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Eastern & Oriental Express Still Southeast Asia’s Brightest Luxury Rail Star

25 Nov
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The Eastern & Oriental Express.

IRT’s Angela Walker travels to Thailand next week to inspect the Eastern & Oriental Express, one of our World’s Top 25 Trains®, and sister train to Europe’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

What should Angela expect from her 4-day Bangkok to Singapore adventure?

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Gracious, friendly steward on the E&O. IRT Photo by E. Hardy

Just take it from IRT guest J. Samuelson, who traveled on the October 2019 departure of Fables of the Peninsula:

“That Eastern & Oriental is something else. It’s a wonderful train. The most impressive part of the whole thing is the staff. They [the train staff] were perfect. They were attentive. Your wine glass was never empty. The food is exceptional…. The presentation is just as good as you’d find in any fine restaurant.”

And, the E&O has undergone several IRT-approved enhancements to its services that make it more all-inclusive, more personalized, and — we think — even more thrilling than before.

The four most exciting new enhancements, in our opinion?

1. All well drinks and house wines are now included (premium drinks are additional). Cheers to that!

2. The train has slashed its maximum capacity dramatically, from 132 to just 82 guests — and typically runs with around 65. The result is an exclusive, clubby feel.

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The open-air observation platform on the train is an IRT traveler favorite.

3. The train now offers guests choice in off-train touring, with an eye towards accommodating those wishing to be more physically active.

For instance, on the classic Bangkok-Singapore and Singapore-Bangkok journeys, guests can choose between a classic cruise along the Khwae Yai River and a visit to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre; a cycle tour through farms and fields to a village; or a culinary tour to a vibrant market and an ancient noodle house.

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Lounge car attendants. IRT Photo by E. Hardy.

On the once-a-year Fables of the Peninsula journey, guests can choose between a tour of the Sungai Palas Tea Garden, where they will experience the tea-making process “from bush to cup,” or a hike with a naturalist on the Jim Thompson trail in the Titiwangsa mountain range.

4. Guests in Presidential Suites now enjoy an even longer list of amenities, including private limousine transfers to and from train stations in Bangkok & Singapore; a bottle of champagne and fruit basket on arrival; complimentary mini bar, stocked with a selection of spirits, local beer, soft drinks and chocolate; complimentary on board pressing service; more.

Two parting IRT tips?

1. Extend your Southeast Asian journey at one of our five-star partner hotels.

Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor is a sparkling gem near Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s fabled temple complex; Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao is a tropical oasis in the Laotian mountains. Both are just a short flight from Bangkok.

2. If you want to travel in 2020, don’t delay. Space is already at a premium, especially on the once-a-year 6-day Fables of the Peninsula journey in October.

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The Eastern and Oriental Express runs from September through April. All cabins are en-suite. A few Pullman cabins for sole use are available on each departure without a single supplement. Inquire for availability.

For more information, or to book, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

Rachel M. Hardy is Vice President, Sales & Marketing, and Virtuoso luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers®. She specializes in luxury rail and adventure in Europe, South America, Africa (rail & safaris) and Canada.  She was the first advisor from the Americas invited to see the new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Our agency is a proud member of Virtuoso.

New Year’s Eve in Vienna — It’s All About the Romance

30 Oct
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Waltz lesson at Vienna’s prestigious Elmauer Dance School located in the Palais Pallavicini. Learn to dance the Viennese Waltz at the city’s most famous dance school. It only takes an hour!

Prologue: We first published this interview in December, 2018.

Since then, the Danube Express has been voted the second-best train in the world by Condé Nast Traveler readers.

Even more compelling are the many glowing reports we’ve received from IRT travelers who were on the last departure:

“This was a fantastic trip that we thoroughly enjoyed.  The food, accommodations, and service were all great.  Everything was well-planned and ran on time. We loved the special private concerts: the opera singers in Prague, the string quartet at Municipal House, a trio playing at Cafe Slava.  The Four Seasons hotel was beautiful and at a great location in the city. And, we had plenty of time to eat, sleep, tour, and shop… I highly recommend this trip.” – IRT Traveler R. Stewart, January, 2019.

“We really, really, really enjoyed the trip. All of the staff are fabulous. They all go out of their way to make life easier and nicer. And New Year’s Eve was great — the food, dancing, everything. We would recommend it to anyone.” – IRT Travelers R. & P. Wynhoff, January, 2019.

So, take it from them, and from the following conversation with IRT CEO & Founder Owen Hardy. This is one spectacular itinerary!

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Excellent service on the Danube Express. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

We sat down with The Society of International Railway Travelers’ founder and CEO, Mr. Owen Hardy, to discuss his ardent desire to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Vienna with the Golden Eagle Danube Express. Tour dates are December 28, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Click here for itinerary details.

Mr. Hardy, please tell us why you “simply must” go on the “New Year in Vienna” trip on the Golden Eagle Danube Express?

