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IRT On Luxury Safari

3 Jun A mother and her cubs watch us with casual curiosity in the Maasai Mara National Reserve. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

If you’re planning an adventure on Africa’s Rovos Rail or the Blue Train – two of our World’s Top 25 Trains® – don’t make the trek without adding a safari extension for some up-close animal encounters.

That’s our conclusion after our recent study tour to East Africa with one of the world’s top safari partners — Micato.

Read on for highlights!

          An elephant family on its daily march to the swamps in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.                     IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Scene 1:
Trundling along in Kenya’s dramatic Laikipia Conservancy, our guide stops suddenly to admire a giant male elephant with enormous tusks playing in the river below, splashing and spouting.

         A mother and her cubs watch us with casual curiosity in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.              IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The elephant swims across the river, lumbering through a pod of dangerous hippos. He trumpets angrily, seeming to scream, “Let me pass!” The hippos scatter.

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Wildebeests leap across our path in the Serengeti. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

Scene 2:
Quietly approaching a female lion in our Land Rover, we admire her from about 20 feet away. She looks at us placidly, and then, deciding us worthy, she pads into the woods and returns — with her two-month-old cubs.

Scene 3:
Perched on a road in the middle of the Serengeti, we witness an incredible sight: the beginning of the great migration — 1-2 million wildebeests and about 600,000 zebra and other hooved animals —heading north to grassier, wetter Masaai Mara. The roaring wildebeests cross single-file in front of us.

Scene 4:
Lying in our luxurious tents, we listen, enchanted, to the sounds of nature all around us: weaver birds flitting and chirping, hyenas crunching the bones of their prey, the honk of a hippo in the river right outside our tent, the seemingly thousands of birds waking us in the morning.

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A rainbow comes out over Amboseli National Park during our nightly “sundowner,” where our guides serve us drinks and snacks atop a lookout point. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

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          A Maasai welcome for IRT’s Rachel Hardy as we step off our bush plan and into the                        Maasai Mara Reserve. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

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Giraffes in Serengeti National Park. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

For both of us, traveling together made everything extra special: seeing our lodgings for the first time, admiring the beauty of the zebras (Rachel’s favorite) and spying our first family of elephants (my favorites!).

We hadn’t gotten to spend so much time together in years!

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We loved what our guide called the “little five hundred.” A sampling of the feathered little five hundred: top left: guinea fowl, center left: mating crowned cranes, bottom left: weaver bird, center:                          malachite kingfisher, top right: saddle-billed stork, bottom right: ostrich.                                IRT Photos by Eleanor & Rachel Hardy.

 

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We loved visiting a Maasai village in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Here, the women prepare to greet us with a traditional song and dance. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Interested in joining one of our South or East African departures? Space fills up early and quickly for journeys on Rovos Rail & the Blue Train – and of course for all the prime safari camps. Call us: (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Email us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com Or vist our web site: http://www.irtsociety.com

Eleanor Hardy, IRT President & co-owner, and Rachel Hardy, IRT’s newest travel associate, were honored to be invited to join Micato’s study safari in Kenya & Tanzania. Many warm thanks to Micato owners Jane & Felix Pinto and the entire Micato team!

 

Silk Road Snapshot

22 Apr

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 is for many of our travelers the most adventurous and best-loved “journey of a lifetime.”ShLaExpr1955

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

We spoke with Society of International Railway Travelers President Eleanor Hardy about her recollections from her 2013 Silk Road adventure.

The Shangri-La Express: “Hands-down the best train in China – but we do not consider this a luxury train! The food, service, and entire experience was considerably upgraded since the last time we’d experienced it. And there is no better way to see these out-of-the-way destinations.”

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

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One of two 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 Beijingese 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 Mogoa Thousand Buddha Complex. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

  • DUNHUANG: “The Magao 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 once again by night. The blues in the architecture here are magnificent, and the way the Square lights up at night 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 castle where Genghis Khan directed 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.”

2016 Dates: Sept. 19-Oct. 10 (Moscow-Beijing), Sept. 23-Oct. 13 (Beijing-Moscow)
2017 Dates: Sept. 22-Oct. 13 (Moscow-Beijing), Sept. 26-Oct. 16 (Beijing-Moscow)

Interested in joining one of our Silk Road departures? Space fills up early and quickly for this twice-a-year journey. Call us: (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Email us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com Or vist our web site: http://www.irtsociety.com

Pounce Like a Leopard for Luxury Rail Africa 2016, 2017

15 Apr
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©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
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©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
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©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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

Golden Eagle Danube Express Introduces Snazzy New Bar Car

19 Feb
Bartender in GE Danube Express bar car

Bartender hard at work in the Golden Eagle Danube Express’ new bar car. Golden Eagle photo

The Golden Eagle Danube Express now boasts a stylish, new bar car — making travel on the train even more enjoyable. It began service late last season.

Unlike the luxury train’s former lounge car, the new car has an actual bar area, says Golden Eagle’s Ian Lomas.

“There is a piano central to the car and various types of seating arrangements — tables and chairs for two and four, plus sofas and bar stools.”

The car seats 30, Mr. Lomas says.

“That ties in with the size of the overall group on board the Danube Express, so it’s not much problem for guests to get seating. And not everyone is in the bar car at the same time.”

Enjoying music in the bar car.

IRT Society guest Jack Swanberg enjoys music in the Danube Express’ previous lounge car on last year’s Venice-Budapest “Balkan Odyssey” tour. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

 

Operating from its home base in Budapest, the GE Danube Express is a “supremely comfortable train,” says IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy, “And the lounge car always has been a big reason for its congenial ambiance.”

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The new GE Danube Express lounge car features tables for two and four, as well as sofas and bar stools. Golden Eagle photo

“But more seating and an actual bar will make a good thing even better.”

Ms. Hardy has ridden the Danube Express twice: from Istanbul to Budapest, and from Warsaw to Budapest.

“But what I’d really like to do is the Budapest-Venice trip, the Balkan Odyssey,” she says. “The itinerary fascinates me.”

The tour offers “so much in a relatively short amount of time — on some days visiting two countries,” said  IRT’s Angela Walker, who made the trip with a Society of International Railway Travelers group last year.

And the history of the region is fascinating, she says. Example: guests see the place where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated — the event that ignited World War I.

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Danube Express bar car menu. Most drinks are covered in the fare. Golden Eagle

The 12-day, 8-country Balkan Odyssey tour operates June 1-12 and July 4-15 this year. To download a complete itinerary in PDF format, please click here. To see the itinerary on the IRT society website, please click here.

Other Golden Eagle Danube Express tours include Central Europe & Transylvania and the Venice-Istanbul Balkan Explorer.

For more information, call our office at (800)478-4881, or (502) 897-1725. Email: tourdesk@irtssociety.com.

 

 

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

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

JR Kyushu’s newest railway confection 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 last month 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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. 5-19, 2016 (which includes a four-day trip on the Seven Stars).

So far, everybody booked on our journey could not resist the sweets — on the Sweet Train.  We only have 16 places left on the main tour.

For a beautiful, full-color, 24-page brochure, please email your name and address to tourdesk@irtsociety.com. 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 tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

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