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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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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.

 

 

 

 

Japan’s ‘Seven Stars In Kyushu’ Named A World’s Top 25 Train®

31 Mar

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The Society of International Railway Travelers® is proud to announce that the Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu, as it’s officially known, is the first Japanese train to be awarded status as a World’s Top 25 Train.®

We are also proud to announce that The Society of IRT is the first agency/tour operator in the Western Hemisphere to charter the Seven Stars. (See our 2017 tour itinerary here.) And IRT is the first to sign a contract to offer additional dates for our honored travelers.

Operated by JR Kyushu, the Seven Stars began service in  October, 2013. The luxury train was an immediate hit. Space on the train — which accommodates a maximum of 30 guests — routinely sells out many months in advance.

High demand has caused JR Kyushu to hold periodic lotteries to determine who gets to ride the Seven Stars.

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“That’s not a big problem for most Japanese, who are just a bullet train ride or two away” from Fukuoka, Kyushu, where guests board the Seven Stars, said Society of IRT CEO & founder Owen Hardy.

“But basing your travel plans on winning a lottery is unworkable for most travelers from the Western Hemisphere, who need to book flights, hotels, and itineraries months in advance.”

The Society of IRT’s package, conducted in English and accompanied by a professional English-speaking guide, solves this issue beautifully – and takes care of every other conceivable detail along the way.

Participants will spend 16 days touring some of Japan’s most famous cities – among them

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Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Hakone. They’ll ride several of Japan’s famed bullet trains. And they’ll ride special trains such as the Odakyu Romance Car, the Yurikamome Train and the Hitoyoshi steam train in Kyushu.  They can also enjoy the fabulous Sweet Train.

The tour’s “grand finale” will be the four-day trip on the Seven Stars, which is the pride of Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island.

“During my two-day trip in 2015, we were greeted at every station by throngs of smiling locals, waving flags and greeting us like royalty,” Hardy said. “They ranged in age from young children to aged grandparents. Unbelievable!”

Why the hysteria over a train — even a luxury train?

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“The Seven Stars is truly a work of art on wheels,“ said Hardy, who test-rode the train in November, 2015.

“Everywhere I turned I saw stunning fabrics, gorgeous glasswork, richly hued posters, shimmering porcelain. Most spectacular of all was the intricate floor-to-ceiling woodwork from a variety of trees of varying colors.

“The cuisine is “as beautiful as it is tasty,” Hardy continued. “And the expert staff exude a combination of Asian elegance and hospitality with genuine warmth.”

The Seven Stars more than deserves its “World’s Top 25 Train®” status, he added, placing it among such luxury rail stars as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Belmond Royal Scotsman, and the Golden Eagle.

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IRT is also holding space on Kyushu’s equally popular Sweet Train, which runs between Sasebo and Nagasaki. Much like its “big sister,” the Seven Stars, the Sweet Train is a delightful amalgam of design, delicious food and impeccable service, Hardy says.

Space on the “Deluxe Rail Journey of Japan” group tour is booking steadily. To download a PDF copy of the itinerary (2.7 MB), click here.  Then contact us:

Nature, Hot Springs, Cuisine Star in 7 Stars Kyushu Itinerary

17 Mar

Click here to see previous post: Seven Stars’ introduction, staff and culinary delights

A main raison d’etre of the new Cruise Train Seven Stars is to showcase the natural and artistic beauty of Kyushu. The train’s off-train excursions do not disappoint. (The Society of International Railway Tours’ “Seven Stars Over Japan” luxury rail tour includes the new luxury train as a post-tour option.)

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The Seven Stars logos, works of art in themselves, were carefully hand-crafted. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

The island of Kyushu is known for its volcanic hot springs (or onsen), and guests on our four-day trip next year will spend their second night off the train at a fabulous resort with their own private onsen. (So there’s no need for sheepish tourists to worry about bathing au naturel with strangers, albeit of the same sex.)

Our group enjoyed onsens on two successive nights near Yufuin, which is on the four-day itinerary. I made the most of my onsen experience, enjoying the steaming waters three times.

Once I learned the proper etiquette, I found the experience delightfully soothing. (And don’t worry; we’ll have complete instructions for guests on our luxury Japan by Rail tour, which runs Nov. 5-19, 2016.)

