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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.

Eleanor photographs the Ecuadorian cloud forest from the

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.

 

 

A Shining Asian Constellation: Japan’s Seven Stars in Kyushu

17 Mar

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Seven Stars mascot in “Blue Moon” car. IRT Photo by O. Hardy

“Who’s this?” I asked, spying a little dog lying patiently in a dark corner of the bar car.

“Oh, it’s a kind of joke by the designer,” smiled Mr. Hironobu Yanagawa, Kyushu Railway’s Assistant Manager, Cruise Train Headquarters.

Normally, I’d have overlooked the little canine sculpture.

But in the short time I’d been aboard the Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu, I’d already learned an important lesson: look for details.

In other parts of the train, I found more subtle “jokes”: tree frogs climbing a wall, wasps tending their nest, a simple white button nestled in a rich, gold picture frame.

And almost 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.

In sum, even my short, two-day ride on the Seven Stars yielded a plethora of extraordinary experiences — visual, culinary, musical — even spiritual, if you believe the train’s tagline: “a journey to discover a new way of life.”

Seven Stars, a special sightseeing train of Japan’s JR Kyushu, began life in summer, 2013, and it’s never looked back. Despite its steep price, not even all the Japanese who want to ride can get tickets, much less the hapless foreigners clamoring for a ride.

That’s why The Society of International Railway Travelers® chartered the entire train for a four-day, three-night itinerary as part of our luxury Seven Stars Over Japan tour, which ran last November.

The tour sold out all 28 spots within months. And that’s why we’re running it again this year: Nov. 3-21. This includes the “Sweet Train” extension, which you won’t want to miss.

A year and a half ago, I made a quick visit to Kyushu – Japan’s southernmost island – to enjoy a rare, non-revenue ride offered by JR Kyushu to a small group of journalists.

Granted, two days and a night were not nearly enough time to take in all this train has to offer. But it was long enough for me to declare without hesitation: the Seven Stars elevates the standards of world luxury train travel to an even higher level.

Seven Stars stands for Kyushu’s seven prefectures (similar to U.S. counties). The train has seven cars: the “Blue Moon” bar / lounge car whose entire rear wall is a giant picture window, dining car “Jupiter,” and four sleeping cars, each with three spacious suites measuring 108 square feet.

One regular suite is handicapped-accessible. The train also carries a wheelchair.

At the other end of the train, the seventh car contains two “deluxe suites”  which can accommodate two or three guests each.

Deluxe Suite A is 226 square feet and boasts a private glass picture window at the end of the car. It is by far the most popular accommodation on the train, JR Kyushu says.

The other deluxe suite is beautifully appointed but, at 183 square feet, is slightly smaller.

Everything on the train was specifically designed for the Seven Stars, save one element (I won’t spoil your experience by naming it; see if you can guess.).

This surfeit of over-the-top design elements is matched by an expert staff, who know how to combine Asian elegance and hospitality with genuine warmth.

When I misplaced my iPhone charger, for example, Mr. Yoshiharu Aritou, the train manager, insisted on giving me one of his (For the record, I’m sent it back to him, along with a heartfelt note and bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon.).

Moreover, the Seven Stars staff is bilingual and couldn’t be friendlier. Menus and signs are in English and Japanese. (Our November tour, of course, will be conducted in English.)

Also near perfect is the Seven Stars kitchen, which turns out delicacies as beautiful as they are tasty. I enjoyed three meals on the train: two lunches and a dinner, all of them set menus.

Kyushu is known for its variety of seafood, vegetables and fruits, and I was happy to let the Seven Stars chefs choose for me.

Here are just a few of the offerings from our “Heartfelt bento lunch from Bungo, Oita Prefecture:

“Red sea bream cured with Ryuhi Kombu…Egg tofu with wakame seaweed, Assortment of separately prepared vegetables, Food of the season [in my case, autumn] cooked in paper made with kozo tree fiber…”

The spirits from the Blue Moon bar were equally inspired. I made a point of ordering a Blue Moon cocktail, whose contents included Japanese shochu, a liquor made from sweet potatoes.

