Tag Archives: luxury trains
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Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’ Grand Suites Surpass All Expectations, says IRT Travel Advisor

5 Apr

London, England – The three brand-new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express — named ‘Paris,’ ‘Venice,’ & ‘Istanbul’ — have just made their inaugural journey on the train, and I was lucky enough to be invited for the first grand unveiling.

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The Suites surpassed my expectations in every way. All of the furnishings and finishings have been specially created, and no expense has been spared.

They are as functional as they are beautiful, with cleverly-hidden storage areas, heated bathroom floors and walls, full-length mirror and hairdryers — the first on the train. The beds even lift up to reveal large storage areas underneath.

‘Venice’ is luminous in rich blues and creams, with delicately antiqued mirrors and floral motifs.

‘Istanbul’ features ornate wood carvings, leather trim, and rich oranges and yellows in the upholstery and bathroom tile work.

And ‘Paris’ pays homage to the art deco movement with bold geometric lines and exotic tapestry work in greens and browns.

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Grand Suite ‘Venice.’ IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

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Bathroom in Grand Suite ‘Venice.’ Hand-blown glass sink, marquetry washstand and beautifully tiled floor. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

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Grand Suite ‘Istanbul.’   IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

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Lead Steward Francesco prepares Grand Suite ‘Istanbul’ for its very first guests. Only the most senior staff will be attending guests in Grand Suites. IRT Photo by Rachel M, Hardy

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Each Suite has a marble three-shelf bar. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

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Silk velvet pillow on the large couch in Grand Suite ‘Istanbul.’ Each Suite has a couch that can convert to a bed for a child. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

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Light fixture and marquetry in Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

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Each Suite has a full-length mirror, two full-length wardrobes for hanging clothes (one is pictured on left), and multiple storage cubbies (bottom left). IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

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

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Hand-blown glass sink in Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

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Grand Suites have full-sized copper rain showers with marble walls and tiled floor. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

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Each Suite has a Dyson hairdryer — a first on the train! IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

 

 

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Grand Suite ‘Paris.’ IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

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Bathroom in Grand Suite ‘Paris.’ IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

History buffs will be glad to know that the Suites maintain the 1920s feel of the train (while successfully ‘dialing up’ the level of opulence by a factor of 10). Rather than a piece apart, they are a natural addition to the existing Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Everything was custom-made for the suites — from the amazing tiles in the bathrooms to the marquetry and wood carvings and the gorgeous fabrics and finishings.  Our CEO asked: “What will our clients say when they get on board their Grand Suite?”

My answer is easy:  I think they’re going to love them. One is just as beautiful as the next. My favorite one was whichever one I was in at the moment.

I’ll follow up with a more thorough accounting of the Grand Suites and my experience on the train in several weeks. But if you are interested in booking a Grand Suite, please don’t wait. Demand has far outpaced projections, and the Suites are 75% sold out for the 2018 season.

If you are ready to book, or if you have questions, please call us at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725 if outside the US / Canada)

Or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com. We look forward to advising travel dates with availability and pricing—and all the many additional amenities afforded our Grand Suite guests.

Click here to a link to more info about the train, with all itineraries listed. We look forward to welcoming you aboard!

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.

IRT Owners Scout India’s Top Spots

23 Feb

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Owen and I recently returned from a scouting trip to India ahead of IRT’s 35th anniversary trip featuring the Deccan Odyssey this November. The verdict: India is better than ever, and more than ready for our group!

(If you’re thinking about joining us, please contact us ASAP, or visit our website here for itinerary details. Only two cabins remain.)

The Deccan OdysseyWe were thrilled to meet with top management for the Deccan Odyssey and Cox & Kings, our wonderful partners helping us plan our group trip. The best news from the Deccan Odyssey: they have put in brand-new suspension, which should make for a much smoother ride. And new carpets and finishes give the train interior an updated look.

Owen and Bunky meet with Soma, other Deccan Oddysey Cox Kings rep

Left to Right: Nidhi Gopan, senior general manager of the Deccan Odyssey, Eleanor Hardy, IRT President, Owen Hardy, IRT CEO, and Soma Paul, senior manager, destination management for Cox & Kings.

The Imperial Hotel in New Delhi: The dining and service was superb. White marble and tropical flowers and plants everywhere. The spa is one of the best I have ever visited: quiet, gorgeous, & well-run.

