A Tale of a Sea Cloud Voyage: The Magic Was in the Sailing

15 Nov
The Sea Cloud's distinctive square sails billow against a cloud-filled sky. IRT Photo by R. Fisher

The Sea Cloud’s distinctive square sails billow against a cloud-filled sky. IRT Photo by R. Fisher

When Cathy Jackson entered her Sea Cloud cabin, she burst into tears.

“Don’t you like your room?” implored the steward. “You don’t like the white?”

Quite the contrary, she replied. “I love it! I feel as if I were inside a wedding cake!”

Her husband Clay had surprised her with Cabin No. 1, the lavish personal quarters of none other than Marjorie Merriweather Post.  Cathy said she felt like a princess.

Sea Cloud sailors climb the ratlines. IRT Photo by R. Fisher

Sea Cloud sailors climb the ratlines. IRT Photo by R. Fisher

The Sea Cloud is that kind of ship: a one-of-a-kind fairy tale masterpiece of marine design. Built in 1931 and still going strong, the four-masted bark is the world’s last authentic square-rigged luxury sailing yacht.

Since I am an old sailor, I jumped at the chance to sail the Sea Cloud, and arrange for a lively group of Society of International Railway Travelers guests to join us. It was a huge success.

Our route was a dream: from Dubrovnik, Croatia down the Dalmatian Coast to Athens, Greece.  We sailed the Adriatic, the Ionian and the Aegean seas. But it was the ship itself that lured me away from my familiar railway haunts.

As befitting a multi-millionaire’s yacht, the Sea Cloud is a work of art on water. And the 84-year-old, 360-foot sailing ship is surprisingly comfortable as well.

From the smallest cabin to the 8 original “guest cabins” below decks to the two owners’ suites – the aforementioned white-and-gold Mrs. Post confection and the darker, decidedly masculine quarters of Marjorie’s then husband, E.F. Hutton – most were masterpieces of planning as well as décor.

Our twin-bedded room had ample storage space in a variety of lockers, and bureaus and under the beds as well as a large hanging closet — with 22 hangers.

Detail from Sea Cloud Cabin No. 1 — Marjorie Merriweather Post's personal suite. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Detail from Sea Cloud Cabin No. 1 — Marjorie Merriweather Post’s personal suite. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

The marble bathroom was small but efficient. It had multiple brass towel racks, pegs and hooks, ample storage space under the sink for toiletries, and a powerful shower that rivaled most on land.

The food also was ample and delicious, reflecting the cuisines of the areas through which we passed: Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and Greece.

Fresh-from-the-seas fish, octopus, calamari, shrimp, scampi and more – not to mention the freshest salads and local cheeses and fruits were staples of the cruise.

A smoked ham, for example, came straight from a smokehouse atop Montenegro’s mountains. The Croatian wines — both whites and reds — were fabulous.

No one possibly could have gone hungry. Nor could they complain about the very well-stocked bar on the lido deck.

“Bebot” Roldan, a 33-year Sea Cloud veteran, is a master “mixologist.” And he’d stocked his bar with many a premium spirit, including “Carlos Primero,” a favorite brandy of IRT’s guests Olga & Orlando Herrera and José and Maria Becerra Martin. Their fame for warm hospitality and friendship quickly spread to our entire group (we were 14 in all).

Sea Cloud crew member cleaning up in the galley after lunch. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Sea Cloud crew member cleaning up in the galley after lunch. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

The Orient-Express of the Seas is how I’ve described the Sea Cloud, based on its rich history and stunning décor. But the similarity also can be seen in the professionalism of the personnel.

The Sea Cloud’s captain and crew, coupled with the dedication of the Lindblad team, made for an even more seamless experience.

When the young deck hands weren’t scampering up the rigging to set the sails, they were varnishing, painting and repairing, and doing the thousands of other tasks sailors have done for centuries. And they did it all with smiles and enthusiasm.

Meal and cabin service was equally professional and warm. And it would be hard to find anyone more enthusiastic than Tom O’Brien, the congenial and professional Lindblad expeditions leader, who seemed to live and breathe the romantic life of square-rigged sailing.

