Tag Archives: International Railway Traveler

Belmond Grand Hibernian Transports Guests Through Ireland, Land of Legends

13 Sep
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IRT Guests enjoy a jaunting cart ride, one of many excursions offered on Belmond Grand Hibernian journeys. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

Ever heard of Finn McCool?

How about the Salmon of Knowledge?

Neither had I — until I went to Ireland to ride the Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland’s only luxury train.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian’s lead bartender greets guests with champagne. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The train’s gleaming blue and silver carriages, delightful staff and cozy interiors offer the perfect “magic carpet” ride through a fantastical land.

The excursions off the train are no less touched by fantasy.

When we arrived in Cork, for example, our guide greeted us with a cheerful “hallo,” and then launched into an evocative tale about the aforesaid Messrs. McCool and Salmon (of Knowledge).

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“Kindred Spirits,” the memorial to the Choctaw in County Cork. Photo by Gavin Sheridan. (no changes were made to image, link to license is https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Choctaw_Memorial.jpg)

She only paused in her myth-making to point out an interesting — albeit slightly incongruous — statue on the side of the road, comprising 20-foot steel feathers that form a bowl shape.

“The Choctaw Nation heard about our forebears’ plight during the Great Hunger of 1847,” she told us. “And they scraped together what little money they had, and sent it to us to feed our starving children.”

Unlike Finn McCool and his fish, the story of the Choctaw’s sacrifice is no fairytale. But I don’t think Ireland would be Ireland without a healthy mix of truth and make-believe.

*******

Belmond Grand Hibernian, now just finishing its third full season, has matured into an even more delightful experience than when it began operations three years ago.

One welcome tweak the tour operators have made is allowing guests to choose among different activities wherever possible. For instance, guests on the 7-day Grand Tour of Ireland can:

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Cobh, Ireland.

Visit the seaport of Cobh with a local historian, where millions of lives were permanently altered by the Atlantic crossing. Almost half of the 6 million Irish who emigrated to North America between 1848 and 1950 departed from this port.

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Ross Castle.

Explore Killarney National Park by jaunting cart and boat, where prophecy dictated that nearby Ross Castle was impregnable to outside forces unless a warship attacked from the lake — thought to be an impossible feat. Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads attacked just so in 1653 and took the castle, one of the last to fall in the Irish Confederate Wars.

(Another tidbit: Ross Castle’s first owner, O’Donoghue, is said to live at the bottom of the lake in a great palace, from where he keeps close tabs on the comings and goings of passerby.)

Witness a sheepdog demonstration in Galway and marvel at the shared language between man and beast, or explore the surreal Cliffs of Moher that soar 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

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Westport House.

Visit Westport House, built on the foundations of the Pirate Queen of Connacht’s castle. The Queen’s dungeons can still be seen today.

Tour the Medieval Mile Museum in Kilkenny, heart of Ireland’s ancient East. The museum is housed in a 13th-century church and contains artifacts dating back 800 years.

*****

In sum, whether you’ve visited the Emerald Isle before or not, Belmond Grand Hibernian will open your eyes to Ireland in a whole new way. In addition to its thoughtfully-planned itineraries, it also earns high points for its dedicated staff, fabulous food, and luxuriously comfortable spaces.

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The author poses with Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by Nate Kremer.

And what of Mr. McCool and his erudite fish?

Legend has it that, as a young boy, McCool was asked to cook the Salmon of Knowledge for his druid mentor, who had finally caught it after years of failed attempts.

McCool burned his thumb while cooking the fish, put his thumb in his mouth to cool the hurt, and inadvertently consumed a drop of the salmon’s oils, instantly becoming the wisest man in the world.

*****

Belmond Grand Hibernian runs April-October and offers the 3-day Taste of Ireland, the 5-day Legends and Loughs, and the 7-day Grand Tour of Ireland.

2020 departures are available and are selling briskly.

