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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!

 

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.

 

 

 

Flexible? Try Orient-Express, Rocky Mountaineer, India’s Deccan Odyssey This Autumn

24 Jul

Europe, Canada or India calling? If so, now hear this:

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Get two free nights at the super luxurious Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice when you book the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express London-Paris-Venice on trips running Oct. 25-26, Oct. 29-30, Nov. 1-2 or Nov. 5-6. Click here for more info.

Get the same deal when you book the VSOE the other direction, Venice-Paris-London, for trips running Oct. 28-29, Oct. 31-Nov. 1 or Nov. 4-5. Click here for more info.

The offer is valued at $1,300 per person, is for new bookings only and must be made by Aug. 31. Restrictions apply.

Can’t tell you how much we love this hotel: it is fabulous. See our review and photos here.

Rocky Mountaineer

Get $1,000 per couple in extra services when you book a qualifying 2016 Rocky Mountaineer package of 7 nights or more. The offer is good until Aug. 28.

The luxurious GoldLeaf service gives you a ring-side seat on the glories of the Rocky Mountains’ natural beauty.

Our recommendation: opt for the 12-day “Grand Rail Circle” tour, which packs in three scenic rail routes.

Great plus by booking this trip with us: two complimentary airport limo transfers — a value of $240.

Deccan Odyssey

With Delhi as the beginning of the Deccan Odyssey’s itinerary, a complimentary night in a top Delhi hotel, as well as a free private transfer upon arrival or departure, will be welcome news. The offer includes breakfast and taxes.

Choose a deluxe room from either the chic, modern Lait Hotel or the sumptuous, classical Kempinski Ambience.

The offer is valued at $300-$400. We love the Deccan Odyssey, as you know. Its onboard operators are some of the best in the luxury market.

For more information on the Deccan Odyssey, click here. For more information or to book any of these trains, email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Or call us at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725.

Venice’ Cipriani, Florence’ Villa San Michele Round Out a Week of Orient-Express Excess

11 Apr
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The breakfasts are sumptuous at the Villa San Michele. IRT Photo by O. Hardy

(To read part one of Eleanor & Owen Hardy’s “Romantic Italian Holiday,” please click here.)

The Villa San Michele, Florence

The magic begins the moment you arrive at Florence’ airport or railway station, when you are met by your driver for your private transfer to the Villa San Michele. Nestled on a hilltop surrounded by trees and terraced gardens, it overlooks the city of Florence, spread out before you like a sepia-toned Renaissance map.

Eleanor and I succumbed. Avid gardeners, we spent our first day walking the Villa’s gardens, filled with lemon trees and roses. We swam in the heated pool, perched above the building. That evening, we dined alfresco in the loggia on the superb Tuscan cuisine, as we watched the Duomo catch the last of the sun’s rays.

The next day is reserved for sight-seeing. If you’re like us, you’ll take full advantage, perhaps visiting on your own the more well-known sights: the Uffizi Gallery, the Accademia Gallery, the Boboli Gardens, then letting your private guide drive you further afield to some of Florence’ more exclusive attractions.

The Hotel Cipriani, Venice

You repeat this gentle schedule in Venice, following your first-class transfer via Trenitalia ETR 600 high-speed train.

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The Cipriani. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

This time it’s the Cipriani, whose overwhelming delights keep you from leaving-even with “The Most Serene Republic of Venice” beckoning. Following a warm greeting from the front desk-we’d arrived at midday-we were escorted to a waterside table for an alfresco lunch, preceded by sparkling, cold Bellinis-peach nectar mixed with champagne-one of the Cipriani’s signature drinks.

Our dinner at the more formal Fortuny restaurant probably ranks as our anniversary week’s peak dining experience. Eleanor declared her scampi the best she’d ever tasted. (More than one admiring diner from nearby tables asked her what she’d ordered.)