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Entrance to the spa at the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

Cochin: We loved wandering around Cochin, in Kerala, South India. The atmosphere here is much slower-paced than Delhi, and very lush and green, with beautiful views of the ocean. Cochin’s nickname is ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’ — very fitting, we thought!

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Lush, green, Cochin, ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea.’                IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

We are offering a pre-tour extension to Cochin prior to our group trip. Click here for more information.

Darjeeling: We actually got to ride the historic blue Darjeeling Himalayan Toy Train this time, which was a huge kick. The tiny train was full of visitors, mostly families and couples out for a weekend ride. IRT travelers joining our post-tour extension will get to experience the toy train for themselves. Click here for Darjeeling extension details.

The Windamere: The colonial charm of this place seeps into your soul — and the panoramic views of the entire environs will sweep you off your feet. Walk down a few steps from the Windamere, and you’re on the “mall,” a paved path that circles Observatory Hill. Walk a sharp left, up, to find a joint Buddhist/Hindu temple, fluttering with prayer flags. Stroll down to the left, and you reach some of the most remarkable views of the snow-capped Himalayan mountains in the near distance.

To all guests already signed up for our group trip: we can’t WAIT to see you in India!

And to everyone else considering joining: only two cabins remain, so contact us ASAP.

Call us at 1-800-478-4881, or 1-502-897-1725 if outside the US / Canada — or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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

28 Jul
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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

Peru’s New Belmond Andean Explorer Makes the Livin’ Easy

10 Jun
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Society of IRT President Eleanor Hardy snaps a photo from the observation/lounge car — complete with outdoor viewing area — on the new Belmond Andean Explorer. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

“Summer time!” the young Peruvian woman sang. “And the livin’ is easy.”

Backed up by a soulful tenor sax, the two belted out the Gershwin ballad in the rear bar/lounge of the new Belmond Andean Explorer.

Outside on the spacious, rear open-air platform, guests nursed their Pisco Sours as they watched the outskirts of Cusco shrink into the distance.

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High times in the rear lounge car: a Peruvian duo performs a soulful rendition of “Summertime” as the Belmond Andean Explorer pulls out of Cusco for its first 3-day journey. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

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The Belmond Andean Explorer chugs past the Sibinacocha volvano, blowing smoke and ash. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

This newest thoroughbred in the Belmond stable is every inch a champion. In fact, we’ve just named it one of our newest ‘World’s Top 25 Trains.”

The train and its services are beautiful. The staff is bright and eager to please. Many developed their high customer service standards at Belmond’s fabulous five-star hotel in Cusco, the Monasterio.

And the wild, mountainous Andean landscape stuns with its soaring peaks, beautiful altiplano and volcanoes, occasionally snow-peaked and sometimes blowing smoke and ash.

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The kitchen staff hard at work preparing another fabulous meal. Note the homage to the train’s Australian origin: the old logo of the Great South Pacific Express etched in the window.                 IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

The train has a fascinating history.

Built in Australia in the 1990s, it began service as the Great South Pacific Express luxury train running between Cairns and Brisbane, only to be shut down after four years, the victim of poor track and rough rides.

There it languished for 13 years, awaiting its fate.

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Some of our favorite traveling companions: this lively family from Lima relaxes in the piano lounge. We can attest that these kids had a ball. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Finally, last year, it was shipped to Peru — complete with the baby grand piano, podium for train check-in, the boarding steps and even the tags for luggage.  In Peru, its transformation to a remarkably Peruvian train began.

In May, 2017 it emerged like a butterfly from its cocoon, transformed into a rolling work of art.  Peru Luxury Trains manager, Javier Carlavilla Lindo, is palpably proud of “his baby,” the first luxury sleeper train in South America.

It is gorgeously outfitted with bright local textiles on pillows, throws and ottomans, not to mention local art throughout.

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Sunrise over Lake Titicaca — something that you, too, can witness — if you’re willing to wake up at 5:30 a.m. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Throughout the train are remnants of its luxurious past in Australia: Art Deco brass fittings and lamps, hammered steel bathroom sinks in the powder rooms, charming lights throughout. The large cabins in the deluxe double-bedded suites and the bunk cabins are other remnants — now decorated in distinctive Peruvian style.

