IRT Abroad: Tracking South America’s Newest Rail Stars

21 Apr
Like its older relative (pictured here), the new Belmond Andean Explorer also boasts an open-air platform. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

The new Belmond Andean Explorer boasts an open-air platform. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

IRT President Eleanor Hardy makes tracks next week for South America.

Her mission?

Ride the continent’s two newest rail stars: Ecuador’s thrilling Tren Crucero, and Peru’s ultra-luxe, brand-new-for-2017 Belmond Andean Explorer.

She’ll also stay at some of the region’s finest Virtuoso partner properties, including Mashpi Lodge — one of National Geographic’s “Lodges of the World” — deep in Ecuador’s ethereal cloud forest.

In Peru, her lodgings include a covetable series of 5-star gems: Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba, Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado, Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel & Belmond Hotel Monasterio.

“Nice work if you can get it,” you might say.

But it’s not all fun. Eleanor will be hard at work documenting her surroundings, the better to help South American-bound IRT travelers.

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Mashpi Lodge, deep in the Ecuadorean Andes.

IRT was last in the Peruvian Andes almost 10 years ago to the day — long before Belmond’s latest venture came on the scene. Says Eleanor,

“I can’t wait to rediscover Peru — and to experience Ecuador for the first time.”

IRT’s June group trip to Peru featuring the Belmond Andean Explorer is long sold out. But not to worry.

Independent departures are still available through early December. And we’ll announce departures for next year as soon as we have the info.

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Double-bedded cabin on the Belmond Andean Explorer.

Meanwhile, independent journeys featuring the Tren Crucero are available year-round (click here for IRT’s suggested itinerary) — and pair perfectly with our Galapagos Islands cruise.

So keep a sharp eye out for updates from Eleanor.

Follow her progress on Facebook and Twitter. And check back here on Track 25 for her in-depth report when she returns home.

Meanwhile, email us for more information on how to book your own Peruvian or Ecuadorean adventure. Space on both trains is limited and sells out far in advance.

Or call us at (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725. We look forward to helping you make your South American dream trip a reality!

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Ecuador’s Tren Crucero.

A Few Spots Left on Sea Cloud, World’s Last True Sailing Yacht

13 Apr

A few prime spots — including Deluxe Suites A & B — remain  on the Sea Cloud, Marjorie Merriweather Post’s 1931-vintage sailing yacht, for the September, 2017 voyage exploring the Dalmatian and Greek coasts.

(Check with our tour desk for other dates this season and next year.)

If you’d like a lo-res PDF outlining the trip, please click here.

IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy and I made this trip two years ago, and we both agreed: It was one of our all-time peak experiences. To see a photo album of our trip, click here.

Our Sea Cloud voyage is an

Like the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Sea Cloud is a one-of-a-kind antique Grand Dame.

She’s in beautiful shape, but she can’t last forever. And her dance card fills quickly.

So email us for info on our special Sea Cloud 2017 voyage; we can help you with other dates and itineraries as well.

Or call us at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725.

To read about our adventure two years ago on the Sea Cloud, click here.

National Geographic Endeavour II: The Apogee of Expedition Cruising

8 Apr
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A larger than average fleet of Zodiacs allows guests on the Endeavour II a great deal of flexibility when choosing daily activities. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

I spied sea lions while running on the treadmill in the gym, glimpsed manta rays and sea turtles on my walk to the dining room, and ogled schools of flying fish while browsing in the gift shop. Never a dull moment.

National Geographic Endeavour II just began service in the Galápago Islands after undergoing a multi-million dollar refit — and last week, I was lucky enough to be one of the first guests on board.

(To see Ms. Hardy’s report about her Galápagos shore adventures, click here.)

I can now say with confidence that Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic’s latest collaboration is a work of art –and the ideal base from which to explore the famous Galapagos Archipelago.

State-of-the-art equipment and homey surroundings are essential to the Endeavour II, but style plays an important supporting role — evidenced in the rich wood paneling and variegated ocean blues in the upholstery and carpeting.

