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Eastern & Oriental Express Still Southeast Asia’s Brightest Luxury Rail Star

25 Nov
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The Eastern & Oriental Express.

IRT’s Angela Walker travels to Thailand next week to inspect the Eastern & Oriental Express, one of our World’s Top 25 Trains®, and sister train to Europe’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

What should Angela expect from her 4-day Bangkok to Singapore adventure?

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Gracious, friendly steward on the E&O. IRT Photo by E. Hardy

Just take it from IRT guest J. Samuelson, who traveled on the October 2019 departure of Fables of the Peninsula:

“That Eastern & Oriental is something else. It’s a wonderful train. The most impressive part of the whole thing is the staff. They [the train staff] were perfect. They were attentive. Your wine glass was never empty. The food is exceptional…. The presentation is just as good as you’d find in any fine restaurant.”

And, the E&O has undergone several IRT-approved enhancements to its services that make it more all-inclusive, more personalized, and — we think — even more thrilling than before.

The four most exciting new enhancements, in our opinion?

1. All well drinks and house wines are now included (premium drinks are additional). Cheers to that!

2. The train has slashed its maximum capacity dramatically, from 132 to just 82 guests — and typically runs with around 65. The result is an exclusive, clubby feel.

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The open-air observation platform on the train is an IRT traveler favorite.

3. The train now offers guests choice in off-train touring, with an eye towards accommodating those wishing to be more physically active.

For instance, on the classic Bangkok-Singapore and Singapore-Bangkok journeys, guests can choose between a classic cruise along the Khwae Yai River and a visit to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre; a cycle tour through farms and fields to a village; or a culinary tour to a vibrant market and an ancient noodle house.

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Lounge car attendants. IRT Photo by E. Hardy.

On the once-a-year Fables of the Peninsula journey, guests can choose between a tour of the Sungai Palas Tea Garden, where they will experience the tea-making process “from bush to cup,” or a hike with a naturalist on the Jim Thompson trail in the Titiwangsa mountain range.

4. Guests in Presidential Suites now enjoy an even longer list of amenities, including private limousine transfers to and from train stations in Bangkok & Singapore; a bottle of champagne and fruit basket on arrival; complimentary mini bar, stocked with a selection of spirits, local beer, soft drinks and chocolate; complimentary on board pressing service; more.

Two parting IRT tips?

1. Extend your Southeast Asian journey at one of our five-star partner hotels.

Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor is a sparkling gem near Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s fabled temple complex; Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao is a tropical oasis in the Laotian mountains. Both are just a short flight from Bangkok.

2. If you want to travel in 2020, don’t delay. Space is already at a premium, especially on the once-a-year 6-day Fables of the Peninsula journey in October.

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The Eastern and Oriental Express runs from September through April. All cabins are en-suite. A few Pullman cabins for sole use are available on each departure without a single supplement. Inquire for availability.

For more information, or to book, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or email 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.

New Year’s Eve in Vienna — It’s All About the Romance

30 Oct
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Waltz lesson at Vienna’s prestigious Elmauer Dance School located in the Palais Pallavicini. Learn to dance the Viennese Waltz at the city’s most famous dance school. It only takes an hour!

Prologue: We first published this interview in December, 2018.

Since then, the Danube Express has been voted the second-best train in the world by Condé Nast Traveler readers.

Even more compelling are the many glowing reports we’ve received from IRT travelers who were on the last departure:

“This was a fantastic trip that we thoroughly enjoyed.  The food, accommodations, and service were all great.  Everything was well-planned and ran on time. We loved the special private concerts: the opera singers in Prague, the string quartet at Municipal House, a trio playing at Cafe Slava.  The Four Seasons hotel was beautiful and at a great location in the city. And, we had plenty of time to eat, sleep, tour, and shop… I highly recommend this trip.” – IRT Traveler R. Stewart, January, 2019.

“We really, really, really enjoyed the trip. All of the staff are fabulous. They all go out of their way to make life easier and nicer. And New Year’s Eve was great — the food, dancing, everything. We would recommend it to anyone.” – IRT Travelers R. & P. Wynhoff, January, 2019.

So, take it from them, and from the following conversation with IRT CEO & Founder Owen Hardy. This is one spectacular itinerary!

