Archive by Author

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Still “King”: Part II

17 Apr

If you haven’t yet read the first installment of this story, I suggest you go back and read it here first. If you aren’t a chronological purist, read on for day two of my journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and Belmond British Pullman!

fullsizeoutput_5c97.jpeg

Breakfast tray on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

I woke up in my cabin on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) after a good night’s rest and opened my shade to reveal quaint French villages and countryside flitting past.

After I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, I rang my steward, Paolo, who arrived minutes later with a tray brimming with delicious breakfast items: warm, homemade breads and croissants, fresh fruit salad, orange juice, and a perfectly-frothed cappuccino. I read the newspaper while I ate, and reveled in the luxuriousness of it all.

By late morning, I made my way to the “L’Oriental” dining car for brunch. This was a much-anticipated meal by all who had been on the train before. “Lobster brunch,” as they called it, lived up to its potential, even for me, the vegetarian-in-residence. (Although seeing my friends’ plates loaded with delicately-buttered lobster made me briefly consider a change in diet!)

fullsizeoutput_5c9c.jpeg

Lobster brunch on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

After one last visit to the brand-new Grand Suites to take photographs (see my report of the Suites here), it was time to disembark the train in Calais for our Chunnel crossing.

I was curious to see how the chic VSOE would handle the decidedly unglamorous underground Chunnel crossing. The process turned out to be far nicer than I could have imagined.

From the station, we were escorted onto luxury coach buses — laid out like the dining car of a train — and greeted by a friendly hostess who offered us champagne, juices, and snacks.

After brief immigration formalities, our bus was carefully driven into a shipping container-esque contraption with several other vehicles for the 45-minute Chunnel crossing. It was dark and somewhat bumpy, but not altogether unpleasant. Our group had a considerable amount of chatting to do after just getting to know one another over the past 24 hours.

Once on the U.K. side, we were quickly deposited at Folkestone Station for our three-hour journey on the VSOE’s sister train, the Belmond British Pullman.

fullsizeoutput_529b.jpeg

Friendly waiter welcomes us aboard Belmond British Pullman. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

Unsurprisingly, there is a decidedly British flavor on the Belmond British Pullman. The service is excellent —  but completely unassuming, devoid of any pretension, and downright jolly.

The 11 carriages on the Belmond British Pullman each have their own distinctive finishes and textiles — although all feature oversized, exceedingly comfortable armchairs.

fullsizeoutput_52a8.jpeg

Table for one on the Belmond British Pullman. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

We sat in “Minerva,” which consisted of several tables in unusual seating arrangements — tables for three, one, and the more typical four and two. There is also a private area in each car called a “coupe,” which can seat up to four. (Request this with us when you book if you’d like a particularly private experience! Also, Grand Suite guests receive this without requesting.)

fullsizeoutput_52b1.jpeg

Private “coupe” in Minerva dining car on Belmond British Pullman. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

We were served a traditional afternoon tea, including savory finger sandwiches, scones, and cakes. The English countryside was exceptionally beautiful in the fading afternoon light, and our tea was the perfect note on which to end our trip.

Around 6 p.m., we pulled into Victoria Station in London, our journey’s end. It was all over too soon — in a delightful, fanciful flash of new friends, excellent food, and outstanding, five-star service.

fullsizeoutput_52c6.jpeg

Belmond British Pullman in London’s Victoria Station. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

 

Ready to book your trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and Belmond British Pullman? Call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada). Or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Rachel M. Hardy, luxury travel advisor, and VP Sales & Marketing for The Society of International Railway Travelers, just returned from an inspection journey of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. A Belmond specialist, she was the only advisor from the Western Hemisphere to be invited to see the launch of the brand-new Grand Suites. Read more about the Grand Suites here.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Still “King of Trains,” IRT Reports

12 Apr

fullsizeoutput_517b

From the moment I saw the carriages gleaming blue and gold in the morning sun at Venice Santa Lucia Station, I knew my trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) would be magical.

A trio on the platform serenaded us with ’30s jazz standards as my steward, Paolo, decked out in his royal blue uniform and white gloves, showed me to my cabin, gave me a tour, and poured me a welcome glass of champagne.

