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Peru by Luxury Rail Tops Bucket Lists for 2020, 2021

9 Mar

Exterior_smallWhat’s so special about our private 11-day Luxury Rail Journey of Peru?

Reason #1: Belmond Andean Explorer

The train is gorgeous, the staff eager to please. And the off-train excursions – sunrise at Lake Titticaca, floating villages of Uros and Taquile, Sumbay Cave paintings – are other-worldly. Our 11-day Luxury Rail Journey of Peru includes a 3-day trip on the Belmond Andean Explorer from Cusco-Arequipa.

Other advice?

Treat yourself to a Junior Suite (only two per departure). They include a spacious double bed, private bathroom and shower, ample storage and large picture windows.

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Junior Suite on Belmond Andean Explorer. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

Nurse an expertly-prepared pisco sour from its open-air platform as you travel through wild Andean landscapes and wind-swept altiplano.

Then end your day with an 80-minute Andean Ritual Massage in the very popular Spa Car. (ask us to book it for you in advance, as spa times sell out fast.)

Reason #2: Belmond Hiram Bingham

Step back in time and board the 1920s-style Pullman carriages of this delightful day train to legendary Machu Picchu, the Incan “lost city in the clouds.”

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IRT co-owners Owen & Eleanor Hardy enjoy the open-air platform on Belmond Hiram Bingham.

The 3-hour trip from Cusco to Aguas Calientes includes a sumptuous brunch, live Andean music, and breathtaking sights of the Urubamba River and Andes – best seen from the open-air observation car.

Bonus: our Luxury Rail Journey of Peru includes two journeys on the Belmond Hiram Bingham. Enjoy a daylight brunch one way and a multi-course dinner by starlight the other.

Reason #3: Food Scene

Peru has its finger on the pulse of the foodie movement – and nowhere is this more apparent than on Belmond’s two luxury trains.

Star chef Diego Muñoz heads up the operation at Belmond Andean Explorer, planning menus based around regional seasonality and availability.

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Chefs are trained at Belmond Hotel Monasterio. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

In addition to delicious meals on the trains, our itinerary also includes meals at some of the country’s most beloved institutions: Restaurant Tragaluz in Lima; El Huerto in Urubamba; Limo Restaurant in Cusco, to name a few.

Reason #4: 5-Star Lodging

Our itinerary includes some of South America’s most exclusive addresses: Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado in the Sacred Valley; Belmond Hotel Monasterio in Cusco; and Belmond Miraflores Park in Lima.

One night is also included at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge—right outside Machu Picchu. (IRT Tip: request TWO nights at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge for an even more relaxed experience at the famous Incan citadel.)

Bonus: receive complimentary massages at all Belmond properties when you book with IRT.

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Belmond Rio Sagrado in the Sacred Valley.

Reason #5: Peruvian people

Peruvians are some of the most welcoming and fun we’ve met anywhere. From private guides and hotel and train staff, to regular people on the street, they’re sincerely happy you’re in their country.

Reason #6: Easy flights, No Jet Lag

Nonstop Miami-Lima flights clock in at just under 6 hours, so travel from North America to Peru lasts just a day.

And no extra time is needed to shake off jet lag. (Peru is equivalent to Eastern Time half the year and Central Time the other half.)

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For more information, or to book your own luxury rail journey of Peru, call The Society of International Railway Travelers at (800) 478-4881; (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada); or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Click here for more details on our 11-day private luxury rail journey of Peru journey.

Party Hardy with Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

10 Feb

The classic 32-hour journey on the world-renowned Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) from Venice to London is always a whirlwind of fun and fancy.

But for one weekend next month—March 27-29—guests will arrive earlier, stay up later, and party longer.

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Belmond Hotel Cipriani, Venice’s most exclusive 5-star hotel. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

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Greeted by the concierge at Belmond Hotel Cipriani. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

“The Party” begins on the enchanted Venetian island of Giudecca, home to the Belmond Hotel Cipriani. For one night only, the city’s most exclusive luxury hotel will transform itself into a secret speakeasy full of 1920s flair.

Don your fringiest flapper dress or shiniest spats and dance into the wee hours.

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IRT Advisors Natalie (L) and Nora (R) with new friends on the VSOE. IRT Photo.

Next morning, board the world-renowned VSOE for a glamorous departure from Santa Lucia station.

As the train winds through Italy, Austria, Switzerland and France—passing snowy Alps and glassy lakes — sip champagne, enjoy the entertainment in the bar car, and go back in time… if only for a brief spell.

“The Party” is a one-off, special departure.

Pricing begins at £3,760 per person. Included in the price: one night in a Garden View Room at Belmond Hotel Cipriani; Twin Cabin aboard the VSOE; celebratory dinner at the hotel and all meals and drinks aboard the train.

