Archive | Custom tours RSS feed for this section

Pounce Like a Leopard for Luxury Rail Africa 2016, 2017

15 Apr
Rovos_Rail_Leopard

©The Society of International Railway Travelers® Poster design by Stephen Sebree, Moonlight Graphic Works

 

Dreaming of an African luxury train vacation?

Better shake a leg. Here’s what’s still available this year and next on Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa, one of our favorite trains anywhere:

2016

African Collage (9 days)

  • May 19-27, Pretoria to Cape Town – 4 Deluxe Suites
  •  Nov. 14-22, Cape Town to Pretoria – 2 Deluxe Suites

Cape Town to Dar Es Salaam (15 days)

  • July 2-15 – 2 Deluxe Suites
  • Sept. 24-Oct. 8 – 1 Deluxe Suite

Dar Es Salaam to Cape Town (15 days)

  • July 19-Aug. 2 – 1 Deluxe Suite
Rovos_Rail_Obs_Deck

©The Society of International Railway Travelers® Poster design by Stephen Sebree, Moonlight Graphic Works

2017

Cape Town to Dar Es Salaam (15 days)

  • July 1-15 – 1 Deluxe Suite
  • Sept. 30-Oct. 15 – 1 Deluxe Suite, 2 Pullmans

Dar Es Salaam to Cape Town (15 days)

  • July 18-Aug. 1 – 2 Deluxe Suites, 2 Pullmans
  • Oct. 17-31 – 2 Pullmans

Namibia (9 days)

  • April 16-24, Swakopmund to Pretoria – 2 Deluxe Suites, 2 Pullmans
  • April 27-May 5, Pretoria to Swakopmund – 2 Deluxe Suites
  • May 7-15, Swakopmund to Pretoria – 2 Deluxe Suites, 2 Pullmans

African Collage (9 days)

  • May 18-26, Pretoria to Cape Town, 2 Deluxe Suites, 2 Pullmans
  • Nov. 13-21, Cape Town to Pretoria, 2 Deluxe Suites, 2 Pullmans
Blue_Train

©The Society of International Railway Travelers® Poster design by Stephen Sebree, Moonlight Graphic Works

As long as you’re in Africa, don’t miss an overnight on the Blue Train. Totally different from Rovos Rail, but also a luxurious dream, it runs between Cape Town and Pretoria.

To get a great DVD about Rovos Rail (free within the U.S. and Canada), or for more info, send us an email.

Or call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725.  You can also fill out a booking form on our website.

 

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Soon to Unveil Its 2017 Schedule

7 Apr
Dining Car 4110 "Etoile du Nord"

Marquetry panel from dining car 4110 “Etoile du Nord” VSOE Photo

The train whose name whispers “elegance” — the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) — opened for its 35th season several weeks ago.

As always certain trips sell out more quickly than others. The longer, once-a-year Istanbul trips — Paris-Istanbul and Istanbul-Venice — always are in short supply.

 

223a7de6-5eb0-4890-a1a3-3420c4f7ddf8

Detail from VSOE diner “L’Oriental,” with Chinese lacquered walls. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Success in Booking the Orient-Express

“Those truly interested in an Istanbul trip need to plan far in advance,” says IRT’s president, Eleanor Hardy. “We’re taking names for fall, 2017.” (Contact us now to get on the ‘list.’) If the past is any indication, next year’s trips should be announced soon.

Other limited runs include:  Venice-Prague-Paris-London, Venice-Vienna-Paris-London and Venice-Budapest-Paris-London.  Also popular with IRT guests: IRT’s Romantic Italian Holiday, which includes the VSOE between London or Paris and Venice.

Then come two nights each at over-the-top, five-star hotels: the Hotel Cipriani in Venice and the Villa San Michele in Florence. Both are operated by Belmond (as is the VSOE).

In other news, the VSOE has air-conditioned its three dining cars as well as its bar car, which also has been redecorated.

