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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.”

 

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Goes Big in 2018

15 Sep

Want to travel on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) next year?

You’re not alone.

This fall, the latest “Murder on the Orient Express” film debuts.

And next year, the VSOE celebrates the 20th anniversary of its annual Paris-Istanbul journey, says its operator, Belmond.

Three brand-new Grand Suites will be on all VSOE departures beginning in 2018.

Three brand-new Grand Suites will be on all VSOE departures beginning in 2018. Shown above: Grand Suite Venice.

The train is celebrating its milestone year with a host of improvements to the train and its itineraries. New for 2018:

Grand Suites: Currently under construction, the VSOE’s Grand Suites will offer guests over-the-top accommodations, including double bed, sitting room, and private shower, sink and toilet — a first for the 1920s-vintage train.

Grand Suites are sold out for next year’s 6-day, 5-night annual Paris-Istanbul / Istanbul-Paris journeys. (Contact us now to get on the 2019 Grand Suite wait list for either of these annual journeys.)

Limited Grand Suite space remains on the VSOE’s 2018 trips to Vienna, Budapest, Prague and Berlin. For more on the Grand Suites, click here.

IRT Travelers on the VSOE.

IRT Travelers on the VSOE.

Steam Engine: The VSOE’s Venice-Budapest trips will be hauled by a Hungarian MAV 424.247 steam locomotive for the last half-hour of its three 2018 journeys in May, September and October.

The powerful locomotive was built in Budapest’s MÁVAG factory after the Second World War.

“The noise, the smell, the evocative imagery… conjuring up Agatha Christie and the movies,” says VSOE general manager Pascal Deyrolle. “It’s everybody’s dream when it comes to travelling on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.”

The MAVs were nicknamed bivaly (buffalo) by the railway workers and, according to Deyrolle, you can see why.

“The engine is massive! It’s quite a shock when you first see it. We forget how huge this machinery was. A wheel is as high as a man! It’s an impressive beast.”

The VSOE in Gothard, Switzerland. Photo by Belmond.

The VSOE in Gothard, Switzerland. Photo by Belmond.

More Mountains: New, earlier departure times — 2 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. — on VSOE trips departing from Venice to Prague, Vienna and Budapest mean more time on the train and spectacular mountain scenery, Belmond says.

Grand Tour: Really want to do it up big? The 8-day “Grand Tour” of Europe begins with an overnight trip on the VSOE from London or Paris to Venice. After two days in the “Floating City,” continue on the train to Prague, Vienna or Budapest, before re-joining the train once again for your return overnight trip to Paris or London. Contact us for details.

1930s Berlin: VSOE specialist Lucy Clark describes the train’s annual London/Paris-Berlin journeys as “edgy.”

dsc_0273-vsoe-lamp“On board, it feels a bit different,” from the typical VSOE excursion, she says. “We get more culturally curious passengers. Maybe it’s the jazz band we have on board, or the different uniforms the staff wears.”

Whatever it is, the trip is unique, she says.

“The stretch along the 120 kilometers of the Rhineland gorge is absolutely beautiful. The vineyard-covered cliffs, the castles…and of course, Cologne, with its magnificent cathedral…it offers a unique charm.”

For more information, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers®. US & Canada, call (800) 478-4881; everywhere else, call (502) 897-1725. Email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

To submit a booking request online, click here.

Peru’s New Belmond Andean Explorer Makes the Livin’ Easy

10 Jun
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Society of IRT President Eleanor Hardy snaps a photo from the observation/lounge car — complete with outdoor viewing area — on the new Belmond Andean Explorer. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

“Summer time!” the young Peruvian woman sang. “And the livin’ is easy.”

Backed up by a soulful tenor sax, the two belted out the Gershwin ballad in the rear bar/lounge of the new Belmond Andean Explorer.

Outside on the spacious, rear open-air platform, guests nursed their Pisco Sours as they watched the outskirts of Cusco shrink into the distance.

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High times in the rear lounge car: a Peruvian duo performs a soulful rendition of “Summertime” as the Belmond Andean Explorer pulls out of Cusco for its first 3-day journey. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

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The Belmond Andean Explorer chugs past the Sibinacocha volvano, blowing smoke and ash. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

This newest thoroughbred in the Belmond stable is every inch a champion. In fact, we’ve just named it one of our newest ‘World’s Top 25 Trains.”

The train and its services are beautiful. The staff is bright and eager to please. Many developed their high customer service standards at Belmond’s fabulous five-star hotel in Cusco, the Monasterio.

And the wild, mountainous Andean landscape stuns with its soaring peaks, beautiful altiplano and volcanoes, occasionally snow-peaked and sometimes blowing smoke and ash.

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The kitchen staff hard at work preparing another fabulous meal. Note the homage to the train’s Australian origin: the old logo of the Great South Pacific Express etched in the window.                 IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

The train has a fascinating history.

Built in Australia in the 1990s, it began service as the Great South Pacific Express luxury train running between Cairns and Brisbane, only to be shut down after four years, the victim of poor track and rough rides.

There it languished for 13 years, awaiting its fate.