To book (or for more info): Call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada), or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Writer’s Note: I caught a grainy glimpse of myself in the promotional video for “The Party” around the 10-second mark. Big props to anyone reading this who can find me!

P.S. For those who want a more leisurely (and more private) party, check out our 6-day Romantic Italian Holiday, which includes two nights at the incomparable Belmond Villa San Michele in Florence, two nights at Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice and one night on the VSOE from Venice to London. Also included: private touring in Florence and Venice, all private transfers, and first-class train tickets from Florence-Venice.

 

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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. Ms. Hardy was the first advisor from the Americas invited to see the new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

The Society of International Railway Travelers® is a proud member of Virtuoso.

2021 Departures Now Available on Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Belmond Royal Scotsman, more

27 Jan
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The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express outside Innsbruck. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

Hoping to grab a cabin on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express‘ famed Paris-Istanbul annual adventure in 2021?

Good news: Belmond, owner of the famous luxury train, recently announced its 2021 schedule.

Which means you can plan your dream luxury rail vacation a year and a half in advance.

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IRT guests on a Belmond Grand Hibernian outing. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

Three other Belmond trains, all of which occupy a coveted place on our ‘World’s Top 25 Trains‘ list, have also released their 2021 calendars: Belmond Royal Scotsman, Belmond Grand Hibernian (Ireland) and the Eastern & Oriental Express (Thailand, Singapore, & Malaysia).

(2021 schedules for the company’s Peru luxury train — Belmond Andean Explorer and Belmond Hiram Bingham — are still being determined.)

Other than the 2021 calendar, what else is new with each train?

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE)

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Grand Suite Istanbul on the VSOE. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Three more Grand Suites are being built for the 2020 season (for a total of six). They will be called Prague, Budapest, and Vienna.

The Paris-Istanbul and Istanbul-Paris journeys are perennial favorites — and they tend to sell out the fastest.

In addition to the sumptuous amenities included in each Grand Suite (private bathroom, rain shower, large double bed), Grand Suite guests on the Istanbul journeys will also enjoy having a private car and driver for touring in Budapest and Bucharest.

What’s more, all house drinks are now included for Grand Suite guests.

Belmond Royal Scotsman

People continue to rave about the Bamford Haybarn Spa Car, added three years ago.

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Guest on the Belmond Royal Scotsman enjoys a manicure. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

We highly recommend making an appointment in advance of your departure. It’s not always possible — but we can often wrangle the train manager into getting your massage scheduled ahead of time!

Really get to know the train and the countryside on a longer sojourn like the 8-day Grand Tour of Great Britain.

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Fancy yourself a horseman or horsewoman? Consider the brand-new ‘Gardens and Gallops of Unseen Ireland’ journey. One highlight: a visit to Howardstown Racing Yard for a demonstration and a chat with famed rider and trainer Enda Bolger.
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Convivial head barman on the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Or, if you have a more culinary persuasion, join a special departure of the 3-day Taste of Ireland’ hosted by famous Irish chef Clodagh McKenna.

Finally, see a large swath of the Emerald Isle with our all-time favorite, the 7-day Grand Tour of Ireland.

Eastern & Oriental Express

The Eastern & Oriental Express is now much more intimate, with a maximum guest count of only 82 (down from about 120).

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Guests love the open-air platform on the Eastern & Oriental Express.

And, well drinks and house wines are included for all cabin types.
What’s more, the E&O now offers excursion options on all journeys.
Care to stretch your legs between fabulous, five-course meals? Sign up for a bicycle tour through rice paddies and villages.
Or, if you’re a foodie, opt for a culinary tour and tasting in a traditional “wet market” in Kanchanaburi.
Our favorite journey? The 6-day Voyage of Southeast Asia (formerly ‘Fables of the Peninsula’).
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If this is your first Belmond train journey, we sincerely doubt it will be your last. Call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada), or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com, to book, or to learn more.

Eastern & Oriental Express Still Southeast Asia’s Brightest Luxury Rail Star

25 Nov
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The Eastern & Oriental Express.

IRT’s Angela Walker travels to Thailand next week to inspect the Eastern & Oriental Express, one of our World’s Top 25 Trains®, and sister train to Europe’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

What should Angela expect from her 4-day Bangkok to Singapore adventure?

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Gracious, friendly steward on the E&O. IRT Photo by E. Hardy

Just take it from IRT guest J. Samuelson, who traveled on the October 2019 departure of Fables of the Peninsula:

“That Eastern & Oriental is something else. It’s a wonderful train. The most impressive part of the whole thing is the staff. They [the train staff] were perfect. They were attentive. Your wine glass was never empty. The food is exceptional…. The presentation is just as good as you’d find in any fine restaurant.”

And, the E&O has undergone several IRT-approved enhancements to its services that make it more all-inclusive, more personalized, and — we think — even more thrilling than before.