And Head Barman Walter Nisi has added tantalizing specialties to his bar menu. See the full story here.

For more info or to book, send an email, call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Or book directly from our website.

 

 

 

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

25 Mar

ëñçsÉVÅ[ÉìÅiå„ï˚é‘óºÅj

The Seven Stars’ Deluxe Suite A, at rear of train, offers unbeatable views. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

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. (Download the tour program here.) And IRT is the first to sign a contract to obtain other dates in October and November of 2016 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.

Deluxe Suite A view (1)

The Seven Stars’ Deluxe Suite A, the train’s largest accommodation, includes a picture window in the back wall. Note the woodwork in the ceiling, windows and floor. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

“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.

Although our group trip is wait list only, we are delighted to announce we are adding other departures for individuals — seeing the wonders of Japan and enjoying the new Seven Stars and Sweet Train offerings.

Participants will spend 10 days touring some of Japan’s most famous cities – among them

SS_WavingStaff

Seven Stars staff are friendly and efficient. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Miyajima. They’ll ride several of Japan’s famed bullet trains. And they’ll ride special trains such as the Odakyu Romance Car and the Yurikamome Train.  They will 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 last year, 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?

l_183027 (1)

JR Kyushu bullet train. Photo courtesy of Japan National Tourism Organization

“The Seven Stars is truly a work of art on wheels,“ said Hardy, who had a test ride last November.

“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.

Oita 2 (1)

JR Kyushu’s beloved “Sweet Train” Photo courtesy JR Kyushu

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 now wait list only. But to receive the Society’s 24-page booklet on our package, click here.  We will send you all the new dates and pricing for our other travel dates for this package.

Or contact The Society of International Railway Travelers® as follows:

JR Kyushu’s Little ‘Sweet Train’ Big on Beauty, Fun, Good Taste

8 Jan
Oita 2 (1)

The Sweet Train glides through Oita Prefecture. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

One of JR Kyushu’s newest railway confections is the Aru Ressha,  or Sweet Train. It’s one of a dozen special trains dreamed up by the creative minds of railway officials on Japan’s southernmost island.

While on my quest to experience JR Kyushu’s luxurious and wildly popular Seven Stars, I was hoping also to ride the Sweet Train — also a star in its own right. It’s a post-tour option on our very popular “Seven Stars Over Japan” luxury tour.

http://www.irtsociety.com/journeyDetail.php?id=230

IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Like its “big sister,” the Sweet Train sells out months in advance.

Several weeks before my departure on Japan Air Line’s Chicago-Tokyo flight, I received the email I’d been hoping for:

“Good news!” wrote Simon Metcalfe, director of international sales for JR Kyushu’s Seven Stars train. “There’s been a cancellation on the Sweet Train. You and I will be going from Sasebo to Nagasaki.”

Several weeks later, Simon and I were standing on the Sasebo Station platform. The Sweet Train had arrived, and the place was bustling.

DSC_0623

Service is friendly, and the design is sumptuous, on the Sweet Train. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

“We recommend doing the Sweet Train before the Seven Stars,” Simon told me, as the Seven Stars’ level of service and amenities are superior.

But as a visiting foreigner (and American, where rail service is sparse), I found every aspect of the Sweet Train beguiling.

For what it is — a little more than two-hour ride with light lunch and four courses of desserts as beautiful as they are tasty — the Sweet Train is a must-do option if you get anywhere near Kyushu. The train’s design, food, service and scenery are superb.

And its history — which surprisingly involves the USA at the turn of the last century — is fascinating.

DSC_0493

The Sweet Train abounds with intricate, locally crafted woodwork. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Anyone who’s seen pictures of or been on the Seven Stars will immediately recognize the work of Sweet Train designer, Mr. Eiji Mitooka, who also designed the Seven Stars.

