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Silk Road Delights IRT Guests

16 May

The oasis of Crescent Lake at Dunhuang, China.

Spanning five countries – China, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia – on two trains — the first-class Shangri-La Express and the luxury Golden Eagle — the Silk Road always seems to electrify our travelers.

“The trip was fabulous!!” one guest gushed, following this year’s trip in April. “I would recommend it to anyone…

“The guides were great about letting me and some of the other oldsters keep up,” said another. “Too many highlights to describe…

“Jeff and I agreed there really was no bad day. Thanks for making everything so easy.”

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IRT traveler David Minnerly enjoying the Golden Eagle’s dining car. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

(We’d like to make it easy for you too. Contact us to book either Silk Road journey in 2020 — one in April, the other in October.)

Meanwhile, how does the Society of IRT rate these trains?

Here’s our president, Eleanor Hardy, who traveled the Silk Road several years ago:

The Shangri-La Express: “Hands-down the best train in China. We do not consider this a luxury train, but the food, service and entire experience were considerably upgraded since the last time we’d ridden it.

“And since then, the sleeping cars have been upgraded again. Diamond Class cabins now have private en-suite shower and toilet.

“There is no better way to see these out-of-the-way destinations. ”

The Golden Eagle: “The Imperial Suites – three to a train – are worthy of their name. Staff is exceedingly accommodating, friendly, and some are bilingual.”

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One of three Imperial Suites on the Golden Eagle. Bonus: these spacious accommodations also include private English-speaking guide. Photo by Golden Eagle.

 

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Family picnics on the shores of Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

  • BEIJING: “The sprawling Summer Palace grounds are populated by friendly picnicking Beijinger families — large clusters of grownups surrounding one or two “Little Emperors” or “Empresses.” This is a major tourist attraction that still maintains a distinctly local flavor.”

    The Mogao Thousand Buddha Complex. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

  • DUNHUANG: “The Mogao Thousand Buddha Cave Complex is a must-see. The wildly colorful frescoes and massive statuary are visually stunning — and are important reminders of the vital role the Silk Road trade route played in spreading culture and religion in addition to fine cloth and spices.”
  • SAMARKAND: “You have to visit Registan Square at least twice – once by day and  again by night. The blues in the architecture here are magnificent, and the way the Square lights up after dark is spectacular!”

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    IRT travelers in front of the “Genghis Hole” of Merv. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

  • MERV: “Unbelievably well-preserved evidence of 12th-century warfare: huge holes in the sides of the fortress wall where Genghis Khan aimed his catapults. Close by, the house where the king’s daughters jumped to their deaths to escape the approaching horde.”

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    Textiles in the markets of Khiva. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

  • KHIVA: “Stunning madrasas, minarets, and bazaars. The markets here made for excellent shopping: richly embroidered textiles, colorful pottery, and ornate jewelry were plentiful.”
  • MOSCOW: “Tours of the Kremlin, Red Square, and St. Basil’s were thrilling – but we all agreed that our night at the Bolshoi Ballet was THE experience we would always remember from Moscow.”

2020 Dates: April 13-May 3 (Beijing-Moscow), October 1-21 (Beijing-Moscow)

Note: Already been to China, or short on time? A 13-day trip covering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Russia is available. For more info, click here. Tour runs twice in 2020.

Also note: Can’t wait until next year? An 8-day trip covering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan runs this year (2019). Dates are Oct. 2-9. For more info, click here.

Did we mention?

The Silk Road adventure is more popular than ever, and space fills up fast. To book yours, call us at (800) 478-4881, +1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada, or e-mail us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Rocky Mountaineer Awes IRT Advisor — & Not Just ‘Bearly’

3 May
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Rocky Mountaineer onboard staff are young, cheerful and knowledgeable. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

“Bear!” someone shouted.

“Yea, right,” I thought, groggy from my early morning wake-up call. “Just another overly-excited travel agent.”

But then I saw him.

The shaggy, brown animal lumbered right outside my Rocky Mountaineer window, oblivious to his human admirers. I felt as if I could reach out and pet him—maybe even give him a good belly rub to wake him from his winter nap.

And that’s what’s so incredible about the Rocky Mountaineer. You’re in the middle of the Canadian wilderness while traveling in a cocoon of great food, service, scenery and conviviality.

