Tag Archives: great places to visit

IRT On Luxury Safari

3 Jun A mother and her cubs watch us with casual curiosity in the Maasai Mara National Reserve. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

If you’re planning an adventure on Africa’s Rovos Rail or the Blue Train – two of our World’s Top 25 Trains® – don’t make the trek without adding a safari extension for some up-close animal encounters.

That’s our conclusion after our recent study tour to East Africa with one of the world’s top safari partners — Micato.

Read on for highlights!

          An elephant family on its daily march to the swamps in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.                     IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Scene 1:
Trundling along in Kenya’s dramatic Laikipia Conservancy, our guide stops suddenly to admire a giant male elephant with enormous tusks playing in the river below, splashing and spouting.

         A mother and her cubs watch us with casual curiosity in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.              IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The elephant swims across the river, lumbering through a pod of dangerous hippos. He trumpets angrily, seeming to scream, “Let me pass!” The hippos scatter.

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Wildebeests leap across our path in the Serengeti. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

Scene 2:
Quietly approaching a female lion in our Land Rover, we admire her from about 20 feet away. She looks at us placidly, and then, deciding us worthy, she pads into the woods and returns — with her two-month-old cubs.

Scene 3:
Perched on a road in the middle of the Serengeti, we witness an incredible sight: the beginning of the great migration — 1-2 million wildebeests and about 600,000 zebra and other hooved animals —heading north to grassier, wetter Masaai Mara. The roaring wildebeests cross single-file in front of us.

Scene 4:
Lying in our luxurious tents, we listen, enchanted, to the sounds of nature all around us: weaver birds flitting and chirping, hyenas crunching the bones of their prey, the honk of a hippo in the river right outside our tent, the seemingly thousands of birds waking us in the morning.

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A rainbow comes out over Amboseli National Park during our nightly “sundowner,” where our guides serve us drinks and snacks atop a lookout point. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

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          A Maasai welcome for IRT’s Rachel Hardy as we step off our bush plan and into the                        Maasai Mara Reserve. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

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Giraffes in Serengeti National Park. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

For both of us, traveling together made everything extra special: seeing our lodgings for the first time, admiring the beauty of the zebras (Rachel’s favorite) and spying our first family of elephants (my favorites!).

We hadn’t gotten to spend so much time together in years!

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We loved what our guide called the “little five hundred.” A sampling of the feathered little five hundred: top left: guinea fowl, center left: mating crowned cranes, bottom left: weaver bird, center:                          malachite kingfisher, top right: saddle-billed stork, bottom right: ostrich.                                IRT Photos by Eleanor & Rachel Hardy.

 

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We loved visiting a Maasai village in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Here, the women prepare to greet us with a traditional song and dance. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Interested in joining one of our South or East African departures? Space fills up early and quickly for journeys on Rovos Rail & the Blue Train – and of course for all the prime safari camps. Call us: (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Email us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com Or vist our web site: http://www.irtsociety.com

Eleanor Hardy, IRT President & co-owner, and Rachel Hardy, IRT’s newest travel associate, were honored to be invited to join Micato’s study safari in Kenya & Tanzania. Many warm thanks to Micato owners Jane & Felix Pinto and the entire Micato team!

 

Thailand’s “Death Railway”: Adventures on the Eastern & Oriental Express, Part I

4 Jun

The Kwai River Bridge. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Since its inception, The Eastern & Oriental Express has been on my bucket list of trains to ride. But it was IRT President Eleanor Hardy’s Track 25 blog that finally made me book the trip. And as long as I was going halfway around the world, I decided to add the standard E&O four-day Singapore-Bangkok route to the beginning of my trip.

Unlike their semi-annual one-week tours (ours was Epic Thailand), this route runs regularly during high season and continues on a less frequent schedule throughout the year. In fact, the journey is more like a scheduled train than a tour, as stops are made to entrain passengers at the Malaysian cities of Kuala Lampur and Butterworth.

The train is much more than “general transportation,” however, and is every bit as impressive as outlined in Ms. Hardy’s blog. The staff is top-notch – attentive but not overbearing. What I didn’t expect was to be greeted by name by bartender Andrek asking if I was ready for my iced tea! How did he know? Of course, preferences were indicated on the booking form, but those are often a formality soon forgotten.

