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National Geographic Endeavour II: The Apogee of Expedition Cruising

8 Apr
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A larger than average fleet of Zodiacs allows guests on the Endeavour II a great deal of flexibility when choosing daily activities. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

I spied sea lions while running on the treadmill in the gym, glimpsed manta rays and sea turtles on my walk to the dining room, and ogled schools of flying fish while browsing in the gift shop. Never a dull moment.

National Geographic Endeavour II just began service in the Galápago Islands after undergoing a multi-million dollar refit — and last week, I was lucky enough to be one of the first guests on board.

(To see Ms. Hardy’s report about her Galápagos shore adventures, click here.)

I can now say with confidence that Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic’s latest collaboration is a work of art –and the ideal base from which to explore the famous Galapagos Archipelago.

State-of-the-art equipment and homey surroundings are essential to the Endeavour II, but style plays an important supporting role — evidenced in the rich wood paneling and variegated ocean blues in the upholstery and carpeting.

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Suite C on the National Geographic Endeavour II.                   Photo by Lindblad Expeditions.

52 cabins, all with large picture window and en-suite facilities, accommodate up to 96 guests. There are nine dedicated single-use cabins, nine cabins with optional space to sleep three (in either a drop-down Murphy bed, or, in the suites, in a sofa bed), and seven sets of connecting cabins that sleep up to four between the two rooms.

Three spacious suites have an extra-large bathroom, extra closet space, and enormous floor-to-ceiling windows. The largest of these, Suite C, is located on the bridge deck and also has a separate sitting area with arm chairs and convertible sofa.

My cabin, #205, was a dedicated single-use room — comfortable and functional in every respect. The designers used every available space for storage, which meant I did not have to do any creative juggling with my things. I could have easily shared the space with another person, but traveling alone, I was able to spread out and live like a queen!

My cabin included two twin beds, short chest of drawers in between beds that doubled as a night stand, desk and chair, leather armchair, two-prong outlets, USB outlets for charging iPhone, iPad, etc., wardrobe for hanging clothes, wall hangers that fold flat when not in use, and many hooks / hangers for wet clothes.

The bathroom was small but perfectly serviceable, with biodegradable shampoo and shower gel installed in handy dispensers in the shower. Hot water and water pressure in my shower tapered off considerably at peak hours — right before lunch and again right before dinner — but this was never so pronounced as to be uncomfortable.

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The “theater-in-the-round”-style lounge on the Endeavour II. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The social center of the ship, the lounge on the third deck, was designed for a “theater-in-the-round” experience, with a podium in the center of the room, retractable video screens along the walls, and fully rotating armchairs. 360-degree windows allowed beautiful natural light in during the day. We met here for daily “re-caps,” nightly cocktail and appetizer parties before dinner, and fascinating presentations from our naturalists and guides.

The dining room was laid out to encourage mingling — four-, five-, six-, and eight-person tables abounded, with just one or two tables for two. Breakfasts and lunches were buffet-style and featured bountiful fresh produce and Ecuadorean staples like cassava rolls — a real hit. Dinners were also casual, but served at the table.

As a vegetarian, I was very well-looked after. For dinner, the cremini mushroom gnocchi and root vegetable stack were especially memorable — and bountiful salads and produce were always offered for breakfasts and lunches. Any time a meaty soup was served, I received a veggie version without having to ask. Similarly, my lactose-intolerant friend received dairy-free options.

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The lovely top deck of the Endeavour II — site of one festive barbecue dinner, a sunset wine tasting, and numerous animal sightings. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Other public areas included a library with several computers for guest use, an open-air observation deck with lounge chairs and tables, fully equipped gym, gift shop, and spa.

Finally, an “open bridge” policy allowed guests to wander in and out of the navigational heart of the ship and talk to the captain and officers about the instruments and controls aboard the Endeavour II.

On the last night, the crew led dozens of us crammed into the bridge in a countdown as we approached the equator. Captain, officers, and guests alike burst into exuberant cheering as we finally reached zero degrees latitude on the digital chart. The camaraderie was palpable!