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Our guide walks in the tranquil garden of Kakiemon Kiln. IRT photo by O. Hardy

We also visited Kyushu’s famed Kakiemon Kiln in Arita, whose exquisite ceramics the Dutch East India Company began shipping to Europe in the late 17th century. The ceramics works is still family owned.

The fifteenth-generation boss proudly showed us his business, with his little son, the sixteenth generation heir, skipping along with us. Afterwards, Kakiemon XV, as he’s known, invited us to his tea house, set among the subtle green hues of his carefully manicured garden.

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Seven-sided Seven Stars basin, produced by Kakiemon Kiln. JR Kyushu photo

Proudly, he told us of his late father, Kakiemon XIV, whose final creation before his death were the intricate, seven-sided wash basins which grace each of the standard Seven Stars cabins.

Meanwhile, back on the Seven Stars, I took careful inventory of my compartment.  In keeping with the train’s striving for perfection, even the windows are special.

My compartment’s two windows each had five separate sections: an outer layer of glass, followed by a second layer of thin, wooden slats; then two sliding traditional Japanese windows with paper panes; then, two heavier sliding wooden windows. The final layer was a light gauzy curtain of gathered material.

Standard suites include a writing desk, with pull-out section for additional room (not shown here). IRT photo by Owen Hardy

My room contained a minibar stocked with wonderful Japanese juices, green tea, “Swan Cider Tomosu” in its tiny bottle, Asahi “Dry” and Santory “The Premium Malts” Pilsner Beer, and other bottles whose names were written only in Japanese, but whose contents were delicious. (Drinks from the minibar are on the house, by the way.)

My compartment also contained two plugs, one in the bathroom and one in the bedroom, plus a 3-socket multi-plug unit, so you can plug in your iPhone, iPad and iMac all at once (as I did).

Standard suite bathroom, above. All bathrooms have showers with cypress wood paneling and typical Japanese toilets with multiple controls. The train also has one handicapped accessible suite and bathroom. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

Also, attention, U.S. and Canadian travelers: Japan’s electrical outlets are identical (almost) to ours, so leave your adapters at home. And WiFi is available throughout the train and works quite well (except in tunnels and other such places).

Also provided in my compartment: toothbrush, razors, cotton balls and two different types of Japanese toiletries. When I couldn’t decide which set I wanted, my cabin attendant happily gave me both.

All the compartments, including the deluxe suites, contain twin beds separated by a night stand. My bed was quite comfortable and easily accommodated my six-foot frame.

One final aspect of the Seven Stars experience also deserves mention, and maybe sums up this over-the-top-train: the music provided each evening in the bar car by a violin/piano duo.

When you book a Seven Stars trip, you’ll receive a confirmation accompanied by a request from the musicians: “please tell us one piece of music you’d especially like to hear.”

In a fit of enthusiasm, I fired off a return email: “The third movement from César Franck’s Violin Sonata.”

“What?” my friend Sam, a retired music professor, exclaimed. “That’s pretty difficult music.”

Violinist and pianist hold forth in the Blue Moon bar/lounge car. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Several weeks later, aboard the Seven Stars, I met the musicians and mentioned, a bit hesitantly, that I was the one who’d requested the Franck.

Without skipping a beat, the pianist began the introduction, and the violinist – without music – began the virtuosic opening. He was on solid ground, and I sat listening, entranced, for the next several minutes.

They ended the piece with a drawn-out pianissimo.

“Bravo!” we yelled, nursing our drinks, as the Kyushu twilight lingered outside the bar car’s picture window. (See video below.)

Bravo, indeed, I thought: to the staff, designers, planners, artisans, chefs, JR Kyushu and even to the citizens of this small but beautiful island, who are so proud of “their” train.

The Seven Stars is a true work of art.

The Society of International Railway Travelers®’ “Seven Stars Over Japan” luxury tour, for which we’ve chartered an entire Seven Stars 4-day, 3 night itinerary, runs Nov. 5-19, 2016.

To download a 24-page PDF brochure (2.7 MB), please click here.

For more information or to book, email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

 

 

A Shining Asian Constellation: Japan’s Seven Stars in Kyushu

17 Mar

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Seven Stars mascot in “Blue Moon” car. IRT Photo by O. Hardy

“Who’s this?” I asked, spying a little dog lying patiently in a dark corner of the bar car.

“Oh, it’s a kind of joke by the designer,” smiled Mr. Hironobu Yanagawa, Kyushu Railway’s Assistant Manager, Cruise Train Headquarters.

