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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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