The Endeavour II was a phenomenal home base for my week in the Galapagos — but the ship would be nothing without the Lindblad Expeditions & National Geographic staff who work tirelessly to make each guest’s experience the “trip of a lifetime.”

To see our Lindblad Galapagos Islands cruise itinerary, please click here. For more information or to book, contact me at (502) 897-1725, (800) 478-4881; to email me, click here.

Read more about the Galapagos experience itself in my companion blog here.

(Rachel M. Hardy, travel consultant and marketing associate with The Society of International Railway Travelers, has traveled the world testing out adventures — all the better to inform our guests.)

Following in Darwin’s Footsteps: My Adventure in the Galapagos Islands

8 Apr
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A playful Galapagos sea lion. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

“We could be standing here 500,000 years ago, and things would look exactly the same,” a fellow traveler commented during my recent Galapagos Islands adventure with Lindblad Expeditions.

I understood the sentiment.

But the Galapagos are all about change — slow, ceaseless adaptation — rather than permanence.

As Charles Darwin observed almost 200 years ago, these adaptations are nowhere more apparent than in the variety of endemic species that call the Galapagos home.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get up close and personal with many of these amazing creatures.

Along with 90-odd other guests, I was aboard the newly-refitted National Geographic Endeavour II. A Lindblad team of naturalists, crew and staff ably assisted us.

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Hot and rewarding hike on Española Island. IRT photo

“You are not on a cruise,” said Paula, our expedition leader, immediately setting the tone for the week. “You are on an expedition!”

Some of the more cynical rolled their eyes. But everyone under 18 visibly straightened their backs in excitement.

Though we were surrounded by all the modern conveniences and comforts of a traditional luxury cruise, these small linguistic flourishes helped set the stage for a cerebral and engaging week of discovery.

We guests ranged in age from six to 80. Like me, most were Americans. But there were a few Canadians, as well as a South African, two Guatemalan sisters and a Swede.

We were academics, mailmen, research scientists, poets, lawyers, pastors, salespeople, librettists, administrators of different stripes, journalists and travel advisors (me!).

What was the tie that bound this relatively diverse group of explorers? Mostly, it was a love for animals — and a palpable enthusiasm for experiencing them in the wild.

Indeed, I quickly learned the surest way to bond with fellow travelers was to excitedly point out an animal.

Animals excited all of us. And everyone went to great lengths to share their sightings with as many others as they could.

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A Sally Lightfoot crab walks delicately across the volcanic rocks of Genovesa Island.                    IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The naturalists, many of whom are themselves “endemic” to the Islands, had extensive backgrounds in chemistry, geology and biology. And no less than their guests, they were passionate about the natural world. They were eager fonts of knowledge — and never off duty.

In one of our rare “rest times” during the early afternoon, I encountered Lenin, a naturalist. I wildly gestured toward the open ocean, where I could see movement a few hundred yards away.

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A male frigate bird impressively puffs up his gular pouch in an attempt to attract a mate.             IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Handing me his binoculars, he told me they were manta rays, taking turns jumping out of the water.

“We are not certain why they come to the surface like so,” he said. “Some scientists think they are ridding themselves of parasites. Others think they are just enjoying themselves.”

I certainly was enjoying myself. I took advantage of every hiking and snorkeling opportunity I could.

Snorkeling was a vigorous, thrilling experience. Every outing was unique.

Over the course of 15 hour-long deep-water snorkels, I swam with playful sea lion pups, sea turtles and diminutive Galapagos penguins.

I saw white-tipped reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays the size of breakfast tables, graceful spotted rays and hundreds of species of tropical fish.

Hikes were challenging — largely due to the Galapagos’ unforgiving heat and humidity in March. But they also were rewarding, with each day offering a new island and a new alien landscape to explore.