The Sea Cloud is a remarkably stable ship. We encountered rough seas one or two times. But her relatively small size – she carries a maximum of just 64 passengers – means she can duck into coves and inlets too shallow for the big cruise ships.

We covered an amazing amount of territory in just 10 days. We visited quaint villages, vibrant harbors and a host of World Heritage Sites from ancient Greek and Roman times. (Click here for our itinerary.)

The Sea Cloud as seen from the ramparts of Dubrovnik's city walls. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

The Sea Cloud as seen from the ramparts of Dubrovnik’s city walls. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Best of all were the voyage’s final two days, which were reserved for “pure sailing.” Captain Sergey Konstantin ordered his men aloft to set our principal square sails. Suddenly, the ship’s auxiliary engines fell silent.

And there we were, much like the square-riggers of old: our bow cutting through the waves, the wake roiling from the stern and the ship’s standards snapping smartly in the stiff breeze.

For the strong-willed few who made it up to catch the sunrise (I did so only once), it was a magical sight to see the dawn come up over the Aegean with the ship under full sail.

The effect was mesmerizing. This was the way it used to be: in Marjorie Merriweather Post’s time – and for much of maritime history.

Reviews from Society of International Railway Travelers guests were raves. They’re not giving up their love of train trips — but they loved this ship.

“What a great trip!” said R. Fisher, of Arlington, Va., in an email earlier this week.

Sea Cloud lines. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Sea Cloud lines. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

“I loved the shore excursions, as always…But the thing I’ll remember is being aboard that ship. And watching the sailors unfurl the sails, and the way the sails billowed and flapped. What a sight. It’s one I never expected to experience. All thanks to IRT.”

Comparing notes with others on board, I learned that most passengers booked the Sea Cloud one to two years before departure. We blocked space on the journey two years before our group journey, to give you an idea of the demand for space on the ship.

If you want to sample this amazing small-ship venue, please call us right away for 2021. 2020 is waitlist-only. Other itineraries on Sea Cloud — Dubrovnik-Naples, Sailing the Caribbean, more — have wider availability.

For more information, call 800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. For more photos, click here.

IRT Answers Guests’ Burning Questions about Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, World’s Most Famous Luxury Train

7 Nov

IRT Luxury Travel Associates Natalie Schuetz and Nora Elzy just returned from their inaugural journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE). They sat down with us after to discuss their experience, and answer some of IRT travelers’ most frequently-asked questions.

The following account was co-written by Natalie and Nora.

° ° °

“You’re either architects or you’re planning a murder,” quipped our cabin steward on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, as he found us measuring the overhead shelving in our Cabin Suite.

We were neither, nor were we spies, thieves or cutthroats.

We were — and are — relatively new travel advisors at The Society of International Railway Travelers. Our mission? Find answers to the questions most frequently asked by IRT travelers about the VSOE.

The clock was ticking. (The journey from London to Venice takes about 30 hours in total.)

Armed with our list of questions, we raced from one end of the train to the other, Poirot-style, to question every porter, cabin steward and sous chef we could find about the world’s most famous luxury train.

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Natalie (left), and Nora (right), with new friends in the bar car on the VSOE. IRT Photo

So, the VSOE takes me all the way from London to Venice?

Not quite. This is really a journey of three parts:

First, board the Belmond British Pullman — luxury day train and sister to the VSOE – at London Victoria Station for the two-hour journey to Folkestone. En route, enjoy a hearty four-course brunch. The highlights of our meal were berries and yogurt, fresh pastries, salmon with potato and pickled cucumber salad, and lemon and olive oil cake.

Next, undergo border formalities before boarding a luxury coach for the half-hour journey under the English Channel. (The “Chunnel” may be an engineering marvel, but the actual experience is a bit dull. Sit tight – it only takes 30 minutes.)

Once you have emerged in France, a short drive takes you to the station in Calais, where the gleaming blue carriages of the VSOE await.

NOW you are on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express!

Is this THE Orient-Express? The one of Agatha Christie fame, I mean?

While it is not the original Orient-Express, it does comprise several of its carriages. Most were built in the 1920s and 1930s and have been beautifully restored. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in its current incarnation began service in 1982. (Want the complete story? To get IRT CEO Owen Hardy’s extensively researched cultural history of the Orient-Express, click here.)

