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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

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

A Day in the Ukrainian Forest Riding The Carpathian Tram

23 Apr
The authors' narrow-gauge diesel railcar crosses the Mizunka River on its journey into the Carpathian Forest.

The authors’ narrow-gauge railcar crosses the Mizunka River in the Carpathian Forest.

By Bruce Anderson and Yana Kirpel; photos by Mr. Anderson

Deep in the Ukraine’s Ivano-Frankivsk region, surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, chugs a little train from another era: the narrow-gauge “Carpathian Tram.”

On summer weekends, this unique, tiny train allows tourists to admire the Carpathian Mountains’ natural beauty, visit remote villages, pick mushrooms, drink mineral water, and experience local Ukrainian culture.

The original line was built in 1873 by Austrian timber merchant Baron Leopold to haul lumber from the forest. Many of the beautiful wood homes in the region are reminders of his efforts.

Originally there were 84 miles of 750-mm track. A 1990 flood reduced that length by about half. Today, the Carpathian Tram is the Ukraine’s only remaining narrow-gauge forestry line in regular use.

The same company that built the railway also developed spa resorts. The region remains a major holiday destination — one that continues to provide passengers for the train’s tourist operation. The tram typically runs from the village of Vygoda to Gorgany, a distance of about nine miles.

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The view from the back platform shows the often twisted narrow gauge course through the mountains

We took our Carpathian Tram tour during spring break. We rented a single railcar for our exclusive use, and we’re glad we did. The railcar’s cozy seats took up the rear three-quarters of the vehicle, with the driver’s compartment up front. That made it easy to chat with our friendly driver. (He even let us blow the whistle!)

A noon whistle blast, in fact, signaled our departure. Soon we were on our way, winding and climbing along the bank of the Mizunka River. We would cross four of the line’s more than 30 bridges during our day-long adventure.

We made several stops en route. The first was to sample mineral water from a natural spring. This water is said to have healing properties and is highly recommended for good health.

The co-author and her son Kirell enjoy a typical Ukrainian breakfast in the Carpathian countryside.

The co-author and her son Kirell enjoy a typical Ukrainian breakfast in the Carpathian countryside.

A bit further down the line, a local resident invited us to her house for a typical Ukrainian breakfast: bacon, potatoes, bread, herbal teas and vareniki (a Ukrainian specialty of dumplings filled with meat, potatoes and mushrooms). There was also — of course — vodka, made in part from the local mineral water!

A log train makes its way along the Ukraine's only remaining forestry railway.

A log train makes its way along the Ukraine’s only remaining forestry railway.

During our breakfast, a real, working, narrow-gauge log train passed us on its way down to the mill.

Our last stop was at a small hanging bridge where we walked across the river to pick flowers and admire the natural beauty of the region.  We wanted to go further. But all too soon, we had to return to Vygoda to end our trip before dusk.

Practical Information:  Vygoda is about two hours’ drive south of Lviv in Western Ukraine; it can only be reached by car over very rough roads. However, it’s very easy to arrange a private transfer from Lviv for the day. Cost for the tram is about $19 per person, not including the breakfast. We charted the entire railcar for about $125. Summer trips typically last a bit longer, running from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with more stops along the way and an open-air car included.  For further information, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers.

(Bruce Anderson is a frequent IRT contributor. His friend Yana is a resident of Kiev.)

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