The Sweet Train reflects many Seven Stars elements: lighting and decor employing similar patterns (fabrics and wallpapers in rich hues, often with a nature theme); sumptuous woods and intricate details for those who take time to seek them out.
Rail enthusiasts, for example, must be sure to excuse themselves to wander back towards the lavatory. On the way, they’ll discover a cabinet with several scale-model steam engines and tenders.

And even the bathroom itself is richly decorated and not to be missed.

The self-propelled Sweet Train comprises just two cars. Car No. 1 has a more traditional, open seating plan. Car No. 2, where Simon and I sat, consists of private “booths,” accessible through sliding wooden doors.

IMG_6013

The Sweet Train serves a seasonal menu of delicacies from Kyushu. The center section of my bento box included vegetables in the shapes of autumn maple and gingko leaves. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Following a starter of orange juice and champagne, the fanciful parade of delicate food starts with a colorful box of meat, fish and vegetables, all sourced from Kyushu’s finest providers.

Then come three sweets courses, made from a variety of seasonal fruits, followed by a delicacy called mignardises (tea cakes).

The menu is the brainchild of Mr. Yoshihiro Narisawa, who has a famous restaurant named Narisawa in Tokyo.

The service on the Sweet Train, meanwhile, is top-notch: friendly, knowledgeable and indefatigable. The Sweet Train staff knows how to put on a show.

DSC_0598

A view out my window as the Sweet Train skirted Omura Bay. Note the delicately constructed wooden window shade. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Also — remember to drag your senses away from the plush interiors, scrumptious food and smiling wait staff — and be sure to admire the view: It’s as if it’s custom-designed for this train. The train skirts the broad, blue Omura Bay — gorgeous.

(Note: My Sasebo-Nagasaki trip was in November — autumn in Kyushu. The Sweet Train summer route is between Oita and Hida.)

And what’s the America / Sweet Train connection?

DSC_0630

A woman in traditional dress greets passengers in Nagasaki. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

In 1907, Kyushu Railways ordered a set of “luxury rail cars” from the Philadelphia manufacturer, J.G. Brill Co.  However, nationalization of the railway sidelined the cars.

Now enter Japanese model railway enthusiast Nobutaro Hara, who remembered the cars from his youth and made a model of the Brill train. Eventually the little train wound up in his model railroad museum in Yokohama.

Sweet Train designer Mr. Mitooka based his modern design on Mr. Hara’s model. And hence — this was probably the first time a full-sized train took inspiration from a model!

Want to ride the Sweet Train? We’ve reserved a few coveted places for participants to add the Sweet Train to our luxury Japan by Rail tour running Nov. 3-18 (which includes a four-day trip on the Seven Stars).

On last year’s tour, everybody booked on our journey could not resist the sweets — on the Sweet Train.  And we could only grab 12 spots on the little train for this year’s tour. (Yes, it’s that popular.)

For a beautiful, full-color, 24-page brochure, please email your name and address to [email protected]. Or call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

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

4 Dec

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.

Seven Stars at Amagase, Oita Prefecture. Photo © Terunobu Utsunomiya

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.

Intricate kumiko lattice woodwork — and its delicate shadow — in the lounge. IRT Photo by O. Hardy

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 two years ago, 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 runs Nov. 5-19, 2016.

IRT Photo

I recently returned from 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.

Deluxe suite with picture window. JR Kyushu Photo

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.).

In the Blue Moon bar/Lounge car. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

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 sending 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.

One course of my Bento lunch. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

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.

Seven Stars chocolate dessert unopened (top) and opened. IRT Photos by Owen Hardy

(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

For more information on our luxury Japan by Rail tour running Nov. 5-19, 2016 (which includes a four-day trip on the Seven Stars), please click here. Or email us at [email protected]. Call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

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

4 Dec

Dinner aboard the Seven Stars calls for semi-formal attire. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

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.)

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.)

Clouds drift below Mt. Aso, an occasionally active volcano, whose elevation is almost a mile high. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

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.)