And so it went for my two-day, one-night, all-too-short Rocky Mountaineer ride.

Two things stand out most to me about my trip to Canada last May:

• Western Canada’s scenery is stunning — just as advertised.

• The dynamic Rocky Mountaineer staff knows its stuff, whether it’s Canadian railroad history, animals and birds, or how to put folks at ease.

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View of the Fraser River from Rocky Mountaineer GoldLeaf Dome. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

From the moment I arrived at Vancouver’s bustling station, I knew I was in great hands.

Once aboard the train, I was shown to my seat at the second-level panoramic window of my GoldLeaf car. Over the next two days, I’d see eagles, ospreys and — bears.

I was traveling with a group of N. American travel advisors, many of whom had never ridden a train.

I’ve traveled by conventional trains in France, England, and Japan — but never on a first-class train like the Rocky Mountaineer. Having joined the Society of International Railway Travelers’ in December 2016, I was looking forward to my first first-class train ride.

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Rocky Mountaineer’s GoldLeaf Dome carriages offer great views. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

GoldLeaf service is the train’s highest level. And as far as IRT is concerned, it’s the only way to go.

Why?

It’s a smorgasbord for the senses. For example:

  • SEE: GoldLeaf’s gigantic panoramic windows curve up to the ceiling, giving you a mountain goat’s-eye view in almost every direction; travel in late spring, and you might spot bald eagles, mountain goats, moose, and even black and brown bears, as I did, emerging from hibernation.
  • FEEL: GoldLeaf’s wind-in-the-face, outdoor observation decks — accessible exclusively for GoldLeaf passengers — bring you in direct contact with the Canadian wilderness;
  • TASTE: The fabulous, nothing-could-be finer dining room is just a short walk down the elegant spiral staircase. There, you’ll be served breakfast and lunch.
  • LISTEN: The typically younger, 20-something attendants are top-notch and constantly active. They take turns pointing out historic sites, scenic landmarks and animals. They also distribute all-included snacks and beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic).
  • RELAX: GoldLeaf seats are utterly relaxing. You can adjust the seat backs to several positions and control their radiating heat. You can even rotate your seat 180 degrees to make a miniature seating area for 4 people.

(Besides GoldLeaf, there’s also the single-level Silver service, which is less expensive.  But don’t even ask us to book it for you. You haven’t come all this way to have at-seat, airline-style meals and no full outdoor platform.)

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Yet another reason to opt for GoldLeaf: Rocky Mountaineer is one of a handful of IRT’s ‘World’s Top 25 Trains‘ offering “wind-in-the-face” outdoor views. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

Meanwhile, back in GoldLeaf, I absolutely loved the outdoor observation deck at the end of the car.

I was able to enjoy the full beauty of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains; the winding path of the Spiral Tunnels; and the beautiful, sometimes turquoise, snow-melt rivers along the way. If you travel in the late spring, you’ll have a great chance to see such wildlife, and — if you’re as lucky as I was — even bears.

In fact, there’s no bad time to take the Rocky Mountaineer. Should you travel in the summer or fall, you’ll still be privy to stunning natural scenery, whether that means more greenery, higher river levels, or stunning fall foliage.

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Table setting in GoldLeaf Dome downstairs dining room. Rocky Mountaineer photo by Vincent L. Chan

All meals and drinks are included when on board the train. There are two seatings for breakfast and lunch in the elegant, downstairs dining section. I particularly enjoyed receiving a small menu at each meal with at least four choices from which to choose.

As a breakfast-lover, this presented some difficult choices! Pancakes or a freshly prepared parfait?

The Rocky Mountaineer also accommodates dietary restrictions, as long as you alert us at time of booking. In my case, that meant receiving gluten-free toast.

• • •

As if all this weren’t enough, the Rocky Mountaineer is adding seven brand-new GoldLeaf cars to its collection. Built by Swiss rail car company Stadler, four cars were added last month, with three more coming in 2020.

What’s special about these cars?

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Big News! One of Rocky Mountaineer’s new, enhanced GoldLeaf Dome cars. Rocky Mountaineer photo by Vincent L. Chan

While all GoldLeaf carriages are fabulous, the new cars offer “dimmable” upper domed windows to moderate incoming light, redesigned galley kitchens to better aid staff with meal preparation, and enhanced ride quality.

