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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.

IRT On Tour: VSOE Grand Suites, Rovos Rail, Shongololo Express, more

8 Mar
Rovos Rail's Pride of Africa. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

IRT’s Angela Walker and Rachel Hardy are about to embark on a three-week
learning tour spanning two continents to investigate the newest developments in
luxury rail travel.

We checked in with them while they were furiously packing to ask: What about your upcoming study tour has you most excited?

Angela: I am eager to experience Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa after helping IRT travelers take the train for many years – especially knowing how beloved it is by past guests. I especially look forward to meals in the beautiful dining cars and watching the scenery roll by from the open-air observation deck.

I’ll also be testing out Rovos Rail’s new sister train – Shongololo Express – on an
in-depth 15-day tour of South Africa.

The Pride of Africa has been a World’s Top 25 Train since the beginning, and
Shongololo Express may be awarded this elite honor after we’ve tested it. Stay tuned!

Grand Suite 'Venice' on the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express.

Grand Suite ‘Venice’ on the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express.

Rachel: I can’t wait to see the three brand-new, super-exclusive Grand Suites on
the Venice Simplon-Orient- Express. I’ll be among a very small group to see the
Suites on their inaugural trip from Venice to London. Pictures and full report to
follow.

I’m also excited to test out the services of our great travel partners who are arranging crucial trip elements — in Europe and in South Africa — such as VIP Meet & Greet airport transfers, private guided sightseeing, unique dining and more.

Angela and I will also be visiting a host of 5-star Virtuoso properties:

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Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg

Cape Town-
Cape Grace Hotel
Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel

Johannesburg-

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Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice.

Saxon Hotel
Fairlawns Hotel

London-
The Milestone Hotel

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Belmond Hotel Cipriani
Baglioni Hotel Luna

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Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town.

Check in with Angela and Rachel on IRT’s Facebook page for updates throughout their travels, and look out for posts on IRT’s Track 25 blog after they return in mid-April.

If you have burning questions for them about any of the trains or
hotels they’ll be visiting, e-mail IRT’s main inbox at:
tourdesk@irtsociety.com. They’ll do their best to get an answer for you!

Ready to book your own luxury rail adventure?

Call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada) or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Angela Walker is Vice President, Operations and a luxury travel advisor. This is her 2oth year with The Society of International Railway Travelers. Read all about Angela here.  Rachel Hardy, Vice President, Sales & Marketing and luxury travel advisor is celebrating her 3rd anniversary with IRT. Read all about Rachel here. 

Rocky Mountaineer: Adventures Beyond the Train

27 Feb
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The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a GoldLeaf and SilverLeaf hotel of Rocky Mountaineer. IRT photo by Natalie Schuetz

As the mid-day sunlight danced on the azure waters of Lake Louise one afternoon last October, I was reminded of a comment my tour guide had made earlier that day:

“If you only knew how much money Canadian taxpayers spend each year to dump all of that blue dye into our lake…”

Named after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, the glacier-fed Lake Louise was one of my favorite destinations during my Rocky Mountaineer Journey through the Clouds post-train tour. The terrain bustled with activity as visitors canoed, strolled around, and snapped photos of the magnificent lake.

The greatest part of my visit, though? My lodgings: the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.

Nestled on the eastern shore of Lake Louise, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is a GoldLeaf and SilverLeaf property of Rocky Mountaineer (GoldLeaf and GoldLeaf Deluxe rooms overlook the lake, whereas SilverLeaf rooms overlook the grounds). The current building was constructed in 1911 after the original was destroyed in a fire. It was the vision of Cornelius Van Horne, manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, to create “a hotel for outdoor adventurer and alpinist.”

With its vaulted ceilings, ornate chandeliers, fine dining, and extra-wide hallways (constructed so that ladies wearing large hoop skirts could pass without running into each other), the Fairmont Château Lake Louise was a true gem. My only regret was that we only stayed there for one night!

Here are some other places and activities from my tour that I would recommend for our IRT guests:

Athabasca Glacier: I was excited to board the Ice Explorer – a giant vehicle with tires taller than I am (for reference, I’m 5’5”) — that navigated the ice. We wandered out on the ice for about 20 minutes and I could see my breath. I was glad I wore layers – scarf, hat, gloves, coat, and boots.  I was sad to learn that global climate change is causing the glacier to melt faster – and it could be gone in 50 to 60 years, the guide said.

