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Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Soon to Unveil Its 2017 Schedule

7 Apr
Dining Car 4110 "Etoile du Nord"

Marquetry panel from dining car 4110 “Etoile du Nord” VSOE Photo

The train whose name whispers “elegance” — the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) — opened for its 35th season several weeks ago.

As always certain trips sell out more quickly than others. The longer, once-a-year Istanbul trips — Paris-Istanbul and Istanbul-Venice — always are in short supply.

 

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Detail from VSOE diner “L’Oriental,” with Chinese lacquered walls. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Success in Booking the Orient-Express

“Those truly interested in an Istanbul trip need to plan far in advance,” says IRT’s president, Eleanor Hardy. “We’re taking names for fall, 2017.” (Contact us now to get on the ‘list.’) If the past is any indication, next year’s trips should be announced soon.

Other limited runs include:  Venice-Prague-Paris-London, Venice-Vienna-Paris-London and Venice-Budapest-Paris-London.  Also popular with IRT guests: IRT’s Romantic Italian Holiday, which includes the VSOE between London or Paris and Venice.

Then come two nights each at over-the-top, five-star hotels: the Hotel Cipriani in Venice and the Villa San Michele in Florence. Both are operated by Belmond (as is the VSOE).

In other news, the VSOE has air-conditioned its three dining cars as well as its bar car, which also has been redecorated.

And Head Barman Walter Nisi has added tantalizing specialties to his bar menu. See the full story here.

For more info or to book, send an email, call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Or book directly from our website.

 

 

 

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

25 Mar

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The Seven Stars’ Deluxe Suite A, at rear of train, offers unbeatable views. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

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. (Download the tour program here.) And IRT is the first to sign a contract to obtain other dates in October and November of 2016 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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The Seven Stars’ Deluxe Suite A, the train’s largest accommodation, includes a picture window in the back wall. Note the woodwork in the ceiling, windows and floor. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

“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.

Although our group trip is wait list only, we are delighted to announce we are adding other departures for individuals — seeing the wonders of Japan and enjoying the new Seven Stars and Sweet Train offerings.

Participants will spend 10 days touring some of Japan’s most famous cities – among them

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Seven Stars staff are friendly and efficient. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Miyajima. They’ll ride several of Japan’s famed bullet trains. And they’ll ride special trains such as the Odakyu Romance Car and the Yurikamome Train.  They will 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 last year, 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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JR Kyushu bullet train. Photo courtesy of Japan National Tourism Organization

“The Seven Stars is truly a work of art on wheels,“ said Hardy, who had a test ride last November.

“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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JR Kyushu’s beloved “Sweet Train” Photo courtesy JR Kyushu

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 now wait list only. But to receive the Society’s 24-page booklet on our package, click here.  We will send you all the new dates and pricing for our other travel dates for this package.

Or contact The Society of International Railway Travelers® as follows:

JR Kyushu’s Little ‘Sweet Train’ Big on Beauty, Fun, Good Taste

8 Jan
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The Sweet Train glides through Oita Prefecture. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

JR Kyushu’s newest railway confection is the Aru Ressha,  or Sweet Train. It’s one of a dozen special trains dreamed up by the creative minds of railway officials on Japan’s southernmost island.

While on my quest last month to experience JR Kyushu’s luxurious and wildly popular Seven Stars, I was hoping also to ride the Sweet Train — also a star in its own right. It’s a post-tour option on our very popular “Seven Stars Over Japan” luxury tour.

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IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Like its “big sister,” the Sweet Train sells out months in advance.

Several weeks before my departure on Japan Air Line’s Chicago-Tokyo flight, I received the email I’d been hoping for:

“Good news!” wrote Simon Metcalfe, director of international sales for JR Kyushu’s Seven Stars train. “There’s been a cancellation on the Sweet Train. You and I will be going from Sasebo to Nagasaki.”

Several weeks later, Simon and I were standing on the Sasebo Station platform. The Sweet Train had arrived, and the place was bustling.

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Service is friendly, and the design is sumptuous, on the Sweet Train. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

“We recommend doing the Sweet Train before the Seven Stars,” Simon told me, as the Seven Stars’ level of service and amenities are superior.

But as a visiting foreigner (and American, where rail service is sparse), I found every aspect of the Sweet Train beguiling.

For what it is — a little more than two-hour ride with light lunch and four courses of desserts as beautiful as they are tasty — the Sweet Train is a must-do option if you get anywhere near Kyushu. The train’s design, food, service and scenery are superb.