To book your own adventure on the Belmond Grand Hibernian, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

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. Rachel’s trip on Belmond Grand Hibernian was part of the Bravissimo celebratory journey hosted by Belmond, held every year in honor of the world’s top Belmond agencies.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Adds 3 New Grand Suites for 2020

28 Jun
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New Vienna Grand Suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Three new Grand Suites will join the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express for the 2020 season, Belmond, the train operator, has just announced. This brings the total number of Grand Suites up to six.

The new Grand Suites — named Vienna, Prague, & Budapest, after three iconic European capitals to which the VSOE travels every year — will reflect each city’s unique history and architectural style, while embracing the train’s Old World charm and meticulous attention to detail. They join the three existing Grand Suites, named Venice, Paris, & Istanbul.

I was the only advisor from the Western Hemisphere to inspect the first three Suites on their inaugural journey in April, 2018. Read my glowing reporting here and here — and see my video above for the grand reveal of Istanbul Grand Suite!

After seeing the Suites in person, I had a serious hunch that our travelers would love the opulent design and the amenities, and I was absolutely right.

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Venice Grand Suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

IRT travelers love the dedicated 24-hour cabin steward, the caviar and free-flowing champagne, the included private transfers to and from the train, and the option to dine privately in their cabin whenever they wish. And the private bathroom with underfloor heating, rain shower, sink, & toilet answered the prayers of those who didn’t want to travel on the VSOE previously because of the lack of en-suite facilities.

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Lead Steward Francesco in Istanbul Grand Suite. Only the most senior staff attend guests in Grand Suites. IRT Photo by Rachel M, Hardy

The suites also include a large double bed that can convert into twin beds, and a separate living area with couch, table, & chair.

With only a few on each departure, the Grand Suites sell out in the blink of an eye.

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Orante bathroom in Istanbul Grand Suite. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

The first set of Grand Suites won several design awards, including the AHEAD World’s Best Suite, Gold Key Awards – Best Specialist Design and the Historic Renovation category in the Contract Interior Awards. The suites were also nominated for the Inside Awards, Civic Culture & Transport and the Blueprint Awards.

We at IRT also won our very own Grand Suite distinction, as the #1 global seller of the suites in 2018 (click here to read about it). When you book your suite with IRT, you book with the world’s most experienced Grand Suite luxury rail specialists.

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

Like their existing Grand Suite sisters, the new suites will  “evoke the individual city experience, whether it is walking along the Charles Bridge in Prague, or exploring the contrasting Gothic and Ottoman architecture of Budapest. They will pay tribute to the romance and glamour of Europe, and the golden era of rail travel,” says Gary Franklin, VP, Trains & Cruises, Belmond.

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Prague Grand Suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Baroque and Gothic architecture, along with theatrical flourishes in rich golds and maroons, will be represented in the Prague Grand Suite. The balance of ancient and modern will be captured through layers of hand-embroidered cushions and Cubist-inspired mosaics. Hints of red garnet will appear in the marquetry.

The Grand Palaces and imperial nature of the Austrian capital will be reflected with an ornate and classical design in the Vienna Grand Suite. Rich hues of gold and emerald green will reflect the romance of the city. An ornate curved headboard with feminine silk fabric panels will contrast with touches of dark wood.

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Budapest Grand Suite.

The Budapest Grand Suite will capture the essence of both sides of the Danube river, taking equal inspiration from Gothic and Ottoman architecture. The suite will be adorned with intricate marquetry and sumptuous silk embroidery.

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express travels throughout Europe from March to November and travels to Istanbul from Paris, and back again, once annually in late August.

 

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Paolo, one of the tireless stewards on the VSOE, welcomes guests aboard at Venice Santa Lucia Station. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

A one-night journey in a Grand Suite from Venice to London or vice versa starts at £6,200 per person.

To book your Grand Suite, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

 

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.

