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Venice’ Cipriani, Florence’ Villa San Michele Round Out a Week of Orient-Express Excess

11 Apr
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The breakfasts are sumptuous at the Villa San Michele. IRT Photo by O. Hardy

(To read part one of Eleanor & Owen Hardy’s “Romantic Italian Holiday,” please click here.)

The Villa San Michele, Florence

The magic begins the moment you arrive at Florence’ airport or railway station, when you are met by your driver for your private transfer to the Villa San Michele. Nestled on a hilltop surrounded by trees and terraced gardens, it overlooks the city of Florence, spread out before you like a sepia-toned Renaissance map.

Eleanor and I succumbed. Avid gardeners, we spent our first day walking the Villa’s gardens, filled with lemon trees and roses. We swam in the heated pool, perched above the building. That evening, we dined alfresco in the loggia on the superb Tuscan cuisine, as we watched the Duomo catch the last of the sun’s rays.

The next day is reserved for sight-seeing. If you’re like us, you’ll take full advantage, perhaps visiting on your own the more well-known sights: the Uffizi Gallery, the Accademia Gallery, the Boboli Gardens, then letting your private guide drive you further afield to some of Florence’ more exclusive attractions.

The Hotel Cipriani, Venice

You repeat this gentle schedule in Venice, following your first-class transfer via Trenitalia ETR 600 high-speed train.

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The Cipriani. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

This time it’s the Cipriani, whose overwhelming delights keep you from leaving-even with “The Most Serene Republic of Venice” beckoning. Following a warm greeting from the front desk-we’d arrived at midday-we were escorted to a waterside table for an alfresco lunch, preceded by sparkling, cold Bellinis-peach nectar mixed with champagne-one of the Cipriani’s signature drinks.

Our dinner at the more formal Fortuny restaurant probably ranks as our anniversary week’s peak dining experience. Eleanor declared her scampi the best she’d ever tasted. (More than one admiring diner from nearby tables asked her what she’d ordered.)

The two balconies of our deluxe two-room suite overlooked the lagoon-perfect for room-service breakfasts. Inside, the Moorish-themed décor featured incredible silk and glass Fortuny lamps, pale green Moorish trim on the walls and delicate Venetian mirrors.

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Breakfast at the Cipriani. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

Dining at the Cipriani is reason enough to travel to Venice. Our first night we ate at the Cip’s Club, a floating restaurant built on pontoons. The sky turned rose over the Grand Canal, as boats glided past and candlelight danced on the tables.

Speedboat to Paradise

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The Cipriani’s classic speed boat. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Meanwhile, if you can tear yourself away from the restaurants, check out the Cipriani’s swimming pool, the largest in Venice. We began our day with touring – water taxi to Murano, a visit up the bell tower, a lovely afternoon dancing, listening to music and enjoying a light lunch at the Café Florian on San Marcos Square. The experience was delightful but intense, what with the hordes of tourists, especially when a cruise ship docked.

What to do? Directly opposite San Marcos’ Square, we boarded the hotel’s free shuttle, a classic wooden speedboat, back to the Cipriani. Travel time was all of 10 minutes (the service is available around the clock and departs every 10 minutes.).

“The open-air bar overlooks the pool, giving this gorgeous place the atmosphere of a Mediterranean resort,” Eleanor wrote in her diary. “The pool is heated to a perfect temperature. You feel so buoyant in the salt water, you could swim all day. It’s a blessing to escape far from the madding crowds.”

For more information on how you can take your own “Romantic Italian Holiday,” click here. To read a short account of our Orient-Express trip, please click here. To see a photo gallery of our Orient-Express adventure, click here.

Orient-Express Tops Week- Long Romantic Italian Holiday

11 Apr
VSOE-postcard

© 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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?

Got ‘em! 10 Cabins for Orient-Express Istanbul Extravaganza

31 May

Military band at Budapest station greets Orient-Express.

The world economy is picking up steam. And travelers are dashing for luxury trains — especially the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

That’s especially true for next year’s two annual trips: Paris-Istanbul (Aug. 31-Sept. 5) and Istanbul-Venice (Sept. 7-12).

