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IRT “Virtuosos” Bond With Luxury Travel Pros in Vegas

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

Sometimes it pays to be friendly.

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

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

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

And this is where the Virtuoso magic happened.

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

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

The result?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 Jul
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The Golden Eagle Danube Express.

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

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

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

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Route map of the Grand Alpine Express itinerary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Superior Deluxe cabin on the Golden Eagle Danube Express.

The Grand Alpine Express tour runs just once a year.

Tour dates are May 8-18, 2020.

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

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


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

 

IRT Founder’s Ardent Wish? Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Vienna Next Year with Golden Eagle Danube Express

12 Jul
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Viennese dancers on New Year’s Eve at the Rathaus, Vienna’s lovely City Hall.

Prologue: We first published this interview in December, 2018. Since then, we’ve gotten glowing reports from IRT travelers who were on the last departure:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus, I love music of all kinds, especially classical, and these cities overflow with it – even on the street corners.

And I love Vienna’s Secessionist or Wiener Werkstaette art movement, examples of which can be found not only in Vienna but also in Budapest and Prague.

What about the train itself?

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

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

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

Another highlight from the itinerary, in your opinion?

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

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Prague’s Charles Bridge at dawn.

More thoughts?

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

So what should our guests do now?

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

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

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

I guarantee you won’t regret it!


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

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

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

 

All Tracks Lead to Istanbul on These World’s Top 25 Trains®

24 May
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Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Two highly-coveted rail tours run from Western Europe to Istanbul.  Which to choose?

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) is world-famous, with its historic collection of restored 1920s and 1930s era cars. Its high prices are worth every penny, given the train’s history, stellar service, cuisine, off-train tours and all-round attention to detail.

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Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in Innsbruck, Austria. IRT Photo by R. Hardy

Plus, it oozes romance and glamour.

But the cost for a twin cabin on its most iconic departure, the once-a-year Paris-Istanbul journey, is about £15,500 per person in 2020. You don’t even want to know what that is in US dollars!

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Golden Eagle Danube Express. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

Enter Golden Eagle Danube Express, based in Budapest. It’s a very different train — and also on our World’s Top 25 Trains® list. Its style is more laid-back and comfortable. No tuxes required.

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Lounge car in the Golden Eagle Danube Express. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

It offers a generous drinks allowance, including wine with lunch and dinner. It also features intimate, behind-the-scenes sightseeing off the train. What’s more, most cabins on the GEDE feature private bathroom and shower (something that all but 3 of the priciest suites on the VSOE are lacking).

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Superior Deluxe Cabin on the Golden Eagle Danube Express.

And, on its Balkan Explorer itinerary (running June 23-July 3, 2020) the Golden Eagle Danube Express covers nine countries in 11 days as it meanders from Venice to Istanbul. (The countries are Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Boznia & Herzegovena, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey.)

Pricing for the 2020 Balkan Explorer journey starts at $9,395 per person — $17,995 per person for the largest and most luxurious accommodation, the Superior Deluxe cabin, pictured above.

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Stari Most, or Mostar Bridge, in Bosnia & Herzegovina, a highlight on the Balkan Explorer itinerary. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Nothing breathes “romance” like the famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

But if you prefer to kick back and relax in between high-octane “off-shore” touring — go for the Golden Eagle Danube Express.

Whichever tour you choose, know that the best spots go up to a year in advance, or more.

The Balkan Explorer journey runs June 23-July 3, 2020. Click here for full itinerary, details and pricing. Click here for details of the Golden Eagle Danube Express train.

The Paris-Istanbul journey runs August 28-September 2, 2020. Click here for full itinerary details and pricing. Click here for details of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train.

To book: call us at (800) 478-4881, +1 (502) 897-1725 outside of USA / Canada. Or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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

 

 

Silk Road Delights IRT Guests

16 May

The oasis of Crescent Lake at Dunhuang, China.

Spanning five countries – China, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia – on two trains — the first-class Shangri-La Express and the luxury Golden Eagle — the Silk Road always seems to electrify our travelers.

“The trip was fabulous!!” one guest gushed, following this year’s trip in April. “I would recommend it to anyone…

“The guides were great about letting me and some of the other oldsters keep up,” said another. “Too many highlights to describe…

“Jeff and I agreed there really was no bad day. Thanks for making everything so easy.”

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IRT traveler David Minnerly enjoying the Golden Eagle’s dining car. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

(We’d like to make it easy for you too. Contact us to book either Silk Road journey in 2020 — one in April, the other in October.)

Meanwhile, how does the Society of IRT rate these trains?

Here’s our president, Eleanor Hardy, who traveled the Silk Road several years ago:

The Shangri-La Express: “Hands-down the best train in China. We do not consider this a luxury train, but the food, service and entire experience were considerably upgraded since the last time we’d ridden it.

“And since then, the sleeping cars have been upgraded again. Diamond Class cabins now have private en-suite shower and toilet.

“There is no better way to see these out-of-the-way destinations. ”

The Golden Eagle: “The Imperial Suites – three to a train – are worthy of their name. Staff is exceedingly accommodating, friendly, and some are bilingual.”

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One of three Imperial Suites on the Golden Eagle. Bonus: these spacious accommodations also include private English-speaking guide. Photo by Golden Eagle.

 

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Family picnics on the shores of Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

  • BEIJING: “The sprawling Summer Palace grounds are populated by friendly picnicking Beijinger families — large clusters of grownups surrounding one or two “Little Emperors” or “Empresses.” This is a major tourist attraction that still maintains a distinctly local flavor.”

