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Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Still “King”: Part II

17 Apr

If you haven’t yet read the first installment of this story, I suggest you go back and read it here first. If you aren’t a chronological purist, read on for day two of my journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and Belmond British Pullman!

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Breakfast tray on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

I woke up in my cabin on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) after a good night’s rest and opened my shade to reveal quaint French villages and countryside flitting past.

After I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, I rang my steward, Paolo, who arrived minutes later with a tray brimming with delicious breakfast items: warm, homemade breads and croissants, fresh fruit salad, orange juice, and a perfectly-frothed cappuccino. I read the newspaper while I ate, and reveled in the luxuriousness of it all.

By late morning, I made my way to the “L’Oriental” dining car for brunch. This was a much-anticipated meal by all who had been on the train before. “Lobster brunch,” as they called it, lived up to its potential, even for me, the vegetarian-in-residence. (Although seeing my friends’ plates loaded with delicately-buttered lobster made me briefly consider a change in diet!)

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Lobster brunch on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

After one last visit to the brand-new Grand Suites to take photographs (see my report of the Suites here), it was time to disembark the train in Calais for our Chunnel crossing.

I was curious to see how the chic VSOE would handle the decidedly unglamorous underground Chunnel crossing. The process turned out to be far nicer than I could have imagined.

From the station, we were escorted onto luxury coach buses — laid out like the dining car of a train — and greeted by a friendly hostess who offered us champagne, juices, and snacks.

After brief immigration formalities, our bus was carefully driven into a shipping container-esque contraption with several other vehicles for the 45-minute Chunnel crossing. It was dark and somewhat bumpy, but not altogether unpleasant. Our group had a considerable amount of chatting to do after just getting to know one another over the past 24 hours.

Once on the U.K. side, we were quickly deposited at Folkestone Station for our three-hour journey on the VSOE’s sister train, the Belmond British Pullman.

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Friendly waiter welcomes us aboard Belmond British Pullman. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

Unsurprisingly, there is a decidedly British flavor on the Belmond British Pullman. The service is excellent —  but completely unassuming, devoid of any pretension, and downright jolly.

The 11 carriages on the Belmond British Pullman each have their own distinctive finishes and textiles — although all feature oversized, exceedingly comfortable armchairs.

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Table for one on the Belmond British Pullman. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

We sat in “Minerva,” which consisted of several tables in unusual seating arrangements — tables for three, one, and the more typical four and two. There is also a private area in each car called a “coupe,” which can seat up to four. (Request this with us when you book if you’d like a particularly private experience! Also, Grand Suite guests receive this without requesting.)

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Private “coupe” in Minerva dining car on Belmond British Pullman. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

We were served a traditional afternoon tea, including savory finger sandwiches, scones, and cakes. The English countryside was exceptionally beautiful in the fading afternoon light, and our tea was the perfect note on which to end our trip.

Around 6 p.m., we pulled into Victoria Station in London, our journey’s end. It was all over too soon — in a delightful, fanciful flash of new friends, excellent food, and outstanding, five-star service.

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Belmond British Pullman in London’s Victoria Station. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

 

Ready to book your trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and Belmond British Pullman? Call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada). Or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Rachel M. Hardy, luxury travel advisor, and VP Sales & Marketing for The Society of International Railway Travelers, just returned from an inspection journey of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. A Belmond specialist, she was the only advisor from the Western Hemisphere to be invited to see the launch of the brand-new Grand Suites. Read more about the Grand Suites here.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Still “King of Trains,” IRT Says

12 Apr

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From the moment I saw the carriages gleaming blue and gold in the morning sun at Venice Santa Lucia Station, I knew my trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) would be magical.

A trio on the platform serenaded us with ’30s jazz standards as my steward, Paolo, decked out in his royal blue uniform and white gloves, showed me to my cabin, gave me a tour, and poured me a welcome glass of champagne.

Paolo’s impeccable service and gracious manner completed my feeling that I had time-traveled into some distant, glamorous past.