The two balconies of our deluxe two-room suite overlooked the lagoon-perfect for room-service breakfasts. Inside, the Moorish-themed décor featured incredible silk and glass Fortuny lamps, pale green Moorish trim on the walls and delicate Venetian mirrors.

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Breakfast at the Cipriani. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

Dining at the Cipriani is reason enough to travel to Venice. Our first night we ate at the Cip’s Club, a floating restaurant built on pontoons. The sky turned rose over the Grand Canal, as boats glided past and candlelight danced on the tables.

Speedboat to Paradise

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The Cipriani’s classic speed boat. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Meanwhile, if you can tear yourself away from the restaurants, check out the Cipriani’s swimming pool, the largest in Venice. We began our day with touring – water taxi to Murano, a visit up the bell tower, a lovely afternoon dancing, listening to music and enjoying a light lunch at the Café Florian on San Marcos Square. The experience was delightful but intense, what with the hordes of tourists, especially when a cruise ship docked.

What to do? Directly opposite San Marcos’ Square, we boarded the hotel’s free shuttle, a classic wooden speedboat, back to the Cipriani. Travel time was all of 10 minutes (the service is available around the clock and departs every 10 minutes.).

“The open-air bar overlooks the pool, giving this gorgeous place the atmosphere of a Mediterranean resort,” Eleanor wrote in her diary. “The pool is heated to a perfect temperature. You feel so buoyant in the salt water, you could swim all day. It’s a blessing to escape far from the madding crowds.”

For more information on how you can take your own “Romantic Italian Holiday,” click here. To read a short account of our Orient-Express trip, please click here. To see a photo gallery of our Orient-Express adventure, click here.

Orient-Express Tops Week- Long Romantic Italian Holiday

11 Apr
VSOE-postcard

© The Society of International Railway Travelers®

Problem: How do you soak up the splendors of Florence and Venice without being drowned in the sea of tourists they attract?

Solution: Treat yourself to paradise hotels that mind your privacy, yet allow you preferred access to their home cities’ many glories.

Then slip out of town on a five-star rolling hotel to London: the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

This was our romantic Italian holiday, a celebration of Eleanor’s and my 30th wedding anniversary:

•    Two nights in Florence at the Villa San Michele, a former monastery turned five-star hotel;

•    Two nights in Venice at the Cipriani, iconic waterside pleasure palace overlooking the Grand Canal;

•    Two days and a night on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, capped off by high tea on the British Pullman into London.

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Italian nuns admire the Orient-Express at Venice’ Santa Lucia station. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

We did this three years ago this May, and we’re still giddy.

In fact, we loved it so much, we made it into an offical IRT trip. The Society’s Orient-Express Romantic Italian Holiday is pure poetry.

The package includes hotels and transfers between railway stations, airports and hotels, plus tours. It also covers Florence-Venice transport via first-class Eurostar high-speed train and the complete Orient-Express trip, including all on-board meals and British Pullman fare.

You get what you pay for, and this doesn’t come cheap. But it’s perfect for honeymoons, anniversary celebrations, or any other occasion demanding over-the-top luxury and romance.

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A waiter sets the table for lunch during a brief halt in Paris. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

The Orient-Express

The Orient-Express is the star of the show; Eleanor and I fell in love with this train after our 2005 Paris-Istanbul trip. There is so much to admire:

•    Restored, 1920s-vintage cars: Our favorites are the three diners. The “Côte d’Azur” sports genuine Lalique crystal panels, while the “Étoile du Nord” displays elegant marquetry. Our favorite is the “L’Oriental,” whose gleaming, ebony walls, adorned with colorful animal paintings, remind one of an exquisite Chinese lacquered box.

•    Attentive yet discreet service: Jake, our steward, a cheerful, young New Zealander, kept us aware of waterfalls, castles, and bridges worthy of a photograph; and he was never too busy to point out to his obviously train-obsessed charges such details as our car’s old-fashioned, coal-fired heating system or the narrow, steward’s bed tucked into one corner of the aisle.

