Tag Archives: Society of IRT

VSOE Uncorks the Bubbly with Open Doors for Istanbul Tours, Champagne Bar, Berlin Visit

3 Apr
OrientExpressCrest

Classic Orient-Express crest. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

The most famous “World’s Top 25 Train®” has much to celebrate .

Booking doors just swung open for rare spots on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’ annual Istanbul extravaganzas — for 2016. (2015 sold out long ago.)

Dates for the 6-day, 7-country  Paris-Istanbul tour are Aug. 26-21, 2016.  Istanbul – Venice is Sept. 2 – 7, 2016. See prices here.

Space already is dwindling, due to heavy sales to wait-listed clients (some have been in line for 2 years or more). Cabin suites remain for the Paris-Istanbul journey; both classes of service for Istanbul-Venice. Email IRT or call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725 for more info. To book, click here.

Meanwhile, the VSOE makes its first trip to Berlin next year via Venice, and London / Paris. Dates are June 1-6, 2016. Also in 2016: transfers to/from the VSOE in Venice will be included in the fare.

Lalique_Detail

Lalique Panel from Côte d’Azur dining car. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

And this season, guests traveling south from London to Venice can enjoy something brand new: a celebratory champagne breakfast in the train’s “Côte d’Azur’ restaurant car. The diner, with its striking, Art Deco Lalique crystal nudes, features a 20-seat “Champagne Bar” in the corner of the car. Hours are 8-10 a.m.

The breakfast hour is timed to take advantage of the optimum scenery of the Swiss lake region, according to Valerie Ottofaro, Director of Sales, Trains & River Cruises.

Finally, a new concept — the “Simplon Suite” — shortly will be available exclusively to guests booked in “Cabin Suites,” which are two Double Cabins connected by an interior door.

Among “Simplon Suite” benefits are private transfers to/from appropriate stations and priority reservations for the aforementioned Champagne Breakfast spots. They’ll also receive a “luxury amenity” and “free-flowing champagne” in their private quarters. Price is £250 (about $370) per person.

VSOE champagne on ice. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

VSOE champagne on ice. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Most intriguing to this VSOE fan is the Champagne Breakfast. The menu, designed by VSOE head chef Christian Bodiguel, includes a luxurious and mouth-watering selection of freshly baked breads, smoked salmon, eggs, truffles and caviar. Guests can book the special breakfast with the cabin steward once on board. Cost is 100 Euros (about $110) per person.

In the evening, the Champagne Bar offers many champagne varieties, sold either by the glass or the bottle, with champagne cocktails, some bespoke.

Hungarian military band greets guests during annual, over-the-top VSOE Paris-Istanbul sojourn. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Hungarian military band greets guests during annual, over-the-top VSOE Paris-Istanbul sojourn. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

“The brand-new bar will add to the sense of occasion and give guests more of an excuse to celebrate aboard the world’s most famous train,” said Ms. Ottofaro.

Speaking of the 2016 Berlin itinerary, Ms. Ottofaro said: “Timings are subject to railway confirmation. Arrival in Berlin will be be approximately 6:30 p.m. Berlin departure is estimated to be 11 a.m.

“Our tour manager, Simon Wallace, is currently working on inclusive package experiences in support of this new destination,” Ms. Ottofaro added.

Pullman Rail Journeys Reborn on Fabled City of New Orleans

20 Jun

02-IMG_1934By Zane Katsikis

Revise the Pullman name? Bring back Pullman’s first-class service? With up-to-date Pullman cars based in Chicago?

Even if the magician behind all this was Ed Ellis, I was skeptical. Many people had tried such schemes before and failed.

Ellis is the visionary leader of Iowa Pacific Holdings (IPH). Formed in 2001, IPH is involved in a growing number of main- and short-line freight and passenger rail ventures throughout North America and elsewhere.

IPH prides itself on its expert operation of successful, for-profit, rail-related services. And it doesn’t shy away from running passenger trains. In all, IPH controls 10 passenger rail operations in the U.S., Peru and the United Kingdom. A year ago in April, IPH took the plunge with its Pullman Sleeper Car Company, LLC (PSCC).

Pullman Rail Journeys chose New Orleans as its first destination for several reasons.