The four most exciting new enhancements, in our opinion?

1. All well drinks and house wines are now included (premium drinks are additional). Cheers to that!

2. The train has slashed its maximum capacity dramatically, from 132 to just 82 guests — and typically runs with around 65. The result is an exclusive, clubby feel.

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The open-air observation platform on the train is an IRT traveler favorite.

3. The train now offers guests choice in off-train touring, with an eye towards accommodating those wishing to be more physically active.

For instance, on the classic Bangkok-Singapore and Singapore-Bangkok journeys, guests can choose between a classic cruise along the Khwae Yai River and a visit to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre; a cycle tour through farms and fields to a village; or a culinary tour to a vibrant market and an ancient noodle house.

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Lounge car attendants. IRT Photo by E. Hardy.

On the once-a-year Fables of the Peninsula journey, guests can choose between a tour of the Sungai Palas Tea Garden, where they will experience the tea-making process “from bush to cup,” or a hike with a naturalist on the Jim Thompson trail in the Titiwangsa mountain range.

4. Guests in Presidential Suites now enjoy an even longer list of amenities, including private limousine transfers to and from train stations in Bangkok & Singapore; a bottle of champagne and fruit basket on arrival; complimentary mini bar, stocked with a selection of spirits, local beer, soft drinks and chocolate; complimentary on board pressing service; more.

Two parting IRT tips?

1. Extend your Southeast Asian journey at one of our five-star partner hotels.

Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor is a sparkling gem near Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s fabled temple complex; Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao is a tropical oasis in the Laotian mountains. Both are just a short flight from Bangkok.

2. If you want to travel in 2020, don’t delay. Space is already at a premium, especially on the once-a-year 6-day Fables of the Peninsula journey in October.

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The Eastern and Oriental Express runs from September through April. All cabins are en-suite. A few Pullman cabins for sole use are available on each departure without a single supplement. Inquire for availability.

For more information, or to book, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

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.

IRT Answers Guests’ Burning Questions about Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, World’s Most Famous Luxury Train

7 Nov

IRT Luxury Travel Associates Natalie Schuetz and Nora Elzy just returned from their inaugural journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE). They sat down with us after to discuss their experience, and answer some of IRT travelers’ most frequently-asked questions.

The following account was co-written by Natalie and Nora.

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“You’re either architects or you’re planning a murder,” quipped our cabin steward on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, as he found us measuring the overhead shelving in our Cabin Suite.

We were neither, nor were we spies, thieves or cutthroats.

We were — and are — relatively new travel advisors at The Society of International Railway Travelers. Our mission? Find answers to the questions most frequently asked by IRT travelers about the VSOE.

The clock was ticking. (The journey from London to Venice takes about 30 hours in total.)

Armed with our list of questions, we raced from one end of the train to the other, Poirot-style, to question every porter, cabin steward and sous chef we could find about the world’s most famous luxury train.

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Natalie (left), and Nora (right), with new friends in the bar car on the VSOE. IRT Photo

So, the VSOE takes me all the way from London to Venice?

Not quite. This is really a journey of three parts:

First, board the Belmond British Pullman — luxury day train and sister to the VSOE – at London Victoria Station for the two-hour journey to Folkestone. En route, enjoy a hearty four-course brunch. The highlights of our meal were berries and yogurt, fresh pastries, salmon with potato and pickled cucumber salad, and lemon and olive oil cake.

Next, undergo border formalities before boarding a luxury coach for the half-hour journey under the English Channel. (The “Chunnel” may be an engineering marvel, but the actual experience is a bit dull. Sit tight – it only takes 30 minutes.)

Once you have emerged in France, a short drive takes you to the station in Calais, where the gleaming blue carriages of the VSOE await.

NOW you are on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express!

Is this THE Orient-Express? The one of Agatha Christie fame, I mean?

While it is not the original Orient-Express, it does comprise several of its carriages. Most were built in the 1920s and 1930s and have been beautifully restored. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in its current incarnation began service in 1982. (Want the complete story? To get IRT CEO Owen Hardy’s extensively researched cultural history of the Orient-Express, click here.)

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Twin cabin during the day. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

What (and how) should I pack?

You can never be overdressed on the VSOE – especially at dinner. Men will not be out of place in tuxedos, but a dark suit is also appropriate. Just don’t show up in jeans.

Pack your finery and have fun playing adult dress-up. Downton Abbey duds are not required – but some guests enjoy donning period dress. (We certainly did.)

During the day, smart casual is appropriate.

Note: Grand Suite guests can stop reading this section now, as their palatial quarters include a surfeit of storage space.

For everyone else, however, heed us when we say that space is at a premium. Twin cabins measure only 35 feet square.

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Twin cabin at night. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy.