The recent PBS special featuring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot on “Murder on the Orient Express,” as well as his travelogue on the train, set phones ringing  around the world. People want to do what David Suchet did — enjoy several nights on the Orient Express in all its elegance and splendor, with hotels and sightseeing, too.

If you want a spot, contact us now.  The wait list is long for Paris-Istanbul 2012. If your heart is set on that trip, better get on the list now for 2013.  The wait list is lengthy for the 2012 Istanbul-Venice journey, too. The difference: The Society of IRT is honored to have been allocated space for up to 20 guests for this final departure of the season. (There are no Paris-Istanbul allocations.)

The Paris-Istanbul and Istanbul-Venice itineraries are identical except for direction of travel and the western terminal city. But if you choose Istanbul-Venice – and do it very soon – we can confirm you immediately.

“The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is not reality; it is delightful, delirious fantasy.” I’m quoting myself after our 2003 Paris-Istanbul group tour celebrating the IRT Society’s 20th anniversary. We published a long article about the trip in The International Railway Traveler.®

I’m not gushing. Every stop was an event.

‘Old-Timer’ Istanbul streetcar

“A 40-person VSOE staff on the train, and a further 40 staff ‘ashore,’ pulled off this logistical three-ring-circus,” I said. “Our train was met by everything from a red-jacketed Hungarian military band to native-clad Bulgarian dancers to the exotic, reedy whine of Ottoman-style Turkish musicians.”

You may have visited the itineraries’ stops:  Paris, Venice, Istanbul, Budapest, Bucharest and Varna, Bulgaria. But if you haven’t visited them on the Orient-Express, you’ll have missed one of the iconic rail tours of all time.

Cost: $9,750 per person, double, or $14,710, single, for Istanbul-Venice.

Click here for the itinerary, here to reserve, then we’ll call you to confirm your space and to take an immediate 15% credit card deposit. Be sure you give us your correct phone and email. We’ll take deposits in the order of reservations.

Please don’t wait.  We’ll be able to hold onto these cabins for a week or two at best.

And if you’ve traveled on one of the Istanbul journeys, please reply here!

Bargain LuxRail for Bunny-Quick Bookers

6 Apr

Rail travel bargains are popping up like crocus this spring on some of our World’s Top 25 Trains if you act by June 30:

Royal Scotsman

• Save $1,210 per person for 6-day Grand West Highland tours departing June 22nd and July 27.
• Free night at Edinburgh’s luxury Balmoral Hotel with any 3-day Highland journey booking.

More info: click here

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

• Free night at Venice’s fabulous Cipriani Hotel when two persons book a cabin suite on the 8-day northbound trip to Krakow, Dresden and London (subject to availability).

• Complimentary on-board credit (for drinks or items from the train boutique) on the 2-day London to Venice (or v.v.) trip: up to 400 Euro per couple or 150 Euro per single traveler.

More info: click here

Eastern & Oriental Express

• Book 4-day Bangkok-Singapore tour (or v.v.) by June 30, 2011 and receive one free night at the St. Regis in Bangkok and one night at the St. Regis in Singapore. Restrictions apply. This is for 2011 departures only.
• Take 25 percent off the regular per-person fare on the 3-day southbound Bangkok-Singapore tours departing Bangkok May 11, June 8 and July 6, 2011. Restrictions apply.
• Complimentary hotel nights pre- and post-tour on all Extended Tours; Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental for Epic Thailand and Laos Extended Tours; Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental and Singapore’s Raffles Hotel for Singapore-Bangkok and Bangkok-Singapore Extended Tours. Restrictions apply. This is for 2011 departures only.

Rocky Mountaineer

Book any 2011 Rocky Mountaineer vacation of 7 nights or more by June 30 and receive 2 for 1 airfare between select cities and Vancouver, Calgary or Toronto.

More info, please call 800-478-4881 or 502-454-0277

El Transcantábrico

Deep discounts (call for specifics) on this gem of a Spanish luxury train if you book as little as four months before departure. Best discounts are for September.  Availability is tight on many departures.

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

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