First, Ellis grew up in Paducah, KY, near the Illinois Central main line connecting Chicago and New Orleans, and he’s partial to it. Second, and more practically, Amtrak’s daily train to Louisiana, the City of New Orleans, has capacity to haul extra cars, and New Orleans terminal has space for extra cars as well.

Pontchartrain Club started out as a coach, built by the Pullman Company in 1917 for the Illinois Central Railroad. Photo by Zane Katsikis

Pontchartrain Club started out as a coach, built by the Pullman Company in 1917 for the Illinois Central Railroad. Photo by Zane Katsikis

One day in late April, I stepped off Amtrak’s California Zephyr in Chicago, ready to try out Ellis’ revived Pullman service. Union Station was extremely busy, and neither Red Caps nor harried Amtrak information agents could help me find the Pullman lounge. Finally an Amtrak police officer directed me to the Pullman Rail Journeys booth in Amtrak’s First-Class Metropolitan Lounge.

My train consisted of two cars. One was sleeper Chebanse, an 8-roomette/6-bedroom sleeper formerly owned by Florida East Coast Railway. The more important car was at the tail end: heavyweight round-end observation/lounge/sleeper Pontchartrain Club, built in 1917 for the Illinois Central Railroad. Both cars were smartly painted in classic IC colors. I was even more pleased when lead porter Paul Carter directed me to bedroom C on Pontchartrain Club.

24-IMG_1966

A Pullman waiter serves passengers in the round-end observation car at the train’s rear. IRT photo by Zane Katsikis

Ellis and IPH say they want to recreate the “Pullman Experience” of attention to detail, comfort and style. And walking to the observation area of Pontchartrain Club, I couldn’t help noticing the difference from Amtrak’s standard stainless steel and ubiquitous plastic décor.

I quickly settled into a plush easy chair near the round end. Almost immediately, waiter Jeremy Kniola offered me a glass of crispy Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. I relaxed in my armchair as I watched the City’s back-up move out of Union Station.

Soon we were heading south on the former Illinois Central mainline. Waiter Kniola called us to dinner, and we took our places around the well-appointed Pontchartrain Club table. Only six passengers — the entire passenger load that day — joined me. (Pullman Rail Journeys says it’s still in its “shake-down” phase. While it doesn’t turn away paying passengers, it’s focusing on getting the word out to the travel industry.)

Chef somebody or other prepares the evening meal. IRT photo by Zane Katsikis

Pullman Rail Journeys chef prepares the evening meal. IRT photo by Zane Katsikis

Dinner was my trip’s highlight. Executive Chef Dan Traynor spent close to a year studying Pullman’s high-quality menus, service and recipes. Moreover, in a previous life, Chef Traynor worked aboard the dome cars of the Holland America cruise line in Alaska. He understood the art of cooking in miniscule spaces.

Chef Traynor caters to many taste palates, as our menus confirmed. A relish tray preceded the salad course. Then we enjoyed a selection of four main courses including grilled seasonal vegetables for the non-carnivores among us. An off-train commissary prepared most of the dishes, which were then finished on board.

I polished off my dessert of frozen chocolate mousse with raspberries, as we rolled over former Illinois Central track through Kankakee and Rantoul, Ill. The roadbed was glass smooth.

While the train was stopped at Champaign-Urbana, I made my way to my bedroom. During my pre-bed ablutions, I concluded that Pullman Rail Journeys would be a much-heralded success, if the evening and dinner’s quality could be replicated on every trip.

21-IMG_1958The long, early-morning station stop at Memphis aroused me from my slumber. But I couldn’t leave the train to stretch my legs, as the Pullman cars extended beyond the end of the Memphis platform! No matter. The 400-mile-ride from Champaign-Urbana to Memphis had been comfortable; I hadn’t detected any unnecessary movement in the old car. I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

I showered, dressed and headed to the lounge end of Pontchartrain Club. Though no newspaper was available, I took advantage of the fine onboard Wi-Fi service to check on life beyond the rails before taking my seat for breakfast.

11-IMG_1947The meal was tasty, with freshly prepared fried eggs served with ham, fresh fruit and a glass of grapefruit juice, all accompanied with freshly brewed Bridgeport Coffee. But the meal proved to be an “adventure.”

The 126-mile, single-track mainline south of Memphis to Greenwood, Miss. is in poor shape. Waiters had trouble pouring liquids. Keeping plates on the table was a challenge. Looking out Pontchartrain Club’s big windows, I noticed many railroad work crews: a hopeful sign. (In fact, the track’s current owner, Canadian National, recently said it plans to bring the tracks back to Class 1 standards.)