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Toddy time on the Orient-Express. IRT photo by E. Hardy

•    Atmosphere: everything about the Orient-Express exudes “class.” The stewards, waiters, barmen and train personnel are resplendent in their uniforms of royal blue or white. Even the passengers rise to the occasion. Most of them dressed formally for our lavish dinner through the Alps. And they mixed amiably afterwards in the lounge car, as the pianist played Cole Porter, George Gershwin and other classics late into the night.

•    Windows that can be rolled down, a rarity in today’s world of hermetically sealed travel: One can actually feel the wind in one’s face, smell the new-mown hay in the Dolomites, and practically taste the frozen, moonlit Alpine peaks late at night.

•    The British Pullman: Many travelers don’t realize that the trip between the Channel and London requires a separate train, and what a train it is. The restored, 1920s- and 1930s-vintage day carriages are true museum pieces, each one unique down to the painstakingly laid floor tile depicting classical Greek scenes in the bathrooms.

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British Pullman. IRT photo by O.H.

And your three-hour British Pullman ride to London gives you ample time to enjoy your high tea of champagne, wine, finger sandwiches, freshly baked scones with clotted cream, cakes, breads and more.

But wait a minute. What if you choose to ride the Orient-Express first, from London to Venice, say? Isn’t the rest of the week a bit anti-climactic?

Not at all. Happily, the Orient-Express company owns both the Villa San Michele and the Cipriani. We found the same over-the-top service and attention to detail at the company’s “stationary hotels” as we did aboard its “rolling hotel.” The experience is seamless.

To read our next installment —  “Riding the Orient-Express off the rails — please click here.

The Al-Andalus: Whirlwind Tour Through Southern Spain

9 Jun

IRT writer Angela Walker and traveling companion Shawn Bidwell enjoy dinner on board the Al-Andalus.  IRT photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

Embarking on the Al-Andalus for the first time from Seville was a bit of an adventure, as my traveling companion Shawn and I had to feel our way around the Santa Justa station in lieu of proper signage. But once on board, the train was a welcoming and luxurious oasis that was well worth the initial confusion.

View of the Alhambra from our wonderful local restaurant in Granada. IRT photo by Angela Walker

Al-Andalus passenger Shawn Bidwell disembarks the train in Granada. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

After being welcomed with champagne in the lounge, we settled into our Superior cabin, equipped with a lovely golden couch – which folded into a comfortable and roomy double bed at night – a writing table and chair, a spacious closet, and a full en-suite bathroom. The modern touches, such as vacuum toilet and individually controlled air conditioning do not take away from the beautiful Belle Époque design – striking sconces accentuate the carefully crafted inlaid wooden flower designs throughout the train.

Most of the Al-Andalus sleeping cars were built in France in the late 1920s, as were all four public cars: lounge, two diners and bar car, which are as comfortable and beautiful as the sleepers. The dining and bar car is lovely in tones of red and gold, while the lounge car is a more muted gray with large welcoming couches.

We could have spent a week enjoying the comforts of the train alone, but the many stops along the way – Cordoba, Baeza, Ubeda, Granada, Ronda, Cadiz, Jerez, Sanlucar, and Sevilla – provided an exciting and whirlwind six-day tour through southern Spain. Granada’s stunning Alhambra, built by the Moorish rulers in the 14th century, was among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites we took in on our journey, as was the famed Seville Cathedral – third largest in the world.

The staff of the Al-Andalus is always at the ready with hot coffee and tea during daily breakfast on board. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

Some stops were difficult to navigate with a group (the small and winding streets of Cordoba, for example), but the Al-Andalus guides did an excellent job of keeping everyone lively and on track. Most travelers on our departure were Spanish-speakers – but not to fear. As we were two of only three English-speakers on board, Mercedes, our fantastic translator employed by the train, became our de facto personal guide. She was patient with any questions we had and made us feel quite at home.

