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VSOE Tops in Classy Travel For Those Who Like to Play the Part

13 Mar
Eleanor Hardy on the VSOE. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Eleanor Hardy on the VSOE. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

If you ride just one luxury train, make it the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. But not if you hate dressing up.

So says Eleanor Flagler Hardy, president of The Society of International Railway Travelers®.

“What’s wrong with dressing up once in a while?,” she says. “My husband always says, ‘It’s like being in a play. You have to do your part.’”

Mrs. Hardy’s been booking guests on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) for 25 years. She’s also been a frequent guest and is acquainted with several of the staff. So she knows her stuff.

Track 25 caught up with her recently for a quick “Orient-Express FAQ” session.

Track 25: When’s the best time to travel on the VSOE?

Eleanor Flagler Hardy (EFH): Whenever you can go.

My favorite time is spring, because I love gardens. I recently received for my birthday 1001 Gardens You Must See Before You Die. Many are in locations served by the VSOE.

Track 25: Which itinerary do you and your guests like the most?

Local women in downtown Istanbul. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Local women in downtown Istanbul. IRT Photo by O. Hardy

EFH: One of the most popular trips on any of our World’s Top 25 Trains® is the Paris-Istanbul VSOE.

Track 25: Tell me something people may not know about the VSOE.

EFH: For one thing, it only travels March-November.

Plus, the Paris-Istanbul journey only goes once a year, in late August-early September.

And because of Paris-Istanbul’s popularity, we keep a wait list. Eight friends signed up two years ago to be on the 2016 “first notice” list. They’ll get called first (when the booking window opens).

Track 25: What about showers, etc.?

The VSOA ready for boarding in Venice. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

VSOE ready for boarding in Venice. IRT Photo by O. Hardy

EFH: There are no showers. And the toilets are down the hall.

But look, this is an antique train. The cars date from the 1920s and 1930s. This was luxury travel back then; it was the way Agatha Christie traveled.

And the cars are gorgeous. The polished brass, the Lalique crystal, the intricate wood inlay, the attention to detail. You’re literally traveling in another world.

Décor from the VSOE dining car L'Oriental. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Décor from the VSOE dining car L’Oriental. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy. IRT Poster by S. Sebree.

Track 25: The VSOE has three dining cars. Which is your favorite?

EFH: That’s like asking which of our two daughters I love more. I like the Lalique diner for dinner; L’Oriental for lunch.

Breakfast you have in your cabin, which I love. I love sipping my coffee or tea, having my breakfast in my room as the world rolls by.

Track 25: Is the VSOE for everyone? Won’t I feel like I’m in a geriatric ward?

EFH: No! There are people of all ages celebrating on the VSOE. If you’ve got something to celebrate, this train is for you. But if you absolutely hate wearing a tie, don’t go.

Track 25: What if I’ve never been on an overnight train before. Is this a good one to start with?

EFH: Since the VSOE has plenty of one-night experiences, I’d say yes.

Track 25: Which itinerary do you recommend for a first trip, and why?

EFH: I’d recommend Venice-Paris-London, or vice versa. Both are just one night, and there are plenty of dates. And in both directions, the departure and arrival times are very convenient.

I recommend starting or ending in London without question.

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Aboard the British Pullman. IRT Photo by O. Hardy

If you get off in Paris, you miss the trip to or from London on the British Pullman, a delightful day train whose food, service and décor rival those of the VSOE.

Also, if you get on in Paris going south, you’ll dine at 9:30 or 10 at night.

If you’re getting off in Paris traveling northbound, you have to get up early in the morning, have your breakfast and be off the train by about 8.

Track 25: I’ve already been on the VSOE. Is it worth going again?

EFH: Of course. There lots of great itineraries.

One is Venice-Prague-Paris or London. It has 2 nights on the train and 2 nights in Prague. We can book your four- or five-star hotels in Prague, Venice, Paris or London. In fact, we can custom-design your whole trip, with transfers, hotels, opera tickets, you name it.

Track 25: My wife and I are celebrating our 35th wedding anniversary in May. Would the VSOE be good for that?

Toddy time on the VSOE. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

Toddy time on the VSOE. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

EFH: Of course. The VSOE staff is excellent, and they know just how to make you feel special. And IRT will throw in something extra too.

Track 25: What kind of accommodations would you suggest for that, and why?

EFH: If your budget allows, the cabin suite gives you twice the space (of a regular double compartment) with two lower berths, two vanities, two windows. But it’s more expensive.

Track 25: What itinerary would you suggest for our anniversary?

