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Belmond Grand Hibernian: IRT’s Newest World’s Top 25

16 Sep
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IRT Society guests gather for dinner in the “Wexford” dining car, whose tables are arranged for six, allowing for wonderful socializing.   IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

With bagpipes peeling and young Irish dancers snapping out lively rhythms, members of The Society of International Railway Travelers® christened Ireland’s first luxury train, the Belmond Grand Hibernian. Our tour ran Aug. 30 – Sept. 5.

We were thrilled to be the first official group on board and to experience the beautiful train —shining navy and chrome outside and muted greys, greens, buff and rose inside.

Such was the beauty, elegance and spirit of the fledgling train and its staff — not to mention Ireland itself —that we were proud to announce on board its new status as one of our  “World’s Top 25 Trains®

While not perfect, the Belmond Grand Hibernian seems to be clearly aiming for the stars.

We have no doubt it soon will shine as brightly as the other luxury trains in Belmond’s  firmament (the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Belmond Royal Scotsman, Eastern & Oriental Express and Peru’s Belmond Hiram Bingham, to name a few).

The IRT Society chartered the entire Belmond Grand Hibernian — a first in our company’s 33-year history. Our itinerary was the seven-day “Grand Tour of Ireland.”

The result was a rolling, rollicking party among friends old and new. From breakfast in the two beautiful diners through days of touring Ireland’s iconic sites to live music or storytelling nightly in the bar car, the merriment seldom flagged.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian staff Mark O’Doherty and Stevie Devine ham it up for a photographer on the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

We enjoyed sumptuous meals: delicious appetizers, inventive main courses—the freshest seafood, for example—with tasty, freshly baked breads and wonderful desserts — all locally sourced and prepared on board.

Chef Alan Woods outdid himself. Previously head chef at the Michelin-starred Thorton’s in Dublin, he showcased the very best and freshest Irish ingredients.

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Tea time aboard the Belmond Grand Hibernian. All food is locally sourced and prepared fresh on board. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Dishes included roast Killarney venison loin, fresh seafood from the Beara Peninsula, Donegal turf-smoked salmon and traditional seafood chowder. All were spectacular.  And with drinks included in the fare, we put a serious dent in the bar car’s stock as well.

We visited such landmarks as Blarney and Ashford Castles and Connemara National Park. We tried our hands at falconry, tasted triple-pot distilled whiskys at the Jameson works, enjoyed afternoon tea with Lord and Lady Waterford — and toured the famous crystal workshop that bears their name.

We visited the amazing Titanic Experience in Belfast. Almost all these visits were exquisitely arranged — and often private or after-hours.

 

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IRT travelers (at left) Maria Vera Rossell and Jose Becerra Martin, and (at right) Orlando Herrera, enjoy a “jaunting cart” ride through Connemara National Park to the Lakes of Killarney. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

Most special of all, though, was our time aboard the Belmond Grand Hibernian itself.

The train  truly is an “Irish country house on wheels.” The stylish Belmond Grand Hibernian, with its navy blue and chrome livery, and its friendly, eager-to-please, youthful staff shared the spotlight for “best in show” on this trip.

“You can teach people to do tasks,” said J.P. Kavanaugh, Belmond Grand Hibernian General Manager. “But you can’t teach attitude.”  And an upbeat, can-do, super-friendly attitude was what they delivered.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian Second Chef Ursula Fischer poses behind bread and pastries just out of the on-board ovens. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

To be sure, the maiden run of anything as unusual as a privately owned, five-star hotel on wheels is going to have glitches. That’s especially true on government-owned tracks and under the supervision of a publicly operated railway.

For the Belmond Grand Hibernian, they ranged from the most serious — a carriage door, which temporarily malfunctioned — to occasional tardiness filling breakfast orders and coffee cups or a trashcan not being emptied.

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IRT traveler John Cordukes prepares to “launch” his “falcon” (actually, a Harris hawk) during a        “Hawk Walk” sponsored by the Irish School of Falconry at the Ashford Castle.                                                    IRT Photo by Owen Hardy             

But overall, the trip ran quite smoothly, both on train and off. (The carriage door malfunction meant that the train could not travel, as planned, to Belfast. We did that by motorcoach.)

And in the “off-train” category, we need to single out our indefatigable, silken-voiced guide, Marie Fitzpatrick. She was all the things you hope for in a person you’ve entrusted to spend a week telling you where to go and what to see.

As our first-ever train charter, the IRT Society had plenty riding on this trip. Our sold-out Belmond Grand Hibernian (capacity: 40 passengers in 20 luxury cabins) was the result.

