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IRT Abroad: Tracking South America’s Newest Rail Stars

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

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

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

Her mission?

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

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

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

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

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

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Mashpi Lodge, deep in the Ecuadorean Andes.

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

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

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

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

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Double-bedded cabin on the Belmond Andean Explorer.

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

So keep a sharp eye out for updates from Eleanor.

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

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

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

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Ecuador’s Tren Crucero.

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

13 Apr

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

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

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

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

Our Sea Cloud voyage is an

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 VSOE Dates Posted; Wait List for Annual Istanbul Galas

24 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

IRT 2015 Italy Violin Postcd LR copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They ended the piece with a drawn-out pianissimo.

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

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

The Seven Stars is a true work of art.

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

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

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

 

 

A Shining Asian Constellation: Japan’s Seven Stars in Kyushu

17 Mar

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Seven Stars mascot in “Blue Moon” car. IRT Photo by O. Hardy

“Who’s this?” I asked, spying a little dog lying patiently in a dark corner of the bar car.

“Oh, it’s a kind of joke by the designer,” smiled Mr. Hironobu Yanagawa, Kyushu Railway’s Assistant Manager, Cruise Train Headquarters.

Normally, I’d have overlooked the little canine sculpture.

But in the short time I’d been aboard the Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu, I’d already learned an important lesson: look for details.

In other parts of the train, I found more subtle “jokes”: tree frogs climbing a wall, wasps tending their nest, a simple white button nestled in a rich, gold picture frame.

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

In sum, even my short, two-day ride on the Seven Stars yielded a plethora of extraordinary experiences — visual, culinary, musical — even spiritual, if you believe the train’s tagline: “a journey to discover a new way of life.”

Seven Stars, a special sightseeing train of Japan’s JR Kyushu, began life in summer, 2013, and it’s never looked back. Despite its steep price, not even all the Japanese who want to ride can get tickets, much less the hapless foreigners clamoring for a ride.

That’s why The Society of International Railway Travelers® chartered the entire train for a four-day, three-night itinerary as part of our luxury Seven Stars Over Japan tour, which ran last November.

The tour sold out all 28 spots within months. And that’s why we’re running it again this year: Nov. 3-21. This includes the “Sweet Train” extension, which you won’t want to miss.

A year and a half ago, I made a quick visit to Kyushu – Japan’s southernmost island – to enjoy a rare, non-revenue ride offered by JR Kyushu to a small group of journalists.

Granted, two days and a night were not nearly enough time to take in all this train has to offer. But it was long enough for me to declare without hesitation: the Seven Stars elevates the standards of world luxury train travel to an even higher level.

Seven Stars stands for Kyushu’s seven prefectures (similar to U.S. counties). The train has seven cars: the “Blue Moon” bar / lounge car whose entire rear wall is a giant picture window, dining car “Jupiter,” and four sleeping cars, each with three spacious suites measuring 108 square feet.

One regular suite is handicapped-accessible. The train also carries a wheelchair.

At the other end of the train, the seventh car contains two “deluxe suites”  which can accommodate two or three guests each.

Deluxe Suite A is 226 square feet and boasts a private glass picture window at the end of the car. It is by far the most popular accommodation on the train, JR Kyushu says.

The other deluxe suite is beautifully appointed but, at 183 square feet, is slightly smaller.

Everything on the train was specifically designed for the Seven Stars, save one element (I won’t spoil your experience by naming it; see if you can guess.).

This surfeit of over-the-top design elements is matched by an expert staff, who know how to combine Asian elegance and hospitality with genuine warmth.

When I misplaced my iPhone charger, for example, Mr. Yoshiharu Aritou, the train manager, insisted on giving me one of his (For the record, I’m sent it back to him, along with a heartfelt note and bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon.).

Moreover, the Seven Stars staff is bilingual and couldn’t be friendlier. Menus and signs are in English and Japanese. (Our November tour, of course, will be conducted in English.)

Also near perfect is the Seven Stars kitchen, which turns out delicacies as beautiful as they are tasty. I enjoyed three meals on the train: two lunches and a dinner, all of them set menus.

Kyushu is known for its variety of seafood, vegetables and fruits, and I was happy to let the Seven Stars chefs choose for me.

Here are just a few of the offerings from our “Heartfelt bento lunch from Bungo, Oita Prefecture:

“Red sea bream cured with Ryuhi Kombu…Egg tofu with wakame seaweed, Assortment of separately prepared vegetables, Food of the season [in my case, autumn] cooked in paper made with kozo tree fiber…”

The spirits from the Blue Moon bar were equally inspired. I made a point of ordering a Blue Moon cocktail, whose contents included Japanese shochu, a liquor made from sweet potatoes.

It was mixed with some of the tastiest juice – was it grapefruit or tomato? – I’ve ever had.

One of my favorite menu items was actually French-inspired: a chocolate sphere served at tea time. The thin, edible outer shell revealed a rich, creamy center: decadent and delicious.

(For the true dessert-lover, try JR Kyushu’s new Sweet Train, which I also sampled on my visit. More about that in another Track 25 post.)

Click here for Seven Stars’ off-train excursions and what to expect in your Seven Stars cabin.

To download a 24-page PDF brochure, please click here.

For more information on our luxury Japan by Rail tour running Nov. 3-21, 2017 (which includes the Sweet Train extension), please click here. Or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

Dreaming of Darwin: Rachel Hardy’s Galápagos Adventure

10 Mar
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Rachel Hardy in Patagonia at Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. IRT Photo

She’s ice-climbed in Patagonia. She’s rappelled a waterfall in Belize. She’s kayaked the Amazon and confronted bush babies in Kenya.

And about five minutes from now (as I write this), Rachel Hardy departs for the Galápagos Islands for a 10-day, action-packed study tour with Lindblad/National Geographic.

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The National Geographic Endeavor II was built in 2005 for expedition cruising. Last year, it underwent a major refit with an all-new forward lounge, library, gym and spa.

“If you do everything on the itinerary, it could get pretty exhausting,” says Ms. Hardy, an IRT travel advisor and adventure specialist for almost two years. “But I want to do as much as I can.”

If the cruise passes muster (we don’t offer anything we haven’t tested), it will be the newest in The Society of IRT’s short list of adventure itineraries.

The action-packed “discovery cruise” retraces Darwin’s 1835 voyage on the Beagle, which led to his world-changing book The Origin of the Species.

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Rachel Hardy in Kenya with Maasai tribesmen.

Among the highlights:

  • Close encounters with the Galápagos’ incredible diversity of wildlife: Darwin’s finches, blue-footed boobies, lava lizards, colorful red and black iguanas, to name just a few;
  • Hiking through giant cactus and incense tree forests, and an early-morning trek to a lava cone summit with stunning, panoramic views;
  • Snorkeling among sea lions, small reef sharks and Galápagos penguins.
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In Mumbai, India with Society of IRT President (and Rachel’s mom) Eleanor Hardy.

Her magic carpet for this adventure? The 96-guest Endeavour II, which includes a glass-bottomed Zodiac.

Best of all: accompanying her will be an expert team of seasoned naturalists, most of whom are native to the area.

“I’m especially excited about being with the Lindblad personnel.”Ms. Hardy said. “They specialize in an intellectual approach to adventure travel.”

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Lunch break from ice-climbing in Patagonia.

Ms. Hardy’s review will appear in Track 25 shortly after she returns.

But Lindblad-National Geographic has an excellent reputation; its trips fill up quickly.

And note: Lindblad is offering free airfare from Miami on all departures Aug. 25-Nov. 17 on the Endeavor II. Book with IRT, and you’ll get extra perks aboard ship.

So sign up now to get on our “first notification” list for updates on the Galápagos program this year and next.

Email us, or call us: (800) 478-4881, (502) 897-1725.

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