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2018 VSOE Dates Posted; Wait List for Annual Istanbul Galas

24 Mar

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Get your name on the wait list for sought-after spots on the 2018 Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’ annual Istanbul extravaganzas.

(This year’s Paris-Istanbul trip is sold out; space still exists for the Sept. 1-6 Istanbul-Venice trip. Want to go? Contact us ASAP.)

Tentative 2018 dates for the Paris-Istanbul annual journey are Aug. 24-29. Tentative 2018 dates for Istanbul-Venice are Aug. 31-Sept. 5.

If you’ve always wanted to be a part of one of these classic trips, contact us to get your name on the wait list now. You are under no obligation.

Italian_NunsMeanwhile, Belmond, the company which operates the VSOE, also confirmed dates for the vintage luxury train’s other 2018 journeys. They include:

IRT 2015 Italy Violin Postcd LR copy

While wandering the streets of Florence, Italy, Owen and Eleanor Hardy heard this captivating violinist long before seeing him. This poster celebrates the beauty and humanity of travel on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. It has long held its spot on The Society of IRT’s World’s Top 25 Trains® list. Poster design by Stephen Sebree; IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

Of special note: 2018 dates for our Romantic Italian Holiday, a dream itinerary created by The Society of IRT, also are now on line.

The tour combines two nights in Florence at the Belmond Villa San Michele; two nights in Venice at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani; two days and a night on the VSOE from Venice to the English Channel, capped off by afternoon tea on the Bellmond British Pullman into London.

2018 prices were not available at press time; they will be coming soon. Contact us, and we will notify you when they are available.

Email IRT or call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725 for more info. To book, click here.

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. 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

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.

IRT’s Angela Walker S. Africa- Bound in Search of Travel Gold

3 Mar

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As I write this, IRT’s Vice President Angela Walker is aboard a South African Airways jet, luxuriating in business class. She arrives Saturday, and she’ll be whisked away in her private limo and taken to her deluxe hotel.  Her goal: scout out the country’s best air, hotels, restaurants, safaris, gardens and tours.

Why now?

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Angela Walker, IRT Vice President, enjoys dinner on a World’s Top 25 Train.

Angela’s laying the groundwork for the Society of International Railway Travelers’ 13-day tour to South Africa, which will include 3 nights in Cape Town, Rovos Rail‘s fabulous “African Collage” luxury rail extravaganza, and one night in Johannesburg. Our trip will be January 19 – Feb. 1, 2018. We will offer a 3-night safari extension.

“This will give me lots of ideas for planning the perfect pre- and post-tour hotels, dining and activities for our guests,” Angela says.

Angela will be forging relationships with the best travel partners in the region — relationships crucial to our guests’ travel satisfaction. (Click here to see her travel map to date.)

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She’ll stay in such five-star hotels as Johannesburg’s Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa as well as Cape Town’s Taj and the One&Only. She’ll test out a day in the Winelands and have lunch at the fabulous La Residence.  She also has an appointment at Belmond’s magnificent Mount Nelson.

She’ll spend time at Singita luxury safari camp in Kruger National Park, visit Cape Point, and even enjoy a Penguin’s Lunch (can’t wait to find out what that is!).

She’s scheduled to visit Cape Town’s elegant Ellerman House and tour its art collection.

“Since I am a huge animal lover, I am most looking forward to spotting game on safari in Kruger National Park. And seeing the penguins – my favorite animal – on my way to Cape Point.

“Then there’s the Winelands, the fabulous hotels, special meals and visits – it will be an incredible trip.”

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When she returns home — and hopefully, if she has time while she’s traveling — she’ll report her findings here (on Track 25), and on Facebook and Twitter.

A few other highlights from Angela’s itinerary:

Angela is one of nine agents — out of 120 applicants — chosen to participate in the exclusive travel study tour by Virtuoso, our luxury travel consortium. It’s a well-deserved honor, and we couldn’t be happier for her.

To get on the early-bird, first notification list about our January, 2018 group tour featuring Rovos Rail‘s African Collage, click here. Or call (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725.

 

Seven Stars Success Prompts Special Fall Japan Tour

16 Feb
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Japan’s Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu has set the world luxury train bar even higher, with such amenities as its “Deluxe Suite A”pictured here. JR Kyushu

 

Almost 15 months ago today, I left home 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 at a price of up to $2,000 a day.

 

Now I know why. I, too, was blown away.

So much so that we named the Seven Stars the latest of our “World’s Top 25 Trains®.”

What makes the Seven Stars so special? Simply put, the train’s design rivals anything riding the rails today. (See video below.)

“OMG! I have never been on such a gorgeous train!” one of our guests wrote soon after she boarded last fall.

That’s why I’m thrilled to announce that the Seven Stars will again be a star element of our November, 2017 Japan tour. (Click here for full itinerary.)

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

Sweet Train Image copy (1)More good news: we’ll again offer, as an extension, the two-hour ride between Sasebo and Nagasaki on JR Kyushu’s aptly named Sweet Train.

