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Belmond Grand Hibernian Transports Guests Through Ireland, Land of Legends

13 Sep
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IRT Guests enjoy a jaunting cart ride, one of many excursions offered on Belmond Grand Hibernian journeys. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

Ever heard of Finn McCool?

How about the Salmon of Knowledge?

Neither had I — until I went to Ireland to ride the Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland’s only luxury train.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian’s lead bartender greets guests with champagne. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The train’s gleaming blue and silver carriages, delightful staff and cozy interiors offer the perfect “magic carpet” ride through a fantastical land.

The excursions off the train are no less touched by fantasy.

When we arrived in Cork, for example, our guide greeted us with a cheerful “hallo,” and then launched into an evocative tale about the aforesaid Messrs. McCool and Salmon (of Knowledge).

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“Kindred Spirits,” the memorial to the Choctaw in County Cork. Photo by Gavin Sheridan. (no changes were made to image, link to license is https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Choctaw_Memorial.jpg)

She only paused in her myth-making to point out an interesting — albeit slightly incongruous — statue on the side of the road, comprising 20-foot steel feathers that form a bowl shape.

“The Choctaw Nation heard about our forebears’ plight during the Great Hunger of 1847,” she told us. “And they scraped together what little money they had, and sent it to us to feed our starving children.”

Unlike Finn McCool and his fish, the story of the Choctaw’s sacrifice is no fairytale. But I don’t think Ireland would be Ireland without a healthy mix of truth and make-believe.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian, now just finishing its third full season, has matured into an even more delightful experience than when it began operations three years ago.

One welcome tweak the tour operators have made is allowing guests to choose among different activities wherever possible. For instance, guests on the 7-day Grand Tour of Ireland can:

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Cobh, Ireland.

Visit the seaport of Cobh with a local historian, where millions of lives were permanently altered by the Atlantic crossing. Almost half of the 6 million Irish who emigrated to North America between 1848 and 1950 departed from this port.

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Ross Castle.

Explore Killarney National Park by jaunting cart and boat, where prophecy dictated that nearby Ross Castle was impregnable to outside forces unless a warship attacked from the lake — thought to be an impossible feat. Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads attacked just so in 1653 and took the castle, one of the last to fall in the Irish Confederate Wars.

(Another tidbit: Ross Castle’s first owner, O’Donoghue, is said to live at the bottom of the lake in a great palace, from where he keeps close tabs on the comings and goings of passerby.)

Witness a sheepdog demonstration in Galway and marvel at the shared language between man and beast, or explore the surreal Cliffs of Moher that soar 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

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Westport House.

Visit Westport House, built on the foundations of the Pirate Queen of Connacht’s castle. The Queen’s dungeons can still be seen today.

Tour the Medieval Mile Museum in Kilkenny, heart of Ireland’s ancient East. The museum is housed in a 13th-century church and contains artifacts dating back 800 years.

*****

In sum, whether you’ve visited the Emerald Isle before or not, Belmond Grand Hibernian will open your eyes to Ireland in a whole new way. In addition to its thoughtfully-planned itineraries, it also earns high points for its dedicated staff, fabulous food, and luxuriously comfortable spaces.

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The author poses with Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by Nate Kremer.

And what of Mr. McCool and his erudite fish?

Legend has it that, as a young boy, McCool was asked to cook the Salmon of Knowledge for his druid mentor, who had finally caught it after years of failed attempts.

McCool burned his thumb while cooking the fish, put his thumb in his mouth to cool the hurt, and inadvertently consumed a drop of the salmon’s oils, instantly becoming the wisest man in the world.

*****

Belmond Grand Hibernian runs April-October and offers the 3-day Taste of Ireland, the 5-day Legends and Loughs, and the 7-day Grand Tour of Ireland.

2020 departures are available and are selling briskly.

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

 

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

Grand Alpine Express: Stunning Vistas, Staggering Heights, Poignant Memories

19 Jul
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The Golden Eagle Danube Express.

The 11-day Grand Alpine Express on the Golden Eagle Danube Express is a blast from my past.