But even though the longest trip is just three days and two nights, we highly recommend booking a suite, if you can swing it. It’s great to have room to spread out.

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The Belmond Andean Explorer Junior Suite boasts ample storage and three windows. IRT Photo by Eleanor Flagler Hardy

Eleanor and I loved our Junior Suite. It boasts a double bed with two windows on one side, plus a sliding window on the other, which allows a view out the other side of the train.

It also has incredible storage capacity. That includes overhead racks, a big closet, a chest of drawers and 2 comfortable easy chairs. The ensuite shower, sink and toilet worked very well, too.

Our only trouble with our room was a sticky lock — we got trapped inside for a few minutes wondering if we would ever escape.

(We phoned our concierge at the Belmond Hotel Monasterio back in Cusco, who in turn called train manager Christopher Mendoza to secure our release.)

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Belmond Andean Explorer train manger Christopher Mendoza takes a break from his very busy schedule in one of train’s two restaurant cars. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

Dining is a big part of any luxury train, and in this area, Belmond does not disappoint. Head of the culinary program is none other than Diego Muñoz, named by the New York Times as one of the world’s leading chefs.

The last day, we all applauded the chef for our trip, Julio Serrano, who was “on loan” from Lima’s famed Astrid & Gaston, which Chef Muñoz once led.

Chef Serrano produced one Peruvian specialty after another. Much of the food prep is done at the Monasterio, where Serrano once worked, and loaded on in Cusco.

Most of the train’s staff, in fact, were recruited from the Monasterio.  We found them amazingly accomplished for the first full run of the train. A few were receiving close on-the-job training – but most were very capable.

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Between Cusco and Puno, guests disembark to visit the ruins of the massive Inca temple and food storage center of Raqch’i. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

One of the great advantages of a trip on the Belmond Andean Explorer is the train’s “birds’-eye view” of the passing scene — including local people living their everyday lives — and the fabulous outdoor deck for viewing it all.

Hundreds of people waved excitedly as we passed by.

The itinerary included  carefully planned stops — a favorite was a visit to the Uros people on their reed islands at Lake Titicaca. Another was a stop to see 6,000-year-old cave paintings in volcanic stone created by nomadic herdsmen.

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A young Peruvian boy waves to the Belmond Andean Explorer. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Some of the folks knew the train was coming — such as at La Raya, at 14,150 feet one of the highest points on the line. They smiled. They were hospitable. And they were ready to sell. But not to worry: the handicrafts — especially the textiles — are exquisite and excellent buys.

And speaking of altitude, consult your doctor before travel. Our highest point was 14,200 feet in Saradocha, where we stopped for the night.

Several passengers (I was one) experienced headaches and some shortness of breath here. But the fabulous, cheerful nurse, Liz Mery Fuentes Galvez, took great care of us and administered oxygen. (Each cabin has a box with an oxygen tank, just in case.)

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Chugging high in the Peruvian altiplano during the afternoon of the luxury train’s third and final day. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

With the altitude came some of the most striking scenery — the Andes — the second-highest mountain range in the world. But not everyone was on board to experience it.

In the middle of our third and final day, the train stopped to let off people wanting to visit Peru’s magnificent Colca Canyon.

The downside, however, is the that trip involves a long bus ride over two-lane, winding roads. And you miss the final, spectacular descent high in the Andes over some of trip’s most magnificent scenery to Arequipa.

We chose to stay on board, and we’re glad we did.

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Enjoying the views from the Belmond Andean Explorer rear, outdoor viewing area. These Peruvian youngsters, their sister and parents were delightful traveling companions. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

That last afternoon, we enjoyed several fabulous meals and hours of luxuriating on the open-air deck. We spied herds of vicunas and guanacos. We laughed with the charming, bilingual family from Lima, photographing the train as it wound around every bend.

And we were thrilled that we were among the very first to take this historic new train — the first of its kind in South America — the whole way — from Cusco (11,300 feet) to Puno at 12,600 feet, and down to Arequipa (6,900 feet).

For more information on the Belmond Andean Explorer or any of the Peruvian Belmond hotels, please call The Society of International Railway Travelers: (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725;  or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

To see a detailed itinerary of our 11-day Peru journey, which includes the Belmond Andean Explorer as well as the Belmond Hiram Bingham train to/from Machu Picchu, please click here.

