our departure were Spanish-speakers – but not to fear. As we were two of only three English-speakers on board, Mercedes, our fantastic translator employed by the train, became our de facto personal guide. She was patient with any questions we had and made us feel quite at home.
For Part II of Angela Walker’s adventures on the Al-Andalus, please click here.
Since its inception, The Eastern & Oriental Express has been on my bucket list of trains to ride. But it was IRT President Eleanor Hardy’s Track 25 blog that finally made me book the trip. And as long as I was going halfway around the world, I decided to add the standard E&O four-day Singapore-Bangkok route to the beginning of my trip.
Unlike their semi-annual one-week tours (ours was Epic Thailand), this route runs regularly during high season and continues on a less frequent schedule throughout the year. In fact, the journey is more like a scheduled train than a tour, as stops are made to entrain passengers at the Malaysian cities of Kuala Lampur and Butterworth.
The train is much more than “general transportation,” however, and is every bit as impressive as outlined in Ms. Hardy’s blog. The staff is top-notch – attentive but not overbearing. What I didn’t expect was to be greeted by name by bartender Andrek asking if I was ready for my iced tea! How did he know? Of course, preferences were indicated on the booking form, but those are often a formality soon forgotten.
Off-train tours are offered in the colonial Malaysian city of Georgetown and to Kanchanaburi, site of the Kwai River bridge. I, however, had planned to venture out on my own, leaving the E&O at the Kwai River Station and continuing by local train to the end of the line, 45 miles north at Nam Tok.
This track is what’s left of the Thai-Burma “Death Railway,” constructed by allied prisoners of World War II and made famous by the movie “Bridge Over the River Kwai.” The Allied War Cemetery at Kanchanaburi, with over 6,000 graves, lies in silent testament to the horror of what transpired there.
But all was not going according to plan. Would I make it to Bangkok in time, I wondered, to join the 19 other IRT travelers leaving on the Epic Thailand tour?
For part II of Bruce Anderson’s adventures in Thailand, please click here.
Vacations during the holiday season often conjure up images of someplace warm, perhaps celebrating some foreign country’s unique New Year’s traditions. My traditional New Year’s trip is on VIA Rail’s Canadian across Canada, often paired with my other passion: NHL Hockey. I collect hockey arenas the same as I do rail mileage and train journeys. This time, my trip took me to Winnipeg to see a New Year’s Eve game.
It was also my 50th trip on the Canadian since 1977.
What I rode is not the much ballyhooed — and delayed — luxury service which will include completely revamped cars with dedicated attendants, larger accommodations with showers and flat screen TV’s. While waiting for that to materialize, now tentatively scheduled for 2013, the existing train has received a complete makeover. Although rooms remain the traditional Pullman size, where else except in a private railroad car can one ride a train straight out of the 1950′s?
It has been argued that today’s train isn’t the “real” Canadian, since it now mostly follows the more northerly Canadian National routing. But my consist, with the exception of one ex-Amtrak re-built coach (Amtrak, are you listening?), was made up entirely of original Canadian Pacific equipment. All interiors have been updated with new carpeting, wall coverings, seat fabrics and lighting.
The diner, previously pretty in pink, is now brightened with white walls and ceiling with dark grey seats. The famous original etched-glass partitions have been retained. Food is of the expected high standard and service is provided in a professional manner.
The Park Car has been darkened with dark grey ceiling and frames around the dome windows, giving a warm appearance, which draws more attention to the view outside rather than in. And if you get tired of the northern Ontario scenery, movies can be screened on a new flat screen TV in the lounge beneath the dome.
While accommodations are the traditional Pullman size, the Cabin for One (ex-Roomette) and Cabin for Two (ex-Bedroom) provide a cozy atmosphere in which to sleep. Unlike Amtrak, all rooms have en-suite toilet and sink; however, the shower is down the hall. Sections or “berths” also are available, the only train left in North American where they can be found. (Sections were made famous in the “naughty” sleeper scene by Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot.”) While sleeping accommodations on the Canadian are generally priced higher than Amtrak, fares in winter are about half those in effect during peak summer season.
Some may question traveling in winter through the “Great White North.” But I enjoy the lower passenger counts, and there’s plenty of heat. Besides, what could be better than sitting in a front dome seat at night, watching the signals change from green to red as the train passes by, the moon illuminating the snow-covered ground?
The schedule is heavily padded, so arrival is likely to be on time, as it was for me in both directions. But I wouldn’t advise booking a same-day flight at trip’s end, at least not in winter.