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Twin cabin during the day. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

What (and how) should I pack?

You can never be overdressed on the VSOE – especially at dinner. Men will not be out of place in tuxedos, but a dark suit is also appropriate. Just don’t show up in jeans.

Pack your finery and have fun playing adult dress-up. Downton Abbey duds are not required – but some guests enjoy donning period dress. (We certainly did.)

During the day, smart casual is appropriate.

Note: Grand Suite guests can stop reading this section now, as their palatial quarters include a surfeit of storage space.

For everyone else, however, heed us when we say that space is at a premium. Twin cabins measure only 35 feet square.

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Twin cabin at night. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy.

What to pack? Our affable steward Davide had these suggestions:

“Just the essentials… It’s more important to have the right size of cabin luggage. Some people don’t think about that, but that really changes the trip.”

When you board, select what you’ll need on the train. Davide suggests packing your formal wear in a dress bag, which you can hang from a hook in your compartment.

Pack all other necessities in a packing cube or two – or in a small overnight bag.

Then hand off your suitcase to your steward for storage elsewhere on the train.

What creature comforts will I be foregoing?

Private bathrooms, to start. Only Grand Suite patrons have those (and they pay dearly for them.)

Guests in all other cabins have an en-suite sink and vanity, but toilets are shared and are down the hall. We never had to wait for a bathroom. If one is occupied, there is another just a few feet away in the next car. The stewards keep them sparkling clean day and night.

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Private bathroom with sink, toilet, and rain shower in Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

There are no showers on board (except, of course, if you are in a Grand Suite). But all VSOE itineraries are planned so that you never spend more than one night on board (with the alternating nights spent in a luxury hotel if you are on the Paris-Istanbul journey or the Istanbul-Paris journey.)

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Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

So tell me more about the new Grand Suites.

These spacious cabins debuted in 2018 and were covered in-depth here and here by our senior colleague, Rachel Hardy.

Six Grand Suites, all of them unique and named after famous capital cities on the VSOE’s routes, include a large double bed (can also be made into two twins), living area with table, chair and sofa, and an en-suite bathroom with rain shower, sink and toilet.

Additional Grand Suite amenities include preferential seating and guaranteed dining time for meals, caviar upon arrival, free-flowing Champagne, private transfers to/from train stations, private guided excursions, complimentary designer Art Deco bathrobes, and hair dryers. A complimentary alternative “à la carte” menu also is available during lunch or dinner for Grand Suite guests.

Grand Suites are located at the very end of the train for ultimate privacy.

OK, so back to reality. What about Wi-Fi?

We were told there is Wi-Fi on the train, but it was not working during our tour. As young people who probably spend way too much time on our phones, we found that not having Wi-Fi was a nice change of pace; it allowed us to spend more time enjoying the overall experience of the train.

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Mingling with a fellow passenger over lunch in the Lalique dining car. IRT Photo.

What is the atmosphere like? Do people mingle?

Mingling is the name of the game. Our advice? Go to the bar car — the social hub of the train — directly after dinner to secure a great seat and strike up a conversation with your fellow travelers.

A pianist plays through the night; the staff doesn’t quit until the last guest has retired.

Just keep in mind that, while water, tea and coffee are included in the rate, all other drinks are additional. A signature cocktail in the bar costs about €22 (about $28 U.S.).

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A bountiful breakfast is served in your cabin, giving you a chance to wake up slowly and luxuriously. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

What is dining like on board? Are there multiple seatings? Will I have a choice of what food I want?

There are typically two seatings for dinner: the first at 7 p.m., and the second at 8 p.m. Ask the maître d’ to seat you in a different dining car for each meal so that you can experience each of them — or at least two of the three. Each is unique.

And almost all dietary restrictions can be generously accommodated if the kitchen staff knows in advance.

Every dish we had on board was delicious — and beautifully presented. Natalie’s first course for dinner was a Blue Brittany lobster, served with earthy French potatoes in a savory sauce and truffle caviar and decorated with edible flowers.

