Tag Archives: luxury train tour

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!

 

Flexible? Try Orient-Express, Rocky Mountaineer, India’s Deccan Odyssey This Autumn

24 Jul

Europe, Canada or India calling? If so, now hear this:

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Get two free nights at the super luxurious Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice when you book the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express London-Paris-Venice on trips running Oct. 25-26, Oct. 29-30, Nov. 1-2 or Nov. 5-6. Click here for more info.

Get the same deal when you book the VSOE the other direction, Venice-Paris-London, for trips running Oct. 28-29, Oct. 31-Nov. 1 or Nov. 4-5. Click here for more info.

The offer is valued at $1,300 per person, is for new bookings only and must be made by Aug. 31. Restrictions apply.

Can’t tell you how much we love this hotel: it is fabulous. See our review and photos here.

Rocky Mountaineer

Get $1,000 per couple in extra services when you book a qualifying 2016 Rocky Mountaineer package of 7 nights or more. The offer is good until Aug. 28.

The luxurious GoldLeaf service gives you a ring-side seat on the glories of the Rocky Mountains’ natural beauty.

Our recommendation: opt for the 12-day “Grand Rail Circle” tour, which packs in three scenic rail routes.

Great plus by booking this trip with us: two complimentary airport limo transfers — a value of $240.

Deccan Odyssey

With Delhi as the beginning of the Deccan Odyssey’s itinerary, a complimentary night in a top Delhi hotel, as well as a free private transfer upon arrival or departure, will be welcome news. The offer includes breakfast and taxes.

Choose a deluxe room from either the chic, modern Lait Hotel or the sumptuous, classical Kempinski Ambience.

The offer is valued at $300-$400. We love the Deccan Odyssey, as you know. Its onboard operators are some of the best in the luxury market.

For more information on the Deccan Odyssey, click here. For more information or to book any of these trains, email us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. Or call us at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725.

IRT Awards High Marks to Golden Eagle Danube Express

29 May
Belgrade Dancers

Serbian dancers greet the Golden Eagle Danube Express in Belgrade. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

It was the photo op of a lifetime.

As the “new” luxury train Golden Eagle Danube Express departed Venice’s Santa Lucia station, the world-famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express was pulling in.

The two elegant European touring trains slowly passed each other, as passengers waved and marveled.

Thus began the inaugural run of the newly dubbed Golden Eagle Danube Express on its Venice-Budapest Balkan Odyssey tour. The luxury train rolled through eight countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria & Romania. Its 54 passengers hailed mostly from the U.S. & Australia.

See Angela Walker’s photos from her Balkan Odyssey adventure here.

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Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Stellar Itinerary

Among the highlights awaiting those passengers:  visiting the museum and tomb of Josip Broz Tito, former president of Yugoslavia; hearing a first-hand account of escape through the Sarajevo Tunnel during the siege of the city during the Bosnian War; and, most poignant, standing in the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, an event that triggered World War I and the deaths of more than 8 million soldiers and countless more civilians.

Zagreb

Golden angels in Zagreb’s Kaptol Square.             IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Excellent local guides offered fascinating insight to the complex history of these Balkan nations. Summoning personal experiences, they often focused on the conflict just 20 years ago, when Yugoslavia was divided and these countries were at war.

Earlier that week, the Golden Eagle Danube Express was christened with much pomp and circumstance in Budapest by a military band, festive speeches and no less a personage than His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent. For more on the ceremony as well as specifics of the luxury train’s accommodations, please click here.

Diners

Happy IRT guests on the Golden Eagle Danube Express. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Sumptuous Dining

Two dining cars seat 42 passengers each (which combined is more than the train’s 56-passenger capacity). The dining cars are attractive and comfortable, offering tables for 4 or 2.

“Albert” has a green and cream color scheme; “Pannonia” is crimson and beige.

The tables are resplendent with white tablecloths, crystal glassware and china emblazoned with the double-headed eagle logo of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.

Guests enjoy breakfast on board. One can choose from a buffet of fruit, breads, cereal, cold meats and cheeses. In addition, diners can order a hot breakfast including omelets, French toast, bacon and sausage.

Guests have either lunch or dinner off the train in a local restaurant, with the other meal on the train.

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IRT guests playing cards in the lounge car of the Golden Eagle Danube Express.  IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

On-board meals are served in three courses, with choice of vegetarian or meat starters and main courses.

On my trip, starters included asparagus with hollandaise sauce and zucchini rolls with ricotta stuffing, served in a char-grilled pepper sauce with basil olive oil. Other choices were foie gras terrine with spicy apricot chutney and toasted challah bread.