What to pack? Our affable steward Davide had these suggestions:

“Just the essentials… It’s more important to have the right size of cabin luggage. Some people don’t think about that, but that really changes the trip.”

When you board, select what you’ll need on the train. Davide suggests packing your formal wear in a dress bag, which you can hang from a hook in your compartment.

Pack all other necessities in a packing cube or two – or in a small overnight bag.

Then hand off your suitcase to your steward for storage elsewhere on the train.

What creature comforts will I be foregoing?

Private bathrooms, to start. Only Grand Suite patrons have those (and they pay dearly for them.)

Guests in all other cabins have an en-suite sink and vanity, but toilets are shared and are down the hall. We never had to wait for a bathroom. If one is occupied, there is another just a few feet away in the next car. The stewards keep them sparkling clean day and night.

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Private bathroom with sink, toilet, and rain shower in Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

There are no showers on board (except, of course, if you are in a Grand Suite). But all VSOE itineraries are planned so that you never spend more than one night on board (with the alternating nights spent in a luxury hotel if you are on the Paris-Istanbul journey or the Istanbul-Paris journey.)

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Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

So tell me more about the new Grand Suites.

These spacious cabins debuted in 2018 and were covered in-depth here and here by our senior colleague, Rachel Hardy.

Six Grand Suites, all of them unique and named after famous capital cities on the VSOE’s routes, include a large double bed (can also be made into two twins), living area with table, chair and sofa, and an en-suite bathroom with rain shower, sink and toilet.

Additional Grand Suite amenities include preferential seating and guaranteed dining time for meals, caviar upon arrival, free-flowing Champagne, private transfers to/from train stations, private guided excursions, complimentary designer Art Deco bathrobes, and hair dryers. A complimentary alternative “à la carte” menu also is available during lunch or dinner for Grand Suite guests.

Grand Suites are located at the very end of the train for ultimate privacy.

OK, so back to reality. What about Wi-Fi?

We were told there is Wi-Fi on the train, but it was not working during our tour. As young people who probably spend way too much time on our phones, we found that not having Wi-Fi was a nice change of pace; it allowed us to spend more time enjoying the overall experience of the train.

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Mingling with a fellow passenger over lunch in the Lalique dining car. IRT Photo.

What is the atmosphere like? Do people mingle?

Mingling is the name of the game. Our advice? Go to the bar car — the social hub of the train — directly after dinner to secure a great seat and strike up a conversation with your fellow travelers.

A pianist plays through the night; the staff doesn’t quit until the last guest has retired.

Just keep in mind that, while water, tea and coffee are included in the rate, all other drinks are additional. A signature cocktail in the bar costs about €22 (about $28 U.S.).

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A bountiful breakfast is served in your cabin, giving you a chance to wake up slowly and luxuriously. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

What is dining like on board? Are there multiple seatings? Will I have a choice of what food I want?

There are typically two seatings for dinner: the first at 7 p.m., and the second at 8 p.m. Ask the maître d’ to seat you in a different dining car for each meal so that you can experience each of them — or at least two of the three. Each is unique.

And almost all dietary restrictions can be generously accommodated if the kitchen staff knows in advance.

Every dish we had on board was delicious — and beautifully presented. Natalie’s first course for dinner was a Blue Brittany lobster, served with earthy French potatoes in a savory sauce and truffle caviar and decorated with edible flowers.

And though Nora felt like she taxed the chef with her dietary restrictions (gluten-free, dairy-free, no seafood), she was always thrilled with her meals. The beef fillet with Flint wine and morel sauce was sumptuous, and she loved her dessert: an exotic fruit platter.

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Blue Brittany lobster and caviar. IRT Photo by Natalie M. Schuetz.

What about gratuities? Whom do I pay and how much?

We recommend €20-25 (about $22-$28 U.S.) per person, per day. We split this evenly between our cabin steward and the restaurant staff. Cabin stewards can only accept cash, but the restaurant cars and bar car can accept credit cards.

Is one night on the train enough?

“The longer guests are on board, the more they enjoy the train,” said Assistant Train Manager Francesco Bonotto.

They especially love the five-day itineraries, he said, that begin in Venice and then travel on to either Budapest, Vienna, or Prague, and then continue to London.

“They offer a great mix of sociability and time to explore independently: two nights on the train, plus two nights on your own in a beautiful European city.”

We here at the IRT Society also get rave reviews from our travelers who opt for the route made famous by Agatha Christie: the once-a-year Paris-Istanbul journey and Istanbul-Paris journey.

These sell out very far in advance and include grand hotels and exclusive touring along the way.

In what months does the VSOE operate?

The train runs from late March through early November.

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Natalie poses with Paolo, one of our indefatigable stewards. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy.

What are the stewards and train staff doing when they aren’t working on the train?