And though Nora felt like she taxed the chef with her dietary restrictions (gluten-free, dairy-free, no seafood), she was always thrilled with her meals. The beef fillet with Flint wine and morel sauce was sumptuous, and she loved her dessert: an exotic fruit platter.

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Blue Brittany lobster and caviar. IRT Photo by Natalie M. Schuetz.

What about gratuities? Whom do I pay and how much?

We recommend €20-25 (about $22-$28 U.S.) per person, per day. We split this evenly between our cabin steward and the restaurant staff. Cabin stewards can only accept cash, but the restaurant cars and bar car can accept credit cards.

Is one night on the train enough?

“The longer guests are on board, the more they enjoy the train,” said Assistant Train Manager Francesco Bonotto.

They especially love the five-day itineraries, he said, that begin in Venice and then travel on to either Budapest, Vienna, or Prague, and then continue to London.

“They offer a great mix of sociability and time to explore independently: two nights on the train, plus two nights on your own in a beautiful European city.”

We here at the IRT Society also get rave reviews from our travelers who opt for the route made famous by Agatha Christie: the once-a-year Paris-Istanbul journey and Istanbul-Paris journey.

These sell out very far in advance and include grand hotels and exclusive touring along the way.

In what months does the VSOE operate?

The train runs from late March through early November.

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Natalie poses with Paolo, one of our indefatigable stewards. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy.

What are the stewards and train staff doing when they aren’t working on the train?

During the off season, many go to work in European hotels. And since all staff are bilingual (at a minimum), brushing up on their second language is also a focus.

What are some scenery highlights?

We saw rolling British and French countryside, staggering Swiss mountains, and stunning Italian lake towns during our two-day journey. The longer itineraries include iconic cities such as Prague and Istanbul.

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VSOE cabin key. IRT Photo by Natalie M. Schuetz.

What makes this train unique?

Much of it is the exquisite detail. In fact, one of the knobs on the wall in our cabins was not functional, but it was there simply for nostalgic purposes. At one time, we were told, the train piped music in the carriages; the knob was used to turn the volume up and down. Also, each carriage is heated by a coal furnace, which the cabin steward tends throughout the journey.

This train is very expensive.  Is it worth it?

It’s an experience unlike any other. Assistant Train Manager Bonotto said he’s never had a single complaint about the cost. By the time passengers disembark — after their fabulous meals and A+ staff treatment — they couldn’t be happier.

° ° °

Do you have a question we didn’t cover? Ask us in the comments below.

Natalie and Nora took the London-Paris-Venice journey, as seen on our website here. All Venice Simplon-Orient-Express itineraries can be found here.

Ready to start planning your VSOE journey? Call or email us. 2020 and 2021 departures are available and selling briskly.

To book, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

New Year’s Eve in Vienna — It’s All About the Romance

30 Oct
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Waltz lesson at Vienna’s prestigious Elmauer Dance School located in the Palais Pallavicini. Learn to dance the Viennese Waltz at the city’s most famous dance school. It only takes an hour!

Prologue: We first published this interview in December, 2018.

Since then, the Danube Express has been voted the second-best train in the world by Condé Nast Traveler readers.

Even more compelling are the many glowing reports we’ve received from IRT travelers who were on the last departure:

“This was a fantastic trip that we thoroughly enjoyed.  The food, accommodations, and service were all great.  Everything was well-planned and ran on time. We loved the special private concerts: the opera singers in Prague, the string quartet at Municipal House, a trio playing at Cafe Slava.  The Four Seasons hotel was beautiful and at a great location in the city. And, we had plenty of time to eat, sleep, tour, and shop… I highly recommend this trip.” – IRT Traveler R. Stewart, January, 2019.

“We really, really, really enjoyed the trip. All of the staff are fabulous. They all go out of their way to make life easier and nicer. And New Year’s Eve was great — the food, dancing, everything. We would recommend it to anyone.” – IRT Travelers R. & P. Wynhoff, January, 2019.

So, take it from them, and from the following conversation with IRT CEO & Founder Owen Hardy. This is one spectacular itinerary!