The War Cemetary at Kanachanaburi. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Conductor on local train. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Off-train tours are offered in the colonial Malaysian city of Georgetown and to Kanchanaburi, site of the Kwai River bridge. I, however, had planned to venture out on my own, leaving the E&O at the Kwai River Station and continuing by local train to the end of the line, 45 miles north at Nam Tok.

This track is what’s left of the Thai-Burma “Death Railway,” constructed by allied prisoners of World War II and made famous by the movie “Bridge Over the River Kwai.” The Allied War Cemetery at Kanchanaburi, with over 6,000 graves, lies in silent testament to the horror of what transpired there.

But all was not going according to plan. Would I make it to Bangkok in time, I wondered, to join the 19 other IRT travelers leaving on the Epic Thailand tour?

For part II of Bruce Anderson’s adventures in Thailand, please click here.

VIA Canadian Winter Journey Unveils Top Train’s New Décor

11 Jan
The Canadian

VIA Rail's Toronto-Vancouver Canadian. Photo by Bruce Anderson

Vacations during the holiday season often conjure up images of someplace warm, perhaps celebrating some foreign country’s unique New Year’s traditions. My traditional New Year’s trip is on VIA Rail’s Canadian across Canada, often paired with my other passion: NHL Hockey.  I collect hockey arenas the same as I do rail mileage and train journeys. This time, my trip took me to Winnipeg to see a New Year’s Eve game.

It was also my 50th trip on the Canadian since 1977.
What I rode is not the much ballyhooed — and delayed — luxury service which will include completely revamped cars with dedicated attendants, larger accommodations with showers and flat screen TV’s. While waiting for that to materialize, now tentatively scheduled for 2013, the existing train has received a complete makeover. Although rooms remain the traditional Pullman size, where else except in a private railroad car can one ride a train straight out of the 1950’s?

It has been argued that today’s train isn’t the “real” Canadian, since it now mostly follows the more northerly Canadian National routing. But my consist, with the exception of one ex-Amtrak re-built coach (Amtrak, are you listening?), was made up entirely of original Canadian Pacific equipment.  All interiors have been updated with new carpeting, wall coverings, seat fabrics and lighting.

Before and after: Above, the refurbished and redecorated diner on the Canadian. Walls and ceiling are white, making the car much brighter than before. Chairs have gone from pink to dark gray. Square plastic lights have replaced the art deco ones. The dark blue seat covers for dinner also are gone. Below, the Canadian's diner before the refurbishment. Photos by Bruce Anderson

The diner, previously pretty in pink, is now brightened with white walls and ceiling with dark grey seats. The famous original etched-glass partitions have been retained. Food is of the expected high standard and service is provided in a professional manner.

Dining car on the Canadian before the recent refurbishment.

The Park Car has been darkened with dark grey ceiling and frames around the dome windows, giving a warm appearance, which draws more attention to the view outside rather than in. And if you get tired of the northern Ontario scenery, movies can be screened on a new flat screen TV in the lounge beneath the dome.

The rear Park Car on VIA's Canadian

The Canadian's Park Car, looking down from the dome stairway to the lounge area. Photo by Bruce Anderson

While accommodations are the traditional Pullman size, the Cabin for One (ex-Roomette) and Cabin for Two (ex-Bedroom) provide a cozy atmosphere in which to sleep. Unlike Amtrak, all rooms have en-suite toilet and sink; however, the shower is down the hall. Sections or “berths” also are available, the only train left in North American where they can be found. (Sections were made famous in the “naughty” sleeper scene by Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot.”) While sleeping accommodations on the Canadian are generally priced higher than Amtrak, fares in winter are about half those in effect during peak summer season.

Some may question traveling in winter through the “Great White North.” But I enjoy the lower passenger counts, and there’s plenty of heat. Besides, what could be better than sitting in a front dome seat at night, watching the signals change from green to red as the train passes by, the moon illuminating the snow-covered ground?

The schedule is heavily padded, so arrival is likely to be on time, as it was for me in both directions. But I wouldn’t advise booking a same-day flight at trip’s end, at least not in winter.

While not the Orient Express, the Canadian is in my opinion the best we have going in North America.

