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Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Still “King”: Part II

17 Apr

If you haven’t yet read the first installment of this story, I suggest you go back and read it here first. If you aren’t a chronological purist, read on for day two of my journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and Belmond British Pullman!

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Breakfast tray on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

I woke up in my cabin on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) after a good night’s rest and opened my shade to reveal quaint French villages and countryside flitting past.

After I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, I rang my steward, Paolo, who arrived minutes later with a tray brimming with delicious breakfast items: warm, homemade breads and croissants, fresh fruit salad, orange juice, and a perfectly-frothed cappuccino. I read the newspaper while I ate, and reveled in the luxuriousness of it all.

By late morning, I made my way to the “L’Oriental” dining car for brunch. This was a much-anticipated meal by all who had been on the train before. “Lobster brunch,” as they called it, lived up to its potential, even for me, the vegetarian-in-residence. (Although seeing my friends’ plates loaded with delicately-buttered lobster made me briefly consider a change in diet!)

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Lobster brunch on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

After one last visit to the brand-new Grand Suites to take photographs (see my report of the Suites here), it was time to disembark the train in Calais for our Chunnel crossing.

I was curious to see how the chic VSOE would handle the decidedly unglamorous underground Chunnel crossing. The process turned out to be far nicer than I could have imagined.

From the station, we were escorted onto luxury coach buses — laid out like the dining car of a train — and greeted by a friendly hostess who offered us champagne, juices, and snacks.

After brief immigration formalities, our bus was carefully driven into a shipping container-esque contraption with several other vehicles for the 45-minute Chunnel crossing. It was dark and somewhat bumpy, but not altogether unpleasant. Our group had a considerable amount of chatting to do after just getting to know one another over the past 24 hours.

Once on the U.K. side, we were quickly deposited at Folkestone Station for our three-hour journey on the VSOE’s sister train, the Belmond British Pullman.

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Friendly waiter welcomes us aboard Belmond British Pullman. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

Unsurprisingly, there is a decidedly British flavor on the Belmond British Pullman. The service is excellent —  but completely unassuming, devoid of any pretension, and downright jolly.

The 11 carriages on the Belmond British Pullman each have their own distinctive finishes and textiles — although all feature oversized, exceedingly comfortable armchairs.

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Table for one on the Belmond British Pullman. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

We sat in “Minerva,” which consisted of several tables in unusual seating arrangements — tables for three, one, and the more typical four and two. There is also a private area in each car called a “coupe,” which can seat up to four. (Request this with us when you book if you’d like a particularly private experience! Also, Grand Suite guests receive this without requesting.)

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Private “coupe” in Minerva dining car on Belmond British Pullman. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

We were served a traditional afternoon tea, including savory finger sandwiches, scones, and cakes. The English countryside was exceptionally beautiful in the fading afternoon light, and our tea was the perfect note on which to end our trip.

Around 6 p.m., we pulled into Victoria Station in London, our journey’s end. It was all over too soon — in a delightful, fanciful flash of new friends, excellent food, and outstanding, five-star service.

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Belmond British Pullman in London’s Victoria Station. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

 

Ready to book your trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and Belmond British Pullman? Call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada). Or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Rachel M. Hardy, luxury travel advisor, and VP Sales & Marketing for The Society of International Railway Travelers, just returned from an inspection journey of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. A Belmond specialist, she was the only advisor from the Western Hemisphere to be invited to see the launch of the brand-new Grand Suites. Read more about the Grand Suites here.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Still “King of Trains,” IRT Reports

12 Apr

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From the moment I saw the carriages gleaming blue and gold in the morning sun at Venice Santa Lucia Station, I knew my trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) would be magical.

A trio on the platform serenaded us with ’30s jazz standards as my steward, Paolo, decked out in his royal blue uniform and white gloves, showed me to my cabin, gave me a tour, and poured me a welcome glass of champagne.

Paolo’s impeccable service and gracious manner completed my feeling that I had time-traveled into some distant, glamorous past.

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My steward Paolo and I outside the train. IRT Photo courtesy of Rachel M. Hardy.

My twin cabin was diminutive, but perfectly suited to my needs. A couch in green and pink velvet, trimmed with Venetian lace, ran the width of the cabin. At night, the indefatigable Paolo expertly converted it into a cozy twin bed.

My cabin also boasted a matching footstool, lamp, folding table, and corner bar with glasses and bottled water. The wash station was cleverly hidden behind concave doors.

(The wash station was much more than a sink. Hidden behind the doors, I found: several mirrors, storage cubbies and special VSOE bath amenities sourced from Temple Spa.)

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Watching the Italian countryside unfold outside my cabin window. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Two luggage racks provided ample storage for me (although I highly recommend handing off any extra-large suitcases to the staff when you check in). The handily-placed hooks on the walls and dress hangers gave me space to store my fancy evening attire.

And the rich wood marquetry in my cabin and throughout my carriage had been freshly renovated, so the floral motifs on the walls were especially vibrant.

Admittedly, there was no bathroom in my cabin; with the exception of the brand-new Grand Suites, there are no bathrooms in any cabin on the VSOE.

But the staff kept the bathrooms at the end of each carriage impeccably clean, and there are more than enough bathrooms to accommodate everyone.

After a thoroughly pleasant hour watching the increasingly dramatic Italian countryside unfold outside my window, I made my way to the bar car for a pre-lunch aperitif.

The bar car — named 3674, and also freshly renovated in sophisticated blue animal prints — is the social hub of the train. The jazz trio already had a few guests singing along to old standards by the time I arrived.

The waitstaff, dressed in sharp white, seemed to be everywhere at once. They “danced” with the often-unpredictable undulations of the train — balancing trays bearing 5 or 6 brimming cocktails. I marveled at the feat time and again. I never saw a single drop spilled!

Later in the afternoon, I retreated to the “Etoile du Nord” dining car for the second seating of lunch, as the Italian Dolomites came into increasingly sharp focus outside the windows.

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Diners enjoying lunch in the “Etoile du Nord” dining car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Executive Chef Christian Bodiguel is an unassuming, behind-the-scenes presence on the train, but his food steals the spotlight. Imaginative, classic French and Continental fare is beautifully presented and served with white tablecloths, fine china, and crystal.

As a vegetarian, I am always curious to see what I will be served in lieu of meat. Chef Bodiguel did not take the easy way out and simply swap out the meat for something meat-like, as would be the custom in almost any other dining situation.

Instead, at each meal, I had an entire menu specially crafted for me. My three-course lunch consisted of asparagus soup; cannelloni with ratatouille, olives, grilled sucrine (what Americans call Bibb or Boston) lettuce and hazelnut; and Amalfi lemon mousse for dessert.

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Lead waiter Mario smiles for the camera. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The food was only equaled by the phenomenal service in the dining car. “Five stars” does not begin to describe the professionalism of a VSOE waiter. Much like in the bar car, the fluidity and care with which every waiter moved, spoke, and served us was something special to witness.

After lunch, we made our way to car number 3539. Built in 1929, it is the oldest car on the train and still retains many original details. The candlestick holders in the hall and the built-in pocket-watch holders in the cabins remind you that you are in a moving museum as much as a luxury train.

As we were admiring the beautiful old finishes, large snowflakes began to fall outside the train, further enhancing the Agatha Christie-esque feel of the carriage. We were now in Austria and fast approaching the Brenner Pass.

Next, it was time to attend the much-anticipated Grand Suite unveiling party. The Suites were absolutely breathtaking, and I can’t wait for our guests to see them in person.

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Grand Suite “Istanbul.” IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Just a few highlights of the Suites include: large double bed, en-suite bathroom with rain shower, sink, toilet, and heated floors and walls (so your mirror will never fog!), living space with couch, table, and chair, Dyson hair dryer, free-flowing champagne, and the option to privately dine in your cabin.

(Read more about the Grand Suites here. Follow the IRT blog, Track25, for my detailed report about the Grand Suites, which will be published within the next few weeks.)

After our Grand Suite party, we were seated for dinner in the “Cote d’Azur” dining car, with stunning Lalique glass panels depicting Bacchanalian maidens.

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Executive Chef Christian Bodiguel’s meals were mouthwatering! IRT Photo courtesy of Rachel M.  Hardy.

Our five-course dinner was one of the most opulent meals I have ever eaten. Truffled risotto, morel and almond cream vol-au-vent, and dark chocolate and cereal gateau were the features on my vegetarian menu. My dining companions had lamb chops that one of them declared “the finest I have ever eaten!”

We were all full to bursting but exceedingly content by the time we finished our dinner and retired to the bar car for more music and merrymaking.

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First course of dinner: Carnaroli risotto with white truffle carpaccio. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, I retired to my cabin to find my couch had been converted into an inviting bed. I fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the train, humming jazz tunes in my head.

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My bed made up for the night. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

 

Read Part II of Rachel’s story, which encompasses Day 2 of her trip: brunch on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Chunnel crossing, & her journey on the Belmond British Pullman.

Rachel M. Hardy, luxury travel advisor and IRT’s VP of Sales & Marketing, was one of a select few to witness the VSOE’s over-the-top, new Grand Suites. Read her story here.

Call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com to book your own magical journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express!

IRT Owners Scout India’s Top Spots

23 Feb

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Owen and I recently returned from a scouting trip to India ahead of IRT’s 35th anniversary trip featuring the Deccan Odyssey this November. The verdict: India is better than ever, and more than ready for our group!

(If you’re thinking about joining us, please contact us ASAP, or visit our website here for itinerary details. Only two cabins remain.)

The Deccan OdysseyWe were thrilled to meet with top management for the Deccan Odyssey and Cox & Kings, our wonderful partners helping us plan our group trip. The best news from the Deccan Odyssey: they have put in brand-new suspension, which should make for a much smoother ride. And new carpets and finishes give the train interior an updated look.

Owen and Bunky meet with Soma, other Deccan Oddysey Cox Kings rep

Left to Right: Nidhi Gopan, senior general manager of the Deccan Odyssey, Eleanor Hardy, IRT President, Owen Hardy, IRT CEO, and Soma Paul, senior manager, destination management for Cox & Kings.

The Imperial Hotel in New Delhi: The dining and service was superb. White marble and tropical flowers and plants everywhere. The spa is one of the best I have ever visited: quiet, gorgeous, & well-run.

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Entrance to the spa at the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

Cochin: We loved wandering around Cochin, in Kerala, South India. The atmosphere here is much slower-paced than Delhi, and very lush and green, with beautiful views of the ocean. Cochin’s nickname is ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’ — very fitting, we thought!

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Lush, green, Cochin, ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea.’                IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

We are offering a pre-tour extension to Cochin prior to our group trip. Click here for more information.

Darjeeling: We actually got to ride the historic blue Darjeeling Himalayan Toy Train this time, which was a huge kick. The tiny train was full of visitors, mostly families and couples out for a weekend ride. IRT travelers joining our post-tour extension will get to experience the toy train for themselves. Click here for Darjeeling extension details.

The Windamere: The colonial charm of this place seeps into your soul — and the panoramic views of the entire environs will sweep you off your feet. Walk down a few steps from the Windamere, and you’re on the “mall,” a paved path that circles Observatory Hill. Walk a sharp left, up, to find a joint Buddhist/Hindu temple, fluttering with prayer flags. Stroll down to the left, and you reach some of the most remarkable views of the snow-capped Himalayan mountains in the near distance.

To all guests already signed up for our group trip: we can’t WAIT to see you in India!

And to everyone else considering joining: only two cabins remain, so contact us ASAP.

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

Ecuador’s Tren Crucero: Magic Carpet Ride in a Beautiful Land

14 Jul
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IRT’s Owen Hardy snaps a photo from the Tren Crucero’s rear observation car. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

In my next life, I want to return as an Ecuadoran railway worker. Or maybe a wedding planner.

Eleanor and I met both types during our recent trip on Ecuador’s “Tren Crucero,”

From the brakeman, to the general manager, to the young man who tailed our train on a motorcycle, making sure the crossings were clear, the railway personnel couldn’t have been more engaged and professional.

“The railway is the symbol of the country,” said General Manager Ana Garcia Pando. “When the railway came, the country became one.” Their pride shows throughout.

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Tren Crucero staff give the thumbs up. From left, David Balarezo, Ana Valeria Barragan and Diego Vera.  TC staff is professional, cheerful and enthusiastic.  IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Indeed, the train workers seemed delighted with and proud of their mission — to show off, via the railway and local vendors, their beautiful country and people, and their amazing rail system, with all its varied landscapes — from the mountains and volcanoes to the sea.

And the wedding planners? More about them later.

Ecuador’s Tren Crucero (Cruise Train) was one of two South American beauties that recently won the IRT Society’s “World’s Top 25 Train” status (the other was Peru’s Belmond Andean Explorer).

 

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“Someday, maybe I can work on the Tren Crucero,” this young Ecuadoran boy might be thinking. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy and I sampled both several months ago on a whirlwind, 21-day inspection tour.

Unlike most of our “World’s Top 25 Trains,” whose guests sleep aboard in comfy quarters, the Tren Crucero is a day train.

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Tren Ecuador Marketing Manager Alex Ortiz smiles from the Tren Crucero rear outdoor observation platform. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Travelers sleep at comfortable hotels or haciendas at night. (And if you opt for the new Tren Crucero Gold class, the hotels are palatial.)

Sleeping off the train did cause one downside — early-morning wake-up calls. To see and do all we did, and given the typical afternoon rain showers, I understood the need. Still, I grumbled at sunrise reveilles.

But once on board, I was happy I got up early to see the magnificent scenery — under bright-blue skies.

Conclusion: The bright-red Tren Crucero is worth the occasional bleary eye.

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Gorgeous roses grace each passenger’s window on the Tren Crucero. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Meanwhile, the Tren Crucero’s rear-car outdoor viewing platform is gigantic. It boasts two other observation cars with double rows of windows, plus more in the roof for viewing Ecuador’s dizzying heights. It has a well-stocked dining car. And two cars boast comfortable seating at tables for two.

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A woman in traditional dress at a local market greets a friend. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Plus, to compensate for the lack of personal sleeping quarters, guests have private lockers where they can stash their valuables. That especially helps promote peace of mind when they’re sightseeing off-train.

 

In short, the entire train is gorgeous.

And off the train, the tours are varied and fabulous.

Our favorites?

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A Tren Crucero employee shows off the one of the railway’s 23 track-side coffee shops at Chimbacalle Station., where you can buy locally made snacks and crafts. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

Gardeners that we are, Eleanor and I loved our visit to Hacienda La Compania de Jesus, in the same family for six generations, and its rose plantation,  Rosadex, in the lush volcanic valley of Cayambe, north of Quito.

The stunning crops were gigantic, long-stemmed roses that are shipped all over the world. (And being near the equator, they stretch for the sun, growing ramrod-straight.) They produce 21 million roses a year.

Our lunch at the 300-year-old hacienda–with giant bouquets of roses everywhere–was delicious, and the tour led by Juan Martin Perujo, one of the owners, fascinating.

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Tren Crucero passengers encircle a quishuar tree, which the Incas regarded as sacred. IRT Photo

We took a short hike through El Boliche national park, altitude 11,637 feet, and joined a “group tree hug.” (At 11,637 feet, however, some of us were huffing like steam engines.)

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IRT president Eleanor Hardy at Guamote traditional market. The Tren Crucero passengers had just finished a fascinating walk through the market.  IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

We tromped through a traditional market, obviously away from well-trodden tourist venues, and rubbed shoulders with locals dressed in their colorful native costume.

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Owen and Eleanor Hardy with the “Last Ice Merchant” and his daughter at the Urbina Station, 11,841 feet altitude.  He is believed to be the last practitioner of the fine art of hacking huge chunks of glacial ice and carting them to local markets. IRT Photo

Especially memorable — we met the last Ice Merchant, Baltazar Ushca, 72 years old and still working. We were thrilled to see a great movie about him – and then to get to meet him and his daughter.

He is the last of his generation to trudge up Mount Chimborazo — at 20,548 feet, Ecuador’s tallest mountain — to hack out huge blocks of ice, by hand, to sell in the valley’s local market.

And — train-lovers that we are — we loved our rides behind two restored Baldwin steam engines.

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Tren Ecuador’s plucky steam engine number 11, built by Baldwin. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Still, Our favorite activity was simply gazing at Ecuador’s gorgeous scenery from Tren Crucero‘s outdoor rear platform .

We saw volcanoes, glaciers, towering mountains, rushing rivers, multi-colored quinoa fields, bustling cities and towns, and, everywhere, waving locals, smiling with obvious pride in “their” railway.

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One of our wedding planner friends, Sophie Paz Barlovento, shows off her lunch, served in artfully decorated baskets.  The lunches and the baskets were all created in the nearby community. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

They have every right to be proud.

In 2008, following years of decline, the Ecuadorian railway system was declared a “national cultural patrimony” by President Rafael Correa.

Rather than condemn his country’s trains to the scrap heap, Correa vowed to restore the railway as a public corporation. Ecuador Railways (Tren Ecuador) is the result.

And while the 2013-built Tren Crucero might get most of the publicity, it’s just the most obvious in a continuing, nationwide effort: to harness the railway for the cultural, economic, social and touristic benefit of the entire country.

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Gorgeous roses adorn a table at the Hacienda La Compania de Jesus and rose plantation Rosadex, where we had lunch and were treated to rose farm tour by one of the owners. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Indeed, Ecuador has spent $450 million on improvements. It’s restored more than 300 miles of track and 25 stations. It boasts 11 diesel-electric locomotives and has a variety of rolling stock for use with its out-and-back day trains (which it calls “Expedition Trains”).

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Typical Ecuadoran skyline, as seen from the rear of the Tren Crucero. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

They include six running in the Northern, Central and Southern Andes and three on the Pacific coast (two of which — the Chocolate and Sweets trains — sound particularly tasty, given Ecuador’s reputation for producing world-class chocolate).

Finally, in addition to the Tren Crucero, the railroad’s pride and joy are its seven, lovingly restored steam engines, which it runs at every opportunity.

“In the small towns, when they hear the steam engine, they flock around. They never get tired of it,” says general manager Pando.

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Tren Crucero station poster. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Tren Ecuador has been so vigorous in pursuit of its mission, in fact, that it was a joint recipient in winning last year’s “World Responsible Tourism Award” in London.

Meanwhile, back on the Tren Crucero, we had problems. Bad weather forced a change in plans.

Because of heavy rains and accompanying track washouts, we sometimes had to ride buses between railway stations. But as a result, that gave us the opportunity to experience a variety of Tren Ecuador rolling stock. It also allowed us to see how they manage issues — and we have to say: they did it brilliantly and with aplomb.

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Tren Ecuador train trundles along the switchback-laden route of the famous “Devil’s Nose” railway. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Our experience will prove helpful when we advise clients bound for Ecuador – because we highly recommend including the highlands — and Tren Ecuador and its many possibilities — on its own, or as an add-on to the Galapagos Islands.

Even if you don’t have time for the full Tren Crucero experience, we’ll recommend you stop over in Quito and/or Guayaquil and ride a day train or two.

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At Ambato Station, we loved a spirited dance by a local family, decked out in fantastical masks and costumes — and serving a potent local liquor.  The family has made these costumes and performed for generations. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

(Indeed, there’s much more to see and do in Ecuador. Some other time, I’ll tell you about an incredible “eco-resort” tucked into a cloud forest— Mashpi Lodge. Or about Quito’s fabulous Hotel Casa Gangotena, and the tour it arranged for us at a nearby cathedral bell tower, given by one of the jolliest Franciscan monks I’ve ever met.)

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Tren Crucero machinist Javier Dominguez pauses for a quick publicity shot. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Oh, and one more thing: as I said earlier: if you can swing it, try to book your Tren Crucero ride with a bunch of Ecuadoran wedding planners (in our case, we were just lucky.).

These people rock.

One afternoon, I wandered back to the Tren Crucero’s rear platform.

I was quickly joined by a dozen or so young Ecuadoran men and women. They were checking out the train as a wedding venue (great idea, incidentally).

“Oh, no,” I thought. “These folks are half my age. Time to join the oldsters inside.”

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These wedding planners – and several singers – provided nonstop fun on our Tren Crucero trip. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

But then they began singing, dancing — and insisting that I join them.

What could I do? I did join them — and had a blast. For a moment, I was 25 again.

My conclusion?

That’s Ecuador  — and Tren Crucero— in a nutshell. They truly live up to the country’s motto: “ama la vida” (love life), on the train and off.

Videos: To view the Tren Crucero behind a steam locomotive, click here. To see it cross a high bridge from the rear platform, click here. IRT videos by Eleanor Hardy.

Ecuador, Peru Trains Honored with IRT ‘World’s Top 25’ Status

2 Jun
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The Belmond Andean Explorer traverses Peru’s altiplano — the high plains, above the tree line — on the final day of our 3-day journey. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Big news!

Freshly returned from a 21-day rail exploration tour, Eleanor and I are proud to announce that South America’s first overnight luxury train, the Belmond Andean Explorer, and Ecuador’s plucky day train, the Tren Crucerohave both nabbed spots on our carefully considered World’s Top 25 Trains® list.

As co-owners of The Society of International Railway Travelers®, the world’s oldest travel agency specializing in luxury train travel, we couldn’t be more thrilled.