South African Splendor on Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa

20 Apr
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Rovos Rail guests await their train at Rovos Rail’s private Capitol Park Station.  IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

By the time we arrive at Rovos Rail‘s private station in Pretoria, my colleague, Rachel Hardy and I are both brimming with excitement. We are about to embark on a 3-day journey to Cape Town on one of the world’s most luxurious trains: Pride of Africa. We are here to discover if this train, on our World’s Top 25® Trains list for decades, is still up to snuff ahead of IRT’s special group trip on Rovos Rail in November, 2019. By the time we arrive in Cape Town, we have decided that the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

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Rachel Hardy and Angela Walker with a Rovos Rail hostess. IRT Photo.

The check-in process is a breeze. Rovos Rail hostesses greet us with champagne and juice as our luggage is whisked away by friendly porters. We are ushered inside the beautiful old station to relax and enjoy the view through the stately French doors. Gently swaying palm trees line the platform, and beyond, the famous Rovos Rail train cars fill the tracks as far as the eye can see.

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Rovos Rail porter smiles as he loads luggage on our train. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

A short time later, Rovos Rail’s visionary and idiosyncratic owner, Rohan Vos, summons interested guests for a tour of the grounds. (Mr. Vos began Rovos Rail in 1989 against almost insurmountable odds. His story – Rovos Rail’s story – is fascinating and could fill an entire book. It is only fitting that ‘Rovos’ is a portmanteau of his first and last names!)

The station — abuzz with the activity of more than 400 Rovos Rail employees – sprawls over 60 acres. From the sales offices to the kitchens to the maintenance platforms – where we watch carriages being transformed from dusty old shells into sleek, green Pride of Africa cars – Rovos employees in a variety of green uniforms hurry to and fro, painting, welding, sawing, hauling, cleaning and doing all other manner of task.

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Rovos Rail employees at the station. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

A variety of animals (goats, emu, ostrich, donkeys and cows) hover around the periphery and impart a distinctly Old World air to the scene. Also on the station grounds: a small museum with Rovos memorabilia going back 20 years, a lovely gift shop and storage facilities.

Mr. Vos leads us to the locomotive depot, where he describes the painstaking restorations his team has accomplished over the years. He also explains the train’s bogies and braking system in some detail – a real treat for rail fans – before shepherding us back to the station for our departure.

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Rohan Vos gives a behind-the-scenes tour before departure. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

By now, we’ve come to appreciate Mr. Vos’s hands-on approach – so no one is surprised when he himself delivers the welcome speech and explains the rules of life on board. One point he particularly stresses: mobile phones and computers are prohibited in public areas.  He wants this to be a social occasion, and, as he explains, cell phones are the modern day adversary of good conversation.

He suggests we put our electronics in our safe and forget about them for a few days – a challenge for us, and surely some other guests. We settle with putting our cells on ‘Airplane Mode’ so we can continue to (discreetly) use our phone cameras without guilt.

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Rachel gets a visit from the dining staff and chef. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Mr. Vos invites each of us aboard by name, and our hostesses greet us and show us to our cabins. Rachel and I each have a Deluxe cabin to ourselves. Mine is laid out with two L-shaped twin beds (a configuration that is slowly being phased out in favor of side-by-side twin beds with an aisle in between), while Rachel has a large double bed.

In each of our cabins is a table with two chairs, a large wardrobe with safe, ample storage space for luggage under bed and overhead, and a spacious bathroom with sink, toilet, and shower.

Large picture windows – some of which open to let in the breeze – run the length of our cabins.

 

(In addition to Deluxe Cabins, which clock in around 118 square feet, the train offers Pullman Cabins (diminutive but doable at 76 sq. ft.) and enormous Royal Suites, which are 172 sq. ft. and feature a larger bathroom with deep claw foot bathtub and large living area.)

After a cheerful briefing from our hostess, Louwrene, and a visit from the dining supervisor and chef to inquire about dietary requirements, we set off to explore the public cars at the rear of the train.

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Rachel and guests enjoying the observation car before dinner. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

We first encounter the smoking car, which is entirely enclosed in glass and surprisingly devoid of bad smells. (Smoking is also allowed within the confines of your cabin.)

