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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

New Luxury Train Reflects Peru’s Beauty, Culture, Spirit

2 Dec

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-5-32-02-pm“I wanted to connect the interior with the location and make it a holistic journey of discovery.”

So says Inge Moore, interior designer of South America’s first overnight luxury train, the Belmond Andean Explorer, in Belmond’s newly arrived brochure. The train’s debut is scheduled for May, 2017.

“Colors and textures are inspired by Peruvian nature,” Ms. Moore continues. “Soft ivory alpaca tones, Andean slate greys and woven textures and handicrafts”

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Artist’s conception of Belmond Andean Explorer lounge car. The new luxury train’s decor will draw its inspiration from Peru’s natural beauty.

To download a PDF copy of the brochure, which describes the new train and its itineraries in pictures, diagrams and words, click here.

Or email us for a hard copy (very limited supply).

We’ve blocked space on one of the train’s first itineraries — Cusco to Puno to Arequipa. It’s part of a special trip June 1-11 that also includes the Belmond Hiram Bingham luxury train, which runs between Cusco and Machu Picchu. To download a copy of this special itinerary, click here.

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

“This truly is some of the most breathtaking and inspiring scenery in the world,” says IRT’s President, Eleanor Flagler Hardy, who traveled the special IRT route. “Traveling across the Peruvian Altiplano, with the Andes in the background, is astonishing,” she says.

Peru itself is a fabulous destination. Its friendly people, rustic luxury, great dining, amazing architecture and fascinating culture make this a journey not to be missed.

To reserve your spot, call or email us. (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

 

 

 

 

IRT On Luxury Safari

3 Jun

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.

 

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