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IRT’s Eleanor Hardy Named Condé Nast Traveler ‘Top Travel Specialist’

24 Mar

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The Society of International Railway Travelers® (IRT) is thrilled to announce that IRT President Eleanor Flagler Hardy has been named a 2020 World’s Top Travel Specialist by Condé Nast Traveler magazine (CNT).

“I am speechless,” Eleanor told me, uncharacteristically. “I don’t know what to say.”

OK, I’ll say it (even as I admit I am her husband):

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Eleanor on the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express for IRT’s 25th anniversary trip from Vladivostok to Moscow. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Eleanor has devoted her professional life to the welfare and happiness of her worldwide list of clients, many of whom call her a friend. This official and prestigious recognition is highly deserved.

Eleanor began her professional life as a newspaper reporter – the kind who won’t take “no” for an answer.

She began working for IRT as soon as Rachel, our second daughter and now IRT Vice President, Sales & Marketing, started second grade.

While I published our IRT magazine, Eleanor took charge of our new travel planning department.

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Eleanor with staff of first journey of the Belmond Grand Hibernian IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

She never looked back.

Within several years, we joined the Virtuoso luxury travel consortium, at Eleanor’s urging. This immediately gave IRT access to the world’s top travel partners.

Meanwhile, she logged millions of miles, on every continent except Antarctica, gaining a deep knowledge of the world’s top luxury trains.

Eleanor’s luxury train “information bank,” coupled with her naturally outgoing personality, are gold for IRT and our clients.

Want the lowdown on sleeping car berths on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Rovos Rail or the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express?

Need info on where to stay in Moscow, Madrid or Lima?

Want the best guide ever in Berlin, Vancouver or Vienna?

Eleanor’s your go-to travel guru.

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Eleanor prepares to travel to Machu Picchu aboard the Belmond Hiram Bingham. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

But should people really be thinking about their future travel, given the current world health crisis?

“Ironically, there isn’t a better time,” Eleanor says.

What places do you want to visit?  Which of our World’s Top 25 Trains do you want to ride — or ride again? She says now is the time to be thinking about this for 2021 and 2022.

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Pisco sour in hand, Eleanor toasts her trip to Peru’s Machu Picchu aboard the Belmond Andean Explorer. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

“Now’s the time to keep dreaming — and to start making those plans,” Eleanor says. “Because I guarantee you, when this crisis ends — and it will — there will be a surge like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Get at the front of the line,” advises this Condé Nast Traveler 2020 Top Travel Specialist. “Let’s start planning now. We will be here when you are ready.”

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IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy on the VSOE. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

For a complimentary, 15-minute appointment with Eleanor, call (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or email [email protected].

 

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 [email protected].

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

Eastern & Oriental Express: Gracious Train, Lovely Staff

24 Feb

“Tap-tap-tap.”

There’s a soft knocking at my cabin door.

It’s Sarawut, my steward on the Eastern & Oriental Express luxury train, gently awakening my husband, Shawn, and me.

He quickly begins making up our cabin.

“How long have you been working on the train?” I ask him, as he converts our snug bedroom into cozy, daytime seating for two.

Since it began running, in 1993, he tells me. Twenty-six years.

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Sarawut enters the author’s cabin with continental breakfast, a private, relaxing way to welcome the morning on the E & O. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

As Sarawut lays out our continental breakfast — coffee, pineapple juice, bananas, cereal, English muffins with egg and bread basket — he tells me that almost half of his colleagues have also been with the train since the beginning.

After my recent journey, I can see why. Everything about this gentle train is pure heaven.

Its standard Bangkok-Singapore itinerary offers a variety of off-train tours. But it’s the train itself — and its staff — that will lure me back.

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Dancers perform in Bangkok station. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

One morning last December, my husband Shawn and I arrive in Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station, when we spot Thai children on one platform, outfitted in colorful costumes and masks, performing a traditional dance.

Typical Belmond, I think. They know how to get a party started.

It’s the company’s characteristic grand welcome for guests boarding its worldwide portfolio of luxury trains, which includes the world-famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

But in this case,  it’s the Southeast Asian version: the Eastern & Oriental Express, bound for Singapore.

Our steward, the aforementioned Sarawut, shows us to our cabin with welcome drinks.

He points out two attendant call buttons in our room and insists we ring him if we need anything.

Later, we dress for dinner and join our group in the dining car, Malaya.

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E & O kitchen staff member readies a basket of hot bread. IRT photo by Angela Walker

Dinner service is flawless. The waiters present the dishes beautifully and quickly clear finished plates.

Our four-course meal begins with a memorable “Tom Yum Cappuccino”, a delicious foamed version of the popular Thai soup, served in an espresso cup. It’s delectably creamy, and I find myself wishing it was a full bowl…but there are still three courses to go.