 

 

 

 

Japan’s ‘Seven Stars In Kyushu’ Named A World’s Top 25 Train®

31 Mar

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The Society of International Railway Travelers® is proud to announce that the Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu, as it’s officially known, is the first Japanese train to be awarded status as a World’s Top 25 Train.®

We are also proud to announce that The Society of IRT is the first agency/tour operator in the Western Hemisphere to charter the Seven Stars. (See our 2017 tour itinerary here.) And IRT is the first to sign a contract to offer additional dates for our honored travelers.

Operated by JR Kyushu, the Seven Stars began service in  October, 2013. The luxury train was an immediate hit. Space on the train — which accommodates a maximum of 30 guests — routinely sells out many months in advance.

High demand has caused JR Kyushu to hold periodic lotteries to determine who gets to ride the Seven Stars.

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“That’s not a big problem for most Japanese, who are just a bullet train ride or two away” from Fukuoka, Kyushu, where guests board the Seven Stars, said Society of IRT CEO & founder Owen Hardy.

“But basing your travel plans on winning a lottery is unworkable for most travelers from the Western Hemisphere, who need to book flights, hotels, and itineraries months in advance.”

The Society of IRT’s package, conducted in English and accompanied by a professional English-speaking guide, solves this issue beautifully – and takes care of every other conceivable detail along the way.

Participants will spend 16 days touring some of Japan’s most famous cities – among them

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Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Hakone. They’ll ride several of Japan’s famed bullet trains. And they’ll ride special trains such as the Odakyu Romance Car, the Yurikamome Train and the Hitoyoshi steam train in Kyushu.  They can also enjoy the fabulous Sweet Train.

The tour’s “grand finale” will be the four-day trip on the Seven Stars, which is the pride of Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island.

“During my two-day trip in 2015, we were greeted at every station by throngs of smiling locals, waving flags and greeting us like royalty,” Hardy said. “They ranged in age from young children to aged grandparents. Unbelievable!”

Why the hysteria over a train — even a luxury train?

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“The Seven Stars is truly a work of art on wheels,“ said Hardy, who test-rode the train in November, 2015.

“Everywhere I turned I saw stunning fabrics, gorgeous glasswork, richly hued posters, shimmering porcelain. Most spectacular of all was the intricate floor-to-ceiling woodwork from a variety of trees of varying colors.

“The cuisine is “as beautiful as it is tasty,” Hardy continued. “And the expert staff exude a combination of Asian elegance and hospitality with genuine warmth.”

The Seven Stars more than deserves its “World’s Top 25 Train®” status, he added, placing it among such luxury rail stars as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Belmond Royal Scotsman, and the Golden Eagle.

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IRT is also holding space on Kyushu’s equally popular Sweet Train, which runs between Sasebo and Nagasaki. Much like its “big sister,” the Seven Stars, the Sweet Train is a delightful amalgam of design, delicious food and impeccable service, Hardy says.

Space on the “Deluxe Rail Journey of Japan” group tour is booking steadily. To download a PDF copy of the itinerary (2.7 MB), click here.  Then contact us:

2-Train Luxury Tour Revels in Peru’s Culture, Beauty, Spirit

20 Jan
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IRT passengers enjoying the outdoor viewing area on the Belmond Hiram Bingham. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy.

Is Peru on your top 10 bucket list?

You’re not alone. It’s one of the world’s hottest travel destinations.

Peru offers “truly some of the most breathtaking and inspiring scenery in the world,” says IRT’s President, Eleanor Flagler Hardy, who counts Peru as one of her favorite destinations.

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Belmond Andean Explorer lounge

“Crossing the Peruvian Altiplano (aboard a luxury train), with the Andes in the background, is astonishing,” she says.

When Belmond — the company that gives you, among other luxury trains, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express — announced it was debuting this summer its new luxury train, the Belmond Andean Explorer, we knew we had to be on it.

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Belmond Andean Explorer bedroom

The result is our tour  Peru: Journey to a Lost World.

The special tour runs June 1-11 using the Belmond Hiram Bingham luxury day train between Cusco and Machu Picchu.