During the off season, many go to work in European hotels. And since all staff are bilingual (at a minimum), brushing up on their second language is also a focus.

What are some scenery highlights?

We saw rolling British and French countryside, staggering Swiss mountains, and stunning Italian lake towns during our two-day journey. The longer itineraries include iconic cities such as Prague and Istanbul.

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VSOE cabin key. IRT Photo by Natalie M. Schuetz.

What makes this train unique?

Much of it is the exquisite detail. In fact, one of the knobs on the wall in our cabins was not functional, but it was there simply for nostalgic purposes. At one time, we were told, the train piped music in the carriages; the knob was used to turn the volume up and down. Also, each carriage is heated by a coal furnace, which the cabin steward tends throughout the journey.

This train is very expensive.  Is it worth it?

It’s an experience unlike any other. Assistant Train Manager Bonotto said he’s never had a single complaint about the cost. By the time passengers disembark — after their fabulous meals and A+ staff treatment — they couldn’t be happier.

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Do you have a question we didn’t cover? Ask us in the comments below.

Natalie and Nora took the London-Paris-Venice journey, as seen on our website here. All Venice Simplon-Orient-Express itineraries can be found here.

Ready to start planning your VSOE journey? Call or email us. 2020 and 2021 departures are available and selling briskly.

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

Royal Canadian Pacific, N. America’s Only Luxury Sleeper Train, Returning!

10 Oct
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Enjoying the view from the Royal Canadian Pacific’s new dome car. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The Royal Canadian Pacific is back — complete with a brand-new full dome car!

After a five-year hiatus, the luxury sleeper train plans to offer two departures to the public in June and July next year. A third exclusive IRT departure in September 2020 is also under consideration.

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Service with a smile on the RCP. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

I traveled to Calgary two weeks ago to inspect the train and learn more about its plans for the future.

My takeaway?

IRT travelers will delight in the RCP’s opulent 1920s-era carriages, with all en-suite cabins, comfortable reading nooks, and outdoor platforms sprinkled generously throughout.

Its professional, full-time staff and its five-star cuisine also will not disappoint.

And they’ll appreciate its historical bonafides (Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, and JFK & Jackie were all passengers).

Of course, the dramatic Canadian Rockies scenery is as lovely as ever—especially when viewed from the comfort of the brand-new glass dome observation car.

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Meringue with homemade Scottish shortbread and lavender honey — crowned with a Maple leaf. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The novelty of a luxury sleeper train returning to North America will excite rail enthusiasts everywhere. We here at IRT predict high interest from travelers—especially confirmed luxury rail enthusiasts.

Ever since the RCP stopped offering public departures five years ago, the continent has been devoid of anything similar.

Itineraries are still being confirmed but will likely include a 5-day circle tour beginning and ending in Calgary. A 4-day Calgary-Vancouver tour also is being considered.

Both tours are expected to offer off-train activities in Golden, Banff, and Lake Louise. Pricing is also still under consideration.

Interested in joining an RCP 2020 luxury tour next year? Let us know now, and we’ll put you on our “First Notice” list.

Click here to register your interest, and we’ll contact you as soon as we have details.

Click here to read more about the Royal Canadian Pacific itself.

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The author outside the RCP’s new full-length dome car. IRT Photo by Nate Kremer

For more information, or to book any other of our journeys on the World’s Top 25 Trains, call us at (800) 478-4881, or +1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada. You can also e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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View from the rear platform of the Royal Canadian Pacific. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

 

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.

Belmond Grand Hibernian Transports Guests Through Ireland, Land of Legends

13 Sep
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IRT Guests enjoy a jaunting cart ride, one of many excursions offered on Belmond Grand Hibernian journeys. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

Ever heard of Finn McCool?

How about the Salmon of Knowledge?

Neither had I — until I went to Ireland to ride the Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland’s only luxury train.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian’s lead bartender greets guests with champagne. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The train’s gleaming blue and silver carriages, delightful staff and cozy interiors offer the perfect “magic carpet” ride through a fantastical land.

The excursions off the train are no less touched by fantasy.

When we arrived in Cork, for example, our guide greeted us with a cheerful “hallo,” and then launched into an evocative tale about the aforesaid Messrs. McCool and Salmon (of Knowledge).

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“Kindred Spirits,” the memorial to the Choctaw in County Cork. Photo by Gavin Sheridan. (no changes were made to image, link to license is https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Choctaw_Memorial.jpg)

She only paused in her myth-making to point out an interesting — albeit slightly incongruous — statue on the side of the road, comprising 20-foot steel feathers that form a bowl shape.

“The Choctaw Nation heard about our forebears’ plight during the Great Hunger of 1847,” she told us. “And they scraped together what little money they had, and sent it to us to feed our starving children.”