Let me explain: does anyone else harbor fond memories of being a young person abroad for the first time, hopping around on a Eurorail pass with 10 francs in your pocket? I know I do.

As a college student some 50 years ago, I made my first European train journeys to many of the places highlighted on the Grand Alpine Express itinerary.

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Route map of the Grand Alpine Express itinerary.

Budapest. Vienna. Zürich. The Semmering Pass. The tiny Achensee railway, the Tyrollean Alps. They were exciting, friendly and utterly beautiful.

(And make no mistake: the Golden Eagle Danube Express is no first-class commuter train. It’s held a spot on our World’s Top 25 Trains® list since its inception in 2015. In the past few years, it’s gotten even more luxurious with the addition of 12 ultra-spacious Superior Deluxe cabins, which IRT travelers especially love. Click here for more information about the Golden Eagle Danube Express itself.)

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The Swiss and Austrian Alps figure prominently on the Grand Alpine Express tour.

Over the course of my career, I’ve traveled by luxury train through Mexico, Africa, Russia, India, South America, China, Southeast Asia, the ‘Stans…and on and on.

All of these trips were over the top, exotic and unforgettable.

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Lake Bled in Slovenia, one of the stops on the Grand Alpine Express itinerary.

But recently, I’m craving a trip down memory lane — albeit in the comfort of a Superior Deluxe cabin — courtesy of the Grand Alpine Express!

Even if you don’t share my nostalgia, there are plenty of other reasons to go. Just take it from IRT traveler Mrs. J. Schiermeyer, who just returned from the May 2019 Grand Alpine Express journey in a Superior Deluxe cabin:

“There’s only one problem with this train,” Mrs. Schiermeyer said.

“Eventually, they make you get off. And I don’t want to get off!”

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Superior Deluxe cabin on the Golden Eagle Danube Express.

The Grand Alpine Express tour runs just once a year.

Tour dates are May 8-18, 2020.

For more information, and to book, please call (800) 478-4881 in the U.S. and Canada, +1 502-897-1725 elsewhere, or e-mail tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Space (especially in the coveted Superior Deluxe cabins) is limited.


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

 

Toasting a Classic: IRT Advisor Revisits the Belmond Royal Scotsman

21 Jun

 

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Making a grand entrance at Waverley Station in Edinburgh. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

 

Déjà vu washes over me as I walk into Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, where I am immediately greeted by a kilted, bewhiskered bagpiper straight out of central casting.

He leads me and other passengers to a red carpet running beside the gleaming carriages of the Belmond Royal Scotsman, where train manager Fred Laseen welcomes each of us aboard.

Dining staff pour forth to welcome us — more déjà vu. I sip a glass of sparkling wine as we pull away from the station.

I think back to the last time I was aboard this train…

*

It’s been 15 years since my 2004 journey on the Belmond Royal Scotsman — long before ‘Belmond’ was added to the name, actually.

And I am thrilled to report that the grand dame of the Scottish rails is more wonderful than ever.

What differences there are – the Bamford Haybarn Spa Car, added in 2017, reinvigorated interiors and textiles throughout – underscore the train’s commitment to evolving alongside the wants of its guests. Other elements – food quality and service –  have stayed exactly the same, much to my delight.

*

A staff member shows me to my cabin.

It’s a cozy affair, with twin beds configured in an “L” shape. It also sports a dressing table and stool with one locking drawer, full-length wardrobe, ceiling fan, and full bathroom with toilet, sink, shower, and towel warmer.

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Twin cabin on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Other amenities include robes, slippers, and Bamford toiletries. The arched ceilings, marquetry, and paintings of kilted soldiers of yore add subtle touches of old-school luxury.

I could nap in my comfortable quarters all day, but the party’s already started in the public cars.

*

I order a Lagavulin 16. It’s an extra-peaty single-malt Scotch whisky, which I enjoy in the brisk Scottish air from the open platform on the back of the observation car. (All drinks are included, so I recommend you try a range of the more unusual whiskys and cocktails.)