It was mixed with some of the tastiest juice – was it grapefruit or tomato? – I’ve ever had.

One of my favorite menu items was actually French-inspired: a chocolate sphere served at tea time. The thin, edible outer shell revealed a rich, creamy center: decadent and delicious.

(For the true dessert-lover, try JR Kyushu’s new Sweet Train, which I also sampled on my visit. More about that in another Track 25 post.)

Click here for Seven Stars’ off-train excursions and what to expect in your Seven Stars cabin.

To download a 24-page PDF brochure, please click here.

For more information on our luxury Japan by Rail tour running Nov. 3-21, 2017 (which includes the Sweet Train extension), please click here. Or email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.

Dreaming of Darwin: Rachel Hardy’s Galápagos Adventure

10 Mar
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Rachel Hardy in Patagonia at Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. IRT Photo

She’s ice-climbed in Patagonia. She’s rappelled a waterfall in Belize. She’s kayaked the Amazon and confronted bush babies in Kenya.

And about five minutes from now (as I write this), Rachel Hardy departs for the Galápagos Islands for a 10-day, action-packed study tour with Lindblad/National Geographic.

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The National Geographic Endeavor II was built in 2005 for expedition cruising. Last year, it underwent a major refit with an all-new forward lounge, library, gym and spa.

“If you do everything on the itinerary, it could get pretty exhausting,” says Ms. Hardy, an IRT travel advisor and adventure specialist for almost two years. “But I want to do as much as I can.”

If the cruise passes muster (we don’t offer anything we haven’t tested), it will be the newest in The Society of IRT’s short list of adventure itineraries.

The action-packed “discovery cruise” retraces Darwin’s 1835 voyage on the Beagle, which led to his world-changing book The Origin of the Species.

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Rachel Hardy in Kenya with Maasai tribesmen.

Among the highlights:

  • Close encounters with the Galápagos’ incredible diversity of wildlife: Darwin’s finches, blue-footed boobies, lava lizards, colorful red and black iguanas, to name just a few;
  • Hiking through giant cactus and incense tree forests, and an early-morning trek to a lava cone summit with stunning, panoramic views;
  • Snorkeling among sea lions, small reef sharks and Galápagos penguins.
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In Mumbai, India with Society of IRT President (and Rachel’s mom) Eleanor Hardy.

Her magic carpet for this adventure? The 96-guest Endeavour II, which includes a glass-bottomed Zodiac.

Best of all: accompanying her will be an expert team of seasoned naturalists, most of whom are native to the area.

“I’m especially excited about being with the Lindblad personnel.”Ms. Hardy said. “They specialize in an intellectual approach to adventure travel.”

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Lunch break from ice-climbing in Patagonia.

Ms. Hardy’s review will appear in Track 25 shortly after she returns.

But Lindblad-National Geographic has an excellent reputation; its trips fill up quickly.

And note: Lindblad is offering free airfare from Miami on all departures Aug. 25-Nov. 17 on the Endeavor II. Book with IRT, and you’ll get extra perks aboard ship.

So sign up now to get on our “first notification” list for updates on the Galápagos program this year and next.

Email us, or call us: (800) 478-4881, (502) 897-1725.

IRT’s Angela Walker S. Africa- Bound in Search of Travel Gold

3 Mar

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As I write this, IRT’s Vice President Angela Walker is aboard a South African Airways jet, luxuriating in business class. She arrives Saturday, and she’ll be whisked away in her private limo and taken to her deluxe hotel.  Her goal: scout out the country’s best air, hotels, restaurants, safaris, gardens and tours.

Why now?

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Angela Walker, IRT Vice President, enjoys dinner on a World’s Top 25 Train.

Angela’s laying the groundwork for the Society of International Railway Travelers’ 13-day tour to South Africa, which will include 3 nights in Cape Town, Rovos Rail‘s fabulous “African Collage” luxury rail extravaganza, and one night in Johannesburg. Our trip will be January 19 – Feb. 1, 2018. We will offer a 3-night safari extension.