Unlike Finn McCool and his fish, the story of the Choctaw’s sacrifice is no fairytale. But I don’t think Ireland would be Ireland without a healthy mix of truth and make-believe.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian, now just finishing its third full season, has matured into an even more delightful experience than when it began operations three years ago.

One welcome tweak the tour operators have made is allowing guests to choose among different activities wherever possible. For instance, guests on the 7-day Grand Tour of Ireland can:

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Cobh, Ireland.

Visit the seaport of Cobh with a local historian, where millions of lives were permanently altered by the Atlantic crossing. Almost half of the 6 million Irish who emigrated to North America between 1848 and 1950 departed from this port.

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Ross Castle.

Explore Killarney National Park by jaunting cart and boat, where prophecy dictated that nearby Ross Castle was impregnable to outside forces unless a warship attacked from the lake — thought to be an impossible feat. Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads attacked just so in 1653 and took the castle, one of the last to fall in the Irish Confederate Wars.

(Another tidbit: Ross Castle’s first owner, O’Donoghue, is said to live at the bottom of the lake in a great palace, from where he keeps close tabs on the comings and goings of passerby.)

Witness a sheepdog demonstration in Galway and marvel at the shared language between man and beast, or explore the surreal Cliffs of Moher that soar 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

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Westport House.

Visit Westport House, built on the foundations of the Pirate Queen of Connacht’s castle. The Queen’s dungeons can still be seen today.

Tour the Medieval Mile Museum in Kilkenny, heart of Ireland’s ancient East. The museum is housed in a 13th-century church and contains artifacts dating back 800 years.

*****

In sum, whether you’ve visited the Emerald Isle before or not, Belmond Grand Hibernian will open your eyes to Ireland in a whole new way. In addition to its thoughtfully-planned itineraries, it also earns high points for its dedicated staff, fabulous food, and luxuriously comfortable spaces.

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The author poses with Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by Nate Kremer.

And what of Mr. McCool and his erudite fish?

Legend has it that, as a young boy, McCool was asked to cook the Salmon of Knowledge for his druid mentor, who had finally caught it after years of failed attempts.

McCool burned his thumb while cooking the fish, put his thumb in his mouth to cool the hurt, and inadvertently consumed a drop of the salmon’s oils, instantly becoming the wisest man in the world.

*****

Belmond Grand Hibernian runs April-October and offers the 3-day Taste of Ireland, the 5-day Legends and Loughs, and the 7-day Grand Tour of Ireland.

2020 departures are available and are selling briskly.

To book your own adventure on the Belmond Grand Hibernian, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

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. Rachel’s trip on Belmond Grand Hibernian was part of the Bravissimo celebratory journey hosted by Belmond, held every year in honor of the world’s top Belmond agencies.

Spain’s Luxury Trains Announce 2020 Calendar

5 Jul

Big news: Spain’s incredibly popular luxury trains — El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo & Al Andalus — have just announced their 2020 schedule.

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo plies the coastal “Green Spain” route on 8-day, 7-night tours between Santiago de Compostela and San Sebastian. The seasons runs from early May through October.

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Twin-bedded cabin on El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

IRT guests love the exceptional service, the intimate vibe (only 28 guests on each departure), the off-train excursions, and the luxurious cabins, all equipped with private bathroom with shower and toilet, roomy double or twin beds, and separate sitting area with couch, desk, and chair.

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Four course lunch paired with fine local wine on El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

But the real star is the gastronomy — and the fine Spanish wine. The itinerary is dotted with meals at Michelin-starred restaurants in sleepy, picturesque villages along the way. The on-train meals are also exceptional. And all meals (plus wine with lunch and dinner), are included.

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Al Andalus in Granada Station. The Alhambra is just visible on the hill behind the train.

Al Andalus travels through a fascinating swath of Southern Spain on 7-day, 6-night jaunts. Highlights include the ancient port city of Cádiz, the natural wonders of Doñana National Park, and the UNESCO Site of Alhambra, the sweeping palace complex built by the Nasrid rulers of Granada.

Departures are strategically offered only in the relatively cooler months of May & June, and September & October.

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Enjoying a glass of fine wine on Al Andalus. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

The all-ensuite cabins are also on the roomy side, as far as trains go (choose a Deluxe Suite for even more space), and the food and wine are just as exceptional in the south as they are in the north.

One change: El Transcantabrico Clasico, El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo’s little sister, has been re-christened the Costa Verde Express. Beginning in 2020, the Costa Verde Express will travel on a 6-day route between Bilbao and Gijón.

Stay tuned for feedback on this “new” train and route. Once we have had a chance to inspect the Costa Verde Express firsthand, we’ll tell you how we think it stacks up against Spain’s other two powerhouse luxury trains (the competition is pretty stiff).

Meanwhile, to read IRT VP, Operations Angela Walker’s in-depth review of El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo, click here. To read Angela’s review of Al Andalus, click here.

Click here for more information, dates, and prices for El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo; here for more information, dates, prices for Al Andalus.

Ready to book your own Spanish adventure?

Extremely limited availability remains in 2019.

Call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

2020 departures and prices have been published but are not yet open to book. Call or e-mail us to get on the “first notice” list.

 

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.

 

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Adds 3 New Grand Suites for 2020

28 Jun
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New Vienna Grand Suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Three new Grand Suites will join the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express for the 2020 season, Belmond, the train operator, has just announced. This brings the total number of Grand Suites up to six.

The new Grand Suites — named Vienna, Prague, & Budapest, after three iconic European capitals to which the VSOE travels every year — will reflect each city’s unique history and architectural style, while embracing the train’s Old World charm and meticulous attention to detail. They join the three existing Grand Suites, named Venice, Paris, & Istanbul.

I was the only advisor from the Western Hemisphere to inspect the first three Suites on their inaugural journey in April, 2018. Read my glowing reporting here and here — and see my video above for the grand reveal of Istanbul Grand Suite!

After seeing the Suites in person, I had a serious hunch that our travelers would love the opulent design and the amenities, and I was absolutely right.

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Venice Grand Suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

IRT travelers love the dedicated 24-hour cabin steward, the caviar and free-flowing champagne, the included private transfers to and from the train, and the option to dine privately in their cabin whenever they wish. And the private bathroom with underfloor heating, rain shower, sink, & toilet answered the prayers of those who didn’t want to travel on the VSOE previously because of the lack of en-suite facilities.

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Lead Steward Francesco in Istanbul Grand Suite. Only the most senior staff attend guests in Grand Suites. IRT Photo by Rachel M, Hardy

The suites also include a large double bed that can convert into twin beds, and a separate living area with couch, table, & chair.

With only a few on each departure, the Grand Suites sell out in the blink of an eye.

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

The first set of Grand Suites won several design awards, including the AHEAD World’s Best Suite, Gold Key Awards – Best Specialist Design and the Historic Renovation category in the Contract Interior Awards. The suites were also nominated for the Inside Awards, Civic Culture & Transport and the Blueprint Awards.

We at IRT also won our very own Grand Suite distinction, as the #1 global seller of the suites in 2018 (click here to read about it). When you book your suite with IRT, you book with the world’s most experienced Grand Suite luxury rail specialists.

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Belmond staff present IRT with our very special award — a vintage VSOE sign with plaque in recognition of our Grand Suite sales.

Like their existing Grand Suite sisters, the new suites will  “evoke the individual city experience, whether it is walking along the Charles Bridge in Prague, or exploring the contrasting Gothic and Ottoman architecture of Budapest. They will pay tribute to the romance and glamour of Europe, and the golden era of rail travel,” says Gary Franklin, VP, Trains & Cruises, Belmond.

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Prague Grand Suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Baroque and Gothic architecture, along with theatrical flourishes in rich golds and maroons, will be represented in the Prague Grand Suite. The balance of ancient and modern will be captured through layers of hand-embroidered cushions and Cubist-inspired mosaics. Hints of red garnet will appear in the marquetry.

The Grand Palaces and imperial nature of the Austrian capital will be reflected with an ornate and classical design in the Vienna Grand Suite. Rich hues of gold and emerald green will reflect the romance of the city. An ornate curved headboard with feminine silk fabric panels will contrast with touches of dark wood.

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Budapest Grand Suite.

The Budapest Grand Suite will capture the essence of both sides of the Danube river, taking equal inspiration from Gothic and Ottoman architecture. The suite will be adorned with intricate marquetry and sumptuous silk embroidery.

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express travels throughout Europe from March to November and travels to Istanbul from Paris, and back again, once annually in late August.

 

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Paolo, one of the tireless stewards on the VSOE, welcomes guests aboard at Venice Santa Lucia Station. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

A one-night journey in a Grand Suite from Venice to London or vice versa starts at £6,200 per person.

To book your Grand Suite, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

 

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.

Belmond Grand Hibernian Shines Brighter Than Ever

10 May
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Striking a pose outside the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by N. Kremer.

We step out of the car at Dublin Heuston Station and come face to face with a young man clad in a black leather kilt, a snare drum secured about his waist.

“Follow me!” he shouts, and we amiably fall in line, Pied Piper-style, marching behind our raucous host to the beat of his drum.

The train staff stands at attention, waiting to welcome us aboard with glasses of champagne. A festive red carpet beckons. Two more drummers join the first, adding to the volume, and our general excitement.

So begins our journey on the Belmond Grand Hibernian — a thrilling start to our elegant romp through the Emerald Isle.

 

It’s been almost three years since IRT chartered the inaugural departure of the Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland’s first and only luxury train.