Owen Hardy at the Cipriani, Venice, prior to boarding the VSOE

Owen Hardy at the Cipriani, Venice, prior to boarding the VSOE. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

EFH: Romantic Italian Holiday, an itinerary my husband and I created for our 30th wedding anniversary. Two nights in Florence, two nights in Venice, a night on the VSOE, and, as an option, two nights in London. It was fabulous.

Or you can get creative. I have a couple attracted to the Romantic Italian Holiday package, but they decided to substitute the Lake Como region for Florence. Our Virtuoso partner hotels there are fabulous, too.

Track 25: Thanks, Mrs. Hardy. Any parting words for our readers?

EFH: Back to the dress code. I don’t mean to sound stuffy, but you have to understand that many people on the VSOE are celebrating a major life event. They don’t want it spoiled.

IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Aboard the VSOE. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

And the VSOE keeps up its standards. If you don’t dress appropriately, they’ll be happy to serve you your elegant dinner in your room.

Which would be sad, because you’d be missing out on one of the most delightful dining experiences in Europe.

Want more Luxury Trains 101? Write or call: tourdesk@irtsociety.com or 800-478-4881 (US and Canada) or 502-897-1725. Or see our web site: http://www.irtsociety.com.

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 tourdesk@irtsociety.com, 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.

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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: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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Luxury Suites Get Pre-Launch ‘Debut’ on VIA Rail’s Canadian

4 Feb
VIA RAIL CANADA INC. - VIA Rail Canada unveils new Prestige

VIA Rail Canada’s new “Prestige Class” includes double beds and cabins 50 percent larger than standard. Photo courtesy VIA Rail Canada

Want to impress your partner on Valentine’s — or any other — day? Book a new Prestige Class bedroom between Toronto and Vancouver on VIA Rail’s famous Canadian, one of The Society of IRT’s World’s Top 25 Trains.

VIA recently introduced its up-market luxury service on a limited basis — something IRT Society travelers have wanted for years.

On my recent departure from Toronto, I found this beautiful, stainless steel sleeper waiting for me at the top of the escalator, coupled to a rebuilt round-end dome/observation car at the rear of the Canadian.

These cars soon will be joined by several more rebuilt sleepers, each with 6 spacious bedrooms. (The dome car also carries a handicapped room with entry directly off the vestibule).

VIA's round-end observation / lounge is a prime spot on its signature Toronto-Vancouver "Canadian." IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

VIA’s round-end observation / lounge is a prime spot on its signature Toronto-Vancouver “Canadian.” IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

There are many differences between Prestige Class and regular sleepers. Rooms are 50% bigger than a “one-up, one-down” cabin for two in the Sleeper Touring Class. And the window is 60% larger.

Each cabin includes a full, en suite bathroom. (For the first time on the Canadian, travelers will not have to share a shower with others.)

Not only is there a private shower, sink and toilet, there is a flat-screen TV (with a selection of videos) and a spacious L-shaped sofa that turns into a double bed (not a queen bed) at night. There are also many extra services that are provided including:

  • Unlimited free drinks, including alcoholic drinks
  • 24-hour butler service
  • First choice for meal sittings (if you prefer to eat early – or late – this is a great benefit, especially in the summer when the train is crowded.)
  • Separate greeting in the first-class lounge, and private escort to the train
  • Turn-down service
  • Free off-train tour in Winnipeg for westbound passengers (but only if the train’s on time)
  • Fully stocked mini bar and fridge

Official rollout is planned for summer, but bookings already have started.

Refurbished sofas in the observation / lounge. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

Refurbished sofas in the observation / lounge. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

Prestige Class is great for a couple needing more space and who don’t want to risk climbing into an upper bunk. The higher levels of service and privacy –especially the private, en suite bathroom – will appeal to IRT guests.  The 24/7 room service sounds great,too.

Of course all this comes at a price: up to $2,000 more per cabin for the Prestige Class compared with the regular first class sleeper cabin.

Here are the six legs available for Prestige Class and the costs:

  • Toronto – Winnipeg, and vice versa:   $4,104 CAD (About $3,228 US at today’s exchange rate.)
  • Toronto – Jasper, and v.v.:         $5,534 CAD (About $4,354 US at today’s rate.)
  • Toronto – Vancouver, and v.v.: $7,394 CAD (About $5,817 US at today’s rate.)

(All prices given here include taxes and are subject to change.)

Please note: the cost of Prestige Class has varied every time we’ve contacted VIA’s reservations desk. Two reservation agents told us Prestige Class prices are fixed throughout the year, while another said they fluctuate depending on availability. So stay tuned!

