Tag Archives: luxury train tours

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Still “King”: Part II

17 Apr

If you haven’t yet read the first installment of this story, I suggest you go back and read it here first. If you aren’t a chronological purist, read on for day two of my journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and Belmond British Pullman!

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Breakfast tray on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

I woke up in my cabin on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) after a good night’s rest and opened my shade to reveal quaint French villages and countryside flitting past.

After I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, I rang my steward, Paolo, who arrived minutes later with a tray brimming with delicious breakfast items: warm, homemade breads and croissants, fresh fruit salad, orange juice, and a perfectly-frothed cappuccino. I read the newspaper while I ate, and reveled in the luxuriousness of it all.

By late morning, I made my way to the “L’Oriental” dining car for brunch. This was a much-anticipated meal by all who had been on the train before. “Lobster brunch,” as they called it, lived up to its potential, even for me, the vegetarian-in-residence. (Although seeing my friends’ plates loaded with delicately-buttered lobster made me briefly consider a change in diet!)

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Lobster brunch on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

After one last visit to the brand-new Grand Suites to take photographs (see my report of the Suites here), it was time to disembark the train in Calais for our Chunnel crossing.

I was curious to see how the chic VSOE would handle the decidedly unglamorous underground Chunnel crossing. The process turned out to be far nicer than I could have imagined.

From the station, we were escorted onto luxury coach buses — laid out like the dining car of a train — and greeted by a friendly hostess who offered us champagne, juices, and snacks.

After brief immigration formalities, our bus was carefully driven into a shipping container-esque contraption with several other vehicles for the 45-minute Chunnel crossing. It was dark and somewhat bumpy, but not altogether unpleasant. Our group had a considerable amount of chatting to do after just getting to know one another over the past 24 hours.

Once on the U.K. side, we were quickly deposited at Folkestone Station for our three-hour journey on the VSOE’s sister train, the Belmond British Pullman.

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Friendly waiter welcomes us aboard Belmond British Pullman. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

Unsurprisingly, there is a decidedly British flavor on the Belmond British Pullman. The service is excellent —  but completely unassuming, devoid of any pretension, and downright jolly.

The 11 carriages on the Belmond British Pullman each have their own distinctive finishes and textiles — although all feature oversized, exceedingly comfortable armchairs.

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Table for one on the Belmond British Pullman. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

We sat in “Minerva,” which consisted of several tables in unusual seating arrangements — tables for three, one, and the more typical four and two. There is also a private area in each car called a “coupe,” which can seat up to four. (Request this with us when you book if you’d like a particularly private experience! Also, Grand Suite guests receive this without requesting.)

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Private “coupe” in Minerva dining car on Belmond British Pullman. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

We were served a traditional afternoon tea, including savory finger sandwiches, scones, and cakes. The English countryside was exceptionally beautiful in the fading afternoon light, and our tea was the perfect note on which to end our trip.

Around 6 p.m., we pulled into Victoria Station in London, our journey’s end. It was all over too soon — in a delightful, fanciful flash of new friends, excellent food, and outstanding, five-star service.

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Belmond British Pullman in London’s Victoria Station. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

 

Ready to book your trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and Belmond British Pullman? Call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada). Or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Rachel M. Hardy, luxury travel advisor, and VP Sales & Marketing for The Society of International Railway Travelers, just returned from an inspection journey of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. A Belmond specialist, she was the only advisor from the Western Hemisphere to be invited to see the launch of the brand-new Grand Suites. Read more about the Grand Suites here.

Rovos Rail’s “Pride of Africa”: 30+ Years of Luxury Adventure

28 Jul
Rovos Rail

The Pride of Africa’s wood-paneled bar car boasts comfortable seating, a convivial atmosphere and – best of all – a large, rear outdoor deck, perfect for viewing the wild African landscape. Photo by Nels Freeman

Rovos Rail’s 15-day Cape Town – Dar es Salaam “luxury adventure” ranks among the top 5 rail trips for many IRT travelers.

“That’s probably still our favorite trip,” T. Hoberg of Cincinnati, who has booked 19 trips with IRT, told us today.

But for Alicia Taljaard, Rovos’ Sales and Marketing executive, her favorite is the shorter African Collage.  (And it will be the IRT Society’s Owner’s Choice itinerary in 2019, departing Pretoria Oct. 30 — click here for more info.)

