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Silk Road Delights IRT Guests

16 May

The oasis of Crescent Lake at Dunhuang, China.

Spanning five countries – China, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia – on two trains — the first-class Shangri-La Express and the luxury Golden Eagle — the Silk Road always seems to electrify our travelers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of three Imperial Suites on the Golden Eagle. Bonus: these spacious accommodations also include private English-speaking guide. Photo by Golden Eagle.

 

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Family picnics on the shores of Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

  • BEIJING: “The sprawling Summer Palace grounds are populated by friendly picnicking Beijinger families — large clusters of grownups surrounding one or two “Little Emperors” or “Empresses.” This is a major tourist attraction that still maintains a distinctly local flavor.”

    The Mogao Thousand Buddha Complex. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

  • DUNHUANG: “The Mogao Thousand Buddha Cave Complex is a must-see. The wildly colorful frescoes and massive statuary are visually stunning — and are important reminders of the vital role the Silk Road trade route played in spreading culture and religion in addition to fine cloth and spices.”
  • SAMARKAND: “You have to visit Registan Square at least twice – once by day and  again by night. The blues in the architecture here are magnificent, and the way the Square lights up after dark is spectacular!”

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    IRT travelers in front of the “Genghis Hole” of Merv. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

  • MERV: “Unbelievably well-preserved evidence of 12th-century warfare: huge holes in the sides of the fortress wall where Genghis Khan aimed his catapults. Close by, the house where the king’s daughters jumped to their deaths to escape the approaching horde.”

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    Textiles in the markets of Khiva. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

  • KHIVA: “Stunning madrasas, minarets, and bazaars. The markets here made for excellent shopping: richly embroidered textiles, colorful pottery, and ornate jewelry were plentiful.”
  • MOSCOW: “Tours of the Kremlin, Red Square, and St. Basil’s were thrilling – but we all agreed that our night at the Bolshoi Ballet was THE experience we would always remember from Moscow.”

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

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

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

Did we mention?

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

Belmond Grand Hibernian Shines Brighter Than Ever

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Rocky Mountaineer Awes IRT Advisor — & Not Just ‘Bearly’

3 May
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Rocky Mountaineer onboard staff are young, cheerful and knowledgeable. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

“Bear!” someone shouted.

“Yea, right,” I thought, groggy from my early morning wake-up call. “Just another overly-excited travel agent.”

But then I saw him.

The shaggy, brown animal lumbered right outside my Rocky Mountaineer window, oblivious to his human admirers. I felt as if I could reach out and pet him—maybe even give him a good belly rub to wake him from his winter nap.

And that’s what’s so incredible about the Rocky Mountaineer. You’re in the middle of the Canadian wilderness while traveling in a cocoon of great food, service, scenery and conviviality.

And so it went for my two-day, one-night, all-too-short Rocky Mountaineer ride.

Two things stand out most to me about my trip to Canada last May:

• Western Canada’s scenery is stunning — just as advertised.

• The dynamic Rocky Mountaineer staff knows its stuff, whether it’s Canadian railroad history, animals and birds, or how to put folks at ease.

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View of the Fraser River from Rocky Mountaineer GoldLeaf Dome. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

From the moment I arrived at Vancouver’s bustling station, I knew I was in great hands.

Once aboard the train, I was shown to my seat at the second-level panoramic window of my GoldLeaf car. Over the next two days, I’d see eagles, ospreys and — bears.

I was traveling with a group of N. American travel advisors, many of whom had never ridden a train.

I’ve traveled by conventional trains in France, England, and Japan — but never on a first-class train like the Rocky Mountaineer. Having joined the Society of International Railway Travelers’ in December 2016, I was looking forward to my first first-class train ride.

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Rocky Mountaineer’s GoldLeaf Dome carriages offer great views. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

GoldLeaf service is the train’s highest level. And as far as IRT is concerned, it’s the only way to go.

Why?