VIA Rail's "Canadian" trains feature stainless steel cars made by the Budd Company, Philadelphia, PA in 1955. Prestige Class marks the train's first major renovation. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

VIA Rail’s “Canadian” trains feature stainless steel cars made by the Budd Company, Philadelphia, PA in 1955. Prestige Class marks the train’s first major renovation. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

For IRT travelers, the most popular way to ride the Canadian is on the Toronto-Jasper leg of our tour, Trans-Canada Rail Adventure: Toronto-Vancouver. (The Rocky Mountaineer covers the Banff-Vancouver leg; the Jasper-Banff leg is covered by a motorcoach on the Icefields Parkway.) For availability and pricing using Prestige Class on the Canadian on this and any other tour, please contact our office: call (800) 478-4881, (502) 897-1725, or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Meanwhile, here’s some not-so-good news about the Canadian: no longer can you book the Romance Package — two double cabins remade into a suite with a double bed. And the triple bedroom no longer is available.

Bad news also for solo travelers: if you want sole use of a Prestige Class cabin, your cost will be the same as for two people.

Nevertheless, Prestige Class is a big deal. The Canadian Pacific Railway introduced the Canadian in 1955, albeit over a mostly different routing. Prestige Class is the train’s first major upgrade.

The service should be wildly popular. However the pricing works out, the busiest times for travel, such as summer, mean it’s smart to book quickly. So contact IRT ASAP!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historic Budapest-Tehran Luxury Rail Tour Wins Praise

9 Jan

IsfahanThe company which pioneered the rebirth of overnight luxury train travel with its Moscow-Vladivostok Trans-Siberian Express has scored perhaps its greatest coup: opening Iran to luxury rail.

By all accounts, Golden Eagle Luxury Trains’ inaugural running of the 4,100-mile Budapest-Istanbul-Tehran “Jewels of Persia” tour was a smashing success.

“The much-heralded arrival of this luxury period-style service,” proclaimed The Telegraph, “the first private European train permitted to enter the country, is being seen as headline evidence of the thaw in relations between the West and the Islamic Republic…”

The tour visits five countries and offers its guests a smorgasbord of experiences of Western and Eastern culture dating from the present to the beginnings of recorded history.

DE_In_Mountains“Iran is home to some of the world’s most magnificent historical and archaeological sites,” wrote Saeed Kamali Dehghan in The Guardian, which also covered the event. He said the tour’s itinerary includes relics of a proud civilization:

“Persepolis, the capital of the largest empire that the world has ever seen; the city of Isfahan; and Shiraz, the city of love and poetry.”

MilitaryBandThe Financial Times‘ Sophie Ibbotson was moved by Persepolis, founded by Darius the Great in 516 BC: “I sat transfixed by a single depiction of a Bactrian camel, lifelike and unscarred by man or time. The forces of Alexander the Great sacked Persepolis but, somehow, this image survived.”

IRT Society Member Marnie Schulz, interviewed by NBC News, said she was impressed by the hospitality and friendliness of Iran’s people. A seasoned world traveler, Ms. Schulz said she’s visited seven continents, but Iran was high on her list of must-see countries.

For the tour’s itinerary, prices and dates, please click here. To download a brochure, click here.

For more information or to book space on the Jewels of Persia tour, call The Society of International Railway Travelers at (800)  478-4881 (U.S. & Canada) or (502) 897-1725 (elsewhere).

Or use the contact form below to request more information.

 

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.

Boy_In_Market_Small_DSC_0754

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

Myanmar’s Orcaella Combines 2014 Comfort, Timeless Charm

25 Feb
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The new river cruiser Orcaella allows passengers to see Myanmar up close as people live their lives on the river, much as they’ve done for centuries. IRT Photos by Owen & Eleanor Hardy

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Fresh flowers are everywhere on the Orcaella

I’d just walked into my beautiful cabin aboard the brand-new, Orient Express riverboat Orcaella, ready for a 12-day cruise on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River.

As I opened the door to our private bath and shower, my eyes went straight to the slender silver vase with a single stalk of pink gladioli.

Like the flowers, our 25 Society of IRT clients, Owen & I gradually unwound from up to 24 hours of air travel. By the second or third day, our flowers were blooming – and so were we.

Built in Myanmar, the Orcaella’s not much to look at from shore — it resembles an elongated shoebox. But inside, it’s a showplace, from the gleaming Art Deco lamp sconces in the dining area, to the tasteful regional art throughout to the expertly laid-out cabins.

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Myanmar’s new river cruiser Orcaella is owned by the Orient Express company.