And its history — which surprisingly involves the USA at the turn of the last century — is fascinating.

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The Sweet Train abounds with intricate, locally crafted woodwork. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Anyone who’s seen pictures of or been on the Seven Stars will immediately recognize the work of Sweet Train designer, Mr. Eiji Mitooka, who also designed the Seven Stars.

The Sweet Train reflects many Seven Stars elements: lighting and decor employing similar patterns (fabrics and wallpapers in rich hues, often with a nature theme); sumptuous woods and intricate details for those who take time to seek them out.
Rail enthusiasts, for example, must be sure to excuse themselves to wander back towards the lavatory. On the way, they’ll discover a cabinet with several scale-model steam engines and tenders.

And even the bathroom itself is richly decorated and not to be missed.

The self-propelled Sweet Train comprises just two cars. Car No. 1 has a more traditional, open seating plan. Car No. 2, where Simon and I sat, consists of private “booths,” accessible through sliding wooden doors.

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The Sweet Train serves a seasonal menu of delicacies from Kyushu. The center section of my bento box included vegetables in the shapes of autumn maple and gingko leaves. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Following a starter of orange juice and champagne, the fanciful parade of delicate food starts with a colorful box of meat, fish and vegetables, all sourced from Kyushu’s finest providers.

Then come three sweets courses, made from a variety of seasonal fruits, followed by a delicacy called mignardises (tea cakes).

The menu is the brainchild of Mr. Yoshihiro Narisawa, who has a famous restaurant named Narisawa in Tokyo.

The service on the Sweet Train, meanwhile, is top-notch: friendly, knowledgeable and indefatigable. The Sweet Train staff knows how to put on a show.

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A view out my window as the Sweet Train skirted Omura Bay. Note the delicately constructed wooden window shade. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Also — remember to drag your senses away from the plush interiors, scrumptious food and smiling wait staff — and be sure to admire the view: It’s as if it’s custom-designed for this train. The train skirts the broad, blue Omura Bay — gorgeous.

(Note: My Sasebo-Nagasaki trip was in November — autumn in Kyushu. The Sweet Train summer route is between Oita and Hida.)

And what’s the America / Sweet Train connection?

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A woman in traditional dress greets passengers in Nagasaki. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

In 1907, Kyushu Railways ordered a set of “luxury rail cars” from the Philadelphia manufacturer, J.G. Brill Co.  However, nationalization of the railway sidelined the cars.

Now enter Japanese model railway enthusiast Nobutaro Hara, who remembered the cars from his youth and made a model of the Brill train. Eventually the little train wound up in his model railroad museum in Yokohama.

Sweet Train designer Mr. Mitooka based his modern design on Mr. Hara’s model. And hence — this was probably the first time a full-sized train took inspiration from a model!

Want to ride the Sweet Train? We’ve reserved a few coveted places for participants to add the Sweet Train to our luxury Japan by Rail tour running Nov. 5-19, 2016 (which includes a four-day trip on the Seven Stars).

So far, everybody booked on our journey could not resist the sweets — on the Sweet Train.  We only have 16 places left on the main tour.

For a beautiful, full-color, 24-page brochure, please email your name and address to tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Or call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

A Shining Asian Constellation: Japan’s Seven Stars in Kyushu

4 Dec

Seven Stars mascot in “Blue Moon” car. IRT Photo by O. Hardy

“Who’s this?” I asked, spying a little dog lying patiently in a dark corner of the bar car.

“Oh, it’s a kind of joke by the designer,” smiled Mr. Hironobu Yanagawa, Kyushu Railway’s Assistant Manager, Cruise Train Headquarters.

Normally, I’d have overlooked the little canine sculpture.

But in the short time I’d been aboard the Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu, I’d already learned an important lesson: look for details.

Seven Stars at Amagase, Oita Prefecture. Photo © Terunobu Utsunomiya

In other parts of the train, I found more subtle “jokes”: tree frogs climbing a wall, wasps tending their nest, a simple white button nestled in a rich, gold picture frame.

And almost 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.

Intricate kumiko lattice woodwork — and its delicate shadow — in the lounge. IRT Photo by O. Hardy

In sum, even my short, two-day ride on the Seven Stars yielded a plethora of extraordinary experiences — visual, culinary, musical — even spiritual, if you believe the train’s tagline: “a journey to discover a new way of life.”

Seven Stars, a special sightseeing train of Japan’s JR Kyushu, began life two years ago, and it’s never looked back. Despite its steep price, not even all the Japanese who want to ride can get tickets, much less the hapless foreigners clamoring for a ride.