The Banff Gondola:  I highly recommend this. The ride up reminded me up of the tram in Palm Springs, California that pulls you up the mountain except these small pods only hold 4 people comfortably. As a person who is usually afraid of heights, I was surprisingly fine with the altitude (7,486 feet above sea level). It takes between 7 – 8 minutes to reach the top and the view is spectacular; you can see all of downtown Banff, the Rimrock Hotel, and the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. It had snowed right before we arrived;  the snow-capped mountains gleamed. The sky was blue that day – and with the clouds, I got some great photographs.

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View of Banff from the gondola observation deck. IRT photo by Natalie Schuetz

Driving along the Icefields Parkway There is only one way to travel between Jasper and Lake Louise – by road. You can’t do it by train (this is a frequent misconception.) This trip in the big motorcoach takes about 5 hours with all the sightseeing stops, including the Athabasca Glacier stop.  I loved the fall foliage and the different lakes with their beautiful shade of blue fed by the glaciers.

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Waterfowl Lakes, Jasper National Park. IRT photo by Natalie Schuetz

Helicopter I add this because this would have been very cool and part of my package and that of many tours with the Rocky Mountaineer. However, it was too windy that day and the tour was canceled. (If this happens to you, you get a refund.) We drove past the field to see where the helicopters take off and land and we could see several wind socks dancing in the breeze. We did, however, get to spend more time with the hoodoos – tall, spire-like rock structures that are formed as a result of erosion.

To see Natalie’s report about her trip on the Rocky Mountaineer train, please click here.

 

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Natalie with the Hoodoos.  IRT photo

Book a 2018 journey of 8 days or more by March 29 and get up to $500 in added value per couple. Use it for things like extra hotel nights, meals, city sightseeing excursions, or outdoor activities. (Restrictions apply.) My trip was Vancouver to Calgary – but check out these trips, too.

For more information, call (800) 478-4881 for US and Canada. For the rest of the world, call (502) 897-1725. Ask for me, Natalie Schuetz, and I’ll be delighted to give you the latest details. Click here to send me an email.  

Murder on the Orient Express: Stunning Outside, Blah Inside

4 Dec
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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.”

 

Journey Through the Clouds: My Inaugural IRT Journey Aboard Rocky Mountaineer

12 Oct
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Enjoying the fresh air in the tiny SilverLeaf observation platform. IRT Photo by Natalie Schuetz

If you’d told me last February that by October I’d be riding the Rocky Mountaineer, I would have laughed out loud.

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Rocky Mountaineer bagpipe send-off on the first day of the train journey. IRT Photo by Natalie Schuetz

After all, the Rocky Mountaineer has been one of the Society of International Railway Travelers’ longest-running ‘World’s Top 25 Trains®” since the company began almost 35 years ago.

But guess what? I just got back from Canada—on an inspection trip on the Rocky Mountaineer!

And here’s my takeaway: SilverLeaf service is fine if you have to pinch pennies. But hey—you’ve come all this way. Do what our clients do: Go for the Gold(Leaf)!

Why?

Let’s start with GoldLeaf’s heated LazyBoy-style seats. I felt like a little kid with all the buttons to play with; the seats have a built-in leg rest and are able to recline and add extra support for your back.

And there’s nothing like breakfast in the diner. As I chatted with my seatmates in the car’s downstairs dining area, we looked for bears, praised the scenery, and enjoyed delicious blueberry pancakes with fresh Canadian maple syrup, among several menu choices.

My fellow diners also worked in the travel industry. None of us had ridden this luxury train. No wonder we were giddy with excitement!

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GoldLeaf Observation Platform. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

Best of all, I adored the large, open-air observation deck. I loved everything about it: the fresh air, meeting folks, snapping photos. That alone is worth the extra cost.

Compared to Gold, SilverLeaf felt like a bus with a little more leg room. I had fewer menu options and no classy dining car —meals are served at your seat, airline-style.

As for wind-in-the-face viewing, SilverLeaf’s two outdoor platforms run a distant second. There’s barely enough room for two people to look out the tiny window and take pictures.

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The Rocky Mountaineer en route to Kamloops. IRT photo by Natalie Schuetz

In short, GoldLeaf is great. And now’s a great time to sign up.

Book a 2018 journey of 8 days or more by Oct. 27, and get up to $600 in added value per couple. Use it for things like extra hotel nights, meals, city sightseeing excursions or outdoor activities. (Restrictions apply.)

