This post was recognized by the North America Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) in 2017 awards competition with a Bronze award in the Luxury and Resort Travel Online Publication category
Exotic destination, quirky sleuths and twisting story lines are all hallmarks of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novels. Her most famous story undoubtedly has to be “Murder on the Orient Express” which takes place on the luxurious and legendary train traveling from Istanbul to London. That same elegant train experience and legendary service can now be experienced again on the fully restored Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
“A Journey Like No Other”
For our 30th wedding anniversary, my husband and I decided to celebrate this milestone in a big way. We would spend a week in Venice and then take the two day Orient Express train from Venice to London.
The Original Orient Express train was established in 1883 by Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) and became known for offering comfort and luxury train travel at a time when long distance travel could still be rough and dangerous. The Orient Express route changed often throughout it’s history, but the most famous route was the one from Paris to Istanbul. However, as high speed train service expanded throughout Europe, the original Orient Express route kept getting shorter, and eventually stopped running in 2009. The current version of the Orient Express train is owned and run by the Belmond corporation using beautifully restored 1920’s and 1930’s CIWL train carriages.
When our train tickets arrived in the mail, we immediately realized this would truly be a journey like none we had ever taken before. Each ticket was actually part of a book that came in its own box. The book provided detailed information about the train experience, the two day itinerary, the starting and ending destinations, as well as the suggested dress code – smart casual during the day and formal evening wear for dinner in the evening. (Tuxes for men were strongly recommended.) To quote “In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, you can never be overdressed on board”.
The Orient Express Experience
On the day of departure, we arrived at Venice’s Santa Lucia train Station by 10 AM. We checked in and turned over our baggage-one suitbag with all of our needs for the two day train trip would go to our compartments, and the rest of the luggage went into storage to be picked up in London. I say compartments because we had actually booked two connecting singles because all the doubles were already sold out when I made the reservation four months prior. It turned out that having two singles worked out very well since each single compartment is only a little smaller than a double. We ended up with almost twice the space with the added benefit that when the train changed direction, we could also change seats from one compartment to the other and so would always be facing the front of the train. This was a great benefit for my husband who gets very motion sick if he has to ride backwards. It also meant that we each slept in a lower berth and would not have to do a coin toss to decide who got an upper berth for the night.
Once it was time to board the train, we were greeted by all the head staff and the steward for our car. For the next two days, the cabin steward attentively took care of all our needs, even ones we did not know we needed. No sooner had we settled in when our steward served us with glasses of bubbly.
The train cars have been beautifully restored with polished wood, marquetry details, and period lamps and fixtures. Each car is unique and has a description imprinted in gold, describing the car’s origins and travels. Our Pulman car was built in 1926 and was in service on the Orient Express from 1928 to 1939. During the second world war it was used in Germany, and then was part of the Sud Express from 1958 to 1971. Many of the cars, including ours, were decorated with beautiful and intricate art deco details.
Promptly at 11:01, the train started pulling out of the station. No sooner did we get into the rhythm of the train ride, when it was time for lunch in one of the three dining cars located in the center of the train. Each dining car is decorated differently, and each of our three meals would be in a different car so that we could experience all of them. Lunch was in the Etoile du Nord car with its exquisitely detailed marquetry. The set menu was worthy of a five star restaurant:
- Starter – Chilled fresh vegetable gazpacho, taleggio cheese mousse and sauteed chicken with summer savory
- Main course – pan fried cod fish, green peas cream with cardamon; grilled lettuce with onions and bacon; olive oil violet mashed potatoes
- Dessert – Melon bavarois and red berries in its dark chocolate casing.
If the set menu was not to your liking then you could also order A La Carte from a list of very elaborate and delicious sounding items.
After lunch, we relaxed in our cabin, watched the scenery go by and tried not to take a nap after such a big lunch so that we wouldn’t miss the scenery. The train route would be Venice to Verona, then north through the Italian Dolomite mountain range to Innsbruck, and then west through the night till we reached Paris in the morning. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate – it was overcast and rainy and fogy. Great weather for a warm and comfortable train ride, but not the best weather for seeing vast mountain vistas. We passed roiling hills planted with vineyards and cute villages with bright red church steeples that provided a splash of color on the grey day. As we climbed to higher elevation, the rain turned to snow on the ground. The passing scenery was mesmerizing and through the low clouds, the mountains hinted at grand peaks.
The hours passed quickly as we watched the scenery change. It felt like we had just finished lunch when our cabin steward served us afternoon tea in our cabins – our choice of tea served with a few tasty treats. I wasn’t hungry, but I really couldn’t turn it down. Fortunately, we had chosen the later dinner seating, so we would have a few hours before another big meal.
As the sun set, we started getting dressed up for dinner. Pre-dinner snacks and drinks were being served in the club car and we wanted to make sure we did not miss this experience. (Note-walking in high heels on an old fashioned train that shakes back and forth as it is going 70 miles per hour is not easy.) The club car is another beautifully restored car with many art deco details. During the day it was not very busy, but now, in the evening with diners hanging out before or after the two dinner seatings, it was packed. Watching the scene in the club car, it was easy to imagine what it must have been like in the 1920’s. Men in their dashing tuxes, women in glittering gowns, all sipping cocktails and listening to the piano player tickling the ivories – I could get used to this.
For us, dinner was in the very elegant L’Oriental dining car, decorated in black lacquer with oriental themes. I didn’t think it was possible to top the lunch menu, but the Orient Express chefs outdid themselves again. The set menu this time was:
- Starter – Turbot fillet rolled with rocket pesto, Prosecco and saffron risotto, Cuttlefish ink sauce
- Main course – Slowly braised veal fillet and tuna fish anchovy cream and caper buds; mini bell peppers stuffed with eggplant caviar; poached spinach dumplings nutmeg flavored
- Cheese course – selection of fine cheeses
- Desert – Semifredo with agave syrup, rosehip jelly and lime zests
- Mignardises (tiny pastries) served with coffee
By the time dinner was over, followed by another cocktail in the club car, it was time for bed. While we were partying, our cabin steward had converted our cabin from a living room into a bed room, complete with down pillows and comforter and the best quality crispy white linens. I fell asleep easily as the rocking and rhythmic chugging of the train soothed me to sleep.
In the morning, the cabin steward brought us a light breakfast to the cabin. We enjoyed pastries, fruit parfait, juice, tea and coffee as we watched the scenery on our approach to Paris. In case you were wondering, the top of the small corner table in the cabin lifts up and has a small sink underneath where you could brush your teeth with the bottled water provided. For other bathroom needs, there was a lovely period bathroom at the end of the car with a sink and toilet.
After a short stop in Paris where some passengers disembarked, the train moved on to its final stop at Calais. We enjoyed our final meal on the train, brunch in the Côte d’Azur car. This was my favorite of the three dining cars with the art deco Lalique glass panels and the elegant grey and black decor. Once again, the brunch menu was absolutely delicious:
- Entree – Scrambled eggs with smoked salmon; broiled lobster with fresh cress butter; potato and chive whirls
- Desert – Nougat ice cream in tulip biscuit with sugared almonds
The British Pullman Experience
Once we reached Calais, we disembarked and sadly had to say goodbye to the Orient Express and our attentive cabin steward as we moved on with the next leg of the journey – the Channel crossing and then the British Pullman on to London. All the luggage was taken care of for us during this transfer, so we had nothing to worry about except getting through the passport controls at both borders. At Calais we transferred onto a very plush coach bus, which then drove into a car transport – basically a series of very large rail cars that transports vehicles through the Channel Tunnel. The inside of the car transport is very bright and the ride is extremely smooth. We did not realize the train was moving until we had been going for about ten minutes. Just don’t think about the fact that you are inside a bus which is inside a train which is inside a tunnel – but only for about half an hour and then you are in bright daylight again.
The bus took us to Folkstone train station, where after a little bit of a wait, we boarded the British Pullman, also owned by the Belmond company. Whereas the Orient Express cars are Royal Blue and Gold, the British Pulman cars are Umber and Cream. Every carriage is unique and has been painstakingly and lovingly restored. Each carriage also has its own name. Ours was Zena, and in her previous life she hosted the French president and film stars. We felt honored to be in such grand company.And in case we had not gotten enough to eat on the journey, we were served a full afternoon tea with sandwiches, scones with preserves and clotted cream, a selection of teas and sparkling rose wine. The Kent countryside passed by quickly, and before we knew it, it was late afternoon and we had arrived at Victoria Station in London.
Our wonderful journey on the Orient Express was over. We got a glimpse of what luxury train travel was like in its heyday. Experiencing the restored train cars was memorable, the food was worthy of a Michelin five star rating and the service was impeccable. It truly was a “Journey like no other”. Hope we can do it again someday.
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