Officially, I have four reasons: Budapest, Vienna, Prague and the Viennese New Year celebration.

Unofficially, movies. Specifically, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Orson Welles’ “The Third Man.”

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Pictured left: diners enjoy New Year’s Eve gala dinner at Rathaus City Hall in Vienna.         Pictured right: a festive, snow-capped Vienna.

Say that again? These films aren’t your typical happy tourist fare.

I know, I know. But they exude a delicious atmosphere of romance, love and artistic grit that I project onto their respective cities.

You said recently that “Downton Abbey” was another of your “inspirational films.” Why?

It was the final scene, when practically the entire cast was waltzing in Downton’s gorgeous ballroom.

That’s exactly what’s going to happen on this tour. You’ll learn to waltz —in an hour! — at Vienna’s most prestigious Elmauer Dance School.

Then you’ll spend New Year’s Eve in one of the most exclusive locations in the city — the Grand ballroom of Vienna City Hall — where you’ll have a gala four-course dinner, musical entertainment and, of course, plenty of waltzing.

What about the train itself?

In my student years, I crisscrossed Europe with a Eurailpass, sleeping next to strangers in couchettes night after night. But these days, I like my creature comforts.

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Superior Deluxe cabins aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express feature a private bathroom and shower with all the amenities, large double bed, and sitting area. Not pictured: private Wi-Fi that comes with every Superior Deluxe cabin.

A Superior Deluxe cabin (click here for full cabin details) with large double bed, fully en-suite bathroom and shower, and sitting area will do quite nicely — and the three included nights at Budapest’s palatial Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace won’t disappoint, either. (Tip: don’t miss the top-notch spa!)

And how about the food?

As a self-confessed coffee-and-pastry aficionado — I really am excited about the Danube Express‘s new hire, pastry chef, Krisztián Szőke.

Natasha Baker, Sales & Marketing Manager at Golden Eagle Luxury Trains (operator of Danube Express) recently told us that Szőke is chiefly responsible for expanding the waistlines of staff and guests alike with his confections and fresh-baked breads.

One specialty: Golden Eagle Chocolate Heaven, a concoction of dark chocolate mousse with Russian champagne, hazelnut crunch and dark chocolate caviar.

Need I say more?

Another highlight from the itinerary, in your opinion?

Prague! I love Prague because it overflows with stunning architecture. My last tour guide in Prague said she’d lived her whole life in the city but had only scraped the surface of its wonders. I believe her.

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Prague’s Charles Bridge at dawn.

More thoughts?

Already seen Schönbrunn Palace? Try a joy ride on Vienna’s trams instead. It’s a great way to meet people and — if you have time — to visit Vienna Central Cemetery, whose honored guests include Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Johann Strauss II.

So what should interested travelers do now?

Call us (if you’re a Luddite like me) at (800) 478-4881  — +1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada. You can also email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Anything else you want to say (and make it short!)?

Life is short. Old age creeps up on you. Go waltzing in Vienna at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

I guarantee you won’t regret it!


Owen C. Hardy is the CEO, founder, and co-owner of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

The New Year’s in Vienna tour runs December 28, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Click here for full itinerary details and pricing. Click here for details of the Golden Eagle Danube Express train.

To book your space on the New Year’s in Vienna tour, call (800) 478-4881 or +1 502-897-1725, or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

Royal Canadian Pacific, N. America’s Only Luxury Sleeper Train, Returning!

10 Oct
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Enjoying the view from the Royal Canadian Pacific’s new dome car. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The Royal Canadian Pacific is back — complete with a brand-new full dome car!

After a five-year hiatus, the luxury sleeper train plans to offer two departures to the public in June and July next year. A third exclusive IRT departure in September 2020 is also under consideration.

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Service with a smile on the RCP. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

I traveled to Calgary two weeks ago to inspect the train and learn more about its plans for the future.

My takeaway?

IRT travelers will delight in the RCP’s opulent 1920s-era carriages, with all en-suite cabins, comfortable reading nooks, and outdoor platforms sprinkled generously throughout.

Its professional, full-time staff and its five-star cuisine also will not disappoint.

And they’ll appreciate its historical bonafides (Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, and JFK & Jackie were all passengers).

Of course, the dramatic Canadian Rockies scenery is as lovely as ever—especially when viewed from the comfort of the brand-new glass dome observation car.

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Meringue with homemade Scottish shortbread and lavender honey — crowned with a Maple leaf. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The novelty of a luxury sleeper train returning to North America will excite rail enthusiasts everywhere. We here at IRT predict high interest from travelers—especially confirmed luxury rail enthusiasts.

Ever since the RCP stopped offering public departures five years ago, the continent has been devoid of anything similar.

Itineraries are still being confirmed but will likely include a 5-day circle tour beginning and ending in Calgary. A 4-day Calgary-Vancouver tour also is being considered.

