IRT On Tour: VSOE Grand Suites, Rovos Rail, Shongololo Express, more

8 Mar
Rovos Rail's Pride of Africa. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

IRT’s Angela Walker and Rachel Hardy are about to embark on a three-week
learning tour spanning two continents to investigate the newest developments in
luxury rail travel.

We checked in with them while they were furiously packing to ask: What about your upcoming study tour has you most excited?

Angela: I am eager to experience Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa after helping IRT travelers take the train for many years – especially knowing how beloved it is by past guests. I especially look forward to meals in the beautiful dining cars and watching the scenery roll by from the open-air observation deck.

I’ll also be testing out Rovos Rail’s new sister train – Shongololo Express – on an
in-depth 15-day tour of South Africa.

The Pride of Africa has been a World’s Top 25 Train since the beginning, and
Shongololo Express may be awarded this elite honor after we’ve tested it. Stay tuned!

Grand Suite 'Venice' on the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express.

Grand Suite ‘Venice’ on the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express.

Rachel: I can’t wait to see the three brand-new, super-exclusive Grand Suites on
the Venice Simplon-Orient- Express. I’ll be among a very small group to see the
Suites on their inaugural trip from Venice to London. Pictures and full report to

I’m also excited to test out the services of our great travel partners who are arranging crucial trip elements — in Europe and in South Africa — such as VIP Meet & Greet airport transfers, private guided sightseeing, unique dining and more.

Angela and I will also be visiting a host of 5-star Virtuoso properties:


Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg

Cape Town-
Cape Grace Hotel
Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel


belmond cipriani

Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice.

Saxon Hotel
Fairlawns Hotel

The Milestone Hotel

Belmond Hotel Cipriani
Baglioni Hotel Luna

belmond mt nelson

Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town.

Check in with Angela and Rachel on IRT’s Facebook page for updates throughout their travels, and look out for posts on IRT’s Track 25 blog after they return in mid-April.

If you have burning questions for them about any of the trains or
hotels they’ll be visiting, e-mail IRT’s main inbox at: They’ll do their best to get an answer for you!

Ready to book your own luxury rail adventure?

Call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada) or e-mail us at

Angela Walker is Vice President, Operations and a luxury travel advisor. This is her 2oth year with The Society of International Railway Travelers. Read all about Angela here.  Rachel Hardy, Vice President, Sales & Marketing and luxury travel advisor is celebrating her 3rd anniversary with IRT. Read all about Rachel here. 

Rocky Mountaineer: Adventures Beyond the Train

27 Feb
10.5 - 6 - Fairmont Château Lake Louise

The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a GoldLeaf and SilverLeaf hotel of Rocky Mountaineer. IRT photo by Natalie Schuetz

As the mid-day sunlight danced on the azure waters of Lake Louise one afternoon last October, I was reminded of a comment my tour guide had made earlier that day:

“If you only knew how much money Canadian taxpayers spend each year to dump all of that blue dye into our lake…”

Named after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, the glacier-fed Lake Louise was one of my favorite destinations during my Rocky Mountaineer Journey through the Clouds post-train tour. The terrain bustled with activity as visitors canoed, strolled around, and snapped photos of the magnificent lake.

The greatest part of my visit, though? My lodgings: the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.

Nestled on the eastern shore of Lake Louise, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is a GoldLeaf and SilverLeaf property of Rocky Mountaineer (GoldLeaf and GoldLeaf Deluxe rooms overlook the lake, whereas SilverLeaf rooms overlook the grounds). The current building was constructed in 1911 after the original was destroyed in a fire. It was the vision of Cornelius Van Horne, manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, to create “a hotel for outdoor adventurer and alpinist.”

With its vaulted ceilings, ornate chandeliers, fine dining, and extra-wide hallways (constructed so that ladies wearing large hoop skirts could pass without running into each other), the Fairmont Château Lake Louise was a true gem. My only regret was that we only stayed there for one night!