For Part II of Angela Walker’s adventures on the Al-Andalus, please click here.

Futuristic Luxury Train to Call at Quebec Ski Resort Complex

25 Aug

Credit: Morelli Designer

Two years in the making, and inspired by a co-founder of the Cirque du Soleil, Canada’s “Train de Le Massif de Charlevoix” is scheduled to begin running Sept. 9 between Québec City and La Malbaie.

The eight-car train will provide guests with scenic vistas along the St. Lawrence River, fine dining and a high-tech, touristic program, its promoters say. The one-way trip will last three and a half hours.

The train is a project of the Canadian ski resort and leisure company Le Massif de Charlevoix.

During the trip, the company says, “passengers discover the Charlevoix terroir at its best, savoring a refined lunch served on the morning cruise and a lovely four-course gastronomic dinner on the return journey. All along the way, a unique multi-media presentation accompanies the rail experience.”

Le Massif de Charlevoix

The 87-mile route hugs the St. Lawrence River shoreline, passing the 272-foot Chute Montmorency waterfall, the Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Reserve (famous for bird-watching) and several historic seaside towns.

Upon arrival in La Malbaie, passengers have a three-hour stopover for strolling down the pier, wandering along the shores of the St. Lawrence River, admiring the Fairmont Le Manor Richelieu (a luxury Quebec resort) or visiting regional attractions, the company says.

Artist's conception of the Train of le Massif de Charlevoix

In addition, the operator is encouraging rail travelers to stay in the area for extended visits of one or two nights. Activities such as sea kayaking on the St. Lawrence River, paragliding, bicycling, hiking, rock-climbing and a visit to the Charlevoix Museum all are possible in the immediate area.

For a more extended vacation, passengers can stay at the Fairmont Le Manor Richelieu, which boasts a casino, golf courses, spa, restaurants and carriage rides. (One of IRT’s favorite hotel groups: we are preferred agents.)

The train is one element in a massive recreation project by Groupe Le Massif de Charlevoix. The project also encompasses a ski resort and the Hôtel La Ferme lodging complex.

Le Massif de Charlevoix

The train’s bi-level cars were built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1955 and 1956 for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway. Before being sold to Groupe Le Massif, they were operated in Chicago commuter service.

According to the operator, the railroad cars resemble an architect-inspired “mobile structure more than a train.”

“Between now and December,” the operator says, “eight dove-grey railcars inscribed with poetic texts… will be coupled to their charcoal grey locomotives.”

Those locomotives are two 1,800 hp RS-18 locomotives built by Montreal Locomotive Works. They’ll pull two power cars that double as baggage cars and eight passenger cars.

La Malbaie - Le Massif de Charlevoix

The service will begin with two 60-passenger cab cars. By the end of the fall season, the company expects to have added an additional six passenger cars, each with a capacity of 68 passengers. The cars will have 11-foot ceilings held up by solid steel beams.

Each passenger car will be equipped with a kitchen designed to serve approximately 70 gourmet lunches and dinners. Menus for the on-board dining service have been developed by Jean-Michel Breton, Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu Executive Chef.

Round trip adult fare is $249 Canadian. The fare includes the meals and program aboard the train. The train is scheduled to depart Quebec at 10 a.m., arriving at La Malbaie at 1:30 p.m.

The train will depart La Malbaie at 4:30 p.m., with arrival in Quebec at 8 p.m. The train will operate Friday through Sunday through Sept. 18, and Wednesday through Sunday beginning Sept. 21.

For reservations and more information, call (418) 632-5876 or, toll free, (877) 536-2774.  If you would like IRT to organize a package for you, we’d be happy to.  Our reporter, Anthony Lambert of the UK, is scheduled to review this next spring. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, while we sincerely wish this project well, in the 28 years we’ve been in this business, we’ve reported on many ambitious luxury rail projects. Most have been short-lived or have never reached the operational stage. What are your thoughts about this one?

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