Next, we find a quiet, comfortable lounge car with couches and armchairs, which quickly becomes the ‘go-to’ spot for guests looking to read and nap after lunch. A small gift shop is tucked in one corner.

The last car on the train is by far the most special: it is divided between a traditional counter bar with stools, a lounge area with banquette seating (our favorite place for playing the many board games available), and, best of all, an open-air observation platform with bench seating, accessed through a sliding glass door.

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Rovos Rail open-air observation car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

As we are making our rounds, the train manager, Joe Mathala, greets us enthusiastically and strikes up a conversation about his long and storied career with Rovos. He quickly rattles off the other Rovos trains currently in service – where they are now, where they are headed, what time they will arrive – and regales us with behind-the-scenes tales.

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Joe Mathala, train manager, made us feel at home. Pictured here with guests at lunch in the dining car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The South African sun sets rapidly over the increasingly rural landscape, and we retreat to our cabins to dress for dinner. On Rovos Rail, dinner is a formal affair. Jacket and tie for men and cocktail attire for women are required, at a minimum, and everyone happily obliges.

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Angela in the Victorian-style diner. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The dining car is a 1920s-style Victorian beauty with teak pillars, shuttered windows with tasseled drapes, romantic, soft lighting, and beautifully-set tables with crisp white dining cloths, china, and crystal. Red anthurium flowers add a natural adornment to each table.

The service is excellent; we are well-attended by four able dining staff who bounce back and forth from the kitchen car to the tables, serving, pouring and clearing, all with a smile.  Joe is also ever-present, assisting his staff while still managing to mingle with the guests.

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Alpheus, our sever, pours wine at dinner. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Throughout the journey, the prix fixe menus – four courses expertly paired with South African wines – highlight local specialties, including fresh seafood, ostrich fillet, and Bobotie (spiced mince beef oven-baked with a layer of egg custard). Rachel, a vegetarian, also gave the culinary team five stars for inventiveness and flavor.

We loved the desserts, especially the decadent Koeksister (in Afrikaans, “fat sister”) – fried dough soaking in sweet, drippy grease – paired with a traditional South Africa melktart, dusted with cinnamon.

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My cozy bed, laden with gifts from Rovos Rail, turned down for the night. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

After dinner, we retreat to our cabins to find gifts from Rovos Rail arranged on our turned-down beds: crystal glasses to keep, bottles of champagne, and chocolates. (As if we needed more food!)  The gentle rocking of the train lulled me to sleep as soon as I hit the pillow.

 

Stayed tuned for part two of our Rovos Rail report, which will be published within the next week. Subscribe to our blog here.

Or, if you are ready to book your own Rovos Rail adventure, call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Angela Walker is a 20-year veteran of The Society of International Railway Travelers, and has been on many of our World’s Top 25® Trains. She is a luxury travel advisor and VP, Operations.  Rachel M. Hardy is a luxury travel advisor and VP, Sales & Marketing, for the Society of IRT. Both are based in our Louisville, KY headquarters. They have just returned from a month-long study tour examining trains, hotels and experiences in Europe and South Africa.

 

Belmond’s New Deluxe Sleeper Train To Be S. America’s First

7 Jun
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Belmond Andean Explorer lounge car

South America’s first luxury sleeper train, the Belmond Andean Explorer, will dazzle the travel world beginning next May, the company says.

Running along one of the world’s highest rail routes, traversing the Peruvian Andes from Cusco to Lake Titicaca and Arequipa, the new luxury train will explore natural wonders and ancient kingdoms on one- and two-night journeys.

Want your name in the hat for a chance to experience the Belmond Andean Explorer next year?

Email The Society of International Railway Travelers®, and we’ll put you on our “first notification” list, at no obligation to you. Or call us at (800) 478-4881, (502) 897-1725.

Give us the names (as they appear on their passports) of those traveling, your postal address and a phone number where you best can be reached.

You’ll be  among the first to get details as they emerge.

• • •

“This truly is some of the most breathtaking and inspiring scenery in the world — traveling across the Peruvian Altiplano with the Andes in the background. It is astonishing,” says IRT’s President, Eleanor Flagler Hardy.

