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The Ukraine by Sleeper Train: Kiev to Lviv in Cozy Comfort

19 Nov
Ukrainian Railway Station

A local train at Lviv Station. Photo by Bruce Anderson

Picture this:

It’s 8 in the evening at a large metropolitan railway station. The departures board shows multiple tracks of sleeping-car trains bound for various locations throughout the country – and beyond.

Is this North America in the 1950s? No, it’s Kiev’s main railway station a few weeks ago. It’s crowded with passengers heading for their cozy compartments for overnight trains to faraway places both in the Ukraine and beyond. With my friend Yana from Kiev, I boarded Train #13 bound for Lviv (also spelled Lvov) in western Ukraine.

I counted at least 15 sleeping cars of various configurations, all appearing to be full.

The boarding process is simple. Locate your track, and head down the stairs. The train is platformed 45 minutes before departure (Amtrak, are you listening?)  Once on board, the stoic car attendant, no doubt a holdout from Soviet days, takes your tickets and offers tea or coffee, which he brings to your room. The next day’s wake-up call is provided by the attendant without asking, 30 minutes out. Beds are typical Soviet style: narrow and with a small space in between the two in our first-class compartment. Facilities are down the hall.

Our arrival into Lviv was on time at, gulp, 5 a.m. It’s just enough time for a good night’s sleep on smooth, broad-gauge track.

Citidel Hotel

The author’s friend Yana stands before Lviv’s Citadel Hotel, a converted 19th-century fortress. Photo by Bruce Anderson

Unlike most Ukrainian cities, Lviv was untouched by the war and has wonderful architecture dating from the 13th century. Not to be missed are the Coffee Museum (Lvivska Kopalna Kavy, Rynok Pl. 10), located in an old salt mine, Opera House, and, if you like chocolate, the most wonderful store full of every type imaginable (Lviv Chocolate Factory, 3 Serbska Street).

Our last meal was at the secret Kryivka  (secret place) restaurant, which is devoted to the WWII insurgent Ukrainian army called UPA – you can’t get in without a password. (Sorry, I can’t divulge the address on line!) Our return to Kiev on Train #144 over a slightly different routing was much the same, with a 20-minute early arrival.

Lviv estate

Pidhirtsi Castle near Lviv. Many of Lviv’s fine old country estates and manor houses are being renovated. Photo by Bruce Anderson

I highly recommend traveling by train in the Ukraine or in any former Soviet country. It’s an efficient and relatively inexpensive alternative to internal flights on sometimes questionable airlines.

A trip to the Ukraine would be a great add-on to a Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express journey or Black Sea cruise. For more information, call The Society of International Railway Travelers® at (800) 478-4881 within the U.S. or Canada; (502) 897-1725 elsewhere.

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.

The Al-Andalus: Whirlwind Tour Through Southern Spain

9 Jun

IRT writer Angela Walker and traveling companion Shawn Bidwell enjoy dinner on board the Al-Andalus.  IRT photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

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.

View of the Alhambra from our wonderful local restaurant in Granada. IRT photo by Angela Walker

Al-Andalus passenger Shawn Bidwell disembarks the train in Granada. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

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.

The staff of the Al-Andalus is always at the ready with hot coffee and tea during daily breakfast on board. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

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.

Futuristic Luxury Train to Call at Quebec Ski Resort Complex

25 Aug

Credit: Morelli Designer

Two years in the making, and inspired by a co-founder of the Cirque du Soleil, Canada’s “Train de Le Massif de Charlevoix” is scheduled to begin running Sept. 9 between Québec City and La Malbaie.

The eight-car train will provide guests with scenic vistas along the St. Lawrence River, fine dining and a high-tech, touristic program, its promoters say. The one-way trip will last three and a half hours.

The train is a project of the Canadian ski resort and leisure company Le Massif de Charlevoix.

During the trip, the company says, “passengers discover the Charlevoix terroir at its best, savoring a refined lunch served on the morning cruise and a lovely four-course gastronomic dinner on the return journey. All along the way, a unique multi-media presentation accompanies the rail experience.”

Le Massif de Charlevoix

The 87-mile route hugs the St. Lawrence River shoreline, passing the 272-foot Chute Montmorency waterfall, the Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Reserve (famous for bird-watching) and several historic seaside towns.

Upon arrival in La Malbaie, passengers have a three-hour stopover for strolling down the pier, wandering along the shores of the St. Lawrence River, admiring the Fairmont Le Manor Richelieu (a luxury Quebec resort) or visiting regional attractions, the company says.