Paolo’s impeccable service and gracious manner completed my feeling that I had time-traveled into some distant, glamorous past.

fullsizeoutput_5309.jpeg

My steward Paolo and I outside the train. IRT Photo courtesy of Rachel M. Hardy.

My twin cabin was diminutive, but perfectly suited to my needs. A couch in green and pink velvet, trimmed with Venetian lace, ran the width of the cabin. At night, the indefatigable Paolo expertly converted it into a cozy twin bed.

My cabin also boasted a matching footstool, lamp, folding table, and corner bar with glasses and bottled water. The wash station was cleverly hidden behind concave doors.

(The wash station was much more than a sink. Hidden behind the doors, I found: several mirrors, storage cubbies and special VSOE bath amenities sourced from Temple Spa.)

fullsizeoutput_515c

Watching the Italian countryside unfold outside my cabin window. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Two luggage racks provided ample storage for me (although I highly recommend handing off any extra-large suitcases to the staff when you check in). The handily-placed hooks on the walls and dress hangers gave me space to store my fancy evening attire.

And the rich wood marquetry in my cabin and throughout my carriage had been freshly renovated, so the floral motifs on the walls were especially vibrant.

Admittedly, there was no bathroom in my cabin; with the exception of the brand-new Grand Suites, there are no bathrooms in any cabin on the VSOE.

But the staff kept the bathrooms at the end of each carriage impeccably clean, and there are more than enough bathrooms to accommodate everyone.

After a thoroughly pleasant hour watching the increasingly dramatic Italian countryside unfold outside my window, I made my way to the bar car for a pre-lunch aperitif.

The bar car — named 3674, and also freshly renovated in sophisticated blue animal prints — is the social hub of the train. The jazz trio already had a few guests singing along to old standards by the time I arrived.

The waitstaff, dressed in sharp white, seemed to be everywhere at once. They “danced” with the often-unpredictable undulations of the train — balancing trays bearing 5 or 6 brimming cocktails. I marveled at the feat time and again. I never saw a single drop spilled!

Later in the afternoon, I retreated to the “Etoile du Nord” dining car for the second seating of lunch, as the Italian Dolomites came into increasingly sharp focus outside the windows.

fullsizeoutput_532c.jpeg

Diners enjoying lunch in the “Etoile du Nord” dining car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Executive Chef Christian Bodiguel is an unassuming, behind-the-scenes presence on the train, but his food steals the spotlight. Imaginative, classic French and Continental fare is beautifully presented and served with white tablecloths, fine china, and crystal.

As a vegetarian, I am always curious to see what I will be served in lieu of meat. Chef Bodiguel did not take the easy way out and simply swap out the meat for something meat-like, as would be the custom in almost any other dining situation.

Instead, at each meal, I had an entire menu specially crafted for me. My three-course lunch consisted of asparagus soup; cannelloni with ratatouille, olives, grilled sucrine (what Americans call Bibb or Boston) lettuce and hazelnut; and Amalfi lemon mousse for dessert.

fullsizeoutput_5331

Lead waiter Mario smiles for the camera. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The food was only equaled by the phenomenal service in the dining car. “Five stars” does not begin to describe the professionalism of a VSOE waiter. Much like in the bar car, the fluidity and care with which every waiter moved, spoke, and served us was something special to witness.

After lunch, we made our way to car number 3539. Built in 1929, it is the oldest car on the train and still retains many original details. The candlestick holders in the hall and the built-in pocket-watch holders in the cabins remind you that you are in a moving museum as much as a luxury train.

As we were admiring the beautiful old finishes, large snowflakes began to fall outside the train, further enhancing the Agatha Christie-esque feel of the carriage. We were now in Austria and fast approaching the Brenner Pass.

Next, it was time to attend the much-anticipated Grand Suite unveiling party. The Suites were absolutely breathtaking, and I can’t wait for our guests to see them in person.

fullsizeoutput_5215

Grand Suite “Istanbul.” IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Just a few highlights of the Suites include: large double bed, en-suite bathroom with rain shower, sink, toilet, and heated floors and walls (so your mirror will never fog!), living space with couch, table, and chair, Dyson hair dryer, free-flowing champagne, and the option to privately dine in your cabin.

(Read more about the Grand Suites here. Follow the IRT blog, Track25, for my detailed report about the Grand Suites, which will be published within the next few weeks.)