“It’s our most scenic trip,” says the 13-year Rovos Rail veteran, who’s a regular visitor to the IRT office.

“It’s perfect for the safari enthusiast, and the scenery on that trip is unbeatable.

South Africa's Garden Route is unbeatable for its scenery, which ranges from towering mountains to dramatic seashores. IRT Photo by John Fiorilla

South Africa’s Garden Route is unbeatable for its scenery, which ranges from towering mountains to dramatic seashores. IRT Photo by John Fiorilla

“You have the mountain passes and the Garden Route, a very lush, beautiful area along the coastline of the eastern to western Cape.

“Then there’s the vineyards and the ocean…” Continue reading

Rovos Rail’s “Pride of Africa” — 30 Years of Luxury Adventure

16 Oct
IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy and Rovos Rail's Alicia Taljaard pose with the company's lavish

IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy and Rovos Rail’s Alicia Taljaard pose with the company’s lavish “Journeys” magazine. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Rovos Rail’s 15-day Cape Town – Dar es Salaam “luxury adventure” ranks among the top 5 rail trips for many IRT travelers.

But for Alicia Taljaard, Rovos’ Sales and Marketing executive, the best trip bar none is the African Collage – and starting in 2017, she tells us, the trip will be extended “from nine to ten days to enhance guests’ experience.”

“It’s our most scenic trip,” says the 11-year Rovos Rail veteran, who visited the IRT offices recently.

“It’s perfect for the safari enthusiast, and the scenery on that trip is unbeatable.

South Africa's Garden Route is unbeatable for its scenery, which ranges from towering mountains to dramatic seashores. IRT Photo by John Fiorilla

South Africa’s Garden Route is unbeatable for its scenery, which ranges from towering mountains to dramatic seashores. IRT Photo by John Fiorilla

“You have the mountain passes and the Garden Route, a very lush, beautiful area along the coastline of the eastern to western Cape.

“Then there’s the vineyards and the ocean…” Continue reading

Mountaineering in Luxury: Canadian Rockies by Train

10 Oct
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The author enjoying the fresh air on the Rocky Mountaineer Gold Leaf dome viewing platform. IRT photo courtesy of Rachel Hardy.

“Fifty Switzerlands in one” is how legendary British mountaineer Edward Whymper (conqueror of the Matterhorn) allegedly described the Canadian Rockies.

Whymper’s assessment is spot on – but Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer lavished me with added benefits: cozy nights at historic four-star hotels and gourmet meals and snacks.

Most important, though, were two days’ worth of panoramic views of the Canadian Rockies from the comfort of my  double-decked Gold Leaf dome car.

My itinerary was the Canadian Rockies Highlights, running between Calgary and Vancouver. It’s one of more than 65 Rocky Mountaineer packages.

I spent my first night at Calgary’s luxurious Fairmont Palliser Hotel, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1914 as a way-station for weary travelers on their way to the remote Rockies.

After exploring Calgary, we boarded our coach to Lake Louise.

Winding through the Coast Mountains. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

Winding through the Coast Mountains. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

For some, bus tours conjure up visions of cramped, nausea-inducing drives that are light on photo opportunities and heavy on boredom. I’m thrilled to report this was NOT the case.

Never were we in the bus longer than 45 minutes at a stretch. And our entertaining guide made those stretches fly by.

The day’s highlights included a thrilling 12-minute helicopter ride over the edge of the Rockies, a ride on the Banff gondola, and stops at Lake Minnewanka and a platform overlooking the otherworldly rock spires called ‘hoodoos.’

The author, bundled in her winter coat and hat, at Lake Louise. IRT photo by Belinda

The author, bundled in her winter coat and hat, at Lake Louise. IRT photo courtesy Rachel Hardy.

The next night we spent at the stunningly aquamarine Lake Louise. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the lake is picturesquely framed by the towering glaciers that feed it and give it its uncommon color.

Dozens of hiking trails crisscross the surrounding area, giving me an opportunity to stretch my legs.

One highlight of our afternoon coach tour was the Spiral Tunnels, a marvel of railway engineering. We also basked in the majesty of the natural rock bridge at Kicking Horse River before overnighting in Banff.