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A challenging mid-day hike. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Giant land iguanas, marine iguanas and bird species for which the Galapagos are famous — the Nazca, blue-footed and red-footed booby, to name three — added to the islands’ otherworldly vibe.

The island’s creatures acted as if we didn’t exist, not bothering to move off the trail even when we stepped within inches of them.

Some guests struggled with the most punishing midday hikes. But the vast majority seemed to know what they were in for.

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And the kids on our departure (more than usual, I was told, because it was spring break for many school systems in the U.S.) really enjoyed themselves.

That was thanks in no small part to a pilot program that the National Geographic Society introduced on our trip specifically geared towards young people — and their constant need for stimulation and apparent inability to nap. Their parents, all nappers themselves, seemed thrilled.

The snorkeling and hiking schedule left me little time to sleep in my comfortable cabin. And I had just enough time to enjoy the bountiful meals served in the ship’s dining room.

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One last hike on Genovesa Island. IRT Photo

Other memorable snapshots that underscored the amazingness of the Lindblad operation:

  1. Stargazing with Jean Roche, a naturalist, on the top deck when the moon was still hidden under the horizon. (I can now use the Southern Cross for navigation, if I ever find myself lost in the Southern Hemisphere!);
  2. Enjoying delicious, freshly-squeezed naranjilla juice that was waiting for us as we re-boarded the ship after long outings;
  3. The head waiter, Carlos, greeting every guest by name, three times a day, in the dining room, starting with our very first dinner (he also knew our dietary restrictions by heart);
  4. Crossing the equator on our last night. A slew of us crowded into the “open bridge,” the ship’s navigational heart, to which guests have 24/7 access. (And, Captain Garces, here’s a big “thank you” for always being so friendly and welcoming!)
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Marine iguanas — endemic to the Galapagos Islands — are incredible underwater swimmers, diving to depths of 9 meters. Here, they pile on each other and rest. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The only glitch — if you could call it that — occurred on our last day, just before our flight to Ecuador’s mainland. A few wayward land iguanas had wandered onto the tarmac, delaying our takeoff.

No one seemed to mind.

After all, we had only a few more hours to enjoy our newfound friends. And Lindblad had seen to it that we were well fed, watered and “WiFi-ed” in the VIP airport lounge.

Three hours later, the iguanas abruptly wandered away.

So off we flew, the Galapagos Islands rapidly shrinking as we rose, until they disappeared completely beneath the cloud cover.

I was already planning my return.

Click here for the second part of my blog about the newly-refitted Endeavour II.

To see our Lindblad Galapagos Islands cruise itinerary, please click here. For more information or to book, contact us at (502) 897-1725, (800) 478-4881; to email us, click here.

(Rachel M. Hardy, travel consultant and marketing associate with The Society of International Railway Travelers, has traveled the world testing out adventures — all the better to advise you!)

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

31 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everywhere I turned I saw stunning fabrics, gorgeous glasswork, richly hued posters, shimmering porcelain. Most spectacular of all was the intricate floor-to-ceiling woodwork from a variety of trees of varying colors.

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

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

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

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

IRT’s Angela Walker S. Africa- Bound in Search of Travel Gold

3 Mar

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As I write this, IRT’s Vice President Angela Walker is aboard a South African Airways jet, luxuriating in business class. She arrives Saturday, and she’ll be whisked away in her private limo and taken to her deluxe hotel.  Her goal: scout out the country’s best air, hotels, restaurants, safaris, gardens and tours.

Why now?

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Angela Walker, IRT Vice President, enjoys dinner on a World’s Top 25 Train.

Angela’s laying the groundwork for the Society of International Railway Travelers’ 13-day tour to South Africa, which will include 3 nights in Cape Town, Rovos Rail‘s fabulous “African Collage” luxury rail extravaganza, and one night in Johannesburg. Our trip will be January 19 – Feb. 1, 2018. We will offer a 3-night safari extension.

“This will give me lots of ideas for planning the perfect pre- and post-tour hotels, dining and activities for our guests,” Angela says.