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Suite C on the National Geographic Endeavour II.                   Photo by Lindblad Expeditions.

52 cabins, all with large picture window and en-suite facilities, accommodate up to 96 guests. There are nine dedicated single-use cabins, nine cabins with optional space to sleep three (in either a drop-down Murphy bed, or, in the suites, in a sofa bed), and seven sets of connecting cabins that sleep up to four between the two rooms.

Three spacious suites have an extra-large bathroom, extra closet space, and enormous floor-to-ceiling windows. The largest of these, Suite C, is located on the bridge deck and also has a separate sitting area with arm chairs and convertible sofa.

My cabin, #205, was a dedicated single-use room — comfortable and functional in every respect. The designers used every available space for storage, which meant I did not have to do any creative juggling with my things. I could have easily shared the space with another person, but traveling alone, I was able to spread out and live like a queen!

My cabin included two twin beds, short chest of drawers in between beds that doubled as a night stand, desk and chair, leather armchair, two-prong outlets, USB outlets for charging iPhone, iPad, etc., wardrobe for hanging clothes, wall hangers that fold flat when not in use, and many hooks / hangers for wet clothes.

The bathroom was small but perfectly serviceable, with biodegradable shampoo and shower gel installed in handy dispensers in the shower. Hot water and water pressure in my shower tapered off considerably at peak hours — right before lunch and again right before dinner — but this was never so pronounced as to be uncomfortable.

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The “theater-in-the-round”-style lounge on the Endeavour II. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The social center of the ship, the lounge on the third deck, was designed for a “theater-in-the-round” experience, with a podium in the center of the room, retractable video screens along the walls, and fully rotating armchairs. 360-degree windows allowed beautiful natural light in during the day. We met here for daily “re-caps,” nightly cocktail and appetizer parties before dinner, and fascinating presentations from our naturalists and guides.

The dining room was laid out to encourage mingling — four-, five-, six-, and eight-person tables abounded, with just one or two tables for two. Breakfasts and lunches were buffet-style and featured bountiful fresh produce and Ecuadorean staples like cassava rolls — a real hit. Dinners were also casual, but served at the table.

As a vegetarian, I was very well-looked after. For dinner, the cremini mushroom gnocchi and root vegetable stack were especially memorable — and bountiful salads and produce were always offered for breakfasts and lunches. Any time a meaty soup was served, I received a veggie version without having to ask. Similarly, my lactose-intolerant friend received dairy-free options.

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The lovely top deck of the Endeavour II — site of one festive barbecue dinner, a sunset wine tasting, and numerous animal sightings. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Other public areas included a library with several computers for guest use, an open-air observation deck with lounge chairs and tables, fully equipped gym, gift shop, and spa.

Finally, an “open bridge” policy allowed guests to wander in and out of the navigational heart of the ship and talk to the captain and officers about the instruments and controls aboard the Endeavour II.

On the last night, the crew led dozens of us crammed into the bridge in a countdown as we approached the equator. Captain, officers, and guests alike burst into exuberant cheering as we finally reached zero degrees latitude on the digital chart. The camaraderie was palpable!

The Endeavour II was a phenomenal home base for my week in the Galapagos — but the ship would be nothing without the Lindblad Expeditions & National Geographic staff who work tirelessly to make each guest’s experience the “trip of a lifetime.”

To see our Lindblad Galapagos Islands cruise itinerary, please click here. For more information or to book, contact me at (502) 897-1725, (800) 478-4881; to email me, click here.

Read more about the Galapagos experience itself in my companion blog here.

(Rachel M. Hardy, travel consultant and marketing associate with The Society of International Railway Travelers, has traveled the world testing out adventures — all the better to inform our guests.)

Following in Darwin’s Footsteps: My Adventure in the Galapagos Islands

8 Apr
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A playful Galapagos sea lion. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

“We could be standing here 500,000 years ago, and things would look exactly the same,” a fellow traveler commented during my recent Galapagos Islands adventure with Lindblad Expeditions.