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My steward Paolo and I outside the train. IRT Photo courtesy of Rachel M. Hardy.

My twin cabin was diminutive, but perfectly suited to my needs. A couch in green and pink velvet, trimmed with Venetian lace, ran the width of the cabin. At night, the indefatigable Paolo expertly converted it into a cozy twin bed.

My cabin also boasted a matching footstool, lamp, folding table, and corner bar with glasses and bottled water. The wash station was cleverly hidden behind concave doors.

(The wash station was much more than a sink. Hidden behind the doors, I found: several mirrors, storage cubbies and special VSOE bath amenities sourced from Temple Spa.)

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Watching the Italian countryside unfold outside my cabin window. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Two luggage racks provided ample storage for me (although I highly recommend handing off any extra-large suitcases to the staff when you check in). The handily-placed hooks on the walls and dress hangers gave me space to store my fancy evening attire.

And the rich wood marquetry in my cabin and throughout my carriage had been freshly renovated, so the floral motifs on the walls were especially vibrant.

Admittedly, there was no bathroom in my cabin; with the exception of the brand-new Grand Suites, there are no bathrooms in any cabin on the VSOE.

But the staff kept the bathrooms at the end of each carriage impeccably clean, and there are more than enough bathrooms to accommodate everyone.

After a thoroughly pleasant hour watching the increasingly dramatic Italian countryside unfold outside my window, I made my way to the bar car for a pre-lunch aperitif.

The bar car — named 3674, and also freshly renovated in sophisticated blue animal prints — is the social hub of the train. The jazz trio already had a few guests singing along to old standards by the time I arrived.

The waitstaff, dressed in sharp white, seemed to be everywhere at once. They “danced” with the often-unpredictable undulations of the train — balancing trays bearing 5 or 6 brimming cocktails. I marveled at the feat time and again. I never saw a single drop spilled!

Later in the afternoon, I retreated to the “Etoile du Nord” dining car for the second seating of lunch, as the Italian Dolomites came into increasingly sharp focus outside the windows.

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Diners enjoying lunch in the “Etoile du Nord” dining car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Executive Chef Christian Bodiguel is an unassuming, behind-the-scenes presence on the train, but his food steals the spotlight. Imaginative, classic French and Continental fare is beautifully presented and served with white tablecloths, fine china, and crystal.

As a vegetarian, I am always curious to see what I will be served in lieu of meat. Chef Bodiguel did not take the easy way out and simply swap out the meat for something meat-like, as would be the custom in almost any other dining situation.

Instead, at each meal, I had an entire menu specially crafted for me. My three-course lunch consisted of asparagus soup; cannelloni with ratatouille, olives, grilled sucrine (what Americans call Bibb or Boston) lettuce and hazelnut; and Amalfi lemon mousse for dessert.

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Lead waiter Mario smiles for the camera. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The food was only equaled by the phenomenal service in the dining car. “Five stars” does not begin to describe the professionalism of a VSOE waiter. Much like in the bar car, the fluidity and care with which every waiter moved, spoke, and served us was something special to witness.

After lunch, we made our way to car number 3539. Built in 1929, it is the oldest car on the train and still retains many original details. The candlestick holders in the hall and the built-in pocket-watch holders in the cabins remind you that you are in a moving museum as much as a luxury train.

As we were admiring the beautiful old finishes, large snowflakes began to fall outside the train, further enhancing the Agatha Christie-esque feel of the carriage. We were now in Austria and fast approaching the Brenner Pass.

Next, it was time to attend the much-anticipated Grand Suite unveiling party. The Suites were absolutely breathtaking, and I can’t wait for our guests to see them in person.

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Grand Suite “Istanbul.” IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Just a few highlights of the Suites include: large double bed, en-suite bathroom with rain shower, sink, toilet, and heated floors and walls (so your mirror will never fog!), living space with couch, table, and chair, Dyson hair dryer, free-flowing champagne, and the option to privately dine in your cabin.