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Excellent service on the Danube Express. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

We sat down with The Society of International Railway Travelers’ founder and CEO, Mr. Owen Hardy, to discuss his ardent desire to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Vienna with the Golden Eagle Danube Express. Tour dates are December 28, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Click here for itinerary details.

Mr. Hardy, please tell us why you “simply must” go on the “New Year in Vienna” trip on the Golden Eagle Danube Express?

Officially, I have four reasons: Budapest, Vienna, Prague and the Viennese New Year celebration.

Unofficially, movies. Specifically, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Orson Welles’ “The Third Man.”

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Pictured left: diners enjoy New Year’s Eve gala dinner at Rathaus City Hall in Vienna.         Pictured right: a festive, snow-capped Vienna.

Say that again? These films aren’t your typical happy tourist fare.

I know, I know. But they exude a delicious atmosphere of romance, love and artistic grit that I project onto their respective cities.

You said recently that “Downton Abbey” was another of your “inspirational films.” Why?

It was the final scene, when practically the entire cast was waltzing in Downton’s gorgeous ballroom.

That’s exactly what’s going to happen on this tour. You’ll learn to waltz —in an hour! — at Vienna’s most prestigious Elmauer Dance School.

Then you’ll spend New Year’s Eve in one of the most exclusive locations in the city — the Grand ballroom of Vienna City Hall — where you’ll have a gala four-course dinner, musical entertainment and, of course, plenty of waltzing.

What about the train itself?

In my student years, I crisscrossed Europe with a Eurailpass, sleeping next to strangers in couchettes night after night. But these days, I like my creature comforts.

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Superior Deluxe cabins aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express feature a private bathroom and shower with all the amenities, large double bed, and sitting area. Not pictured: private Wi-Fi that comes with every Superior Deluxe cabin.

A Superior Deluxe cabin (click here for full cabin details) with large double bed, fully en-suite bathroom and shower, and sitting area will do quite nicely — and the three included nights at Budapest’s palatial Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace won’t disappoint, either. (Tip: don’t miss the top-notch spa!)

And how about the food?

As a self-confessed coffee-and-pastry aficionado — I really am excited about the Danube Express‘s new hire, pastry chef, Krisztián Szőke.

Natasha Baker, Sales & Marketing Manager at Golden Eagle Luxury Trains (operator of Danube Express) recently told us that Szőke is chiefly responsible for expanding the waistlines of staff and guests alike with his confections and fresh-baked breads.

One specialty: Golden Eagle Chocolate Heaven, a concoction of dark chocolate mousse with Russian champagne, hazelnut crunch and dark chocolate caviar.

Need I say more?

Another highlight from the itinerary, in your opinion?

Prague! I love Prague because it overflows with stunning architecture. My last tour guide in Prague said she’d lived her whole life in the city but had only scraped the surface of its wonders. I believe her.

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Prague’s Charles Bridge at dawn.

More thoughts?

Already seen Schönbrunn Palace? Try a joy ride on Vienna’s trams instead. It’s a great way to meet people and — if you have time — to visit Vienna Central Cemetery, whose honored guests include Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Johann Strauss II.

So what should interested travelers do now?

Call us (if you’re a Luddite like me) at (800) 478-4881  — +1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada. You can also email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Anything else you want to say (and make it short!)?

Life is short. Old age creeps up on you. Go waltzing in Vienna at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

I guarantee you won’t regret it!


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

The New Year’s in Vienna tour runs December 28, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Click here for full itinerary details and pricing. Click here for details of the Golden Eagle Danube Express train.

To book your space on the New Year’s in Vienna tour, call (800) 478-4881 or +1 502-897-1725, or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

Royal Canadian Pacific, N. America’s Only Luxury Sleeper Train, Returning!

10 Oct
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Enjoying the view from the Royal Canadian Pacific’s new dome car. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The Royal Canadian Pacific is back — complete with a brand-new full dome car!

After a five-year hiatus, the luxury sleeper train plans to offer two departures to the public in June and July next year. A third exclusive IRT departure in September 2020 is also under consideration.

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Service with a smile on the RCP. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

I traveled to Calgary two weeks ago to inspect the train and learn more about its plans for the future.

My takeaway?