Main course options ranged from Moroccan baked vegetables with prunes and spicy couscous to beer-braised beef cheek with malted onions and ale sauce, served with carrots, green beans and onion mashed potatoes.

(The beef cheek was so tender and delicious, it was difficult to pass on seconds – which were offered!)

Swan Dessert

Special “Swan Lake” dessert served on the Golden Eagle Danube Express.

Desserts were a highlight (which pleased my sweet tooth immensely!) “Swan Lake” was a pastry shaped into a swan sitting on a “lake” of vanilla and chocolate sauce.  The Swan Lake won the beauty contest. But for taste, I preferred the strawberry panna cotta and the chocolate mousse.

Meals off the train were generally set menus. But they still were multi-course affairs, with many featuring seafood. Vegetarian options also were available.

And some of the restaurants were in scenic locales. One example: our morning walking tour of the Belgrade fortress ended at Kalemegdanska Teresa restaurant within the fortress grounds, overlooking the Danube and Sava Rivers.

Budapest

Budapest tram stop. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Service was good, although there is room for improvement. In the dining car, tables were not cleared and cleaned at breakfast as quickly as they should have been on a luxury train. Breakfast buffet items were not refilled once emptied.

I chatted with Edit Mészáros, the ever-present on-board guest relations manager, and these actions were corrected the following day.  Edit is very receptive to feedback and eager to please her guests.  No doubt these small lapses in service will be rectified and perfected in the coming months.

Also, some of the train staff (mostly car attendants) do not speak English, or speak it poorly.

Princess Michael

Princess Michael of Kent peers out of the train. Prince & Princess Michael of Kent officially launched the Golden Eagle Danube Express in Budapest in early May. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Lounge Car

Lounge car “Budapest” is the social center.  Unfortunately, the current lounge car only seats 28 – not enough to accommodate the train’s capacity.

But it is rare, if ever, that all passengers visit the lounge for a pre-dinner drink or nightcap (all drinks, with the exception of some premium wines, are included in the tour fare).

That’s a shame, as the train’s pianist, Eszter Kisgyörgy, was perpetually entertaining and an absolute delight.

A new lounge car (with a proper bar) is currently under construction and is set to replace the current lounge. [Editor’s Note:  The new lounge car was added to the Golden Eagle Danube Express in early 2016.  Click here to read our post about the new car.]

Border Crossings

The journey was not without other glitches. Passing through numerous borders with a private train led to a few complications, mostly in the form of delays at the borders.

In some cases, the border control officials wanted to see each passenger with his/her passport in hand. Unfortunately, the timing of one of these crossings (Croatia to Bosnia) meant a knock on the cabin door in the middle of the night.

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Religious paintings at a market in Sofia, Bulgaria. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Scenic Bus Ride

Another setback: the train was not allowed to travel on the line from Sarajevo to Mostar, requiring a 2 ½ hour bus ride each way and lunch en route.

Although the motor coach ride was extremely scenic – running along glacial lakes through ridges, mountains and canyons – it would have been fantastic by train along a similar route, through countless tunnels and over many bridges (this will ideally be incorporated in future journeys).

The bus trip did serendipitously allow for an exceptional lakeside lunch in the town of Konjic – my favorite meal of the entire journey.

Angela Walker Vice President, The Society of International Railway Travelers. Photo by Arthur McMurdie

Angela Walker Vice President, The Society of International Railway Travelers. Photo by Arthur McMurdie

Lofty Dreams

The Golden Eagle Danube Express has lofty dreams: to become the leading luxury touring train in mainland Europe. True, it lacks the polish of the famed Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

But its riveting itineraries, fully inclusive pricing and comfort undoubtedly put it in the forefront of luxurious European railway travel. The future seems bright for this up-and-coming luxury train.

To book this journey or ask questions about the itinerary or train, please call IRT’s Angela Walker at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Angela Walker is Vice President of The Society of International Railway Travelers and a senior luxury travel advisor. She has traveled the world over reviewing The World’s Top 25 Trains.®

Belmond Grand Hibernian ‘Arrives’ in NYC’s Grand Central Terminal

29 Apr

Artist’s rendering of the Belmond Grand Hibernian Lounge Car

New York, NY — The Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland’s first luxury train, made its formal debut in America April 28 at New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The train is under construction; service is planned to begin August, 2016.

Authentic Irish music, draughts of Guinness and Irish Bell floral corsages underscored Belmond’s hopes for its newest “dream train:” a genuine, sensual, over-the-top experience of the Emerald Isle’s true spirit, both north and south.

