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?
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.?
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.
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?
I recommend starting or ending in London without question.
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?
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?
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.
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.