(Read more about the Grand Suites here. Follow the IRT blog, Track25, for my detailed report about the Grand Suites, which will be published within the next few weeks.)

After our Grand Suite party, we were seated for dinner in the “Cote d’Azur” dining car, with stunning Lalique glass panels depicting Bacchanalian maidens.

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Executive Chef Christian Bodiguel’s meals were mouthwatering! IRT Photo courtesy of Rachel M.  Hardy.

Our five-course dinner was one of the most opulent meals I have ever eaten. Truffled risotto, morel and almond cream vol-au-vent, and dark chocolate and cereal gateau were the features on my vegetarian menu. My dining companions had lamb chops that one of them declared “the finest I have ever eaten!”

We were all full to bursting but exceedingly content by the time we finished our dinner and retired to the bar car for more music and merrymaking.

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First course of dinner: Carnaroli risotto with white truffle carpaccio. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, I retired to my cabin to find my couch had been converted into an inviting bed. I fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the train, humming jazz tunes in my head.

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My bed made up for the night. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

 

Read Part II of Rachel’s story, which encompasses Day 2 of her trip: brunch on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Chunnel crossing, & her journey on the Belmond British Pullman.

Rachel M. Hardy, luxury travel advisor and IRT’s VP of Sales & Marketing, was one of a select few to witness the VSOE’s over-the-top, new Grand Suites. Read her story here.

Call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com to book your own magical journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express!

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Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’ Grand Suites Surpass All Expectations, says IRT Travel Advisor

5 Apr

London, England – The three brand-new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express — named ‘Paris,’ ‘Venice,’ & ‘Istanbul’ — have just made their inaugural journey on the train, and I was lucky enough to be invited for the first grand unveiling.

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The Suites surpassed my expectations in every way. All of the furnishings and finishings have been specially created, and no expense has been spared.

They are as functional as they are beautiful, with cleverly-hidden storage areas, heated bathroom floors and walls, full-length mirror and hairdryers — the first on the train. The beds even lift up to reveal large storage areas underneath.

‘Venice’ is luminous in rich blues and creams, with delicately antiqued mirrors and floral motifs.

‘Istanbul’ features ornate wood carvings, leather trim, and rich oranges and yellows in the upholstery and bathroom tile work.

And ‘Paris’ pays homage to the art deco movement with bold geometric lines and exotic tapestry work in greens and browns.

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Grand Suite ‘Venice.’ IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

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Bathroom in Grand Suite ‘Venice.’ Hand-blown glass sink, marquetry washstand and beautifully tiled floor. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

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Grand Suite ‘Istanbul.’   IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

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Lead Steward Francesco prepares Grand Suite ‘Istanbul’ for its very first guests. Only the most senior staff will be attending guests in Grand Suites. IRT Photo by Rachel M, Hardy

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Each Suite has a marble three-shelf bar. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

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Silk velvet pillow on the large couch in Grand Suite ‘Istanbul.’ Each Suite has a couch that can convert to a bed for a child. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

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Light fixture and marquetry in Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

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Each Suite has a full-length mirror, two full-length wardrobes for hanging clothes (one is pictured on left), and multiple storage cubbies (bottom left). IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

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

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Hand-blown glass sink in Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

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Grand Suites have full-sized copper rain showers with marble walls and tiled floor. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

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Each Suite has a Dyson hairdryer — a first on the train! IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

 

 

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Grand Suite ‘Paris.’ IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

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Bathroom in Grand Suite ‘Paris.’ IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

History buffs will be glad to know that the Suites maintain the 1920s feel of the train (while successfully ‘dialing up’ the level of opulence by a factor of 10). Rather than a piece apart, they are a natural addition to the existing Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Everything was custom-made for the suites — from the amazing tiles in the bathrooms to the marquetry and wood carvings and the gorgeous fabrics and finishings.  Our CEO asked: “What will our clients say when they get on board their Grand Suite?”

My answer is easy:  I think they’re going to love them. One is just as beautiful as the next. My favorite one was whichever one I was in at the moment.