It’s a smorgasbord for the senses. For example:

  • SEE: GoldLeaf’s gigantic panoramic windows curve up to the ceiling, giving you a mountain goat’s-eye view in almost every direction; travel in late spring, and you might spot bald eagles, mountain goats, moose, and even black and brown bears, as I did, emerging from hibernation.
  • FEEL: GoldLeaf’s wind-in-the-face, outdoor observation decks — accessible exclusively for GoldLeaf passengers — bring you in direct contact with the Canadian wilderness;
  • TASTE: The fabulous, nothing-could-be finer dining room is just a short walk down the elegant spiral staircase. There, you’ll be served breakfast and lunch.
  • LISTEN: The typically younger, 20-something attendants are top-notch and constantly active. They take turns pointing out historic sites, scenic landmarks and animals. They also distribute all-included snacks and beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic).
  • RELAX: GoldLeaf seats are utterly relaxing. You can adjust the seat backs to several positions and control their radiating heat. You can even rotate your seat 180 degrees to make a miniature seating area for 4 people.

(Besides GoldLeaf, there’s also the single-level Silver service, which is less expensive.  But don’t even ask us to book it for you. You haven’t come all this way to have at-seat, airline-style meals and no full outdoor platform.)

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Yet another reason to opt for GoldLeaf: Rocky Mountaineer is one of a handful of IRT’s ‘World’s Top 25 Trains‘ offering “wind-in-the-face” outdoor views. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

Meanwhile, back in GoldLeaf, I absolutely loved the outdoor observation deck at the end of the car.

I was able to enjoy the full beauty of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains; the winding path of the Spiral Tunnels; and the beautiful, sometimes turquoise, snow-melt rivers along the way. If you travel in the late spring, you’ll have a great chance to see such wildlife, and — if you’re as lucky as I was — even bears.

In fact, there’s no bad time to take the Rocky Mountaineer. Should you travel in the summer or fall, you’ll still be privy to stunning natural scenery, whether that means more greenery, higher river levels, or stunning fall foliage.

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Table setting in GoldLeaf Dome downstairs dining room. Rocky Mountaineer photo by Vincent L. Chan

All meals and drinks are included when on board the train. There are two seatings for breakfast and lunch in the elegant, downstairs dining section. I particularly enjoyed receiving a small menu at each meal with at least four choices from which to choose.

As a breakfast-lover, this presented some difficult choices! Pancakes or a freshly prepared parfait?

The Rocky Mountaineer also accommodates dietary restrictions, as long as you alert us at time of booking. In my case, that meant receiving gluten-free toast.

• • •

As if all this weren’t enough, the Rocky Mountaineer is adding seven brand-new GoldLeaf cars to its collection. Built by Swiss rail car company Stadler, four cars were added last month, with three more coming in 2020.

What’s special about these cars?

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Big News! One of Rocky Mountaineer’s new, enhanced GoldLeaf Dome cars. Rocky Mountaineer photo by Vincent L. Chan

While all GoldLeaf carriages are fabulous, the new cars offer “dimmable” upper domed windows to moderate incoming light, redesigned galley kitchens to better aid staff with meal preparation, and enhanced ride quality.

• • •

So what does all this mean to you?

First: the Rocky Mountaineer is wildly popular, so the sooner you book, the better.  Book by the end of August to ensure you receive the best possible promotional goodies.

Second: the best itineraries sell out first. Rocky Mountaineer offers a dizzying array of options. Based on our 35 years of experience, we recommend one in particular: our Ultra-Luxe Canadian Rockies Adventure, with upgraded hotels and all private touring and transfers. It’s equally great for multi-generational family groups and vacationing couples looking for an extra-exclusive Rockies experience. Check it out here.

If you’re ready to book right now, click here.

You can also e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com, or call (800) 478-4881 within the U.S. or Canada. Elsewhere, call +1 (502) 897-1725.

• • •

Nora Elzy is a Luxury Travel Associate with The Society of International Railway Travelers. She joined our team in December, 2016. She is a graduate of Centre College. Among her international travels was her study abroad in Japan.

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.

 

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.

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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
Murder on OE

20th Century Fox photo

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.”

 

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