• • •

So what does all this mean to you?

First: the Rocky Mountaineer is wildly popular, so the sooner you book, the better.  Book by the end of August to ensure you receive the best possible promotional goodies.

Second: the best itineraries sell out first. Rocky Mountaineer offers a dizzying array of options. Based on our 35 years of experience, we recommend one in particular: our Ultra-Luxe Canadian Rockies Adventure, with upgraded hotels and all private touring and transfers. It’s equally great for multi-generational family groups and vacationing couples looking for an extra-exclusive Rockies experience. Check it out here.

If you’re ready to book right now, click here.

You can also e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com, or call (800) 478-4881 within the U.S. or Canada. Elsewhere, call +1 (502) 897-1725.

• • •

Nora Elzy is a Luxury Travel Associate with The Society of International Railway Travelers. She joined our team in December, 2016. She is a graduate of Centre College. Among her international travels was her study abroad in Japan.

Stunning Sights, People, Trains on IRT Japan Rail Luxury Tour

1 Jun
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Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu, Japan Grand Rail Tour grand finale — ©Terunobu Utsunomiya

“I love Japan,” said Owen Hardy, founder of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

Why?

“Because of its natural beauty, friendly people, ancient culture and the way people treat each other.

“If you saw “Our Little Sister,” a quiet, beautiful movie, the sisters take a little one-car train to attend their father’s funeral–that train captures the spirit of why I love Japan.”

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JR Kyushu’s tiny Sweet Train. Almost as popular as the Seven Stars, the Sweet Train is a post-tour option—provided we can secure the space. JR Kyushu photo

We’ve been trying to capture that spirit for dozens of Japan-bound IRT guests since 2014, when we began offering the Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu, one of our World’s Top 25 Trains®.

And our travelers told us they’ve loved it. But one element needed a “private tweak.”

The family for whom I planned a private journey were positively ecstatic. “One of the best trips we ever did!” they told me.

So this year, I decided to build a private program: our Japan Grand Rail Tour.

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Kirishima JNTO Photo

I began by snagging two cabins on the Seven Stars for this October, a significant coup considering space on this exclusive train is offered to the general public by lottery!

So this year, the 4-day, 3-night Seven Stars trip will be shared with fewer than 30 passengers on the train. It will be our Japan tour’s grand finale.

The rest of the tour will be totally private.

Our guests will enjoy the finest hotels and ryokans (hot springs inns). Our Virtuoso partner in Japan is one of Asia’s best.

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Kyoto bamboo forest JNTO photo

The transfers are via private limo (not van or bus). Guests will have their own dedicated, private guide throughout.

And private touring lets you do exactly what you want.

Examples:

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Kenrokuen Gardens, Kanazaw JNTO photo

Say you want to spend more time at one of Japan’s most exquisite gardens, Kenrokuen Gardens. No problem. You can do that.

Say you want to enjoy a full day of wandering Kanazawa. Its quaint streets and narrow alleyways are charming, and a place where many Westerners don’t go. Our tour will allow that.

Maybe you want to spend more time wandering the canals, stone bridges and winding streets of Kurashiki, one of Japan’s old merchant towns. The choice is yours.

When you’re at the world-class Ohara Museum of Art, also in Kurashiki, you can see it at your own pace — fast or slow. Or skip it altogether.

The point is, every bit of our program is attuned to you.

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JR Kyushu’s diminutive, delectable Sweet Train shows off Kyushu’s charms. — JR Kyushu photo

Whether you choose the 10-day or 14-day program, you’ll feel the difference a private tour makes.

And either way, you’ll finish off your tour with the Seven Stars—one of the world’s most exclusive trains.

(And by the way, if you want to add a post-tour Sweet Train extension that appears on page 39 of our tour book: no problem. Like the Seven Stars, it’s wildly popular.

But anything is possible when you travel privately. I’ll give it my best shot to get you aboard!)