Here are some other places and activities from my tour that I would recommend for our IRT guests:

Athabasca Glacier: I was excited to board the Ice Explorer – a giant vehicle with tires taller than I am (for reference, I’m 5’5”) — that navigated the ice. We wandered out on the ice for about 20 minutes and I could see my breath. I was glad I wore layers – scarf, hat, gloves, coat, and boots.  I was sad to learn that global climate change is causing the glacier to melt faster – and it could be gone in 50 to 60 years, the guide said.

The Banff Gondola:  I highly recommend this. The ride up reminded me up of the tram in Palm Springs, California that pulls you up the mountain except these small pods only hold 4 people comfortably. As a person who is usually afraid of heights, I was surprisingly fine with the altitude (7,486 feet above sea level). It takes between 7 – 8 minutes to reach the top and the view is spectacular; you can see all of downtown Banff, the Rimrock Hotel, and the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. It had snowed right before we arrived;  the snow-capped mountains gleamed. The sky was blue that day – and with the clouds, I got some great photographs.

10.7 - 6 - View of Banff from Gondola observation deck

View of Banff from the gondola observation deck. IRT photo by Natalie Schuetz

Driving along the Icefields Parkway There is only one way to travel between Jasper and Lake Louise – by road. You can’t do it by train (this is a frequent misconception.) This trip in the big motorcoach takes about 5 hours with all the sightseeing stops, including the Athabasca Glacier stop.  I loved the fall foliage and the different lakes with their beautiful shade of blue fed by the glaciers.

10.5 - 5 - Waterfowl Lakes, Jasper NP

Waterfowl Lakes, Jasper National Park. IRT photo by Natalie Schuetz

Helicopter I add this because this would have been very cool and part of my package and that of many tours with the Rocky Mountaineer. However, it was too windy that day and the tour was canceled. (If this happens to you, you get a refund.) We drove past the field to see where the helicopters take off and land and we could see several wind socks dancing in the breeze. We did, however, get to spend more time with the hoodoos – tall, spire-like rock structures that are formed as a result of erosion.

To see Natalie’s report about her trip on the Rocky Mountaineer train, please click here.


10.7 - 9 - Natalie with Hoodoos

Natalie with the Hoodoos.  IRT photo

Book a 2018 journey of 8 days or more by March 29 and get up to $500 in added value per couple. Use it for things like extra hotel nights, meals, city sightseeing excursions, or outdoor activities. (Restrictions apply.) My trip was Vancouver to Calgary – but check out these trips, too.

For more information, call (800) 478-4881 for US and Canada. For the rest of the world, call (502) 897-1725. Ask for me, Natalie Schuetz, and I’ll be delighted to give you the latest details. Click here to send me an email.  

IRT Owners Scout India’s Top Spots

23 Feb


Owen and I recently returned from a scouting trip to India ahead of IRT’s 35th anniversary trip featuring the Deccan Odyssey this November. The verdict: India is better than ever, and more than ready for our group!

(If you’re thinking about joining us, please contact us ASAP, or visit our website here for itinerary details. Only two cabins remain.)

The Deccan OdysseyWe were thrilled to meet with top management for the Deccan Odyssey and Cox & Kings, our wonderful partners helping us plan our group trip. The best news from the Deccan Odyssey: they have put in brand-new suspension, which should make for a much smoother ride. And new carpets and finishes give the train interior an updated look.

Owen and Bunky meet with Soma, other Deccan Oddysey Cox Kings rep

Left to Right: Nidhi Gopan, senior general manager of the Deccan Odyssey, Eleanor Hardy, IRT President, Owen Hardy, IRT CEO, and Soma Paul, senior manager, destination management for Cox & Kings.

The Imperial Hotel in New Delhi: The dining and service was superb. White marble and tropical flowers and plants everywhere. The spa is one of the best I have ever visited: quiet, gorgeous, & well-run.

Imperial hotel spa entrance

Entrance to the spa at the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

Cochin: We loved wandering around Cochin, in Kerala, South India. The atmosphere here is much slower-paced than Delhi, and very lush and green, with beautiful views of the ocean. Cochin’s nickname is ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’ — very fitting, we thought!


Lush, green, Cochin, ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea.’                IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

We are offering a pre-tour extension to Cochin prior to our group trip. Click here for more information.