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

I also visited Mt. Aso, an opportunity our guests will have on their final Seven Stars day. Arising at 6 a.m., I boarded the special Seven Stars motor coach for the multi-switchback ride to the top of this ancient, occasionally active volcano.

It was well worth my early rising. The skies were clear, with low clouds filling the spaces between the mountain range’s five peaks. To complete the experience, Kyushu’s famous “red cattle” were grazing in a nearby field, mooing contentedly.

Once back at the Aso railway station, I found a bounteous feast of fresh, locally sourced vegetables, fruits, eggs and meat awaiting us at the trackside, specially built “Kasei” (Mars) restaurant.

Our guide walks in the tranquil garden of Kakiemon Kiln. IRT Photo by Owen 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.

7_Sided_Basin_005ÉXÉCÅ[ÉgÅiêÙñ ë‰Åj

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. For more information or to book, email us at [email protected]. Call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

 

 

In Search of the Seven Stars, Society of IRT Travels to Japan

13 Nov
Kyushu7StarsExt (1)

The Seven Stars in Kyushu luxury train will be a major feature of IRT’s 2016 Japan tour. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

I leave today for Fukuoka, Japan to ride the world’s latest – and some would say most exclusive – luxury train.

Since its introduction in October, 2013, the 28-passenger Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu has been wildly popular.

How popular?

Kyushu Railways regularly holds lotteries to see who gets to ride the Seven Stars, spending up to $1,700 a day.

Deluxe-Suite-A-View_Small

The Seven Stars Deluxe Suite A. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

I’ve tried my luck with the lottery, to no avail. That’s why I’m joining a group of European journalists next week for a special ride.

The Society of International Railway Travelers insists on personally experiencing trains before they are listed on our World’s Top 25 Trains list. And the Seven Stars will be a major element of our November, 2016 Japan tour. (Click here to get on the first notification list.)

What makes the Seven Stars so special? To judge from the photos and videos I’ve seen, the train’s design rivals anything riding the rails today. (See video below.)

Plus the itinerary luxuriously showcases the charms of Kyushu, renowned for its hot springs, impressive cuisine and natural beauty.

Sweet Train Image copy (1)

Artwork courtesy of JR Kyushu

I’ll also be testing JR Kyushu’s wonderfully named Sweet Train on a two-hour ride between Sasebo and Nagasaki. Designed by the same person as the Seven Stars, Mr. Eiji Mitooka, the Sweet Train features “French-inspired confections that are served during the journey,” according to the Japan Times.

I can’t wait!

Finally, I’ll be flying Japan Air Lines’ Business Class Chicago-Tokyo-Fukuoka round trip. If it’s anything like my last JAL flight, my experience of Japan will begin the moment I enter the cabin.

I’ll be back in this space three weeks from today with my report. In the meantime, please click here to be updated on our 2016 “Japan and the Seven Stars” tour.

Working with our Virtuoso specialists, Windows to Japan, we’re crafting what we think is a magnificent itinerary.

It carefully combines trains, cultural experiences, overnights at ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), visits to gardens and shrines and stunning natural beauty. It takes place at a time when the fall leaves should be spectacular.

And the icing on the cake? Our Nov. 14-18, 2016 Seven Stars in Kyushu luxury rail tour. (Did I mention we’re the first U.S. company to charter the Seven Stars?)

First-come, first-served!  I hope you’ll join us.

Questions: please call 800-478-4881 or 502-897-1725. Or email: [email protected].

Owen C. Hardy is founder and CEO of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

Royal Scotsman Scores with ‘Limited Edition’ Confections

7 Mar
IRT guests Robert & Virginia Montgomery aboard the Royal Scotsman.

IRT guests Robert & Virginia Montgomery aboard the Royal Scotsman. Photo courtesy of the Montgomerys

One of the world’s most intimate luxury trains — the Royal Scotsman — threw open its doors this week for 2016 bookings, even as space this year is dwindling on many departures.