Angela will be forging relationships with the best travel partners in the region — relationships crucial to our guests’ travel satisfaction. (Click here to see her travel map to date.)

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She’ll stay in such five-star hotels as Johannesburg’s Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa as well as Cape Town’s Taj and the One&Only. She’ll test out a day in the Winelands and have lunch at the fabulous La Residence.  She also has an appointment at Belmond’s magnificent Mount Nelson.

She’ll spend time at Singita luxury safari camp in Kruger National Park, visit Cape Point, and even enjoy a Penguin’s Lunch (can’t wait to find out what that is!).

She’s scheduled to visit Cape Town’s elegant Ellerman House and tour its art collection.

“Since I am a huge animal lover, I am most looking forward to spotting game on safari in Kruger National Park. And seeing the penguins – my favorite animal – on my way to Cape Point.

“Then there’s the Winelands, the fabulous hotels, special meals and visits – it will be an incredible trip.”

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When she returns home — and hopefully, if she has time while she’s traveling — she’ll report her findings here (on Track 25), and on Facebook and Twitter.

A few other highlights from Angela’s itinerary:

Angela is one of nine agents — out of 120 applicants — chosen to participate in the exclusive travel study tour by Virtuoso, our luxury travel consortium. It’s a well-deserved honor, and we couldn’t be happier for her.

To get on the early-bird, first notification list about our January, 2018 group tour featuring Rovos Rail‘s African Collage, click here. Or call (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725.

 

Seven Stars Success Prompts Special Fall Japan Tour

16 Feb
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Japan’s Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu has set the world luxury train bar even higher, with such amenities as its “Deluxe Suite A”pictured here. JR Kyushu

 

Almost 15 months ago today, I left home for Fukuoka, Japan to ride the world’s latest – and some would say most exclusive – luxury train.

Since its introduction in October, 2013, the 28-passenger Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu has been wildly popular.

How popular?

Kyushu Railways regularly holds lotteries to see who gets to ride the Seven Stars at a price of up to $2,000 a day.

 

Now I know why. I, too, was blown away.

So much so that we named the Seven Stars the latest of our “World’s Top 25 Trains®.”

What makes the Seven Stars so special? Simply put, the train’s design rivals anything riding the rails today. (See video below.)

“OMG! I have never been on such a gorgeous train!” one of our guests wrote soon after she boarded last fall.

That’s why I’m thrilled to announce that the Seven Stars will again be a star element of our November, 2017 Japan tour. (Click here for full itinerary.)

The itinerary luxuriously showcases the charms of Kyushu, renowned for its hot springs, impressive cuisine, and natural beauty.

Sweet Train Image copy (1)More good news: we’ll again offer, as an extension, the two-hour ride between Sasebo and Nagasaki on JR Kyushu’s aptly named Sweet Train.

Working with our Virtuoso specialists, Windows to Japan, we’ve crafted a magnificent itinerary.

Our Nov. 3 – 18, 2017 tour carefully combines bullet trains, scenic trains, cultural experiences, overnights at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn), visits to gardens and shrines, and stunning natural beauty.

It occurs at a time when the fall leaves should be spectacular and the weather perfect.

And, new this year, we’re adding a ride on JR Kyushu’s SL Hitoyoshi steam train along the scenic Kuma River. Also new this year is a visit to the Kyoto Railway Museum.

The icing on the cake? The four-day Seven Stars luxury rail tour grand finale. (Did I mention we’re the first U.S. company to charter the Seven Stars?)

It’s first-come, first-served.  So join us!

For the latest on our “Deluxe Rail Journey of Japanfeaturing the Seven Stars of Kyushu this November, please click here.

Questions: please call 800-478-4881 or 502-897-1725. Or email: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Owen C. Hardy is founder and CEO of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

2-Train Luxury Tour Revels in Peru’s Culture, Beauty, Spirit

20 Jan
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IRT passengers enjoying the outdoor viewing area on the Belmond Hiram Bingham. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy.