Both tours are expected to offer off-train activities in Golden, Banff, and Lake Louise. Pricing is also still under consideration.

Interested in joining an RCP 2020 luxury tour next year? Let us know now, and we’ll put you on our “First Notice” list.

Click here to register your interest, and we’ll contact you as soon as we have details.

Click here to read more about the Royal Canadian Pacific itself.

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The author outside the RCP’s new full-length dome car. IRT Photo by Nate Kremer

For more information, or to book any other of our journeys on the World’s Top 25 Trains, call us at (800) 478-4881, or +1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada. You can also e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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View from the rear platform of the Royal Canadian Pacific. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

 

Rachel M. Hardy is Vice President, Sales & Marketing, and Virtuoso luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers®. She specializes in luxury rail and adventure in Europe, South America, Africa (rail & safaris) and Canada.  She was the first advisor from the Americas invited to see the new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Our agency is a proud member of Virtuoso.

Belmond Grand Hibernian Transports Guests Through Ireland, Land of Legends

13 Sep
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IRT Guests enjoy a jaunting cart ride, one of many excursions offered on Belmond Grand Hibernian journeys. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

Ever heard of Finn McCool?

How about the Salmon of Knowledge?

Neither had I — until I went to Ireland to ride the Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland’s only luxury train.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian’s lead bartender greets guests with champagne. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The train’s gleaming blue and silver carriages, delightful staff and cozy interiors offer the perfect “magic carpet” ride through a fantastical land.

The excursions off the train are no less touched by fantasy.

When we arrived in Cork, for example, our guide greeted us with a cheerful “hallo,” and then launched into an evocative tale about the aforesaid Messrs. McCool and Salmon (of Knowledge).

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“Kindred Spirits,” the memorial to the Choctaw in County Cork. Photo by Gavin Sheridan. (no changes were made to image, link to license is https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Choctaw_Memorial.jpg)

She only paused in her myth-making to point out an interesting — albeit slightly incongruous — statue on the side of the road, comprising 20-foot steel feathers that form a bowl shape.

“The Choctaw Nation heard about our forebears’ plight during the Great Hunger of 1847,” she told us. “And they scraped together what little money they had, and sent it to us to feed our starving children.”

Unlike Finn McCool and his fish, the story of the Choctaw’s sacrifice is no fairytale. But I don’t think Ireland would be Ireland without a healthy mix of truth and make-believe.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian, now just finishing its third full season, has matured into an even more delightful experience than when it began operations three years ago.

One welcome tweak the tour operators have made is allowing guests to choose among different activities wherever possible. For instance, guests on the 7-day Grand Tour of Ireland can:

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Cobh, Ireland.

Visit the seaport of Cobh with a local historian, where millions of lives were permanently altered by the Atlantic crossing. Almost half of the 6 million Irish who emigrated to North America between 1848 and 1950 departed from this port.

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Ross Castle.

Explore Killarney National Park by jaunting cart and boat, where prophecy dictated that nearby Ross Castle was impregnable to outside forces unless a warship attacked from the lake — thought to be an impossible feat. Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads attacked just so in 1653 and took the castle, one of the last to fall in the Irish Confederate Wars.

(Another tidbit: Ross Castle’s first owner, O’Donoghue, is said to live at the bottom of the lake in a great palace, from where he keeps close tabs on the comings and goings of passerby.)

Witness a sheepdog demonstration in Galway and marvel at the shared language between man and beast, or explore the surreal Cliffs of Moher that soar 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

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Westport House.

Visit Westport House, built on the foundations of the Pirate Queen of Connacht’s castle. The Queen’s dungeons can still be seen today.

Tour the Medieval Mile Museum in Kilkenny, heart of Ireland’s ancient East. The museum is housed in a 13th-century church and contains artifacts dating back 800 years.

*****

In sum, whether you’ve visited the Emerald Isle before or not, Belmond Grand Hibernian will open your eyes to Ireland in a whole new way. In addition to its thoughtfully-planned itineraries, it also earns high points for its dedicated staff, fabulous food, and luxuriously comfortable spaces.

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The author poses with Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by Nate Kremer.

And what of Mr. McCool and his erudite fish?

Legend has it that, as a young boy, McCool was asked to cook the Salmon of Knowledge for his druid mentor, who had finally caught it after years of failed attempts.

McCool burned his thumb while cooking the fish, put his thumb in his mouth to cool the hurt, and inadvertently consumed a drop of the salmon’s oils, instantly becoming the wisest man in the world.

*****

Belmond Grand Hibernian runs April-October and offers the 3-day Taste of Ireland, the 5-day Legends and Loughs, and the 7-day Grand Tour of Ireland.

2020 departures are available and are selling briskly.