The tour uses the Belmond Andean Explorer overnight luxury train for the three days and two nights between Cusco, Puno (Lake Titicaca) and Arequipa. Other dates also are available.

Why go? Peru is a fabulous destination, Mrs. Hardy says.

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

Its friendly people, rustic luxury, glorious five-star hotels, great dining, amazing architecture and fascinating culture make this a “must do” journey. Every IRT journey to Peru has been a huge hit.

To download a copy of this special itinerary, click here.

To download a PDF describing the new train and its itineraries in pictures, diagrams and words, click here.

Call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Belmond Grand Hibernian: IRT’s Newest World’s Top 25

16 Sep
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IRT Society guests gather for dinner in the “Wexford” dining car, whose tables are arranged for six, allowing for wonderful socializing.   IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

With bagpipes peeling and young Irish dancers snapping out lively rhythms, members of The Society of International Railway Travelers® christened Ireland’s first luxury train, the Belmond Grand Hibernian. Our tour ran Aug. 30 – Sept. 5.

We were thrilled to be the first official group on board and to experience the beautiful train —shining navy and chrome outside and muted greys, greens, buff and rose inside.

Such was the beauty, elegance and spirit of the fledgling train and its staff — not to mention Ireland itself —that we were proud to announce on board its new status as one of our  “World’s Top 25 Trains®

While not perfect, the Belmond Grand Hibernian seems to be clearly aiming for the stars.

We have no doubt it soon will shine as brightly as the other luxury trains in Belmond’s  firmament (the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Belmond Royal Scotsman, Eastern & Oriental Express and Peru’s Belmond Hiram Bingham, to name a few).

The IRT Society chartered the entire Belmond Grand Hibernian — a first in our company’s 33-year history. Our itinerary was the seven-day “Grand Tour of Ireland.”

The result was a rolling, rollicking party among friends old and new. From breakfast in the two beautiful diners through days of touring Ireland’s iconic sites to live music or storytelling nightly in the bar car, the merriment seldom flagged.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian staff Mark O’Doherty and Stevie Devine ham it up for a photographer on the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

We enjoyed sumptuous meals: delicious appetizers, inventive main courses—the freshest seafood, for example—with tasty, freshly baked breads and wonderful desserts — all locally sourced and prepared on board.

Chef Alan Woods outdid himself. Previously head chef at the Michelin-starred Thorton’s in Dublin, he showcased the very best and freshest Irish ingredients.

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Tea time aboard the Belmond Grand Hibernian. All food is locally sourced and prepared fresh on board. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Dishes included roast Killarney venison loin, fresh seafood from the Beara Peninsula, Donegal turf-smoked salmon and traditional seafood chowder. All were spectacular.  And with drinks included in the fare, we put a serious dent in the bar car’s stock as well.

We visited such landmarks as Blarney and Ashford Castles and Connemara National Park. We tried our hands at falconry, tasted triple-pot distilled whiskys at the Jameson works, enjoyed afternoon tea with Lord and Lady Waterford — and toured the famous crystal workshop that bears their name.

We visited the amazing Titanic Experience in Belfast. Almost all these visits were exquisitely arranged — and often private or after-hours.

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IRT travelers (at left) Maria Vera Rossell and Jose Becerra Martin, and (at right) Orlando Herrera, enjoy a “jaunting cart” ride through Connemara National Park to the Lakes of Killarney. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

Most special of all, though, was our time aboard the Belmond Grand Hibernian itself.

The train  truly is an “Irish country house on wheels.” The stylish Belmond Grand Hibernian, with its navy blue and chrome livery, and its friendly, eager-to-please, youthful staff shared the spotlight for “best in show” on this trip.

“You can teach people to do tasks,” said J.P. Kavanaugh, Belmond Grand Hibernian General Manager. “But you can’t teach attitude.”  And an upbeat, can-do, super-friendly attitude was what they delivered.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian Second Chef Ursula Fischer poses behind bread and pastries just out of the on-board ovens. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

To be sure, the maiden run of anything as unusual as a privately owned, five-star hotel on wheels is going to have glitches. That’s especially true on government-owned tracks and under the supervision of a publicly operated railway.

For the Belmond Grand Hibernian, they ranged from the most serious — a carriage door, which temporarily malfunctioned — to occasional tardiness filling breakfast orders and coffee cups or a trashcan not being emptied.