I retired to my room for an early-morning nap. Later, I returned to the lounge to watch the languid, verdant Mississippi countryside roll by outside the large windows.

Lunch was announced a few minutes after the Hazlehurst, Miss. stop. Once again, we found ourselves around the large table for another fine meal. My main course was excellent: capellini Pomodoro — angel hair pasta with a tomato cream sauce, tossed with roasted cherry tomatoes, fresh basil and mozzarella.

Shortly after our stop at quaint Hammond, La., we came to the scenic highlight of the trip: the dash across 630-square-mile Lake Pontchartrain. For 45 minutes, The City of New Orleans was an ocean-going vessel, leaving parallel highways out of sight.

We crossed numerous bridges and viaducts, allowing us glimpses of Louisiana’s wild wetlands. Somewhere out there in the mangrove swamps near the tracks, Conductor Moore told us, were snapping turtles and alligators sunning themselves on downed trees.

All too soon — 30 minutes early, in fact — we backed into New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal. Leaving the station, I made my way to the new Loyola Avenue streetcar stop just outside the station. Looking back, I wished Ed Ellis and his dedicated colleagues well. It had been an excellent trip.

This service deserves to succeed.

Prices for the Pullman Rail Journeys accommodations range from $500 for a single, upper berth in a sectional sleeper (with curtains; bathroom and shower down the hall) to $2,850 for two sharing a Master Bedroom, which includes en suite shower, sink and toilet. The private service is attached to the rear of Amtrak’s daily City of New Orleans. The train departs Chicago at 8 p.m., arriving the next day in New Orleans at 3:32 p.m.; it departs New Orleans at 1:45 p.m., arriving in Chicago the next day at 9 a.m. For more information or to book, call IRT.  The Society  can book this for you as an independent one-night trip or as part of a multi-leg rail package.

For over 30 years, IRT International Editor Zane Katsikis has traveled the world by passenger train. In addition to writing about his rail travels, he works in the food and wine industry. We are delighted to welcome Zane’s great reporting and photographs to Track 25!

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

25 Jun

Third Class local passenger train at Nam Tok station. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Editor’s note: To read Part I of Mr. Anderson’s adventures, please click here.

After deciding to book the Epic Thailand trip on the Eastern & Oriental Express (persuaded by Eleanor Hardy’s Track 25 blog), I opted to add the short Singapore-Bangkok route to the beginning of my adventure so that I could experience and see even more of this fascinating South Asian region. But unexpected hiccups while en-route to Bangkok left me wondering whether I’d make my primary Epic Thailand departure…

Eastern & Oriental Express at sunset. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Our Singapore-Bangkok itinerary was thrown off course first by a stalled local train in Malaysia and then by an engine failure just across the Thai border (the E&O is contracted by law to use only Malaysian and Thai Railway locomotives), putting us significantly behind schedule, so much so that the side trip to the Kwai River Bridge was abandoned so that we could make a more timely arrival into Bangkok. So although I’d be able to join the IRT group departing on the Epic Thailand tour the next morning (Phew!), I was disappointed that I’d missed seeing the famous Kwai River Bridge.

E & O observation car with bartenders Sopa & Andrek. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

My disappointment, however, was short-lived. The Eastern & Oriental Express staff arranged a complementary private car and guide to drive me out to Nam Tok upon my return to Bangkok, following my week-long Epic Thailand adventure. This was just one more shining example of the E&O’s outstanding commitment to customer service and satisfaction.

Despite Bangkok’s horrendous traffic, the trip to the Kwai Bridge was worth every exertion. Once across the bridge, I saw the two plinthed steam locomotives on site and had time for a brief visit to the cemetery before our return trip to the capital.

For more information and for reservations on the Eastern & Oriental Express, visit the Society of International Railway Traveler’s website or call us at (800) 478-4881.

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

4 Jun

The Kwai River Bridge. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

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

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

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

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

Conductor on local train. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

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

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

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

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

Gran Lujo: A Grand Upgrade

15 Nov

The staff of the El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo welcome passengers aboard in Ferrol, Spain. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

The neatly uniformed staff snaps to attention as we approach El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo at Ferrol Station. As we settle into the lovely lounge car, the staff serves champagne all around.