IRT travelers will delight in the RCP’s opulent 1920s-era carriages, with all en-suite cabins, comfortable reading nooks, and outdoor platforms sprinkled generously throughout.

Its professional, full-time staff and its five-star cuisine also will not disappoint.

And they’ll appreciate its historical bonafides (Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, and JFK & Jackie were all passengers).

Of course, the dramatic Canadian Rockies scenery is as lovely as ever—especially when viewed from the comfort of the brand-new glass dome observation car.

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Meringue with homemade Scottish shortbread and lavender honey — crowned with a Maple leaf. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The novelty of a luxury sleeper train returning to North America will excite rail enthusiasts everywhere. We here at IRT predict high interest from travelers—especially confirmed luxury rail enthusiasts.

Ever since the RCP stopped offering public departures five years ago, the continent has been devoid of anything similar.

Itineraries are still being confirmed but will likely include a 5-day circle tour beginning and ending in Calgary. A 4-day Calgary-Vancouver tour also is being considered.

Both tours are expected to offer off-train activities in Golden, Banff, and Lake Louise. Pricing is also still under consideration.

Interested in joining an RCP 2020 luxury tour next year? Let us know now, and we’ll put you on our “First Notice” list.

Click here to register your interest, and we’ll contact you as soon as we have details.

Click here to read more about the Royal Canadian Pacific itself.

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The author outside the RCP’s new full-length dome car. IRT Photo by Nate Kremer

For more information, or to book any other of our journeys on the World’s Top 25 Trains, call us at (800) 478-4881, or +1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada. You can also e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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View from the rear platform of the Royal Canadian Pacific. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

 

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.

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.

 

IRT Founder’s Ardent Wish? Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Vienna Next Year with Golden Eagle Danube Express

12 Jul
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Viennese dancers on New Year’s Eve at the Rathaus, Vienna’s lovely City Hall.

Prologue: We first published this interview in December, 2018. Since then, we’ve gotten glowing reports from IRT travelers who were on the last departure:

“This was a fantastic trip that we thoroughly enjoyed.  The food, accommodations, and service were all great.  Everything was well-planned and ran on time. We loved the special private concerts: the opera singers in Prague, the string quartet at Municipal House, a trio playing at Cafe Slava.  The Four Seasons hotel was beautiful and at a great location in the city. And, we had plenty of time to eat, sleep, tour, and shop… I highly recommend this trip.” – IRT Traveler R. Stewart, January, 2019.

“We really, really, really enjoyed the trip. All of the staff are fabulous. They all go out of their way to make life easier and nicer. And New Year’s Eve was great — the food, dancing, everything. We would recommend it to anyone.” – IRT Travelers R. & P. Wynhoff, January, 2019.

So, take it from them, and from the following conversation with IRT CEO & Founder Owen Hardy. This is one spectacular itinerary!

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Excellent service on the Danube Express. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

We sat down with The Society of International Railway Travelers’ founder and CEO, Mr. Owen Hardy, to discuss his ardent desire to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Vienna with the Golden Eagle Danube Express. Tour dates are December 28, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Click here for itinerary details.

Mr. Hardy, please tell us why you “simply must” go on the “New Year in Vienna” trip on the Golden Eagle Danube Express?

Officially, I have four reasons: Budapest, Vienna, Prague and the Viennese New Year celebration.

Unofficially, movies. Specifically, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Orson Welles’ “The Third Man.”

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Pictured left: diners enjoy New Year’s Eve gala dinner at Rathaus City Hall in Vienna.         Pictured right: a festive, snow-capped Vienna.

Say that again? These films aren’t your typical happy tourist fare.

I know, I know. But they exude a delicious atmosphere of romance, love and artistic grit that I project onto their respective cities.

Plus, I love music of all kinds, especially classical, and these cities overflow with it – even on the street corners.

And I love Vienna’s Secessionist or Wiener Werkstaette art movement, examples of which can be found not only in Vienna but also in Budapest and Prague.

What about the train itself?

In my student years, I crisscrossed Europe with a Eurailpass, sleeping next to strangers in couchettes night after night. But these days, I like my creature comforts.

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Brand-new Superior Deluxe cabins aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express feature a private bathroom and shower with all the amenities, large double bed, and sitting area. Not pictured: private Wi-Fi that comes with every Superior Deluxe cabin.

A Superior Deluxe cabin (click here for full cabin details) with large double bed, fully en-suite bathroom and shower, and sitting area would do quite nicely — and the three included nights at Budapest’s palatial Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace would not disappoint, either. (Tip: don’t miss the top-notch spa at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace.)

Another highlight from the itinerary, in your opinion?

Prague! I love Prague because it overflows with stunning architecture. My last tour guide in Prague said she’d lived her whole life in the city but had only scraped the surface of its wonders. I believe her.

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Prague’s Charles Bridge at dawn.

More thoughts?

Already seen Schönbrunn Palace? Try a joy ride on Vienna’s trams instead. It’s a great way to meet people and — if you have time — to visit Vienna Central Cemetery, whose “honored guests” include Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Johann Strauss II.

So what should our guests do now?

Call us (if you’re a Luddite like me) at (800) 478-4881  — +1 502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada. Everyone else, please email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Anything else you want to say (and make it short!)?

Life is short. Old age creeps up on you. Go waltzing in Vienna at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

I guarantee you won’t regret it!


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

The New Year’s in Vienna tour runs December 28, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Click here for full itinerary details and pricing. Click here for details of the Golden Eagle Danube Express train.

To book your space on the New Year’s in Vienna tour, call (800) 478-4881 or +1 502-897-1725, or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Adds 3 New Grand Suites for 2020

28 Jun
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New Vienna Grand Suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Three new Grand Suites will join the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express for the 2020 season, Belmond, the train operator, has just announced. This brings the total number of Grand Suites up to six.

The new Grand Suites — named Vienna, Prague, & Budapest, after three iconic European capitals to which the VSOE travels every year — will reflect each city’s unique history and architectural style, while embracing the train’s Old World charm and meticulous attention to detail. They join the three existing Grand Suites, named Venice, Paris, & Istanbul.

I was the only advisor from the Western Hemisphere to inspect the first three Suites on their inaugural journey in April, 2018. Read my glowing reporting here and here — and see my video above for the grand reveal of Istanbul Grand Suite!

After seeing the Suites in person, I had a serious hunch that our travelers would love the opulent design and the amenities, and I was absolutely right.

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

IRT travelers love the dedicated 24-hour cabin steward, the caviar and free-flowing champagne, the included private transfers to and from the train, and the option to dine privately in their cabin whenever they wish. And the private bathroom with underfloor heating, rain shower, sink, & toilet answered the prayers of those who didn’t want to travel on the VSOE previously because of the lack of en-suite facilities.

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Lead Steward Francesco in Istanbul Grand Suite. Only the most senior staff attend guests in Grand Suites. IRT Photo by Rachel M, Hardy

The suites also include a large double bed that can convert into twin beds, and a separate living area with couch, table, & chair.

With only a few on each departure, the Grand Suites sell out in the blink of an eye.

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Orante bathroom in Istanbul Grand Suite. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

The first set of Grand Suites won several design awards, including the AHEAD World’s Best Suite, Gold Key Awards – Best Specialist Design and the Historic Renovation category in the Contract Interior Awards. The suites were also nominated for the Inside Awards, Civic Culture & Transport and the Blueprint Awards.

We at IRT also won our very own Grand Suite distinction, as the #1 global seller of the suites in 2018 (click here to read about it). When you book your suite with IRT, you book with the world’s most experienced Grand Suite luxury rail specialists.

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Belmond staff present IRT with our very special award — a vintage VSOE sign with plaque in recognition of our Grand Suite sales.

Like their existing Grand Suite sisters, the new suites will  “evoke the individual city experience, whether it is walking along the Charles Bridge in Prague, or exploring the contrasting Gothic and Ottoman architecture of Budapest. They will pay tribute to the romance and glamour of Europe, and the golden era of rail travel,” says Gary Franklin, VP, Trains & Cruises, Belmond.

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

Baroque and Gothic architecture, along with theatrical flourishes in rich golds and maroons, will be represented in the Prague Grand Suite. The balance of ancient and modern will be captured through layers of hand-embroidered cushions and Cubist-inspired mosaics. Hints of red garnet will appear in the marquetry.