The IRT Society joined a group of about 150 Belmond officials and representatives from the travel trade and press at a gala celebration in the station’s ornate Campbell Apartments.

As with the Belmond’s other luxury trains, such as the Royal Scotsman and the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Grand Hibernian will offer “land cruises,” with no need for guests to pack or unpack.

Blarney Castle, County Cork, Ireland

Blarney Castle, County Cork, Ireland

The tours will include all locally sourced, exquisite meals as well as “shore excursions” to castles, manor houses, distilleries as well as visits to exclusive venues normally not open to the public. It will also include all drinks throughout the program – including exclusive distillery tastings.

The six-night itinerary, the train’s longest, looks like a winner, if advance interest by guests of The Society of International Railway Travelers is any measure.

IRT chartered the Grand Hibernian’s Aug. 30-Sept. 6, 2016 “Grand Tour of Ireland” just last week, and already only three of the train’s 20 cabins remain unsold.

The six-night tour combines two shorter tours: a four-night tour of the Republic of (south) Ireland and a two-night tour of Northern Ireland.

“Ireland is the epitome of a comfortable, beautiful vacation destination,” said Gary Franklin, Belmond’s managing director, Trains & Cruises. “And Ireland has the element of romance.”

Franklin, a native New Zealander, fell in love with Ireland decades ago as a young man, he told his guests.

Giant’s Causeway, Antrim, Nortthern Ireland

In 1991, when he journeyed to Ireland to watch the rugby world cup, his team lost, but Ireland won his heart. The germ of an idea was born: the Grand Hibernian.

Last night’s events were mostly celebratory, as Belmond’s plans for the Grand Hibernian have been known for months. (Click here to see particulars.)

But following the reception, Yann Guézennec, Worldwide Sales & Marketing Director, Belmond Trains & Cruises, did divulge one important detail to IRT over dinner at his company’s famous “21 Club.”

The Grand Hibernian’s dress code will be “casual luxury” — neckties for men will be optional. Based on IRT’s over 30 years experience in the luxury train market, this news will be greeted with cheers by many (and perhaps shrugs by a few, this writer included).

“But the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express will maintain its dress code,” he quickly assured us. “That will not change.”

Download the Belmond Grand Hibernian’s three itineraries below:

Six-night, seven- day “Grand Tour of Ireland”

Four-night, five-day “Legends and Loughs”

Two-night, three-day “Realm of Giants”

Elephants, ceramics, markets: Which would you choose?

9 Feb
Eastern & Oriental Express

View from Eastern & Oriental Express compartment window. Photo by Jim Butkus

I knew I was going to like the Epic Thailand journey we are offering next year on the Eastern & Oriental Express.  But little did I know the incredible array of choices our travelers will enjoy. In Chiang Mai alone, there are two all-day choices and 10  half-day options. Each sounds more tantalizing than the next.

I leave next Thursday for Bangkok to prepare for our 2012  Owners’ Choice Epic Thailand journey (Feb. 26-March 3). Which of these included off-train experiences would you choose if you were doing this trip?

This is just a partial list:

  • A full-day visit to the Pang Song Nature Trails Project, a new collaboration between tourism interests and a local village working to protect the stunning Mae Lai Community Forest
  • A Day at the Mandarin Orient Dhara Dhevi Resort, with its spa and two swimming pools
  • Antiques and textile shopping
  • An introduction to Thai ceramics, meeting a ceramics expert John Shaw, educated at Oxford and a lecturer at Chiang Mai University, at his home and viewing his personal and private collection
  • A visit to an elephant camp, where visitors can see them at work – or even ride one
  • Tour of Doi Suthep Temple, an important monastery and symbolic landmark of Chiang Mai.
  • Tour of Pak Chong “wet market,” a truly “authentic” institution that is giving way to supermarkets and convenience stores, says the ground operator in Thailand “But be prepared for some strong smells and sights: all parts of animal produce will be on display.  This is ideal for those who wish to see a slice of daily rural life in Thailand. Due to lack of refrigeration in the old days, most Asians do daily marketing at the wet markets.”
  • Khao Yai National Park will be the obvious choice for nature and adventure seekers,. Khao Yai was Thailand’s first national park. Today, it is the second largest in Thailand, and along with the surrounding mountains was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  This will include hiking one of three trails, each lead by a highly qualified park guide.

What would you choose?

Of course, the Eastern & Oriental Express is one of our World’s Top 25 Trains™ — and reason enough to go by itself — as shown in this short, experiential video:

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