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Lunch service on the Eastern & Oriental Express. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Next comes a dish featuring more local flavors: rice noodle with coconut minced pork, prawn and peanut with Nam Jin sauce and a crab, mango and cucumber maki (sushi).

I opt for the glazed duck breast with wild mushroom and charred cabbage for my main course – cooked to perfection.

Dessert is a chocolate mousse with ice cream and caramel sauce; petite fours follow but go untouched because we are full to bursting.

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The author with dancers in the piano bar car. IRT Photo by Shawn Bidwell. 

After dinner we repair to the piano bar car for entertainment: first, Thai dancers perform, accompanied by a drum and khene (a mouth organ with bamboo pipes).

Later, as the E & O chugs into the steamy Thai night, the bar car morphs into something out of a Joseph Conrad yarn.

Pianist Peter plays and sings, as he gleefully implores guests to join in. Meanwhile, the attentive and friendly staff keep us well supplied with drinks and spirits (included in our fare; premium drinks are additional).

It’s been a great night, but now to bed.

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The author’s husband, Shawn, takes photos from their cabin window. IRT photo by Angela Walker

Returning to our cabin, our turned-down twin beds await, robes and slippers neatly laid out. The train is stationary the first night, so sleeping is easy.

(On the remaining two evenings, the train is moving. I had no trouble sleeping either night, but some report problems on the second night, as the tracks are rough in southern Thailand.)

Our State cabin is roomy, boasting a couch, comfy fixed chair, small collapsible table, and desk chair. The couch faces two large windows for watching the passing scenery; fresh yellow orchids add a pop of color. We have a private bathroom with small cubicle shower, sink and toilet.

Our cabin’s intricate wood marquetry—cherry wood and elm burr in a criss-cross pattern—is beautiful. And I soon realize the decor, in varying patterns, is consistent throughout the train, all perfectly polished.

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The author drinks in the scenery from the open-air, rear observation car. IRT photo by Shawn Bidwell.

And so we lazily spend the next few days: private, continental breakfast and afternoon tea in our cabin, multi-course lunch and dinner in the dining cars, entertainment in the bar cars. We could get used to this.

As superb staff members meticulously tend to our every need, we enjoy the ever-changing scenery: the small villages and occasional temples in Thailand giving way to the hills and jungles of Malaysia, before reaching the modern metropolis of Singapore.

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E & O guest snaps a photo at Thailand’s Hua Hin station from the observation car. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Off-train excursions are brief but impactful.

Day 2 — The E & O stops near the River Kwai Bridge, infamous for its bloody, WWII history. Guests have three options for excursions:

  • a leisurely cruise down the river, with commentary on the history and building of the bridge, ending with a visit to the bridge museum and war cemetery;
  • a bike ride through a nearby village, stopping at a local farm for refreshments;
  • Or a visit to a local wet market, followed by a Thai cooking class on a raft cruising along the River Kwai.

We choose the first option, which is quite moving, if somber.

Day 3 — The train stops in Padang Rengas in rural Malaysia, with a choice of two excursions:

  • a tour of a traditional village to gain insight into the daily lives of a beekeeper, rubber plantation worker, knife maker, and finally to a local home to explore a spice garden;
  • for those who want an active afternoon, a trek to the top of a hill for panoramic views, while identifying local flora and fauna en route.

We loved the village tour — especially the visit with the spice gardener, a gracious host who was happy to share his home and garden.

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Angela and Shawn enjoy drinks in their cabin. IRT Photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

The excursions were great, if only because they allowed us to get off and stretch our legs. But for us, the E & O itself was the star of this show.

The train shows no sign of wear – it’s as if it could have begun service yesterday, rather than 26 years ago.

It accommodates up to 82 guests, although the average number is about 60, I’m told. Public spaces, the heart of any luxury train worth its salt, abound.

The E & O boasts a dining car, saloon car (includes reading room, dining area and boutique), piano bar car and observation car with large, rear open windows for wind-in-the-face viewing.

The rear observation car is a bit of a hike for those in the front of the long train. But it’s worth it.

The large, open-air, verandah-style observation deck allows unparalleled views of this beautiful world, Singapore Sling (or other favorite cocktail) in hand.

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The author’s husband, Shawn, discovers his future, courtesy of the E & O’s onboard fortune-teller. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

And there are more on-train pleasures:

  • shopping at the on-board boutique (I recommend an exclusive Jim Thompson scarf);
  • peering into your future, courtesy of a fortune-teller offering complimentary palm-readings;
  • a perfume presentation;
  • at additional (but reasonable) cost, a foot massage.

I sprung for that foot massage. And I’m so glad I did.

As I relax and enjoy my lovely massage, I admire a beautiful silk tapestry in the saloon car. It depicts a roaring tiger, the symbol of the Eastern & Oriental Express.