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IRT traveler John Cordukes prepares to “launch” his “falcon” (actually, a Harris hawk) during a        “Hawk Walk” sponsored by the Irish School of Falconry at the Ashford Castle.                                                    IRT Photo by Owen Hardy             

But overall, the trip ran quite smoothly, both on train and off. (The carriage door malfunction meant that the train could not travel, as planned, to Belfast. We did that by motorcoach.)

And in the “off-train” category, we need to single out our indefatigable, silken-voiced guide, Marie Fitzpatrick. She was all the things you hope for in a person you’ve entrusted to spend a week telling you where to go and what to see.

As our first-ever train charter, the IRT Society had plenty riding on this trip. Our sold-out Belmond Grand Hibernian (capacity: 40 passengers in 20 luxury cabins) was the result.

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Wearing her evening uniform, a Belmond Grand Hibernian staff member tidies up in dining car “Wexford.” The train’s cars are named after Ireland’s counties. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

And how certain are we that the Belmond Grand Hibernian has a brilliant future?

Just this: I traveled on it Aug. 29 on a pre-tour “test drive,” after which I immediately requested a charter for 2017. I know it will be that popular — and that space will be hard to get.

Our Belmond Grand Hibernian departure for next year will be Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 2017. Click here for more information.

• • •

Once the Belmond Grand Hibernian returned to Dublin’s Heuston Station, we said our fond goodbyes. Then a group of nine IRT travelers continued the party with a visit to, among other places, a jaw-dropping country estate known as Ballyfin.

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IRT President Eleanor Hardy plays “Downton Abbey” while breakfasting at the Irish country estate turned resort, Ballyfin. Behind her are other IRT guests. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, and you want to get as close as possible to living the life of a titled gentleman or lady, Ballyfin is the place to indulge your fantasy.

Our post-tour itinerary included a visit to Birr Castle, built in the 1620s and ancestral home to the Seventh Earl of Rosse, Brendan Parsons.

Lord and Lady Rosse hosted our group for a private luncheon, a tour of the castle, and a stroll through the magnificent grounds (including a look at the gigantic telescope “Leviathan,” constructed by an ancestor in the 1840s and the world’s largest until 1914.)

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IRT post-tour group members pose with Brendan Parsons, Seventh Earl of Rosse, in front of Birr Castle, constructed by an ancestor in the 1620s. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

Again, for more info on our Belmond Grand Hibernian charter next year, as well as pre- and post-tour itineraries, please click here or call (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725. (We have already booked 10 rooms at Ballyfin. Please let us know if you would like to be among the lucky ones to stay here.)

• • •

After we bade farewell to our Ballyfin friends, Eleanor and I spent two nights trying out the Sheen Falls Lodge, a Virtuoso hotel and Relais & Chateau property in Kenmare, County Kerry.

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The view from the balcony of our suite at Sheen Falls Lodge, Kenmare, County Kerry. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

We highly recommend it for its obvious pleasures: the cozy fires in the many fireplaces, the roaring waterfall in full view from our fantastic suite, and the lovely candlelit dining.

But its staff also was vital for their expert advice:  dining at Kenmare’s incredible new restaurant, the Mews, and hiking at Gleninchaquin, a working sheep farm with magnificent views, waterfalls and people (don’t leave before enjoying Pete’s homemade scones and conversation at the tea house.).

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View of the ever-changing Irish countryside on an Irish Rail train bound for Dublin. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

The Sheen Falls folks also helped us plan our Irish Rail transportation.

We rode Irish Rail for the post-Ballyfin leg of our trip. I’m happy to report the experience — while not the Belmond Grand Hibernian — was relaxing and pleasant. We  enjoyed it thoroughly — punctual and clean, with pleasant food service from the trolley.

• • •

We’d be remiss if we did not report on our warm welcome to Ireland at the fabulous Virtuoso hotel, The Merrion, in Dublin. It was all we hoped it would be—and more.

marrionhotel

Dublin’s Marrion Hotel. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Historic, gorgeous, fantastic dining and great service—spectacular afternoon tea. Our welcome cocktail party here in the historic Wellington Room was one of the best ever, our guests proclaimed.

Suffice it to say that we will recommend The Merrion to all of our Belmond Grand Hibernian guests.

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