That’s why The Society of International Railway Travelers® chartered the entire train for a four-day, three-night itinerary as part of our luxury Seven Stars Over Japan tour, which runs Nov. 5-19, 2016.

IRT Photo

I recently returned from a quick visit to Kyushu – Japan’s southernmost island – to enjoy a rare, non-revenue ride offered by JR Kyushu to a small group of journalists.

Granted, two days and a night were not nearly enough time to take in all this train has to offer. But it was long enough for me to declare without hesitation: the Seven Stars elevates the standards of world luxury train travel to an even higher level.

Seven Stars stands for Kyushu’s seven prefectures (similar to U.S. counties). The train has seven cars: the “Blue Moon” bar / lounge car whose entire rear wall is a giant picture window, dining car “Jupiter,” and four sleeping cars, each with three spacious suites measuring 108 square feet.

One regular suite is handicapped-accessible. The train also carries a wheelchair.

Deluxe suite with picture window. JR Kyushu Photo

At the other end of the train, the seventh car contains two “deluxe suites”  which can accommodate two or three guests each.

Deluxe Suite A is 226 square feet and boasts a private glass picture window at the end of the car. It is by far the most popular accommodation on the train, JR Kyushu says.

The other deluxe suite is beautifully appointed but, at 183 square feet, is slightly smaller.

Everything on the train was specifically designed for the Seven Stars, save one element (I won’t spoil your experience by naming it; see if you can guess.).

In the Blue Moon bar/Lounge car. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

This surfeit of over-the-top design elements is matched by an expert staff, who know how to combine Asian elegance and hospitality with genuine warmth.

When I misplaced my iPhone charger, for example, Mr. Yoshiharu Aritou,
the train manager, insisted on giving me one of his (For the record, I’m sending it back to him, along with a heartfelt note and bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon.).

Moreover, the Seven Stars staff is bilingual and couldn’t be friendlier. Menus and signs are in English and Japanese. (Our November tour, of course, will be conducted in English.)

Also near perfect is the Seven Stars kitchen, which turns out delicacies as beautiful as they are tasty. I enjoyed three meals on the train: two lunches and a dinner, all of them set menus.

One course of my Bento lunch. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Kyushu is known for its variety of seafood, vegetables and fruits, and I was happy to let the Seven Stars chefs choose for me.

Here are just a few of the offerings from our “Heartfelt bento lunch from Bungo, Oita Prefecture:

“Red sea bream cured with Ryuhi Kombu…Egg tofu with wakame seaweed, Assortment of separately prepared vegetables, Food of the season [in my case, autumn] cooked in paper made with kozo tree fiber…”

The spirits from the Blue Moon bar were equally inspired. I made a point of ordering a Blue Moon cocktail, whose contents included Japanese shochu, a liquor made from sweet potatoes.

It was mixed with some of the tastiest juice – was it grapefruit or tomato? – I’ve ever had.

One of my favorite menu items was actually French-inspired: a chocolate sphere served at tea time. The thin, edible outer shell revealed a rich, creamy center: decadent and delicious.

Seven Stars chocolate dessert unopened (top) and opened. IRT Photos by Owen Hardy

(For the true dessert-lover, try JR Kyushu’s new Sweet Train, which I also sampled on my visit. More about that in another Track 25 post.)

Click here for Seven Stars’ off-train excursions and what to expect in your Seven Stars cabin

For more information on our luxury Japan by Rail tour running Nov. 5-19, 2016 (which includes a four-day trip on the Seven Stars), please click here. Or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

Nature, Hot Springs, Cuisine Star in 7 Stars Kyushu Itinerary

4 Dec

Dinner aboard the Seven Stars calls for semi-formal attire. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Click here to see previous post:  Seven Stars’ introduction, staff and culinary delights

A main raison d’etre of the new Cruise Train Seven Stars is to showcase the natural and artistic beauty of Kyushu. The train’s off-train excursions do not disappoint. (The Society of International Railway Tours’ “Seven Stars Over Japan” luxury rail tour includes the new luxury train as a post-tour option.)

The island of Kyushu is known for its volcanic hot springs (or onsen), and guests on our four-day trip next year will spend their second night off the train at a fabulous resort with their own private onsen. (So there’s no need for sheepish tourists to worry about bathing au naturel with strangers, albeit of the same sex.)

Clouds drift below Mt. Aso, an occasionally active volcano, whose elevation is almost a mile high. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Our group enjoyed onsens on two successive nights near Yufuin, which is on the four-day itinerary. I made the most of my onsen experience, enjoying the steaming waters three times.