During the last several years, the train has inaugurated several “limited edition” tours, which have proven to be very successful, said Valerie J. Ottofaro.

Ms. Ottofaro is Director of Sales, Belmond Trains & River Cruises. (The train’s official name is Belmond Royal Scotsman, honoring the company’s new brand.)

“The Grand Tour of Great Britain will continue to run as an exclusive tour in 2016,” she said. The dates are July 8-15, 2016.

The popular, 7-night annual tour is for true devotees of history, food & spirits, culture, and life in England, Scotland and Wales.

The varied, exclusive activities include a castle tour with its owners, a ride on the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway and dinner at a country estate.

Royal Scotsman breakfast tray. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Royal Scotsman breakfast tray. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

“IRT guests who have done this trip have raved about it,” said Eleanor Flagler Hardy, President of The Society of International Railway Travelers®.

Other special trips are for devotees of whisky, golf and Scottish country life.

The “Classic Whisky Tours” — in partnership with the Scottish Malt Whisky Society — “have proved very successful over the past two years,” Ms. Ottofaro said.

The five-day whisky tour includes visits and tastings at a number of distilleries as well as on-board tastings in the train’s lounge car. For 2016, one trip is planned: April 25–29.

Belmond plans one Classic Golf Tour for June 13-17, 2016.

“This is a four-night journey through the heart of the Scottish Highlands,” Ms. Ottofaro said, “offering three rounds of golf at some of the country’s finest and most northerly of the UK’s championship golf courses.” One of the courses will be Gleneagles.

“The Heritage Homes and Gardens tour,” meanwhile, “has been received very well over the past two years,” she said. Next year the trip runs June 6-10.

“This is an exploration of Scotland’s most fascinating and scenic country homes and gardens,” said Ms. Ottofaro.

“It’s a special four-night tour hosted by an experienced gardener, a professional photographer and a freelance garden writer who provide guests with gardening tips and fascinating history along the way.”

Taking the perfect photo on the Royal Scotsman's outdoor rear platform. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Taking the perfect photo on the Royal Scotsman’s outdoor rear platform. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Meanwhile, officials said space was almost gone for several 2015 specialty tours, including the annual Grand Tour.

Just one double and one single cabin remain for the 8-day Grand Tour of England, Scotland and Wales, a Belmond reservations specialist told IRT yesterday. This year’s dates are July 10-17.

This year’s April 27-May 1 “Classic Whisky Tour” has one twin and two single cabins left.

A second 2015 “Classic Whisky” departure, July 5-9, has just one twin cabin remaining.

Drinking tea in the lounge car. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Drinking tea in the lounge car. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

More space is available for this year’s annual Heritage and Garden Tour, the spokesperson said: five twins and two singles. The dates are June 5-9.

Call (800) 478-4881 or email [email protected], if you’d like to grab a spot. IRT will accept bookings on a first-come, first-served basis. A 15% deposit is required to secure your booking. If the trip is within 60 days of travel, full payment will be required.

(Book by March 31 for value-added special offers for certain departures. Restrictions apply.)

“Booking soon gives you a better chance of getting just what you want,” IRT’s Mrs. Hardy said.

RedLady

Lively conversation in the Royal Scotsman lounge. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

“Also, in general, the earlier you book, the closer you’ll be to the lounge and dining car. And that’s especially true for singles, since there are only four single cabins on each departure — with no single supplement.”

Another success story is the 2014 addition of the 3-night Edinburgh-London tour, Majestic England. An add-on return trip, “A Tale of Two Cities,” is an overnight London-Edinburgh journey whose emphasis is on-board food, spirits and ambience.

“We have seen encouraging sales for both journeys,” Ms. Ottofaro said.

The 3-night Edinburgh-London trip includes Alnwick Castle, home to the Duke of Northumberland’s family; York, site of the National Railway Museum; Sandringham, the Norfolk retreat of the Royal Family; and Cambridge.