“Our guests already enjoy PeruRail’s Andean Explorer day train.  It is one of our World’s Top 25 Trains® – and has been for years. The 10-hour trip between Cusco and Puno was such a blast.

“Enjoying the journey all the way from Arequipa to Puno and on to Cusco is an amazing proposed routing.

“And combining with the Belmond Hiram Bingham to see Machu Picchu will be a fascinating itinerary. Bravo to Belmond for planning this!”

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Artist rendering of bedroom in Belmond Andean Explorer.

The reverse itinerary, from Arequipa to Cusco, also will be possible, Belmond says.

Up to 68 guests will reside in en-suite cabins, according to an article in the Telegraph, with two double cabins; 20 twin cabins; and 12 bunk-bed cabins.

Cabins
Cabins will be available in suite/double, twin and bunk bed configurations. Each will have its own en-suite toilet and shower.

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Belmond says the lounge car will include a baby grand piano, comfortable seating and picture windows through which guests can gaze at the majestic vistas drifting past. The lounge also will include a full bar.

Two Dining Cars
The fare in the restaurant cars will be fresh, colorful and seasonal, Belmond says. Dishes will incorporate locally sourced ingredients from the Peruvian Andes. The menus will be designed by chefs from the Belmond Hotel Monasterio in Cusco.

Observation Car
The rear car, meanwhile, will be the place to unwind, meet new friends and enjoy the views while sipping Pisco Sours from the bar. The car will include an open-air deck — one of the IRT Society’s favorite extras —  where travelers can breathe in the bracing Andean air.

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An IRT member enjoys the open-air platform at the back of the current Andean Explorer train. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Itineraries

Peruvian Highlands: Cusco-Lake Titicaca-Arequipa City (2 nights, 3 days)
The longest trip departs from Cusco, capital of the ancient Inca Empire, across the Altiplano towards Puno and the reflective beauty of Lake Titicaca. Guests will visit Sumbay Caves, where the Peruvian highlands’ first humans created their rock art, before reaching the volcanic ‘White City’ of Arequipa.

Andean Plains and Islands of Discovery: Arequipa City-Lake Titicaca-Cusco (2 nights, 2 days)
This trip departs as the sun sets on the baroque architecture of Arequipa. The train travels overnight towards Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. It continues through deep valleys and over high mountains, where South American camelids graze on the wide-open plains and through the ‘big sky’ country of the Peruvian Altiplano.

Spirit of the Water: Cusco-Puno (1 night, 1 day)
Belmond describes this journey as “an overnight escape aboard the stylish carriages of Belmond Andean Explorer,” departing from Cusco, crossing the giant peaks and wide-open spaces of the highest plains of the Andes and ending at Lake Titicaca, birthplace of the Incas.

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

Spirit of the Andes: Puno-Cusco (1 night, 1 day)
Guests on this trip travel along one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world, Belmond says, across the highest plains of the Andes from Puno to Cusco.

The Telegraph said “trips will cost from $462 (£320) per person for the one-night Spirit of the Andes journey, inclusive of all meals, an open bar and scheduled excursions,” although IRT could not immediately confirm this with Belmond.

The train’s cars began their “luxury life” in Australia. Operating over Queensland Rail tracks, the Great South Pacific Express began running in 1996 before ceasing operations in 2003, according to a story dated Feb. 25 of this year in the Queensland Times. The equipment was shipped to Peru in May for refurbishment.

IRT On Luxury Safari

3 Jun

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!

 

Danube Express Strikes Gold with Upgrades, New Itineraries

16 May

 

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Hungarian military band serenades passengers as they board the Golden Eagle Danube Express May 2 in Budapest’s Nyugati Station. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The Golden Eagle Danube Express celebrated its new name — plus new itineraries stretching all across Europe and a host of luxury upgrades — May 2 at Budapest’s Nyugati Station.

No less than a member of British Royalty, Prince Michael of Kent, drove the steam engine for an inaugural run to the nearby Hungarian Railway Museum and Park. I was happy to join in the festivities and to review the train.

