Tag Archives: El Transcantabrico

Al-Andalus: Palace On Wheels Rides Again

5 Mar

One of the lovely dining cars on the Al Andalus.

Story written by Regina Winkle-Bryan

In Spain, and especially in Southern Spain, citizens understand that “good things come to those who wait.” Time seems to move without hurry on the Iberian Peninsula, where patience is a virtue and a survival skill. We’ve been waiting for eight years for the Al-Andalus train to make an appearance on the rails once more, and spring of 2012 marks the end of its hiatus. Now managed by FEVE and Renfe, the renovated Al-Andalus will be presented in Cadiz March 17, 2012, at the bicentennial celebration of the 1812 Spanish Constitution. Following this official launch, the Al-Andalus will begin touring on May 6, and will make several trips each month until early December.

Dubbed a “Palace on Wheels,” the luxurious Al-Andalus is outfitted with a bar, tearoom, and two dining cars, all decorated in ‘Belle Epoque’ style. Up to 64 guests may lodge in the train’s 20 Superior and 12 Standard all en-suite cabins. The Al-Andalus cuts through some of the country’s most celebrated landscapes and visits a history-rich area of Spain where Judaism, Islam and Christianity collided. This is heart of the robust Spain we know from books and postcards, the Spain of hand-held fans, sunshine, flamenco, siestas, tapas and macho bullfighters in elaborate dress.

Once on board the Al-Andalus, everything is included in the rate, from your evening glass of dry Jerez sherry to the many village tours offered during the six-day expedition. Riders set out from Seville, the largest metropolis in the south of Spain, popular for its vibrant Feria de Abril festival and Royal Alcázar. From Seville, the Al-Andalus proceeds to Córdoba where guests are offered a city tour taking in the Mosque, Cathedral and Jewish Quarter, followed by dinner in a typical Cordobés eatery.

The following five days on Al-Andalus provide similar opportunities in the towns of Baeza, Úbeda, Granada, Ronda, Cádiz, Jerez, Sanlúcar and Doñana Park. Click here for the full itinerary. Highlights include a stopover at Jerez’s Real Escuela Andaluza de Arte Ecuestre for a dressage show as well as a tour of Granada’s mind-blowing Alhambra, one of the country’s most legendary monuments.

The Al Andalus traversing southern Spain.

Al-Andalus is the newest of Spain’s numerous tourist trains. High-end lines such as El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, and El Transcantábrico Clasico, tour Spain’s rugged northern coast and Basque Country. However, Al-Andalus is the only train of its kind in the south.

Getting There: Fly to the Spanish capital of Madrid on Delta or Iberia. From here you could fly on Iberia to Seville, but taking Renfe’s high-speed train AVE will get you there in two and a half hours while allowing you to glimpse more Spanish scenery. AVE leaves from central Madrid’s Atocha station dropping you off in downtown Seville.

The Society of International Railway Travelers can take care of all details for your trip — from train reservations to hotels. For a full itinerary, along with dates and pricing, visit The Society of International Railway Travelers’ website.

Gran Lujo: A Grand Upgrade

15 Nov

The staff of the El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo welcome passengers aboard in Ferrol, Spain. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

The neatly uniformed staff snaps to attention as we approach El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo at Ferrol Station. As we settle into the lovely lounge car, the staff serves champagne all around.

Our tour manager, Barbara Callisto, with her charming, infectious smile, introduces the staff, explains the train layout and toasts the trip ahead, first in Spanish, then English. This grand and intimate introduction would set the tone for my trip, which I enjoyed just two weeks ago.

It lived up to some of my expectations and exceeded others. Its operator, FEVE, proved once again that its trains are firmly ensconced in the Society of IRT’s World’s Top 25 Trains list. The Gran Lujo began service in May 2011 as an upgraded version of the El Transcantábrico Clásico, which I already knew was a fabulous train. I had high expectations.

The Gran Lujo comprises refurbished cars from the Clásico train set, with upgrades and improvements throughout. Seven sleeping cars from the Clásico were gutted and redone, doubling the size of the suites and alleviating one of the few complaints of the Clásico experience: cabins that are too small. Each Gran Lujo suite takes up half a train car.

My comfy suite on Gran Lujo. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

My room is Suite Princess 6, one of the four twin-bedded suites on the Gran Lujo. First, I notice the layout—surprisingly spacious for  a narrow-gauge train—twin beds, two windows (which open), couch, table, two stools, wardrobe, chest of drawers, desk with computer and two television screens(!) Not to mention a full en-suite bathroom, complete with the most complicated shower I’ve ever encountered – functions for three shower types, hydro-massage and sauna.

