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.

Endeavour II

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.

 

Seven Stars Success Prompts Special Fall Japan Tour

16 Feb
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Japan’s Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu has set the world luxury train bar even higher, with such amenities as its “Deluxe Suite A”pictured here. JR Kyushu

 

Almost 15 months ago today, I left home for Fukuoka, Japan to ride the world’s latest – and some would say most exclusive – luxury train.

Since its introduction in October, 2013, the 28-passenger Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu has been wildly popular.

How popular?

Kyushu Railways regularly holds lotteries to see who gets to ride the Seven Stars at a price of up to $2,000 a day.

 

Now I know why. I, too, was blown away.

So much so that we named the Seven Stars the latest of our “World’s Top 25 Trains®.”

What makes the Seven Stars so special? Simply put, the train’s design rivals anything riding the rails today. (See video below.)

“OMG! I have never been on such a gorgeous train!” one of our guests wrote soon after she boarded last fall.

That’s why I’m thrilled to announce that the Seven Stars will again be a star element of our November, 2017 Japan tour. (Click here for full itinerary.)

The itinerary luxuriously showcases the charms of Kyushu, renowned for its hot springs, impressive cuisine, and natural beauty.

Sweet Train Image copy (1)More good news: we’ll again offer, as an extension, the two-hour ride between Sasebo and Nagasaki on JR Kyushu’s aptly named Sweet Train.

Working with our Virtuoso specialists, Windows to Japan, we’ve crafted a magnificent itinerary.

Our Nov. 3 – 18, 2017 tour carefully combines bullet trains, scenic trains, cultural experiences, overnights at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn), visits to gardens and shrines, and stunning natural beauty.

It occurs at a time when the fall leaves should be spectacular and the weather perfect.

And, new this year, we’re adding a ride on JR Kyushu’s SL Hitoyoshi steam train along the scenic Kuma River. Also new this year is a visit to the Kyoto Railway Museum.

The icing on the cake? The four-day Seven Stars luxury rail tour grand finale. (Did I mention we’re the first U.S. company to charter the Seven Stars?)

It’s first-come, first-served.  So join us!

For the latest on our “Deluxe Rail Journey of Japanfeaturing the Seven Stars of Kyushu this November, please click here.

Questions: please call 800-478-4881 or 502-897-1725. Or email: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Owen C. Hardy is founder and CEO of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

2-Train Luxury Tour Revels in Peru’s Culture, Beauty, Spirit

20 Jan
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IRT passengers enjoying the outdoor viewing area on the Belmond Hiram Bingham. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy.

Is Peru on your top 10 bucket list?

You’re not alone. It’s one of the world’s hottest travel destinations.

Peru offers “truly some of the most breathtaking and inspiring scenery in the world,” says IRT’s President, Eleanor Flagler Hardy, who counts Peru as one of her favorite destinations.

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Belmond Andean Explorer lounge

“Crossing the Peruvian Altiplano (aboard a luxury train), with the Andes in the background, is astonishing,” she says.

When Belmond — the company that gives you, among other luxury trains, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express — announced it was debuting this summer its new luxury train, the Belmond Andean Explorer, we knew we had to be on it.

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Belmond Andean Explorer bedroom

The result is our tour  Peru: Journey to a Lost World.

The special tour runs June 1-11 using the Belmond Hiram Bingham luxury day train between Cusco and Machu Picchu.

The tour uses the Belmond Andean Explorer overnight luxury train for the three days and two nights between Cusco, Puno (Lake Titicaca) and Arequipa. Other dates also are available.

Why go? Peru is a fabulous destination, Mrs. Hardy says.

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View from the current Andean Explorer train, en route to Puno from Cusco. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Its friendly people, rustic luxury, glorious five-star hotels, great dining, amazing architecture and fascinating culture make this a “must do” journey. Every IRT journey to Peru has been a huge hit.

To download a copy of this special itinerary, click here.

To download a PDF describing the new train and its itineraries in pictures, diagrams and words, click here.

Call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Your 2017 Luxury Rail Planning Guide: A Train for All Seasons!

23 Dec

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To our friends worldwide: Greetings!

A luxury train tour makes a great gift. Below is a ‘curated list’ of client and staff favorites:

January
Eastern & Oriental Express: Bangkok-Singapore

February
Golden Eagle: Russian Winter Wonderland
Deccan Odyssey: Delhi-Mumbai

March
Blue Train: Cape Town-Pretoria-Kruger Nat’l Park 


April
Al-Andalus: Tour of Southern Spain
Golden Eagle: Heart of Persia

May
Golden Eagle: Trans-Siberian Express 

June
Belmond Andean Explorer: Peru by Luxury Rail 


July
Belmond Royal Scotsman: Grand Tour of England, Scotland & Wales

August
Belmond Grand Hibernian: Grand Tour of Ireland 

September
Golden Eagle Danube Express: Sicilian Odyssey
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE): Istanbul-Venice


October
Rovos Rail: Cape Town to Dar es Salaam
VSOE: Venice-Vienna-Paris-London

November
Kyushu Seven Stars: Deluxe Japan Rail Journey 

December
G. Eagle Danube Express: New Year’s in Vienna


For more information, or to book:

email tourdesk@irtsociety.com

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

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