For more information, call (800) 478-4881 for US and Canada. For the rest of the world, call (502) 897-1725. Ask for me, Natalie Schuetz, and I’ll be happy to give you the latest details. Click here to send me an email.

Or click here to see the Rocky Mountaineer section of our website.

Next week: Vancouver to Calgary: My Off-Train Adventures

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The Rocky Mountaineer bids farewell to guests as they depart in Jasper. IRT Photo by Natalie Schuetz

 

We welcome Natalie Schuetz to Track 25.  Ms. Schuetz, IRT’s newest employee, is a graduate of the University of Louisville in Spanish, Communication, and Humanities, and has traveled thousands of miles to Spain, Italy and Central America. This is her second time to Canada — but the first time to the Rockies and the first time to participate in a study tour on a luxury train.  

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Goes Big in 2018

15 Sep

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

You’re not alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IRT Travelers on the VSOE.

IRT Travelers on the VSOE.

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

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

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

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

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

The VSOE in Gothard, Switzerland. Photo by Belmond.

The VSOE in Gothard, Switzerland. Photo by Belmond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To submit a booking request online, click here.

En-Suite Cabins Coming to Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in 2018

14 Jun
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Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Grand Suite ‘Istanbul.’ Photo courtesy of Belmond.

Always loved the idea of the 1920s-vintage, Art Deco Orient-Express — but not the idea of tiptoeing down the hall to the bathroom?

Nor the idea of going without a shower until you get to your hotel?

Your wait is over!

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the world’s most iconic luxury train, is adding three all en-suite “Grand Suites,” Belmond, the train operator, says. These will be available for all VSOE departures beginning March, 2018.

Bookings opened June 13, and interest has been extremely strong. The Grand Suites for the iconic 2018 Paris-Istanbul journey are expected to sell immediately, and the wait list for 2019 is already long.

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Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Grand Suite ‘Paris.’ Photo courtesy of Belmond.

The cabins will be named “Paris”, “Venice”, and “Istanbul.” The décor of each suite will emphasize the cultural and artistic aspects of each destination.

Most notably, each Grand Suite will have a private bathroom with toilet, tiled compact shower, and sink. Guests will sleep on double beds, which can be also made into two twins. The separate living area will include a table and chair and sofa that can fold out to accommodate a child or a small adult.

Grand Suite guests will also enjoy the services of a private butler, free-flowing champagne, private transfers, and private dining in their quarters, if they desire.

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Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Grand Suite ‘Venice.’ Photo courtesy of Belmond.

Each cabin is designed to evoke a bygone era from the Golden Age of travel, said designer, Rachel Johnson, Vice President and Studio Director of London-based Wimberly Interiors. She was trying to “recreate the essence of Art Deco glamour in an elegant and timeless design,” she added.

Historic carriage No. 3425, which is currently a carriage for solo guests, is being renovated to accommodate the three new en-suite cabins. The car was once used by the king of Romania for trysts with his mistresses, according to Belmond.

For the ultimate in privacy and luxury, guests also may book the entire Grand Suite carriage, as long as space exists.

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Historic coat of arms of the original Orient Express — still a fixture on the classic Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

The cost of the new cabins will be about £5,500 per person, per night — about U.S. $7,000 at today’s rates.

Belmond says it is testing the market with the new service and may add additional Grand Suites in the future.

The estimated cost of the renovation is 600,000, said Gary Franklin, Managing Director, Belmond Trains & Cruises.

The car left last week for France, in the Massif Central, where the company does the VSOE‘s heavy maintenance, he said. It will be ready for the first trip in March, 2018.

“People have always been asking for en-suite facilities. Putting a shower in one of the normal compartments was not going to do it justice. We went for something very spectacular and very glamorous,” Franklin said in an interview with IRT.

“We want to maintain the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express as the pinnacle of luxury.”

VSOE bookings — including Grand Suites — are now open on all 2018 departures, including Paris to Istanbul or reverse.

Already booked on a 2018 VSOE departure? Call us to inquire about upgrading to a Grand Suite.

And if you’re interested in 2019, call us to get your name on our “first notification” list. We will contact you — and you will have priority — when bookings open for 2019.

To upgrade, book, or get on our “first notification” list, call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725; or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com

Eleanor Flagler Hardy is the President of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The train has a fascinating history.

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

There it languished for 13 years, awaiting its fate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hundreds of people waved excitedly as we passed by.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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