I’ll follow up with a more thorough accounting of the Grand Suites and my experience on the train in several weeks. But if you are interested in booking a Grand Suite, please don’t wait. Demand has far outpaced projections, and the Suites are 75% sold out for the 2018 season.

If you are ready to book, or if you have questions, please call us at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725 if outside the US / Canada)

Or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. We look forward to advising travel dates with availability and pricing—and all the many additional amenities afforded our Grand Suite guests.

Click here to a link to more info about the train, with all itineraries listed. We look forward to welcoming you aboard!

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.

Murder on the Orient Express: Stunning Outside, Blah Inside

4 Dec
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Our phones are ringing off the hook.

Much of it’s due to the film remake of Agatha Christie’s 1934 who-done-it, “Murder on the Orient Express.” It opened in U.S. theaters Nov. 10.

The movie has been thoroughly reviewed by the general press, with major critics less than thrilled. If I were still a newspaper critic (which I was in a past life), I’d begin by saying it’s too long by at least 15-20 minutes.

The film is brilliant when the train exterior is center stage in the “mountains of Eastern Europe” (It was, in fact, shot entirely at a film studio outside London).

IRT Travelers on the VSOE.

IRT Travelers on the Train of Kings, the King of Trains.

Pulled by a magnificent steam engine, the train is bathed in blue and white moonlight, with the camera soaring down one mountain peak and up another, as if carried by an eagle (or a drone).

The film’s Orient Express glides around mountains, beset by flashing lightning bursts and menacing clouds, clinging precariously to cliffs, seemingly thousands of feet above steep gorges.

These panoramic scenes show luxury trains at their best—as almost otherworldly experiences, whose train-window views are incomparable and life-changing.

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Taking the perfect photo on the Belmond Royal Scotsman’s outdoor rear platform — another of our World’s Top 25 Trains. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

But inside—and unlike the real luxury trains we represent —the movie Orient Express falls flat. There’s hardly any fancy furniture or gleaming brass; no discernible marquetry. The cutlery looks utilitarian; the china and crystal are uninspiring.

While there are some Art Deco accents—vaguely “Lalique-ish” sconces resembling ice sculptures adorn the movie-train walls; along with convincingly retro luggage racks—the overall color scheme ranges from dull tweed to brown.

Conversely, you can’t beat the star-studded cast. Convincingly dressed in period costume, with Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” in the background, they are brash, mysterious, gaudy, sexy — and thoroughly awash in “guilty” looks.

But there isn’t much for them to do when Poirot’s not grilling them, aside from glancing suspiciously at one another. Mostly, they just look bored. (C’mon, folks, have some fun. You’re on a luxury train!)

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Ecuador’s Tren Crucero also boasts a rear, outdoor viewing platform. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

And as far as accuracy goes, I’m dubious. In my 35 years of working in the luxury train world, I’ve never heard of a rear, open platform* on the original Orient Express in any of its iterations, as it’s shown in the film. (Please email me if you know otherwise.).

So go see “Murder on the Orient Express.” The “outdoor” train scenes alone are worth the price of admission.

But don’t commit the crime of not trying out a luxury train for yourself.

Check our list of The World’s Top 25 Trains, then  email us, or give us a call: (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725.

*We at IRT love open, outdoor platforms. Among our “World’s Top 25 Trains®,” open-air platforms are available on Rovos Rail’s “The Pride of Africa,” the “Belmond Royal Scotsman,” the Bangkok-Singapore “Eastern & Oriental Express” (also a Belmond train), the “Rocky Mountaineer” in Canada, Peru’s “Belmond Andean Explorer” and “Belmond Hiram Bingham” and Ecuador’s “Tren Crucero.”

 

Japan’s ‘Seven Stars In Kyushu’ Named A World’s Top 25 Train®

31 Mar

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The Society of International Railway Travelers® is proud to announce that the Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu, as it’s officially known, is the first Japanese train to be awarded status as a World’s Top 25 Train.®

We are also proud to announce that The Society of IRT is the first agency/tour operator in the Western Hemisphere to charter the Seven Stars. (See our 2017 tour itinerary here.) And IRT is the first to sign a contract to offer additional dates for our honored travelers.

