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Flexible? Try Orient-Express, Rocky Mountaineer, India’s Deccan Odyssey This Autumn

24 Jul

Europe, Canada or India calling? If so, now hear this:

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Get two free nights at the super luxurious Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice when you book the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express London-Paris-Venice on trips running Oct. 25-26, Oct. 29-30, Nov. 1-2 or Nov. 5-6. Click here for more info.

Get the same deal when you book the VSOE the other direction, Venice-Paris-London, for trips running Oct. 28-29, Oct. 31-Nov. 1 or Nov. 4-5. Click here for more info.

The offer is valued at $1,300 per person, is for new bookings only and must be made by Aug. 31. Restrictions apply.

Can’t tell you how much we love this hotel: it is fabulous. See our review and photos here.

Rocky Mountaineer

Get $1,000 per couple in extra services when you book a qualifying 2016 Rocky Mountaineer package of 7 nights or more. The offer is good until Aug. 28.

The luxurious GoldLeaf service gives you a ring-side seat on the glories of the Rocky Mountains’ natural beauty.

Our recommendation: opt for the 12-day “Grand Rail Circle” tour, which packs in three scenic rail routes.

Great plus by booking this trip with us: two complimentary airport limo transfers — a value of $240.

Deccan Odyssey

With Delhi as the beginning of the Deccan Odyssey’s itinerary, a complimentary night in a top Delhi hotel, as well as a free private transfer upon arrival or departure, will be welcome news. The offer includes breakfast and taxes.

Choose a deluxe room from either the chic, modern Lait Hotel or the sumptuous, classical Kempinski Ambience.

The offer is valued at $300-$400. We love the Deccan Odyssey, as you know. Its onboard operators are some of the best in the luxury market.

For more information on the Deccan Odyssey, click here. For more information or to book any of these trains, email us at Or call us at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725.

Royal Scotsman Scores with ‘Limited Edition’ Confections

7 Mar
IRT guests Robert & Virginia Montgomery aboard the Royal Scotsman.

IRT guests Robert & Virginia Montgomery aboard the Royal Scotsman. Photo courtesy of the Montgomerys

One of the world’s most intimate luxury trains — the Royal Scotsman — threw open its doors this week for 2016 bookings, even as space this year is dwindling on many departures.

During the last several years, the train has inaugurated several “limited edition” tours, which have proven to be very successful, said Valerie J. Ottofaro.

Ms. Ottofaro is Director of Sales, Belmond Trains & River Cruises. (The train’s official name is Belmond Royal Scotsman, honoring the company’s new brand.)

“The Grand Tour of Great Britain will continue to run as an exclusive tour in 2016,” she said. The dates are July 8-15, 2016.

The popular, 7-night annual tour is for true devotees of history, food & spirits, culture, and life in England, Scotland and Wales.

The varied, exclusive activities include a castle tour with its owners, a ride on the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway and dinner at a country estate.

Royal Scotsman breakfast tray. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Royal Scotsman breakfast tray. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

“IRT guests who have done this trip have raved about it,” said Eleanor Flagler Hardy, President of The Society of International Railway Travelers®.

Other special trips are for devotees of whisky, golf and Scottish country life.

The “Classic Whisky Tours” — in partnership with the Scottish Malt Whisky Society — “have proved very successful over the past two years,” Ms. Ottofaro said.

The five-day whisky tour includes visits and tastings at a number of distilleries as well as on-board tastings in the train’s lounge car. For 2016, one trip is planned: April 25–29.

Belmond plans one Classic Golf Tour for June 13-17, 2016.

“This is a four-night journey through the heart of the Scottish Highlands,” Ms. Ottofaro said, “offering three rounds of golf at some of the country’s finest and most northerly of the UK’s championship golf courses.” One of the courses will be Gleneagles.

“The Heritage Homes and Gardens tour,” meanwhile, “has been received very well over the past two years,” she said. Next year the trip runs June 6-10.

“This is an exploration of Scotland’s most fascinating and scenic country homes and gardens,” said Ms. Ottofaro.

“It’s a special four-night tour hosted by an experienced gardener, a professional photographer and a freelance garden writer who provide guests with gardening tips and fascinating history along the way.”

Taking the perfect photo on the Royal Scotsman's outdoor rear platform. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Taking the perfect photo on the Royal Scotsman’s outdoor rear platform. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Meanwhile, officials said space was almost gone for several 2015 specialty tours, including the annual Grand Tour.

Just one double and one single cabin remain for the 8-day Grand Tour of England, Scotland and Wales, a Belmond reservations specialist told IRT yesterday. This year’s dates are July 10-17.

This year’s April 27-May 1 “Classic Whisky Tour” has one twin and two single cabins left.

A second 2015 “Classic Whisky” departure, July 5-9, has just one twin cabin remaining.

Drinking tea in the lounge car. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Drinking tea in the lounge car. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

More space is available for this year’s annual Heritage and Garden Tour, the spokesperson said: five twins and two singles. The dates are June 5-9.

Call (800) 478-4881 or email, if you’d like to grab a spot. IRT will accept bookings on a first-come, first-served basis. A 15% deposit is required to secure your booking. If the trip is within 60 days of travel, full payment will be required.

(Book by March 31 for value-added special offers for certain departures. Restrictions apply.)

“Booking soon gives you a better chance of getting just what you want,” IRT’s Mrs. Hardy said.


Lively conversation in the Royal Scotsman lounge. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

“Also, in general, the earlier you book, the closer you’ll be to the lounge and dining car. And that’s especially true for singles, since there are only four single cabins on each departure — with no single supplement.”

Another success story is the 2014 addition of the 3-night Edinburgh-London tour, Majestic England. An add-on return trip, “A Tale of Two Cities,” is an overnight London-Edinburgh journey whose emphasis is on-board food, spirits and ambience.

“We have seen encouraging sales for both journeys,” Ms. Ottofaro said.

The 3-night Edinburgh-London trip includes Alnwick Castle, home to the Duke of Northumberland’s family; York, site of the National Railway Museum; Sandringham, the Norfolk retreat of the Royal Family; and Cambridge.

Toddy time in the lounge car. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Toddy time in the lounge car. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Thus, a traveler could combine this 3-night Edinburgh-London trip to the one-night London-Edinburgh return journey.

“And twice each season — in August and September — the London itinerary has been scheduled so it can be added to a 5-day Classic journey through the Scottish Highlands,” Ms. Hardy said.

For questions or to book, call (800) 478-4881 (U.S. and Canada) or (502) 897-1725 (elsewhere). Or email us:

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.

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.


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!

Orient-Express Tops Week- Long Romantic Italian Holiday

11 Apr

© 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Al-Andalus: Whirlwind Tour Through Southern Spain, Part II

3 Jul

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.

Dinner on board the Al-Andalus

A main dinner course on the Al-Andalus: tuna with small pieces of crispy Iberian ham and vegetables.

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.”

Al-Andalus staff

Staff members of the Al-Andalus line up to say goodbye to passengers.

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.


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