• • •

Important Note: We have just two confirmed cabins — accommodations for a maximum of four guests — on offer for the Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu. This is for our tour running Oct. 7-20 this year. If you are interested, call us immediately at (800) 478-4881 in the U.S. and Canada; (502) 897-1725, elsewhere. Or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Rocky Mountaineer: Adventures Beyond the Train

27 Feb
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The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a GoldLeaf and SilverLeaf hotel of Rocky Mountaineer. IRT photo by Natalie Schuetz

As the mid-day sunlight danced on the azure waters of Lake Louise one afternoon last October, I was reminded of a comment my tour guide had made earlier that day:

“If you only knew how much money Canadian taxpayers spend each year to dump all of that blue dye into our lake…”

Named after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, the glacier-fed Lake Louise was one of my favorite destinations during my Rocky Mountaineer Journey through the Clouds post-train tour. The terrain bustled with activity as visitors canoed, strolled around, and snapped photos of the magnificent lake.

The greatest part of my visit, though? My lodgings: the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.

Nestled on the eastern shore of Lake Louise, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is a GoldLeaf and SilverLeaf property of Rocky Mountaineer (GoldLeaf and GoldLeaf Deluxe rooms overlook the lake, whereas SilverLeaf rooms overlook the grounds). The current building was constructed in 1911 after the original was destroyed in a fire. It was the vision of Cornelius Van Horne, manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, to create “a hotel for outdoor adventurer and alpinist.”

With its vaulted ceilings, ornate chandeliers, fine dining, and extra-wide hallways (constructed so that ladies wearing large hoop skirts could pass without running into each other), the Fairmont Château Lake Louise was a true gem. My only regret was that we only stayed there for one night!

Here are some other places and activities from my tour that I would recommend for our IRT guests:

Athabasca Glacier: I was excited to board the Ice Explorer – a giant vehicle with tires taller than I am (for reference, I’m 5’5”) — that navigated the ice. We wandered out on the ice for about 20 minutes and I could see my breath. I was glad I wore layers – scarf, hat, gloves, coat, and boots.  I was sad to learn that global climate change is causing the glacier to melt faster – and it could be gone in 50 to 60 years, the guide said.

The Banff Gondola:  I highly recommend this. The ride up reminded me up of the tram in Palm Springs, California that pulls you up the mountain except these small pods only hold 4 people comfortably. As a person who is usually afraid of heights, I was surprisingly fine with the altitude (7,486 feet above sea level). It takes between 7 – 8 minutes to reach the top and the view is spectacular; you can see all of downtown Banff, the Rimrock Hotel, and the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. It had snowed right before we arrived;  the snow-capped mountains gleamed. The sky was blue that day – and with the clouds, I got some great photographs.

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View of Banff from the gondola observation deck. IRT photo by Natalie Schuetz

Driving along the Icefields Parkway There is only one way to travel between Jasper and Lake Louise – by road. You can’t do it by train (this is a frequent misconception.) This trip in the big motorcoach takes about 5 hours with all the sightseeing stops, including the Athabasca Glacier stop.  I loved the fall foliage and the different lakes with their beautiful shade of blue fed by the glaciers.

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Waterfowl Lakes, Jasper National Park. IRT photo by Natalie Schuetz

Helicopter I add this because this would have been very cool and part of my package and that of many tours with the Rocky Mountaineer. However, it was too windy that day and the tour was canceled. (If this happens to you, you get a refund.) We drove past the field to see where the helicopters take off and land and we could see several wind socks dancing in the breeze. We did, however, get to spend more time with the hoodoos – tall, spire-like rock structures that are formed as a result of erosion.

To see Natalie’s report about her trip on the Rocky Mountaineer train, please click here.

 

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Natalie with the Hoodoos.  IRT photo

Book a 2018 journey of 8 days or more by March 29 and get up to $500 in added value per couple. Use it for things like extra hotel nights, meals, city sightseeing excursions, or outdoor activities. (Restrictions apply.) My trip was Vancouver to Calgary – but check out these trips, too.

For more information, call (800) 478-4881 for US and Canada. For the rest of the world, call (502) 897-1725. Ask for me, Natalie Schuetz, and I’ll be delighted to give you the latest details. Click here to send me an email.  

Murder on the Orient Express: Stunning Outside, Blah Inside

4 Dec
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20th Century Fox photo

Our phones are ringing off the hook.

Much of it’s due to the film remake of Agatha Christie’s 1934 who-done-it, “Murder on the Orient Express.” It opened in U.S. theaters Nov. 10.

The movie has been thoroughly reviewed by the general press, with major critics less than thrilled. If I were still a newspaper critic (which I was in a past life), I’d begin by saying it’s too long by at least 15-20 minutes.