To book your own adventure on the Belmond Grand Hibernian, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

Rachel M. Hardy is Vice President, Sales & Marketing, and Virtuoso luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers®. She specializes in luxury rail and adventure in Europe, South America, Africa (rail & safaris) and Canada.  She was the first advisor from the Americas invited to see the new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Our agency is a proud member of Virtuoso and the exclusive Belmond Bellini Club. Rachel’s trip on Belmond Grand Hibernian was part of the Bravissimo celebratory journey hosted by Belmond, held every year in honor of the world’s top Belmond agencies.

Grand Alpine Express: Stunning Vistas, Staggering Heights, Poignant Memories

19 Jul
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The Golden Eagle Danube Express.

The 11-day Grand Alpine Express on the Golden Eagle Danube Express is a blast from my past.

Let me explain: does anyone else harbor fond memories of being a young person abroad for the first time, hopping around on a Eurorail pass with 10 francs in your pocket? I know I do.

As a college student some 50 years ago, I made my first European train journeys to many of the places highlighted on the Grand Alpine Express itinerary.

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Route map of the Grand Alpine Express itinerary.

Budapest. Vienna. Zürich. The Semmering Pass. The tiny Achensee railway, the Tyrollean Alps. They were exciting, friendly and utterly beautiful.

(And make no mistake: the Golden Eagle Danube Express is no first-class commuter train. It’s held a spot on our World’s Top 25 Trains® list since its inception in 2015. In the past few years, it’s gotten even more luxurious with the addition of 12 ultra-spacious Superior Deluxe cabins, which IRT travelers especially love. Click here for more information about the Golden Eagle Danube Express itself.)

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The Swiss and Austrian Alps figure prominently on the Grand Alpine Express tour.

Over the course of my career, I’ve traveled by luxury train through Mexico, Africa, Russia, India, South America, China, Southeast Asia, the ‘Stans…and on and on.

All of these trips were over the top, exotic and unforgettable.

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Lake Bled in Slovenia, one of the stops on the Grand Alpine Express itinerary.

But recently, I’m craving a trip down memory lane — albeit in the comfort of a Superior Deluxe cabin — courtesy of the Grand Alpine Express!

Even if you don’t share my nostalgia, there are plenty of other reasons to go. Just take it from IRT traveler Mrs. J. Schiermeyer, who just returned from the May 2019 Grand Alpine Express journey in a Superior Deluxe cabin:

“There’s only one problem with this train,” Mrs. Schiermeyer said.

“Eventually, they make you get off. And I don’t want to get off!”

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Superior Deluxe cabin on the Golden Eagle Danube Express.

The Grand Alpine Express tour runs just once a year.

Tour dates are May 8-18, 2020.

For more information, and to book, please call (800) 478-4881 in the U.S. and Canada, +1 502-897-1725 elsewhere, or e-mail tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Space (especially in the coveted Superior Deluxe cabins) is limited.


Owen C. Hardy is the CEO, founder, and co-owner of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

 

IRT Founder’s Ardent Wish? Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Vienna Next Year with Golden Eagle Danube Express

12 Jul
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Viennese dancers on New Year’s Eve at the Rathaus, Vienna’s lovely City Hall.

Prologue: We first published this interview in December, 2018. Since then, we’ve gotten glowing reports from IRT travelers who were on the last departure:

“This was a fantastic trip that we thoroughly enjoyed.  The food, accommodations, and service were all great.  Everything was well-planned and ran on time. We loved the special private concerts: the opera singers in Prague, the string quartet at Municipal House, a trio playing at Cafe Slava.  The Four Seasons hotel was beautiful and at a great location in the city. And, we had plenty of time to eat, sleep, tour, and shop… I highly recommend this trip.” – IRT Traveler R. Stewart, January, 2019.

“We really, really, really enjoyed the trip. All of the staff are fabulous. They all go out of their way to make life easier and nicer. And New Year’s Eve was great — the food, dancing, everything. We would recommend it to anyone.” – IRT Travelers R. & P. Wynhoff, January, 2019.

So, take it from them, and from the following conversation with IRT CEO & Founder Owen Hardy. This is one spectacular itinerary!

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Excellent service on the Danube Express. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

We sat down with The Society of International Railway Travelers’ founder and CEO, Mr. Owen Hardy, to discuss his ardent desire to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Vienna with the Golden Eagle Danube Express. Tour dates are December 28, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Click here for itinerary details.

Mr. Hardy, please tell us why you “simply must” go on the “New Year in Vienna” trip on the Golden Eagle Danube Express?

Officially, I have four reasons: Budapest, Vienna, Prague and the Viennese New Year celebration.

Unofficially, movies. Specifically, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Orson Welles’ “The Third Man.”

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Pictured left: diners enjoy New Year’s Eve gala dinner at Rathaus City Hall in Vienna.         Pictured right: a festive, snow-capped Vienna.