Indeed, I think to myself: in the increasingly crowded “jungle” of  IRT’s World’s Top 25 Luxury Trains, the E & O is one of the mightiest.

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Angela Walker is Vice President, Operations and senior luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers. Ms. Walker’s has been with IRT since 1998 and has traveled on most of the World’s Top 25 Trains.

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 [email protected].

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 [email protected], to book, or to learn more.

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 [email protected].

 

 

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.

Toasting a Classic: IRT Advisor Revisits the Belmond Royal Scotsman

21 Jun

 

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Making a grand entrance at Waverley Station in Edinburgh. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

 

Déjà vu washes over me as I walk into Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, where I am immediately greeted by a kilted, bewhiskered bagpiper straight out of central casting.

He leads me and other passengers to a red carpet running beside the gleaming carriages of the Belmond Royal Scotsman, where train manager Fred Laseen welcomes each of us aboard.

Dining staff pour forth to welcome us — more déjà vu. I sip a glass of sparkling wine as we pull away from the station.

I think back to the last time I was aboard this train…

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It’s been 15 years since my 2004 journey on the Belmond Royal Scotsman — long before ‘Belmond’ was added to the name, actually.

And I am thrilled to report that the grand dame of the Scottish rails is more wonderful than ever.

What differences there are – the Bamford Haybarn Spa Car, added in 2017, reinvigorated interiors and textiles throughout – underscore the train’s commitment to evolving alongside the wants of its guests. Other elements – food quality and service –  have stayed exactly the same, much to my delight.

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A staff member shows me to my cabin.

It’s a cozy affair, with twin beds configured in an “L” shape. It also sports a dressing table and stool with one locking drawer, full-length wardrobe, ceiling fan, and full bathroom with toilet, sink, shower, and towel warmer.

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Twin cabin on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Other amenities include robes, slippers, and Bamford toiletries. The arched ceilings, marquetry, and paintings of kilted soldiers of yore add subtle touches of old-school luxury.

I could nap in my comfortable quarters all day, but the party’s already started in the public cars.

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I order a Lagavulin 16. It’s an extra-peaty single-malt Scotch whisky, which I enjoy in the brisk Scottish air from the open platform on the back of the observation car. (All drinks are included, so I recommend you try a range of the more unusual whiskys and cocktails.)

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Enjoying the fresh air from the observation platform. IRT Photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

Some time later, we are called to dinner. The dining car’s tables gleam with stark white linen and fine china and crystal, all embellished with the stately Great Scottish & Western Railway Company logo.

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Fine china, crystal, and and fresh flowers set the table on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Two of the four dinners on my journey are formal. Men are asked to wear dark suits at a minimum, although some opt for tuxedos or kilts, which can be rented locally in Edinburgh.  The splashes of tartan add greatly to the festive atmosphere. Women are asked to don cocktail attire.

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Formal dinner on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. IRT Photo courtesy of  Angela Walker.

The meals are exceptional. Carefully crafted by Glasgow native Mark Tamburrini, the train’s head chef since 2010, they feature local Scottish ingredients.

Two of my favorites: Scottish salmon with dill, cucumber and cauliflower, with a perfect horseradish sauce; and roasted scallops with chorizo and sweetcorn croquettes in a corn purée.

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One of the talented kitchen staff stops to admire her creation. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Wines are carefully paired with each course. And even for those non-wine lovers, the enthusiastic descriptions provided by staff member Matej are impossible to resist.

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Canapés served in the lounge car before dinner. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

For that matter, all of the 12 staff are exceedingly helpful and professional. Max, the head waiter, dutifully goes over the day’s menu with each passenger to ensure there are no dietary issues.

(Those with dietary issues are painstakingly accommodated. The vegetarians, gluten-free, and dairy-free eaters among us are delivered a modified version of each dish).

Want to discover your favorite Scotch whisky and learn more about the country’s local specialty? The indefatigable Jarryd will recommend one of the countless options on board.

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Guests dressed in traditional kilts before dinner on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

He and Matej tend the bar until the last passenger retires (which is sometimes not until the wee hours of the morning). Then — somehow—they’re up the next morning with coffee and tea to greet the earliest risers.

Last but not least is the Bamford Haybarn Spa Car, which I’ve been looking forward to for weeks. It made its debut two years ago.*

Stepping into the treatment room, I breathe in the lavender scent, and am transported into a cocoon of tranquility. Danielle, the on-board spa therapist, impressively manages the movement of the train while executing massages, facials, manicures and pedicures.  The gentle rocking further enhances the relaxing treatment.

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Enjoying the local specialty, whisky, before dinner. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

The after-dinner entertainment in the observation car is another highlight. Colin and Iain, two cheeky chaps playing guitar and fiddle, encourage singalongs on our first night.