Normally, I’d have overlooked the little canine sculpture.

But in the short time I’d been aboard the Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu, I’d already learned an important lesson: look for details.

In other parts of the train, I found more subtle “jokes”: tree frogs climbing a wall, wasps tending their nest, a simple white button nestled in a rich, gold picture frame.

And almost everywhere I turned, I saw stunning fabrics, gorgeous glasswork, richly hued posters, shimmering porcelain. Most spectacular of all was the intricate floor-to-ceiling woodwork from a variety of trees of varying colors.

In sum, even my short, two-day ride on the Seven Stars yielded a plethora of extraordinary experiences — visual, culinary, musical — even spiritual, if you believe the train’s tagline: “a journey to discover a new way of life.”

Seven Stars, a special sightseeing train of Japan’s JR Kyushu, began life in summer, 2013, and it’s never looked back. Despite its steep price, not even all the Japanese who want to ride can get tickets, much less the hapless foreigners clamoring for a ride.

That’s why The Society of International Railway Travelers® chartered the entire train for a four-day, three-night itinerary as part of our luxury Seven Stars Over Japan tour, which ran last November.

The tour sold out all 28 spots within months. And that’s why we’re running it again this year: Nov. 3-21. This includes the “Sweet Train” extension, which you won’t want to miss.

A year and a half ago, I made a quick visit to Kyushu – Japan’s southernmost island – to enjoy a rare, non-revenue ride offered by JR Kyushu to a small group of journalists.

Granted, two days and a night were not nearly enough time to take in all this train has to offer. But it was long enough for me to declare without hesitation: the Seven Stars elevates the standards of world luxury train travel to an even higher level.

Seven Stars stands for Kyushu’s seven prefectures (similar to U.S. counties). The train has seven cars: the “Blue Moon” bar / lounge car whose entire rear wall is a giant picture window, dining car “Jupiter,” and four sleeping cars, each with three spacious suites measuring 108 square feet.

One regular suite is handicapped-accessible. The train also carries a wheelchair.

At the other end of the train, the seventh car contains two “deluxe suites”  which can accommodate two or three guests each.

Deluxe Suite A is 226 square feet and boasts a private glass picture window at the end of the car. It is by far the most popular accommodation on the train, JR Kyushu says.

The other deluxe suite is beautifully appointed but, at 183 square feet, is slightly smaller.

Everything on the train was specifically designed for the Seven Stars, save one element (I won’t spoil your experience by naming it; see if you can guess.).

This surfeit of over-the-top design elements is matched by an expert staff, who know how to combine Asian elegance and hospitality with genuine warmth.

When I misplaced my iPhone charger, for example, Mr. Yoshiharu Aritou, the train manager, insisted on giving me one of his (For the record, I’m sent it back to him, along with a heartfelt note and bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon.).

Moreover, the Seven Stars staff is bilingual and couldn’t be friendlier. Menus and signs are in English and Japanese. (Our November tour, of course, will be conducted in English.)

Also near perfect is the Seven Stars kitchen, which turns out delicacies as beautiful as they are tasty. I enjoyed three meals on the train: two lunches and a dinner, all of them set menus.

Kyushu is known for its variety of seafood, vegetables and fruits, and I was happy to let the Seven Stars chefs choose for me.

Here are just a few of the offerings from our “Heartfelt bento lunch from Bungo, Oita Prefecture:

“Red sea bream cured with Ryuhi Kombu…Egg tofu with wakame seaweed, Assortment of separately prepared vegetables, Food of the season [in my case, autumn] cooked in paper made with kozo tree fiber…”

The spirits from the Blue Moon bar were equally inspired. I made a point of ordering a Blue Moon cocktail, whose contents included Japanese shochu, a liquor made from sweet potatoes.

It was mixed with some of the tastiest juice – was it grapefruit or tomato? – I’ve ever had.

One of my favorite menu items was actually French-inspired: a chocolate sphere served at tea time. The thin, edible outer shell revealed a rich, creamy center: decadent and delicious.

(For the true dessert-lover, try JR Kyushu’s new Sweet Train, which I also sampled on my visit. More about that in another Track 25 post.)

Click here for Seven Stars’ off-train excursions and what to expect in your Seven Stars cabin.

To download a 24-page PDF brochure, please click here.

For more information on our luxury Japan by Rail tour running Nov. 3-21, 2017 (which includes the Sweet Train extension), please click here. Or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

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