The former Danube Express’ golden moniker is more than a new name. The Budapest-based private train boasts a raft of luxury upgrades ranging from service and amenities to cuisine and off-train touring. “I have every confidence that this is an experience that will be shared in the years to come by many thousands of guests,” declared His Royal Highness to a crowd of dignitaries, press and travel executives in the Budapest station’s Royal Waiting Room.

A pianist entertains in the Golden Eagle Danube Express lounge car. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

A pianist entertains in the Golden Eagle Danube Express lounge car. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

After speaking of his passion for railway travel, the bewhiskered prince climbed into the cab of the Hungarian Railways’ ‘Buffalo’ class 424 steam locomotive. A Hungarian military brass band serenaded the passengers as they boarded the waiting train.

The Prince then drove “his” train out of the station.

The following day, Prince and Princess Michael joined a small group of passengers for the train’s inaugural overnight run to Venice.  The journey included lunch on board, an excursion to Lake Balaton in Hungary, followed by dinner and drinks in the bar car, with a harpist entertaining.  It was a brief glimpse into the experience many passengers will have on the newly operated train in the future.

The special journey celebrated the Danube Express’ management takeover by UK-based Golden Eagle Luxury trains. The company is best known for its Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian journeys in Russia and Central Asia as well as its ground-breaking luxury rail tours to Iran, begun last year.

GE Danube Express Deluxe Cabin has two lower berths. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

GE Danube Express’ spacious Deluxe Cabin has two lower berths. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The Golden Eagle Danube Express comprises five sleeping cars, a lounge car and two dining cars.  Four sleeping cars contain Deluxe cabins with two lower berths. One sleeping car has Heritage class cabins with upper and lower bunk-style berths. The spacious Deluxe cabins have private shower, sink and toilet. The bathrooms even boast towel warmers.

Heritage class cabins are budget-oriented —about a third of the size of the Deluxe. Toilets and showers are shared and located at the end of the car.

Buffet breakfast in one of the two dining cars. Guests also can order hot items from an a la carte menu. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Buffet breakfast in one of the two dining cars. Guests also can order hot items from an a la carte menu. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The upgraded train includes two 42-seat dining cars which serve delicious meals and wines. The lounge car accommodates 28. [Editor’s Note: A new lounge car was added to the Golden Eagle Danube Express in early 2016.  Click here to read our post about the new car.]  Drinks are served (and included in the fare) throughout the day while a pianist entertains.

Golden Eagle Luxury Trains offers a range of itineraries on its new train, covering a swath of Western and Eastern Europe.

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Evening place setting. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Sample itineraries include the 12-day Balkan Odyssey (Budapest to Venice via Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria & Romania) and Balkan Explorer (Venice to Istanbul, traveling through nine countries in 12 days).

For more information on the Golden Eagle Danube Express, click here, or call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. To book, click here.

Angela Walker is Vice President of Operations and Senior Luxury Travel Advisor. She has criss-crossed the world to review many of the World’s Top 25 Trains, in India, China, Scotland, Canada, Uzbekistan and Peru, to name a few countries, for The Society of International Railway Travelers, a Virtuoso travel agency.

Royal Scotsman Scores with ‘Limited Edition’ Confections

7 Mar
IRT guests Robert & Virginia Montgomery aboard the Royal Scotsman.

IRT guests Robert & Virginia Montgomery aboard the Royal Scotsman. Photo courtesy of the Montgomerys

One of the world’s most intimate luxury trains — the Royal Scotsman — threw open its doors this week for 2016 bookings, even as space this year is dwindling on many departures.

During the last several years, the train has inaugurated several “limited edition” tours, which have proven to be very successful, said Valerie J. Ottofaro.

Ms. Ottofaro is Director of Sales, Belmond Trains & River Cruises. (The train’s official name is Belmond Royal Scotsman, honoring the company’s new brand.)