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Some of our favorite traveling companions: this lively family from Lima relaxes in the piano lounge. We can attest that these kids had a ball. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Finally, last year, it was shipped to Peru — complete with the baby grand piano, podium for train check-in, the boarding steps and even the tags for luggage.  In Peru, its transformation to a remarkably Peruvian train began.

In May, 2017 it emerged like a butterfly from its cocoon, transformed into a rolling work of art.  Peru Luxury Trains manager, Javier Carlavilla Lindo, is palpably proud of “his baby,” the first luxury sleeper train in South America.

It is gorgeously outfitted with bright local textiles on pillows, throws and ottomans, not to mention local art throughout.

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Sunrise over Lake Titicaca — something that you, too, can witness — if you’re willing to wake up at 5:30 a.m. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Throughout the train are remnants of its luxurious past in Australia: Art Deco brass fittings and lamps, hammered steel bathroom sinks in the powder rooms, charming lights throughout. The large cabins in the deluxe double-bedded suites and the bunk cabins are other remnants — now decorated in distinctive Peruvian style.

But even though the longest trip is just three days and two nights, we highly recommend booking a suite, if you can swing it. It’s great to have room to spread out.

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The Belmond Andean Explorer Junior Suite boasts ample storage and three windows. IRT Photo by Eleanor Flagler Hardy

Eleanor and I loved our Junior Suite. It boasts a double bed with two windows on one side, plus a sliding window on the other, which allows a view out the other side of the train.

It also has incredible storage capacity. That includes overhead racks, a big closet, a chest of drawers and 2 comfortable easy chairs. The ensuite shower, sink and toilet worked very well, too.

Our only trouble with our room was a sticky lock — we got trapped inside for a few minutes wondering if we would ever escape.

(We phoned our concierge at the Belmond Hotel Monasterio back in Cusco, who in turn called train manager Christopher Mendoza to secure our release.)

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Belmond Andean Explorer train manger Christopher Mendoza takes a break from his very busy schedule in one of train’s two restaurant cars. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

Dining is a big part of any luxury train, and in this area, Belmond does not disappoint. Head of the culinary program is none other than Diego Muñoz, named by the New York Times as one of the world’s leading chefs.

The last day, we all applauded the chef for our trip, Julio Serrano, who was “on loan” from Lima’s famed Astrid & Gaston, which Chef Muñoz once led.

Chef Serrano produced one Peruvian specialty after another. Much of the food prep is done at the Monasterio, where Serrano once worked, and loaded on in Cusco.

Most of the train’s staff, in fact, were recruited from the Monasterio.  We found them amazingly accomplished for the first full run of the train. A few were receiving close on-the-job training – but most were very capable.

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Between Cusco and Puno, guests disembark to visit the ruins of the massive Inca temple and food storage center of Raqch’i. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

One of the great advantages of a trip on the Belmond Andean Explorer is the train’s “birds’-eye view” of the passing scene — including local people living their everyday lives — and the fabulous outdoor deck for viewing it all.

Hundreds of people waved excitedly as we passed by.

The itinerary included  carefully planned stops — a favorite was a visit to the Uros people on their reed islands at Lake Titicaca. Another was a stop to see 6,000-year-old cave paintings in volcanic stone created by nomadic herdsmen.

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A young Peruvian boy waves to the Belmond Andean Explorer. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Some of the folks knew the train was coming — such as at La Raya, at 14,150 feet one of the highest points on the line. They smiled. They were hospitable. And they were ready to sell. But not to worry: the handicrafts — especially the textiles — are exquisite and excellent buys.

And speaking of altitude, consult your doctor before travel. Our highest point was 14,200 feet in Saradocha, where we stopped for the night.

Several passengers (I was one) experienced headaches and some shortness of breath here. But the fabulous, cheerful nurse, Liz Mery Fuentes Galvez, took great care of us and administered oxygen. (Each cabin has a box with an oxygen tank, just in case.)

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Chugging high in the Peruvian altiplano during the afternoon of the luxury train’s third and final day. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

With the altitude came some of the most striking scenery — the Andes — the second-highest mountain range in the world. But not everyone was on board to experience it.

In the middle of our third and final day, the train stopped to let off people wanting to visit Peru’s magnificent Colca Canyon.

The downside, however, is the that trip involves a long bus ride over two-lane, winding roads. And you miss the final, spectacular descent high in the Andes over some of trip’s most magnificent scenery to Arequipa.

We chose to stay on board, and we’re glad we did.

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Enjoying the views from the Belmond Andean Explorer rear, outdoor viewing area. These Peruvian youngsters, their sister and parents were delightful traveling companions. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

That last afternoon, we enjoyed several fabulous meals and hours of luxuriating on the open-air deck. We spied herds of vicunas and guanacos. We laughed with the charming, bilingual family from Lima, photographing the train as it wound around every bend.

And we were thrilled that we were among the very first to take this historic new train — the first of its kind in South America — the whole way — from Cusco (11,300 feet) to Puno at 12,600 feet, and down to Arequipa (6,900 feet).