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Excellent service on the Danube Express. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

We sat down with The Society of International Railway Travelers’ founder and CEO, Mr. Owen Hardy, to discuss his ardent desire to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Vienna with the Golden Eagle Danube Express. Tour dates are December 28, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Click here for itinerary details.

Mr. Hardy, please tell us why you “simply must” go on the “New Year in Vienna” trip on the Golden Eagle Danube Express?

Officially, I have four reasons: Budapest, Vienna, Prague and the Viennese New Year celebration.

Unofficially, movies. Specifically, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Orson Welles’ “The Third Man.”

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Pictured left: diners enjoy New Year’s Eve gala dinner at Rathaus City Hall in Vienna.         Pictured right: a festive, snow-capped Vienna.

Say that again? These films aren’t your typical happy tourist fare.

I know, I know. But they exude a delicious atmosphere of romance, love and artistic grit that I project onto their respective cities.

You said recently that “Downton Abbey” was another of your “inspirational films.” Why?

It was the final scene, when practically the entire cast was waltzing in Downton’s gorgeous ballroom.

That’s exactly what’s going to happen on this tour. You’ll learn to waltz —in an hour! — at Vienna’s most prestigious Elmauer Dance School.

Then you’ll spend New Year’s Eve in one of the most exclusive locations in the city — the Grand ballroom of Vienna City Hall — where you’ll have a gala four-course dinner, musical entertainment and, of course, plenty of waltzing.

What about the train itself?

In my student years, I crisscrossed Europe with a Eurailpass, sleeping next to strangers in couchettes night after night. But these days, I like my creature comforts.

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Superior Deluxe cabins aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express feature a private bathroom and shower with all the amenities, large double bed, and sitting area. Not pictured: private Wi-Fi that comes with every Superior Deluxe cabin.

A Superior Deluxe cabin (click here for full cabin details) with large double bed, fully en-suite bathroom and shower, and sitting area will do quite nicely — and the three included nights at Budapest’s palatial Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace won’t disappoint, either. (Tip: don’t miss the top-notch spa!)

And how about the food?

As a self-confessed coffee-and-pastry aficionado — I really am excited about the Danube Express‘s new hire, pastry chef, Krisztián Szőke.

Natasha Baker, Sales & Marketing Manager at Golden Eagle Luxury Trains (operator of Danube Express) recently told us that Szőke is chiefly responsible for expanding the waistlines of staff and guests alike with his confections and fresh-baked breads.

One specialty: Golden Eagle Chocolate Heaven, a concoction of dark chocolate mousse with Russian champagne, hazelnut crunch and dark chocolate caviar.

Need I say more?

Another highlight from the itinerary, in your opinion?

Prague! I love Prague because it overflows with stunning architecture. My last tour guide in Prague said she’d lived her whole life in the city but had only scraped the surface of its wonders. I believe her.

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Prague’s Charles Bridge at dawn.

More thoughts?

Already seen Schönbrunn Palace? Try a joy ride on Vienna’s trams instead. It’s a great way to meet people and — if you have time — to visit Vienna Central Cemetery, whose honored guests include Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Johann Strauss II.

So what should interested travelers do now?

Call us (if you’re a Luddite like me) at (800) 478-4881  — +1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada. You can also email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Anything else you want to say (and make it short!)?

Life is short. Old age creeps up on you. Go waltzing in Vienna at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

I guarantee you won’t regret it!


Owen C. Hardy is the CEO, founder, and co-owner of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

The New Year’s in Vienna tour runs December 28, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Click here for full itinerary details and pricing. Click here for details of the Golden Eagle Danube Express train.

To book your space on the New Year’s in Vienna tour, call (800) 478-4881 or +1 502-897-1725, or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

Royal Canadian Pacific, N. America’s Only Luxury Sleeper Train, Returning!

10 Oct
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Enjoying the view from the Royal Canadian Pacific’s new dome car. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The Royal Canadian Pacific is back — complete with a brand-new full dome car!

After a five-year hiatus, the luxury sleeper train plans to offer two departures to the public in June and July next year. A third exclusive IRT departure in September 2020 is also under consideration.

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Service with a smile on the RCP. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

I traveled to Calgary two weeks ago to inspect the train and learn more about its plans for the future.