Is Peru on your top 10 bucket list?

You’re not alone. It’s one of the world’s hottest travel destinations.

Peru offers “truly some of the most breathtaking and inspiring scenery in the world,” says IRT’s President, Eleanor Flagler Hardy, who counts Peru as one of her favorite destinations.

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Belmond Andean Explorer lounge

“Crossing the Peruvian Altiplano (aboard a luxury train), with the Andes in the background, is astonishing,” she says.

When Belmond — the company that gives you, among other luxury trains, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express — announced it was debuting this summer its new luxury train, the Belmond Andean Explorer, we knew we had to be on it.

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Belmond Andean Explorer bedroom

The result is our tour  Peru: Journey to a Lost World.

The special tour runs June 1-11 using the Belmond Hiram Bingham luxury day train between Cusco and Machu Picchu.

The tour uses the Belmond Andean Explorer overnight luxury train for the three days and two nights between Cusco, Puno (Lake Titicaca) and Arequipa. Other dates also are available.

Why go? Peru is a fabulous destination, Mrs. Hardy says.

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View from the current Andean Explorer train, en route to Puno from Cusco. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Its friendly people, rustic luxury, glorious five-star hotels, great dining, amazing architecture and fascinating culture make this a “must do” journey. Every IRT journey to Peru has been a huge hit.

To download a copy of this special itinerary, click here.

To download a PDF describing the new train and its itineraries in pictures, diagrams and words, click here.

Call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Feeling Stressed? Try Belmond Royal Scotsman’s New Spa Car

13 Jan

rs_spa2-copy It was already fabulous. But next season takes it up a notch.

Guests of the Belmond Royal Scostman can enjoy increased pampering: a massage, facial or “mani-pedi” in the luxury train’s new “Bamford Haybarn Spa Car.”

When its season opens April 17, the Scottish luxury train will join India’s Deccan Odyssey in being the world’s only premiere trains offering onboard spa facilities.

The Society of International Railway Travelers is thrilled to celebrate this new car by offering new guests, traveling in April, July and August (and who book by March 17) a complimentary £150 per cabin spa credit.

Although Belmond says the spa should be able to accommodate guests’ reservations on board, IRT advises clients to make their spa requests with IRT when they book.

The Bamford wellness brand uses nature for its inspiration, it says. The British company is renowned for its botanical skincare collections and holistic treatments.

rs_spa1-copyThe Bamford Signature Facial is an 85-minute ritual that aims to restore, rejuvenate and repair the skin, with everything from facial reflexology to deep tissue back massage and ancient yogic breathing.

The massage focuses on Shiatsu pressure points with hot stones to release tension and promote deep relaxation.

The Haybarn Spa car’s two relaxing single treatment rooms boast picture windows looking out onto the beautiful Scottish countryside. (But you can have the curtains closed of course!)

The new car also boasts 2 new sleeping compartments — one with two twin beds and the other with a  double bed. This boosts the train’s capacity from 36 to 40.

rs_spa3-copyThe Belmond Royal Scotsman offers two 7-night itineraries departing from Edinburgh and a number of shorter itineraries. Here is a list.

Guests travel past sweeping glens, towering peaks and black-mirrored lochs across the Scottish Highlands.My favorite: The Grand Northwestern.  An IRT client favorite is the Grand Tour of England, Scotland and Wales.

We think it truly feels like a fine country home on wheels. It has exquisitely appointed en-suite cabins with personal steward service.

Authentic (and fabulous) Scottish dishes complement the Highland experience. We love the congenial dining car with the longer tables.

Best of all — in the minds of IRT staff  and guests — is the observation car, with its outdoor viewing platform at the rear.

Inside, the atmosphere is luxuriously intimate, with with the tiny bar offering an impressive collection of fine Scottish whiskies — I counted 50+ on my last trip —all included in the price of the tour.

See our award-winning Belmond Royal Scotsman video here.

For more information or to book, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers: (800) 478-4881, (502) 897-1725, or tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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