The Grand Palaces and imperial nature of the Austrian capital will be reflected with an ornate and classical design in the Vienna Grand Suite. Rich hues of gold and emerald green will reflect the romance of the city. An ornate curved headboard with feminine silk fabric panels will contrast with touches of dark wood.

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Budapest Grand Suite.

The Budapest Grand Suite will capture the essence of both sides of the Danube river, taking equal inspiration from Gothic and Ottoman architecture. The suite will be adorned with intricate marquetry and sumptuous silk embroidery.

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express travels throughout Europe from March to November and travels to Istanbul from Paris, and back again, once annually in late August.

 

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Paolo, one of the tireless stewards on the VSOE, welcomes guests aboard at Venice Santa Lucia Station. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

A one-night journey in a Grand Suite from Venice to London or vice versa starts at £6,200 per person.

To book your Grand Suite, 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.

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.

 

 

 

Marvelous Madras Mail: South India by Luxury Deccan Odyssey Train

26 Jan
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A musician in traditional costume heralds the departure of the Deccan Odyssey. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

I sat down with Owen Hardy, IRT’s Founder and CEO, who’s just back from India.

And guess where he wants to go next?

India.

And the Madras Mail aboard the Deccan Odyssey is just the ticket, he says. Why?

“Aside from the fact that my older daughter Katy lives there, India is a world unto itself. I’ve been there three times, but I feel I’ve just scratched the surface.”

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You’ll be greeted by local dancers and musicians when you board the Deccan Odyssey. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

“This itinerary takes you places — and gives you experiences — you’d never think to do on your own.”

OK, give us some examples.

#1: “I love riding trains, big and small. On the Madras Mail, besides the incredible Deccan Odyssey, you have the chance to ride not one, but two, of India’s beloved mountain railways, so tiny and slow you can almost get off and walk.

(“And if you’re adventurous, there’s another train you shouldn’t miss…more later in a future blog.”)

#2: “Two nights at Mumbai’s unforgettable Taj Palace & Tower, India’s first locally-built five-star hotel, and more Victorian than anything the British ever produced.

#3: “Visiting Goa on the Arabian sea, a thriving port and capital of the old Portuguese empire, followed by Cochin, another lovely port city  further south, with its fantastical Chinese fishing nets — IRT’s Eleanor Hardy even helped bring in a catch when we were there!”

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Chinese fishing nets in Fort Cochin. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

#4: The Deccan Odyssey itself. This is a class act. The staff is excellent; very capable and ready to please. The food is incredible, all cooked fresh on board. The excursions are well-planned and guided.

#5: The itinerary. True, it doesn’t include the Taj Mahal. My response: See it, and the other mainstays of the “Golden Triangle,” at least once. But do so before or after the main tour. (IRT’s team can design a fab extension for you.)

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Hyderabad, India

Finally, there are certain things about India that cannot be explained but must be experienced: the way people drive (lanes are only suggestions); a ride in an “auto rickshaw,” a three-wheeled vehicle that looks like an overgrown carnival ride; the sacred cows, who wander where they please (aforementioned traffic be darned!); the public laundries (the one you’ll see in Mumbai covers an area as large as several football fields), the stunning textiles in a rainbow of colors and patterns.

Most important are the people of India. They are invariably kind, curious, and welcoming. The sense of hospitality that will greet you throughout the trip — on the train and off — is exceedingly memorable.

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Crawford Market, Mumbai. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

More later — about the train, and about a little toy train you can add to your experience.

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

The Madras Mail tour runs Dec. 5-19, 2019, Oct. 22-Nov. 5, 2020 and Nov 4-18, 2021 (provisional). The 2019 departure is now confirmed. Click here for full itinerary details and pricing.

Click here for details of the Deccan Odyssey train.

To book your space on the Madras Mail tour, call (800) 478-4881 or +1 502-897-1725, or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Golden Eagle’s Imperial Suites: Palatial Quarters for Discerning Travelers

17 Oct

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Want to take your Trans-Siberian Express train journey into stratospheric levels of luxury?

Book an Imperial Suite, complete with large double bed, lounge area, fully en-suite bathroom with underfloor heating, and more.

There are only three per departure (up from two — a third was just added for all future departures) and they are always the first cabins to sell out.

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Imperial Suite made up for night with large double bed.