Darjeeling: We actually got to ride the historic blue Darjeeling Himalayan Toy Train this time, which was a huge kick. The tiny train was full of visitors, mostly families and couples out for a weekend ride. IRT travelers joining our post-tour extension will get to experience the toy train for themselves. Click here for Darjeeling extension details.

The Windamere: The colonial charm of this place seeps into your soul — and the panoramic views of the entire environs will sweep you off your feet. Walk down a few steps from the Windamere, and you’re on the “mall,” a paved path that circles Observatory Hill. Walk a sharp left, up, to find a joint Buddhist/Hindu temple, fluttering with prayer flags. Stroll down to the left, and you reach some of the most remarkable views of the snow-capped Himalayan mountains in the near distance.

To all guests already signed up for our group trip: we can’t WAIT to see you in India!

And to everyone else considering joining: only two cabins remain, so contact us ASAP.

Call us at 1-800-478-4881, or 1-502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada — or e-mail us at

Murder on the Orient Express: Stunning Outside, Blah Inside

4 Dec
Murder on OE

20th Century Fox photo

Our phones are ringing off the hook.

Much of it’s due to the film remake of Agatha Christie’s 1934 who-done-it, “Murder on the Orient Express.” It opened in U.S. theaters Nov. 10.

The movie has been thoroughly reviewed by the general press, with major critics less than thrilled. If I were still a newspaper critic (which I was in a past life), I’d begin by saying it’s too long by at least 15-20 minutes.

The film is brilliant when the train exterior is center stage in the “mountains of Eastern Europe” (It was, in fact, shot entirely at a film studio outside London).

IRT Travelers on the VSOE.

IRT Travelers on the Train of Kings, the King of Trains.

Pulled by a magnificent steam engine, the train is bathed in blue and white moonlight, with the camera soaring down one mountain peak and up another, as if carried by an eagle (or a drone).

The film’s Orient Express glides around mountains, beset by flashing lightning bursts and menacing clouds, clinging precariously to cliffs, seemingly thousands of feet above steep gorges.

These panoramic scenes show luxury trains at their best—as almost otherworldly experiences, whose train-window views are incomparable and life-changing.


Taking the perfect photo on the Belmond Royal Scotsman’s outdoor rear platform — another of our World’s Top 25 Trains. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

But inside—and unlike the real luxury trains we represent —the movie Orient Express falls flat. There’s hardly any fancy furniture or gleaming brass; no discernible marquetry. The cutlery looks utilitarian; the china and crystal are uninspiring.

While there are some Art Deco accents—vaguely “Lalique-ish” sconces resembling ice sculptures adorn the movie-train walls; along with convincingly retro luggage racks—the overall color scheme ranges from dull tweed to brown.

Conversely, you can’t beat the star-studded cast. Convincingly dressed in period costume, with Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” in the background, they are brash, mysterious, gaudy, sexy — and thoroughly awash in “guilty” looks.

But there isn’t much for them to do when Poirot’s not grilling them, aside from glancing suspiciously at one another. Mostly, they just look bored. (C’mon, folks, have some fun. You’re on a luxury train!)

FullSizeRender 4

Ecuador’s Tren Crucero also boasts a rear, outdoor viewing platform. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

And as far as accuracy goes, I’m dubious. In my 35 years of working in the luxury train world, I’ve never heard of a rear, open platform* on the original Orient Express in any of its iterations, as it’s shown in the film. (Please email me if you know otherwise.).

So go see “Murder on the Orient Express.” The “outdoor” train scenes alone are worth the price of admission.

But don’t commit the crime of not trying out a luxury train for yourself.

Check our list of The World’s Top 25 Trains, then  email us, or give us a call: (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725.

*We at IRT love open, outdoor platforms. Among our “World’s Top 25 Trains®,” open-air platforms are available on Rovos Rail’s “The Pride of Africa,” the “Belmond Royal Scotsman,” the Bangkok-Singapore “Eastern & Oriental Express” (also a Belmond train), the “Rocky Mountaineer” in Canada, Peru’s “Belmond Andean Explorer” and “Belmond Hiram Bingham” and Ecuador’s “Tren Crucero.”