While not the Orient Express, the Canadian is in my opinion the best we have going in North America.
Editor’s Note: When the new luxury service debuts, the equipment and service as described above will still be available on each departure at traditional pricing, according to VIA. The Canadian runs three times weekly in each direction between Toronto and Vancouver. The Canadian is one of The Society of International Railway Traveler’s World’s Top 25 Trains for 2012; The IRT Society’s 13-day “Trans-Canada Rail Adventure” includes three overnights on the Canadian.
Author’s Note: (I traveled to Winnipeg to see its new MTS Centre and team host the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sadly, the mighty Detroit Red Wings don’t play in Winnipeg this year).
Victoria Falls is one of the great natural wonders of the world. I’ve seen it four times and never tire of the magnificent views.
But while the Falls has been called “the smoke that thunders,” few are aware that smoke of another kind can be found just across the bridge from the Victoria Falls Hotel in Zambia.
Nestled in a remote corner of town next to the Livingstone Railway Museum is the Royal Livingstone Express, a true throwback to the days of Rhodesian Railways’ passenger services. I had a chance to sample this vision of the past during my recent Rovos Rail trip to Dar Es Salaam with the Society of International Railway Travelers®. The Cape Town – Dar itinerary includes a overnight stop at the Falls.
Rovos groups stay at the Victoria Falls Hotel, on the Zimbabwe side. The hotel is beautiful, but it makes the trek to the dinner train a bit problematic. Getting there — one-way— included two van rides, the purchase of a double-entry visa at the Zimbabwe-Zambia border and a six-mile bus ride. But the trouble and expense are well worth it.
It is indeed quite a train.
Its five cars all have been either restored by or purchased from Rovos Rail. They include a kitchen car and two dining saloons, one of which was the unique, pillared diner “Wembly,” built in 1926. Rounding out the consist are a lounge and, bringing up the rear, an open-platform observation car.
The train’s route first took us through Livingstone, where the entire township seemed on hand to wave, with the younger set chasing after us as well. We spent the rest of our time spotting elephants as we chugged through Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. True, most of our journey was in winter darkness. But the real attraction was what was happening inside the train.
The train’s two chefs turned out a five-course, freshly prepared meal worthy of a fine dining restaurant. It was served while the train was stopped at the far end of its five-and-a-half-mile run. Our entrée, lamb shoulder, was delicious, with the meat just about falling off the bone. A vegetarian option also was available.
After dinner, drinks were served in the two lounges during the train’s return to Livingstone. Train enthusiasts in our group were treated to the sounds and smell of a Class 12 steam locomotive. For the return trip, it ran tender first, coupled to the back of the train’s observation car. It was just about the closest one can get to a working steam locomotive without actually being on the foot plate.
Cost for the train including transfers (but excluding visas) is $160 U.S. and can be booked through The Society of IRT. Dinner runs usually are made Wednesdays and Saturdays with a minimum of 20 passengers required. Dress code is smart casual. I would highly recommend this unique experience, particularly for a second-time visitor, as I was, who has previously done some of the area’s more well-known tourist activities.
For more information on the Royal Livingstone Express, or on Rovos Rail’s Cape Town – Dar es Salaam tour, call (800) 478-4881 within the U.S. and Canada. Elsewhere, call (502) 897-1725.
The neatly uniformed staff snaps to attention as we approach El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo at Ferrol Station. As we settle into the lovely lounge car, the staff serves champagne all around. Our tour manager, Barbara Callisto, with her charming, infectious smile, introduces the staff, explains the train layout and toasts the trip ahead, first in Spanish, then English.
This grand and intimate introduction would set the tone for my trip, which I enjoyed just two weeks ago. It lived up to some of my expectations and exceeded others. Its operator, FEVE, proved once again that its trains are firmly ensconced in the Society of IRT’s World’s Top 25 Trains list.
The Gran Lujo comprises refurbished cars from the Clásico train set, with upgrades and improvements throughout. Seven sleeping cars from the Clásico were gutted and redone, doubling the size of the suites and alleviating one of the few complaints of the Clásico experience: cabins that are too small. Each Gran Lujo suite takes up half a train car.
My room is Suite Princess 6, one of the four twin-bedded suites on the Gran Lujo. First, I notice the layout—surprisingly spacious for a narrow-gauge train—twin beds, two windows (which open), couch, table, two stools, wardrobe, chest of drawers, desk with computer and two television screens(!) Not to mention a full en-suite bathroom, complete with the most complicated shower I’ve ever encountered – functions for three shower types, hydro-massage and sauna.
The twin beds are side by side, separated by a narrow aisle. At the end of the one bed is a narrow wardrobe with eight hangers and three shelves; at the end of the other is a chest containing three drawers. I quickly unpack my things, easily fitting them into the storage space provided. (Note, however, that I am traveling alone. Couples booking a twin-bedded suite may end up fighting over the eight hangers. Double-bedded suites have a wardrobe twice the size of the original, extra hangers to match, but no chest.) Then I tuck my suitcase in a hidden compartment under the couch.
I explore every bit of the suite, with distressed wood paneling, decorated in grays and browns. I discover a minibar, safe and several more clever places for storage, including the stools which open for an unexpected storage box. Technology has been successfully incorporated into the suites – there is digital climate control as well as a panel to operate the cabin “entertainment” — three channels of music and a fourth, which turns on the television screens. If the passing Northern Spain scenery and off-train tours are not enough for you, there are movies, news and weather available, as well as a computer with internet access. The train has wireless internet, but this does not work while the train is moving, and on my trip is not reliable the first few days, even when the train is stabled .
Each morning breakfast is served on board – a buffet including a variety of breads and sweets, cereal, fruit, yogurt, crackers, meats and cheeses, juices and Spanish tortilla. The biggest draw at breakfast quickly becomes the freshly carved Iberian ham. Delicious!
At breakfast, the efficient staff serves me freshly squeezed orange juice and offers me coffee. They also give me a
menu—in addition to the buffet, there is a full breakfast menu, with offerings such as crepes (with chocolate, strawberry, caramel or a variety of jams), caviar canapé, and made-to-order eggs, including omelets with your choice of ham, mushrooms, sausage, bacon and cheese. After a few days, the staff has memorized the coffee orders and delivers it without asking – in my case, café con leche.
One dining car seats 16 and is decorated in gold and brown, with comfy plush chairs at tables for two. Beautifully latticed panels cover the lights. At each table is a lamp by the window.
The other dining car seats 10 at tables for two and is decorated in red and light brown. There’s a bar at the end of this car, where the morning coffee is brewed and drinks are served throughout the day. Walking through this dining car offers a glimpse of your week ahead: the walls are decorated with paintings of sightseeing along the route, such as Playa de Catedral (Cathedral Beach), which we will walk along in a few days. Likewise, the beautifully painted panels above the windows colorfully depict stops along the way, as well as the train itself.
Table settings are complete with El Transcantábrico plates, cups and glasses. Other than breakfast, we take our meals off the train in restaurants to sample the local cuisine. However, lunch is served on board the last day, giving us a chance to enjoy the service and watch the passing scenery.
It is also the perfect time to enjoy the lounge car, with a panel of panoramic windows, two cream couches, two armchairs and three tables, each with three chairs, seating 17 in all. Many of my fellow passengers linger here after breakfast, reading the numerous newspapers provided daily.
There is also a “disco car” in the consist, where live music is performed several nights during the journey. This has two big couches, two smaller couches and a dance floor, as well as a bar – and stays open and lively until the last person retires. The last night there’s a farewell party in the disco car, where the staff cheers everyone and crowns a “Mr. & Ms. Transcantabrico,” all in good fun.
The staff are not many, but they’re efficient. There are five serving and two engineers, and the driver, as well as the train manager, Paula. And of course, there is our ever-upbeat, energetic and helpful Barbara, who speaks five languages and happily explains everything in Spanish and English. Our diverse group includes 18 Spanish-speakers from Spain and Mexico and five English-speakers, hailing from Australia, the U.S., England and Switzerland. Our train, running in late October, is the last of the season. Carrying just 23 passengers, it’s not full, making for an even more intimate experience.
The Gran Lujo is, without a doubt, an upgrade from the Clásico El Transcantábrico, and well deserves a place among the world’s great luxury trains. The design is well thought-out, making the most of the narrow-gauge space. The staff is efficient and experienced, and the cabins are attractive, large and comfortable.
Besides the train, the touring and food (so much food!) were highlights, which require separate blog posts of their own. Have you been on board the new train? Please let us know your impressions!
(IRT’s Angela Walker, who has reviewed many of the World’s Top 25 Trains for IRT, just returned from her eight-day journey across Northern Spain on Gran Lujo, traveling from Santiago to San Sebastian. This is the first of several posts. To see more of her photos, please click here.)