Operated by JR Kyushu, the Seven Stars began service in  October, 2013. The luxury train was an immediate hit. Space on the train — which accommodates a maximum of 30 guests — routinely sells out many months in advance.

High demand has caused JR Kyushu to hold periodic lotteries to determine who gets to ride the Seven Stars.

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“That’s not a big problem for most Japanese, who are just a bullet train ride or two away” from Fukuoka, Kyushu, where guests board the Seven Stars, said Society of IRT CEO & founder Owen Hardy.

“But basing your travel plans on winning a lottery is unworkable for most travelers from the Western Hemisphere, who need to book flights, hotels, and itineraries months in advance.”

The Society of IRT’s package, conducted in English and accompanied by a professional English-speaking guide, solves this issue beautifully – and takes care of every other conceivable detail along the way.

Participants will spend 16 days touring some of Japan’s most famous cities – among them

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Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Hakone. They’ll ride several of Japan’s famed bullet trains. And they’ll ride special trains such as the Odakyu Romance Car, the Yurikamome Train and the Hitoyoshi steam train in Kyushu.  They can also enjoy the fabulous Sweet Train.

The tour’s “grand finale” will be the four-day trip on the Seven Stars, which is the pride of Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island.

“During my two-day trip in 2015, we were greeted at every station by throngs of smiling locals, waving flags and greeting us like royalty,” Hardy said. “They ranged in age from young children to aged grandparents. Unbelievable!”

Why the hysteria over a train — even a luxury train?

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“The Seven Stars is truly a work of art on wheels,“ said Hardy, who test-rode the train in November, 2015.

“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.

“The cuisine is “as beautiful as it is tasty,” Hardy continued. “And the expert staff exude a combination of Asian elegance and hospitality with genuine warmth.”

The Seven Stars more than deserves its “World’s Top 25 Train®” status, he added, placing it among such luxury rail stars as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Belmond Royal Scotsman, and the Golden Eagle.

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IRT is also holding space on Kyushu’s equally popular Sweet Train, which runs between Sasebo and Nagasaki. Much like its “big sister,” the Seven Stars, the Sweet Train is a delightful amalgam of design, delicious food and impeccable service, Hardy says.

Space on the “Deluxe Rail Journey of Japan” group tour is booking steadily. To download a PDF copy of the itinerary (2.7 MB), click here.  Then contact us:

2018 VSOE Dates Posted; Wait List for Annual Istanbul Galas

24 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your 2017 Luxury Rail Planning Guide: A Train for All Seasons!

23 Dec

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To our friends worldwide: Greetings!

A luxury train tour makes a great gift. Below is a ‘curated list’ of client and staff favorites:

January
Eastern & Oriental Express: Bangkok-Singapore

February
Golden Eagle: Russian Winter Wonderland
Deccan Odyssey: Delhi-Mumbai

March
Blue Train: Cape Town-Pretoria-Kruger Nat’l Park 


April
Al-Andalus: Tour of Southern Spain
Golden Eagle: Heart of Persia

May
Golden Eagle: Trans-Siberian Express 

June
Belmond Andean Explorer: Peru by Luxury Rail 


July
Belmond Royal Scotsman: Grand Tour of England, Scotland & Wales

August
Belmond Grand Hibernian: Grand Tour of Ireland 

September
Golden Eagle Danube Express: Sicilian Odyssey
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE): Istanbul-Venice


October
Rovos Rail: Cape Town to Dar es Salaam
VSOE: Venice-Vienna-Paris-London

November
Kyushu Seven Stars: Deluxe Japan Rail Journey 

December
G. Eagle Danube Express: New Year’s in Vienna


For more information, or to book:

email tourdesk@irtsociety.com

or call (800) 478-4881 (US & Canada) or (502) 897-1725 (everywhere else)

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