After our Grand Suite party, we were seated for dinner in the “Cote d’Azur” dining car, with stunning Lalique glass panels depicting Bacchanalian maidens.

fullsizeoutput_5aee

Executive Chef Christian Bodiguel’s meals were mouthwatering! IRT Photo courtesy of Rachel M.  Hardy.

Our five-course dinner was one of the most opulent meals I have ever eaten. Truffled risotto, morel and almond cream vol-au-vent, and dark chocolate and cereal gateau were the features on my vegetarian menu. My dining companions had lamb chops that one of them declared “the finest I have ever eaten!”

We were all full to bursting but exceedingly content by the time we finished our dinner and retired to the bar car for more music and merrymaking.

fullsizeoutput_51ac

First course of dinner: Carnaroli risotto with white truffle carpaccio. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, I retired to my cabin to find my couch had been converted into an inviting bed. I fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the train, humming jazz tunes in my head.

fullsizeoutput_51a4.jpeg

My bed made up for the night. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

 

Read Part II of Rachel’s story, which encompasses Day 2 of her trip: brunch on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Chunnel crossing, & her journey on the Belmond British Pullman.

Rachel M. Hardy, luxury travel advisor and IRT’s VP of Sales & Marketing, was one of a select few to witness the VSOE’s over-the-top, new Grand Suites. Read her story here.

Call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com to book your own magical journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express!

Image

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’ Grand Suites Surpass All Expectations, says IRT Travel Advisor

5 Apr

London, England – The three brand-new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express — named ‘Paris,’ ‘Venice,’ & ‘Istanbul’ — have just made their inaugural journey on the train, and I was lucky enough to be invited for the first grand unveiling.

kvXAzOxSTQyYaNgsxSG7wA

The Suites surpassed my expectations in every way. All of the furnishings and finishings have been specially created, and no expense has been spared.

They are as functional as they are beautiful, with cleverly-hidden storage areas, heated bathroom floors and walls, full-length mirror and hairdryers — the first on the train. The beds even lift up to reveal large storage areas underneath.

‘Venice’ is luminous in rich blues and creams, with delicately antiqued mirrors and floral motifs.

‘Istanbul’ features ornate wood carvings, leather trim, and rich oranges and yellows in the upholstery and bathroom tile work.

And ‘Paris’ pays homage to the art deco movement with bold geometric lines and exotic tapestry work in greens and browns.

fullsizeoutput_5273.jpeg

Grand Suite ‘Venice.’ IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

fullsizeoutput_543b

Bathroom in Grand Suite ‘Venice.’ Hand-blown glass sink, marquetry washstand and beautifully tiled floor. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

fullsizeoutput_5215.jpeg

Grand Suite ‘Istanbul.’   IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

fullsizeoutput_5225.jpeg

Lead Steward Francesco prepares Grand Suite ‘Istanbul’ for its very first guests. Only the most senior staff will be attending guests in Grand Suites. IRT Photo by Rachel M, Hardy

fullsizeoutput_51bb.jpeg

Each Suite has a marble three-shelf bar. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

fullsizeoutput_51c1.jpeg

Silk velvet pillow on the large couch in Grand Suite ‘Istanbul.’ Each Suite has a couch that can convert to a bed for a child. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

fullsizeoutput_51c3.jpeg

Light fixture and marquetry in Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

fullsizeoutput_5210.jpeg

Each Suite has a full-length mirror, two full-length wardrobes for hanging clothes (one is pictured on left), and multiple storage cubbies (bottom left). IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

fullsizeoutput_51ed.jpeg

Spacious bathroom in Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

fullsizeoutput_51f0.jpeg

Hand-blown glass sink in Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

fullsizeoutput_51eb

Grand Suites have full-sized copper rain showers with marble walls and tiled floor. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

fullsizeoutput_51e2

Each Suite has a Dyson hairdryer — a first on the train! IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

 

 

fullsizeoutput_5433

Grand Suite ‘Paris.’ IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

fullsizeoutput_5292.jpeg

Bathroom in Grand Suite ‘Paris.’ IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

History buffs will be glad to know that the Suites maintain the 1920s feel of the train (while successfully ‘dialing up’ the level of opulence by a factor of 10). Rather than a piece apart, they are a natural addition to the existing Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Everything was custom-made for the suites — from the amazing tiles in the bathrooms to the marquetry and wood carvings and the gorgeous fabrics and finishings.  Our CEO asked: “What will our clients say when they get on board their Grand Suite?”