I understood the sentiment.

But the Galapagos are all about change — slow, ceaseless adaptation — rather than permanence.

As Charles Darwin observed almost 200 years ago, these adaptations are nowhere more apparent than in the variety of endemic species that call the Galapagos home.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get up close and personal with many of these amazing creatures.

Along with 90-odd other guests, I was aboard the newly-refitted National Geographic Endeavour II. A Lindblad team of naturalists, crew and staff ably assisted us.

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Hot and rewarding hike on Española Island. IRT photo

“You are not on a cruise,” said Paula, our expedition leader, immediately setting the tone for the week. “You are on an expedition!”

Some of the more cynical rolled their eyes. But everyone under 18 visibly straightened their backs in excitement.

Though we were surrounded by all the modern conveniences and comforts of a traditional luxury cruise, these small linguistic flourishes helped set the stage for a cerebral and engaging week of discovery.

We guests ranged in age from six to 80. Like me, most were Americans. But there were a few Canadians, as well as a South African, two Guatemalan sisters and a Swede.

We were academics, mailmen, research scientists, poets, lawyers, pastors, salespeople, librettists, administrators of different stripes, journalists and travel advisors (me!).

What was the tie that bound this relatively diverse group of explorers? Mostly, it was a love for animals — and a palpable enthusiasm for experiencing them in the wild.

Indeed, I quickly learned the surest way to bond with fellow travelers was to excitedly point out an animal.

Animals excited all of us. And everyone went to great lengths to share their sightings with as many others as they could.

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A Sally Lightfoot crab walks delicately across the volcanic rocks of Genovesa Island.                    IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The naturalists, many of whom are themselves “endemic” to the Islands, had extensive backgrounds in chemistry, geology and biology. And no less than their guests, they were passionate about the natural world. They were eager fonts of knowledge — and never off duty.

In one of our rare “rest times” during the early afternoon, I encountered Lenin, a naturalist. I wildly gestured toward the open ocean, where I could see movement a few hundred yards away.

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A male frigate bird impressively puffs up his gular pouch in an attempt to attract a mate.             IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Handing me his binoculars, he told me they were manta rays, taking turns jumping out of the water.

“We are not certain why they come to the surface like so,” he said. “Some scientists think they are ridding themselves of parasites. Others think they are just enjoying themselves.”

I certainly was enjoying myself. I took advantage of every hiking and snorkeling opportunity I could.

Snorkeling was a vigorous, thrilling experience. Every outing was unique.

Over the course of 15 hour-long deep-water snorkels, I swam with playful sea lion pups, sea turtles and diminutive Galapagos penguins.

I saw white-tipped reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays the size of breakfast tables, graceful spotted rays and hundreds of species of tropical fish.

Hikes were challenging — largely due to the Galapagos’ unforgiving heat and humidity in March. But they also were rewarding, with each day offering a new island and a new alien landscape to explore.

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A challenging mid-day hike. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Giant land iguanas, marine iguanas and bird species for which the Galapagos are famous — the Nazca, blue-footed and red-footed booby, to name three — added to the islands’ otherworldly vibe.

The island’s creatures acted as if we didn’t exist, not bothering to move off the trail even when we stepped within inches of them.

Some guests struggled with the most punishing midday hikes. But the vast majority seemed to know what they were in for.

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And the kids on our departure (more than usual, I was told, because it was spring break for many school systems in the U.S.) really enjoyed themselves.

That was thanks in no small part to a pilot program that the National Geographic Society introduced on our trip specifically geared towards young people — and their constant need for stimulation and apparent inability to nap. Their parents, all nappers themselves, seemed thrilled.

The snorkeling and hiking schedule left me little time to sleep in my comfortable cabin. And I had just enough time to enjoy the bountiful meals served in the ship’s dining room.