The film is brilliant when the train exterior is center stage in the “mountains of Eastern Europe” (It was, in fact, shot entirely at a film studio outside London).

IRT Travelers on the VSOE.

IRT Travelers on the Train of Kings, the King of Trains.

Pulled by a magnificent steam engine, the train is bathed in blue and white moonlight, with the camera soaring down one mountain peak and up another, as if carried by an eagle (or a drone).

The film’s Orient Express glides around mountains, beset by flashing lightning bursts and menacing clouds, clinging precariously to cliffs, seemingly thousands of feet above steep gorges.

These panoramic scenes show luxury trains at their best—as almost otherworldly experiences, whose train-window views are incomparable and life-changing.

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Taking the perfect photo on the Belmond Royal Scotsman’s outdoor rear platform — another of our World’s Top 25 Trains. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

But inside—and unlike the real luxury trains we represent —the movie Orient Express falls flat. There’s hardly any fancy furniture or gleaming brass; no discernible marquetry. The cutlery looks utilitarian; the china and crystal are uninspiring.

While there are some Art Deco accents—vaguely “Lalique-ish” sconces resembling ice sculptures adorn the movie-train walls; along with convincingly retro luggage racks—the overall color scheme ranges from dull tweed to brown.

Conversely, you can’t beat the star-studded cast. Convincingly dressed in period costume, with Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” in the background, they are brash, mysterious, gaudy, sexy — and thoroughly awash in “guilty” looks.

But there isn’t much for them to do when Poirot’s not grilling them, aside from glancing suspiciously at one another. Mostly, they just look bored. (C’mon, folks, have some fun. You’re on a luxury train!)

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Ecuador’s Tren Crucero also boasts a rear, outdoor viewing platform. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

And as far as accuracy goes, I’m dubious. In my 35 years of working in the luxury train world, I’ve never heard of a rear, open platform* on the original Orient Express in any of its iterations, as it’s shown in the film. (Please email me if you know otherwise.).

So go see “Murder on the Orient Express.” The “outdoor” train scenes alone are worth the price of admission.

But don’t commit the crime of not trying out a luxury train for yourself.

Check our list of The World’s Top 25 Trains, then  email us, or give us a call: (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725.

*We at IRT love open, outdoor platforms. Among our “World’s Top 25 Trains®,” open-air platforms are available on Rovos Rail’s “The Pride of Africa,” the “Belmond Royal Scotsman,” the Bangkok-Singapore “Eastern & Oriental Express” (also a Belmond train), the “Rocky Mountaineer” in Canada, Peru’s “Belmond Andean Explorer” and “Belmond Hiram Bingham” and Ecuador’s “Tren Crucero.”

 

Journey Through the Clouds: My Inaugural IRT Journey Aboard Rocky Mountaineer

12 Oct
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Enjoying the fresh air in the tiny SilverLeaf observation platform. IRT Photo by Natalie Schuetz

If you’d told me last February that by October I’d be riding the Rocky Mountaineer, I would have laughed out loud.

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Rocky Mountaineer bagpipe send-off on the first day of the train journey. IRT Photo by Natalie Schuetz

After all, the Rocky Mountaineer has been one of the Society of International Railway Travelers’ longest-running ‘World’s Top 25 Trains®” since the company began almost 35 years ago.

But guess what? I just got back from Canada—on an inspection trip on the Rocky Mountaineer!

And here’s my takeaway: SilverLeaf service is fine if you have to pinch pennies. But hey—you’ve come all this way. Do what our clients do: Go for the Gold(Leaf)!

Why?

Let’s start with GoldLeaf’s heated LazyBoy-style seats. I felt like a little kid with all the buttons to play with; the seats have a built-in leg rest and are able to recline and add extra support for your back.

And there’s nothing like breakfast in the diner. As I chatted with my seatmates in the car’s downstairs dining area, we looked for bears, praised the scenery, and enjoyed delicious blueberry pancakes with fresh Canadian maple syrup, among several menu choices.

My fellow diners also worked in the travel industry. None of us had ridden this luxury train. No wonder we were giddy with excitement!

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GoldLeaf Observation Platform. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

Best of all, I adored the large, open-air observation deck. I loved everything about it: the fresh air, meeting folks, snapping photos. That alone is worth the extra cost.