Editor’s Note:  When the new luxury service debuts, the equipment and service as described above will still be available on each departure at traditional pricing, according to VIA.  The Canadian runs three times weekly in each direction between Toronto and Vancouver. The Canadian is one of The Society of International Railway Traveler’s World’s Top 25 Trains for 2012; The IRT Society’s 13-day “Trans-Canada Rail Adventure” includes three overnights on the Canadian.

Author’s Note: (I traveled to Winnipeg to see its new MTS Centre and team host the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sadly, the mighty Detroit Red Wings don’t play in Winnipeg this year).

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
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?

Last Frontier: The Silk Road

22 Sep

(Editor’s note: Author Chris Card Fuller’s story about her 2007 Silk Road trip originally appeared in The International Railway Traveler® magazine, republished here with permission. Please note that although the itinerary is essentially unchanged, the tour operator no longer offers Heritage Class accommodations on the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express.)

The Shangri-La Express travels in late afternoon sunlight. GW Travel Photo

A gust of wind chases autumn leaves around the pavement. The flash of yellow and gold leaves and purple heather in the intense sunlight comes as a surprise, considering that we’re wedged in between three deserts. I’m just about to catch the perfect video clip of the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express gliding into Dostyk, Kazakhstan.

We’re standing on the platform of Kazakhstan’s border town with China’s Xinjiang province. In 21 days, we will have covered almost 7,000 miles, from Beijing to Moscow, traversing some of the most inhospitable, lowest, hottest terrain on the planet. Until we actually catch some of the sand between our toes and view a dune from our perch on a camel’s back, the magnitude of our journey doesn’t begin to sink in.

Chinese waitress on the Shangri-La Express

Expert tea service - a warm welcome is part of this centuries-old art form. Photo © Chris Card Fuller

This is the famed Silk Route. We’re separated from the world by unforgiving deserts and mountain ranges–the Tian Shan, the Pamirs Karakorum and the Kopa Degh. And to get to places like Mary, Turkmenistan, by way of Samarkand and Bukara in Uzbekistan and Almaty in Kazakhstan, you must have the proper visas. Camels can walk across these borders easier than tourists. Traveling by private train is one of the few ways you can get there.

We greet 90 west-to-east passengers emerging from their shiny blue compartments of the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, assisted by smartly uniformed Russian railway car attendants. They’ve just finished the first half of their trek which began in Moscow with stops in Volgograd, Khiva, Samarkand, Bukara, Almaty and Tashkent, before switching trains with us to finish the second half of their voyage on ‘our’ train the Shangri-la Express. Ahead of them lies the Tarim Basin, the Gobi Desert, and the Mogao’s Buddhist caves, carved between 1,500 and 1,600 years ago. In Xian, 6,000 terracotta warriors await their arrival. They’ll finish up where we began – at the Peninsula Hotel in Beijing, China’s 21st century capital and home to the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Chris Fuller aboard the Trans-Siberian Express

The author's husband, Chris Fuller, relaxes in the dining car after a meal aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, one of two trains used on the Silk Road tour. Photo © Chris Card Fuller

East-bound passengers will be learning to use chopsticks just about the time that we’re getting comfy in a Kazakh yurt. In the flurry of video and picture-taking with Kazakstan’s neatly turned-out border guards, we gather up our plunder – silks from Xian and pashminas from Turpan – before boarding the Golden Eagle Express. The blue and gold compartments are a welcome sight: all three categories are comfortable: Heritage class with twin beds, Silver Class with a double bed, and additional overhead bunk, a private shower and toilet facilities, closet, and TV/Video/CD player. Gold Class offers a little more closet space and shower space than Silver Class plus easy access to the bar car and the Gold Dining Car. Generous serving of vodka, unlimited wine with meals served in crystal stemware, caviar and sturgeon for our welcome and farewell dinners, 24 hour coffee and tea service in our compartments – such luxurious details – can be distracting. We’re traversing the harshest of deserts and mountain passes in the protective cocoon of our air-conditioned private train.

Village luncheon hosts near Mary, Turkmenistan flank the author. Photo © Chris Card Fuller

Village luncheon hosts near Mary, Turkmenistan flank the author. Photo © Chris Card Fuller

If you think train travel over several thousand miles of desert might be boring, it isn’t…

Oasis towns like Turpan in Xinjiang, China are lush and brimming with vineyards. Poplar trees line the newly constructed asphalt Silk Road highway. In Samarkand, nothing is quite as exotic as the haute-couture-clad Uzbeki models tearing up the catwalk during our private fashion show in a merchant’s former private palace.