Artist's conception of the Train of le Massif de Charlevoix

In addition, the operator is encouraging rail travelers to stay in the area for extended visits of one or two nights. Activities such as sea kayaking on the St. Lawrence River, paragliding, bicycling, hiking, rock-climbing and a visit to the Charlevoix Museum all are possible in the immediate area.

For a more extended vacation, passengers can stay at the Fairmont Le Manor Richelieu, which boasts a casino, golf courses, spa, restaurants and carriage rides. (One of IRT’s favorite hotel groups: we are preferred agents.)

The train is one element in a massive recreation project by Groupe Le Massif de Charlevoix. The project also encompasses a ski resort and the Hôtel La Ferme lodging complex.

Le Massif de Charlevoix

The train’s bi-level cars were built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1955 and 1956 for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway. Before being sold to Groupe Le Massif, they were operated in Chicago commuter service.

According to the operator, the railroad cars resemble an architect-inspired “mobile structure more than a train.”

“Between now and December,” the operator says, “eight dove-grey railcars inscribed with poetic texts… will be coupled to their charcoal grey locomotives.”

Those locomotives are two 1,800 hp RS-18 locomotives built by Montreal Locomotive Works. They’ll pull two power cars that double as baggage cars and eight passenger cars.

La Malbaie - Le Massif de Charlevoix

The service will begin with two 60-passenger cab cars. By the end of the fall season, the company expects to have added an additional six passenger cars, each with a capacity of 68 passengers. The cars will have 11-foot ceilings held up by solid steel beams.

Each passenger car will be equipped with a kitchen designed to serve approximately 70 gourmet lunches and dinners. Menus for the on-board dining service have been developed by Jean-Michel Breton, Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu Executive Chef.

Round trip adult fare is $249 Canadian. The fare includes the meals and program aboard the train. The train is scheduled to depart Quebec at 10 a.m., arriving at La Malbaie at 1:30 p.m.

The train will depart La Malbaie at 4:30 p.m., with arrival in Quebec at 8 p.m. The train will operate Friday through Sunday through Sept. 18, and Wednesday through Sunday beginning Sept. 21.

For reservations and more information, call (418) 632-5876 or, toll free, (877) 536-2774.  If you would like IRT to organize a package for you, we’d be happy to.  Our reporter, Anthony Lambert of the UK, is scheduled to review this next spring. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, while we sincerely wish this project well, in the 28 years we’ve been in this business, we’ve reported on many ambitious luxury rail projects. Most have been short-lived or have never reached the operational stage. What are your thoughts about this one?

Thriving on a Corner in Winslow, AZ: La Posada

16 Jun
La Posada Hotel

La Posada Hotel was built in 1929 by the Santa Fe Railroad. Bruce Anderson

If you ever find yourself on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, consider a stop in Winslow, Ariz. – and not just because it’s a line in the famous Eagles song (“standin’ on the corner in Winslow, Arizona”).

It’s also the home of La Posada, a former Santa Fe Railroad hotel, and one of architect Mary Colter’s grandest creations.

During the heyday of passenger rail travel in the United States, the Santa Fe built numerous “Harvey Houses” in the major western cities on its route. Many of these southwestern-themed buildings were designed by Colter, who also was responsible for hotels at several of the western national parks.

Grand Canyon Railroad

Steam charter on the Grand Canyon Railroad. Bruce Anderson

I recently had the pleasure of staying at this wonderfully restored hotel en route to a steam photo charter trip on the Grand Canyon Railroad.

La Posada’s career as a hotel ended in 1957, when rail travel also began to decline. But 40 years later, things changed, when artists Allan and Tina Affeldt bought the building and restored it to its former glory. Allan and Tina moved in and never looked back. They still live there today, and their restoration continues.

Southwest Chief

Amtrak's Southwest Chief stops daily at La Posada. B. Anderson

The inn has 22 guest rooms, the full-service “Turquoise Room” restaurant, a formal sunken garden, and best of all, an adjacent Amtrak station, which is served daily by the Chief.

The hotel is indeed a masterpiece of architecture and art.  It was voted one of the top 10 affordable hotels in the United States by TripAdvisor.com and one of the “World’s Best Places to Stay” by Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List. Room rates range from $109 for a standard to $169 for larger accommodations. All are filled with historic photos, fine art, murals, full baths and views of the gardens. There are also plans to house a Route 66 museum in the Amtrak station.

I highly recommend this hotel for anyone interested in southwestern architecture and railroad history.  A true gem.

To reserve, call (928) 289-4366. Or reserve here on the hotel’s website. (Editor’s note: La Posada is not on the itinerary of the IRT Society’s “Grand Canyon Discovery by Amtrak” independent tour. But the tour could be customized to add La Posada.)