So, when we were offered a spot on an exclusive Belmond study tour featuring the Belmond Grand Hibernian itself, we jumped at the chance to see how the train has since evolved.

I just returned from Ireland last week. My overall take?

Belmond Grand Hibernian is better than ever. The kinks our IRT group experienced on the train’s debut journey in August, 2016 (read IRT CEO & Founder Owen Hardy’s full report here and here) have long since been resolved.

The staff is now a well-oiled — and exceedingly hospitable — machine. Daineal (pronounced Doh-nal), the bar manager, is the consummate host, always ready with an expertly-poured drink and a witty aside.

“Welcome to Europe!” he cracked one evening, as he welcomed a Belfast-based musician on to the train who had traveled south to play for us.

The border between Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland is no laughing matter to Irish folk of an older generation. But thankfully, it’s fair fodder to the younger set.

The musician from the North thought Daineal was hilarious, and clapped him warmly on the back before he departed.

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Daineal, bar manager on the Belmond Grand Hibernian, pours us farewell Bellinis. IRT Photo by R. Hardy.

The meals, cooked to order by a talented three-person culinary team lead by head chef Alan Woods, are a wonderful mix of old and new.

Expertly-prepared classics emphasize local ingredients, like the roasted Connemara mountain lamb cutlet with slow-roasted tomato & rosemary chutney. Other dishes inventively combine unusual flavors to great effect, like the avocado and seaweed salad with watermelon.

Portions are perfect: not too big, not too small. And pastries and fresh-baked breads — fennel and sesame loaf, caramelized onion roll, and sourdough baguette, to name a few standouts — are always in abundance.

Specially-paired wines served in Waterford Crystal glasses accompany lunch and dinner. Fresh-squeezed juices are offered at breakfast. And the two dining rooms themselves inspire conviviality and conversation with four- and six-person seating arrangements.

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Head chef Alan Woods (center), sous chef Domagoj Matanović (left), & assistant. IRT Photo by R. Hardy.

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Roasted Connemara mountain lamb cutlet with slow-roasted tomato & rosemary chutney. IRT Photo by N. Kremer.

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Avocado salad with seaweed & watermelon salsa. IRT Photo by R. Hardy.

The train itself is as lovely inside as it is out. Its nine gleaming blue carriages sparkle in the sun.

And its interiors — neutral plaids and calming lavenders and grays — complement the vibrant green grass and rust-yellow fields of blooming wildflowers of the Irish countryside.

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Lounge car on the Belmond Grand Hibernian. (cozy wool blankets can be found throughout the train.)

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One of two dining cars on the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photos by R. Hardy.

And lest you think otherwise, substance has not been overlooked for style. Every detail has been designed for optimum comfort and usability.

Our cabin featured a double bed (some have twin beds) with reading lights; individually-controlled heating for chilly mornings; ceiling fan for warm afternoons; full-size wardrobe with plentiful hangers; writing desk and chair; in-cabin safe; tiled bathroom with powerful rain shower, toilet and sink; and hair dryer.

There is a certain egalitarianism on board (albeit egalitarianism for the luxury traveler set!) in that all cabins are the same dimensions — approximately 85 feet square. There is also one smartly-designed accessible cabin located nearest the public cars. (Ask us for more details.)

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Double-bedded cabin on the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by N. Kremer.

A large picture window that opens about five inches at the top allows plenty of natural light — and a small blast of fresh air, if you so choose — to flood the cabin. At night, a privacy screen and curtains keep out the light. Fresh wildflowers in a spectrum of pinks — Sweet William, St. John’s Wort, heather — adorned our desk.

And the double bed, which appeared diminutive at first glance, was shockingly comfortable for both myself and my 6’3″ partner.

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Fresh flowers in our cabin. IRT Photo by R. Hardy.

Our three-day trip was painfully brief—I highly suggest you go all-in for the seven-day Grand Tour of Ireland instead.

But my memories of the Belmond Grand Hibernian will stay with me for years to come. Among them:

  • fleeting images of old castle ruins surrounded by placidly grazing cows and sheep;
  • returning to our comfortable bed after a day of activity, rain gently thrumming on the roof;
  • live Irish harp music performed in the lounge after dinner one night;
  • the gracious staff welcoming us to yet another five-star meal in the dining car;
  • and the food itself…Oh, the food!

 

To book your own grand adventure on the Belmond Grand Hibernian, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

And check this space soon for additional reporting from our trip.

I’ll detail our stays at Belmond Cadogan Hotel in London, the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, and Adare Manor (voted Virtuoso’s 2018 Hotel of the Year!)  in Limerick, Ireland.

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. Rachel’s trip on Belmond Grand Hibernian was part of the Bravissimo celebratory journey hosted by Belmond, held every year in honor of the world’s top Belmond agencies.

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