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One last hike on Genovesa Island. IRT Photo

Other memorable snapshots that underscored the amazingness of the Lindblad operation:

  1. Stargazing with Jean Roche, a naturalist, on the top deck when the moon was still hidden under the horizon. (I can now use the Southern Cross for navigation, if I ever find myself lost in the Southern Hemisphere!);
  2. Enjoying delicious, freshly-squeezed naranjilla juice that was waiting for us as we re-boarded the ship after long outings;
  3. The head waiter, Carlos, greeting every guest by name, three times a day, in the dining room, starting with our very first dinner (he also knew our dietary restrictions by heart);
  4. Crossing the equator on our last night. A slew of us crowded into the “open bridge,” the ship’s navigational heart, to which guests have 24/7 access. (And, Captain Garces, here’s a big “thank you” for always being so friendly and welcoming!)
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Marine iguanas — endemic to the Galapagos Islands — are incredible underwater swimmers, diving to depths of 9 meters. Here, they pile on each other and rest. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The only glitch — if you could call it that — occurred on our last day, just before our flight to Ecuador’s mainland. A few wayward land iguanas had wandered onto the tarmac, delaying our takeoff.

No one seemed to mind.

After all, we had only a few more hours to enjoy our newfound friends. And Lindblad had seen to it that we were well fed, watered and “WiFi-ed” in the VIP airport lounge.

Three hours later, the iguanas abruptly wandered away.

So off we flew, the Galapagos Islands rapidly shrinking as we rose, until they disappeared completely beneath the cloud cover.

I was already planning my return.

Click here for the second part of my blog about the newly-refitted Endeavour II.

To see our Lindblad Galapagos Islands cruise itinerary, please click here. For more information or to book, contact us at (502) 897-1725, (800) 478-4881; to email us, click here.

(Rachel M. Hardy, travel consultant and marketing associate with The Society of International Railway Travelers, has traveled the world testing out adventures — all the better to advise you!)

Japan’s ‘Seven Stars In Kyushu’ Named A World’s Top 25 Train®

31 Mar

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The Society of International Railway Travelers® is proud to announce that the Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu, as it’s officially known, is the first Japanese train to be awarded status as a World’s Top 25 Train.®

We are also proud to announce that The Society of IRT is the first agency/tour operator in the Western Hemisphere to charter the Seven Stars. (See our 2017 tour itinerary here.) And IRT is the first to sign a contract to offer additional dates for our honored travelers.

Operated by JR Kyushu, the Seven Stars began service in  October, 2013. The luxury train was an immediate hit. Space on the train — which accommodates a maximum of 30 guests — routinely sells out many months in advance.

High demand has caused JR Kyushu to hold periodic lotteries to determine who gets to ride the Seven Stars.

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“That’s not a big problem for most Japanese, who are just a bullet train ride or two away” from Fukuoka, Kyushu, where guests board the Seven Stars, said Society of IRT CEO & founder Owen Hardy.

“But basing your travel plans on winning a lottery is unworkable for most travelers from the Western Hemisphere, who need to book flights, hotels, and itineraries months in advance.”

The Society of IRT’s package, conducted in English and accompanied by a professional English-speaking guide, solves this issue beautifully – and takes care of every other conceivable detail along the way.

Participants will spend 16 days touring some of Japan’s most famous cities – among them

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Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Hakone. They’ll ride several of Japan’s famed bullet trains. And they’ll ride special trains such as the Odakyu Romance Car, the Yurikamome Train and the Hitoyoshi steam train in Kyushu.  They can also enjoy the fabulous Sweet Train.

The tour’s “grand finale” will be the four-day trip on the Seven Stars, which is the pride of Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island.

“During my two-day trip in 2015, we were greeted at every station by throngs of smiling locals, waving flags and greeting us like royalty,” Hardy said. “They ranged in age from young children to aged grandparents. Unbelievable!”

Why the hysteria over a train — even a luxury train?

