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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
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© 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.

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.”

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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.

Thailand’s “Death Railway”: Adventures on the Eastern & Oriental Express, Part II

25 Jun

Third Class local passenger train at Nam Tok station. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Editor’s note: To read Part I of Mr. Anderson’s adventures, please click here.

After deciding to book the Epic Thailand trip on the Eastern & Oriental Express (persuaded by Eleanor Hardy’s Track 25 blog), I opted to add the short Singapore-Bangkok route to the beginning of my adventure so that I could experience and see even more of this fascinating South Asian region. But unexpected hiccups while en-route to Bangkok left me wondering whether I’d make my primary Epic Thailand departure…

Eastern & Oriental Express at sunset. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Our Singapore-Bangkok itinerary was thrown off course first by a stalled local train in Malaysia and then by an engine failure just across the Thai border (the E&O is contracted by law to use only Malaysian and Thai Railway locomotives), putting us significantly behind schedule, so much so that the side trip to the Kwai River Bridge was abandoned so that we could make a more timely arrival into Bangkok. So although I’d be able to join the IRT group departing on the Epic Thailand tour the next morning (Phew!), I was disappointed that I’d missed seeing the famous Kwai River Bridge.

E & O observation car with bartenders Sopa & Andrek. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

My disappointment, however, was short-lived. The Eastern & Oriental Express staff arranged a complementary private car and guide to drive me out to Nam Tok upon my return to Bangkok, following my week-long Epic Thailand adventure. This was just one more shining example of the E&O’s outstanding commitment to customer service and satisfaction.

Despite Bangkok’s horrendous traffic, the trip to the Kwai Bridge was worth every exertion. Once across the bridge, I saw the two plinthed steam locomotives on site and had time for a brief visit to the cemetery before our return trip to the capital.

For more information and for reservations on the Eastern & Oriental Express, visit the Society of International Railway Traveler’s 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.

Thailand’s “Death Railway”: Adventures on the Eastern & Oriental Express, Part I

4 Jun

The Kwai River Bridge. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Since its inception, The Eastern & Oriental Express has been on my bucket list of trains to ride. But it was IRT President Eleanor Hardy’s Track 25 blog that finally made me book the trip. And as long as I was going halfway around the world, I decided to add the standard E&O four-day Singapore-Bangkok route to the beginning of my trip.

Unlike their semi-annual one-week tours (ours was Epic Thailand), this route runs regularly during high season and continues on a less frequent schedule throughout the year. In fact, the journey is more like a scheduled train than a tour, as stops are made to entrain passengers at the Malaysian cities of Kuala Lampur and Butterworth.

The train is much more than “general transportation,” however, and is every bit as impressive as outlined in Ms. Hardy’s blog. The staff is top-notch – attentive but not overbearing. What I didn’t expect was to be greeted by name by bartender Andrek asking if I was ready for my iced tea! How did he know? Of course, preferences were indicated on the booking form, but those are often a formality soon forgotten.

The War Cemetary at Kanachanaburi. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Conductor on local train. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Off-train tours are offered in the colonial Malaysian city of Georgetown and to Kanchanaburi, site of the Kwai River bridge. I, however, had planned to venture out on my own, leaving the E&O at the Kwai River Station and continuing by local train to the end of the line, 45 miles north at Nam Tok.

This track is what’s left of the Thai-Burma “Death Railway,” constructed by allied prisoners of World War II and made famous by the movie “Bridge Over the River Kwai.” The Allied War Cemetery at Kanchanaburi, with over 6,000 graves, lies in silent testament to the horror of what transpired there.

But all was not going according to plan. Would I make it to Bangkok in time, I wondered, to join the 19 other IRT travelers leaving on the Epic Thailand tour?

For part II of Bruce Anderson’s adventures in Thailand, please click here.

Royal Rajasthan: Great Food, Service, Tours; But Luxurious It Is Not (And Drop the Shopping)

22 Mar

Editor’s Note: Thank you for this great post by our traveler, Robert Shelton of Houston, TX., who traveled on this train in February, 2012.

Royal Rajasthan staff member welcomes travelers on board. IRT Photo by Robert Shelton

If you are searching for an efficient and comfortable tour of the sights surrounding Delhi, the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels‘ Classical India Journey may be your answer.   In seven days you can explore the numerous temples and forts, varied landscapes and diverse cultures throughout the colorful states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Also included are a fascinating exploration of the wonders of life along the holy Ganges River and a tour of the Taj Mahal.

Royal Rajasthan on Wheels cabins include private sink, toilet & shower. RROW Photo

On board the Royal Rajasthan you will find adequate accommodations for your trip, including two dining cars and a spa car. Though marketed as a new train, the Royal Rajasthan is at best “newly refurbished” with fresh paint, new linens and updated bathrooms.  Luxury and modern amenities, such as in-room entertainment and individual temperature controls, are notably absent.

The train's two diners serve Rajasthani, Indian, continental and Chinese cuisines. RROW Photo

The food on board is excellent, with multiple Continental and Indian offerings each day.  The service is equally as impressive.  The room attendants are at your beck and call 24/7. They’re also available to accompany you for most memorable jaunts outside the standard itinerary. The spa car has a treadmill and two stationary bikes.  Basic massages, facials and mani/pedis are very inexpensive; however, expect the ambiance and quality of a 2- or 3-star spa.

The itinerary is varied and packed full. However, too much time is dedicated to “forced shopping” in overpriced boutiques with merchandise that is widely available back home.  Seasoned travelers will be highly annoyed with the train managers’ excuses and insistence on visiting these shops.  If you wish to avoid them, insist on an early return to the train and then promptly collect your room attendant for a “tuck-tuck” adventure to local markets and other off-the-beaten-path sights.

Regardless of the train’s shortcomings, the Royal Rajasthan does provide a broad exposure to some of Northern India’s best historical and cultural sights.  Just make sure luxury is not your top criteria.

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