If you’re interested in traveling this year or in 2020 on the Trans-Siberian Express — or one of Golden Eagle‘s other great itineraries (Silk Road, Caspian Odyssey, and Arctic Explorer, among others) — call or e-mail us today.

We asked Eleanor Hardy, President of the Society of International Railway Travelers, why she always recommends these palatial Suites for the most discerning travelers.

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The Golden Eagle rounds Lake Baikal.

What kind of traveler do you recommend book an Imperial Suite?

The Imperial Suite is ideal for those who prefer upgraded rooms in hotels and larger staterooms on cruises. In other words, if you value your space and need a bit of extra room to spread out, the Imperial Suite is for you.
You’ll be in your cabin for 12 nights on the Trans-Siberian Express, so being comfortable is a must. Most travelers take this journey only once in their lives, and booking the Imperial Suite really amps up the ‘wow factor’.

What do travelers love most about the Imperial Suite?

Past travelers love the expanse of space, the large double bed, and the roomy bathroom. They love the special attention from their steward, not to mention the optional in-room dining for a romantic dinner.

But the thing they end up loving the most is the private sightseeing with private car and driver throughout (where possible). This service has been a huge plus to those who want a truly custom experience off the train.

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Impeccable service in the Golden Eagle dining car. Guests who book Imperial Suites can also choose to dine privately.

Anything commensurate with the Imperial Suite on other World’s Top 25 Trains®?
Yes! Many of our trains now offer extremely opulent cabin choices.
The newest luxury accommodation on any of our World’s Top 25 Trains®
are three Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Expresswhich began service to rave reviews during the 2018 season.
The Grand Suites offer expansive space, plus many extras including free-flowing champagne, private transfers throughout, and private dining in your cabin if you wish. (Click here and here to read IRT’s firsthand reporting of the Grand Suites.)
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Grand Suite ‘Istanbul’ on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa offers the Royal Suite, which is half a train car (its bathroom contains a Victorian tub and separate shower), the Deccan Odyssey in India offers an enormous Presidential Suite (each of which has not one but two private bathrooms), and the Golden Eagle Danube Express now offer Superior Deluxe cabins, which feature a bit of extra square footage — and covetable private wi-fi.
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Presidential Suite on the Deccan Odyssey.

The Eastern and Oriental Express offers two Presidential cabin on every departure, and there are likewise two Deluxe Double cabins on every departure of the Belmond Andean Explorer. (See blog post here about IRT’s exclusive luxury rail journey of Peru — personally vetted and designed by Eleanor Hardy).
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Deluxe Double cabin on the Belmond Andean Explorer.

And India’s Maharajas’ Express offers Presidential Suites that at 220 sq. ft. are still the largest train accommodation in the world.
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Enormous Presidential Suite on the Maharajas’ Express.

Last but not least, in the non-train realm, our favorite historic sailing yacht the Sea Cloud, (IRT CEO Owen Hardy calls it the ‘Orient Express of the Seas’ in his firsthand account here) features two extra-opulent choices:

 

Marjorie Merriweather Post’s eponymous Suite, which she decorated herself, is dazzling in whites and pinks. Her husband E.F.Hutton’s Suite, meanwhile, is handsome in dark teak.

Both feature Carrara marble bathtubs, working fireplaces, golden bath fixtures, walk-in closets, polished teak, and antique furniture.

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Enormous king bed in the Marjorie Merriweather Post Owner’s Suite aboard the Sea Cloud. IRT Photo by Owen C. Hardy.

Any parting words?
Book one of these over-the-top cabins today and expand your idea of what it means to travel by train! Call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Our expert staff look forward to speaking with you.
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Eleanor Flagler Hardy is President and co-owner of The Society of International Railway Travelers. She has traveled on almost all of the World’s Top 25 Trains®, including Golden Eagle in Russia and central Asia, Golden Eagle Danube Express in Central Europe, Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa in South and East Africa, Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in Western and Central Europe and Turkey, Eastern & Oriental Express in Singapore and Thailand, Belmond Andean Explorer in Peru, Belmond Grand Hibernian in Ireland, Belmond Royal Scotsman in Scotland and England, Ghan and Indian Pacific in Australia, and Tren Crucero in Ecuador, among many others.
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