Our tour manager, Barbara Callisto, with her charming, infectious smile, introduces the staff, explains the train layout and toasts the trip ahead, first in Spanish, then English. This grand and intimate introduction would set the tone for my trip, which I enjoyed just two weeks ago.

It lived up to some of my expectations and exceeded others. Its operator, FEVE, proved once again that its trains are firmly ensconced in the Society of IRT’s World’s Top 25 Trains list. The Gran Lujo began service in May 2011 as an upgraded version of the El Transcantábrico Clásico, which I already knew was a fabulous train. I had high expectations.

The Gran Lujo comprises refurbished cars from the Clásico train set, with upgrades and improvements throughout. Seven sleeping cars from the Clásico were gutted and redone, doubling the size of the suites and alleviating one of the few complaints of the Clásico experience: cabins that are too small. Each Gran Lujo suite takes up half a train car.

My comfy suite on Gran Lujo. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

My room is Suite Princess 6, one of the four twin-bedded suites on the Gran Lujo. First, I notice the layout—surprisingly spacious for  a narrow-gauge train—twin beds, two windows (which open), couch, table, two stools, wardrobe, chest of drawers, desk with computer and two television screens(!) Not to mention a full en-suite bathroom, complete with the most complicated shower I’ve ever encountered – functions for three shower types, hydro-massage and sauna.

The twin beds are side by side, separated by a narrow aisle. At the end of the one bed is a narrow wardrobe with eight hangers and three shelves; at the end of the other is a chest containing three drawers.

I quickly unpack my things, easily fitting them into the storage space provided. (Note, however, that I am traveling alone. Couples booking a twin-bedded suite may end up fighting over the eight hangers. Double-bedded suites have a wardrobe twice the size of the original, extra hangers to match, but no chest.) Then I tuck my suitcase in a hidden compartment under the couch.

Watching the passing Northern Spain scenery from my suite window. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

I explore every bit of the suite, with distressed wood paneling, decorated in grays and browns. I discover a minibar, safe and several more clever places for storage, including the stools which open for an unexpected storage box.

Technology has been successfully incorporated into the suites – there is digital climate control as well as a panel to operate the cabin “entertainment” — three channels of music and a fourth, which turns on the television screens. If the passing Northern Spain scenery and off-train tours are not enough for you, there are movies, news and weather available, as well as a computer with internet access.

The train has wireless internet, but this does not work while the train is moving, and on my trip is not reliable the first few days, even when the train is stabled .

Each morning breakfast is served on board – a buffet including a variety of breads and sweets, cereal, fruit, yogurt, crackers, meats and cheeses, juices and Spanish tortilla. The biggest draw at breakfast quickly becomes the freshly carved Iberian ham. Delicious!

At breakfast, the efficient staff serves me freshly squeezed orange juice and offers me coffee. They also give me a

Fresh orange juice is served by the efficient staff of the El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

menu—in addition to the buffet, there is a full breakfast menu, with offerings such as crepes (with chocolate, strawberry, caramel or a variety of jams), caviar canapé, and made-to-order eggs, including omelets with your choice of ham, mushrooms, sausage, bacon and cheese.

After a few days, the staff has memorized the coffee orders and delivers it without asking – in my case, café con leche.

One dining car seats 16 and is decorated in gold and brown, with comfy plush chairs at tables for two. Beautifully latticed panels cover the lights. At each table is a lamp by the window. The other dining car seats 10 at tables for two and is decorated in red and light brown.

There’s a bar at the end of this car, where the morning coffee is brewed and drinks are served throughout the day.

Walking through this dining car offers a glimpse of your week ahead: the walls are decorated with paintings of sightseeing along the route, such as Playa de Catedral (Cathedral Beach), which we will walk along in a few days. Likewise, the beautifully painted panels above the windows colorfully depict stops along the way, as well as the train itself.

Tables for two in one of the Gran Lujo dining cars set for a four-course lunch on board. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

Table settings are complete with El Transcantábrico plates, cups and glasses. Other than breakfast, we take our meals off the train in restaurants to sample the local cuisine. However, lunch is served on board the last day, giving us a chance to enjoy the service and watch the passing scenery.

It is also the perfect time to enjoy the lounge car, with a panel of panoramic windows, two cream couches, two armchairs and three tables, each with three chairs, seating 17 in all. Many of my fellow passengers linger here after breakfast, reading the numerous newspapers provided daily.

There is also a “disco car” in the consist, where live music is performed several nights during the journey. This has two big couches, two smaller couches and a dance floor, as well as a bar – and stays open and lively until the last person retires. The last night there’s a farewell party in the disco car, where the staff cheers everyone and crowns a “Mr. & Ms. Transcantabrico,” all in good fun.

Breakfast crepes were just one of many offerings on Gran Lujo. IRT photo by Angela Walker

The staff are not many, but they’re efficient. There are five serving and two engineers, and the driver, as well as the train manager, Paula. And of course, there is our ever-upbeat, energetic and helpful Barbara, who speaks five languages and happily explains everything in Spanish and English.

Our diverse group includes 18 Spanish-speakers from Spain and Mexico and five English-speakers, hailing from Australia, the U.S., England and Switzerland. Our train, running in late October, is the last of the season. Carrying just 23 passengers, it’s not full, making for an even more intimate experience.

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo, one of the World’s Top 25 Trains. Photo by Angela Walker.

The Gran Lujo is, without a doubt, an upgrade from the Clásico El Transcantábrico, and well deserves a place among the world’s great luxury trains. The design is well thought-out, making the most of the narrow-gauge space.

The staff is efficient and experienced, and the cabins are attractive, large and comfortable.

Besides the train, the touring and food (so much food!) were highlights, which require separate blog posts of their own.

Have you been on board the new train? Please let us know your impressions! (IRT’s Angela Walker, who has reviewed many of the World’s Top 25 Trains for IRT,  just returned from her eight-day journey across Northern Spain on Gran Lujo, traveling from Santiago to San Sebastian. This is the first of several posts. To see more of her photos, please click here.)

Spain’s Luxury Al-Andalus Resumes Operation in 2012

17 Oct
Al-AndalusSouthern Spain’s opulent, broad-gauge Al-Andalus is scheduled to return to the rails May, 2012, with its 1920s-era cars newly renovated. The train cancelled departures in May, 2005, following problems with its operator, Iberrail. It has been inactive since that time.

“We’re thrilled Al-Andalus is back on the rails,” said Eleanor Hardy, president of The Society of International Railway Travelers®. The Society is a world-wide booking agent for Al-Andalus, whose amenities include a bar, tea room and two dining cars, as well as all-en suite cabins.

The six-day, five-night tour will begin/end in Seville, with stops in Córdoba, Granada, Cádiz and Jerez. The train’s itinerary combines fine dining and wine with visits to iconic Spanish tourist sites, many of whom have won UNESCO World Heritage status.

Tour highlights include visits to the famed Alhambra, the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, and Doñana Natural Park, largest of its kind in Europe. Owned by RENFE, operator of Spain’s broad-gauge and high-speed services, Al-Andalus will be run by FEVE, the public authority responsible for narrow-
gauge services in N. Spain.
“Al Andalus couldn’t be in better hands,” said Hardy. “Since 1983, FEVE has run the popular luxury train El Transbantábrico with great success. This year it introduced the new luxury service El Transbantábrico Gran Lujo. They’re very experienced in the business of running high-end rail tours.”
Al-Andalus
Al-Andalus prices start at €2,500 (about $3,500 U.S.) per person, double, standard class; €2,950 (about $4,100 U.S.) per person, double, superior class. IRT will review the train soon after its seasons begins next spring.  We’re confident it will be a huge success because IRT guests who took this train before it ceased operation are still talking about it; others have asked about it for years. To book, please call (800) 478-4881 in the U.S. and Canada; elsewhere, please call (502) 454-0277. To see a detailed itinerary, please click here.
Will it be a World’s Top 25 Train? What do you think?

VIA’s Luxury Canadian: Booking to start soon

28 Sep

Editor’s Note (April 2012): The new Deluxe Class on VIA Rail’s Canadian has been delayed, and is now expected to come on board in 2013.  Stay tuned to this blog for updates.

Sunrise on the Canadian

Sunrise on the Canadian. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

VIA Rail Canada’s “New Canadian” makes its debut next summer on its tri- weekly Toronto-Vancouver run. VIA has invested $22 million for a total renovation of sleeping cars into what VIA describes as a luxury boutique hotel-on-wheels branded as “Deluxe Sleeper Class.”