For more information on the Belmond Andean Explorer or any of the Peruvian Belmond hotels, please call The Society of International Railway Travelers: (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725;  or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

To see a detailed itinerary of our 11-day Peru journey, which includes the Belmond Andean Explorer as well as the Belmond Hiram Bingham train to/from Machu Picchu, please click here.

 

 

 

 

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:

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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IRT’s Eleanor Hardy ‘Stars’ in New York Times Travel Section

30 Nov
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Left to right: Society of IRT President Eleanor Flagler Hardy with IRT travelers Esther S. Müller-Meyre, of Scherzingen, Switzerland, and Ron Fischer, of Arlington, VA. They stand before Ireland’s Belmond Grand Hibernian, whose “maiden voyage” the IRT Society chartered. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

“Traveling by train is a fabulous way to see any country unfold,” Society of International Railway Travelers President Eleanor Hardy tells The New York Times’ travel writer Shivani Vora.

Look for the story’s print version to appear this Sunday, Dec. 4, in the Times Travel section.

The Times shared four of Mrs. Hardy tips: Pick the right train, make sure it matches your budget, pack light and plan wisely.

Her fifth tip — book with an experienced travel advisor — didn’t make the cut. But it’s important nonetheless:

“If you value your time and you want the best value, and the right cabin on the right train — not to mention your piece of mind — book your rail journey with an experienced rail specialist.

“We’ve worked with some of our suppliers for over three decades. They know us. They trust us. That’s especially important when the unexpected happens,” Mrs. Hardy said.

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Society President Eleanor Hardy appeared on cover of the Society’s 2011 tour catalogue. Mrs. Hardy is dining aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.                 IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Mrs. Hardy cites VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian and the Rocky Mountaineer as ideal for families with young children. She recommends Golden Eagle’s 21-day Beijing-Moscow Silk Road and Rovos Rail’s 15-day Cape Town-Dar es Salaam tours for a longer, more relaxed rail trip.

For those not worried about pinching pennies, she recommends Europe’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Belmond Royal Scotsman and the Eastern & Oriental Express in Southeast Asia.

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Taking the perfect photo on the Belmond Royal Scotsman’s outdoor rear platform. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Mrs. Hardy’s rail travel luggage recommendations? “Take no more than one small roller bag and one small backpack per person,” she says.

Finally, avoid the three mistakes “rookie” rail travelers make:

  • Confirm the station from which your train departs (many cities have several);
  • Buy your rail ticket before you leave home (they sell out fast); and
  • Allow plenty of time before and after your rail trip, so you’ll have ample time to make your connections.

“Flights can be delayed…trains can be late,” she tells the Times. “And you don’t want to be ruining your relaxing time on the train worrying about making your flight.”

• • •

For more information or to book a trip, call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725; email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Society of IRT Clients: ‘We Love the Belmond Grand Hibernian!’

19 Nov
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Belmond Grand Hibernian Train Manager Wolfgang Eipeldauer and crew member Mark O’Doherty pose outside Ireland’s first luxury train.  Mark prepares to serve drinks to passengers returning from a “shore excursion.” IRT Photo by Eleanor Flagler Hardy

Soon after we returned from the “maiden voyage” of Ireland’s Belmond Grand Hibernian, the reviews began arriving.

“The Belmond Grand Hibernian Railway Tour was an outstanding experience,” wrote one IRT guest on Rachel Hardy’s Virtuoso “review page.” “It was luxury rail travel with a broad sampling of the history and heart of Ireland.”  (Click here for more reviews.)

“Just wonderful!” wrote another of the IRT trip — our first-ever charter of an entire train.

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Marus Vera prepares to “launch” her raptor during a falconry outing at Ireland’s gorgeous Ashford Castle, one of the favorite stops on the Belmond Grand Hibernian tour. IRT Photo by Eleanor Flagler Hardy

“This was my seventh trip with the Society of International Railway Travelers,” wrote yet another, extolling IRT’s insistence on excellence.

Summing up, a veteran traveler wrote: “I would heartily recommend the trip to anyone interested in Ireland or train travel or both.”

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Our guide at Ashford Castle was a retired schoolteacher, and wonderful storyteller. In the background, IRT Society tour guest Julia Cordukes looks on. IRT Photo by Eleanor Flagler Hardy

These reactions — coupled with our own experience — prompt us to offer the same journey, at the same time of year, in 2017: Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 2017.

We’re happy to book you on any Belmond Grand Hibernian trip next year — there are 22 departures of the 7-day tour from April through October, 2017.

But we think you’ll especially like our group tour. Why? Let one of the Belmond Grand Hibernian crew members explain:

Finally, this, from a long-time Society of IRT traveler:

“When they called it the ‘Grand’ Hibernian, they really knew what they were doing. It was a grand trip.”

To see a photo album of the trip, please click here.  And if you want to talk with one of us who has been on board, please call us: 800-478-4881 or 502-897-1725.

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Society of IRT President Eleanor Flagler Hardy poses with Belmond Grand Hibernian staff at Dublin’s Heuston Station just before the luxury train’s first-ever trip. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

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