My answer is easy:  I think they’re going to love them. One is just as beautiful as the next. My favorite one was whichever one I was in at the moment.

I’ll follow up with a more thorough accounting of the Grand Suites and my experience on the train in several weeks. But if you are interested in booking a Grand Suite, please don’t wait. Demand has far outpaced projections, and the Suites are 75% sold out for the 2018 season.

If you are ready to book, or if you have questions, please call us at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725 if outside the US / Canada)

Or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. We look forward to advising travel dates with availability and pricing—and all the many additional amenities afforded our Grand Suite guests.

Click here to a link to more info about the train, with all itineraries listed. We look forward to welcoming you aboard!

Rachel M. Hardy is Vice President, Sales & Marketing, and Virtuoso luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers®. She specializes in luxury rail and adventure in Europe, South America, Africa (rail & safaris) and Canada.  She was the first advisor from the Americas invited to see the new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Our agency is a proud member of Virtuoso and the exclusive Belmond Bellini Club.

National Geographic Endeavour II: The Apogee of Expedition Cruising

8 Apr
IMG_2922 2

A larger than average fleet of Zodiacs allows guests on the Endeavour II a great deal of flexibility when choosing daily activities. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

I spied sea lions while running on the treadmill in the gym, glimpsed manta rays and sea turtles on my walk to the dining room, and ogled schools of flying fish while browsing in the gift shop. Never a dull moment.

National Geographic Endeavour II just began service in the Galápago Islands after undergoing a multi-million dollar refit — and last week, I was lucky enough to be one of the first guests on board.

(To see Ms. Hardy’s report about her Galápagos shore adventures, click here.)

I can now say with confidence that Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic’s latest collaboration is a work of art –and the ideal base from which to explore the famous Galapagos Archipelago.

State-of-the-art equipment and homey surroundings are essential to the Endeavour II, but style plays an important supporting role — evidenced in the rich wood paneling and variegated ocean blues in the upholstery and carpeting.

Suite C

Suite C on the National Geographic Endeavour II.                   Photo by Lindblad Expeditions.

52 cabins, all with large picture window and en-suite facilities, accommodate up to 96 guests. There are nine dedicated single-use cabins, nine cabins with optional space to sleep three (in either a drop-down Murphy bed, or, in the suites, in a sofa bed), and seven sets of connecting cabins that sleep up to four between the two rooms.

Three spacious suites have an extra-large bathroom, extra closet space, and enormous floor-to-ceiling windows. The largest of these, Suite C, is located on the bridge deck and also has a separate sitting area with arm chairs and convertible sofa.

My cabin, #205, was a dedicated single-use room — comfortable and functional in every respect. The designers used every available space for storage, which meant I did not have to do any creative juggling with my things. I could have easily shared the space with another person, but traveling alone, I was able to spread out and live like a queen!

My cabin included two twin beds, short chest of drawers in between beds that doubled as a night stand, desk and chair, leather armchair, two-prong outlets, USB outlets for charging iPhone, iPad, etc., wardrobe for hanging clothes, wall hangers that fold flat when not in use, and many hooks / hangers for wet clothes.

The bathroom was small but perfectly serviceable, with biodegradable shampoo and shower gel installed in handy dispensers in the shower. Hot water and water pressure in my shower tapered off considerably at peak hours — right before lunch and again right before dinner — but this was never so pronounced as to be uncomfortable.

62BEE286-7E10-4E21-AA83-BABE6725F8C4

The “theater-in-the-round”-style lounge on the Endeavour II. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The social center of the ship, the lounge on the third deck, was designed for a “theater-in-the-round” experience, with a podium in the center of the room, retractable video screens along the walls, and fully rotating armchairs. 360-degree windows allowed beautiful natural light in during the day. We met here for daily “re-caps,” nightly cocktail and appetizer parties before dinner, and fascinating presentations from our naturalists and guides.

The dining room was laid out to encourage mingling — four-, five-, six-, and eight-person tables abounded, with just one or two tables for two. Breakfasts and lunches were buffet-style and featured bountiful fresh produce and Ecuadorean staples like cassava rolls — a real hit. Dinners were also casual, but served at the table.