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Enjoying the fresh air from the observation platform. IRT Photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

Some time later, we are called to dinner. The dining car’s tables gleam with stark white linen and fine china and crystal, all embellished with the stately Great Scottish & Western Railway Company logo.

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Fine china, crystal, and and fresh flowers set the table on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Two of the four dinners on my journey are formal. Men are asked to wear dark suits at a minimum, although some opt for tuxedos or kilts, which can be rented locally in Edinburgh.  The splashes of tartan add greatly to the festive atmosphere. Women are asked to don cocktail attire.

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Formal dinner on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. IRT Photo courtesy of  Angela Walker.

The meals are exceptional. Carefully crafted by Glasgow native Mark Tamburrini, the train’s head chef since 2010, they feature local Scottish ingredients.

Two of my favorites: Scottish salmon with dill, cucumber and cauliflower, with a perfect horseradish sauce; and roasted scallops with chorizo and sweetcorn croquettes in a corn purée.

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One of the talented kitchen staff stops to admire her creation. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Wines are carefully paired with each course. And even for those non-wine lovers, the enthusiastic descriptions provided by staff member Matej are impossible to resist.

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Canapés served in the lounge car before dinner. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

For that matter, all of the 12 staff are exceedingly helpful and professional. Max, the head waiter, dutifully goes over the day’s menu with each passenger to ensure there are no dietary issues.

(Those with dietary issues are painstakingly accommodated. The vegetarians, gluten-free, and dairy-free eaters among us are delivered a modified version of each dish).

Want to discover your favorite Scotch whisky and learn more about the country’s local specialty? The indefatigable Jarryd will recommend one of the countless options on board.

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Guests dressed in traditional kilts before dinner on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

He and Matej tend the bar until the last passenger retires (which is sometimes not until the wee hours of the morning). Then — somehow—they’re up the next morning with coffee and tea to greet the earliest risers.

Last but not least is the Bamford Haybarn Spa Car, which I’ve been looking forward to for weeks. It made its debut two years ago.*

Stepping into the treatment room, I breathe in the lavender scent, and am transported into a cocoon of tranquility. Danielle, the on-board spa therapist, impressively manages the movement of the train while executing massages, facials, manicures and pedicures.  The gentle rocking further enhances the relaxing treatment.

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Enjoying the local specialty, whisky, before dinner. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

The after-dinner entertainment in the observation car is another highlight. Colin and Iain, two cheeky chaps playing guitar and fiddle, encourage singalongs on our first night.

On our second night, Highlander Ray Owens brings to life the history of Scotland with his impressive storytelling.

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The Belmond Royal Scotsman at Strathcarron. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

And on the final evening, Brian and Allison play the keyboard and violin before inviting guests onto the platform, where they teach us reels and jigs. It is a fitting, fun, and joyous end to our journey.

A few things have changed in the 15 years since my first trip – new faces, a spa car, updated finishings – but the high standards of food, service and comfort are the same.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll be so lucky as to revisit the Belmond Royal Scotsman again in 2034.

*The Belmond Royal Scotsman’s spa car makes it one of only three luxury trains in the world to boast similar spa cars. The other two are the Deccan Odyssey in India and the Belmond Andean Explorer in Peru.

Stay tuned for my next blog about off-train activities on the Belmond Royal Scotsman. Click here to subscribe to our blog.

Ready to book your own adventure on the Belmond Royal Scotsman?

Click here to complete our online booking form, or call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 501-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada). Or e-mail us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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Angela Walker is a 20-year veteran of The Society of International Railway Travelers. She is VP, Operations, for IRT, and a luxury travel advisor. She has been on most of our World’s Top 25® Trains, some — like Belmond Royal Scotsman — more than once.

 

 

 

Exotic Luxury Train Tour: A Caspian Odyssey with Angela

28 Sep
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Photo courtesy of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.

Mt. Ararat (above), reputed resting place of Noah’s Ark, towers over Yerevan, Armenia. It’s the jumping-off point for the Caspian Odyssey Along the Ancient Silk Road tour.

The 16-day tour visits Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan — and includes a ferry crossing of the Caspian Sea.

