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

13 Apr

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

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

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

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

Our Sea Cloud voyage is an

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

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

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

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

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

Orcaella Cruise Ideal Way to Meet the People of Myanmar

25 Feb
School children greet Orcaella guests during a shore excursion. All photos by Owen & Eleanor Hardy

School children greet Orcaella guests during a shore excursion. All photos by Owen & Eleanor Hardy

The party was already well underway.

Suddenly, from out of the darkness, an 82-year-old women, her face lined with age, approached IRT Society president Eleanor Hardy. She took Eleanor’s hand.

“Please forgive me for not dressing up. But when I heard you had come, I felt I had to get here as soon as possible.”

Stroking my wife’s hand, she said: “I have never felt the skin of a foreigner before.”

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Burmese school girls pause to say hello.

Impromptu, almost unbelievable moments such as this were common on our recent 12-day cruise in Myanmar (formerly called Burma).

The moments were all the more pleasant, as we enjoyed them from the decidedly Western – and opulent – “Orcaella,” the Orient-Express company’s new 25-cabin river cruiser.

Ironically, we might never have had these moments, were it not for a last-minute, change in plans. Orcaella’s “Gorges of the Far North” cruise on the Irrawaddy River saw nary a gorge. Low water levels and a damaged channel had blocked shipping north of Mandalay.

Burmese Seamstress

Seamstress in local market

So we spent most of our time south of Mandalay, visiting areas off the increasingly beaten Burma track, where tourists rarely, if ever, venture.

Over the course of 12 days, we were serenaded by school children from a remote village, rode ox carts, pony carts, unspeakably noisy, three-wheeled “tuk-tuks,” blasted around mountain curves in tiny trucks to view a shimmering sunset over the Irrawaddy.

IRT guests Orlando & Olga Herrera, left, and Ron Fisher and Evelyn Fitzpatrick make the dusty trek up to Gwe-Chaung fortress.

IRT guests Orlando & Olga Herrera, left, and Ron Fisher and Evelyn Fitzpatrick make the dusty trek up to Gwe-Chaung fortress.

Many of us opted for a dawn “Balloons Over Bagan” experience, an unforgettable journey to admire an aerial panorama of the ancient city’s over 2,000 pagodas in near silence.

Society President Eleanor Hardy with baby.

Society President Eleanor Hardy with baby.

Others enjoyed – or endured, depending on one’s tolerance of riding a bus for almost three hours each way over winding, bumpy roads – a first-ever tourist visit to an elephant camp, high in the hills.

Our trip included visits to bustling Yangon and Mandalay, and their gorgeous pagodas, with an unending array of golden spires and Buddha statues. Buddhism is central to the lives of most people we encountered. One can see it in the immense crowds visiting the temples: families, teenagers, children, old people, monks and nuns.

Young boys dressed like Prince Buddha prepare to become monks.

Young boys dressed like Prince Buddha prepare to become monks.

With few exceptions, we were met by graceful, smiling, shy but proud Burmese. Those in the small villages had seen few if any Westerners.

One day we witnessed a Noviciation ceremony, in which Buddhist monks solemnly welcomed village boys into their order. Dressed in shiny, colorful robes, the boys paraded to the temple surrounded by family and friends, accompanied by loud music. The finishing touch: the monks shaved the boys heads, as proud family members looked on.

Burmese families flocked to their temples everywhere we went. The women wore brightly colored, floor-length skirts. Most of the men wore traditional “longyis,” also floor-length, a kind of wraparound skirt knotted at the top.

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Mother and child in small village market

Burma is one of Asia’s poorest countries. But no one we encountered – and we saw oceans of people – looked underfed, without clothing or shelter.

Granted, we were tourists in country run by a military dictatorship and were unlikely to be led to scenes of squalor. Other parts of Myanmar are experiencing factional squabbling, even violence. And, according to the UN, life expectancy in Myanmar is 68 for women, 64 for men.

And true, their buses were stuffed with humanity. Their quarters were modest. Away from Yangon and Mandalay, one was as likely to find them driving ox- or pony carts as cars or motorbikes.