As a vegetarian, I was very well-looked after. For dinner, the cremini mushroom gnocchi and root vegetable stack were especially memorable — and bountiful salads and produce were always offered for breakfasts and lunches. Any time a meaty soup was served, I received a veggie version without having to ask. Similarly, my lactose-intolerant friend received dairy-free options.

IMG_3090

The lovely top deck of the Endeavour II — site of one festive barbecue dinner, a sunset wine tasting, and numerous animal sightings. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Other public areas included a library with several computers for guest use, an open-air observation deck with lounge chairs and tables, fully equipped gym, gift shop, and spa.

Finally, an “open bridge” policy allowed guests to wander in and out of the navigational heart of the ship and talk to the captain and officers about the instruments and controls aboard the Endeavour II.

On the last night, the crew led dozens of us crammed into the bridge in a countdown as we approached the equator. Captain, officers, and guests alike burst into exuberant cheering as we finally reached zero degrees latitude on the digital chart. The camaraderie was palpable!

The Endeavour II was a phenomenal home base for my week in the Galapagos — but the ship would be nothing without the Lindblad Expeditions & National Geographic staff who work tirelessly to make each guest’s experience the “trip of a lifetime.”

To see our Lindblad Galapagos Islands cruise itinerary, please click here. For more information or to book, contact me at (502) 897-1725, (800) 478-4881; to email me, click here.

Read more about the Galapagos experience itself in my companion blog here.

(Rachel M. Hardy, travel consultant and marketing associate with The Society of International Railway Travelers, has traveled the world testing out adventures — all the better to inform our guests.)

Following in Darwin’s Footsteps: My Adventure in the Galapagos Islands

8 Apr
DSC_0132

A playful Galapagos sea lion. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

“We could be standing here 500,000 years ago, and things would look exactly the same,” a fellow traveler commented during my recent Galapagos Islands adventure with Lindblad Expeditions.

I understood the sentiment.

But the Galapagos are all about change — slow, ceaseless adaptation — rather than permanence.

As Charles Darwin observed almost 200 years ago, these adaptations are nowhere more apparent than in the variety of endemic species that call the Galapagos home.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get up close and personal with many of these amazing creatures.

Along with 90-odd other guests, I was aboard the newly-refitted National Geographic Endeavour II. A Lindblad team of naturalists, crew and staff ably assisted us.

IMG_2931

Hot and rewarding hike on Española Island. IRT photo

“You are not on a cruise,” said Paula, our expedition leader, immediately setting the tone for the week. “You are on an expedition!”

Some of the more cynical rolled their eyes. But everyone under 18 visibly straightened their backs in excitement.

Though we were surrounded by all the modern conveniences and comforts of a traditional luxury cruise, these small linguistic flourishes helped set the stage for a cerebral and engaging week of discovery.

We guests ranged in age from six to 80. Like me, most were Americans. But there were a few Canadians, as well as a South African, two Guatemalan sisters and a Swede.

We were academics, mailmen, research scientists, poets, lawyers, pastors, salespeople, librettists, administrators of different stripes, journalists and travel advisors (me!).

What was the tie that bound this relatively diverse group of explorers? Mostly, it was a love for animals — and a palpable enthusiasm for experiencing them in the wild.

Indeed, I quickly learned the surest way to bond with fellow travelers was to excitedly point out an animal.

Animals excited all of us. And everyone went to great lengths to share their sightings with as many others as they could.

DSC_0716

A Sally Lightfoot crab walks delicately across the volcanic rocks of Genovesa Island.                    IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The naturalists, many of whom are themselves “endemic” to the Islands, had extensive backgrounds in chemistry, geology and biology. And no less than their guests, they were passionate about the natural world. They were eager fonts of knowledge — and never off duty.

In one of our rare “rest times” during the early afternoon, I encountered Lenin, a naturalist. I wildly gestured toward the open ocean, where I could see movement a few hundred yards away.

DSC_0628

A male frigate bird impressively puffs up his gular pouch in an attempt to attract a mate.             IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Handing me his binoculars, he told me they were manta rays, taking turns jumping out of the water.

“We are not certain why they come to the surface like so,” he said. “Some scientists think they are ridding themselves of parasites. Others think they are just enjoying themselves.”