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“The Seven Stars is truly a work of art on wheels,“ said Hardy, who test-rode the train in November, 2015.

“Everywhere I turned I saw stunning fabrics, gorgeous glasswork, richly hued posters, shimmering porcelain. Most spectacular of all was the intricate floor-to-ceiling woodwork from a variety of trees of varying colors.

“The cuisine is “as beautiful as it is tasty,” Hardy continued. “And the expert staff exude a combination of Asian elegance and hospitality with genuine warmth.”

The Seven Stars more than deserves its “World’s Top 25 Train®” status, he added, placing it among such luxury rail stars as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Belmond Royal Scotsman, and the Golden Eagle.

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IRT is also holding space on Kyushu’s equally popular Sweet Train, which runs between Sasebo and Nagasaki. Much like its “big sister,” the Seven Stars, the Sweet Train is a delightful amalgam of design, delicious food and impeccable service, Hardy says.

Space on the “Deluxe Rail Journey of Japan” group tour is booking steadily. To download a PDF copy of the itinerary (2.7 MB), click here.  Then contact us:

2018 VSOE Dates Posted; Wait List for Annual Istanbul Galas

24 Mar

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Get your name on the wait list for sought-after spots on the 2018 Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’ annual Istanbul extravaganzas.

(This year’s Paris-Istanbul trip is sold out; space still exists for the Sept. 1-6 Istanbul-Venice trip. Want to go? Contact us ASAP.)

Tentative 2018 dates for the Paris-Istanbul annual journey are Aug. 24-29. Tentative 2018 dates for Istanbul-Venice are Aug. 31-Sept. 5.

If you’ve always wanted to be a part of one of these classic trips, contact us to get your name on the wait list now. You are under no obligation.

Italian_NunsMeanwhile, Belmond, the company which operates the VSOE, also confirmed dates for the vintage luxury train’s other 2018 journeys. They include:

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While wandering the streets of Florence, Italy, Owen and Eleanor Hardy heard this captivating violinist long before seeing him. This poster celebrates the beauty and humanity of travel on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. It has long held its spot on The Society of IRT’s World’s Top 25 Trains® list. Poster design by Stephen Sebree; IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

Of special note: 2018 dates for our Romantic Italian Holiday, a dream itinerary created by The Society of IRT, also are now on line.

The tour combines two nights in Florence at the Belmond Villa San Michele; two nights in Venice at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani; two days and a night on the VSOE from Venice to the English Channel, capped off by afternoon tea on the Bellmond British Pullman into London.

2018 prices were not available at press time; they will be coming soon. Contact us, and we will notify you when they are available.

Email IRT or call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725 for more info. To book, click here.

Nature, Hot Springs, Cuisine Star in 7 Stars Kyushu Itinerary

17 Mar

Click here to see previous post: Seven Stars’ introduction, staff and culinary delights

A main raison d’etre of the new Cruise Train Seven Stars is to showcase the natural and artistic beauty of Kyushu. The train’s off-train excursions do not disappoint. (The Society of International Railway Tours’ “Seven Stars Over Japan” luxury rail tour includes the new luxury train as a post-tour option.)

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The Seven Stars logos, works of art in themselves, were carefully hand-crafted. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

The island of Kyushu is known for its volcanic hot springs (or onsen), and guests on our four-day trip next year will spend their second night off the train at a fabulous resort with their own private onsen. (So there’s no need for sheepish tourists to worry about bathing au naturel with strangers, albeit of the same sex.)

Our group enjoyed onsens on two successive nights near Yufuin, which is on the four-day itinerary. I made the most of my onsen experience, enjoying the steaming waters three times.

Once I learned the proper etiquette, I found the experience delightfully soothing. (And don’t worry; we’ll have complete instructions for guests on our luxury Japan by Rail tour, which runs Nov. 5-19, 2016.)