It’s one of the Golden Eagle luxury train’s most exotic tours.

IRT’s Angela Walker, Vice President for Operations, accompanied a group of our travelers on the Caspian Odyssey several years ago.

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Photo courtesy of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.

Below, we present a few of Angela’s photos and impressions:

The Golden Eagle — with its young staff —was a comfortable home for our journey through six countries and cultures. It provided all the comforts of home — and plenty of vodka!

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IRT Photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

My fellow travelers were high-spirited and great fun. Here we are in Samarkand, wearing traditional Uzbek hats during a local fashion show.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

I snapped this photo of a darling little girl during a serendipitous moment in Ashkabat, Turkmenistan.

During a regular tour stop, a wedding party suddenly pulled up honking in several decorated cars. Dressed in colorful costumes, they danced and celebrated as they happily welcomed us to join in. It was wonderful to interact with the locals in such a special way.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

In Almaty, Kazakhstan, next to the WWII memorial, I spied these adorable children mimicking the marching soldiers.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

In the hills outside of Almaty, we were greeted by men in traditional costumes showing how they use their birds for hunting.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

These four delightful ladies in our group were friends from Peru and Argentina. Here, they enjoy the train’s lounge car—especially its lively pianist, who entertained nightly.

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IRT Photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

Here I am visiting “The Door to Hell” — a gigantic gas crater in the middle of Uzbekistan’s Kara Kum desert, which has been burning for over 40 years.

It was so exciting to drive out to the Darvaza gas crater, in the pitch-black night, to see this site — essentially, a giant hole of fire burning in the middle of nowhere.

And to know that it’s been burning since 1971 — I don’t think there’s anything like it in the world!

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IRT photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

Home, sweet home. After a day of touring along the Caspian Odyssey’s incredible path, it was always great to return to the Golden Eagle and my private, en-suite quarters.

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IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Time for a refreshing drink! In this case, a sampling of one of the Golden Eagle’s special vodkas.

• • •

The 16-day, escorted tour operates just once a year. Next year’s dates are Sept. 19 – Oct. 4. In 2020, the tour runs Sept. 24 – Oct. 9.  If you book the 2020 journey before Dec. 31 this year, enjoy 2019 pricing.  

To see the complete itinerary, click here. For prices, click here.

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

We look forward to welcoming you aboard!

Angela Walker is Vice President, Operations and senior luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers. This is Ms. Walker’s 20th year with IRT, and she has traveled on most of the World’s Top 25 Trains.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you are ready to book, or if you have questions, please call us at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725 if outside the US / Canada — or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Click here for more info about the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, and a list of itineraries offered. We look forward to welcoming you aboard!

Rachel M. Hardy is Vice President, Sales & Marketing, and Virtuoso luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers®. She specializes in luxury rail and adventure in Europe, South America, Africa (rail & safaris) and Canada.  She was the first advisor from the Americas invited to see the new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Our agency is a proud member of Virtuoso and the exclusive Belmond Bellini Club.

S. African Splendor: Our Luxe Ride with Rovos Rail, Part II

25 Apr
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Rachel Hardy, the author, with Alpheus, a member of Rovos Rail’s impeccable wait staff. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

If you haven’t yet read the first installment of this story, we suggest you go back and read it here first. Or, read on for day two of our journey on Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa!

It’s day two of our Pretoria-Cape Town adventure aboard Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa.

And what can I say but “Yum!”

We start with a leisurely breakfast in the dining car. Guests can order a freshly prepared omelet, sausage, bacon, mushrooms or roasted tomatoes. Fruit, cereal, yogurt, homemade breads, coffee and tea are also on offer.

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Tables set for breakfast in the dining car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

After our meal, we make a beeline for the observation car.

Joe, the train manager, had advised us the evening before that we might see flamingos shortly before arriving in Kimberley this morning.

And indeed, we’re lucky. There they are — in the thousands — feeding in a shallow lake right next to the tracks. An excited crush of guests fills the observation car to witness the spectacle.