On our second night, Highlander Ray Owens brings to life the history of Scotland with his impressive storytelling.

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The Belmond Royal Scotsman at Strathcarron. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

And on the final evening, Brian and Allison play the keyboard and violin before inviting guests onto the platform, where they teach us reels and jigs. It is a fitting, fun, and joyous end to our journey.

A few things have changed in the 15 years since my first trip – new faces, a spa car, updated finishings – but the high standards of food, service and comfort are the same.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll be so lucky as to revisit the Belmond Royal Scotsman again in 2034.

*The Belmond Royal Scotsman’s spa car makes it one of only three luxury trains in the world to boast similar spa cars. The other two are the Deccan Odyssey in India and the Belmond Andean Explorer in Peru.

Stay tuned for my next blog about off-train activities on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. Click here to subscribe to our blog.

Ready to book your own adventure on the Belmond Royal Scotsman?

Click here to complete our online booking form, or call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 501-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada). Or e-mail us: [email protected].

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Angela Walker is a 20-year veteran of The Society of International Railway Travelers. She is VP, Operations, for IRT, and a luxury travel advisor. She has been on most of our World’s Top 25® Trains, some — like Belmond Royal Scotsman — more than once.

 

 

 

IRT Wins Big at Virtuoso Travel Week, Leads Luxury Rail Competition

17 Aug
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IRT’s Nora Elzy, Angela Walker, and Rachel Hardy with Lucy Clark, Director of Sales for the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and Eastern & Oriental Express trains, enjoying the Bellini Club party with Bellagio’s famous fountains as a backdrop.

We at IRT just returned from the most exclusive luxury travel show on earth — Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas at Bellagio Hotel & Casino.

We met with many of our top travel partners over the course of the last six days, and now we are brimming with exciting news, IRT accolades, and fresh travel ideas to share with you.

First, a brief primer for those who don’t know: Virtuoso is the world’s foremost luxury travel network, with about 25 billion dollars a year in buying power. IRT’s membership in Virtuoso expands our reach and capability when planning your journey by connecting us to the best luxury travel partners all around the world.

Also great for you, the traveler: exclusive amenities at all Virtuoso hotels, and special access to unique travel experiences through our other partners. Virtuoso amenities and complimentary upgrades resulted in an average of $450 in added value per booking last year.

Now, a few highlights from our week…

IRT Top Seller (yes, in the world!) for VSOE Grand Suites

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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 and overall astounding 2018 sales.

We met with our great travel partners at Belmond  — owners of several of our World’s Top 25 Trains®, including the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Belmond Royal Scotsman, Belmond Grand Hibernian, Belmond Andean Explorer, & Eastern & Oriental Express.

We were thrilled to receive special recognition as the top agency in the world for sales of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express‘ new ultra-luxe Grand Suites!

IRT was the only agency in the Western Hemisphere to be invited to the unveiling of the Grand Suites earlier this year (read Rachel Hardy’s blog post here describing her first impressions).

In short: Grand Suites are the only accommodations aboard the train that are entirely en-suite with private bathroom and rain shower. They also feature a large double bed, separate sitting area, and many other exclusive amenities.

Interested in booking your very own Grand Suite? E-mail us at [email protected], or call 1-800-478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada).

A list of departures on the VSOE can be found here. Space is very limited! Only 3 Grand Suites are available per departure.

Rachel Hardy Nominated for Cruise Award

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Rachel Hardy honored as a ‘Virtuoso Rising Star’ for luxury cruises.

Rachel Hardy, our Vice President of Sales & Marketing and a luxury travel advisor, was nominated for the ‘Rising Star’ award for luxury cruises.

While our niche is luxury rail travel, we do have a few particularly enticing cruise offerings that we think have great parallels with luxury train travel.

One example: the stunning Sea Cloud sailing yacht that plies the Dalmatian Coast between Athens and Dubrovnik, among other itineraries. IRT CEO Owen Hardy calls the Sea Cloud the ‘Orient Express of the Ocean.’ Read Owen’s blog post here, or find itinerary details, dates, and pricing on our website here.

 

IRT President and co-owner Eleanor Hardy Inspires as Featured Speaker

Our very own Eleanor Hardy was a featured speaker at this year’s Virtuoso Travel Week. The aptly-named panel was called “Excellence is no Accident.” The room was packed! Watch a short clip below:

 

Exciting New Rail Destinations in the Works!

We aren’t at liberty to give you details now, but two of our valued rail partners are planning exciting new rail destinations that will be unveiled in the near future. We will update you as soon as we are allowed, so please stay tuned!

If you are ready to book your trip, 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 [email protected].

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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 [email protected].

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 Says

12 Apr

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 [email protected] to book your own magical journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express!

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