Toddy time in the lounge car. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Toddy time in the lounge car. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Thus, a traveler could combine this 3-night Edinburgh-London trip to the one-night London-Edinburgh return journey.

“And twice each season — in August and September — the London itinerary has been scheduled so it can be added to a 5-day Classic journey through the Scottish Highlands,” Ms. Hardy said.

For questions or to book, call (800) 478-4881 (U.S. and Canada) or (502) 897-1725 (elsewhere). Or email us: [email protected].

A Day in the Ukrainian Forest Riding The Carpathian Tram

23 Apr
The authors' narrow-gauge diesel railcar crosses the Mizunka River on its journey into the Carpathian Forest.

The authors’ narrow-gauge railcar crosses the Mizunka River in the Carpathian Forest.

By Bruce Anderson and Yana Kirpel; photos by Mr. Anderson

Deep in the Ukraine’s Ivano-Frankivsk region, surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, chugs a little train from another era: the narrow-gauge “Carpathian Tram.”

On summer weekends, this unique, tiny train allows tourists to admire the Carpathian Mountains’ natural beauty, visit remote villages, pick mushrooms, drink mineral water, and experience local Ukrainian culture.

The original line was built in 1873 by Austrian timber merchant Baron Leopold to haul lumber from the forest. Many of the beautiful wood homes in the region are reminders of his efforts.

Originally there were 84 miles of 750-mm track. A 1990 flood reduced that length by about half. Today, the Carpathian Tram is the Ukraine’s only remaining narrow-gauge forestry line in regular use.

The same company that built the railway also developed spa resorts. The region remains a major holiday destination — one that continues to provide passengers for the train’s tourist operation. The tram typically runs from the village of Vygoda to Gorgany, a distance of about nine miles.

IMG_7385

The view from the back platform shows the often twisted narrow gauge course through the mountains

We took our Carpathian Tram tour during spring break. We rented a single railcar for our exclusive use, and we’re glad we did. The railcar’s cozy seats took up the rear three-quarters of the vehicle, with the driver’s compartment up front. That made it easy to chat with our friendly driver. (He even let us blow the whistle!)

A noon whistle blast, in fact, signaled our departure. Soon we were on our way, winding and climbing along the bank of the Mizunka River. We would cross four of the line’s more than 30 bridges during our day-long adventure.

We made several stops en route. The first was to sample mineral water from a natural spring. This water is said to have healing properties and is highly recommended for good health.

The co-author and her son Kirell enjoy a typical Ukrainian breakfast in the Carpathian countryside.

The co-author and her son Kirell enjoy a typical Ukrainian breakfast in the Carpathian countryside.

A bit further down the line, a local resident invited us to her house for a typical Ukrainian breakfast: bacon, potatoes, bread, herbal teas and vareniki (a Ukrainian specialty of dumplings filled with meat, potatoes and mushrooms). There was also — of course — vodka, made in part from the local mineral water!

A log train makes its way along the Ukraine's only remaining forestry railway.

A log train makes its way along the Ukraine’s only remaining forestry railway.

During our breakfast, a real, working, narrow-gauge log train passed us on its way down to the mill.

Our last stop was at a small hanging bridge where we walked across the river to pick flowers and admire the natural beauty of the region.  We wanted to go further. But all too soon, we had to return to Vygoda to end our trip before dusk.

Practical Information:  Vygoda is about two hours’ drive south of Lviv in Western Ukraine; it can only be reached by car over very rough roads. However, it’s very easy to arrange a private transfer from Lviv for the day. Cost for the tram is about $19 per person, not including the breakfast. We charted the entire railcar for about $125. Summer trips typically last a bit longer, running from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with more stops along the way and an open-air car included.  For further information, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers.

(Bruce Anderson is a frequent IRT contributor. His friend Yana is a resident of Kiev.)

%d bloggers like this: