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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.

Marvelous Madras Mail: South India by Luxury Deccan Odyssey Train

26 Jan
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A musician in traditional costume heralds the departure of the Deccan Odyssey. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

I sat down with Owen Hardy, IRT’s Founder and CEO, who’s just back from India.

And guess where he wants to go next?

India.

And the Madras Mail aboard the Deccan Odyssey is just the ticket, he says. Why?

“Aside from the fact that my older daughter Katy lives there, India is a world unto itself. I’ve been there three times, but I feel I’ve just scratched the surface.”

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You’ll be greeted by local dancers and musicians when you board the Deccan Odyssey. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

“This itinerary takes you places — and gives you experiences — you’d never think to do on your own.”

OK, give us some examples.

#1: “I love riding trains, big and small. On the Madras Mail, besides the incredible Deccan Odyssey, you have the chance to ride not one, but two, of India’s beloved mountain railways, so tiny and slow you can almost get off and walk.

(“And if you’re adventurous, there’s another train you shouldn’t miss…more later in a future blog.”)

#2: “Two nights at Mumbai’s unforgettable Taj Palace & Tower, India’s first locally-built five-star hotel, and more Victorian than anything the British ever produced.

#3: “Visiting Goa on the Arabian sea, a thriving port and capital of the old Portuguese empire, followed by Cochin, another lovely port city  further south, with its fantastical Chinese fishing nets — IRT’s Eleanor Hardy even helped bring in a catch when we were there!”

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Chinese fishing nets in Fort Cochin. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

#4: The Deccan Odyssey itself. This is a class act. The staff is excellent; very capable and ready to please. The food is incredible, all cooked fresh on board. The excursions are well-planned and guided.

#5: The itinerary. True, it doesn’t include the Taj Mahal. My response: See it, and the other mainstays of the “Golden Triangle,” at least once. But do so before or after the main tour. (IRT’s team can design a fab extension for you.)

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Hyderabad, India

Finally, there are certain things about India that cannot be explained but must be experienced: the way people drive (lanes are only suggestions); a ride in an “auto rickshaw,” a three-wheeled vehicle that looks like an overgrown carnival ride; the sacred cows, who wander where they please (aforementioned traffic be darned!); the public laundries (the one you’ll see in Mumbai covers an area as large as several football fields), the stunning textiles in a rainbow of colors and patterns.

Most important are the people of India. They are invariably kind, curious, and welcoming. The sense of hospitality that will greet you throughout the trip — on the train and off — is exceedingly memorable.

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Crawford Market, Mumbai. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

More later — about the train, and about a little toy train you can add to your experience.

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

The Madras Mail tour runs Dec. 5-19, 2019 and Oct. 22-Nov. 5, 2020. The 2019 departure is now confirmed. Click here for full itinerary details and pricing.

Click here for details of the Deccan Odyssey train.

To book your space on the Madras Mail tour, call (800) 478-4881 or +1 502-897-1725, or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Golden Eagle’s Imperial Suites: Palatial Quarters for Discerning Travelers

17 Oct

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Want to take your Trans-Siberian Express train journey into stratospheric levels of luxury?

Book an Imperial Suite, complete with large double bed, lounge area, fully en-suite bathroom with underfloor heating, and more.

There are only three per departure (up from two — a third was just added for all future departures) and they are always the first cabins to sell out.

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Imperial Suite made up for night with large double bed.

If you’re interested in traveling this year or in 2020 on the Trans-Siberian Express — or one of Golden Eagle‘s other great itineraries (Silk Road, Caspian Odyssey, and Arctic Explorer, among others) — call or e-mail us today.

We asked Eleanor Hardy, President of the Society of International Railway Travelers, why she always recommends these palatial Suites for the most discerning travelers.

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The Golden Eagle rounds Lake Baikal.

What kind of traveler do you recommend book an Imperial Suite?

The Imperial Suite is ideal for those who prefer upgraded rooms in hotels and larger staterooms on cruises. In other words, if you value your space and need a bit of extra room to spread out, the Imperial Suite is for you.
You’ll be in your cabin for 12 nights on the Trans-Siberian Express, so being comfortable is a must. Most travelers take this journey only once in their lives, and booking the Imperial Suite really amps up the ‘wow factor’.

What do travelers love most about the Imperial Suite?

Past travelers love the expanse of space, the large double bed, and the roomy bathroom. They love the special attention from their steward, not to mention the optional in-room dining for a romantic dinner.

But the thing they end up loving the most is the private sightseeing with private car and driver throughout (where possible). This service has been a huge plus to those who want a truly custom experience off the train.

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Impeccable service in the Golden Eagle dining car. Guests who book Imperial Suites can also choose to dine privately.

Anything commensurate with the Imperial Suite on other World’s Top 25 Trains®?
Yes! Many of our trains now offer extremely opulent cabin choices.
The newest luxury accommodation on any of our World’s Top 25 Trains®
are three Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Expresswhich began service to rave reviews during the 2018 season.
The Grand Suites offer expansive space, plus many extras including free-flowing champagne, private transfers throughout, and private dining in your cabin if you wish. (Click here and here to read IRT’s firsthand reporting of the Grand Suites.)
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Grand Suite ‘Istanbul’ on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa offers the Royal Suite, which is half a train car (its bathroom contains a Victorian tub and separate shower), the Deccan Odyssey in India offers an enormous Presidential Suite (each of which has not one but two private bathrooms), and the Golden Eagle Danube Express now offer Superior Deluxe cabins, which feature a bit of extra square footage — and covetable private wi-fi.
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Presidential Suite on the Deccan Odyssey.

The Eastern and Oriental Express offers two Presidential cabin on every departure, and there are likewise two Deluxe Double cabins on every departure of the Belmond Andean Explorer. (See blog post here about IRT’s exclusive luxury rail journey of Peru — personally vetted and designed by Eleanor Hardy).
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Deluxe Double cabin on the Belmond Andean Explorer.

And India’s Maharajas’ Express offers Presidential Suites that at 220 sq. ft. are still the largest train accommodation in the world.
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Enormous Presidential Suite on the Maharajas’ Express.

Last but not least, in the non-train realm, our favorite historic sailing yacht the Sea Cloud, (IRT CEO Owen Hardy calls it the ‘Orient Express of the Seas’ in his firsthand account here) features two extra-opulent choices:

 

Marjorie Merriweather Post’s eponymous Suite, which she decorated herself, is dazzling in whites and pinks. Her husband E.F.Hutton’s Suite, meanwhile, is handsome in dark teak.

Both feature Carrara marble bathtubs, working fireplaces, golden bath fixtures, walk-in closets, polished teak, and antique furniture.

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Enormous king bed in the Marjorie Merriweather Post Owner’s Suite aboard the Sea Cloud. IRT Photo by Owen C. Hardy.

Any parting words?
Book one of these over-the-top cabins today and expand your idea of what it means to travel by train! Call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Our expert staff look forward to speaking with you.
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Eleanor Flagler Hardy is President and co-owner of The Society of International Railway Travelers. She has traveled on almost all of the World’s Top 25 Trains®, including Golden Eagle in Russia and central Asia, Golden Eagle Danube Express in Central Europe, Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa in South and East Africa, Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in Western and Central Europe and Turkey, Eastern & Oriental Express in Singapore and Thailand, Belmond Andean Explorer in Peru, Belmond Grand Hibernian in Ireland, Belmond Royal Scotsman in Scotland and England, Ghan and Indian Pacific in Australia, and Tren Crucero in Ecuador, among many others.

Deccan Odyssey’s New Itineraries Break the Mold, Showcase India’s Rich Diversity

14 Sep

 

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The Deccan Odyssey luxury train.

India —  the world’s largest democracy, the most linguistically diverse country in the world, and home to wildly varying terrain, from the Thar Desert in the west to the Ganges Plain in the north, from the Himalayas to the shores of the Arabian Sea– is anything but a monolith.

How, then, could any traveler visit once and see the entire subcontinent?

The Deccan Odyssey luxury train has the perfect answer, in the form of four new journeys for those second- or third-time visitors to India looking to move beyond the traditional ‘highlights reel’.

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Presidential Suite on the Deccan Odyssey. Each Suite has a large double bed, dedicated sitting area, and two private bathrooms.

Something all four trips have in common: the stunning Deccan Odyssey itself. All cabins are fully ensuite with private bathroom and shower (ask for a Presidential Suite if you want extra-palatial surroundings). The train also features two dining cars that serve both Indian and Continental options at every meal, a lounge, a spa car with steam bath, exercise facilities, and a massage room.

We asked our friends at Cox & Kings — sole operators of the Deccan Odyssey — to share a few highlights with us from each of the new itineraries:

Hidden Treasures of Gujarat: Visit Gir National Forest — the only place in the world where you can spot Asiatic lions in the wild. Explore the otherworldly landscape of the Little Rann of Kutch — the largest saline desert in the world. Visit Palitana, the most sacred pilgrimage site of the Jain religion, where spectacular clusters of temples are exquisitely carved in marble. Click here for full itinerary details, dates, and pricing.

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Little Rann of Kutch.

Maharashtra Splendor: Tour Fountainhas in Panjim, capital city of Goa, with its winding alleyways and bright red and blue tile-roofed houses. Ride on the Konkan railway route, bound by the Arabian Sea to the west and the Sahyadri Hills to the east. Wonder at the majesty of both Ajanta and Ellora Caves (both UNESCO Heritage sites). Click here for full itinerary details, dates, and pricing.

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Ajanta Caves.

Jewels of the Deccan: Tour Bijapur, historic capital of the Sultans of Deccan, and visit Ibrahim Rouza — the supposed inspiration for the Taj Mahal.  Wander through the weaving village of Guledgud, renowned for producing stunning fabrics by hand loom. Visit Aihole — the cradle of Indian architecture — where more than 70 unique rock-cut temples were constructed by the Chalukyan kings. Explore the bustling bazaars in the old city area of Charminar in Hyderabad. Click here for full itinerary details, dates, and pricing.

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Ibrahim Rouza

Maharashtra Wild Trail: Take a thrilling sunrise game drive in Tadoba Tiger Reserve, where it is not uncommon to see both tigers and wild dogs. Leopards, sloth bears, gaur (Indian bison), and rusty spotted cat can also be seen here. Enjoy another full day of game drives in Pench National Park, a biodiverse forest home to Malabar pied hornbills, Indian pittas, ospreys, grey-headed fishing eagles, and the green pigeon — the State Bird of Maharashtra. Visit the holy city of Nashik, now India’s premier wine-producing locale, and enjoy a lunch and tasting at a vineyard. Click here for full itinerary details, dates, and pricing.

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Tadoba Tiger Reserve.

And if you’ve never been to India before and want a more traditional first-time itinerary, we’ve got options. The Indian Sojourn — an 8-day itinerary from Mumbai to Delhi that visits many of India’s most iconic landmarks — is a great place to begin exploring. Click here for full itinerary details, dates, and pricing.

 

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Mumbai’s Gateway of India.

 

Ready to begin planning your next trip to India?

Call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us.

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 travel in Europe, South America, Africa (rail & safaris) and Canada — and she is about to embark on her second trip to India. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IRT Wins Big at Virtuoso Travel Week, Leads Luxury Rail Competition

17 Aug
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IRT’s Nora Elzy, Angela Walker, and Rachel Hardy with Lucy Clark, Director of Sales for the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and Eastern & Oriental Express trains, enjoying the Bellini Club party with Bellagio’s famous fountains as a backdrop.

We at IRT just returned from the most exclusive luxury travel show on earth — Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas at Bellagio Hotel & Casino.

We met with many of our top travel partners over the course of the last six days, and now we are brimming with exciting news, IRT accolades, and fresh travel ideas to share with you.

First, a brief primer for those who don’t know: Virtuoso is the world’s foremost luxury travel network, with about 25 billion dollars a year in buying power. IRT’s membership in Virtuoso expands our reach and capability when planning your journey by connecting us to the best luxury travel partners all around the world.

Also great for you, the traveler: exclusive amenities at all Virtuoso hotels, and special access to unique travel experiences through our other partners. Virtuoso amenities and complimentary upgrades resulted in an average of $450 in added value per booking last year.

Now, a few highlights from our week…

IRT Top Seller (yes, in the world!) for VSOE Grand Suites

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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 and overall astounding 2018 sales.

We met with our great travel partners at Belmond  — owners of several of our World’s Top 25 Trains®, including the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Belmond Royal Scotsman, Belmond Grand Hibernian, Belmond Andean Explorer, & Eastern & Oriental Express.

We were thrilled to receive special recognition as the top agency in the world for sales of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express‘ new ultra-luxe Grand Suites!

IRT was the only agency in the Western Hemisphere to be invited to the unveiling of the Grand Suites earlier this year (read Rachel Hardy’s blog post here describing her first impressions).

In short: Grand Suites are the only accommodations aboard the train that are entirely en-suite with private bathroom and rain shower. They also feature a large double bed, separate sitting area, and many other exclusive amenities.

Interested in booking your very own Grand Suite? E-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com, or call 1-800-478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada).

A list of departures on the VSOE can be found here. Space is very limited! Only 3 Grand Suites are available per departure.

Rachel Hardy Nominated for Cruise Award

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Rachel Hardy honored as a ‘Virtuoso Rising Star’ for luxury cruises.

Rachel Hardy, our Vice President of Sales & Marketing and a luxury travel advisor, was nominated for the ‘Rising Star’ award for luxury cruises.

While our niche is luxury rail travel, we do have a few particularly enticing cruise offerings that we think have great parallels with luxury train travel.

One example: the stunning Sea Cloud sailing yacht that plies the Dalmatian Coast between Athens and Dubrovnik, among other itineraries. IRT CEO Owen Hardy calls the Sea Cloud the ‘Orient Express of the Ocean.’ Read Owen’s blog post here, or find itinerary details, dates, and pricing on our website here.

 

IRT President and co-owner Eleanor Hardy Inspires as Featured Speaker

Our very own Eleanor Hardy was a featured speaker at this year’s Virtuoso Travel Week. The aptly-named panel was called “Excellence is no Accident.” The room was packed! Watch a short clip below:

 

Exciting New Rail Destinations in the Works!

We aren’t at liberty to give you details now, but two of our valued rail partners are planning exciting new rail destinations that will be unveiled in the near future. We will update you as soon as we are allowed, so please stay tuned!

If you are ready to book your trip, 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 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grand Dames of the Rails: VSOE’s Grand Suites Offer Privacy, Ultimate Luxury

8 Jun
Senior steward Francesco preps Grand Suite 'Istanbul' in preparation for its very first guests. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Senior steward Francesco preps Grand Suite ‘Istanbul’ in preparation for its very first guests. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

It’s been just over two months since I flew to Italy to inspect the three brand-new Grand Suites aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. I was lucky enough to be one of six travel professionals invited aboard for the Suites’ inaugural journey and unveiling party — and the only advisor from the Western Hemisphere to be included.

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

I shared many beautiful images in my first blog post (click here to read), but I wanted to return to the subject to expound further on all of the intangible elements that make the Grand Suites so exciting.

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

What can Grand Suite guests expect on their trip in addition to opulent surroundings?

For one thing, total privacy — if you want it. The Grand Suite carriage will always be placed at the rear of the train, in order to ensure no ‘regular’ guests stumble through by accident. And meals can be served in your cabin, where your living area easily converts into a romantic space for dining.

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

For another, regal, attentive service. Grand Suite guests will share one dedicated senior steward for the duration of their trip. (For comparison, one steward is assigned to each twin carriage, tasked with managing up to 18 guests at a time).

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Copper rain shower with exclusive Guerlain bath products. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Finally, at the press of a call button, your steward will graciously appear with chilled champagne — included throughout your journey with the booking of a Grand Suite.

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Towels emblazoned with the train’s emblem. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

And if you’re lucky enough to be one of the very few in a Grand Suite on the Paris-Istanbul or Istanbul-Paris journey, your Grand Suite will land you in upgraded hotel rooms — Suites, to be precise — in Bucharest and Budapest.