I certainly was enjoying myself. I took advantage of every hiking and snorkeling opportunity I could.

Snorkeling was a vigorous, thrilling experience. Every outing was unique.

Over the course of 15 hour-long deep-water snorkels, I swam with playful sea lion pups, sea turtles and diminutive Galapagos penguins.

I saw white-tipped reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays the size of breakfast tables, graceful spotted rays and hundreds of species of tropical fish.

Hikes were challenging — largely due to the Galapagos’ unforgiving heat and humidity in March. But they also were rewarding, with each day offering a new island and a new alien landscape to explore.

FullSizeRender 34

A challenging mid-day hike. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Giant land iguanas, marine iguanas and bird species for which the Galapagos are famous — the Nazca, blue-footed and red-footed booby, to name three — added to the islands’ otherworldly vibe.

The island’s creatures acted as if we didn’t exist, not bothering to move off the trail even when we stepped within inches of them.

Some guests struggled with the most punishing midday hikes. But the vast majority seemed to know what they were in for.

FullSizeRender 4

And the kids on our departure (more than usual, I was told, because it was spring break for many school systems in the U.S.) really enjoyed themselves.

That was thanks in no small part to a pilot program that the National Geographic Society introduced on our trip specifically geared towards young people — and their constant need for stimulation and apparent inability to nap. Their parents, all nappers themselves, seemed thrilled.

The snorkeling and hiking schedule left me little time to sleep in my comfortable cabin. And I had just enough time to enjoy the bountiful meals served in the ship’s dining room.

IMG_3153

One last hike on Genovesa Island. IRT Photo

Other memorable snapshots that underscored the amazingness of the Lindblad operation:

  1. Stargazing with Jean Roche, a naturalist, on the top deck when the moon was still hidden under the horizon. (I can now use the Southern Cross for navigation, if I ever find myself lost in the Southern Hemisphere!);
  2. Enjoying delicious, freshly-squeezed naranjilla juice that was waiting for us as we re-boarded the ship after long outings;
  3. The head waiter, Carlos, greeting every guest by name, three times a day, in the dining room, starting with our very first dinner (he also knew our dietary restrictions by heart);
  4. Crossing the equator on our last night. A slew of us crowded into the “open bridge,” the ship’s navigational heart, to which guests have 24/7 access. (And, Captain Garces, here’s a big “thank you” for always being so friendly and welcoming!)
FullSizeRender 76

Marine iguanas — endemic to the Galapagos Islands — are incredible underwater swimmers, diving to depths of 9 meters. Here, they pile on each other and rest. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The only glitch — if you could call it that — occurred on our last day, just before our flight to Ecuador’s mainland. A few wayward land iguanas had wandered onto the tarmac, delaying our takeoff.

No one seemed to mind.

After all, we had only a few more hours to enjoy our newfound friends. And Lindblad had seen to it that we were well fed, watered and “WiFi-ed” in the VIP airport lounge.

Three hours later, the iguanas abruptly wandered away.

So off we flew, the Galapagos Islands rapidly shrinking as we rose, until they disappeared completely beneath the cloud cover.

I was already planning my return.

Click here for the second part of my blog about the newly-refitted Endeavour II.

To see our Lindblad Galapagos Islands cruise itinerary, please click here. For more information or to book, contact us at (502) 897-1725, (800) 478-4881; to email us, click here.

(Rachel M. Hardy, travel consultant and marketing associate with The Society of International Railway Travelers, has traveled the world testing out adventures — all the better to advise you!)

Rocky Mountaineer Travel Tips

10 Oct

 

For Rachel Hardy’s story on her Rocky Mountaineer dream trip, please click here.

  • The author, bundled in her winter coat, scarf and hat, at Lake Louise. IRT photo by Belinda

    The author, bundled in her winter coat, scarf and hat, at Lake Louise. IRT photo courtesy of Rachel Hardy.

    Canadian weather can be unpredictable and dramatically different from place to place – pack accordingly. Over the span of my week-long trip in early October, I wore shorts on a hot day in Calgary and an extreme cold-weather down parka on the train’s open-air platform. Some who hadn’t packed with an eye to cold weather actually tried to buy my coat from me as they couldn’t spend any time outside. (I declined all offers!)