    The Mogao Thousand Buddha Complex. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

  • DUNHUANG: “The Mogao Thousand Buddha Cave Complex is a must-see. The wildly colorful frescoes and massive statuary are visually stunning — and are important reminders of the vital role the Silk Road trade route played in spreading culture and religion in addition to fine cloth and spices.”
  • SAMARKAND: “You have to visit Registan Square at least twice – once by day and  again by night. The blues in the architecture here are magnificent, and the way the Square lights up after dark is spectacular!”

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    IRT travelers in front of the “Genghis Hole” of Merv. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

  • MERV: “Unbelievably well-preserved evidence of 12th-century warfare: huge holes in the sides of the fortress wall where Genghis Khan aimed his catapults. Close by, the house where the king’s daughters jumped to their deaths to escape the approaching horde.”

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    Textiles in the markets of Khiva. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

  • KHIVA: “Stunning madrasas, minarets, and bazaars. The markets here made for excellent shopping: richly embroidered textiles, colorful pottery, and ornate jewelry were plentiful.”
  • MOSCOW: “Tours of the Kremlin, Red Square, and St. Basil’s were thrilling – but we all agreed that our night at the Bolshoi Ballet was THE experience we would always remember from Moscow.”

2020 Dates: April 13-May 3 (Beijing-Moscow), October 1-21 (Beijing-Moscow)

Note: Already been to China, or short on time? A 13-day trip covering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Russia is available. For more info, click here. Tour runs twice in 2020.

Also note: Can’t wait until next year? An 8-day trip covering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan runs this year (2019). Dates are Oct. 2-9. For more info, click here.

Did we mention?

The Silk Road adventure is more popular than ever, and space fills up fast. To book yours, call us at (800) 478-4881, +1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada, or e-mail us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

IRT Annual Group Tour: From Mighty Mountains to Stunning Seashores on Rovos Rail’s “Pride of Africa”

5 Apr
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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. IRT Photo by Nels Freeman

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

But for Alicia Taljaard, sales and marketing executive for South Africa’s Rovos Rail, the shorter African Collage is her hands-down favorite.

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We rolled out the red carpet for Alicia Taljaard, sales & marketing executive for S. Africa’s Rovos Rail recently. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

We so trust Alicia’s judgement, we sent IRT’s Rachel Hardy and Angela Walker to South Africa to see for themselves.

The result?

We’ve made Rovos Rail’s 9-day African Collage between Pretoria and Cape Town the centerpiece of this year’s special group tour:  South African Spectacular.

Running just once —Oct. 27-Nov. 12—our exclusive 17-day extravaganza includes many safari days. We have room for just 16 guests. It will be hosted by IRT’s wonderful Angela Walker and includes many exclusive experiences.

The African Collage is “our most scenic trip,” says Alicia, a longtime Rovos Rail veteran who recently visited us here in Louisville. (We were so thrilled to see her, we popped champagne and commissioned a special cake baked in her and Rovos Rail’s honor—see below.)

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

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, ranging 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…”

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Spotted on safari: an Indian Roller. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Continue reading

Exotic Luxury Train Tour: A Caspian Odyssey with Angela

28 Sep
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Photo courtesy of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.

Mt. Ararat (above), reputed resting place of Noah’s Ark, towers over Yerevan, Armenia. It’s the jumping-off point for the Caspian Odyssey Along the Ancient Silk Road tour.

The 16-day tour visits Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan — and includes a ferry crossing of the Caspian Sea.

It’s one of the Golden Eagle luxury train’s most exotic tours.

IRT’s Angela Walker, Vice President for Operations, accompanied a group of our travelers on the Caspian Odyssey several years ago.

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Photo courtesy of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.

Below, we present a few of Angela’s photos and impressions:

The Golden Eagle — with its young staff —was a comfortable home for our journey through six countries and cultures. It provided all the comforts of home — and plenty of vodka!

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IRT Photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

My fellow travelers were high-spirited and great fun. Here we are in Samarkand, wearing traditional Uzbek hats during a local fashion show.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

I snapped this photo of a darling little girl during a serendipitous moment in Ashkabat, Turkmenistan.

During a regular tour stop, a wedding party suddenly pulled up honking in several decorated cars. Dressed in colorful costumes, they danced and celebrated as they happily welcomed us to join in. It was wonderful to interact with the locals in such a special way.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

In Almaty, Kazakhstan, next to the WWII memorial, I spied these adorable children mimicking the marching soldiers.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

In the hills outside of Almaty, we were greeted by men in traditional costumes showing how they use their birds for hunting.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

These four delightful ladies in our group were friends from Peru and Argentina. Here, they enjoy the train’s lounge car—especially its lively pianist, who entertained nightly.

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IRT Photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

Here I am visiting “The Door to Hell” — a gigantic gas crater in the middle of Uzbekistan’s Kara Kum desert, which has been burning for over 40 years.

It was so exciting to drive out to the Darvaza gas crater, in the pitch-black night, to see this site — essentially, a giant hole of fire burning in the middle of nowhere.

And to know that it’s been burning since 1971 — I don’t think there’s anything like it in the world!

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IRT photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

Home, sweet home. After a day of touring along the Caspian Odyssey’s incredible path, it was always great to return to the Golden Eagle and my private, en-suite quarters.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Time for a refreshing drink! In this case, a sampling of one of the Golden Eagle’s special vodkas.

• • •

The 16-day, escorted tour operates just once a year. Next year’s dates are Sept. 19 – Oct. 4. In 2020, the tour runs Sept. 24 – Oct. 9.  If you book the 2020 journey before Dec. 31 this year, enjoy 2019 pricing.  

To see the complete itinerary, click here. For prices, click here.

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

We look forward to welcoming you aboard!

Angela Walker is Vice President, Operations and senior luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers. This is Ms. Walker’s 20th year with IRT, and she has traveled on most of the World’s Top 25 Trains.

 

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