“The Grand Tour of Great Britain will continue to run as an exclusive tour in 2016,” she said. The dates are July 8-15, 2016.

The popular, 7-night annual tour is for true devotees of history, food & spirits, culture, and life in England, Scotland and Wales.

The varied, exclusive activities include a castle tour with its owners, a ride on the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway and dinner at a country estate.

Royal Scotsman breakfast tray. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Royal Scotsman breakfast tray. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

“IRT guests who have done this trip have raved about it,” said Eleanor Flagler Hardy, President of The Society of International Railway Travelers®.

Other special trips are for devotees of whisky, golf and Scottish country life.

The “Classic Whisky Tours” — in partnership with the Scottish Malt Whisky Society — “have proved very successful over the past two years,” Ms. Ottofaro said.

The five-day whisky tour includes visits and tastings at a number of distilleries as well as on-board tastings in the train’s lounge car. For 2016, one trip is planned: April 25–29.

Belmond plans one Classic Golf Tour for June 13-17, 2016.

“This is a four-night journey through the heart of the Scottish Highlands,” Ms. Ottofaro said, “offering three rounds of golf at some of the country’s finest and most northerly of the UK’s championship golf courses.” One of the courses will be Gleneagles.

“The Heritage Homes and Gardens tour,” meanwhile, “has been received very well over the past two years,” she said. Next year the trip runs June 6-10.

“This is an exploration of Scotland’s most fascinating and scenic country homes and gardens,” said Ms. Ottofaro.

“It’s a special four-night tour hosted by an experienced gardener, a professional photographer and a freelance garden writer who provide guests with gardening tips and fascinating history along the way.”

Taking the perfect photo on the Royal Scotsman's outdoor rear platform. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Taking the perfect photo on the Royal Scotsman’s outdoor rear platform. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Meanwhile, officials said space was almost gone for several 2015 specialty tours, including the annual Grand Tour.

Just one double and one single cabin remain for the 8-day Grand Tour of England, Scotland and Wales, a Belmond reservations specialist told IRT yesterday. This year’s dates are July 10-17.

This year’s April 27-May 1 “Classic Whisky Tour” has one twin and two single cabins left.

A second 2015 “Classic Whisky” departure, July 5-9, has just one twin cabin remaining.

Drinking tea in the lounge car. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Drinking tea in the lounge car. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

More space is available for this year’s annual Heritage and Garden Tour, the spokesperson said: five twins and two singles. The dates are June 5-9.

Call (800) 478-4881 or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com, if you’d like to grab a spot. IRT will accept bookings on a first-come, first-served basis. A 15% deposit is required to secure your booking. If the trip is within 60 days of travel, full payment will be required.

(Book by March 31 for value-added special offers for certain departures. Restrictions apply.)

“Booking soon gives you a better chance of getting just what you want,” IRT’s Mrs. Hardy said.

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Lively conversation in the Royal Scotsman lounge. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

“Also, in general, the earlier you book, the closer you’ll be to the lounge and dining car. And that’s especially true for singles, since there are only four single cabins on each departure — with no single supplement.”

Another success story is the 2014 addition of the 3-night Edinburgh-London tour, Majestic England. An add-on return trip, “A Tale of Two Cities,” is an overnight London-Edinburgh journey whose emphasis is on-board food, spirits and ambience.

“We have seen encouraging sales for both journeys,” Ms. Ottofaro said.

The 3-night Edinburgh-London trip includes Alnwick Castle, home to the Duke of Northumberland’s family; York, site of the National Railway Museum; Sandringham, the Norfolk retreat of the Royal Family; and Cambridge.

Toddy time in the lounge car. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Toddy time in the lounge car. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Thus, a traveler could combine this 3-night Edinburgh-London trip to the one-night London-Edinburgh return journey.

“And twice each season — in August and September — the London itinerary has been scheduled so it can be added to a 5-day Classic journey through the Scottish Highlands,” Ms. Hardy said.

For questions or to book, call (800) 478-4881 (U.S. and Canada) or (502) 897-1725 (elsewhere). Or email us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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