Working with our Virtuoso specialists, Windows to Japan, we’ve crafted a magnificent itinerary.

Our Nov. 3 – 18, 2017 tour carefully combines bullet trains, scenic trains, cultural experiences, overnights at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn), visits to gardens and shrines, and stunning natural beauty.

It occurs at a time when the fall leaves should be spectacular and the weather perfect.

And, new this year, we’re adding a ride on JR Kyushu’s SL Hitoyoshi steam train along the scenic Kuma River. Also new this year is a visit to the Kyoto Railway Museum.

The icing on the cake? The four-day Seven Stars luxury rail tour grand finale. (Did I mention we’re the first U.S. company to charter the Seven Stars?)

It’s first-come, first-served.  So join us!

For the latest on our “Deluxe Rail Journey of Japanfeaturing the Seven Stars of Kyushu this November, please click here.

Questions: please call 800-478-4881 or 502-897-1725. Or email: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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

2-Train Luxury Tour Revels in Peru’s Culture, Beauty, Spirit

20 Jan
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IRT passengers enjoying the outdoor viewing area on the Belmond Hiram Bingham. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy.

Is Peru on your top 10 bucket list?

You’re not alone. It’s one of the world’s hottest travel destinations.

Peru offers “truly some of the most breathtaking and inspiring scenery in the world,” says IRT’s President, Eleanor Flagler Hardy, who counts Peru as one of her favorite destinations.

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Belmond Andean Explorer lounge

“Crossing the Peruvian Altiplano (aboard a luxury train), with the Andes in the background, is astonishing,” she says.

When Belmond — the company that gives you, among other luxury trains, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express — announced it was debuting this summer its new luxury train, the Belmond Andean Explorer, we knew we had to be on it.

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Belmond Andean Explorer bedroom

The result is our tour  Peru: Journey to a Lost World.

The special tour runs June 1-11 using the Belmond Hiram Bingham luxury day train between Cusco and Machu Picchu.

The tour uses the Belmond Andean Explorer overnight luxury train for the three days and two nights between Cusco, Puno (Lake Titicaca) and Arequipa. Other dates also are available.

Why go? Peru is a fabulous destination, Mrs. Hardy says.

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View from the current Andean Explorer train, en route to Puno from Cusco. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Its friendly people, rustic luxury, glorious five-star hotels, great dining, amazing architecture and fascinating culture make this a “must do” journey. Every IRT journey to Peru has been a huge hit.

To download a copy of this special itinerary, click here.

To download a PDF describing the new train and its itineraries in pictures, diagrams and words, click here.

Call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Feeling Stressed? Try Belmond Royal Scotsman’s New Spa Car

13 Jan

rs_spa2-copy It was already fabulous. But next season takes it up a notch.

Guests of the Belmond Royal Scostman can enjoy increased pampering: a massage, facial or “mani-pedi” in the luxury train’s new “Bamford Haybarn Spa Car.”

When its season opens April 17, the Scottish luxury train will join India’s Deccan Odyssey in being the world’s only premiere trains offering onboard spa facilities.

The Society of International Railway Travelers is thrilled to celebrate this new car by offering new guests, traveling in April, July and August (and who book by March 17) a complimentary £150 per cabin spa credit.

Although Belmond says the spa should be able to accommodate guests’ reservations on board, IRT advises clients to make their spa requests with IRT when they book.

The Bamford wellness brand uses nature for its inspiration, it says. The British company is renowned for its botanical skincare collections and holistic treatments.

rs_spa1-copyThe Bamford Signature Facial is an 85-minute ritual that aims to restore, rejuvenate and repair the skin, with everything from facial reflexology to deep tissue back massage and ancient yogic breathing.

The massage focuses on Shiatsu pressure points with hot stones to release tension and promote deep relaxation.

The Haybarn Spa car’s two relaxing single treatment rooms boast picture windows looking out onto the beautiful Scottish countryside. (But you can have the curtains closed of course!)

The new car also boasts 2 new sleeping compartments — one with two twin beds and the other with a  double bed. This boosts the train’s capacity from 36 to 40.

rs_spa3-copyThe Belmond Royal Scotsman offers two 7-night itineraries departing from Edinburgh and a number of shorter itineraries. Here is a list.

Guests travel past sweeping glens, towering peaks and black-mirrored lochs across the Scottish Highlands.My favorite: The Grand Northwestern.  An IRT client favorite is the Grand Tour of England, Scotland and Wales.

We think it truly feels like a fine country home on wheels. It has exquisitely appointed en-suite cabins with personal steward service.

Authentic (and fabulous) Scottish dishes complement the Highland experience. We love the congenial dining car with the longer tables.

Best of all — in the minds of IRT staff  and guests — is the observation car, with its outdoor viewing platform at the rear.

Inside, the atmosphere is luxuriously intimate, with with the tiny bar offering an impressive collection of fine Scottish whiskies — I counted 50+ on my last trip —all included in the price of the tour.

See our award-winning Belmond Royal Scotsman video here.

For more information or to book, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers: (800) 478-4881, (502) 897-1725, or tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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