  • Exclusive IRT offer: book your Rocky Mountaineer journey with The Society of International Railway Travelers and receive a free one-way limo transfer to/from Seattle or Vancouver airports. Some trips eligible for free two-way limo transfers. Up to $200 US dollar value.
  • IMG_798_Conductor_Platform SmallReceive up to $600 per couple in added value when you book your 2017 Rocky Mountaineer journey by Dec. 16. This offer can be used for extra hotel nights in Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria, or Calgary, city sightseeing tours and other activities, additional hotel meals, and airport transfers.

Book an itinerary of 8 or more days, and receive $600 of added value per couple (or $300 per person).

Book an itinerary of 5 to 7 days and receive $350 of added value per couple (or $175 per person).

  • Strong U.S. Dollar, Euro: There’s never been a better time for both Americans and Europeans to travel to Canada. The strength of the U.S. dollar and the Euro versus the Canadian dollar make Canada an especially affordable destination.
  • Customize your tour: In addition to the more than 65 packaged itineraries the Rocky Mountaineer offers, there are virtually limitless options for travelers to tailor their vacation: extra hotel nights, hotel upgrades, and trip extensions are just a few of the possibilities.
  • Gold Leaf Service is the most popular level of service aboard the train, but Silver Leaf Service is also a good choice for those on a budget. The main differences between the levels of service: windows are slightly smaller in the single-level Silver Leaf car, meals are served at your seat, and hotel accommodations are booked in three-star hotels as opposed to the four-star historic hotels that are included with Gold Leaf Service.
  • You can also mix and match: you can choose to book Gold Leaf Service on the train and Silver Leaf Service hotels (or the reverse). Gold Leaf Deluxe Service offers all the benefits of Gold Leaf Service but also includes significant hotel upgrades.

For more information or to book, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers®. Email tourdesk@irtsociety.com or call (800)  478-4881; (502) 897-1725.

The Society of International Railway Travelers®’ curated list of Rocky Mountaineer itineraries is here.

Mountaineering in Luxury: Canadian Rockies by Train

10 Oct
dsc_0391-copy

The author enjoying the fresh air on the Rocky Mountaineer Gold Leaf dome viewing platform. IRT photo courtesy of Rachel Hardy.

“Fifty Switzerlands in one” is how legendary British mountaineer Edward Whymper (conqueror of the Matterhorn) allegedly described the Canadian Rockies.

Whymper’s assessment is spot on – but Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer lavished me with added benefits: cozy nights at historic four-star hotels and gourmet meals and snacks.

Most important, though, were two days’ worth of panoramic views of the Canadian Rockies from the comfort of my  double-decked Gold Leaf dome car.

My itinerary was the Canadian Rockies Highlights, running between Calgary and Vancouver. It’s one of more than 65 Rocky Mountaineer packages.

I spent my first night at Calgary’s luxurious Fairmont Palliser Hotel, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1914 as a way-station for weary travelers on their way to the remote Rockies.

After exploring Calgary, we boarded our coach to Lake Louise.

Winding through the Coast Mountains. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

Winding through the Coast Mountains. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

For some, bus tours conjure up visions of cramped, nausea-inducing drives that are light on photo opportunities and heavy on boredom. I’m thrilled to report this was NOT the case.

Never were we in the bus longer than 45 minutes at a stretch. And our entertaining guide made those stretches fly by.

The day’s highlights included a thrilling 12-minute helicopter ride over the edge of the Rockies, a ride on the Banff gondola, and stops at Lake Minnewanka and a platform overlooking the otherworldly rock spires called ‘hoodoos.’

The author, bundled in her winter coat and hat, at Lake Louise. IRT photo by Belinda

The author, bundled in her winter coat and hat, at Lake Louise. IRT photo courtesy Rachel Hardy.

The next night we spent at the stunningly aquamarine Lake Louise. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the lake is picturesquely framed by the towering glaciers that feed it and give it its uncommon color.

Dozens of hiking trails crisscross the surrounding area, giving me an opportunity to stretch my legs.

One highlight of our afternoon coach tour was the Spiral Tunnels, a marvel of railway engineering. We also basked in the majesty of the natural rock bridge at Kicking Horse River before overnighting in Banff.