Say that again? These films aren’t your typical happy tourist fare.

I know, I know. But they exude a delicious atmosphere of romance, love and artistic grit that I project onto their respective cities.

Plus, I love music of all kinds, especially classical, and these cities overflow with it – even on the street corners.

And I love Vienna’s Secessionist or Wiener Werkstaette art movement, examples of which can be found not only in Vienna but also in Budapest and Prague.

What about the train itself?

In my student years, I crisscrossed Europe with a Eurailpass, sleeping next to strangers in couchettes night after night. But these days, I like my creature comforts.

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Brand-new Superior Deluxe cabins aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express feature a private bathroom and shower with all the amenities, large double bed, and sitting area. Not pictured: private Wi-Fi that comes with every Superior Deluxe cabin.

A Superior Deluxe cabin (click here for full cabin details) with large double bed, fully en-suite bathroom and shower, and sitting area would do quite nicely — and the three included nights at Budapest’s palatial Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace would not disappoint, either. (Tip: don’t miss the top-notch spa at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace.)

Another highlight from the itinerary, in your opinion?

Prague! I love Prague because it overflows with stunning architecture. My last tour guide in Prague said she’d lived her whole life in the city but had only scraped the surface of its wonders. I believe her.

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Prague’s Charles Bridge at dawn.

More thoughts?

Already seen Schönbrunn Palace? Try a joy ride on Vienna’s trams instead. It’s a great way to meet people and — if you have time — to visit Vienna Central Cemetery, whose “honored guests” include Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Johann Strauss II.

So what should our guests do now?

Call us (if you’re a Luddite like me) at (800) 478-4881  — +1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada. Everyone else, please email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Anything else you want to say (and make it short!)?

Life is short. Old age creeps up on you. Go waltzing in Vienna at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

I guarantee you won’t regret it!


Owen C. Hardy is the CEO, founder, and co-owner of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

The New Year’s in Vienna tour runs December 28, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Click here for full itinerary details and pricing. Click here for details of the Golden Eagle Danube Express train.

To book your space on the New Year’s in Vienna tour, call (800) 478-4881 or +1 502-897-1725, or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Adds 3 New Grand Suites for 2020

28 Jun
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New Vienna Grand Suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Three new Grand Suites will join the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express for the 2020 season, Belmond, the train operator, has just announced. This brings the total number of Grand Suites up to six.

The new Grand Suites — named Vienna, Prague, & Budapest, after three iconic European capitals to which the VSOE travels every year — will reflect each city’s unique history and architectural style, while embracing the train’s Old World charm and meticulous attention to detail. They join the three existing Grand Suites, named Venice, Paris, & Istanbul.

I was the only advisor from the Western Hemisphere to inspect the first three Suites on their inaugural journey in April, 2018. Read my glowing reporting here and here — and see my video above for the grand reveal of Istanbul Grand Suite!

After seeing the Suites in person, I had a serious hunch that our travelers would love the opulent design and the amenities, and I was absolutely right.

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Venice Grand Suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

IRT travelers love the dedicated 24-hour cabin steward, the caviar and free-flowing champagne, the included private transfers to and from the train, and the option to dine privately in their cabin whenever they wish. And the private bathroom with underfloor heating, rain shower, sink, & toilet answered the prayers of those who didn’t want to travel on the VSOE previously because of the lack of en-suite facilities.

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Lead Steward Francesco in Istanbul Grand Suite. Only the most senior staff attend guests in Grand Suites. IRT Photo by Rachel M, Hardy

The suites also include a large double bed that can convert into twin beds, and a separate living area with couch, table, & chair.

With only a few on each departure, the Grand Suites sell out in the blink of an eye.

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Orante bathroom in Istanbul Grand Suite. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

The first set of Grand Suites won several design awards, including the AHEAD World’s Best Suite, Gold Key Awards – Best Specialist Design and the Historic Renovation category in the Contract Interior Awards. The suites were also nominated for the Inside Awards, Civic Culture & Transport and the Blueprint Awards.

We at IRT also won our very own Grand Suite distinction, as the #1 global seller of the suites in 2018 (click here to read about it). When you book your suite with IRT, you book with the world’s most experienced Grand Suite luxury rail specialists.

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Belmond staff present IRT with our very special award — a vintage VSOE sign with plaque in recognition of our Grand Suite sales.

Like their existing Grand Suite sisters, the new suites will  “evoke the individual city experience, whether it is walking along the Charles Bridge in Prague, or exploring the contrasting Gothic and Ottoman architecture of Budapest. They will pay tribute to the romance and glamour of Europe, and the golden era of rail travel,” says Gary Franklin, VP, Trains & Cruises, Belmond.

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Prague Grand Suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Baroque and Gothic architecture, along with theatrical flourishes in rich golds and maroons, will be represented in the Prague Grand Suite. The balance of ancient and modern will be captured through layers of hand-embroidered cushions and Cubist-inspired mosaics. Hints of red garnet will appear in the marquetry.