My takeaway?

IRT travelers will delight in the RCP’s opulent 1920s-era carriages, with all en-suite cabins, comfortable reading nooks, and outdoor platforms sprinkled generously throughout.

Its professional, full-time staff and its five-star cuisine also will not disappoint.

And they’ll appreciate its historical bonafides (Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, and JFK & Jackie were all passengers).

Of course, the dramatic Canadian Rockies scenery is as lovely as ever—especially when viewed from the comfort of the brand-new glass dome observation car.

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Meringue with homemade Scottish shortbread and lavender honey — crowned with a Maple leaf. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The novelty of a luxury sleeper train returning to North America will excite rail enthusiasts everywhere. We here at IRT predict high interest from travelers—especially confirmed luxury rail enthusiasts.

Ever since the RCP stopped offering public departures five years ago, the continent has been devoid of anything similar.

Itineraries are still being confirmed but will likely include a 5-day circle tour beginning and ending in Calgary. A 4-day Calgary-Vancouver tour also is being considered.

Both tours are expected to offer off-train activities in Golden, Banff, and Lake Louise. Pricing is also still under consideration.

Interested in joining an RCP 2020 luxury tour next year? Let us know now, and we’ll put you on our “First Notice” list.

Click here to register your interest, and we’ll contact you as soon as we have details.

Click here to read more about the Royal Canadian Pacific itself.

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The author outside the RCP’s new full-length dome car. IRT Photo by Nate Kremer

For more information, or to book any other of our journeys on the World’s Top 25 Trains, call us at (800) 478-4881, or +1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada. You can also e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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View from the rear platform of the Royal Canadian Pacific. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

 

Rachel M. Hardy is Vice President, Sales & Marketing, and Virtuoso luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers®. She specializes in luxury rail and adventure in Europe, South America, Africa (rail & safaris) and Canada.  She was the first advisor from the Americas invited to see the new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Our agency is a proud member of Virtuoso.

Belmond Grand Hibernian Transports Guests Through Ireland, Land of Legends

13 Sep
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IRT Guests enjoy a jaunting cart ride, one of many excursions offered on Belmond Grand Hibernian journeys. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

Ever heard of Finn McCool?

How about the Salmon of Knowledge?

Neither had I — until I went to Ireland to ride the Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland’s only luxury train.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian’s lead bartender greets guests with champagne. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The train’s gleaming blue and silver carriages, delightful staff and cozy interiors offer the perfect “magic carpet” ride through a fantastical land.

The excursions off the train are no less touched by fantasy.

When we arrived in Cork, for example, our guide greeted us with a cheerful “hallo,” and then launched into an evocative tale about the aforesaid Messrs. McCool and Salmon (of Knowledge).

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“Kindred Spirits,” the memorial to the Choctaw in County Cork. Photo by Gavin Sheridan. (no changes were made to image, link to license is https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Choctaw_Memorial.jpg)

She only paused in her myth-making to point out an interesting — albeit slightly incongruous — statue on the side of the road, comprising 20-foot steel feathers that form a bowl shape.

“The Choctaw Nation heard about our forebears’ plight during the Great Hunger of 1847,” she told us. “And they scraped together what little money they had, and sent it to us to feed our starving children.”

Unlike Finn McCool and his fish, the story of the Choctaw’s sacrifice is no fairytale. But I don’t think Ireland would be Ireland without a healthy mix of truth and make-believe.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian, now just finishing its third full season, has matured into an even more delightful experience than when it began operations three years ago.

One welcome tweak the tour operators have made is allowing guests to choose among different activities wherever possible. For instance, guests on the 7-day Grand Tour of Ireland can:

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Cobh, Ireland.

Visit the seaport of Cobh with a local historian, where millions of lives were permanently altered by the Atlantic crossing. Almost half of the 6 million Irish who emigrated to North America between 1848 and 1950 departed from this port.

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Ross Castle.

Explore Killarney National Park by jaunting cart and boat, where prophecy dictated that nearby Ross Castle was impregnable to outside forces unless a warship attacked from the lake — thought to be an impossible feat. Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads attacked just so in 1653 and took the castle, one of the last to fall in the Irish Confederate Wars.