“This will give me lots of ideas for planning the perfect pre- and post-tour hotels, dining and activities for our guests,” Angela says.

Angela will be forging relationships with the best travel partners in the region — relationships crucial to our guests’ travel satisfaction. (Click here to see her travel map to date.)

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She’ll stay in such five-star hotels as Johannesburg’s Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa as well as Cape Town’s Taj and the One&Only. She’ll test out a day in the Winelands and have lunch at the fabulous La Residence.  She also has an appointment at Belmond’s magnificent Mount Nelson.

She’ll spend time at Singita luxury safari camp in Kruger National Park, visit Cape Point, and even enjoy a Penguin’s Lunch (can’t wait to find out what that is!).

She’s scheduled to visit Cape Town’s elegant Ellerman House and tour its art collection.

“Since I am a huge animal lover, I am most looking forward to spotting game on safari in Kruger National Park. And seeing the penguins – my favorite animal – on my way to Cape Point.

“Then there’s the Winelands, the fabulous hotels, special meals and visits – it will be an incredible trip.”

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When she returns home — and hopefully, if she has time while she’s traveling — she’ll report her findings here (on Track 25), and on Facebook and Twitter.

A few other highlights from Angela’s itinerary:

Angela is one of nine agents — out of 120 applicants — chosen to participate in the exclusive travel study tour by Virtuoso, our luxury travel consortium. It’s a well-deserved honor, and we couldn’t be happier for her.

To get on the early-bird, first notification list about our January, 2018 group tour featuring Rovos Rail‘s African Collage, click here. Or call (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725.

 

Feeling Stressed? Try Belmond Royal Scotsman’s New Spa Car

13 Jan

rs_spa2-copy It was already fabulous. But next season takes it up a notch.

Guests of the Belmond Royal Scostman can enjoy increased pampering: a massage, facial or “mani-pedi” in the luxury train’s new “Bamford Haybarn Spa Car.”

When its season opens April 17, the Scottish luxury train will join India’s Deccan Odyssey in being the world’s only premiere trains offering onboard spa facilities.

The Society of International Railway Travelers is thrilled to celebrate this new car by offering new guests, traveling in April, July and August (and who book by March 17) a complimentary £150 per cabin spa credit.

Although Belmond says the spa should be able to accommodate guests’ reservations on board, IRT advises clients to make their spa requests with IRT when they book.

The Bamford wellness brand uses nature for its inspiration, it says. The British company is renowned for its botanical skincare collections and holistic treatments.

rs_spa1-copyThe Bamford Signature Facial is an 85-minute ritual that aims to restore, rejuvenate and repair the skin, with everything from facial reflexology to deep tissue back massage and ancient yogic breathing.

The massage focuses on Shiatsu pressure points with hot stones to release tension and promote deep relaxation.

The Haybarn Spa car’s two relaxing single treatment rooms boast picture windows looking out onto the beautiful Scottish countryside. (But you can have the curtains closed of course!)

The new car also boasts 2 new sleeping compartments — one with two twin beds and the other with a  double bed. This boosts the train’s capacity from 36 to 40.

rs_spa3-copyThe Belmond Royal Scotsman offers two 7-night itineraries departing from Edinburgh and a number of shorter itineraries. Here is a list.

Guests travel past sweeping glens, towering peaks and black-mirrored lochs across the Scottish Highlands.My favorite: The Grand Northwestern.  An IRT client favorite is the Grand Tour of England, Scotland and Wales.

We think it truly feels like a fine country home on wheels. It has exquisitely appointed en-suite cabins with personal steward service.

Authentic (and fabulous) Scottish dishes complement the Highland experience. We love the congenial dining car with the longer tables.

Best of all — in the minds of IRT staff  and guests — is the observation car, with its outdoor viewing platform at the rear.

Inside, the atmosphere is luxuriously intimate, with with the tiny bar offering an impressive collection of fine Scottish whiskies — I counted 50+ on my last trip —all included in the price of the tour.

See our award-winning Belmond Royal Scotsman video here.

For more information or to book, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers: (800) 478-4881, (502) 897-1725, or tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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