The Grand Palaces and imperial nature of the Austrian capital will be reflected with an ornate and classical design in the Vienna Grand Suite. Rich hues of gold and emerald green will reflect the romance of the city. An ornate curved headboard with feminine silk fabric panels will contrast with touches of dark wood.

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Budapest Grand Suite.

The Budapest Grand Suite will capture the essence of both sides of the Danube river, taking equal inspiration from Gothic and Ottoman architecture. The suite will be adorned with intricate marquetry and sumptuous silk embroidery.

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express travels throughout Europe from March to November and travels to Istanbul from Paris, and back again, once annually in late August.

 

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Paolo, one of the tireless stewards on the VSOE, welcomes guests aboard at Venice Santa Lucia Station. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

A one-night journey in a Grand Suite from Venice to London or vice versa starts at £6,200 per person.

To book your Grand Suite, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

 

Rachel M. Hardy is Vice President, Sales & Marketing, and Virtuoso luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers®. She specializes in luxury rail and adventure in Europe, South America, Africa (rail & safaris) and Canada.  She was the first advisor from the Americas invited to see the new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Our agency is a proud member of Virtuoso and the exclusive Belmond Bellini Club.

Toasting a Classic: IRT Advisor Revisits the Belmond Royal Scotsman

21 Jun

 

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Making a grand entrance at Waverley Station in Edinburgh. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

 

Déjà vu washes over me as I walk into Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, where I am immediately greeted by a kilted, bewhiskered bagpiper straight out of central casting.

He leads me and other passengers to a red carpet running beside the gleaming carriages of the Belmond Royal Scotsman, where train manager Fred Laseen welcomes each of us aboard.

Dining staff pour forth to welcome us — more déjà vu. I sip a glass of sparkling wine as we pull away from the station.

I think back to the last time I was aboard this train…

*

It’s been 15 years since my 2004 journey on the Belmond Royal Scotsman — long before ‘Belmond’ was added to the name, actually.

And I am thrilled to report that the grand dame of the Scottish rails is more wonderful than ever.

What differences there are – the Bamford Haybarn Spa Car, added in 2017, reinvigorated interiors and textiles throughout – underscore the train’s commitment to evolving alongside the wants of its guests. Other elements – food quality and service –  have stayed exactly the same, much to my delight.

*

A staff member shows me to my cabin.

It’s a cozy affair, with twin beds configured in an “L” shape. It also sports a dressing table and stool with one locking drawer, full-length wardrobe, ceiling fan, and full bathroom with toilet, sink, shower, and towel warmer.

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Twin cabin on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Other amenities include robes, slippers, and Bamford toiletries. The arched ceilings, marquetry, and paintings of kilted soldiers of yore add subtle touches of old-school luxury.

I could nap in my comfortable quarters all day, but the party’s already started in the public cars.

*

I order a Lagavulin 16. It’s an extra-peaty single-malt Scotch whisky, which I enjoy in the brisk Scottish air from the open platform on the back of the observation car. (All drinks are included, so I recommend you try a range of the more unusual whiskys and cocktails.)

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Enjoying the fresh air from the observation platform. IRT Photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

Some time later, we are called to dinner. The dining car’s tables gleam with stark white linen and fine china and crystal, all embellished with the stately Great Scottish & Western Railway Company logo.

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Fine china, crystal, and and fresh flowers set the table on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Two of the four dinners on my journey are formal. Men are asked to wear dark suits at a minimum, although some opt for tuxedos or kilts, which can be rented locally in Edinburgh.  The splashes of tartan add greatly to the festive atmosphere. Women are asked to don cocktail attire.

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Formal dinner on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. IRT Photo courtesy of  Angela Walker.

The meals are exceptional. Carefully crafted by Glasgow native Mark Tamburrini, the train’s head chef since 2010, they feature local Scottish ingredients.

Two of my favorites: Scottish salmon with dill, cucumber and cauliflower, with a perfect horseradish sauce; and roasted scallops with chorizo and sweetcorn croquettes in a corn purée.

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One of the talented kitchen staff stops to admire her creation. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Wines are carefully paired with each course. And even for those non-wine lovers, the enthusiastic descriptions provided by staff member Matej are impossible to resist.

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Canapés served in the lounge car before dinner. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

For that matter, all of the 12 staff are exceedingly helpful and professional. Max, the head waiter, dutifully goes over the day’s menu with each passenger to ensure there are no dietary issues.

(Those with dietary issues are painstakingly accommodated. The vegetarians, gluten-free, and dairy-free eaters among us are delivered a modified version of each dish).

Want to discover your favorite Scotch whisky and learn more about the country’s local specialty? The indefatigable Jarryd will recommend one of the countless options on board.