(Another tidbit: Ross Castle’s first owner, O’Donoghue, is said to live at the bottom of the lake in a great palace, from where he keeps close tabs on the comings and goings of passerby.)

Witness a sheepdog demonstration in Galway and marvel at the shared language between man and beast, or explore the surreal Cliffs of Moher that soar 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

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Westport House.

Visit Westport House, built on the foundations of the Pirate Queen of Connacht’s castle. The Queen’s dungeons can still be seen today.

Tour the Medieval Mile Museum in Kilkenny, heart of Ireland’s ancient East. The museum is housed in a 13th-century church and contains artifacts dating back 800 years.

*****

In sum, whether you’ve visited the Emerald Isle before or not, Belmond Grand Hibernian will open your eyes to Ireland in a whole new way. In addition to its thoughtfully-planned itineraries, it also earns high points for its dedicated staff, fabulous food, and luxuriously comfortable spaces.

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The author poses with Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by Nate Kremer.

And what of Mr. McCool and his erudite fish?

Legend has it that, as a young boy, McCool was asked to cook the Salmon of Knowledge for his druid mentor, who had finally caught it after years of failed attempts.

McCool burned his thumb while cooking the fish, put his thumb in his mouth to cool the hurt, and inadvertently consumed a drop of the salmon’s oils, instantly becoming the wisest man in the world.

*****

Belmond Grand Hibernian runs April-October and offers the 3-day Taste of Ireland, the 5-day Legends and Loughs, and the 7-day Grand Tour of Ireland.

2020 departures are available and are selling briskly.

To book your own adventure on the Belmond Grand Hibernian, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

Rachel M. Hardy is Vice President, Sales & Marketing, and Virtuoso luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers®. She specializes in luxury rail and adventure in Europe, South America, Africa (rail & safaris) and Canada.  She was the first advisor from the Americas invited to see the new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Our agency is a proud member of Virtuoso and the exclusive Belmond Bellini Club. Rachel’s trip on Belmond Grand Hibernian was part of the Bravissimo celebratory journey hosted by Belmond, held every year in honor of the world’s top Belmond agencies.

IRT “Virtuosos” Bond With Luxury Travel Pros in Vegas

10 Aug
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IRT President Eleanor Flagler Hardy hams it up — and plugs Virtuoso’s newest travel-planning tool, Wanderlist — at the annual Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. IRT Photo

Sometimes it pays to be friendly.

One night at the annual Virtuoso Travel Week convention in Las Vegas, IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy was dining with Elizabeth, an old friend and partner from London in the Bellagio’s specialty Italian restaurant.

Admiring the hotel’s famous fountains, Eleanor turned to the next table and, with her usual Southern friendliness, introduced herself to a fellow diner.

As it turned out, he was sales manager for one of Canada’s top hotels, Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac in Quebec — the very hotel she had just booked for two top clients.

And this is where the Virtuoso magic happened.

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African safaris are another IRT specialty and are easily combined with luxury rail trips.

“That lovely man took out his pad and pen,” Eleanor continued, “made notes about my clients, who were celebrating a milestone birthday, and promised to wow them.”

The result?

Eleanor’s clients received a courtesy upgrade to a fabulous specialty suite, a value of over $1,000, with a fabulous view, fabulous complimentary wine and of course all the usual amenities.

“I feel like a princess in a tower!” the wife exclaimed when she called Eleanor from her room.

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Fellow Virtuoso member and partner Rocky Mountaineer Railtours offers spectacular rail cruises through the Canadian Rockies. The company operates the world’s largest dome cars. IRT Photo

Indeed, Eleanor and the entire IRT staff (sans yours truly) are in Las Vegas right now, attending our luxury travel consortium’s annual convention.

They’re meeting with representatives from the world’s top luxury travel providers: cruise lines, hotels, adventure travel companies, safari companies, ground operators and more. (And of course rail companies!)

They’re connecting with the top people in the luxury travel business to make sure you, our customers, get the very best.

And this year, we’re proud to report that The Society of International Railway Travelers is up for a special Virtuoso award.