Delicious lunch in the Gold Leaf dining room. (Photo by Rachel Hardy)

Delicious lunch in the Gold Leaf dining room. (IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy)

The next morning, we began our two-day adventure aboard the Rocky Mountaineer with a champagne toast by the train’s warm and professional on-board staff.

Within the hour, they invited us down to the car’s dining area, where we enjoyed a hot gourmet breakfast prepared on board. Eggs benedict, mozerella omelettes with smoked bacon, and roasted almond granola parfaits were among the menu choices.

As we finished our meal, a lucky few spotted a large black bear amidst the morning fog.

Back up top in the full-length dome, we enjoyed unparalleled views. We saw plenty of wildlife, including bald eagles, big horned sheep and caribou.

DSC_015_RedHair_Outdoors Small

The outdoor viewing platform was the place to be. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

Our three dedicated hosts made sure we never went thirsty. The Rocky Mountaineer’s well-stocked bar includes top shelf liquors and spirits, local craft beers and regional wines (all included in the fare) as well as many nonalcoholic choices.

Our hosts entertained and educated us along our route. Highlights today included the Continental Divide, Kicking Horse Canyon, and Craigellachie, where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven.

Rocky Mountaineer steward poses for a quick shot. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

Rocky Mountaineer steward poses for a quick shot. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

And although it was quite chilly outside, the Gold Leaf dome’s open-air viewing platform offered us an unmissable opportunity for photography. And it was great knowing that hot toddies, tea, and hot chocolate were waiting for us when it was time to thaw out! Many hours of comfortable Rockies sightseeing later, we arrived at our overnight destination of Kamloops.

The culinary team aboard the Rocky Mountaineer stayed, for the most part, out of sight. But our on-board meals in the first-level dining area were so impressive that the executive chef and his dedicated staff were never far from our minds.

An emphasis on locally sourced ingredients and regional cuisine fit perfectly with our surroundings.

The three-course lunch menu was completely different each day. It included entrée favorites like wild salmon with shaved fennel and roasted potato salad and Alberta beef short-ribs with garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables.

And though the staff prefers to know about dietary restrictions ahead of time, they excel at “thinking on their feet.” They’ll bend over backwards to make your meal just as you like it.

Gluten free, vegetarian, and ‘light choice’ options came standard on the menu, but they’re eager to accommodate any preference or food allergy you have.

Shadows lengthen late in the day as a Rocky Mountaineer attendant looks from the viewing platform. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

Shadows lengthen late in the day as a Rocky Mountaineer attendant looks from the viewing platform. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

The second day aboard the train was every bit as exciting as the first. Dramatic changes in scenery unfolded outside our windows, as the desert-like environment around Kamloops gave way to mountains, river canyons, and fir forests dotted with the beautiful gold of changing larch trees (fir trees that ‘think they’re deciduous’: they lose their needles annually after turning a stunning shade of yellow).

DSC_011_RedHair_Camera Small

There’s no better way to photograph the soaring Rockies than from the outdoor viewing platform. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The Coast and Cascade Mountains and the Thompson River afforded nonstop beauty, but the dizzying heights above Hell’s Gate — the narrowest portion of the Fraser River and an extreme obstacle to early river explorers and marine wildlife alike — was our favorite sight of the day.

Our bellies full of delicious food and our memory cards full of scenic images, we disembarked in Vancouver for one last hotel stay at the fabulous Fairmont Vancouver before returning home in the morning.

For more information or to book, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers. Email tourdesk@irtsociety.com or call (800)  478-4881; (502) 897-1725. The Society of International Railway Travelers®’ curated list of Rocky Mountaineer itineraries is here.

For Ms. Hardy’s “Rocky Mountaineer Travelers’ Tips,” please click here.

We welcome Rachel Hardy to Track 25.  Ms. Hardy, IRT’s sales & marketing associate & our newest employee, is a graduate of College of Charleston in political science, has traveled thousands of miles — from backpacking  with a Eurail pass across Europe to luxury hotels in Rome and India. Her favorite recent travels include an adventure cruise in the Peruvian Amazon, “ice-hiking” in Chilean Patagonia, and a Micato safari in Kenya. Her first train trip was the Empire Builder, and she first rode the Rocky Mountaineer and Canadian when she was 8. 

%d bloggers like this: