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What To Do During Pandemic? Be Wise: Revitalize, Improvise

17 Aug
IRT Glacier:Bernina Express Poster

Switzerland’s famous Glacier Express and Bernina Express, two of The Society of International Railway Travelers®’ “World’s Top 25 Trains.” Poster by IRT Art Director Steve Sebree

Last week, I struck gold—on your behalf!

I found tantalizing travel ideas, contacts and places you can go (when we get back to traveling, of course).


At Virtuoso Travel Week (VTW), which ended last Friday, 4,000 travel company owners, operators and advisors from all over the world came together — virtually.

Usually, VTW happens at the Bellagio resort in Las Vegas. Not this year.

Funny thing, though. This was one of the best travel meetings ever.

Here are my top 10 takeaways:

1. Switzerland’s new luxury-class service on its extremely popular Glacier Express, which plies the stunning Zermatt-St. Moritz route through the Alps:

Want a a guaranteed window seat, with about half the passengers? This is the service to book.

I also got the lowdown on some stunning new Swiss hotels. They’ll be great additions to our Switzerland’s Classic Trains journey.

They include Bern’s Bellevue Palace, where, as a Virtuoso travel advisor, I can get clients a complimentary upgrade at booking to a junior suite or better.

Or maybe you’d prefer the Fairmont Le Montreaux Palace, just a quick stroll from the railway station on the shores of Lake Geneva. (Great place to finish a Swiss rail journey: I love the idea of a final, quick “train scoot” over to Milan.)

2. Vietnam’s new Vietage, a six-hour day service in a luxury rail car (capacity: 12 passengers) attached to a regularly-scheduled train connecting two luxury hotels:

The service is run by the Anantara hotels in Hoi An and Quy Nhon. Fare includes a three-course gourmet meal, selected free-flowing wines, beers, soft drinks, tea and coffee, and head and shoulder treatments by an onboard masseuse or masseur.

Ticket price includes access to a sit-up bar, dedicated area for head and shoulder treatments, power outlets and charging stations, complimentary WiFi, “Discovery Book” and an amenity basket whose contents include a pillow and blanket.

Sounds exciting. Stay tuned.

3. How Belmond will manage social distancing on the Venice Simplon-Orient Express (VSOE): The plan is to operate at half capacity, with guests spread out for two seatings in four dining cars. (The lounge will be refitted as a dining car.)

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Fanciful animal motifs inspired by panels in a dining car of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Photo by Owen Hardy, Society of IRT Founder/CEO. Poster by IRT Art Director Steve Sebree

4. Elite safari camps just a hop and a skip from Adelaide, one of the stops on our Australia Rail Extravaganza: It’s the perfect way to add magical visits to the bush, with its stunning flora and fauna.

5. The Esprit St. Germain, our favorite Paris hotel, has been almost totally renovated/redecorated: Kudos to owner/president, Laurence Tafanel, with whom I spoke, for using down time for a gorgeous makeover. And thanks for showing me the perfect room, with the perfect view for our guests coming to town next year on the VSOE.

6. Lowdown on the fab suites at our favorite London hotel, the Milestone, with a personal tour by General Manager Andrew Pike: Would you prefer the Hermés suite with its gorgeous framed, antique scarves, or the two-story Meaghan suite on an upper floor with its great views of Kensington Park?

7. Meanwhile, at Edinburgh’s Balmoral Rocco Forte hotel, news on its latest renovations: I spoke with Samara Doucette, Director of Global Sales. We’re sending a large, multi-generational group there next June before they board the Belmond Royal Scotsman. Samara’s double-checking to be sure everyone gets one of the newly renovated rooms.

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The Belmond Royal Scotsman has just passed under a tunnel in IRT President Eleanor Flagler Hardy’s photo from the train’s rear, outdoor platform. Poster by IRT Art Director Steve Sebree

8. Best rooms for VIP guests heading to Belmond’s Reid Palace in Madeira or La Residencia on Majorca? And whom should I call when it’s time to book and later, to “VIP” our guests? I have his direct contact. Thank you Filippo! These would be great extensions to a VSOE journey, popping down to Maderia from London or to Majorca after a Gran Lujo journey.

9. Where will our IRT guests get the best value at Lake Como’s Hotel Grand Tremezzo?  Valentina de Santis filled me in on the right rooms to choose for our guests, and the best activities while they’re there. It’s a perfect fit to extend our Romantic Italian Holiday VSOE trip.

10. Meanwhile in Mongolia…Undraa Buyannemekh, President of Nomadic Expeditions, promised to develop a personal greeting for our VIP guest heading to the Three Camel Lodge next year. She filled me in on an inspiring documentary to send to people interested in Mongolia. Email me if you’d like the info.

That’s the scoop. And am I excited!

So until next year, please know we’ll be putting all I learned at Virtuoso Travel Week to work for you, so we can craft your perfect journey when the coast is clear and we’re ready to travel.

(Questions? Please email me.)

(Eleanor Flagler Hardy is President and Co-owner of The Society of International Railway Travelers.® She was chosen 2020 Condé Nast Traveler World’s Top Specialist for Luxury Trains.)

IRT Answers Guests’ Burning Questions about Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, World’s Most Famous Luxury Train

7 Nov

IRT Luxury Travel Associates Natalie Schuetz and Nora Elzy just returned from their inaugural journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE). They sat down with us after to discuss their experience, and answer some of IRT travelers’ most frequently-asked questions.

The following account was co-written by Natalie and Nora.

° ° °

“You’re either architects or you’re planning a murder,” quipped our cabin steward on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, as he found us measuring the overhead shelving in our Cabin Suite.

We were neither, nor were we spies, thieves or cutthroats.

We were — and are — relatively new travel advisors at The Society of International Railway Travelers. Our mission? Find answers to the questions most frequently asked by IRT travelers about the VSOE.

The clock was ticking. (The journey from London to Venice takes about 30 hours in total.)

Armed with our list of questions, we raced from one end of the train to the other, Poirot-style, to question every porter, cabin steward and sous chef we could find about the world’s most famous luxury train.

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Natalie (left), and Nora (right), with new friends in the bar car on the VSOE. IRT Photo

So, the VSOE takes me all the way from London to Venice?

Not quite. This is really a journey of three parts:

First, board the Belmond British Pullman — luxury day train and sister to the VSOE – at London Victoria Station for the two-hour journey to Folkestone. En route, enjoy a hearty four-course brunch. The highlights of our meal were berries and yogurt, fresh pastries, salmon with potato and pickled cucumber salad, and lemon and olive oil cake.

Next, undergo border formalities before boarding a luxury coach for the half-hour journey under the English Channel. (The “Chunnel” may be an engineering marvel, but the actual experience is a bit dull. Sit tight – it only takes 30 minutes.)

Once you have emerged in France, a short drive takes you to the station in Calais, where the gleaming blue carriages of the VSOE await.

NOW you are on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express!

Is this THE Orient-Express? The one of Agatha Christie fame, I mean?

While it is not the original Orient-Express, it does comprise several of its carriages. Most were built in the 1920s and 1930s and have been beautifully restored. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in its current incarnation began service in 1982. (Want the complete story? To get IRT CEO Owen Hardy’s extensively researched cultural history of the Orient-Express, click here.)

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Twin cabin during the day. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

What (and how) should I pack?

You can never be overdressed on the VSOE – especially at dinner. Men will not be out of place in tuxedos, but a dark suit is also appropriate. Just don’t show up in jeans.

Pack your finery and have fun playing adult dress-up. Downton Abbey duds are not required – but some guests enjoy donning period dress. (We certainly did.)

During the day, smart casual is appropriate.

Note: Grand Suite guests can stop reading this section now, as their palatial quarters include a surfeit of storage space.

For everyone else, however, heed us when we say that space is at a premium. Twin cabins measure only 35 feet square.

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Twin cabin at night. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy.

What to pack? Our affable steward Davide had these suggestions:

“Just the essentials… It’s more important to have the right size of cabin luggage. Some people don’t think about that, but that really changes the trip.”

When you board, select what you’ll need on the train. Davide suggests packing your formal wear in a dress bag, which you can hang from a hook in your compartment.

Pack all other necessities in a packing cube or two – or in a small overnight bag.

Then hand off your suitcase to your steward for storage elsewhere on the train.

What creature comforts will I be foregoing?

Private bathrooms, to start. Only Grand Suite patrons have those (and they pay dearly for them.)

Guests in all other cabins have an en-suite sink and vanity, but toilets are shared and are down the hall. We never had to wait for a bathroom. If one is occupied, there is another just a few feet away in the next car. The stewards keep them sparkling clean day and night.


Private bathroom with sink, toilet, and rain shower in Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

There are no showers on board (except, of course, if you are in a Grand Suite). But all VSOE itineraries are planned so that you never spend more than one night on board (with the alternating nights spent in a luxury hotel if you are on the Paris-Istanbul journey or the Istanbul-Paris journey.)


Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

So tell me more about the new Grand Suites.

These spacious cabins debuted in 2018 and were covered in-depth here and here by our senior colleague, Rachel Hardy.

Six Grand Suites, all of them unique and named after famous capital cities on the VSOE’s routes, include a large double bed (can also be made into two twins), living area with table, chair and sofa, and an en-suite bathroom with rain shower, sink and toilet.

Additional Grand Suite amenities include preferential seating and guaranteed dining time for meals, caviar upon arrival, free-flowing Champagne, private transfers to/from train stations, private guided excursions, complimentary designer Art Deco bathrobes, and hair dryers. A complimentary alternative “à la carte” menu also is available during lunch or dinner for Grand Suite guests.

Grand Suites are located at the very end of the train for ultimate privacy.

OK, so back to reality. What about Wi-Fi?

We were told there is Wi-Fi on the train, but it was not working during our tour. As young people who probably spend way too much time on our phones, we found that not having Wi-Fi was a nice change of pace; it allowed us to spend more time enjoying the overall experience of the train.

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Mingling with a fellow passenger over lunch in the Lalique dining car. IRT Photo.

What is the atmosphere like? Do people mingle?

Mingling is the name of the game. Our advice? Go to the bar car — the social hub of the train — directly after dinner to secure a great seat and strike up a conversation with your fellow travelers.

A pianist plays through the night; the staff doesn’t quit until the last guest has retired.

Just keep in mind that, while water, tea and coffee are included in the rate, all other drinks are additional. A signature cocktail in the bar costs about €22 (about $28 U.S.).


A bountiful breakfast is served in your cabin, giving you a chance to wake up slowly and luxuriously. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

What is dining like on board? Are there multiple seatings? Will I have a choice of what food I want?

There are typically two seatings for dinner: the first at 7 p.m., and the second at 8 p.m. Ask the maître d’ to seat you in a different dining car for each meal so that you can experience each of them — or at least two of the three. Each is unique.

And almost all dietary restrictions can be generously accommodated if the kitchen staff knows in advance.

Every dish we had on board was delicious — and beautifully presented. Natalie’s first course for dinner was a Blue Brittany lobster, served with earthy French potatoes in a savory sauce and truffle caviar and decorated with edible flowers.

And though Nora felt like she taxed the chef with her dietary restrictions (gluten-free, dairy-free, no seafood), she was always thrilled with her meals. The beef fillet with Flint wine and morel sauce was sumptuous, and she loved her dessert: an exotic fruit platter.

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Blue Brittany lobster and caviar. IRT Photo by Natalie M. Schuetz.

What about gratuities? Whom do I pay and how much?

We recommend €20-25 (about $22-$28 U.S.) per person, per day. We split this evenly between our cabin steward and the restaurant staff. Cabin stewards can only accept cash, but the restaurant cars and bar car can accept credit cards.

Is one night on the train enough?

“The longer guests are on board, the more they enjoy the train,” said Assistant Train Manager Francesco Bonotto.

They especially love the five-day itineraries, he said, that begin in Venice and then travel on to either Budapest, Vienna, or Prague, and then continue to London.

“They offer a great mix of sociability and time to explore independently: two nights on the train, plus two nights on your own in a beautiful European city.”

We here at the IRT Society also get rave reviews from our travelers who opt for the route made famous by Agatha Christie: the once-a-year Paris-Istanbul journey and Istanbul-Paris journey.

These sell out very far in advance and include grand hotels and exclusive touring along the way.

In what months does the VSOE operate?

The train runs from late March through early November.

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Natalie poses with Paolo, one of our indefatigable stewards. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy.

What are the stewards and train staff doing when they aren’t working on the train?

During the off season, many go to work in European hotels. And since all staff are bilingual (at a minimum), brushing up on their second language is also a focus.

What are some scenery highlights?

We saw rolling British and French countryside, staggering Swiss mountains, and stunning Italian lake towns during our two-day journey. The longer itineraries include iconic cities such as Prague and Istanbul.

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VSOE cabin key. IRT Photo by Natalie M. Schuetz.

What makes this train unique?

Much of it is the exquisite detail. In fact, one of the knobs on the wall in our cabins was not functional, but it was there simply for nostalgic purposes. At one time, we were told, the train piped music in the carriages; the knob was used to turn the volume up and down. Also, each carriage is heated by a coal furnace, which the cabin steward tends throughout the journey.

This train is very expensive.  Is it worth it?

It’s an experience unlike any other. Assistant Train Manager Bonotto said he’s never had a single complaint about the cost. By the time passengers disembark — after their fabulous meals and A+ staff treatment — they couldn’t be happier.

° ° °

Do you have a question we didn’t cover? Ask us in the comments below.

Natalie and Nora took the London-Paris-Venice journey, as seen on our website here. All Venice Simplon-Orient-Express itineraries can be found here.

Ready to start planning your VSOE journey? Call or email us. 2020 and 2021 departures are available and selling briskly.

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

IRT “Virtuosos” Bond With Luxury Travel Pros in Vegas

10 Aug

IRT President Eleanor Flagler Hardy hams it up — and plugs Virtuoso’s newest travel-planning tool, Wanderlist — at the annual Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. IRT Photo

Sometimes it pays to be friendly.

One night at the annual Virtuoso Travel Week convention in Las Vegas, IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy was dining with Elizabeth, an old friend and partner from London in the Bellagio’s specialty Italian restaurant.

Admiring the hotel’s famous fountains, Eleanor turned to the next table and, with her usual Southern friendliness, introduced herself to a fellow diner.

As it turned out, he was sales manager for one of Canada’s top hotels, Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac in Quebec — the very hotel she had just booked for two top clients.

And this is where the Virtuoso magic happened.

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African safaris are another IRT specialty and are easily combined with luxury rail trips.

“That lovely man took out his pad and pen,” Eleanor continued, “made notes about my clients, who were celebrating a milestone birthday, and promised to wow them.”

The result?

Eleanor’s clients received a courtesy upgrade to a fabulous specialty suite, a value of over $1,000, with a fabulous view, fabulous complimentary wine and of course all the usual amenities.

“I feel like a princess in a tower!” the wife exclaimed when she called Eleanor from her room.


Fellow Virtuoso member and partner Rocky Mountaineer Railtours offers spectacular rail cruises through the Canadian Rockies. The company operates the world’s largest dome cars. IRT Photo

Indeed, Eleanor and the entire IRT staff (sans yours truly) are in Las Vegas right now, attending our luxury travel consortium’s annual convention.

They’re meeting with representatives from the world’s top luxury travel providers: cruise lines, hotels, adventure travel companies, safari companies, ground operators and more. (And of course rail companies!)

They’re connecting with the top people in the luxury travel business to make sure you, our customers, get the very best.

And this year, we’re proud to report that The Society of International Railway Travelers is up for a special Virtuoso award.


Belmond, a fabulous luxury hotel, rail and cruise specialist, works closely with IRT. Here, a bartender prepares drinks for passengers on Ireland’s first luxury train, the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT was the first company in the world to charter the train. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

“We’ve been selected as one of the Virtuoso travel agencies with the highest percentage growth, year over year, in sales and revenue.” Eleanor said. “We are thrilled to be nominated.”

“Also, staff member Nora Elzy has been nominated as a “rising star” for cruise sales,” Eleanor continued. Although we specialize in luxury trains, Eleanor said, “we book cruises for repeat clients, because we know what our customers want.”

In addition, IRT’s Rachel Hardy will be interviewed for a Virtuoso video about our agency’s great relationship with our adventure partners. 


And Eleanor herself will be interviewed by Virtuoso for a special video concerning the consortium’s latest planning tool: “Wanderlist.” (She is one of only about 100 advisors in the world specially trained to use this program.)

“Wanderlist is way more than a computer program. It is just one part of a dynamic planning tool we can use — to leverage my 36+ years of travel experience and knowledge and our great personal relationships with our Virtuoso partners around the world to develop a three- to five-year plan for travel. I love that people will be able to plot out which of the World’s Top 25 Trains they will do next — and next, and then next. Our most popular venues sell out so quickly; planning far ahead is a must.”

Need personal, professional attention when planing your next luxury train trip or other luxury travel?

Want all the fab extras we can get for you through our great Virtuoso personal relationships?

Email us, or call us at (800) 478-4881 (U.S. and Canada), (502) 897-1725 (elsewhere).

And be sure to ask about our new “Wanderlist” long-range trip-planning service. We will be accepting a limited number of Wanderlist clients for the rest of 2019.

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

12 Jul

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.


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 [email protected].

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 [email protected].


All Tracks Lead to Istanbul on These World’s Top 25 Trains®

24 May

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Two highly-coveted rail tours run from Western Europe to Istanbul.  Which to choose?

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) is world-famous, with its historic collection of restored 1920s and 1930s era cars. Its high prices are worth every penny, given the train’s history, stellar service, cuisine, off-train tours and all-round attention to detail.

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Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in Innsbruck, Austria. IRT Photo by R. Hardy

Plus, it oozes romance and glamour.

But the cost for a twin cabin on its most iconic departure, the once-a-year Paris-Istanbul journey, is about £15,500 per person in 2020. You don’t even want to know what that is in US dollars!


Golden Eagle Danube Express. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

Enter Golden Eagle Danube Express, based in Budapest. It’s a very different train — and also on our World’s Top 25 Trains® list. Its style is more laid-back and comfortable. No tuxes required.

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Lounge car in the Golden Eagle Danube Express. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

It offers a generous drinks allowance, including wine with lunch and dinner. It also features intimate, behind-the-scenes sightseeing off the train. What’s more, most cabins on the GEDE feature private bathroom and shower (something that all but 3 of the priciest suites on the VSOE are lacking).


Superior Deluxe Cabin on the Golden Eagle Danube Express.

And, on its Balkan Explorer itinerary (running June 23-July 3, 2020) the Golden Eagle Danube Express covers nine countries in 11 days as it meanders from Venice to Istanbul. (The countries are Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Boznia & Herzegovena, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey.)

Pricing for the 2020 Balkan Explorer journey starts at $9,395 per person — $17,995 per person for the largest and most luxurious accommodation, the Superior Deluxe cabin, pictured above.

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Stari Most, or Mostar Bridge, in Bosnia & Herzegovina, a highlight on the Balkan Explorer itinerary. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Nothing breathes “romance” like the famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

But if you prefer to kick back and relax in between high-octane “off-shore” touring — go for the Golden Eagle Danube Express.

Whichever tour you choose, know that the best spots go up to a year in advance, or more.

The Balkan Explorer journey runs June 23-July 3, 2020. Click here for full itinerary, details and pricing. Click here for details of the Golden Eagle Danube Express train.

The Paris-Istanbul journey runs August 28-September 2, 2020. Click here for full itinerary details and pricing. Click here for details of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train.

To book: call us at (800) 478-4881, +1 (502) 897-1725 outside of USA / Canada. Or e-mail us at [email protected].

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



Deccan Odyssey’s New Itineraries Break the Mold, Showcase India’s Rich Diversity

14 Sep


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The Deccan Odyssey luxury train.

India —  the world’s largest democracy, the most linguistically diverse country in the world, and home to wildly varying terrain, from the Thar Desert in the west to the Ganges Plain in the north, from the Himalayas to the shores of the Arabian Sea– is anything but a monolith.

How, then, could any traveler visit once and see the entire subcontinent?

The Deccan Odyssey luxury train has the perfect answer, in the form of four new journeys for those second- or third-time visitors to India looking to move beyond the traditional ‘highlights reel’.

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Presidential Suite on the Deccan Odyssey. Each Suite has a large double bed, dedicated sitting area, and two private bathrooms.

Something all four trips have in common: the stunning Deccan Odyssey itself. All cabins are fully ensuite with private bathroom and shower (ask for a Presidential Suite if you want extra-palatial surroundings). The train also features two dining cars that serve both Indian and Continental options at every meal, a lounge, a spa car with steam bath, exercise facilities, and a massage room.

We asked our friends at Cox & Kings — sole operators of the Deccan Odyssey — to share a few highlights with us from each of the new itineraries:

Hidden Treasures of Gujarat: Visit Gir National Forest — the only place in the world where you can spot Asiatic lions in the wild. Explore the otherworldly landscape of the Little Rann of Kutch — the largest saline desert in the world. Visit Palitana, the most sacred pilgrimage site of the Jain religion, where spectacular clusters of temples are exquisitely carved in marble. Click here for full itinerary details, dates, and pricing.


Little Rann of Kutch.

Maharashtra Splendor: Tour Fountainhas in Panjim, capital city of Goa, with its winding alleyways and bright red and blue tile-roofed houses. Ride on the Konkan railway route, bound by the Arabian Sea to the west and the Sahyadri Hills to the east. Wonder at the majesty of both Ajanta and Ellora Caves (both UNESCO Heritage sites). Click here for full itinerary details, dates, and pricing.


Ajanta Caves.

Jewels of the Deccan: Tour Bijapur, historic capital of the Sultans of Deccan, and visit Ibrahim Rouza — the supposed inspiration for the Taj Mahal.  Wander through the weaving village of Guledgud, renowned for producing stunning fabrics by hand loom. Visit Aihole — the cradle of Indian architecture — where more than 70 unique rock-cut temples were constructed by the Chalukyan kings. Explore the bustling bazaars in the old city area of Charminar in Hyderabad. Click here for full itinerary details, dates, and pricing.


Ibrahim Rouza

Maharashtra Wild Trail: Take a thrilling sunrise game drive in Tadoba Tiger Reserve, where it is not uncommon to see both tigers and wild dogs. Leopards, sloth bears, gaur (Indian bison), and rusty spotted cat can also be seen here. Enjoy another full day of game drives in Pench National Park, a biodiverse forest home to Malabar pied hornbills, Indian pittas, ospreys, grey-headed fishing eagles, and the green pigeon — the State Bird of Maharashtra. Visit the holy city of Nashik, now India’s premier wine-producing locale, and enjoy a lunch and tasting at a vineyard. Click here for full itinerary details, dates, and pricing.


Tadoba Tiger Reserve.

And if you’ve never been to India before and want a more traditional first-time itinerary, we’ve got options. The Indian Sojourn — an 8-day itinerary from Mumbai to Delhi that visits many of India’s most iconic landmarks — is a great place to begin exploring. Click here for full itinerary details, dates, and pricing.



Mumbai’s Gateway of India.


Ready to begin planning your next trip to India?

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

We look forward to welcoming you aboard!

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 travel in Europe, South America, Africa (rail & safaris) and Canada — and she is about to embark on her second trip to India. She was the first advisor from the Americas invited to see the new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Our agency is a proud member of Virtuoso and the exclusive Belmond Bellini Club.











IRT Wins Big at Virtuoso Travel Week, Leads Luxury Rail Competition

17 Aug

IRT’s Nora Elzy, Angela Walker, and Rachel Hardy with Lucy Clark, Director of Sales for the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and Eastern & Oriental Express trains, enjoying the Bellini Club party with Bellagio’s famous fountains as a backdrop.

We at IRT just returned from the most exclusive luxury travel show on earth — Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas at Bellagio Hotel & Casino.

We met with many of our top travel partners over the course of the last six days, and now we are brimming with exciting news, IRT accolades, and fresh travel ideas to share with you.

First, a brief primer for those who don’t know: Virtuoso is the world’s foremost luxury travel network, with about 25 billion dollars a year in buying power. IRT’s membership in Virtuoso expands our reach and capability when planning your journey by connecting us to the best luxury travel partners all around the world.

Also great for you, the traveler: exclusive amenities at all Virtuoso hotels, and special access to unique travel experiences through our other partners. Virtuoso amenities and complimentary upgrades resulted in an average of $450 in added value per booking last year.

Now, a few highlights from our week…

IRT Top Seller (yes, in the world!) for VSOE Grand Suites


Belmond staff present IRT with our very special award — a vintage VSOE sign with plaque in recognition of our Grand Suite and overall astounding 2018 sales.

We met with our great travel partners at Belmond  — owners of several of our World’s Top 25 Trains®, including the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Belmond Royal Scotsman, Belmond Grand Hibernian, Belmond Andean Explorer, & Eastern & Oriental Express.

We were thrilled to receive special recognition as the top agency in the world for sales of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express‘ new ultra-luxe Grand Suites!

IRT was the only agency in the Western Hemisphere to be invited to the unveiling of the Grand Suites earlier this year (read Rachel Hardy’s blog post here describing her first impressions).

In short: Grand Suites are the only accommodations aboard the train that are entirely en-suite with private bathroom and rain shower. They also feature a large double bed, separate sitting area, and many other exclusive amenities.

Interested in booking your very own Grand Suite? E-mail us at [email protected], or call 1-800-478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada).

A list of departures on the VSOE can be found here. Space is very limited! Only 3 Grand Suites are available per departure.

Rachel Hardy Nominated for Cruise Award


Rachel Hardy honored as a ‘Virtuoso Rising Star’ for luxury cruises.

Rachel Hardy, our Vice President of Sales & Marketing and a luxury travel advisor, was nominated for the ‘Rising Star’ award for luxury cruises.

While our niche is luxury rail travel, we do have a few particularly enticing cruise offerings that we think have great parallels with luxury train travel.

One example: the stunning Sea Cloud sailing yacht that plies the Dalmatian Coast between Athens and Dubrovnik, among other itineraries. IRT CEO Owen Hardy calls the Sea Cloud the ‘Orient Express of the Ocean.’ Read Owen’s blog post here, or find itinerary details, dates, and pricing on our website here.


IRT President and co-owner Eleanor Hardy Inspires as Featured Speaker

Our very own Eleanor Hardy was a featured speaker at this year’s Virtuoso Travel Week. The aptly-named panel was called “Excellence is no Accident.” The room was packed! Watch a short clip below:


Exciting New Rail Destinations in the Works!

We aren’t at liberty to give you details now, but two of our valued rail partners are planning exciting new rail destinations that will be unveiled in the near future. We will update you as soon as we are allowed, so please stay tuned!

If you are ready to book your trip, or if you have questions, please call us at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725 if outside the US / Canada — or e-mail us at [email protected].

We look forward to welcoming you aboard!

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







Canadian & Rocky Mountaineer: Society of IRT Inspection Journey

28 Apr
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VIA Rail’s Canadian passes Moose Lake. Photo courtesy of VIA Rail.

As I write this, IRT’s Nora Elzy just stepped aboard VIA Rail’s Canadian for a two-night trip from Winnipeg to Vancouver.

Nora’s mission over the next ten days: review two of The Society of International Railway Traveler’s World’s Top 25 Trains® — after she disembarks the Canadian, she’ll be boarding Rocky Mountaineer —  being sure to test all the beds, enjoy all the food, and luxuriate in the scenery.

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Rocky Mountaineer‘s covered, rear outdoor observation platform affords guests a chance to take photographs and enjoy the breeze. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

We checked in with Nora before she left to ask what she was most looking forward to during her inaugural journey for IRT.


Nora will get a chance to inspect the fabulous Prestige Class cabins on the Canadian. Photo courtesy of VIA Rail.

What is the destination you are most excited about visiting? I’m extremely eager to see the Canadian Rockies. The furthest west I’ve been in the United States is Wyoming – so these mountains will dwarf my previous experiences! And I can’t wait to see the natural beauty of Lake Louise.

One thing on both the Canadian and Rocky Mountaineer that you are curious to see in person? I’ve traveled on local trains in England and France but not on any of our World’s Top 25 Trains®. Getting the chance to sleep on the Canadian will be an excellent opportunity to acquire some foundational knowledge about our specialty. I am going to pay special attention to the Prestige Class sleeping accommodation on the Canadian, which most of our clients book, and the domed observation cars on both the Canadian and Rocky Mountaineer.

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Panoramic Gold Leaf dome car on Rocky Mountaineer. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Which aspect of the trip will make much more sense once you’ve seen it in action? After this trip, I think I’ll have a keen sense of how all the puzzle pieces of flights, trains, transfers, hotels, and sightseeing fit together. Our goal at IRT is to create seamless, worry-free and memorable travel — and I think my time in Canada will translate directly to my ability to make all of these things a reality for our clients.

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Rimrock Resort Hotel in Banff.

Which hotel are you most interested to visit in person and why? The Rimrock Resort Hotel​ in Banff sounds captivating. I look forward to seeing how architecture and luxury combine — since it’s built into the side of a mountain to take special advantage of fantastic views. And I will be able to advise our clients my favorite room type there — and why.

Which general aspect of the trip excites you most (ie wildlife, scenery, food)? I’ve been told by so many people that Canada is unbelievably ​beautiful, so to experience it in  spring will be incredibly memorable. My only regret is that my little dog, Pico, won’t be on the trip with me to sniff all the new smells!

IRT’s Nora Elzy & Pico. Photo courtesy of Nora Elzy.

Check back for Nora’s full report on the Canadian and Rocky Mountaineer in the next few weeks.

And in the meantime, call or email us when you are ready to start planning your own Canadian rail adventure! Call us at 800-478-4881 (502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us: [email protected].

Or, visit our website here for a list of our favorite Canadian rail journeys.

Nora Elzy, of Louisville, KY and a graduate of Centre College, joined IRT in 2016. Among her international travels was her study abroad in Japan. She is a luxury advisor in training and will soon begin the Virtuoso Certified Travel Advisor educational program. Pico is our IRT mascot, who meets and greets all visitors to our office with a friendly wag of his very fluffy tail.

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!


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!)


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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 [email protected].

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 Says

12 Apr


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 [email protected] to book your own magical journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express!

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