The twin beds are side by side, separated by a narrow aisle. At the end of the one bed is a narrow wardrobe with eight hangers and three shelves; at the end of the other is a chest containing three drawers.

I quickly unpack my things, easily fitting them into the storage space provided. (Note, however, that I am traveling alone. Couples booking a twin-bedded suite may end up fighting over the eight hangers. Double-bedded suites have a wardrobe twice the size of the original, extra hangers to match, but no chest.) Then I tuck my suitcase in a hidden compartment under the couch.

Watching the passing Northern Spain scenery from my suite window. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

I explore every bit of the suite, with distressed wood paneling, decorated in grays and browns. I discover a minibar, safe and several more clever places for storage, including the stools which open for an unexpected storage box.

Technology has been successfully incorporated into the suites – there is digital climate control as well as a panel to operate the cabin “entertainment” — three channels of music and a fourth, which turns on the television screens. If the passing Northern Spain scenery and off-train tours are not enough for you, there are movies, news and weather available, as well as a computer with internet access.

The train has wireless internet, but this does not work while the train is moving, and on my trip is not reliable the first few days, even when the train is stabled .

Each morning breakfast is served on board – a buffet including a variety of breads and sweets, cereal, fruit, yogurt, crackers, meats and cheeses, juices and Spanish tortilla. The biggest draw at breakfast quickly becomes the freshly carved Iberian ham. Delicious!

At breakfast, the efficient staff serves me freshly squeezed orange juice and offers me coffee. They also give me a

Fresh orange juice is served by the efficient staff of the El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

menu—in addition to the buffet, there is a full breakfast menu, with offerings such as crepes (with chocolate, strawberry, caramel or a variety of jams), caviar canapé, and made-to-order eggs, including omelets with your choice of ham, mushrooms, sausage, bacon and cheese.

After a few days, the staff has memorized the coffee orders and delivers it without asking – in my case, café con leche.

One dining car seats 16 and is decorated in gold and brown, with comfy plush chairs at tables for two. Beautifully latticed panels cover the lights. At each table is a lamp by the window. The other dining car seats 10 at tables for two and is decorated in red and light brown.

There’s a bar at the end of this car, where the morning coffee is brewed and drinks are served throughout the day.

Walking through this dining car offers a glimpse of your week ahead: the walls are decorated with paintings of sightseeing along the route, such as Playa de Catedral (Cathedral Beach), which we will walk along in a few days. Likewise, the beautifully painted panels above the windows colorfully depict stops along the way, as well as the train itself.

Tables for two in one of the Gran Lujo dining cars set for a four-course lunch on board. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

Table settings are complete with El Transcantábrico plates, cups and glasses. Other than breakfast, we take our meals off the train in restaurants to sample the local cuisine. However, lunch is served on board the last day, giving us a chance to enjoy the service and watch the passing scenery.

It is also the perfect time to enjoy the lounge car, with a panel of panoramic windows, two cream couches, two armchairs and three tables, each with three chairs, seating 17 in all. Many of my fellow passengers linger here after breakfast, reading the numerous newspapers provided daily.

There is also a “disco car” in the consist, where live music is performed several nights during the journey. This has two big couches, two smaller couches and a dance floor, as well as a bar – and stays open and lively until the last person retires. The last night there’s a farewell party in the disco car, where the staff cheers everyone and crowns a “Mr. & Ms. Transcantabrico,” all in good fun.

Breakfast crepes were just one of many offerings on Gran Lujo. IRT photo by Angela Walker

The staff are not many, but they’re efficient. There are five serving and two engineers, and the driver, as well as the train manager, Paula. And of course, there is our ever-upbeat, energetic and helpful Barbara, who speaks five languages and happily explains everything in Spanish and English.

Our diverse group includes 18 Spanish-speakers from Spain and Mexico and five English-speakers, hailing from Australia, the U.S., England and Switzerland. Our train, running in late October, is the last of the season. Carrying just 23 passengers, it’s not full, making for an even more intimate experience.

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo, one of the World’s Top 25 Trains. Photo by Angela Walker.

The Gran Lujo is, without a doubt, an upgrade from the Clásico El Transcantábrico, and well deserves a place among the world’s great luxury trains. The design is well thought-out, making the most of the narrow-gauge space.

The staff is efficient and experienced, and the cabins are attractive, large and comfortable.

Besides the train, the touring and food (so much food!) were highlights, which require separate blog posts of their own.

Have you been on board the new train? Please let us know your impressions! (IRT’s Angela Walker, who has reviewed many of the World’s Top 25 Trains for IRT,  just returned from her eight-day journey across Northern Spain on Gran Lujo, traveling from Santiago to San Sebastian. This is the first of several posts. To see more of her photos, please click here.)

Spain’s Luxury Al-Andalus Resumes Operation in 2012

17 Oct
Al-AndalusSouthern Spain’s opulent, broad-gauge Al-Andalus is scheduled to return to the rails May, 2012, with its 1920s-era cars newly renovated. The train cancelled departures in May, 2005, following problems with its operator, Iberrail. It has been inactive since that time.

“We’re thrilled Al-Andalus is back on the rails,” said Eleanor Hardy, president of The Society of International Railway Travelers®. The Society is a world-wide booking agent for Al-Andalus, whose amenities include a bar, tea room and two dining cars, as well as all-en suite cabins.

The six-day, five-night tour will begin/end in Seville, with stops in Córdoba, Granada, Cádiz and Jerez. The train’s itinerary combines fine dining and wine with visits to iconic Spanish tourist sites, many of whom have won UNESCO World Heritage status.

Tour highlights include visits to the famed Alhambra, the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, and Doñana Natural Park, largest of its kind in Europe. Owned by RENFE, operator of Spain’s broad-gauge and high-speed services, Al-Andalus will be run by FEVE, the public authority responsible for narrow-
gauge services in N. Spain.
“Al Andalus couldn’t be in better hands,” said Hardy. “Since 1983, FEVE has run the popular luxury train El Transbantábrico with great success. This year it introduced the new luxury service El Transbantábrico Gran Lujo. They’re very experienced in the business of running high-end rail tours.”
Al-Andalus prices start at €2,500 (about $3,500 U.S.) per person, double, standard class; €2,950 (about $4,100 U.S.) per person, double, superior class. IRT will review the train soon after its seasons begins next spring.  We’re confident it will be a huge success because IRT guests who took this train before it ceased operation are still talking about it; others have asked about it for years. To book, please call (800) 478-4881 in the U.S. and Canada; elsewhere, please call (502) 454-0277. To see a detailed itinerary, please click here.
Will it be a World’s Top 25 Train? What do you think?

N. Spain Luxury Train Sets Schedule, Deals for 2012

18 May
Gran Lujo Lounge

Steward gazes from Gran Lujo lounge picture window

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo – which means deluxe was scheduled to take center stage last Saturday as the world’s newest luxury train. Its maiden voyage was to be Santiago de Compostela to San Sebastian. The service is operated by FEVE, the publicly owned narrow-gauge railroad for N. Spain.

FEVE also announced its 2012 Gran Lujo service schedule, which we’ve posted here. And travelers will be happy to learn the railroad will not raise its prices next year. Instead, prices are holding steady at the current rate.

More good news: FEVE confirmed that its popular “earlybird” discounts will remain in effect. These afford travelers over $500 off per cabin for booking more than 6 months before departure date; more than $350 for booking between 4 and 6 months in advance.

Finally, FEVE released additional photos of the new train, which show off its colorful new lounge car with picture window and multi-colored glass friezes. They’ve obviously sunk some money into this new train. For the full gallery, please click here. And here.

In other news, FEVE has extended the season of its almost sold-out Clasico El Transcantabrico program, an interesting development, and will continue the train into the winter. Itinerary and dates are here.  2012 dates and pricing are included, too. Prices are not changing much for this train for 2012.

Have you been  on this train — either the Clasico or Gran Lujo? If so, please let us know how you liked it. We thought it was great and well worthy of inclusion in our pantheon of the World’s Top 25 Trains.

New Luxe Train in Northern Spain Is Anything But Plain

5 May

Grand Lujo Luxury SuiteMay 15 marks the maiden public voyage of El Transcantábrico’s ‘Gran Lujo’ luxury service between San Sebastian and Santiago de Compostela, The International Railway Traveler® is delighted to report.  The new train is being unveiled now as we speak in Spain.

The trains’ seven Gran Lujo cars will accommodate 28 passengers in just two compartments per car—14 “Suites Privilege” in all.

Not only does that mean greater comfort and individual service on board. It also means smaller groups for touring and dining.

The suites can work for two or three passengers. They have double or twin lower beds — with lots of storage underneath — and the long sofa turns into a bed at night for a third person, if desired.