Compared to Gold, SilverLeaf felt like a bus with a little more leg room. I had fewer menu options and no classy dining car —meals are served at your seat, airline-style.

As for wind-in-the-face viewing, SilverLeaf’s two outdoor platforms run a distant second. There’s barely enough room for two people to look out the tiny window and take pictures.

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The Rocky Mountaineer en route to Kamloops. IRT photo by Natalie Schuetz

In short, GoldLeaf is great. And now’s a great time to sign up.

Book a 2018 journey of 8 days or more by Oct. 27, and get up to $600 in added value per couple. Use it for things like extra hotel nights, meals, city sightseeing excursions or outdoor activities. (Restrictions apply.)

For more information, call (800) 478-4881 for US and Canada. For the rest of the world, call (502) 897-1725. Ask for me, Natalie Schuetz, and I’ll be happy to give you the latest details. Click here to send me an email.

Or click here to see the Rocky Mountaineer section of our website.

Next week: Vancouver to Calgary: My Off-Train Adventures

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The Rocky Mountaineer bids farewell to guests as they depart in Jasper. IRT Photo by Natalie Schuetz

 

We welcome Natalie Schuetz to Track 25.  Ms. Schuetz, IRT’s newest employee, is a graduate of the University of Louisville in Spanish, Communication, and Humanities, and has traveled thousands of miles to Spain, Italy and Central America. This is her second time to Canada — but the first time to the Rockies and the first time to participate in a study tour on a luxury train.  

Peru’s New Belmond Andean Explorer Makes the Livin’ Easy

10 Jun
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Society of IRT President Eleanor Hardy snaps a photo from the observation/lounge car — complete with outdoor viewing area — on the new Belmond Andean Explorer. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

“Summer time!” the young Peruvian woman sang. “And the livin’ is easy.”

Backed up by a soulful tenor sax, the two belted out the Gershwin ballad in the rear bar/lounge of the new Belmond Andean Explorer.

Outside on the spacious, rear open-air platform, guests nursed their Pisco Sours as they watched the outskirts of Cusco shrink into the distance.

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High times in the rear lounge car: a Peruvian duo performs a soulful rendition of “Summertime” as the Belmond Andean Explorer pulls out of Cusco for its first 3-day journey. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

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The Belmond Andean Explorer chugs past the Sibinacocha volvano, blowing smoke and ash. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

This newest thoroughbred in the Belmond stable is every inch a champion. In fact, we’ve just named it one of our newest ‘World’s Top 25 Trains.”

The train and its services are beautiful. The staff is bright and eager to please. Many developed their high customer service standards at Belmond’s fabulous five-star hotel in Cusco, the Monasterio.

And the wild, mountainous Andean landscape stuns with its soaring peaks, beautiful altiplano and volcanoes, occasionally snow-peaked and sometimes blowing smoke and ash.

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The kitchen staff hard at work preparing another fabulous meal. Note the homage to the train’s Australian origin: the old logo of the Great South Pacific Express etched in the window.                 IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

The train has a fascinating history.

Built in Australia in the 1990s, it began service as the Great South Pacific Express luxury train running between Cairns and Brisbane, only to be shut down after four years, the victim of poor track and rough rides.

There it languished for 13 years, awaiting its fate.

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Some of our favorite traveling companions: this lively family from Lima relaxes in the piano lounge. We can attest that these kids had a ball. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Finally, last year, it was shipped to Peru — complete with the baby grand piano, podium for train check-in, the boarding steps and even the tags for luggage.  In Peru, its transformation to a remarkably Peruvian train began.

In May, 2017 it emerged like a butterfly from its cocoon, transformed into a rolling work of art.  Peru Luxury Trains manager, Javier Carlavilla Lindo, is palpably proud of “his baby,” the first luxury sleeper train in South America.

It is gorgeously outfitted with bright local textiles on pillows, throws and ottomans, not to mention local art throughout.

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Sunrise over Lake Titicaca — something that you, too, can witness — if you’re willing to wake up at 5:30 a.m. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Throughout the train are remnants of its luxurious past in Australia: Art Deco brass fittings and lamps, hammered steel bathroom sinks in the powder rooms, charming lights throughout. The large cabins in the deluxe double-bedded suites and the bunk cabins are other remnants — now decorated in distinctive Peruvian style.