Delicious lunch in the Gold Leaf dining room. (Photo by Rachel Hardy)

Delicious lunch in the Gold Leaf dining room. (IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy)

The next morning, we began our two-day adventure aboard the Rocky Mountaineer with a champagne toast by the train’s warm and professional on-board staff.

Within the hour, they invited us down to the car’s dining area, where we enjoyed a hot gourmet breakfast prepared on board. Eggs benedict, mozerella omelettes with smoked bacon, and roasted almond granola parfaits were among the menu choices.

As we finished our meal, a lucky few spotted a large black bear amidst the morning fog.

Back up top in the full-length dome, we enjoyed unparalleled views. We saw plenty of wildlife, including bald eagles, big horned sheep and caribou.

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The outdoor viewing platform was the place to be. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

Our three dedicated hosts made sure we never went thirsty. The Rocky Mountaineer’s well-stocked bar includes top shelf liquors and spirits, local craft beers and regional wines (all included in the fare) as well as many nonalcoholic choices.

Our hosts entertained and educated us along our route. Highlights today included the Continental Divide, Kicking Horse Canyon, and Craigellachie, where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven.

Rocky Mountaineer steward poses for a quick shot. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

Rocky Mountaineer steward poses for a quick shot. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

And although it was quite chilly outside, the Gold Leaf dome’s open-air viewing platform offered us an unmissable opportunity for photography. And it was great knowing that hot toddies, tea, and hot chocolate were waiting for us when it was time to thaw out! Many hours of comfortable Rockies sightseeing later, we arrived at our overnight destination of Kamloops.

The culinary team aboard the Rocky Mountaineer stayed, for the most part, out of sight. But our on-board meals in the first-level dining area were so impressive that the executive chef and his dedicated staff were never far from our minds.

An emphasis on locally sourced ingredients and regional cuisine fit perfectly with our surroundings.

The three-course lunch menu was completely different each day. It included entrée favorites like wild salmon with shaved fennel and roasted potato salad and Alberta beef short-ribs with garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables.

And though the staff prefers to know about dietary restrictions ahead of time, they excel at “thinking on their feet.” They’ll bend over backwards to make your meal just as you like it.

Gluten free, vegetarian, and ‘light choice’ options came standard on the menu, but they’re eager to accommodate any preference or food allergy you have.

Shadows lengthen late in the day as a Rocky Mountaineer attendant looks from the viewing platform. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

Shadows lengthen late in the day as a Rocky Mountaineer attendant looks from the viewing platform. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

The second day aboard the train was every bit as exciting as the first. Dramatic changes in scenery unfolded outside our windows, as the desert-like environment around Kamloops gave way to mountains, river canyons, and fir forests dotted with the beautiful gold of changing larch trees (fir trees that ‘think they’re deciduous’: they lose their needles annually after turning a stunning shade of yellow).

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There’s no better way to photograph the soaring Rockies than from the outdoor viewing platform. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The Coast and Cascade Mountains and the Thompson River afforded nonstop beauty, but the dizzying heights above Hell’s Gate — the narrowest portion of the Fraser River and an extreme obstacle to early river explorers and marine wildlife alike — was our favorite sight of the day.

Our bellies full of delicious food and our memory cards full of scenic images, we disembarked in Vancouver for one last hotel stay at the fabulous Fairmont Vancouver before returning home in the morning.

For more information or to book, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers. Email tourdesk@irtsociety.com or call (800)  478-4881; (502) 897-1725. The Society of International Railway Travelers®’ curated list of Rocky Mountaineer itineraries is here.

For Ms. Hardy’s “Rocky Mountaineer Travelers’ Tips,” please click here.

We welcome Rachel Hardy to Track 25.  Ms. Hardy, IRT’s sales & marketing associate & our newest employee, is a graduate of College of Charleston in political science, has traveled thousands of miles — from backpacking  with a Eurail pass across Europe to luxury hotels in Rome and India. Her favorite recent travels include an adventure cruise in the Peruvian Amazon, “ice-hiking” in Chilean Patagonia, and a Micato safari in Kenya. Her first train trip was the Empire Builder, and she first rode the Rocky Mountaineer and Canadian when she was 8. 

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