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Tren Ecuador’s steam engine No. 11 hauled us on our final day. We also enjoyed running behind steam engine No. 58. The railroad boasts five operating steam locomotives. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

We were expecting the Belmond Andean Explorer to earn our seal of approval. Instead, it absolutely knocked our socks off.

The outstanding chef, warm and professional on-board staff, excellent guides, amazing outings, lovely decor of the new train  — not to mention the absolutely fabulous outdoor viewing deck and the spectacular scenery — all contributed to catapulting the Belmond Andean Explorer into World’s Top 25 Trains® status.

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The outdoor platform on the  Belmond Andean Explorer’s rear lounge car was a favorite of young and old alike. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Belmond operates some of the wold’s most iconic luxury trains, including the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express,  Belmond Royal Scotsman and, as of just last year, the Belmond Grand Hibernian.

Conversely, we didn’t know what to expect of the Tren Crucero. But we were thrilled with what we found.

Unlike many of our World’s Top 25 Trains®, you don’t sleep on this bright, red train — but its dedicated staff, seamless operation,  and fascinating itinerary are all too good to overlook.

Tren Crucero boasts a fantastic open-air deck in the rear lounge car, the center of a great multi-day program. And a just-announced service level addition — Tren Crucero Gold — will introduce a luxury-level experience for discerning travelers.

We also rode to and from Machu Picchu on an old friend and longtime World’s Top 25 Train®, the Belmond Hiram Bingham day train.

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IRT CEO & Founder Owen Hardy and President Eleanor Flagler Hardy enjoy the open-air rear deck of the Belmond Hiram Bingham en route to Machu Picchu. IRT Photo.

Plus, we tested a bevy of Ecuadoran and Peruvian luxury hotels. Old favorites in Peru included Cusco’s Belmond Hotel Monastario and the Belmond Rio Sagrado in the Sacred Valley.

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View from Guyaquil’s Hotel du Parque. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Given our interest in nature and the outdoors, we also tried two Inkaterra hotels: one in the Sacred Valley, the other near Machu Picchu. They were veritable “gardens of earthly delight.”

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The intimate bar at Quito’s exquisite Casa Gangotena. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

In Ecuador, we loved the gorgeous old-world Casa Gangotena in Quito, an island of calm just off the bustling main square (and a foodie’s delight).

And we greatly admired the verdant setting of Guyaquil’s recently-opened Hotel del Parque.

Most amazing of all was Mashpi Lodge, a Shangri-La smack dab in the Ecuadorian cloud forest. If you love nature (and especially birds), great hikes and wonderful food, you’ll want to stay here two nights, at minimum. Nestor, our delightful guide, was a font of knowledge on the forest and animals around us — and incredibly fun, to boot.

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Eleanor photographs the Ecuadorian cloud forest from the “Dragonfly,” an aerial tramway purpose-built for Mashpi Lodge. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

But for us, of course, the star attractions were the Belmond Andean Explorer, the Tren Crucero, and the Belmond Hiram Bingham.

Watch this space in the coming days for in-depth reports on each.

For info on riding Peru’s Belmond Andean Explorer and Belmond Hiram Bingham, please click here. For info on our tour featuring Ecuador’s Tren Crucero, please click here.

Both programs are in development, and itineraries are subject to change. But call us now, because Peru and Ecuador are both rising stars for travel in 2017 and 2018.

(800) 478-4881 (US & Canada) or (502) 897-1725 (everywhere else).

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Owen grabs a photo of the steam engine from the Tren Crucero’s rear, outdoor platform. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

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

31 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature, Hot Springs, Cuisine Star in 7 Stars Kyushu Itinerary

17 Mar

Click here to see previous post: Seven Stars’ introduction, staff and culinary delights

A main raison d’etre of the new Cruise Train Seven Stars is to showcase the natural and artistic beauty of Kyushu. The train’s off-train excursions do not disappoint. (The Society of International Railway Tours’ “Seven Stars Over Japan” luxury rail tour includes the new luxury train as a post-tour option.)

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The Seven Stars logos, works of art in themselves, were carefully hand-crafted. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

The island of Kyushu is known for its volcanic hot springs (or onsen), and guests on our four-day trip next year will spend their second night off the train at a fabulous resort with their own private onsen. (So there’s no need for sheepish tourists to worry about bathing au naturel with strangers, albeit of the same sex.)