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Wearing her evening uniform, a Belmond Grand Hibernian staff member tidies up in dining car “Wexford.” The train’s cars are named after Ireland’s counties. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

And how certain are we that the Belmond Grand Hibernian has a brilliant future?

Just this: I traveled on it Aug. 29 on a pre-tour “test drive,” after which I immediately requested a charter for 2017. I know it will be that popular — and that space will be hard to get.

Our Belmond Grand Hibernian departure for next year will be Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 2017. Click here for more information.

• • •

Once the Belmond Grand Hibernian returned to Dublin’s Heuston Station, we said our fond goodbyes. Then a group of nine IRT travelers continued the party with a visit to, among other places, a jaw-dropping country estate known as Ballyfin.

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IRT President Eleanor Hardy plays “Downton Abbey” while breakfasting at the Irish country estate turned resort, Ballyfin. Behind her are other IRT guests. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, and you want to get as close as possible to living the life of a titled gentleman or lady, Ballyfin is the place to indulge your fantasy.

Our post-tour itinerary included a visit to Birr Castle, built in the 1620s and ancestral home to the Seventh Earl of Rosse, Brendan Parsons.

Lord and Lady Rosse hosted our group for a private luncheon, a tour of the castle, and a stroll through the magnificent grounds (including a look at the gigantic telescope “Leviathan,” constructed by an ancestor in the 1840s and the world’s largest until 1914.)

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IRT post-tour group members pose with Brendan Parsons, Seventh Earl of Rosse, in front of Birr Castle, constructed by an ancestor in the 1620s. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

Again, for more info on our Belmond Grand Hibernian charter next year, as well as pre- and post-tour itineraries, please click here or call (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725. (We have already booked 10 rooms at Ballyfin. Please let us know if you would like to be among the lucky ones to stay here.)

• • •

After we bade farewell to our Ballyfin friends, Eleanor and I spent two nights trying out the Sheen Falls Lodge, a Virtuoso hotel and Relais & Chateau property in Kenmare, County Kerry.

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The view from the balcony of our suite at Sheen Falls Lodge, Kenmare, County Kerry. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

We highly recommend it for its obvious pleasures: the cozy fires in the many fireplaces, the roaring waterfall in full view from our fantastic suite, and the lovely candlelit dining.

 

But its staff also was vital for their expert advice:  dining at Kenmare’s incredible new restaurant, the Mews, and hiking at Gleninchaquin, a working sheep farm with magnificent views, waterfalls and people (don’t leave before enjoying Pete’s homemade scones and conversation at the tea house.).

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View of the ever-changing Irish countryside on an Irish Rail train bound for Dublin. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

The Sheen Falls folks also helped us plan our Irish Rail transportation.

We rode Irish Rail for the post-Ballyfin leg of our trip. I’m happy to report the experience — while not the Belmond Grand Hibernian — was relaxing and pleasant. We  enjoyed it thoroughly — punctual and clean, with pleasant food service from the trolley.

• • •

We’d be remiss if we did not report on our warm welcome to Ireland at the fabulous Virtuoso hotel, The Merrion, in Dublin. It was all we hoped it would be—and more.

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Dublin’s Marrion Hotel. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Historic, gorgeous, fantastic dining and great service—spectacular afternoon tea. Our welcome cocktail party here in the historic Wellington Room was one of the best ever, our guests proclaimed.

Suffice it to say that we will recommend The Merrion to all of our Belmond Grand Hibernian guests.

The Belmond Grand Hibernian: New Belle of Luxury Train Ball

25 Aug
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Bartender practices for the Belmond Grand Hibernian’s maiden voyage. The IRT Society has chartered the luxury train’s first trip. Belmond photo by Mary-Susan McLoughlin

Dublin, Ireland — As you read this, Society of IRT President Eleanor Flagler Hardy and I will soon arrive, or will have just arrived, in one of the world’s most beautiful and beguiling countries — The Republic of Ireland.

We’re here to celebrate with 36 Society of International Railway Travelers guests on the “maiden voyage” of the Belmond Grand Hibernian, the world’s newest, and Ireland’s first, luxury train.

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Afternoon tea at the Merrion Hotel.

Following a multi-night stay in Dublin’s five-star Merrion Hotel (a Virtuoso partner), we’ll board our “rolling Irish country house” for a seven-day tour of the Emerald Isle in unprecedented comfort and style.

The Belmond Grand Hibernian comprises 5 sleeping cars, 2 dining cars and an observation/lounge. With just 20 cabins for 40 passengers, it’s designed for intimacy.