These all-bedroom cars will have only six rooms per car, each with en-suite bathroom including private shower, larger windows, and a flat-screen TV. Improvements also include a double bed, leather sofa, and refrigerator along with upgraded linens and amenities.

Deluxe Sleeper Class

VIA's new Deluxe Sleeper Class. Photo/VIA Rail Canada

Passengers also will enjoy priority boarding from dedicated lounges in Toronto and Vancouver, priority luggage handling, a specially assigned attendant and turn-down service, and priority dining car reservations along with all-day room service. Breakfast and afternoon are served in your compartment. Another unique perk: a personal introduction to the train engineer.

In addition to adding the Deluxe Sleeper Class cars,  VIA has upgraded the décor of its traditional Pullman-style sleeping accommodations. And all Deluxe and Touring Class passengers will continue to have access to the renovated diners, Skyline Dome and Park Observation cars. (Renovated Park Cars also will be offering a handicapped accessible bedroom for the first time.)

Gourmet meals aboard Via's Canadian

Gourmet meals aboard VIA Canadian. Photo/VIA Rail Canada

Tickets for Deluxe Sleeper Class can be booked very soon –– VIA agents said the booking starts tomorrow for journeys in this new class starting June, 2012 and going through mid-September. Fares have yet to be published but are said to cost several thousand more per person than the current Sleeper  Touring Class.  Pricing has not been publicly released. For budget-minded travelers, “Comfort Class” — basically coach — is still available, although utilized mostly by local passengers going to or from intermediate stops in route.

With domes no longer in regular Amtrak service, it’s good to know that these unique creations can still be enjoyed three days a week just north of the border in a 1950’s classic American streamliner — but now updated to 21st-Century standards.

The Canadian has been plying the rails between Toronto and Vancouver since it was first introduced by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1955.

Consistently named one of the “World’s Top 25 Trains” by the Society of International Railway Travelers, this classic Budd-built streamliner remains a throwback to what North American passenger trains were all about, including its art deco lounges and diner, traditional Pullman-style roomettes, bedrooms, and drawing room. It even retains some traditional sections, with privacy provided by a flimsy curtain (think Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot.”)

Editors note: Car descriptions are based on VIA publicity and have not been personally reviewed, as they are not yet in service. IRT plans to see the new equipment as soon as possible and to sample the new service as soon as it begins next summer. Let us know: is the new deluxe sleeper class something you’ll want to book?

Last Frontier: The Silk Road

22 Sep

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

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

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

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

Chinese waitress on the Shangri-La Express

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

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

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

Chris Fuller aboard the Trans-Siberian Express

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crescent Spring

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

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

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

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

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

Trans-Siberian Express Adds Luxurious Suites, Upgrades Restaurant Cars, Services

20 Aug

The Imperial Suite, newest and largest accommodations on the Golden Eagle (Photo by GW Travel)

Want to do the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express but worried about tight quarters?

Starting next year, you can book the new, extra-large Imperial Suite on the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, the top private train in Russia and Central Asia.

The Golden Eagle train set will have one Imperial Suite, according to the train’s operator, GW Travel. The dining cars and services also are being upgraded.

The Imperial Suite measures 120 square feet and will boast a luxurious, fixed, king-sized bed and a dedicated sitting area with dressing table. It also will include a large en-suite shower, under-floor heating, individual air-conditioning, wardrobe, DVD/CD player, and two large picture windows.

Imperial Suite guests will receive a selection of complimentary drinks from the premium bar list, complimentary laundry service, and room upgrades to the next available category at selected hotels (depending on trip itinerary). They also will have the option of dining in-suite, attended by their private butler.

The wait staff on a Golden Eagle dining car in their new uniforms (Photo by GW Travel)

Meanwhile, the two dining cars on the train – 64-seats on each – have been redesigned to allow guests more space while simultaneously adding a central buffet area for some self-service breakfast items. New china and crystal and new staff uniforms will also be visible aboard the Golden Eagle next year.

The news we’re most excited about affects the entire train: improving communication on board and upping the level of service and the dining experience. The position of maitre d’ has been added to improve communication between the wait staff, kitchen, and passengers, and a new executive chef will introduce a new level of quality and presentation in the dining car menus. All of these are being implemented this season. We have a number of Society of IRT guests on board who will report when they return from Russia.