Young Buddhist monks

Young Buddhist monks

Yet their friendliness and spirituality were infectious. And – courtesy of the good ship Orcaella – we saw the Burmese up close: fishing from their slim boats, bathing in the river, praying at their temples, and, most of all, smiling at us, without a hint of ennui.

In the end, that’s what makes a visit to Myanmar unique. I’ve been in the travel business over 30 years, and never have I encountered such welcoming, warm people.

Of course this can’t last forever. But while it does, it’s a life-changing experience for those lucky enough to visit. And there’s no more luxurious way to do so than aboard the Orcaella.

(For details about life on the Orcaella, please click here.)

For a link to the journey, please see: http://www.irtsociety.com/journeyDetail.php?id=198

Myanmar’s Orcaella Combines 2014 Comfort, Timeless Charm

25 Feb
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The new river cruiser Orcaella allows passengers to see Myanmar up close as people live their lives on the river, much as they’ve done for centuries. IRT Photos by Owen & Eleanor Hardy

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Fresh flowers are everywhere on the Orcaella

I’d just walked into my beautiful cabin aboard the brand-new, Orient Express riverboat Orcaella, ready for a 12-day cruise on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River.

As I opened the door to our private bath and shower, my eyes went straight to the slender silver vase with a single stalk of pink gladioli.

Like the flowers, our 25 Society of IRT clients, Owen & I gradually unwound from up to 24 hours of air travel. By the second or third day, our flowers were blooming – and so were we.

Built in Myanmar, the Orcaella’s not much to look at from shore — it resembles an elongated shoebox. But inside, it’s a showplace, from the gleaming Art Deco lamp sconces in the dining area, to the tasteful regional art throughout to the expertly laid-out cabins.

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Myanmar’s new river cruiser Orcaella is owned by the Orient Express company.

Orcaella is named for a breed of dolphin native to the Irrawaddy (a few of our guests were lucky enough to see some). The ship has three passenger levels. The two lower decks contain 25 cabins as well as the gorgeous dining area (more about that in a moment).

Most of the top deck is reserved for passenger comforts. It includes a wide-open space aft with plenty of room for lounging. The top deck also boasts an outdoor bar and an intimate indoor bar/lounge.

Forward is a small fitness center, with great equipment and a spa center (the massages are wonderful!). Farther forward still is the plunge pool and the brains of the whole operation, the bridge.

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IRT passenger Ron Fisher loved his super deluxe cabin suite aboard the Orcaella. This was perfect for reading, relaxing and gazing at the scenery.

The middle passenger deck contains two balcony suites forward, as well as five state cabins. The third deck contains the state and deluxe cabins, plus the reception area.

I saw all the cabins, and even the smallest (one of which Owen & I shared) is spacious, with floor-to-ceiling, sliding glass doors. The balcony suites are over-the-top luxurious. Their crowning feature is a private, outdoor sitting area, which affords a captain’s eye view forward as well as amidships.

The super deluxe cabins have a king-sized bed with a large sitting area, plus a huge storage area. The regular sized state cabins have all king-sized beds, walk-in closet, two great wicker chairs for admiring the river and large sliding glass doors.

 Our deluxe cabin had a king-sized bed (two twin beds also are available) ample bathroom and closet.

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IRT passenger David Minnerly talks with Orcaella Executive Chef Bansani Nawisamphan during lunch. Chef Nawisamphan happily accommodated diner’s special requests, such Mr. Minnerly’s Thai green curry.

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Art Deco accent in dining room

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Dining on the Orcaella is a peak experience. Tables for 2, 4, 6 or 8 are easily arranged. Here, IRT passengers from California, Idaho, Ohio and Belgium enjoy a meal.

Now, to the dining room, whose décor is as imaginative as the cuisine. A row of stately Buddha statues, and, nearby, a half-size sculpture of men carrying a heavy gong, greet diners outside the restaurant. Inside, the room is replete with antique statuary set into the room’s rear wall.

The room’s mixture of local and Continental décor mirrors Executive Chef Bansani Nawisamphan’s menus, an interplay between “Flavors of Asia” and table d’hote European cuisine.

Born in Thailand, the young Ms. Nawisamphan was “borrowed” by Orcaella from its older, larger cousin, the Orient-Express’ “Road to Mandalay,” which also plies the Irrewaddy.

Folk art from all over Myanmar graces Orcaella's public and private spaces.

Folk art from all over Myanmar graces Orcaella’s public and private spaces.

An Asian entrée might include “oriental marinated grilled chicken skewer served with curry peanut sauce” or “deep fried Myanmar sea bass in spicy sweet & sour sauce and steamed bok choy.”

Or, if one so chose, he could opt for “chef cured salmon with fennel salad, orange & lime dressing with herb cheese and caviar,  Australian beef tenderloin or oven-baked duck breast with stir-fried vegetable, spinach served with local honey and orange sauce.”

Well, you get the idea. Everything is over-the-top splendid and guaranteed to make you indulge. As our travelers said about the ship: “WOW!” and “They can’t do enough for you.”

And did I mention? Chef Nawisamphan gladly will make anything you like, provided that she can procure the ingredients and that you give her sufficient time.

http://youtu.be/vw4a7OGyS0I

Most nights, following dinner, we enjoyed local entertainment on the top deck: dancers and musicians, a traditional puppet show, an amazing young woman risking life and limb while toe-tapping a “cane ball,” a ceremonial elephant dance and – don’t want to spoil this for you – an incredible “surprise” about which I’ll say no more.

And, as if all the above weren’t enough, for those whose DNA requires an internet connection, the ship has WiFi (albeit with limited band width).

Plus every room has a flat-screen TV, which after watching for 5 minutes, Owen and I decided we didn’t need. There was a much better show outside our window.

And herein lies the best part of the Orcaella on-board experience: the ship is an unbeatable platform from which to admire the people and scenery of Myanmar.

View from our cabin window.

View from our cabin window.

Most mornings upon wake-up, Owen and I had coffee or cappuccino delivered to our room. Then, as we sat propped up in bed, we’d draw the curtains to watch the ever-changing scene: little fishing boats tootling past, great barges churning upstream, people bathing at the river banks, others loading containers of water onto their oxcarts, plus a constant parade of golden-domed pagodas.

And, as we interacted with the staff and, even more so, as we went ashore and encountered the remarkably friendly Burmese people, we felt privileged to be getting a glimpse of Myanmar’s awakening into the 21st century.

To go ashore and meet the people of Myanmar, please click here.

For a link to the journey, please see: http://www.irtsociety.com/journeyDetail.php?id=198

Aboard the Star Flyer, Authenticity Abounds

16 Jan
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All photos by Eleanor or Owen Hardy. © The Society of International Railway Travelers.®

The giant sailing ship rolled lazily in the Pacific Ocean as I climbed the ever-narrowing rope ladder to the first spar. Climbing higher, I carefully squeezed each foot into a rung. I dared not look down.

Finally, I arrived at a platform. I hoisted myself up.

“Ho, ho, ho,” a fat, red-suited man greeted me. “Welcome aboard!”

It was Santa Claus!

Over the Christmas holidays, my wife, 2 daughters and I spent a week cruising Costa Rica’s Pacific coast on the Star Flyer, a 360-foot, four-masted barkentine.

(Wait a minute! you say. What’s a train man doing on a ship? Just this: many of our rail travelers ask us for cruises, safaris, hotels, you name it. Now, through our Virtuoso membership, we can offer them, often with special perks. Star Clippers, in fact, is a Virtuoso partner.)

The Star Flyer is an authentic sailing ship whose foremast boasts square sails. With her identical sister ship, the Star Clipper, and their “big sister,” the 439-foot Royal Clipper, they compose the entire Star Clippers fleet. They’re certainly among the world’s most authentic sailing cruise ships.

DSC_0408-OwenSantaAuthenticity was important to me, because, a thousand years ago, I worked on such a ship. But even those who don’t know a beam from a barnacle will love the Star Flyer. What it sacrifices in glitz it more than makes up for with charm, friendliness and adventure.

The ship boasts a staff of 72, many of them seasoned Star Clippers veterans, who hail from Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Sweden, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. The ship can carry up to 170 passengers; our cruise was a comfortable 105.

The meals are ample and extraordinary, but don’t expect “specialty restaurants.” For that matter, don’t expect a casino, a workout room, or Broadway shows either. On the Star Flyer, the fun is more home-made.

DSCN0143-FamboAtDinnerThe dining room is open seating. The dress code is relaxed, although many of the passengers on our cruise, who hailed equally from N. American and Europe, spiffed up for dinner. Breakfast and lunch are buffets with everything anyone could want. Dinner offers a choice of three options, including a separate cheese course, dessert and an incredible, palate-cleansing sorbet, whose flavor changed nightly.

I give special kudos to the on-board bakery, which turned out some of the best breads, rolls and pastries I’ve had anywhere. And since we were traveling over Christmas, we also enjoyed a sumptuous array of cookies, petites fours, cakes and a genuine gingerbread house.

DSC_0530-HappyHelmsmanIf the Star Flyer were a train, we would have considered our category 2 cabin large. For a cruise ship, however, it was small – probably 125 square feet, with a single porthole.

But our double bed was comfortable, the shower gushed with ample amounts of hot water (the Star Flyer “manufactures” 80 tons of fresh water daily) and the two 110-volt outlets made converters unnecessary (although I was glad I brought my 15-foot extension cord).

The crew is friendly. They smile as they work – surely a good sign. Chances are, your captain will be one of the Müllers, Jürgen or Klaus, who are identical twins (how to tell them apart? Klaus plays the bagpipes).

Our adventure began minutes after boarding at Puerto Caldera. The captain invited us topside for the daily “sail-away,” the thrilling moment when sails unfurl, the anchor is hoisted and the crew scampers to its tasks. Over the loudspeaker, we heard phantom sailors singing a low, minor-key dirge (Vangelis’ music from the 1992 movie “Conquest of Paradise” about Christopher Columbus) Goosebumps ran down my spine.

DSC_0281-StarFlyerSideVierwWe headed out to open sea — with sails unfurled and auxiliary power humming. The wind was barely blowing.

Therein lies the only drawback to the Star Flyer’s authenticity: in order to use its sails, a sailing ship must have wind blowing in the right direction and at sufficient speed. That doesn’t offer much wiggle room for a cruise ship keeping to a strict itinerary, as off-board activities are offered daily.  (Captain Klaus advised me that I should choose a Caribbean itinerary for the best chance of experiencing true sail power.)

DSC_0225-BelayingPinsI soon dismissed my pouting, however, and enjoyed the ship’s flapping sails for what they were: objects of beauty, just like the teak decks, polished brass fittings, highly varnished woodwork and brilliant, red-and-white Maltese flag snapping at the stern.

We “sailed” all that first day. Several passengers spotted porpoises off the stern. At the forward end, others had stretched out on the rope mesh fitted over the bowsprit, allowing them to gaze straight down into the ocean. They watched some 100 porpoises playing among the bow waves – including a baby reluctant to follow its mother when it was time to go.

Other passengers relaxed in or near the ship’s two miniature swimming pools. Still others read books, iPads, etc. on the many deck chairs about. Some enjoyed drinks in the outdoor Tropical Bar amidships.

Other onboard activities included lectures by the captain and crew, dancing to music provided by the Hungarian pianist “Charly,” a talent show, “Pirate Night,” climbing the mast and, of course, Christmas Eve.

Maybe that was the truest test of the Star Flyer’s soul: how to celebrate this most personal of all holidays, with so many of us away from our dry-land homes.

DSC_0483-SunsetThe celebration started that afternoon, when I encountered Santa in the rigging. At dinner, Captain Klaus read a brief but heartfelt address – almost a prayer – before dinner, thanking God for the love that binds all the world’s peoples, whatever their race, creed or culture.

After dinner in the lounge, Santa gave out gifts, and we sang Christmas carols. And after that, we went up on deck.

The moon was nearly full, its light streaming along the water. Elsewhere, we gazed at the stars, as the deck gently rolled under our feet. A light breeze whistled through the rigging.

On the Star Flyer that night, with my wife and daughters at my side, I felt as close to heaven as I’m likely to get on this earth. You can’t ask for more authenticity than that.

(Next time: Tracking the wily sloth, as we discover wild Costa Rica on the Star Flyer.)

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