Orcaella is named for a breed of dolphin native to the Irrawaddy (a few of our guests were lucky enough to see some). The ship has three passenger levels. The two lower decks contain 25 cabins as well as the gorgeous dining area (more about that in a moment).

Most of the top deck is reserved for passenger comforts. It includes a wide-open space aft with plenty of room for lounging. The top deck also boasts an outdoor bar and an intimate indoor bar/lounge.

Forward is a small fitness center, with great equipment and a spa center (the massages are wonderful!). Farther forward still is the plunge pool and the brains of the whole operation, the bridge.

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IRT passenger Ron Fisher loved his super deluxe cabin suite aboard the Orcaella. This was perfect for reading, relaxing and gazing at the scenery.

The middle passenger deck contains two balcony suites forward, as well as five state cabins. The third deck contains the state and deluxe cabins, plus the reception area.

I saw all the cabins, and even the smallest (one of which Owen & I shared) is spacious, with floor-to-ceiling, sliding glass doors. The balcony suites are over-the-top luxurious. Their crowning feature is a private, outdoor sitting area, which affords a captain’s eye view forward as well as amidships.

The super deluxe cabins have a king-sized bed with a large sitting area, plus a huge storage area. The regular sized state cabins have all king-sized beds, walk-in closet, two great wicker chairs for admiring the river and large sliding glass doors.

 Our deluxe cabin had a king-sized bed (two twin beds also are available) ample bathroom and closet.

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IRT passenger David Minnerly talks with Orcaella Executive Chef Bansani Nawisamphan during lunch. Chef Nawisamphan happily accommodated diner’s special requests, such Mr. Minnerly’s Thai green curry.

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Art Deco accent in dining room

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Dining on the Orcaella is a peak experience. Tables for 2, 4, 6 or 8 are easily arranged. Here, IRT passengers from California, Idaho, Ohio and Belgium enjoy a meal.

Now, to the dining room, whose décor is as imaginative as the cuisine. A row of stately Buddha statues, and, nearby, a half-size sculpture of men carrying a heavy gong, greet diners outside the restaurant. Inside, the room is replete with antique statuary set into the room’s rear wall.

The room’s mixture of local and Continental décor mirrors Executive Chef Bansani Nawisamphan’s menus, an interplay between “Flavors of Asia” and table d’hote European cuisine.

Born in Thailand, the young Ms. Nawisamphan was “borrowed” by Orcaella from its older, larger cousin, the Orient-Express’ “Road to Mandalay,” which also plies the Irrewaddy.

Folk art from all over Myanmar graces Orcaella's public and private spaces.

Folk art from all over Myanmar graces Orcaella’s public and private spaces.

An Asian entrée might include “oriental marinated grilled chicken skewer served with curry peanut sauce” or “deep fried Myanmar sea bass in spicy sweet & sour sauce and steamed bok choy.”

Or, if one so chose, he could opt for “chef cured salmon with fennel salad, orange & lime dressing with herb cheese and caviar,  Australian beef tenderloin or oven-baked duck breast with stir-fried vegetable, spinach served with local honey and orange sauce.”

Well, you get the idea. Everything is over-the-top splendid and guaranteed to make you indulge. As our travelers said about the ship: “WOW!” and “They can’t do enough for you.”

And did I mention? Chef Nawisamphan gladly will make anything you like, provided that she can procure the ingredients and that you give her sufficient time.

Most nights, following dinner, we enjoyed local entertainment on the top deck: dancers and musicians, a traditional puppet show, an amazing young woman risking life and limb while toe-tapping a “cane ball,” a ceremonial elephant dance and – don’t want to spoil this for you – an incredible “surprise” about which I’ll say no more.

And, as if all the above weren’t enough, for those whose DNA requires an internet connection, the ship has WiFi (albeit with limited band width).

Plus every room has a flat-screen TV, which after watching for 5 minutes, Owen and I decided we didn’t need. There was a much better show outside our window.

And herein lies the best part of the Orcaella on-board experience: the ship is an unbeatable platform from which to admire the people and scenery of Myanmar.

View from our cabin window.

View from our cabin window.

Most mornings upon wake-up, Owen and I had coffee or cappuccino delivered to our room. Then, as we sat propped up in bed, we’d draw the curtains to watch the ever-changing scene: little fishing boats tootling past, great barges churning upstream, people bathing at the river banks, others loading containers of water onto their oxcarts, plus a constant parade of golden-domed pagodas.

And, as we interacted with the staff and, even more so, as we went ashore and encountered the remarkably friendly Burmese people, we felt privileged to be getting a glimpse of Myanmar’s awakening into the 21st century.

To go ashore and meet the people of Myanmar, please click here.

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

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