Once I learned the proper etiquette, I found the experience delightfully soothing. (And don’t worry; we’ll have complete instructions for guests on our luxury Japan by Rail tour, which runs Nov. 5-19, 2016.)

The Seven Stars logos, works of art in themselves, were carefully hand-crafted. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

I also visited Mt. Aso, an opportunity our guests will have on their final Seven Stars day. Arising at 6 a.m., I boarded the special Seven Stars motor coach for the multi-switchback ride to the top of this ancient, occasionally active volcano.

It was well worth my early rising. The skies were clear, with low clouds filling the spaces between the mountain range’s five peaks. To complete the experience, Kyushu’s famous “red cattle” were grazing in a nearby field, mooing contentedly.

Once back at the Aso railway station, I found a bounteous feast of fresh, locally sourced vegetables, fruits, eggs and meat awaiting us at the trackside, specially built “Kasei” (Mars) restaurant.

Our guide walks in the tranquil garden of Kakiemon Kiln. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

We also visited Kyushu’s famed Kakiemon Kiln in Arita, whose exquisite ceramics the Dutch East India Company began shipping to Europe in the late 17th century. The ceramics works is still family owned.

The fifteenth-generation boss proudly showed us his business, with his little son, the sixteenth generation heir, skipping along with us. Afterwards, Kakiemon XV, as he’s known, invited us to his tea house, set among the subtle green hues of his carefully manicured garden.

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Seven-sided Seven Stars basin, produced by Kakiemon Kiln. JR Kyushu Photo

Proudly, he told us of his late father, Kakiemon XIV, whose final creation before his death were the intricate, seven-sided wash basins which grace each of the standard Seven Stars cabins.

Meanwhile, back on the Seven Stars, I took careful inventory of my compartment.  In keeping with the train’s striving for perfection, even the windows are special.

My compartment’s two windows each had five separate sections: an outer layer of glass, followed by a second layer of thin, wooden slats; then two sliding traditional Japanese windows with paper panes; then, two heavier sliding wooden windows. The final layer was a light gauzy curtain of gathered material.

Standard suites include a writing desk, with pull-out section for additional room (not shown here) IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

My room contained a minibar stocked with wonderful Japanese juices, green tea, “Swan Cider Tomosu” in its tiny bottle, Asahi “Dry” and Santory “The Premium Malts” Pilsner Beer, and other bottles whose names were written only in Japanese, but whose contents were delicious. (Drinks from the minibar are on the house, by the way.)

My compartment also contained two plugs, one in the bathroom and one in the bedroom, plus a 3-socket multi-plug unit, so you can plug in your iPhone, iPad and iMac all at once (as I did).

Standard suite bathroom, above. All bathrooms have showers with cypress wood paneling and typical Japanese toilets with multiple controls. The train also has one handicapped accessible suite and bathroom. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

Also, attention, U.S. and Canadian travelers: Japan’s electrical outlets are identical (almost) to ours, so leave your adapters at home. And WiFi is available throughout the train and works quite well (except in tunnels and other such places).

Also provided in my compartment: toothbrush, razors, cotton balls and two different types of Japanese toiletries. When I couldn’t decide which set I wanted, my cabin attendant happily gave me both.

All the compartments, including the deluxe suites, contain twin beds separated by a night stand. My bed was quite comfortable and easily accommodated my six-foot frame.

One final aspect of the Seven Stars experience also deserves mention, and maybe sums up this over-the-top-train: the music provided each evening in the bar car by a violin/piano duo.

When you book a Seven Stars trip, you’ll receive a confirmation accompanied by a request from the musicians: “please tell us one piece of music you’d especially like to hear.”

In a fit of enthusiasm, I fired off a return email: “The third movement from César Franck’s Violin Sonata.”

“What?” my friend Sam, a retired music professor, exclaimed. “That’s pretty difficult music.”

Violinist and pianist hold forth in the Blue Moon bar/lounge car. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Several weeks later, aboard the Seven Stars, I met the musicians and mentioned, a bit hesitantly, that I was the one who’d requested the Franck.

Without skipping a beat, the pianist began the introduction, and the violinist – without music – began the virtuosic opening. He was on solid ground, and I sat listening, entranced, for the next several minutes.

They ended the piece with a drawn-out pianissimo.

“Bravo!” we yelled, nursing our drinks, as the Kyushu twilight lingered outside the bar car’s picture window. (See video below.)