In addition to Russian, new Golden Eagle Maitre D’ Yekaterina Borovikova speaks fluent English and French. Photo by GW Travel

Other enhancements include new bathrobes and towels, new l’Occitane on-board toiletries, internet connections in the bar car, gift certificate and a coffee table memory book for all passengers, and new wireless headsets for off-train excursions.

Also, a champagne reception is being added for guests departing from Moscow’s Kazansky Station and, in Vladivostok, the “Far East Fleet Orchestra” will play for passengers on arrival and departure;

For Silk Road travelers, a reception will be held at Registan Square, and a light show will entertain guests in Samarkand.

To view the itineraries available on the Golden Eagle, please click here. For more information, call (800) 478-4881 in the U.S. and Canada, (502) 454-0277 elsewhere.

And if you’ve traveled on this train, let us know what you think.

Rovos Rail’s “Pride of Africa” is A True Home Away from Home

11 Aug

The Pride of Africa on the bridge over the Zambezi River between Zambia and Tanzania.  Society of IRT photo by O. Hardy

At the end of our recent Cape Town-Dar es Salaam Rovos Rail trip, they made us leave the train. We could have cried.

For two weeks, we pampered passengers had become almost infantile in our utter dependence and sloth. Coddled and cuddled, we’d adopted Rovos’ Pride of Africa luxury train as our home away from home.

But Rovos’ version of home is tons better than the stationary variety. Consider the following, all included in the fare: laundry service, hair salon, drinks 24 hours a day (alcoholic and otherwise), ample breakfasts, extraordinary four-course lunches and dinners with great South African wines.

Add to that afternoon tea with delicious sandwiches and cakes, and two lounge cars which don’t close until the last guest drags back to his compartment.

Then add in huge suites with king-size beds, ample storage space, mini-bar stocked with complimentary liquor, beer, wine and whatever else is on board, private shower, toilet and sink, and – best of all – windows that open.

IRT Traveler John Friedmann stands at the back of the rear lounge car. Society of IRT photo by O. Hardy

That last point is vital. Photographers have a field day on the Pride of Africa, what with all the windows that fully slide down, plus the gigantic open-air platform at the end of the rear lounge car. Even if you don’t use a camera, the wind-in-the-face connection you get with the African countryside, animals and people is immediate and palpable.

Laundresses ironing in utility car. Society of IRT photo by O. Hardy

Rovos staff, meanwhile, are charming, hard-working and competent. On our trip, that was true of the laundry ladies, ironing away in a forward utility car. It was true of our two expert wine stewards, Gareth and Michael, as well as the dining car servers and cabin attendants and the engineer.

It was true of Train Manager Daphne Mabala, to whose usual duties were added the tasks of negotiating the tour past a freight derailment, late schedules and, most of all, dealing with an unseasonable freeze which knocked out the water lines on 19 of 21 cars. She also worked with us to make sure anybody who wanted them got rides in the engine’s cab in Zambia and Tanzania – a trip highlight for many members of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

Bianca Vos, railway enthusiast. Society of IRT photo by O. Hardy

And it was true of Bianca Vos, 27, daughter of founding father Rohan Vos. Ms. Vos spent a sleepless night working with Ms. Mabala on the water problem. She also mingled with guests, helped manage off-train tours and worked one of the two dining cars bussing tables, fetching coffee and serving food. No hothouse flower, Ms. Vos is a credit to her old man.

The 14-day Cape-Dar trip is Rovos Rail’s most ambitious all-rail itinerary, covering a third of the African continent, 3,568 miles on the rails.  It may be the most ambitious and most comfortable cross-continent rail trek in the world run by any company.

Rovos Rail’s crowning feature: widows that open.             Society of IRT photo by E. Hardy

It is not as long as the Trans-Siberian Express (6,600 miles). But this trip takes in major portions of South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania, while touching on parts of Botswana and Zimbabwe. There are major off-train excursions, including a two-night visit to South Africa’s Tau Game Lodge, an overnight stop at Victoria Falls and others. (More about those in a separate post)

But it’s the Pride of Africa itself that passengers write home about. As one of our guests, Mohamed Elguindy of Florida said when we were returning from Tau to the train: “We’re coming home.”

For a photo retrospective of the Society of International Railway Traveler’s July, 2011 Cape Town-Dar es Salaam tour, please click here.  If you joined us on this trip, or you’ve been before, what’s your favorite memory?

Part 2: Life on Board Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa.

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