Our private luxury train will be our hotel on wheels, a veritable “cruise ship on land.”

There’ll be no schlepping bags from city to city. We’ll unpack just once. At night, our train will stop at quiet sidings for restful slumber.

By day, we’ll “go ashore” for a wide range of cultural, historical and culinary events.

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Seating 20 guests, the elegant dining car “Sligo” is arranged in tables of four, with sleek silver accents and chrome finishes. Belmond photo by Mary-Susan McLoughlin

Here’s a sampling:

• Jameson whiskey distillery visit and tasting
• Private tour of Blarney Castle and gardens, home of the Blarney Stone
• Traditional pony and cart ride to Ross Castle
• Boat trip on the Lakes of Killarney
• Ashford Castle visit, heart of Connemara, for a bit of falconry, plus a guided hike
• Visit to the soaring Cliffs of Moher or to Galway

No one would call our tour inexpensive. But it’s nice to know the trip includes all meals, off-train excursions, entertainment and drinks.

 

Personally, I’m especially looking forward to the traditional Irish music performed on board.

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Triton Lake at Powerscourt Gardens

Eleanor, for her part, is thrilled with the gardens we’ll see and the hikes we’ll take. She sent a last-minute email to my  cousins to track down my Irish roots.

(Unfortunately, it was too late to arrange to meet our long-lost relatives’ home and linen factory in Ballybay.— maybe next time.)

But we’ll console ourselves with our post-tour option: a stay in glamorous Ballyfin, plus a visit to the nearby Powerscourt Gardens (one of the “1,000 Gardens to See Before you Die”) and lunch with an Earl!

There’s been tremendous interest in the Belmond Grand Hibernian — so much so that 2016 trips are sold out.

If you’re interested in a trip next year, contact us ASAP to  book 2017: (800) 478-4881, (502) 897-1725 or tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Tell us names of passengers as they appear on the passports, number traveling in your party, your mailing address and phone number. Tell us a few dates that will work for you. (See 2017 dates here.) Once you’ve sent your details, we can put a courtesy hold on your spot.

Cabins are flying out the door — and will book even faster once the international news coverage about our journey hits the presses. Don’t be left at the station!

Meanwhile, check this space three weeks from today for our photos and trip report.

 

 

New Luxury Trains, Itineraries Inspire at Virtuoso Travel Week

19 Aug
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An IRT member enjoys the open-air platform at the back of the current Belmond Andean Explorer train. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

 

Las Vegas, NV — Just back from Virtuoso Travel Week, and here’s the scoop:

  • It’s “one-week-and-counting” for the launch of Ireland’s Belmond Grand Hibernian;
  • May, 2017 sees the opening of Japan’s ultra-modern Train Suite Shiki-Shima;
  • Also in May: Peru’s enticing Belmond Andean Explorer luxury overnight service debuts;
  • The Golden Eagle Danube Express’ exciting new Venice-Sicily tour runs next September.

IRT’s Rachel Hardy and I learned much during our whirlwind meetings with the world’s top luxury travel professionals: in formal sit-downs, hallway talks — even an interview with a Wall Street Journal reporter.

Our summary:

  • The Belmond Grand Hibernian debuts Aug. 30 with a sold-out train, chartered by yours truly: The Society of International Railway Travelers®! It’s sold out the rest of the year as well. Click here for 2017 dates.
  • Shiki Shima Accommodation

    Train Suite Shiki-Shima bedroom. Photo courtesy of JR East.

    Beginning service next May, the Train Suite Shiki-Shima departs Tokyo’s Ueno station to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Sporting a totally modern, almost space-age look, it’ll be a stark contrast to Japan’s Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu, a veritable rolling display of the island’s natural beauty and traditional crafts.

  • Just one Sicily trip next year: Sept. 14-25. But it will be memorable. Running along the Adriatic coast, the Golden Eagle Danube Express will offer guests an awe-inspiring, panoramic view of Mt. Vesuvius. More info, click here.

Other news:

South Africa: The classy Blue Train makes luxurious overnight trips between Pretoria and the famed Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest game reserves. There’s one more round trip this year; three next year. Click here.

 

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Switzerland: Attention all beer-lovers: the Appenzell Railway offers the new Quöllfrisch-Express service. It runs every Sunday next month, Gossau-Wasserauen. The beer car serves specialties from the Quöllfrisch brewery. The first glass is on the house.

Also: the world’s longest rail tunnel, the Gotthard, is scheduled to open this December. Plus a new end-point to end-point luggage service makes it easier than ever to ride Switzerland’s rails. Click here.

Finally: We think Ecuador’s Tren Crucero looks fabulous, and our clients have raved about it. We at IRT hope to ride it in November. The four-day trip — including a ride across the acclaimed “Devil’s Nose” — is part of our 11-day Ecuador package. Click here.

IRT Secures Space on Japan’s Hard-to-Get Kyushu Seven Stars

29 Jul

Japan Sampling-3 copy (2)Want to ride the world’s most exclusive train?

You’re in luck.

The Society of International Railway Travelers® has secured prime space on the Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu, a luxury train so exclusive the railroad holds lotteries to see who gets to ride.

Here’s what’s available:

October: 10 guests; November: 2 guests; December: 8 guests.

The Society’s 4-day, 3-night Seven Stars “land cruise” is part of a 9-day package tour of beautiful Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island.

The tour also features the diminutive Sweet Train, which serves a light lunch and a series of beautifully prepared – and scrumptious – sweets that show off Kyushu’s incredible cuisine and agricultural products.

Interested? Don’t wait. We expect these spaces to sell quickly. Call us at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Or email us by clicking here.

To see the full itinerary, please click here.

To read my report on my Seven Stars ride last November, please click here. To read my comments on my Sweet Train experience, please click here.

Skip the Lottery: IRT Secures Cabins on Japan’s Seven Stars

18 Jun
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The Seven Stars’ Deluxe Suite A. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

Big news: now you can step to the front of the line to secure a spot on Japan’s Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu.

Since it began service in 2013, the Seven Stars has been so wildly popular that it’s held lotteries to see who gets to ride.

But the Society of International Railway Travelers® recently secured a total of 10 cabins for departures this October and December.

Details remain to be finalized, but we’re opening the gates for people to get on our “first notification” list. To do so at no obligation to you, please email us or call: (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

• • •

When I test-rode Japan’s Seven Stars last November, little did I know that my reviews would create such demand.

The result? We created a one-off journey using both the Seven Stars train — newly named as one of our World’s Top 25 Trains® — and the adorable Sweet Train — both of which I highly recommended. The tour sold out in six weeks. Details of the journey are here.

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JR Kyushu’s beloved “Sweet Train” Photo courtesy JR Kyushu

As the first travel agency in the Western Hemisphere to charter the Seven Stars, we are honored to be chosen by our friends at JR Kyushu to book a limited amount of space.

Besides passage on the Seven Stars and Sweet Train, our package includes all transfers, hotels and sightseeing. You can take this as one couple — or take it as a group of friends.

We will have an English-speaking guide with you all days except when you are on the  Seven Stars and Sweet Train. On those days, the English-speaking staff on board the trains will take excellent care of you.

We are working out all details and pricing now. But please get back to us as soon as possible to get on our “first notice” list for these departures. We will send you the complete itinerary and pricing when they become available.

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Dinner in the Seven Stars’ elegant diner. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Note that if you want the longer Japan journey that we offer on our sold-out trip, we can certainly organize that for you, too.

You won’t have to win the lottery to ride the Seven Stars. If you call us and book, you already have!

• • •

Again, to be put on our “first notification” list to receive details about our Seven Stars / Sweet Train itinerary, please email us or call: (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881. There is no obligation to you.

 

Belmond’s New Deluxe Sleeper Train To Be S. America’s First

7 Jun
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Belmond Andean Explorer lounge car

South America’s first luxury sleeper train, the Belmond Andean Explorer, will dazzle the travel world beginning next May, the company says.

Running along one of the world’s highest rail routes, traversing the Peruvian Andes from Cusco to Lake Titicaca and Arequipa, the new luxury train will explore natural wonders and ancient kingdoms on one- and two-night journeys.

Want your name in the hat for a chance to experience the Belmond Andean Explorer next year?

Email The Society of International Railway Travelers®, and we’ll put you on our “first notification” list, at no obligation to you. Or call us at (800) 478-4881, (502) 897-1725.

Give us the names (as they appear on their passports) of those traveling, your postal address and a phone number where you best can be reached.

You’ll be  among the first to get details as they emerge.

• • •

“This truly is some of the most breathtaking and inspiring scenery in the world — traveling across the Peruvian Altiplano with the Andes in the background. It is astonishing,” says IRT’s President, Eleanor Flagler Hardy.

“Our guests already enjoy PeruRail’s Andean Explorer day train.  It is one of our World’s Top 25 Trains® – and has been for years. The 10-hour trip between Cusco and Puno was such a blast.

“Enjoying the journey all the way from Arequipa to Puno and on to Cusco is an amazing proposed routing.

“And combining with the Belmond Hiram Bingham to see Machu Picchu will be a fascinating itinerary. Bravo to Belmond for planning this!”

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Artist rendering of bedroom in Belmond Andean Explorer.

Guests will have the opportunity to explore the vast Colca Canyon, then continue towards the city center of Arequipa, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

When IRT last traveled here, our guests loved visiting the remote Colca Canyon on our itinerary, soaking in the hot springs and venturing to see the magnificent condors.

The reverse itinerary, from Arequipa to Cusco, also will be possible, Belmond says.

Up to 68 guests will reside in en-suite cabins, according to an article in the Telegraph, with two double cabins; 20 twin cabins; and 12 bunk-bed cabins.

Cabins
Cabins will be available in suite/double, twin and bunk bed configurations. Each will have its own en-suite toilet and shower.

Lounge Car
Belmond says the lounge car will include a baby grand piano, comfortable seating and picture windows through which guests can gaze at the majestic vistas drifting past. The lounge also will include a full bar.

Two Dining Cars
The fare in the restaurant cars will be fresh, colorful and seasonal, Belmond says. Dishes will incorporate locally sourced ingredients from the Peruvian Andes. The menus will be designed by chefs from the Belmond Hotel Monasterio in Cusco.

Observation Car
The rear car, meanwhile, will be the place to unwind, meet new friends and enjoy the views while sipping Pisco Sours from the bar. The car will include an open-air deck — one of the IRT Society’s favorite extras —  where travelers can breathe in the bracing Andean air.

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An IRT member enjoys the open-air platform at the back of the current Andean Explorer train. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Itineraries

Peruvian Highlands: Cusco-Lake Titicaca-Arequipa City (2 nights, 3 days)
The longest trip departs from Cusco, capital of the ancient Inca Empire, across the Altiplano towards Puno and the reflective beauty of Lake Titicaca. Guests will visit Sumbay Caves, where the Peruvian highlands’ first humans created their rock art, before reaching the volcanic ‘White City’ of Arequipa.

Andean Plains and Islands of Discovery: Arequipa City-Lake Titicaca-Cusco (2 nights, 2 days)
This trip departs as the sun sets on the baroque architecture of Arequipa. The train travels overnight towards Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. It continues through deep valleys and over high mountains, where South American camelids graze on the wide-open plains and through the ‘big sky’ country of the Peruvian Altiplano.

Spirit of the Water: Cusco-Puno (1 night, 1 day)
Belmond describes this journey as “an overnight escape aboard the stylish carriages of Belmond Andean Explorer,” departing from Cusco, crossing the giant peaks and wide-open spaces of the highest plains of the Andes and ending at Lake Titicaca, birthplace of the Incas.

Andean Explorer

View from the current Andean Explorer train, en route to Puno from Cusco. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Spirit of the Andes: Puno-Cusco (1 night, 1 day)
Guests on this trip travel along one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world, Belmond says, across the highest plains of the Andes from Puno to Cusco.

The Telegraph said “trips will cost from $462 (£320) per person for the one-night Spirit of the Andes journey, inclusive of all meals, an open bar and scheduled excursions,” although IRT could not immediately confirm this with Belmond.

The train’s cars began their “luxury life” in Australia. Operating over Queensland Rail tracks, the Great South Pacific Express began running in 1996 before ceasing operations in 2003, according to a story dated Feb. 25 of this year in the Queensland Times. The equipment was shipped to Peru in May for refurbishment.

Yerevan-Baku, or Iran, via Golden Eagle Luxury Train

27 May

 

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View from the Golden Eagle as it travels from Georgia to Azerbaijan. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

 

This just in: You still can experience the remarkable and culturally diverse countries of the Caucasus this year aboard the Golden Eagle private luxury train.

The dates are Oct. 14-22.

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 Metekhi Church sits high on a cliff in Tiblisi, Georgia  IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Joining part of our Caspian Odyssey tour, this 9-day journey through Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan is an ideal opportunity to explore this captivating region.

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            Baku Princess blows a kiss. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Those who have previously visited the sights of the Silk Road, but would still like to discover this fascinating region, will find the tour especially welcome.

We only have a few cabins remaining, so contact us promptly for further information. Call (800) 478-4881, (502) 897-1725; or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

IRAN

There also is still space available to explore the captivating sites of Persia aboard the Golden Eagle on the Heart of Persia tour. The dates are Nov. 24-Dec. 7.

Next year, the tour runs April 6-19 and Nov. 13-26.

 

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