Bravo, indeed, I thought: to the staff, designers, planners, artisans, chefs, JR Kyushu and even to the citizens of this small but beautiful island, who are so proud of “their” train.

The Seven Stars is a true work of art.

The Society of International Railway Travelers®’ “Seven Stars Over Japan” luxury tour, for which we’ve chartered an entire Seven Stars 4-day, 3 night itinerary, runs Nov. 5-19, 2016. For more information or to book, email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

 

 

Flexible? Try Orient-Express, Rocky Mountaineer, India’s Deccan Odyssey This Autumn

24 Jul

Europe, Canada or India calling? If so, now hear this:

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Get two free nights at the super luxurious Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice when you book the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express London-Paris-Venice on trips running Oct. 25-26, Oct. 29-30, Nov. 1-2 or Nov. 5-6. Click here for more info.

Get the same deal when you book the VSOE the other direction, Venice-Paris-London, for trips running Oct. 28-29, Oct. 31-Nov. 1 or Nov. 4-5. Click here for more info.

The offer is valued at $1,300 per person, is for new bookings only and must be made by Aug. 31. Restrictions apply.

Can’t tell you how much we love this hotel: it is fabulous. See our review and photos here.

Rocky Mountaineer

Get $1,000 per couple in extra services when you book a qualifying 2016 Rocky Mountaineer package of 7 nights or more. The offer is good until Aug. 28.

The luxurious GoldLeaf service gives you a ring-side seat on the glories of the Rocky Mountains’ natural beauty.

Our recommendation: opt for the 12-day “Grand Rail Circle” tour, which packs in three scenic rail routes.

Great plus by booking this trip with us: two complimentary airport limo transfers — a value of $240.

Deccan Odyssey

With Delhi as the beginning of the Deccan Odyssey’s itinerary, a complimentary night in a top Delhi hotel, as well as a free private transfer upon arrival or departure, will be welcome news. The offer includes breakfast and taxes.

Choose a deluxe room from either the chic, modern Lait Hotel or the sumptuous, classical Kempinski Ambience.

The offer is valued at $300-$400. We love the Deccan Odyssey, as you know. Its onboard operators are some of the best in the luxury market.

For more information on the Deccan Odyssey, click here. For more information or to book any of these trains, email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Or call us at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725.

IRT Awards High Marks to Golden Eagle Danube Express

29 May
Belgrade Dancers

Serbian dancers greet the Golden Eagle Danube Express in Belgrade. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

It was the photo op of a lifetime.

As the “new” luxury train Golden Eagle Danube Express departed Venice’s Santa Lucia station, the world-famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express was pulling in.

The two elegant European touring trains slowly passed each other, as passengers waved and marveled.

Thus began the inaugural run of the newly dubbed Golden Eagle Danube Express on its Venice-Budapest Balkan Odyssey tour. The luxury train rolled through eight countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria & Romania. Its 54 passengers hailed mostly from the U.S. & Australia.

See Angela Walker’s photos from her Balkan Odyssey adventure here.

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Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Stellar Itinerary

Among the highlights awaiting those passengers:  visiting the museum and tomb of Josip Broz Tito, former president of Yugoslavia; hearing a first-hand account of escape through the Sarajevo Tunnel during the siege of the city during the Bosnian War; and, most poignant, standing in the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, an event that triggered World War I and the deaths of more than 8 million soldiers and countless more civilians.

Zagreb

Golden angels in Zagreb’s Kaptol Square.             IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Excellent local guides offered fascinating insight to the complex history of these Balkan nations. Summoning personal experiences, they often focused on the conflict just 20 years ago, when Yugoslavia was divided and these countries were at war.

Earlier that week, the Golden Eagle Danube Express was christened with much pomp and circumstance in Budapest by a military band, festive speeches and no less a personage than His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent. For more on the ceremony as well as specifics of the luxury train’s accommodations, please click here.

Diners

Happy IRT guests on the Golden Eagle Danube Express. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Sumptuous Dining

Two dining cars seat 42 passengers each (which combined is more than the train’s 56-passenger capacity). The dining cars are attractive and comfortable, offering tables for 4 or 2.

“Albert” has a green and cream color scheme; “Pannonia” is crimson and beige.

The tables are resplendent with white tablecloths, crystal glassware and china emblazoned with the double-headed eagle logo of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.

Guests enjoy breakfast on board. One can choose from a buffet of fruit, breads, cereal, cold meats and cheeses. In addition, diners can order a hot breakfast including omelets, French toast, bacon and sausage.