Luxury suites comprise double bed, lounge, ensuite facilities

Suites are equipped with wardrobe, plenty of luggage storage, a small but comfortable lounge area, two televisions, video game console, stereo, computer with free internet access, cordless phone, double air conditioning units, minibar and full bathroom with shower and steam sauna. (These are some of the fanciest showers we’ve ever seen on a train.) Our IRT guests on board El Transcantábrico last fall loved having the only Suite Privilege on board. The suites were so popular, the train manager told us in an interview, FEVE decided to build an entire train with them.

The train’s four cozy public cars include a newly designed lounge with panoramic window.

Ensuite facilities include toilet, sink and shower/steam sauna

Unlike most private trains, El Transcantábrico covers a modest distance: just 400 miles. Nights are spent parked at quiet sidings for restful sleep. Breakfast is always on board. Lunches and dinners are taken in an array of restaurants along the way, providing guests an unparalleled survey of the regions’ superb seafood, breads, cheeses and wines. All wines are included with lunch and dinner.

Each restaurant is world class, with its own specialties and seasonal dishes. And each region is almost a country within itself.

Daily visits off-train are made in a special Transcantábrico motorcoach, which accompanies the train throughout the journey, as does a multi-lingual guide. Among the highlights of the trip are visits to small villages;  towns like Oviedo with its pre-Romanesque monuments; and a visit to oustanding Picos de Europa National Park.

You’ll also love Bilbao’s ultramodern Guggenheim Museum as well as Santiago’s 935-year-old cathedral, terminus of the famed “Pilgrimage of St. James” as well as the reputed resting place of the Apostle. And finishing up — or starting — in San Sebastian, perched by the sea, and home of a world of exciting restaurants, is fabulous.

Dining car table lamp

Scenery ranges from rivers, mountains to broad seascapes

Best of all is the train itself and its friendly and experienced staff. El Transcantábrico has two lounges, one of which serves as a dining car for breakfast, a bar car and a ‘disco’ car with live music and a dance floor. Originally 1920s-era British Pullman coaches, they have been lovingly restored.

The price for this week of luxury is 3,750 Euros per person, double (about $5,575 US on 5/3/11). And that includes just about everything except air fare, gratuity to staff and incidentals. (We highly recommend pre- and post-tour  nights in both Santiago and San Sebastian. We can advise you which ones we loved.)

This year, the El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo service runs 25 times between Santiago and San Sebastian. Watch this site for 2012 schedule and prices. We’re told they will be revealed soon. And if it’s similar to this year, early booking pays off handsomely.

For more information, call (800) 478-4881 within the U.S., (502) 454-0277 elsewhere. To book now, click here.  If you’re interested in a date, we can confirm immediately if it’s available.

Once you check out the itinerary, please let us know what intrigues. We love this train, its staff and Northern Spain!

Bargain LuxRail for Bunny-Quick Bookers

6 Apr

Rail travel bargains are popping up like crocus this spring on some of our World’s Top 25 Trains if you act by June 30:

Royal Scotsman

• Save $1,210 per person for 6-day Grand West Highland tours departing June 22nd and July 27.
• Free night at Edinburgh’s luxury Balmoral Hotel with any 3-day Highland journey booking.

More info: click here

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

• Free night at Venice’s fabulous Cipriani Hotel when two persons book a cabin suite on the 8-day northbound trip to Krakow, Dresden and London (subject to availability).

• Complimentary on-board credit (for drinks or items from the train boutique) on the 2-day London to Venice (or v.v.) trip: up to 400 Euro per couple or 150 Euro per single traveler.

More info: click here

Eastern & Oriental Express

• Book 4-day Bangkok-Singapore tour (or v.v.) by June 30, 2011 and receive one free night at the St. Regis in Bangkok and one night at the St. Regis in Singapore. Restrictions apply. This is for 2011 departures only.
• Take 25 percent off the regular per-person fare on the 3-day southbound Bangkok-Singapore tours departing Bangkok May 11, June 8 and July 6, 2011. Restrictions apply.
• Complimentary hotel nights pre- and post-tour on all Extended Tours; Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental for Epic Thailand and Laos Extended Tours; Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental and Singapore’s Raffles Hotel for Singapore-Bangkok and Bangkok-Singapore Extended Tours. Restrictions apply. This is for 2011 departures only.

Rocky Mountaineer

Book any 2011 Rocky Mountaineer vacation of 7 nights or more by June 30 and receive 2 for 1 airfare between select cities and Vancouver, Calgary or Toronto.

More info, please call 800-478-4881 or 502-454-0277

El Transcantábrico

Deep discounts (call for specifics) on this gem of a Spanish luxury train if you book as little as four months before departure. Best discounts are for September.  Availability is tight on many departures.

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