Our group enjoyed onsens on two successive nights near Yufuin, which is on the four-day itinerary. I made the most of my onsen experience, enjoying the steaming waters three times.

Once I learned the proper etiquette, I found the experience delightfully soothing. (And don’t worry; we’ll have complete instructions for guests on our luxury Japan by Rail tour, which runs Nov. 5-19, 2016.)

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Our guide walks in the tranquil garden of Kakiemon Kiln. IRT photo by O. Hardy

We also visited Kyushu’s famed Kakiemon Kiln in Arita, whose exquisite ceramics the Dutch East India Company began shipping to Europe in the late 17th century. The ceramics works is still family owned.

The fifteenth-generation boss proudly showed us his business, with his little son, the sixteenth generation heir, skipping along with us. Afterwards, Kakiemon XV, as he’s known, invited us to his tea house, set among the subtle green hues of his carefully manicured garden.

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Seven-sided Seven Stars basin, produced by Kakiemon Kiln. JR Kyushu photo

Proudly, he told us of his late father, Kakiemon XIV, whose final creation before his death were the intricate, seven-sided wash basins which grace each of the standard Seven Stars cabins.

Meanwhile, back on the Seven Stars, I took careful inventory of my compartment.  In keeping with the train’s striving for perfection, even the windows are special.

My compartment’s two windows each had five separate sections: an outer layer of glass, followed by a second layer of thin, wooden slats; then two sliding traditional Japanese windows with paper panes; then, two heavier sliding wooden windows. The final layer was a light gauzy curtain of gathered material.

Standard suites include a writing desk, with pull-out section for additional room (not shown here). IRT photo by Owen Hardy

My room contained a minibar stocked with wonderful Japanese juices, green tea, “Swan Cider Tomosu” in its tiny bottle, Asahi “Dry” and Santory “The Premium Malts” Pilsner Beer, and other bottles whose names were written only in Japanese, but whose contents were delicious. (Drinks from the minibar are on the house, by the way.)

My compartment also contained two plugs, one in the bathroom and one in the bedroom, plus a 3-socket multi-plug unit, so you can plug in your iPhone, iPad and iMac all at once (as I did).

Standard suite bathroom, above. All bathrooms have showers with cypress wood paneling and typical Japanese toilets with multiple controls. The train also has one handicapped accessible suite and bathroom. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

Also, attention, U.S. and Canadian travelers: Japan’s electrical outlets are identical (almost) to ours, so leave your adapters at home. And WiFi is available throughout the train and works quite well (except in tunnels and other such places).

Also provided in my compartment: toothbrush, razors, cotton balls and two different types of Japanese toiletries. When I couldn’t decide which set I wanted, my cabin attendant happily gave me both.

All the compartments, including the deluxe suites, contain twin beds separated by a night stand. My bed was quite comfortable and easily accommodated my six-foot frame.

One final aspect of the Seven Stars experience also deserves mention, and maybe sums up this over-the-top-train: the music provided each evening in the bar car by a violin/piano duo.

When you book a Seven Stars trip, you’ll receive a confirmation accompanied by a request from the musicians: “please tell us one piece of music you’d especially like to hear.”

In a fit of enthusiasm, I fired off a return email: “The third movement from César Franck’s Violin Sonata.”

“What?” my friend Sam, a retired music professor, exclaimed. “That’s pretty difficult music.”

Violinist and pianist hold forth in the Blue Moon bar/lounge car. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Several weeks later, aboard the Seven Stars, I met the musicians and mentioned, a bit hesitantly, that I was the one who’d requested the Franck.

Without skipping a beat, the pianist began the introduction, and the violinist – without music – began the virtuosic opening. He was on solid ground, and I sat listening, entranced, for the next several minutes.

They ended the piece with a drawn-out pianissimo.

“Bravo!” we yelled, nursing our drinks, as the Kyushu twilight lingered outside the bar car’s picture window. (See video below.)

Bravo, indeed, I thought: to the staff, designers, planners, artisans, chefs, JR Kyushu and even to the citizens of this small but beautiful island, who are so proud of “their” train.

The Seven Stars is a true work of art.

The Society of International Railway Travelers®’ “Seven Stars Over Japan” luxury tour, for which we’ve chartered an entire Seven Stars 4-day, 3 night itinerary, runs Nov. 5-19, 2016.

To download a 24-page PDF brochure (2.7 MB), please click here.

For more information or to book, email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

 

 

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