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South African Splendor on Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa

20 Apr
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Rovos Rail guests await their train at Rovos Rail’s private Capitol Park Station.  IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

By the time we arrive at Rovos Rail‘s private station in Pretoria, my colleague, Rachel Hardy and I are both brimming with excitement. We are about to embark on a 3-day journey to Cape Town on one of the world’s most luxurious trains: Pride of Africa. We are here to discover if this train, on our World’s Top 25® Trains list for decades, is still up to snuff ahead of IRT’s special group trip on Rovos Rail in November, 2019. By the time we arrive in Cape Town, we have decided that the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

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Rachel Hardy and Angela Walker with a Rovos Rail hostess. IRT Photo.

The check-in process is a breeze. Rovos Rail hostesses greet us with champagne and juice as our luggage is whisked away by friendly porters. We are ushered inside the beautiful old station to relax and enjoy the view through the stately French doors. Gently swaying palm trees line the platform, and beyond, the famous Rovos Rail train cars fill the tracks as far as the eye can see.

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Rovos Rail porter smiles as he loads luggage on our train. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

A short time later, Rovos Rail’s visionary and idiosyncratic owner, Rohan Vos, summons interested guests for a tour of the grounds. (Mr. Vos began Rovos Rail in 1989 against almost insurmountable odds. His story – Rovos Rail’s story – is fascinating and could fill an entire book. It is only fitting that ‘Rovos’ is a portmanteau of his first and last names!)

The station — abuzz with the activity of more than 400 Rovos Rail employees – sprawls over 60 acres. From the sales offices to the kitchens to the maintenance platforms – where we watch carriages being transformed from dusty old shells into sleek, green Pride of Africa cars – Rovos employees in a variety of green uniforms hurry to and fro, painting, welding, sawing, hauling, cleaning and doing all other manner of task.

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Rovos Rail employees at the station. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

A variety of animals (goats, emu, ostrich, donkeys and cows) hover around the periphery and impart a distinctly Old World air to the scene. Also on the station grounds: a small museum with Rovos memorabilia going back 20 years, a lovely gift shop and storage facilities.

Mr. Vos leads us to the locomotive depot, where he describes the painstaking restorations his team has accomplished over the years. He also explains the train’s bogies and braking system in some detail – a real treat for rail fans – before shepherding us back to the station for our departure.

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Rohan Vos gives a behind-the-scenes tour before departure. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

By now, we’ve come to appreciate Mr. Vos’s hands-on approach – so no one is surprised when he himself delivers the welcome speech and explains the rules of life on board. One point he particularly stresses: mobile phones and computers are prohibited in public areas.  He wants this to be a social occasion, and, as he explains, cell phones are the modern day adversary of good conversation.

He suggests we put our electronics in our safe and forget about them for a few days – a challenge for us, and surely some other guests. We settle with putting our cells on ‘Airplane Mode’ so we can continue to (discreetly) use our phone cameras without guilt.

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Rachel gets a visit from the dining staff and chef. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Mr. Vos invites each of us aboard by name, and our hostesses greet us and show us to our cabins. Rachel and I each have a Deluxe cabin to ourselves. Mine is laid out with two L-shaped twin beds (a configuration that is slowly being phased out in favor of side-by-side twin beds with an aisle in between), while Rachel has a large double bed.

In each of our cabins is a table with two chairs, a large wardrobe with safe, ample storage space for luggage under bed and overhead, and a spacious bathroom with sink, toilet, and shower.

Large picture windows – some of which open to let in the breeze – run the length of our cabins.

 

(In addition to Deluxe Cabins, which clock in around 118 square feet, the train offers Pullman Cabins (diminutive but doable at 76 sq. ft.) and enormous Royal Suites, which are 172 sq. ft. and feature a larger bathroom with deep claw foot bathtub and large living area.)

After a cheerful briefing from our hostess, Louwrene, and a visit from the dining supervisor and chef to inquire about dietary requirements, we set off to explore the public cars at the rear of the train.

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Rachel and guests enjoying the observation car before dinner. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

We first encounter the smoking car, which is entirely enclosed in glass and surprisingly devoid of bad smells. (Smoking is also allowed within the confines of your cabin.)

Next, we find a quiet, comfortable lounge car with couches and armchairs, which quickly becomes the ‘go-to’ spot for guests looking to read and nap after lunch. A small gift shop is tucked in one corner.

The last car on the train is by far the most special: it is divided between a traditional counter bar with stools, a lounge area with banquette seating (our favorite place for playing the many board games available), and, best of all, an open-air observation platform with bench seating, accessed through a sliding glass door.

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Rovos Rail open-air observation car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

As we are making our rounds, the train manager, Joe Mathala, greets us enthusiastically and strikes up a conversation about his long and storied career with Rovos. He quickly rattles off the other Rovos trains currently in service – where they are now, where they are headed, what time they will arrive – and regales us with behind-the-scenes tales.

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Joe Mathala, train manager, made us feel at home. Pictured here with guests at lunch in the dining car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The South African sun sets rapidly over the increasingly rural landscape, and we retreat to our cabins to dress for dinner. On Rovos Rail, dinner is a formal affair. Jacket and tie for men and cocktail attire for women are required, at a minimum, and everyone happily obliges.

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Angela in the Victorian-style diner. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The dining car is a 1920s-style Victorian beauty with teak pillars, shuttered windows with tasseled drapes, romantic, soft lighting, and beautifully-set tables with crisp white dining cloths, china, and crystal. Red anthurium flowers add a natural adornment to each table.

The service is excellent; we are well-attended by four able dining staff who bounce back and forth from the kitchen car to the tables, serving, pouring and clearing, all with a smile.  Joe is also ever-present, assisting his staff while still managing to mingle with the guests.

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Alpheus, our sever, pours wine at dinner. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Throughout the journey, the prix fixe menus – four courses expertly paired with South African wines – highlight local specialties, including fresh seafood, ostrich fillet, and Bobotie (spiced mince beef oven-baked with a layer of egg custard). Rachel, a vegetarian, also gave the culinary team five stars for inventiveness and flavor.

We loved the desserts, especially the decadent Koeksister (in Afrikaans, “fat sister”) – fried dough soaking in sweet, drippy grease – paired with a traditional South Africa melktart, dusted with cinnamon.

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My cozy bed, laden with gifts from Rovos Rail, turned down for the night. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

After dinner, we retreat to our cabins to find gifts from Rovos Rail arranged on our turned-down beds: crystal glasses to keep, bottles of champagne, and chocolates. (As if we needed more food!)  The gentle rocking of the train lulled me to sleep as soon as I hit the pillow.

 

Stayed tuned for part two of our Rovos Rail report, which will be published within the next week. Subscribe to our blog here.

Or, if you are ready to book your own Rovos Rail adventure, call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Angela Walker is a 20-year veteran of The Society of International Railway Travelers, and has been on many of our World’s Top 25® Trains. She is a luxury travel advisor and VP, Operations.  Rachel M. Hardy is a luxury travel advisor and VP, Sales & Marketing, for the Society of IRT. Both are based in our Louisville, KY headquarters. They have just returned from a month-long study tour examining trains, hotels and experiences in Europe and South Africa.

 

My Place in the Sun: French Polynesia with Paul Gauguin

6 Nov
Swimming peacefully with the lemon sharks in the Lagoonarium. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Swimming peacefully with the lemon sharks in the Lagoonarium. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Can you swim with sharks and still feel completely relaxed on the same vacation?

“No way!” I would have said before traveling to French Polynesia.

But having just returned from cruising aboard the Paul Gauguin, I can confidently say it’s not only possible, it can happen the same day.

My 7-night “Tahiti and the Society Islands” cruise departed from Papeete, Tahiti. It made stops at the surrounding islands of Huahine, Taha’a, Bora Bora and Moorea amidst spectacular scenery.

The unbelievable blues of the ocean beckoned, but the m/s Paul Gauguin itself vied for my attention.

One of the m/s Paul Gauguin's many features: a rear watersports deck. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

One of the m/s Paul Gauguin’s many features: a retractable water sports marina. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The 9-deck ship carries only 332 guests. It features three restaurants, a retractable water sports marina, a small pool and four bars. And with a crew to guest ratio of just 1 to 1.5, all my worries easily floated away.

The crew, in fact, was a highlight of my cruise. Most come from the Philippines, and they were consummate professionals.

They quickly learned and remembered our names, drink orders and other preferences. Their service always came with a smile.

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IRT’s Angela Walker and Shawn Bidwell. IRT photo

In addition to the pampering staff, the all-inclusive policy aboard ship made life worry-free. The most difficult decision each day for me and my partner, Shawn, was where to dine. Luckily, all the ship’s restaurants were good choices.

La Veranda offered indoor and alfresco seating, serving French-inspired dishes in an elegant dinner atmosphere. Le Grill was poolside, serving a more relaxed and intimate dinner with local specialties in an open-air setting.

L’Etoile was the elegant main dining room, open for dinner only, with a diverse menu offering a range of international cuisines. When dining in L’Etoile, Shawn and I chose from a range of starters, soups, salads, pastas, entrees and dessert. The poisson cru, a Polynesian specialty similar to seviche, was particularly tasty.

Breakfast and lunch were buffet-style, served in La Veranda and Le Grill. The buffets were varied and choices were plentiful. Themes of the lunch buffets changed daily – Greek, Italian, French, Pacific and International.

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Angela and Shawn sip drinks “island style” – from coconut shells. IRT photo

For those very picky eaters, there were “always available” menus, with familiar choices like a Rueben or pizza for lunch and steak or chicken breast for dinner. In addition, complimentary room service was available 24 hours a day.

In short, no one went hungry on this ship. Or thirsty for that matter.

Alcohol was included in the cruise price (save for select top shelf liquors and reserve wine list), so the bars were always lively. The daily itinerary included an alcoholic and nonalcoholic “cocktail of the day,” often featuring tropical juices, which was always worth a try.

All cabins on the Paul Gauguin have ocean-facing views. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

All cabins on the Paul Gauguin have ocean-facing views. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The ship’s cabins were just as inviting. They ranged from 200-square-foot staterooms (some with two portholes, some with picture window) to the 588-square-foot owner’s suite.

All cabins had an ocean view, and nearly 70% had balconies. All included a minibar stocked with soft drinks, beer and water and were replenished daily.

And the storage! I was shocked at the amount of cabinets, shelves, drawers and cubbyholes for all our things – even in the bathroom. We easily unpacked everything and tucked our suitcases under the bed for the duration of the cruise.

The atmosphere on board was informal. During the day, many of the excursions featured swimming, hiking or watersports, so casual, comfortable dress was standard.

After 6 p.m., the restaurant dress code was “country club casual” (skirt or slacks with a blouse or sweater for women; slacks and collared shirts for men).

The wait staff aboard the Paul Gauguin proved to be especially friendly and professional. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The wait staff aboard the Paul Gauguin proved to be especially friendly and professional. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Bartender Rey Amor practices his delicate art. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Bartender Rey Amor practices his delicate art. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The hot spot for before-dinner drinks was the pool deck, with entertainment by the house band Santa Rosa or the on-board Tahitian ambassadors, called Les Gauguines & Gauguins.

After dinner, guests retreated to the piano bar for music by Marius or blackjack with Sean (one of the most personable croupiers I’ve ever met) in the small on-board casino.

Others headed to La Palette, on the top deck, where drinks were served by another of my favorite staff, Rey, who was not only extremely personable but also entirely professional. And he made great drinks!

Live music, karaoke and DJ tunes alternated in La Palette, which opened to the back deck and offered indoor and outdoor seating. This was also the spot for the special Tahitian blessing ceremony, which took place our first night in Bora Bora.

Traditional Tahitian blessing ceremony. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Traditional Tahitian blessing ceremony. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Those celebrating honeymoons and anniversaries gathered as cruise director Michael Shapiro read a Tahitian poem and blessed their marriages, followed by a Polynesian tradition of wrapping the couple in a quilt to symbolize their union.

It was a beautiful — and popular — ceremony.

For more information on this or any of the Paul Gauguin cruises, or to book, please contact The Society of International Railway Travelers®: (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881; or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Click here for Paul Gauguin, part 2: Off the ship fun and excitement.

Paul Gauguin Cruise Offers Ocean Adventure, Island Fun

6 Nov
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A couple relaxes on Motu Mahana, the private island of Paul Gauguin Cruises. IRT photo by Angela Walker

French Polynesia is heavenly.

It lulls you into an almost dream-induced state of relaxation. (Though, just in case you need more relaxation, there’s a spa on the m/s Paul Gauguin, from which I recently — if reluctantly — returned. My assignment: experience the 8-day cruise: Tahiti and the Society Islands.)

The blues of the water are impossible to describe, other than to say the ocean always beckons.

You can answer that call with an array of off-ship activities: snorkeling, diving, kayaking, paddle-boarding, exploring by boat or jet ski. Island hiking trips also are available.

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Angela poses with local guide, Max, and his assistant after the Lagoonarium excursion in Bora Bora. IRT photo

One of my favorite activities was our trip to the “Lagoonarium” in Bora Bora. Our guide, Max, was a young, high-energy local, proud of his heritage and eager to share his homeland.

The Lagoonarium in a family-run, natural aquarium where guests can swim with sharks, stingrays and tropical fish. Our visit also included a circumnavigation of Bora Bora by boat (with Max alternately commentating, then playing the ukulele and singing).

We made an additional stop in the ocean for snorkeling in an amazing coral garden to see even more fish: jackfish, black-and-yellow butterflyfish, multi-colored parrotfish, to name a few. It was fabulous.

The Paul Gauguin anchored in Moorea. IRT photo by Angela Walker

The Paul Gauguin anchored in Moorea. IRT photo by Angela Walker

My partner Shawn and I also loved our Moorea excursion with Dr. Michael Poole, a dolphin and whale expert. Fortunately, our trip was in October, just before the end of whale season. So in addition to dolphins, we were lucky enough to see four mother/calf pairs of hump-back whales.

A few brave souls in our small boat jumped at the chance to snorkel with the whales, although the water was so choppy that it was impossible to see anything.

Our absolute favorite shore excursion was on the third day of our cruise, when the Paul Gauguin spent a full day in Taha’a, the company’s private motu (Polynesian for small island). Regularly scheduled shuttles to and from the ship were offered throughout the day.  But they were wasted on us.

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A humpback whale sighted during an excursion off Moorea. IRT photo by Angela Walker

What a day we had! Tanning in the provided beach chairs, snorkeling in clear waters, activities in the sand, a full bar serving endless tropical drinks in coconuts, and an absolutely delicious barbecue lunch.

Shawn and I left the ship as early as possible and stayed on the motu until the last return tender. I could easily have spent a week on that private motu – although I would want the Paul Gauguin staff in tow.

To top it off, the entire day was included in the cruise fare — the only shore excursion that doesn’t cost extra.

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A local guide demonstrates how to pollinate a vanilla plant in Huahine. IRT photo by Angela Walker

But now back to reality: the other excursions can get pricey for some. The prices ranged from $49 for a 2 ½-3 hour drive around the islands to $1,135 for a private boat escapade around Bora Bora.

But there was always the option to explore the islands on our own, or to take in the constant activities offered on board ship.

The options available was almost endless: shows, demonstrations, language classes, trivia games, bridge, shuffleboard, afternoon tea, bingo, ping pong, board games.

There was something for everyone, young and old, as the ship and destination attract all ages.

And that was part of the magic. Some guests came to celebrate special occasions – birthdays, anniversaries, honeymoons. Others were groups of old friends reuniting. Some came just to experience this amazing destination.

But we all had one thing in common: we wanted to come back to the islands, and to the Paul Gauguin.

For more information on this or any of the Paul Gauguin cruises, or to book, please contact The Society of International Railway Travelers®: (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881; or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

To read about life aboard the m/s Paul Gauguin, please click here.

IRT Awards High Marks to Golden Eagle Danube Express

29 May
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Serbian dancers greet the Golden Eagle Danube Express in Belgrade. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

It was the photo op of a lifetime.

As the “new” luxury train Golden Eagle Danube Express departed Venice’s Santa Lucia station, the world-famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express was pulling in.

The two elegant European touring trains slowly passed each other, as passengers waved and marveled.

Thus began the inaugural run of the newly dubbed Golden Eagle Danube Express on its Venice-Budapest Balkan Odyssey tour. The luxury train rolled through eight countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria & Romania. Its 54 passengers hailed mostly from the U.S. & Australia.

See Angela Walker’s photos from her Balkan Odyssey adventure here.

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Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Stellar Itinerary

Among the highlights awaiting those passengers:  visiting the museum and tomb of Josip Broz Tito, former president of Yugoslavia; hearing a first-hand account of escape through the Sarajevo Tunnel during the siege of the city during the Bosnian War; and, most poignant, standing in the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, an event that triggered World War I and the deaths of more than 8 million soldiers and countless more civilians.

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Golden angels in Zagreb’s Kaptol Square.             IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Excellent local guides offered fascinating insight to the complex history of these Balkan nations. Summoning personal experiences, they often focused on the conflict just 20 years ago, when Yugoslavia was divided and these countries were at war.

Earlier that week, the Golden Eagle Danube Express was christened with much pomp and circumstance in Budapest by a military band, festive speeches and no less a personage than His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent. For more on the ceremony as well as specifics of the luxury train’s accommodations, please click here.

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Happy IRT guests on the Golden Eagle Danube Express. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Sumptuous Dining

Two dining cars seat 42 passengers each (which combined is more than the train’s 56-passenger capacity). The dining cars are attractive and comfortable, offering tables for 4 or 2.

“Albert” has a green and cream color scheme; “Pannonia” is crimson and beige.

The tables are resplendent with white tablecloths, crystal glassware and china emblazoned with the double-headed eagle logo of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.

Guests enjoy breakfast on board. One can choose from a buffet of fruit, breads, cereal, cold meats and cheeses. In addition, diners can order a hot breakfast including omelets, French toast, bacon and sausage.

Guests have either lunch or dinner off the train in a local restaurant, with the other meal on the train.

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IRT guests playing cards in the lounge car of the Golden Eagle Danube Express.  IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

On-board meals are served in three courses, with choice of vegetarian or meat starters and main courses.

On my trip, starters included asparagus with hollandaise sauce and zucchini rolls with ricotta stuffing, served in a char-grilled pepper sauce with basil olive oil. Other choices were foie gras terrine with spicy apricot chutney and toasted challah bread.

Main course options ranged from Moroccan baked vegetables with prunes and spicy couscous to beer-braised beef cheek with malted onions and ale sauce, served with carrots, green beans and onion mashed potatoes.

(The beef cheek was so tender and delicious, it was difficult to pass on seconds – which were offered!)

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Special “Swan Lake” dessert served on the Golden Eagle Danube Express.

Desserts were a highlight (which pleased my sweet tooth immensely!) “Swan Lake” was a pastry shaped into a swan sitting on a “lake” of vanilla and chocolate sauce.  The Swan Lake won the beauty contest. But for taste, I preferred the strawberry panna cotta and the chocolate mousse.

Meals off the train were generally set menus. But they still were multi-course affairs, with many featuring seafood. Vegetarian options also were available.

And some of the restaurants were in scenic locales. One example: our morning walking tour of the Belgrade fortress ended at Kalemegdanska Teresa restaurant within the fortress grounds, overlooking the Danube and Sava Rivers.

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Budapest tram stop. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Service was good, although there is room for improvement. In the dining car, tables were not cleared and cleaned at breakfast as quickly as they should have been on a luxury train. Breakfast buffet items were not refilled once emptied.

I chatted with Edit Mészáros, the ever-present on-board guest relations manager, and these actions were corrected the following day.  Edit is very receptive to feedback and eager to please her guests.  No doubt these small lapses in service will be rectified and perfected in the coming months.

Also, some of the train staff (mostly car attendants) do not speak English, or speak it poorly.

Princess Michael

Princess Michael of Kent peers out of the train. Prince & Princess Michael of Kent officially launched the Golden Eagle Danube Express in Budapest in early May. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Lounge Car

Lounge car “Budapest” is the social center.  Unfortunately, the current lounge car only seats 28 – not enough to accommodate the train’s capacity.

But it is rare, if ever, that all passengers visit the lounge for a pre-dinner drink or nightcap (all drinks, with the exception of some premium wines, are included in the tour fare).

That’s a shame, as the train’s pianist, Eszter Kisgyörgy, was perpetually entertaining and an absolute delight.

A new lounge car (with a proper bar) is currently under construction and is set to replace the current lounge. [Editor’s Note:  The new lounge car was added to the Golden Eagle Danube Express in early 2016.  Click here to read our post about the new car.]

Border Crossings

The journey was not without other glitches. Passing through numerous borders with a private train led to a few complications, mostly in the form of delays at the borders.

In some cases, the border control officials wanted to see each passenger with his/her passport in hand. Unfortunately, the timing of one of these crossings (Croatia to Bosnia) meant a knock on the cabin door in the middle of the night.

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Religious paintings at a market in Sofia, Bulgaria. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Scenic Bus Ride

Another setback: the train was not allowed to travel on the line from Sarajevo to Mostar, requiring a 2 ½ hour bus ride each way and lunch en route.

Although the motor coach ride was extremely scenic – running along glacial lakes through ridges, mountains and canyons – it would have been fantastic by train along a similar route, through countless tunnels and over many bridges (this will ideally be incorporated in future journeys).

The bus trip did serendipitously allow for an exceptional lakeside lunch in the town of Konjic – my favorite meal of the entire journey.

Angela Walker Vice President, The Society of International Railway Travelers. Photo by Arthur McMurdie

Angela Walker Vice President, The Society of International Railway Travelers. Photo by Arthur McMurdie

Lofty Dreams

The Golden Eagle Danube Express has lofty dreams: to become the leading luxury touring train in mainland Europe. True, it lacks the polish of the famed Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

But its riveting itineraries, fully inclusive pricing and comfort undoubtedly put it in the forefront of luxurious European railway travel. The future seems bright for this up-and-coming luxury train.

To book this journey or ask questions about the itinerary or train, please call IRT’s Angela Walker at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Angela Walker is Vice President of The Society of International Railway Travelers and a senior luxury travel advisor. She has traveled the world over reviewing The World’s Top 25 Trains.®

Danube Express Strikes Gold with Upgrades, New Itineraries

16 May

 

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Hungarian military band serenades passengers as they board the Golden Eagle Danube Express May 2 in Budapest’s Nyugati Station. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The Golden Eagle Danube Express celebrated its new name — plus new itineraries stretching all across Europe and a host of luxury upgrades — May 2 at Budapest’s Nyugati Station.

No less than a member of British Royalty, Prince Michael of Kent, drove the steam engine for an inaugural run to the nearby Hungarian Railway Museum and Park. I was happy to join in the festivities and to review the train.

The former Danube Express’ golden moniker is more than a new name. The Budapest-based private train boasts a raft of luxury upgrades ranging from service and amenities to cuisine and off-train touring. “I have every confidence that this is an experience that will be shared in the years to come by many thousands of guests,” declared His Royal Highness to a crowd of dignitaries, press and travel executives in the Budapest station’s Royal Waiting Room.

A pianist entertains in the Golden Eagle Danube Express lounge car. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

A pianist entertains in the Golden Eagle Danube Express lounge car. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

After speaking of his passion for railway travel, the bewhiskered prince climbed into the cab of the Hungarian Railways’ ‘Buffalo’ class 424 steam locomotive. A Hungarian military brass band serenaded the passengers as they boarded the waiting train.

The Prince then drove “his” train out of the station.

The following day, Prince and Princess Michael joined a small group of passengers for the train’s inaugural overnight run to Venice.  The journey included lunch on board, an excursion to Lake Balaton in Hungary, followed by dinner and drinks in the bar car, with a harpist entertaining.  It was a brief glimpse into the experience many passengers will have on the newly operated train in the future.

The special journey celebrated the Danube Express’ management takeover by UK-based Golden Eagle Luxury trains. The company is best known for its Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian journeys in Russia and Central Asia as well as its ground-breaking luxury rail tours to Iran, begun last year.

GE Danube Express Deluxe Cabin has two lower berths. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

GE Danube Express’ spacious Deluxe Cabin has two lower berths. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The Golden Eagle Danube Express comprises five sleeping cars, a lounge car and two dining cars.  Four sleeping cars contain Deluxe cabins with two lower berths. One sleeping car has Heritage class cabins with upper and lower bunk-style berths. The spacious Deluxe cabins have private shower, sink and toilet. The bathrooms even boast towel warmers.

Heritage class cabins are budget-oriented —about a third of the size of the Deluxe. Toilets and showers are shared and located at the end of the car.

Buffet breakfast in one of the two dining cars. Guests also can order hot items from an a la carte menu. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Buffet breakfast in one of the two dining cars. Guests also can order hot items from an a la carte menu. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The upgraded train includes two 42-seat dining cars which serve delicious meals and wines. The lounge car accommodates 28. [Editor’s Note: A new lounge car was added to the Golden Eagle Danube Express in early 2016.  Click here to read our post about the new car.]  Drinks are served (and included in the fare) throughout the day while a pianist entertains.

Golden Eagle Luxury Trains offers a range of itineraries on its new train, covering a swath of Western and Eastern Europe.

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Evening place setting. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Sample itineraries include the 12-day Balkan Odyssey (Budapest to Venice via Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria & Romania) and Balkan Explorer (Venice to Istanbul, traveling through nine countries in 12 days).

For more information on the Golden Eagle Danube Express, click here, or call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. To book, click here.

Angela Walker is Vice President of Operations and Senior Luxury Travel Advisor. She has criss-crossed the world to review many of the World’s Top 25 Trains, in India, China, Scotland, Canada, Uzbekistan and Peru, to name a few countries, for The Society of International Railway Travelers, a Virtuoso travel agency.

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.”

Al-Andalus staff

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.

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

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.

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.

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