So what does the VSOE offer to those of us who aren’t able to spring for a pricey Grand Suite? (prices run far into double digits — in pound sterling — on the longer journeys).

Luckily, the train staff expertly create an atmosphere on board the train where every guest is treated like visiting royalty.

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Full-length wardrobe (seen at left) — one of two in every Grand Suite. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

And right now, we are pleased to offer a sumptuous upgrade that will make you feel even more cossetted. Book a VSOE twin cabin on a journey departing Venice to Paris/London in July, August, or November, and you’ll receive a complimentary upgrade to a Cabin Suite at time of booking. (A Cabin Suite is two twin cabins connected by a private, interior door; this doubles your space and includes two windows,  two vanities, two little tables, and and two lower beds.)

This offer also applies to a select few departures from London/Paris to Venice on the following dates: July 19, October 28, & November 8. You must reference this blog post, and you must book your journey before June 30, 2018.

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.

Click here for more info about the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, and a list of itineraries offered. 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.

South African Splendor on Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa

20 Apr
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Rovos Rail guests await their train at Rovos Rail’s private Capitol Park Station.  IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

By the time we arrive at Rovos Rail‘s private station in Pretoria, my colleague, Rachel Hardy and I are both brimming with excitement. We are about to embark on a 3-day journey to Cape Town on one of the world’s most luxurious trains: Pride of Africa. We are here to discover if this train, on our World’s Top 25® Trains list for decades, is still up to snuff ahead of IRT’s special group trip on Rovos Rail in November, 2019. By the time we arrive in Cape Town, we have decided that the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

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Rachel Hardy and Angela Walker with a Rovos Rail hostess. IRT Photo.

The check-in process is a breeze. Rovos Rail hostesses greet us with champagne and juice as our luggage is whisked away by friendly porters. We are ushered inside the beautiful old station to relax and enjoy the view through the stately French doors. Gently swaying palm trees line the platform, and beyond, the famous Rovos Rail train cars fill the tracks as far as the eye can see.

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Rovos Rail porter smiles as he loads luggage on our train. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

A short time later, Rovos Rail’s visionary and idiosyncratic owner, Rohan Vos, summons interested guests for a tour of the grounds. (Mr. Vos began Rovos Rail in 1989 against almost insurmountable odds. His story – Rovos Rail’s story – is fascinating and could fill an entire book. It is only fitting that ‘Rovos’ is a portmanteau of his first and last names!)

The station — abuzz with the activity of more than 400 Rovos Rail employees – sprawls over 60 acres. From the sales offices to the kitchens to the maintenance platforms – where we watch carriages being transformed from dusty old shells into sleek, green Pride of Africa cars – Rovos employees in a variety of green uniforms hurry to and fro, painting, welding, sawing, hauling, cleaning and doing all other manner of task.

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Rovos Rail employees at the station. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

A variety of animals (goats, emu, ostrich, donkeys and cows) hover around the periphery and impart a distinctly Old World air to the scene. Also on the station grounds: a small museum with Rovos memorabilia going back 20 years, a lovely gift shop and storage facilities.

Mr. Vos leads us to the locomotive depot, where he describes the painstaking restorations his team has accomplished over the years. He also explains the train’s bogies and braking system in some detail – a real treat for rail fans – before shepherding us back to the station for our departure.

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Rohan Vos gives a behind-the-scenes tour before departure. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

By now, we’ve come to appreciate Mr. Vos’s hands-on approach – so no one is surprised when he himself delivers the welcome speech and explains the rules of life on board. One point he particularly stresses: mobile phones and computers are prohibited in public areas.  He wants this to be a social occasion, and, as he explains, cell phones are the modern day adversary of good conversation.

He suggests we put our electronics in our safe and forget about them for a few days – a challenge for us, and surely some other guests. We settle with putting our cells on ‘Airplane Mode’ so we can continue to (discreetly) use our phone cameras without guilt.