Journey Through the Clouds: My Inaugural IRT Journey Aboard Rocky Mountaineer

12 Oct
10.3 - 8 - Natalie in the SilverLeaf Observation Vestibule_small

Enjoying the fresh air in the tiny SilverLeaf observation platform. IRT Photo by Natalie Schuetz

If you’d told me last February that by October I’d be riding the Rocky Mountaineer, I would have laughed out loud.

Bagpiper - Cropped

Rocky Mountaineer bagpipe send-off on the first day of the train journey. IRT Photo by Natalie Schuetz

After all, the Rocky Mountaineer has been one of the Society of International Railway Travelers’ longest-running ‘World’s Top 25 Trains®” since the company began almost 35 years ago.

But guess what? I just got back from Canada—on an inspection trip on the Rocky Mountaineer!

And here’s my takeaway: SilverLeaf service is fine if you have to pinch pennies. But hey—you’ve come all this way. Do what our clients do: Go for the Gold(Leaf)!


Let’s start with GoldLeaf’s heated LazyBoy-style seats. I felt like a little kid with all the buttons to play with; the seats have a built-in leg rest and are able to recline and add extra support for your back.

And there’s nothing like breakfast in the diner. As I chatted with my seatmates in the car’s downstairs dining area, we looked for bears, praised the scenery, and enjoyed delicious blueberry pancakes with fresh Canadian maple syrup, among several menu choices.

My fellow diners also worked in the travel industry. None of us had ridden this luxury train. No wonder we were giddy with excitement!

DSC_0158 copy 2

GoldLeaf Observation Platform. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

Best of all, I adored the large, open-air observation deck. I loved everything about it: the fresh air, meeting folks, snapping photos. That alone is worth the extra cost.

Compared to Gold, SilverLeaf felt like a bus with a little more leg room. I had fewer menu options and no classy dining car —meals are served at your seat, airline-style.

As for wind-in-the-face viewing, SilverLeaf’s two outdoor platforms run a distant second. There’s barely enough room for two people to look out the tiny window and take pictures.


The Rocky Mountaineer en route to Kamloops. IRT photo by Natalie Schuetz

In short, GoldLeaf is great. And now’s a great time to sign up.

Book a 2018 journey of 8 days or more by Oct. 27, and get up to $600 in added value per couple. Use it for things like extra hotel nights, meals, city sightseeing excursions or outdoor activities. (Restrictions apply.)

For more information, call (800) 478-4881 for US and Canada. For the rest of the world, call (502) 897-1725. Ask for me, Natalie Schuetz, and I’ll be happy to give you the latest details. Click here to send me an email.

Or click here to see the Rocky Mountaineer section of our website.

Next week: Vancouver to Calgary: My Off-Train Adventures

RMR Engine - Cropped

The Rocky Mountaineer bids farewell to guests as they depart in Jasper. IRT Photo by Natalie Schuetz


We welcome Natalie Schuetz to Track 25.  Ms. Schuetz, IRT’s newest employee, is a graduate of the University of Louisville in Spanish, Communication, and Humanities, and has traveled thousands of miles to Spain, Italy and Central America. This is her second time to Canada — but the first time to the Rockies and the first time to participate in a study tour on a luxury train.  

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Goes Big in 2018

15 Sep

Want to travel on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) next year?

You’re not alone.

This fall, the latest “Murder on the Orient Express” film debuts.

And next year, the VSOE celebrates the 20th anniversary of its annual Paris-Istanbul journey, says its operator, Belmond.

Three brand-new Grand Suites will be on all VSOE departures beginning in 2018.

Three brand-new Grand Suites will be on all VSOE departures beginning in 2018. Shown above: Grand Suite Venice.

The train is celebrating its milestone year with a host of improvements to the train and its itineraries. New for 2018:

Grand Suites: Currently under construction, the VSOE’s Grand Suites will offer guests over-the-top accommodations, including double bed, sitting room, and private shower, sink and toilet — a first for the 1920s-vintage train.