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Belmond, a fabulous luxury hotel, rail and cruise specialist, works closely with IRT. Here, a bartender prepares drinks for passengers on Ireland’s first luxury train, the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT was the first company in the world to charter the train. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

“We’ve been selected as one of the Virtuoso travel agencies with the highest percentage growth, year over year, in sales and revenue.” Eleanor said. “We are thrilled to be nominated.”

“Also, staff member Nora Elzy has been nominated as a “rising star” for cruise sales,” Eleanor continued. Although we specialize in luxury trains, Eleanor said, “we book cruises for repeat clients, because we know what our customers want.”

In addition, IRT’s Rachel Hardy will be interviewed for a Virtuoso video about our agency’s great relationship with our adventure partners. 

 

And Eleanor herself will be interviewed by Virtuoso for a special video concerning the consortium’s latest planning tool: “Wanderlist.” (She is one of only about 100 advisors in the world specially trained to use this program.)

“Wanderlist is way more than a computer program. It is just one part of a dynamic planning tool we can use — to leverage my 36+ years of travel experience and knowledge and our great personal relationships with our Virtuoso partners around the world to develop a three- to five-year plan for travel. I love that people will be able to plot out which of the World’s Top 25 Trains they will do next — and next, and then next. Our most popular venues sell out so quickly; planning far ahead is a must.”

Need personal, professional attention when planing your next luxury train trip or other luxury travel?

Want all the fab extras we can get for you through our great Virtuoso personal relationships?

Email us, or call us at (800) 478-4881 (U.S. and Canada), (502) 897-1725 (elsewhere).

And be sure to ask about our new “Wanderlist” long-range trip-planning service. We will be accepting a limited number of Wanderlist clients for the rest of 2019.

Grand Alpine Express: Stunning Vistas, Staggering Heights, Poignant Memories

19 Jul
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The Golden Eagle Danube Express.

The 11-day Grand Alpine Express on the Golden Eagle Danube Express is a blast from my past.

Let me explain: does anyone else harbor fond memories of being a young person abroad for the first time, hopping around on a Eurorail pass with 10 francs in your pocket? I know I do.

As a college student some 50 years ago, I made my first European train journeys to many of the places highlighted on the Grand Alpine Express itinerary.

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Route map of the Grand Alpine Express itinerary.

Budapest. Vienna. Zürich. The Semmering Pass. The tiny Achensee railway, the Tyrollean Alps. They were exciting, friendly and utterly beautiful.

(And make no mistake: the Golden Eagle Danube Express is no first-class commuter train. It’s held a spot on our World’s Top 25 Trains® list since its inception in 2015. In the past few years, it’s gotten even more luxurious with the addition of 12 ultra-spacious Superior Deluxe cabins, which IRT travelers especially love. Click here for more information about the Golden Eagle Danube Express itself.)

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The Swiss and Austrian Alps figure prominently on the Grand Alpine Express tour.

Over the course of my career, I’ve traveled by luxury train through Mexico, Africa, Russia, India, South America, China, Southeast Asia, the ‘Stans…and on and on.

All of these trips were over the top, exotic and unforgettable.

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Lake Bled in Slovenia, one of the stops on the Grand Alpine Express itinerary.

But recently, I’m craving a trip down memory lane — albeit in the comfort of a Superior Deluxe cabin — courtesy of the Grand Alpine Express!

Even if you don’t share my nostalgia, there are plenty of other reasons to go. Just take it from IRT traveler Mrs. J. Schiermeyer, who just returned from the May 2019 Grand Alpine Express journey in a Superior Deluxe cabin:

“There’s only one problem with this train,” Mrs. Schiermeyer said.

“Eventually, they make you get off. And I don’t want to get off!”

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Superior Deluxe cabin on the Golden Eagle Danube Express.

The Grand Alpine Express tour runs just once a year.

Tour dates are May 8-18, 2020.

For more information, and to book, please call (800) 478-4881 in the U.S. and Canada, +1 502-897-1725 elsewhere, or e-mail tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Space (especially in the coveted Superior Deluxe cabins) is limited.


Owen C. Hardy is the CEO, founder, and co-owner of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

 

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