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Guests dressed in traditional kilts before dinner on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

He and Matej tend the bar until the last passenger retires (which is sometimes not until the wee hours of the morning). Then — somehow—they’re up the next morning with coffee and tea to greet the earliest risers.

Last but not least is the Bamford Haybarn Spa Car, which I’ve been looking forward to for weeks. It made its debut two years ago.*

Stepping into the treatment room, I breathe in the lavender scent, and am transported into a cocoon of tranquility. Danielle, the on-board spa therapist, impressively manages the movement of the train while executing massages, facials, manicures and pedicures.  The gentle rocking further enhances the relaxing treatment.

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Enjoying the local specialty, whisky, before dinner. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

The after-dinner entertainment in the observation car is another highlight. Colin and Iain, two cheeky chaps playing guitar and fiddle, encourage singalongs on our first night.

On our second night, Highlander Ray Owens brings to life the history of Scotland with his impressive storytelling.

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The Belmond Royal Scotsman at Strathcarron. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

And on the final evening, Brian and Allison play the keyboard and violin before inviting guests onto the platform, where they teach us reels and jigs. It is a fitting, fun, and joyous end to our journey.

A few things have changed in the 15 years since my first trip – new faces, a spa car, updated finishings – but the high standards of food, service and comfort are the same.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll be so lucky as to revisit the Belmond Royal Scotsman again in 2034.

*The Belmond Royal Scotsman’s spa car makes it one of only three luxury trains in the world to boast similar spa cars. The other two are the Deccan Odyssey in India and the Belmond Andean Explorer in Peru.

Stay tuned for my next blog about off-train activities on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. Click here to subscribe to our blog.

Ready to book your own adventure on the Belmond Royal Scotsman?

Click here to complete our online booking form, or call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 501-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada). Or e-mail us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

***************************************

 

Angela Walker is a 20-year veteran of The Society of International Railway Travelers. She is VP, Operations, for IRT, and a luxury travel advisor. She has been on most of our World’s Top 25® Trains, some — like Belmond Royal Scotsman — more than once.

 

 

 

Silk Road Delights IRT Guests

16 May

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 always seems to electrify our travelers.

“The trip was fabulous!!” one guest gushed, following this year’s trip in April. “I would recommend it to anyone…

“The guides were great about letting me and some of the other oldsters keep up,” said another. “Too many highlights to describe…

“Jeff and I agreed there really was no bad day. Thanks for making everything so easy.”

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

(We’d like to make it easy for you too. Contact us to book either Silk Road journey in 2020 — one in April, the other in October.)

Meanwhile, how does the Society of IRT rate these trains?

Here’s our president, Eleanor Hardy, who traveled the Silk Road several years ago:

The Shangri-La Express: “Hands-down the best train in China. We do not consider this a luxury train, but the food, service and entire experience were considerably upgraded since the last time we’d ridden it.

“And since then, the sleeping cars have been upgraded again. Diamond Class cabins now have private en-suite shower and toilet.

“There is no better way to see these out-of-the-way destinations. ”

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

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One of three 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 Beijinger 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 Mogao Thousand Buddha Complex. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

  • DUNHUANG: “The Mogao 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  again by night. The blues in the architecture here are magnificent, and the way the Square lights up after dark 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 fortress wall where Genghis Khan aimed 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.”

2020 Dates: April 13-May 3 (Beijing-Moscow), October 1-21 (Beijing-Moscow)

Note: Already been to China, or short on time? A 13-day trip covering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Russia is available. For more info, click here. Tour runs twice in 2020.

Also note: Can’t wait until next year? An 8-day trip covering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan runs this year (2019). Dates are Oct. 2-9. For more info, click here.

Did we mention?

The Silk Road adventure is more popular than ever, and space fills up fast. To book yours, call us at (800) 478-4881, +1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada, or e-mail us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Belmond Grand Hibernian Shines Brighter Than Ever

10 May
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Striking a pose outside the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by N. Kremer.

We step out of the car at Dublin Heuston Station and come face to face with a young man clad in a black leather kilt, a snare drum secured about his waist.

“Follow me!” he shouts, and we amiably fall in line, Pied Piper-style, marching behind our raucous host to the beat of his drum.

The train staff stands at attention, waiting to welcome us aboard with glasses of champagne. A festive red carpet beckons. Two more drummers join the first, adding to the volume, and our general excitement.

So begins our journey on the Belmond Grand Hibernian — a thrilling start to our elegant romp through the Emerald Isle.

 

It’s been almost three years since IRT chartered the inaugural departure of the Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland’s first and only luxury train.

So, when we were offered a spot on an exclusive Belmond study tour featuring the Belmond Grand Hibernian itself, we jumped at the chance to see how the train has since evolved.

I just returned from Ireland last week. My overall take?