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Our guide walks in the tranquil garden of Kakiemon Kiln. IRT photo by O. Hardy

We also visited Kyushu’s famed Kakiemon Kiln in Arita, whose exquisite ceramics the Dutch East India Company began shipping to Europe in the late 17th century. The ceramics works is still family owned.

The fifteenth-generation boss proudly showed us his business, with his little son, the sixteenth generation heir, skipping along with us. Afterwards, Kakiemon XV, as he’s known, invited us to his tea house, set among the subtle green hues of his carefully manicured garden.

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Seven-sided Seven Stars basin, produced by Kakiemon Kiln. JR Kyushu photo

Proudly, he told us of his late father, Kakiemon XIV, whose final creation before his death were the intricate, seven-sided wash basins which grace each of the standard Seven Stars cabins.

Meanwhile, back on the Seven Stars, I took careful inventory of my compartment.  In keeping with the train’s striving for perfection, even the windows are special.

My compartment’s two windows each had five separate sections: an outer layer of glass, followed by a second layer of thin, wooden slats; then two sliding traditional Japanese windows with paper panes; then, two heavier sliding wooden windows. The final layer was a light gauzy curtain of gathered material.

Standard suites include a writing desk, with pull-out section for additional room (not shown here). IRT photo by Owen Hardy

My room contained a minibar stocked with wonderful Japanese juices, green tea, “Swan Cider Tomosu” in its tiny bottle, Asahi “Dry” and Santory “The Premium Malts” Pilsner Beer, and other bottles whose names were written only in Japanese, but whose contents were delicious. (Drinks from the minibar are on the house, by the way.)

My compartment also contained two plugs, one in the bathroom and one in the bedroom, plus a 3-socket multi-plug unit, so you can plug in your iPhone, iPad and iMac all at once (as I did).

Standard suite bathroom, above. All bathrooms have showers with cypress wood paneling and typical Japanese toilets with multiple controls. The train also has one handicapped accessible suite and bathroom. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

Also, attention, U.S. and Canadian travelers: Japan’s electrical outlets are identical (almost) to ours, so leave your adapters at home. And WiFi is available throughout the train and works quite well (except in tunnels and other such places).

Also provided in my compartment: toothbrush, razors, cotton balls and two different types of Japanese toiletries. When I couldn’t decide which set I wanted, my cabin attendant happily gave me both.

All the compartments, including the deluxe suites, contain twin beds separated by a night stand. My bed was quite comfortable and easily accommodated my six-foot frame.

One final aspect of the Seven Stars experience also deserves mention, and maybe sums up this over-the-top-train: the music provided each evening in the bar car by a violin/piano duo.

When you book a Seven Stars trip, you’ll receive a confirmation accompanied by a request from the musicians: “please tell us one piece of music you’d especially like to hear.”

In a fit of enthusiasm, I fired off a return email: “The third movement from César Franck’s Violin Sonata.”

“What?” my friend Sam, a retired music professor, exclaimed. “That’s pretty difficult music.”

Violinist and pianist hold forth in the Blue Moon bar/lounge car. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Several weeks later, aboard the Seven Stars, I met the musicians and mentioned, a bit hesitantly, that I was the one who’d requested the Franck.

Without skipping a beat, the pianist began the introduction, and the violinist – without music – began the virtuosic opening. He was on solid ground, and I sat listening, entranced, for the next several minutes.

They ended the piece with a drawn-out pianissimo.

“Bravo!” we yelled, nursing our drinks, as the Kyushu twilight lingered outside the bar car’s picture window. (See video below.)

Bravo, indeed, I thought: to the staff, designers, planners, artisans, chefs, JR Kyushu and even to the citizens of this small but beautiful island, who are so proud of “their” train.

The Seven Stars is a true work of art.

The Society of International Railway Travelers®’ “Seven Stars Over Japan” luxury tour, for which we’ve chartered an entire Seven Stars 4-day, 3 night itinerary, runs Nov. 5-19, 2016.

To download a 24-page PDF brochure (2.7 MB), please click here.

For more information or to book, email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

 

 

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