Guests have either lunch or dinner off the train in a local restaurant, with the other meal on the train.

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IRT guests playing cards in the lounge car of the Golden Eagle Danube Express.  IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

On-board meals are served in three courses, with choice of vegetarian or meat starters and main courses.

On my trip, starters included asparagus with hollandaise sauce and zucchini rolls with ricotta stuffing, served in a char-grilled pepper sauce with basil olive oil. Other choices were foie gras terrine with spicy apricot chutney and toasted challah bread.

Main course options ranged from Moroccan baked vegetables with prunes and spicy couscous to beer-braised beef cheek with malted onions and ale sauce, served with carrots, green beans and onion mashed potatoes.

(The beef cheek was so tender and delicious, it was difficult to pass on seconds – which were offered!)

Swan Dessert

Special “Swan Lake” dessert served on the Golden Eagle Danube Express.

Desserts were a highlight (which pleased my sweet tooth immensely!) “Swan Lake” was a pastry shaped into a swan sitting on a “lake” of vanilla and chocolate sauce.  The Swan Lake won the beauty contest. But for taste, I preferred the strawberry panna cotta and the chocolate mousse.

Meals off the train were generally set menus. But they still were multi-course affairs, with many featuring seafood. Vegetarian options also were available.

And some of the restaurants were in scenic locales. One example: our morning walking tour of the Belgrade fortress ended at Kalemegdanska Teresa restaurant within the fortress grounds, overlooking the Danube and Sava Rivers.

Budapest

Budapest tram stop. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Service was good, although there is room for improvement. In the dining car, tables were not cleared and cleaned at breakfast as quickly as they should have been on a luxury train. Breakfast buffet items were not refilled once emptied.

I chatted with Edit Mészáros, the ever-present on-board guest relations manager, and these actions were corrected the following day.  Edit is very receptive to feedback and eager to please her guests.  No doubt these small lapses in service will be rectified and perfected in the coming months.

Also, some of the train staff (mostly car attendants) do not speak English, or speak it poorly.

Princess Michael

Princess Michael of Kent peers out of the train. Prince & Princess Michael of Kent officially launched the Golden Eagle Danube Express in Budapest in early May. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Lounge Car

Lounge car “Budapest” is the social center.  Unfortunately, the current lounge car only seats 28 – not enough to accommodate the train’s capacity.

But it is rare, if ever, that all passengers visit the lounge for a pre-dinner drink or nightcap (all drinks, with the exception of some premium wines, are included in the tour fare).

That’s a shame, as the train’s pianist, Eszter Kisgyörgy, was perpetually entertaining and an absolute delight.

A new lounge car (with a proper bar) is currently under construction and is set to replace the current lounge. [Editor’s Note:  The new lounge car was added to the Golden Eagle Danube Express in early 2016.  Click here to read our post about the new car.]

Border Crossings

The journey was not without other glitches. Passing through numerous borders with a private train led to a few complications, mostly in the form of delays at the borders.

In some cases, the border control officials wanted to see each passenger with his/her passport in hand. Unfortunately, the timing of one of these crossings (Croatia to Bosnia) meant a knock on the cabin door in the middle of the night.

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Religious paintings at a market in Sofia, Bulgaria. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Scenic Bus Ride

Another setback: the train was not allowed to travel on the line from Sarajevo to Mostar, requiring a 2 ½ hour bus ride each way and lunch en route.

Although the motor coach ride was extremely scenic – running along glacial lakes through ridges, mountains and canyons – it would have been fantastic by train along a similar route, through countless tunnels and over many bridges (this will ideally be incorporated in future journeys).

The bus trip did serendipitously allow for an exceptional lakeside lunch in the town of Konjic – my favorite meal of the entire journey.

Angela Walker Vice President, The Society of International Railway Travelers. Photo by Arthur McMurdie

Angela Walker Vice President, The Society of International Railway Travelers. Photo by Arthur McMurdie

Lofty Dreams

The Golden Eagle Danube Express has lofty dreams: to become the leading luxury touring train in mainland Europe. True, it lacks the polish of the famed Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

But its riveting itineraries, fully inclusive pricing and comfort undoubtedly put it in the forefront of luxurious European railway travel. The future seems bright for this up-and-coming luxury train.

To book this journey or ask questions about the itinerary or train, please call IRT’s Angela Walker at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Angela Walker is Vice President of The Society of International Railway Travelers and a senior luxury travel advisor. She has traveled the world over reviewing The World’s Top 25 Trains.®

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