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Rachel gets a visit from the dining staff and chef. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Mr. Vos invites each of us aboard by name, and our hostesses greet us and show us to our cabins. Rachel and I each have a Deluxe cabin to ourselves. Mine is laid out with two L-shaped twin beds (a configuration that is slowly being phased out in favor of side-by-side twin beds with an aisle in between), while Rachel has a large double bed.

In each of our cabins is a table with two chairs, a large wardrobe with safe, ample storage space for luggage under bed and overhead, and a spacious bathroom with sink, toilet, and shower.

Large picture windows – some of which open to let in the breeze – run the length of our cabins.

 

(In addition to Deluxe Cabins, which clock in around 118 square feet, the train offers Pullman Cabins (diminutive but doable at 76 sq. ft.) and enormous Royal Suites, which are 172 sq. ft. and feature a larger bathroom with deep claw foot bathtub and large living area.)

After a cheerful briefing from our hostess, Louwrene, and a visit from the dining supervisor and chef to inquire about dietary requirements, we set off to explore the public cars at the rear of the train.

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Rachel and guests enjoying the observation car before dinner. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

We first encounter the smoking car, which is entirely enclosed in glass and surprisingly devoid of bad smells. (Smoking is also allowed within the confines of your cabin.)

Next, we find a quiet, comfortable lounge car with couches and armchairs, which quickly becomes the ‘go-to’ spot for guests looking to read and nap after lunch. A small gift shop is tucked in one corner.

The last car on the train is by far the most special: it is divided between a traditional counter bar with stools, a lounge area with banquette seating (our favorite place for playing the many board games available), and, best of all, an open-air observation platform with bench seating, accessed through a sliding glass door.

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Rovos Rail open-air observation car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

As we are making our rounds, the train manager, Joe Mathala, greets us enthusiastically and strikes up a conversation about his long and storied career with Rovos. He quickly rattles off the other Rovos trains currently in service – where they are now, where they are headed, what time they will arrive – and regales us with behind-the-scenes tales.

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Joe Mathala, train manager, made us feel at home. Pictured here with guests at lunch in the dining car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The South African sun sets rapidly over the increasingly rural landscape, and we retreat to our cabins to dress for dinner. On Rovos Rail, dinner is a formal affair. Jacket and tie for men and cocktail attire for women are required, at a minimum, and everyone happily obliges.

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Angela in the Victorian-style diner. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The dining car is a 1920s-style Victorian beauty with teak pillars, shuttered windows with tasseled drapes, romantic, soft lighting, and beautifully-set tables with crisp white dining cloths, china, and crystal. Red anthurium flowers add a natural adornment to each table.

The service is excellent; we are well-attended by four able dining staff who bounce back and forth from the kitchen car to the tables, serving, pouring and clearing, all with a smile.  Joe is also ever-present, assisting his staff while still managing to mingle with the guests.

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Alpheus, our sever, pours wine at dinner. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Throughout the journey, the prix fixe menus – four courses expertly paired with South African wines – highlight local specialties, including fresh seafood, ostrich fillet, and Bobotie (spiced mince beef oven-baked with a layer of egg custard). Rachel, a vegetarian, also gave the culinary team five stars for inventiveness and flavor.

We loved the desserts, especially the decadent Koeksister (in Afrikaans, “fat sister”) – fried dough soaking in sweet, drippy grease – paired with a traditional South Africa melktart, dusted with cinnamon.

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My cozy bed, laden with gifts from Rovos Rail, turned down for the night. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

After dinner, we retreat to our cabins to find gifts from Rovos Rail arranged on our turned-down beds: crystal glasses to keep, bottles of champagne, and chocolates. (As if we needed more food!)  The gentle rocking of the train lulled me to sleep as soon as I hit the pillow.

 

Stayed tuned for part two of our Rovos Rail report, which will be published within the next week. Subscribe to our blog here.

Or, if you are ready to book your own Rovos Rail adventure, call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 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, and has been on many of our World’s Top 25® Trains. She is a luxury travel advisor and VP, Operations.  Rachel M. Hardy is a luxury travel advisor and VP, Sales & Marketing, for the Society of IRT. Both are based in our Louisville, KY headquarters. They have just returned from a month-long study tour examining trains, hotels and experiences in Europe and South Africa.

 

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