Travel Diaries

The Ride of a Lifetime

By Anh-Minh Le

With its art deco sconces, exquisite marquetry and sumptuous textiles, the Venice Simplon-Orient Express is a decadent throwback that evokes the romance of the rails.

A boisterous crowd had filled every inch of seating in the bar car, aka 3674, an elegantly appointed carriage built in France in 1931. About nine hours into our train journey, over cocktails like the Guilty 12, inspired by Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, dozens of strangers from around the globe had quickly developed camaraderie. Among them, men in tuxedos as well as women in evening gowns and feathered fascinators, their 1920s style perfectly matching the environs.

With its art deco sconces, exquisite marquetry and sumptuous textiles — think velvet plus tassels and fringe galore — the Venice Simplon-Orient Express is a decadent throwback that evokes the romance of the rails. It proved irresistible even to a newbie like myself, who had never spent more than a few hours on a train in any single outing.

Although the official Orient Express shut down in 2009, the VSOE has been in operation since 1982 and is run by Belmond (belmond.com), the travel company newly acquired by LVMH. While there is a route that reaches the Orient (Paris to Istanbul), a double-digit trek seemed ambitious for a first-timer. So, on the heels of a weeklong Italian vacation, my husband and I opted for the classic Venice to London overnighter (from £2,700 or $3,350, per person), totaling roughly 32 hours.

At Venice’s Santa Lucia station, where we were scheduled to depart at 11:30 a.m., our fellow passengers were easy to spot, thanks to the VSOE’s dress code. According to the Belmond’s guidelines, “you can never be overdressed.” Suggested daytime attire is smart-casual (with jeans and sneakers banned outside your private cabin), while formal wear is encouraged for dinner.

VSOE offers three grand suites with bathrooms, named after Venice, Paris and Istanbul — cities the train travels through and whose singular charms are reflected in the interiors.

Greeting us at our carriage was George, the steward for our sleeping car. Each cabin has a sink, and a shared toilet is located in each carriage. For those desiring more space and amenities, the VSOE offers three grand suites with bathrooms, named after Venice, Paris and Istanbul — cities the train travels through and whose singular charms are reflected in the interiors. Belmond recently announced that three additional suites will debut in March 2020: Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

Before the train even left the station, George poured us glasses of prosecco and went over the cabin’s highlights — including, thank goodness, the air conditioning (temperatures were in the high 80s in Venice). Soon, we were ready to dig into dishes devised by executive chef Christian Bodiguel, who has been with the VSOE for more than 35 years.

Meals are served in the trio of white-table clothed dining cars, each with a distinct aesthetic. Our three-course lunch in Côte d’Azur, built in 1929 as a first-class Pullman and decorated by renowned French glass designer René Lalique, featured braised pork shoulder, sea bass atop melted artichokes, and a white chocolate and yuzu cake. It was a feast that would no doubt impress Michelin’s inspectors.

In case we were peckish a few hours later, George brought us tea and a plate of sweets. Around 5:30 p.m., the train pulled into Innsbruck, allowing us 20 minutes or so to stretch our legs. (There’s a lot of eating, but not a lot of exercise happening on the train!)

Dinner on the VSOE is a black-tie affair. The verdant Austrian country-side was on view as we indulged in caviar from Petrossian, zucchini blossoms stuffed with crayfish and salmon mousse, lamb duo in licorice-flavored jus, an array of cheeses and strawberry tiramisu. The backdrop was L’Oriental car, built in 1927 in the United Kingdom and fitted with black lacquered panels.

Meals are served in the trio of white-table clothed dining cars, each with a distinct aesthetic.

After dinner, we stopped for a drink in 3674; the moniker references the bar car’s original number. Within minutes, the place was packed with imbibers enjoying the opulent setting, complete with a resident pianist. This must be what a Gatsby soiree would feel like! During dinner service, George magically transformed the six-foot banquette that spanned the width of our cabin into bunk beds. The cozy quarters were fine for us, but I understood why the couple from Edinburgh who we met in the bar and had traveled on the VSOE a decade prior booked a suite this time around (scaling a bunk-bed ladder no longer suited them).

Sleeping on the train was what I expected: bumpy and loud at times, but better than lie-flat seats on a plane. In the morning, I lifted our window shades to discover that — bon jour! — we were in France. We buzzed George, who returned our cabin to living-room mode and delivered a continental breakfast.

The train then pulled into Paris-Est for about 40 minutes. For some passengers, this was their final destination. For the crew, it was a chance to load up on provisions such as fresh seafood and produce. As the train later chugged toward the French coast, we devoured brunch — scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, broiled lobster accompanied by a cress butter sauce and then nougat ice cream — in Etoile du Nord, a dining car also built in the U.K. in the 1920s.

At the Calais station — it was now slightly after 1 p.m. — we bid farewell to the VSOE train and its impeccable staff. Next came the least glamorous part of the itinerary: A bus carried us to passport control, then drove inside a train that crossed the Channel. In England, at the Folkestone station, a band awaited, prompting several passengers to start dancing. The party wasn’t over just yet.

For the final leg of our trip, we boarded a beautifully restored Belmond British Pullman train. We were welcomed with glasses of English sparkling wine and, believe it or not, more food: afternoon tea. As we arrived at London’s Victoria station, I recalled the words of Murder on the Orient Express character M. Bouc, who assures passengers that they will all be fed and made comfortable. Indeed, we had gotten a taste of the golden age of train travel, and it was glorious.

Jet-Setters Weigh In

Jonathan Rachman (interior designer, international bon vivant, Nob Hill Gazette “Best Dressed”): “I am what you’d call an Aman junkie,” says Rachman of the beloved network of luxury international hotels and resorts (aman.com). One of his favorites, Amanjiwo, is on the Indonesian island of Java, home to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. The world heritage site dates back to the 9th century, and is a source of inspiration for Amanjiwo’s architecture. According to Rachman, Robert Redford loved the resort so much, he “stayed for three or four months.” How does Rachman get there? First, by plane, from Singapore to Bandung (the capital of West Java province), then by train from Bandung to Yogyakarta, where an Aman driver picks him up in an SUV, offering sandwiches, snacks and cold towels. “It’s not the most luxurious train ride,” he says, but the views of the countryside are beyond stunning. For a high-end rail experience that’s all about the journey, not the destination, Rachman recommends the Venice Simplon-Orient Express, between London and Venice. Great minds think alike!

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