A Very Unusual Guest on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

18 Mar

Reporting from the Venice-Paris-Calais route of  Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Continued from Part One

The Hardys on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. IRT Photo

Following lunch in diner “L’Oriental,” our train glides northwards towards the Italian/Swiss border. Eleanor and I laze in our double compartment, sleeping, reading, gazing out our open window…

…and daydreaming how we meet the most interesting people on train trips.

My thoughts drift back to Venice, where we spent two glorious nights at the five-star Hotel Cipriani, and where we met a charming young Brit named Alan.

Cipriani garden. E. Hardy, IRT

We were relaxing on a bench in one of the hotel’s incredible gardens, when a young man waved to us.  We waved back.

Despite the metal stud in his lip, two more in his eyebrow, and his  unkempt hair and beard, he was dressed in a beautiful suit and tie. Friendly as he was, I took him to be a member of the Cipriani staff.

But he was a guest. And he was simply overwhelmed, he told us, to be at the Cipriani, where he’d arrived the day before from London on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. He and his new bride were spending five nights at the Cipriani before returning to London, again on the Orient-Express. They thought of the most wonderful thing they  might do for their honeymoon, and round trip on the Orient Express and five nights at this fabulous hotel was just the ticket.

The Hotel Cipriani, Venice. E. Hardy, IRT

He said he was in the process of selling his company, which provided security against credit card fraud.

Interesting business, we said, and we’re sure you’re busy. Oh very, he responded.

How did he happen into that line of work? we asked.

“I used to be engaged in credit-card fraud myself,” he explained cheerily. “Never did much at school. Dropped out when I was 16. I’ve been working ever since.”

Indeed, we said.

But then Alan got caught by the police and, apparently, served at least part of his sentence by teaching the authorities how to protect against people like himself. His services were sufficiently valuable that he founded his own company, which he was in the process of selling – at age 27. His clients included such multi-national corporations as SONY and American Express. From the sound of it, it seemed this would be the last work he would need to do.

Fortuny Restaurant, Hotel Cipriani. Eleanor Hardy, IRT

He was a charming young man, thrilled by the Orient-Express, thrilled by the Cipriani, and delighted to meet us.  He wanted to know if we had a dining recommendation. We spied him at dinner that night on the outdoor patio of the Fortuny restaurant, two tables away, with his young bride. He waved again.

Our dining reservation card on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Our dining reservation card on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

They looked like two children playing dress-up. They probably could buy us out many times over. I gave him our card (but not our credit card) and said I hoped he’d travel with The Society of International Railway Travelers some day.

Maybe we’ll meet again on the Paris-Istanbul Orient-Express for his fifth — and our 35th — wedding anniversary.

Or maybe we’ll wind up back at the Cipriani following the great train’s last run of the season, Istanbul-Venice.

Wherever we meet, we wish him well and echo his appreciation of the world’s great luxury trains.

More pictures of the Cipriani.

Next time: Part 3 – Dinner in the Côte D’Azur

Some Great Railroad Hotels — (and Others Accessible by Rail)

5 Nov
Glacier Park Lodge

Lobby, Glacier Park Lodge & Resort in Montana.

Great story in the Arizona Republic today about railroad hotels, which you’ll find here.

I’ve been to the three Canadian hotels mentioned in the story; all are incredible and worth extended stays. And during a family trip to Glacier Park via Amtrak’s Empire Builder, we visited the Glacier Park Lodge but did not stay there. We opted for the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, MT, a rustic hotel opened in 1939 to cater to Great Northern Railroad employees. It’s a charming hotel and a great place to watch trains; the trade-off is it’s not centrally located, and you have to drive a considerable distance just to get to Lake McDonald.

Prince of Wales Hotel

Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada

(The IRT Society’s Glacier Park Discovery Tour, incidentally, includes the Empire Builder between Seattle and Chicago as well as three nights at the Glacier Park Lodge and one night at Many Glacier Hotel, another former Great Northern property. And don’t forget to have afternoon tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel, another Great Northern creation; it proudly bills itself as “the most photographed hotel in the world.”)

St. Louis Union Station Marriott Hotel

St. Louis Union Station Marriott Hotel

I’m also a fan of St. Louis’ old railroad hotel, now a Marriott, located in Union Station, and easily accessible via Metrolink light rail and a 10-minute walk from the present Amtrak station.  And, some years back, fellow IRT Society member David Minnerly put us on to a comfortable little hotel, the Mornington, just a five-minute walk from London’s Paddington Station. Not a railroad hotel as such, but still an inexpensive hostelry accessible by rail and within walking distance of Hyde Park.

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