Belmond Grand Hibernian is better than ever. The kinks our IRT group experienced on the train’s debut journey in August, 2016 (read IRT CEO & Founder Owen Hardy’s full report here and here) have long since been resolved.

The staff is now a well-oiled — and exceedingly hospitable — machine. Daineal (pronounced Doh-nal), the bar manager, is the consummate host, always ready with an expertly-poured drink and a witty aside.

“Welcome to Europe!” he cracked one evening, as he welcomed a Belfast-based musician on to the train who had traveled south to play for us.

The border between Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland is no laughing matter to Irish folk of an older generation. But thankfully, it’s fair fodder to the younger set.

The musician from the North thought Daineal was hilarious, and clapped him warmly on the back before he departed.

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Daineal, bar manager on the Belmond Grand Hibernian, pours us farewell Bellinis. IRT Photo by R. Hardy.

The meals, cooked to order by a talented three-person culinary team lead by head chef Alan Woods, are a wonderful mix of old and new.

Expertly-prepared classics emphasize local ingredients, like the roasted Connemara mountain lamb cutlet with slow-roasted tomato & rosemary chutney. Other dishes inventively combine unusual flavors to great effect, like the avocado and seaweed salad with watermelon.

Portions are perfect: not too big, not too small. And pastries and fresh-baked breads — fennel and sesame loaf, caramelized onion roll, and sourdough baguette, to name a few standouts — are always in abundance.

Specially-paired wines served in Waterford Crystal glasses accompany lunch and dinner. Fresh-squeezed juices are offered at breakfast. And the two dining rooms themselves inspire conviviality and conversation with four- and six-person seating arrangements.

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Head chef Alan Woods (center), sous chef Domagoj Matanović (left), & assistant. IRT Photo by R. Hardy.

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Roasted Connemara mountain lamb cutlet with slow-roasted tomato & rosemary chutney. IRT Photo by N. Kremer.

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Avocado salad with seaweed & watermelon salsa. IRT Photo by R. Hardy.

The train itself is as lovely inside as it is out. Its nine gleaming blue carriages sparkle in the sun.

And its interiors — neutral plaids and calming lavenders and grays — complement the vibrant green grass and rust-yellow fields of blooming wildflowers of the Irish countryside.

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Lounge car on the Belmond Grand Hibernian. (cozy wool blankets can be found throughout the train.)

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One of two dining cars on the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photos by R. Hardy.

And lest you think otherwise, substance has not been overlooked for style. Every detail has been designed for optimum comfort and usability.

Our cabin featured a double bed (some have twin beds) with reading lights; individually-controlled heating for chilly mornings; ceiling fan for warm afternoons; full-size wardrobe with plentiful hangers; writing desk and chair; in-cabin safe; tiled bathroom with powerful rain shower, toilet and sink; and hair dryer.

There is a certain egalitarianism on board (albeit egalitarianism for the luxury traveler set!) in that all cabins are the same dimensions — approximately 85 feet square. There is also one smartly-designed accessible cabin located nearest the public cars. (Ask us for more details.)

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Double-bedded cabin on the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by N. Kremer.

A large picture window that opens about five inches at the top allows plenty of natural light — and a small blast of fresh air, if you so choose — to flood the cabin. At night, a privacy screen and curtains keep out the light. Fresh wildflowers in a spectrum of pinks — Sweet William, St. John’s Wort, heather — adorned our desk.

And the double bed, which appeared diminutive at first glance, was shockingly comfortable for both myself and my 6’3″ partner.

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Fresh flowers in our cabin. IRT Photo by R. Hardy.

Our three-day trip was painfully brief—I highly suggest you go all-in for the seven-day Grand Tour of Ireland instead.

But my memories of the Belmond Grand Hibernian will stay with me for years to come. Among them:

  • fleeting images of old castle ruins surrounded by placidly grazing cows and sheep;
  • returning to our comfortable bed after a day of activity, rain gently thrumming on the roof;
  • live Irish harp music performed in the lounge after dinner one night;
  • the gracious staff welcoming us to yet another five-star meal in the dining car;
  • and the food itself…Oh, the food!

 

To book your own grand adventure on the Belmond Grand Hibernian, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

And check this space soon for additional reporting from our trip.

I’ll detail our stays at Belmond Cadogan Hotel in London, the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, and Adare Manor (voted Virtuoso’s 2018 Hotel of the Year!)  in Limerick, Ireland.

Rachel M. Hardy is Vice President, Sales & Marketing, and Virtuoso luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers®. She specializes in luxury rail and adventure in Europe, South America, Africa (rail & safaris) and Canada.  She was the first advisor from the Americas invited to see the new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Our agency is a proud member of Virtuoso and the exclusive Belmond Bellini Club. Rachel’s trip on Belmond Grand Hibernian was part of the Bravissimo celebratory journey hosted by Belmond, held every year in honor of the world’s top Belmond agencies.

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