Tag Archives: Virtuoso Travel Agency

Seven Stars Success Prompts Special Fall Japan Tour

16 Feb
Kyushu7StarsExt (1)

Japan’s Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu has set the world luxury train bar even higher, with such amenities as its “Deluxe Suite A”pictured here. JR Kyushu

 

Almost 15 months ago today, I left home for Fukuoka, Japan to ride the world’s latest – and some would say most exclusive – luxury train.

Since its introduction in October, 2013, the 28-passenger Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu has been wildly popular.

How popular?

Kyushu Railways regularly holds lotteries to see who gets to ride the Seven Stars at a price of up to $2,000 a day.

 

Now I know why. I, too, was blown away.

So much so that we named the Seven Stars the latest of our “World’s Top 25 Trains®.”

What makes the Seven Stars so special? Simply put, the train’s design rivals anything riding the rails today. (See video below.)

“OMG! I have never been on such a gorgeous train!” one of our guests wrote soon after she boarded last fall.

That’s why I’m thrilled to announce that the Seven Stars will again be a star element of our November, 2017 Japan tour. (Click here for full itinerary.)

The itinerary luxuriously showcases the charms of Kyushu, renowned for its hot springs, impressive cuisine, and natural beauty.

Sweet Train Image copy (1)More good news: we’ll again offer, as an extension, the two-hour ride between Sasebo and Nagasaki on JR Kyushu’s aptly named Sweet Train.

Working with our Virtuoso specialists, Windows to Japan, we’ve crafted a magnificent itinerary.

Our Nov. 3 – 18, 2017 tour carefully combines bullet trains, scenic trains, cultural experiences, overnights at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn), visits to gardens and shrines, and stunning natural beauty.

It occurs at a time when the fall leaves should be spectacular and the weather perfect.

And, new this year, we’re adding a ride on JR Kyushu’s SL Hitoyoshi steam train along the scenic Kuma River. Also new this year is a visit to the Kyoto Railway Museum.

The icing on the cake? The four-day Seven Stars luxury rail tour grand finale. (Did I mention we’re the first U.S. company to charter the Seven Stars?)

It’s first-come, first-served.  So join us!

For the latest on our “Deluxe Rail Journey of Japanfeaturing the Seven Stars of Kyushu this November, please click here.

Questions: please call 800-478-4881 or 502-897-1725. Or email: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Owen C. Hardy is founder and CEO of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

In Search of the Seven Stars, Society of IRT Travels to Japan

13 Nov
Kyushu7StarsExt (1)

The Seven Stars in Kyushu luxury train will be a major feature of IRT’s 2016 Japan tour. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

I leave today for Fukuoka, Japan to ride the world’s latest – and some would say most exclusive – luxury train.

Since its introduction in October, 2013, the 28-passenger Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu has been wildly popular.

How popular?

Kyushu Railways regularly holds lotteries to see who gets to ride the Seven Stars, spending up to $1,700 a day.

Deluxe-Suite-A-View_Small

The Seven Stars Deluxe Suite A. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu

I’ve tried my luck with the lottery, to no avail. That’s why I’m joining a group of European journalists next week for a special ride.

The Society of International Railway Travelers insists on personally experiencing trains before they are listed on our World’s Top 25 Trains list. And the Seven Stars will be a major element of our November, 2016 Japan tour. (Click here to get on the first notification list.)

What makes the Seven Stars so special? To judge from the photos and videos I’ve seen, the train’s design rivals anything riding the rails today. (See video below.)

Plus the itinerary luxuriously showcases the charms of Kyushu, renowned for its hot springs, impressive cuisine and natural beauty.

Sweet Train Image copy (1)

Artwork courtesy of JR Kyushu

I’ll also be testing JR Kyushu’s wonderfully named Sweet Train on a two-hour ride between Sasebo and Nagasaki. Designed by the same person as the Seven Stars, Mr. Eiji Mitooka, the Sweet Train features “French-inspired confections that are served during the journey,” according to the Japan Times.

I can’t wait!

Finally, I’ll be flying Japan Air Lines’ Business Class Chicago-Tokyo-Fukuoka round trip. If it’s anything like my last JAL flight, my experience of Japan will begin the moment I enter the cabin.

I’ll be back in this space three weeks from today with my report. In the meantime, please click here to be updated on our 2016 “Japan and the Seven Stars” tour.

Working with our Virtuoso specialists, Windows to Japan, we’re crafting what we think is a magnificent itinerary.

It carefully combines trains, cultural experiences, overnights at ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), visits to gardens and shrines and stunning natural beauty. It takes place at a time when the fall leaves should be spectacular.

And the icing on the cake? Our Nov. 14-18, 2016 Seven Stars in Kyushu luxury rail tour. (Did I mention we’re the first U.S. company to charter the Seven Stars?)

First-come, first-served!  I hope you’ll join us.

Questions: please call 800-478-4881 or 502-897-1725. Or email: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Owen C. Hardy is founder and CEO of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

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.

Ljubljana Sculpture

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.

Thee Ladies 2

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.

balkan odyssey2 1392

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.®

%d bloggers like this: