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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.

Gran Lujo: A Grand Upgrade

15 Nov

The staff of the El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo welcome passengers aboard in Ferrol, Spain. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

The neatly uniformed staff snaps to attention as we approach El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo at Ferrol Station. As we settle into the lovely lounge car, the staff serves champagne all around.

Our tour manager, Barbara Callisto, with her charming, infectious smile, introduces the staff, explains the train layout and toasts the trip ahead, first in Spanish, then English. This grand and intimate introduction would set the tone for my trip, which I enjoyed just two weeks ago.

It lived up to some of my expectations and exceeded others. Its operator, FEVE, proved once again that its trains are firmly ensconced in the Society of IRT’s World’s Top 25 Trains list. The Gran Lujo began service in May 2011 as an upgraded version of the El Transcantábrico Clásico, which I already knew was a fabulous train. I had high expectations.

The Gran Lujo comprises refurbished cars from the Clásico train set, with upgrades and improvements throughout. Seven sleeping cars from the Clásico were gutted and redone, doubling the size of the suites and alleviating one of the few complaints of the Clásico experience: cabins that are too small. Each Gran Lujo suite takes up half a train car.

My comfy suite on Gran Lujo. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

My room is Suite Princess 6, one of the four twin-bedded suites on the Gran Lujo. First, I notice the layout—surprisingly spacious for  a narrow-gauge train—twin beds, two windows (which open), couch, table, two stools, wardrobe, chest of drawers, desk with computer and two television screens(!) Not to mention a full en-suite bathroom, complete with the most complicated shower I’ve ever encountered – functions for three shower types, hydro-massage and sauna.

The twin beds are side by side, separated by a narrow aisle. At the end of the one bed is a narrow wardrobe with eight hangers and three shelves; at the end of the other is a chest containing three drawers.

I quickly unpack my things, easily fitting them into the storage space provided. (Note, however, that I am traveling alone. Couples booking a twin-bedded suite may end up fighting over the eight hangers. Double-bedded suites have a wardrobe twice the size of the original, extra hangers to match, but no chest.) Then I tuck my suitcase in a hidden compartment under the couch.

Watching the passing Northern Spain scenery from my suite window. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

I explore every bit of the suite, with distressed wood paneling, decorated in grays and browns. I discover a minibar, safe and several more clever places for storage, including the stools which open for an unexpected storage box.

Technology has been successfully incorporated into the suites – there is digital climate control as well as a panel to operate the cabin “entertainment” — three channels of music and a fourth, which turns on the television screens. If the passing Northern Spain scenery and off-train tours are not enough for you, there are movies, news and weather available, as well as a computer with internet access.

The train has wireless internet, but this does not work while the train is moving, and on my trip is not reliable the first few days, even when the train is stabled .

Each morning breakfast is served on board – a buffet including a variety of breads and sweets, cereal, fruit, yogurt, crackers, meats and cheeses, juices and Spanish tortilla. The biggest draw at breakfast quickly becomes the freshly carved Iberian ham. Delicious!

At breakfast, the efficient staff serves me freshly squeezed orange juice and offers me coffee. They also give me a

Fresh orange juice is served by the efficient staff of the El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

menu—in addition to the buffet, there is a full breakfast menu, with offerings such as crepes (with chocolate, strawberry, caramel or a variety of jams), caviar canapé, and made-to-order eggs, including omelets with your choice of ham, mushrooms, sausage, bacon and cheese.

After a few days, the staff has memorized the coffee orders and delivers it without asking – in my case, café con leche.

One dining car seats 16 and is decorated in gold and brown, with comfy plush chairs at tables for two. Beautifully latticed panels cover the lights. At each table is a lamp by the window. The other dining car seats 10 at tables for two and is decorated in red and light brown.

There’s a bar at the end of this car, where the morning coffee is brewed and drinks are served throughout the day.

Walking through this dining car offers a glimpse of your week ahead: the walls are decorated with paintings of sightseeing along the route, such as Playa de Catedral (Cathedral Beach), which we will walk along in a few days. Likewise, the beautifully painted panels above the windows colorfully depict stops along the way, as well as the train itself.

Tables for two in one of the Gran Lujo dining cars set for a four-course lunch on board. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

Table settings are complete with El Transcantábrico plates, cups and glasses. Other than breakfast, we take our meals off the train in restaurants to sample the local cuisine. However, lunch is served on board the last day, giving us a chance to enjoy the service and watch the passing scenery.

It is also the perfect time to enjoy the lounge car, with a panel of panoramic windows, two cream couches, two armchairs and three tables, each with three chairs, seating 17 in all. Many of my fellow passengers linger here after breakfast, reading the numerous newspapers provided daily.

There is also a “disco car” in the consist, where live music is performed several nights during the journey. This has two big couches, two smaller couches and a dance floor, as well as a bar – and stays open and lively until the last person retires. The last night there’s a farewell party in the disco car, where the staff cheers everyone and crowns a “Mr. & Ms. Transcantabrico,” all in good fun.

Breakfast crepes were just one of many offerings on Gran Lujo. IRT photo by Angela Walker

The staff are not many, but they’re efficient. There are five serving and two engineers, and the driver, as well as the train manager, Paula. And of course, there is our ever-upbeat, energetic and helpful Barbara, who speaks five languages and happily explains everything in Spanish and English.

Our diverse group includes 18 Spanish-speakers from Spain and Mexico and five English-speakers, hailing from Australia, the U.S., England and Switzerland. Our train, running in late October, is the last of the season. Carrying just 23 passengers, it’s not full, making for an even more intimate experience.

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo, one of the World’s Top 25 Trains. Photo by Angela Walker.

The Gran Lujo is, without a doubt, an upgrade from the Clásico El Transcantábrico, and well deserves a place among the world’s great luxury trains. The design is well thought-out, making the most of the narrow-gauge space.

The staff is efficient and experienced, and the cabins are attractive, large and comfortable.

Besides the train, the touring and food (so much food!) were highlights, which require separate blog posts of their own.

Have you been on board the new train? Please let us know your impressions! (IRT’s Angela Walker, who has reviewed many of the World’s Top 25 Trains for IRT,  just returned from her eight-day journey across Northern Spain on Gran Lujo, traveling from Santiago to San Sebastian. This is the first of several posts. To see more of her photos, please click here.)

The Maharajas’ Express: Live like Indian Royalty

29 Nov

The Maharajas’ Express calls itself “India’s most luxurious train.” Last month I traveled to India to see if the train indeed lives up to its claim. Almost immediately upon boarding the beautiful, new maroon coaches of the Maharajas’ Express, I knew it would. The luxury was obvious, and I knew it would quickly be added to World’s Top 25 Trains list issued by The Society of International Railway Travelers.®

The train was custom-built and began operating in March 2010, so I was keen on exploring every inch. I boarded at the Rajah Club and scurried around to peek into each of the four cabin types—from the smallest Deluxe Suites (at 110 square feet, still quite roomy for train cabins) to the Presidential Suite, which takes up an entire train car and comprises an unbelievable 5 rooms (two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a large sitting room). I was impressed with the large windows, beautiful furnishings, storage space, bathrooms with glass-door shower, fluffy towels and full amenities (all-natural soap, shampoo, conditioner and lotions).

But it was the dining cars that excited me most. The Rang Mahal (Color Palace) and Mayur Mahal (Peacock Palace) are the two lovely restaurant cars. Both seat 42 passengers and offer the same multi-course menu with the choice of either Indian or continental cuisine, as well as a vegetarian option. The place settings alone provide the royal feeling – gold-trimmed plates and utensils, all emblazoned with the elegant crowned “M.”

It is easy to see how the Mayur Mahal (“Peacock Palace”) dining car got its name, decorated beautifully in green, blue and gold. The chairs and window shades (which won’t be pulled until night) feature peacock feather designs, all accentuated by the silver mirror-style ceiling. Meanwhile, the Rang Mahal is bright and cheery in pink and cream, with an elegantly hand-painted floral-design ceiling.

The food is good, and the staff is great. Some of my favorite dining touches – a new freshly squeezed fruit juice each morning; made-to-order espresso drinks; and a lengthy list of “mocktails,” nonalcoholic fruit juices which were so refreshing after a few hours of touring in the heat. There is also an on-board sommelier readily available at dinner to recommend wines, liqueurs or other after-dinner drinks.

Throughout my “Royal India” tour, the off-train excursions enhanced the “maharaja” feeling—including sipping champagne while watching the sun set on the Taj Mahal; a camel cart ride to a remote sand dune for “sundowner” barbecue and drinks; an exhibition elephant polo match, with option to join in; high tea at the Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara; dinner in the royal courtyard of Jodhpur’s Meherangarh Fort, with dancers and musicians, ending with fireworks. In fact, merely exiting the train is exciting, with local dancers, musicians, or animals — camels in Bikaner, for example — greeting us at each stop.

A few special touches on this train: the water filtration system makes all food safe and the water drinkable (although I did not drink the water, I did use it for brushing my teeth); wi-fi is available in all cars (this was intermittent on my journey, but could be used to send the occasional e-mail); and there is a variety of touring options. Suite and Presidential Suite passengers get private car and guide at each stop, but there is the option for any passenger to do this along the way (at additional cost for Deluxe and Junior Suite guests). There are also options to visit spas in many locations and golf in either Jaipur or Vadodara.

All in all, it is difficult not to feel like royalty after taking the Maharajas’ Express. It is only difficult to drag yourself away from the comfort of the train and the care of the wonderful staff.  We are delighted to welcome this new train to the Society’s distinguished list of The World’s Top 25 Trains.

All photos ©The Society of International Railway Travelers by Angela Walker.  Ms. Walker is the VP for Operations for The Society of International Railway Travelers® and has reviewed trains all over the world, including the Royal Scotsman, Glacier Express, Bernina Express, Royal Canadian Pacific, Rocky Mountaineer, Deccan Odyssey, Hiram Bingham and Andean Explorer and the Shangri-La Express.

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