Almaty, Kazakhstan’s modern capital city, is the antithesis of rustic. It may be where the apple originated, but you’ll find more stretch limos here than apple orchards. We’re entertained in a carpeted yurt restaurant, but the performers sing arias just as proficiently as traditional folksongs.

A worker delivers a load of supplies for the train during one of the many stops between Lanzhou and Golmud. Photo by Angela Walker, IRT

A worker delivers a load of supplies for the Shangri-La Express during one of the many stops between Lanzhou and Golmud. Photo by Angela Walker, © IRT

Food in Central Asia is also a pleasant surprise. For local lunches and dinners, we’re served hearty soups, spiced meats and plentiful vegetables with rice pilaf and fresh pita bread. Most meals begin with a plate of pickled raw vegetables such as cucumbers and beets, local cheeses and olives. Sweet melons and dried fruits are specialties of these oases towns.

“We are the lowest, the hottest, and the sweetest place on earth,” is how Zeba, a Turpan resident guide, describes her oasis home in the Taklimakan desert. The desert offers up a few, but not all, of its secrets.

At the Urumchi Provincial museum in China’s Xinjiang province, we meet the ‘Loulan Beauty’. This blond-haired Indo-European petrified corpse was officially dated at 3,700-years-old, yet some archeologists believe she may be even older.

Crescent Spring

Surrounded by sand dunes, Crescent Spring appears like a mirage. Photo © Chris Card Fuller

The 2,300-year-old ruins of Jiaohe city near Turpan used to be a Han-era garrison town built to fend off northern marauders. This complex of carefully laid-out city streets has been described as “the largest, oldest and best-preserved earthen city in the world.”

I’m no history expert. My Tang and Han dynasty dates usually get twisted up in a knot, but of one thing, I’m dead certain: As soon as this trip ends, I’ll want to hop right back on the train and see it all again.

(When not traveling, Chris Card Fuller divides her time between Paris, France and Florida.)

For more information on the Silk Road tour, please click here.

Want to visit the best of Central Europe?

19 Jan
I loved seeing these young dancers at their portrait session

The little dancers pose at the Krakow Royal Palace

I arrived in Dresden in snowfall, having a remarkable conversation with a fellow traveler on the ICE. I came to scout Dresden for our Society of IRT tours. She, in silk scarf and dramatic cape, came to bury her husband, an opera star at Dresden’s Semperoper. You’ll never forget Dresden, she confided.  The train rounded the bend, the city shined before us.

And that is why I am delighted the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has decided to do a tour which includes overnights in Dresden, as well as Krakow. The train has organized in these two cities five-star hotels, transfers and some fantastic, guided outings and events for the lucky few guests. But the train has wisely left plenty of free time for guests to explore on their own. I think the mix is just about perfect.

In Dresden, the Frauenkirche, is a powerful symbol of reconciliation. When I saw it, the rubble, caused by Allied bombing in 1945, lay in huge, numbered piles.  The rebuilding began in 1994; it was reconsecrated in 2005, with the help of donations from around the world. Now it is busy with services, tours and concerts.

Dresden’s river front is  gorgeous…Just walking around, visiting the art galleries, the palace, cafes, the opera, is a ball.  The Dresden Semperoper has tours during many days to visit the amazing building itself.

You also won’t forget Krakow.

Krakow, whose entire historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is another great wandering place.  The memorable Cathedral,  Wawel Royal Castle on the hill, the wall around the city. A Polish military band, 50 at least, decked out in fabulous red and blue costumes, first grimaced for their portrait, then filled the square with their music.  A battalion of young dancers decked out in their costumes posing for photographs in the courtyard of the castle charmed all who were lucky enough to see them.

All of these experiences just happened on their own. Dresden, Germany and Krakow, Poland, are just two of the cities in the region that are so worthy to visit. You can get to both of them from major city centers by regular train. But in the one itinerary with the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express this summer, they are linked by luxury train and plenty of time on your own in between.

Do  you have favorite memories visiting either of these two wonderful places?

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