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Angela Walker and other Rovos guests keep their eyes peeled for flamingos. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Soon afterwards, we arrive in Kimberley, the birthplace of South African diamond mining, where we disembark for a short tour.

The mine is a yawning crater lake. Appropriately named the “Big Hole,” it’s the largest man-made excavation site in the world. It’s bizarrely beautiful, despite being a place of enormous human suffering. After a quick to visit the Diamond Mine Museum, we rejoin the train.

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Rachel at the “Big Hole” in Kimberley. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Back on board, we make for the dining car — and lunch. Outside our window, the scenery is changing. We’re entering the Karoo, a semi-desert region defined by vast, open plains.

Impala, wildebeest, and springbok flash by. Miles ahead, a thunderstorm threatens, creating a shallow rainbow that seems to arc right alongside the train.

After another wonderful meal, we drift back to our cabins for a nap. Others head to one of the public cars to read or simply gaze at the African scenery flashing past.

Having enjoyed our luscious lunch, I’m not particularly hungry for what comes next—afternoon tea — even if it is served at 4:30 p.m. But how often do I have afternoon tea?

Served in both lounge cars, it includes fresh fruit, finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam and decadent pastries. I especially eye the scones.

Given the train’s all-inclusive nature, I consider a before-dinner drink as well.

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Rachel and Angela dressed for dinner. IRT Photo.

Dinner is yet another lavish affair. If anything, it’s even jollier, now that guests have gotten to know one another. Alpheus, our server and unofficial staff “hype man,” alerts us to a cocktail hour after dinner in the rear bar car.

Sure enough, the observation car is full and lively. The bartender offers an array of drinks: in addition to his fully-stocked bar, choices include mojitos, tequila sunrises, margaritas and the local “Springbokkie” (Amarula and crème de menthe), our favorite here in South Africa.

The party’s in full swing as we depart for our cabins around 11, exhausted but happy.

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Pride of Africa outside Matjiesfontein. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The next morning, I’m one of the early risers who choose to disembark for a three-mile walk into Matjiesfontein, a quaint Victorian village where the train stops for several hours. I’m struck by the town’s stark beauty. Its dramatic desert hills are dotted with brush. I spot occasional animals in the distance.

I also note the town’s historic hotel, shops, cafes, and a small transportation museum boasting vintage autos and rail cars.

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Pride of Africa on the Matjiesfontein platform. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

After we re-board the train and sit down for lunch, our train descends the face of an escarpment, and the scenery abruptly changes.

The Pride of Africa chugs through a series of four tunnels (the longest is over eight miles), then pops out into a totally different world of large mountain ranges and lush vineyards. We’re approaching beautiful Cape Town.

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Rachel & Angela on the open-air observation car with Cape Town’s Table Mountain coming into view behind. IRT Photo.

We enjoy the observation car one last time, as the city’s iconic Table Mountain looms sharply into focus.

Too soon, we pull into the station. There to welcome us is Mr. Rovos Rail himself: Rohan Vos, owner and mastermind of Rovos Rail.

We pose for a quick photo with Mr. Vos and his staff — and then it’s back to reality.

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Rovos Rail owner Rohan Vos, far left, poses with his staff and IRT’s Angela Walker & Rachel Hardy outside the Cape Town train station. IRT Photo.

If you are ready to book your own Rovos Rail adventure, or if you have questions, please call us at (800) 478-4881 — (502) 897-1725 if you’re outside the U.S. or Canada. Or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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 a luxury travel advisor and VP, Sales & Marketing, for the Society of IRT. 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. 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.

South African Splendor on Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Or, if you are ready to book your own Rovos Rail adventure, call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Angela Walker is a 20-year veteran of The Society of International Railway Travelers, and has been on many of our World’s Top 25® Trains. She is a luxury travel advisor and VP, Operations.  Rachel M. Hardy is a luxury travel advisor and VP, Sales & Marketing, for the Society of IRT. Both are based in our Louisville, KY headquarters. They have just returned from a month-long study tour examining trains, hotels and experiences in Europe and South Africa.

 

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