But even though the longest trip is just three days and two nights, we highly recommend booking a suite, if you can swing it. It’s great to have room to spread out.

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The Belmond Andean Explorer Junior Suite boasts ample storage and three windows. IRT Photo by Eleanor Flagler Hardy

Eleanor and I loved our Junior Suite. It boasts a double bed with two windows on one side, plus a sliding window on the other, which allows a view out the other side of the train.

It also has incredible storage capacity. That includes overhead racks, a big closet, a chest of drawers and 2 comfortable easy chairs. The ensuite shower, sink and toilet worked very well, too.

Our only trouble with our room was a sticky lock — we got trapped inside for a few minutes wondering if we would ever escape.

(We phoned our concierge at the Belmond Hotel Monasterio back in Cusco, who in turn called train manager Christopher Mendoza to secure our release.)

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Belmond Andean Explorer train manger Christopher Mendoza takes a break from his very busy schedule in one of train’s two restaurant cars. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

Dining is a big part of any luxury train, and in this area, Belmond does not disappoint. Head of the culinary program is none other than Diego Muñoz, named by the New York Times as one of the world’s leading chefs.

The last day, we all applauded the chef for our trip, Julio Serrano, who was “on loan” from Lima’s famed Astrid & Gaston, which Chef Muñoz once led.

Chef Serrano produced one Peruvian specialty after another. Much of the food prep is done at the Monasterio, where Serrano once worked, and loaded on in Cusco.

Most of the train’s staff, in fact, were recruited from the Monasterio.  We found them amazingly accomplished for the first full run of the train. A few were receiving close on-the-job training – but most were very capable.

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Between Cusco and Puno, guests disembark to visit the ruins of the massive Inca temple and food storage center of Raqch’i. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

One of the great advantages of a trip on the Belmond Andean Explorer is the train’s “birds’-eye view” of the passing scene — including local people living their everyday lives — and the fabulous outdoor deck for viewing it all.

Hundreds of people waved excitedly as we passed by.

The itinerary included  carefully planned stops — a favorite was a visit to the Uros people on their reed islands at Lake Titicaca. Another was a stop to see 6,000-year-old cave paintings in volcanic stone created by nomadic herdsmen.

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A young Peruvian boy waves to the Belmond Andean Explorer. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Some of the folks knew the train was coming — such as at La Raya, at 14,150 feet one of the highest points on the line. They smiled. They were hospitable. And they were ready to sell. But not to worry: the handicrafts — especially the textiles — are exquisite and excellent buys.

And speaking of altitude, consult your doctor before travel. Our highest point was 14,200 feet in Saradocha, where we stopped for the night.

Several passengers (I was one) experienced headaches and some shortness of breath here. But the fabulous, cheerful nurse, Liz Mery Fuentes Galvez, took great care of us and administered oxygen. (Each cabin has a box with an oxygen tank, just in case.)

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Chugging high in the Peruvian altiplano during the afternoon of the luxury train’s third and final day. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

With the altitude came some of the most striking scenery — the Andes — the second-highest mountain range in the world. But not everyone was on board to experience it.

In the middle of our third and final day, the train stopped to let off people wanting to visit Peru’s magnificent Colca Canyon.

The downside, however, is the that trip involves a long bus ride over two-lane, winding roads. And you miss the final, spectacular descent high in the Andes over some of trip’s most magnificent scenery to Arequipa.

We chose to stay on board, and we’re glad we did.

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Enjoying the views from the Belmond Andean Explorer rear, outdoor viewing area. These Peruvian youngsters, their sister and parents were delightful traveling companions. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

That last afternoon, we enjoyed several fabulous meals and hours of luxuriating on the open-air deck. We spied herds of vicunas and guanacos. We laughed with the charming, bilingual family from Lima, photographing the train as it wound around every bend.

And we were thrilled that we were among the very first to take this historic new train — the first of its kind in South America — the whole way — from Cusco (11,300 feet) to Puno at 12,600 feet, and down to Arequipa (6,900 feet).

For more information on the Belmond Andean Explorer or any of the Peruvian Belmond hotels, please call The Society of International Railway Travelers: (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725;  or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

To see a detailed itinerary of our 11-day Peru journey, which includes the Belmond Andean Explorer as well as the Belmond Hiram Bingham train to/from Machu Picchu, please click here.

 

 

 

 

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