Grand Suites are sold out for next year’s 6-day, 5-night annual Paris-Istanbul / Istanbul-Paris journeys. (Contact us now to get on the 2019 Grand Suite wait list for either of these annual journeys.)

Limited Grand Suite space remains on the VSOE’s 2018 trips to Vienna, Budapest, Prague and Berlin. For more on the Grand Suites, click here.

IRT Travelers on the VSOE.

IRT Travelers on the VSOE.

Steam Engine: The VSOE’s Venice-Budapest trips will be hauled by a Hungarian MAV 424.247 steam locomotive for the last half-hour of its three 2018 journeys in May, September and October.

The powerful locomotive was built in Budapest’s MÁVAG factory after the Second World War.

“The noise, the smell, the evocative imagery… conjuring up Agatha Christie and the movies,” says VSOE general manager Pascal Deyrolle. “It’s everybody’s dream when it comes to travelling on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.”

The MAVs were nicknamed bivaly (buffalo) by the railway workers and, according to Deyrolle, you can see why.

“The engine is massive! It’s quite a shock when you first see it. We forget how huge this machinery was. A wheel is as high as a man! It’s an impressive beast.”

The VSOE in Gothard, Switzerland. Photo by Belmond.

The VSOE in Gothard, Switzerland. Photo by Belmond.

More Mountains: New, earlier departure times — 2 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. — on VSOE trips departing from Venice to Prague, Vienna and Budapest mean more time on the train and spectacular mountain scenery, Belmond says.

Grand Tour: Really want to do it up big? The 8-day “Grand Tour” of Europe begins with an overnight trip on the VSOE from London or Paris to Venice. After two days in the “Floating City,” continue on the train to Prague, Vienna or Budapest, before re-joining the train once again for your return overnight trip to Paris or London. Contact us for details.

1930s Berlin: VSOE specialist Lucy Clark describes the train’s annual London/Paris-Berlin journeys as “edgy.”

dsc_0273-vsoe-lamp“On board, it feels a bit different,” from the typical VSOE excursion, she says. “We get more culturally curious passengers. Maybe it’s the jazz band we have on board, or the different uniforms the staff wears.”

Whatever it is, the trip is unique, she says.

“The stretch along the 120 kilometers of the Rhineland gorge is absolutely beautiful. The vineyard-covered cliffs, the castles…and of course, Cologne, with its magnificent cathedral…it offers a unique charm.”

For more information, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers®. US & Canada, call (800) 478-4881; everywhere else, call (502) 897-1725. Email

To submit a booking request online, click here.

Rovos Rail’s “Pride of Africa”: 30+ Years of Luxury Adventure

28 Jul
Rovos Rail

The Pride of Africa’s wood-paneled bar car boasts comfortable seating, a convivial atmosphere and – best of all – a large, rear outdoor deck, perfect for viewing the wild African landscape. Photo by Nels Freeman

Rovos Rail’s 15-day Cape Town – Dar es Salaam “luxury adventure” ranks among the top 5 rail trips for many IRT travelers.

“That’s probably still our favorite trip,” T. Hoberg of Cincinnati, who has booked 19 trips with IRT, told us today.

But for Alicia Taljaard, Rovos’ Sales and Marketing executive, her favorite is the shorter African Collage.  (And it will be the IRT Society’s Owner’s Choice itinerary in 2019, departing Pretoria Oct. 30 — click here for more info.)

“It’s our most scenic trip,” says the 13-year Rovos Rail veteran, who’s a regular visitor to the IRT office.

“It’s perfect for the safari enthusiast, and the scenery on that trip is unbeatable.

South Africa's Garden Route is unbeatable for its scenery, which ranges from towering mountains to dramatic seashores. IRT Photo by John Fiorilla

South Africa’s Garden Route is unbeatable for its scenery, which ranges from towering mountains to dramatic seashores. IRT Photo by John Fiorilla

“You have the mountain passes and the Garden Route, a very lush, beautiful area along the coastline of the eastern to western Cape.

“Then there’s the vineyards and the ocean…” Continue reading

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