As CEO and Publisher of my luxury rail travel company, The Society of International Railway Travelers®, it is my pleasure to present you with this first review of one of our “World’s Top 25 Trains.” We, our staff, writers and Society members have been tracking the world’s top luxury and first-class trains and tours for over 30 years.
Today in the Gentleman’s Gazette, I introduce you to the world-famous Orient Express. I’ll begin with a short history of the train. Then we’ll “climb aboard” for a ride on perhaps its most famous route: Paris-Istanbul. I’ll close with some practical information on how best to ride the Orient Express Orient Express.
The History of the Orient Express
The Orient Express was the world’s first international luxury express train. Operated by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the Orient Express began service from Paris to Istanbul on October 4, 1883. The company operated this route, and many others, throughout Europe, until after World War II, when international rail travel began its inevitable decline. The last, truncated Orient Express service ran Dec. 13, 2009 from Vienna to Strasbourg.
Over the course of more than a century, the Wagons-Lits company ran multiple Orient Express services from as far west as London, to as far east as Athens and Istanbul. During that time, the Orient Express name became synonymous with old-world luxury train travel – as well as with international glamour and intrigue.
Despite a world that has moved on to the monotonies of air and auto travel, that old-world luxury lives on in the privately operated Venice Simpon-Orient-Express. In 1977, at a Sotheby’s auction in Monte Carlo, the American shipping magnate James Sherwood bought two original Orient Express cars from the 1930s. In the following years, Mr. Sherwood invested a sum of about $16 million in 36 sleeper, restaurant and Pullman cars, most from the 1920s and ‘30s.
On May 25, 1982, the Venice Simplon Orient-Express began its inaugural journey from London to Venice, loaded with royalty, celebrities like Liza Minelli and numerous magnum bottles of champagne. Happily, Mr. Sherwood’s venture proved successful, and the fabulous Orient Express lives on.
My Journey Aboard The Orient Express
I sensed there was a problem.
I was talking with Bruno Jansenns, train manager of the Venice Simpon-Orient-Express on the last night of its once-a-year Paris-Istanbul journey. We were stopped at a platform somewhere in Bulgaria.
It was almost midnight, yet it sounded like Monday morning at Grand Central Station. A large crowd was outside our train, just a few feet away from where Bruno and I were standing, hidden only by drawn shades. The revelers were noisy and exuberant, and getting more so by the moment. I heard someone slap the side of the car. Another knocked on the corridor window.
“Is this typical for this station?” I asked. Never for a second losing his Gallic aplomb, Bruno said evenly, “No, this is new. But don’t worry, we’ll get to the bottom of it. Have a pleasant night, Mr. Hardy.”
The noise grew louder. Then, slowly, the Orient-Express began an unscheduled journey — a journey of about 500 yards. The sound of the crowd faded into silence. After a few more minutes, we came to a gentle stop. Problem solved.
For all I know, this was just one of a hundred problems Bruno and his staff solved along the way. When you run an antique train through eight countries, “things” happen. But if my experience were typical, the 92 lucky Orient-Express guests never knew about most of them.
Among those 92 guests were 29 members of The Society of International Railway Travelers®, including my wife, Eleanor, and myself. Ours was a rolling party within a party celebrating, among other things, our rail travel company’s 20th anniversary.
The Orient Express – One of the Best of Its Kind
Among us, we’d probably ridden every luxury train in the world, from South Africa’s Blue Train and Roves Rail’s The Pride of Africa, to the Royal Scotsman, to the Royal Canadian Pacific, to Spain’s El Transcantábrico. And most of us agreed: the Orient-Express was among the best.
The Orient-Express was everything I’d ever read about it – and more. Food, service, equipment, on- and off-board amenities: all were predictably fabulous. But it was the organization itself that truly amazed.
Impeccable Service & Attention to Detail on the Orient-Express
A 40-person Orient-Express staff on the train, and a further 40 staff “ashore,” pulled off this logistical three-ring-circus. Some flew ahead to work out details at our various stops (we toured Budapest, Bucharest and Varna (Bulgaria). Some, like Ian, our personable British cabin steward, were discreetly ever-present, bringing us breakfast in our compartments each morning, tea in the afternoon (upon request), and making up or stowing our bedding. And some we probably never saw at all.
Whoever the mastermind was, he or she has a flair for the dramatic. At every stop, our train was met by everything from a red-jacketed Hungarian military band to native-clad Bulgarian dancers to the exotic, reedy whine of Ottoman-style Turkish musicians.
Everywhere one turned, there were exquisite details. Musicians strolled by our tables, serenading us during several meals. The Orient-Express’s art-deco style logo was emblazoned on every conceivable object: soap and toothbrushes, robes and slippers, umbrellas, Kleenex and drink coasters.
Perfectly Organized Off-Train Trips
We had one more thing going for us on our tour-of-a-lifetime: ourselves. We IRT Society folks made up a jolly band and, all modesty aside, I must say our liveliness was infectious. In Bucharest, for example, the Orient-Express had arranged dinner for us at the elegant Belle Époque ballroom, “Le Diplomat,” at our home away from home that night, the Athénée Palace Hilton Hotel. Dress was formal, and the atmosphere, after a hard day’s touring, was reserved.
But then a lively Romanian band began playing. Suddenly, fellow IRT Society member (and my brother) Tom Hardy bowed low to Eleanor and escorted her to the dance floor. Not to be outdone (by my brother, no less), I asked his date for the pleasure of a dance. Soon, the floor was filled. By the end of the night, we were doing steps we didn’t know we knew, including a gigantic, Greek-style circle dance.
The off-train tours were inspired and executed with typical Orient Express precision. We dined at the glamorous, Art-Nouveau-style Gundel’s in Budapest. We saw Nicolae Ceaușescu’s mammoth communist monstrosity, the “Hall of the People,” in Bucharest and received a private tour of his usually off-limits residence, now used as a NATO headquarters.
My Favorite Stop – Varna, Bulgaria
My favorite stop was a visit to the royal summer residence for the last of the Bulgarian tsars in Varna on the Black Sea. There, we enjoyed an outdoor buffet with locally produced wines, accompanied by a violinist and pianist playing Schubert and Brahms.
Despite all this, however, the Orient-Express train itself was the tour’s chief attraction. True, the toilet’s down the hall. Yes, one must shower off-train (every other night was spent in a five-star hotel). And, as air-conditioning wasn’t around in the 1920’s, one must make do with fresh air, which is easily accessible by rolling down one’s window. But there is magic in being aboard such a legendary train. One is playing a role in an incredible, rolling historical drama—and that means looking and acting the part.
As one Society guest put it: “wearing vintage fashions is encouraged, so the clothes were not only gorgeous but often outrageous—tiaras, an ostrich-feather-adorned headband, elbow-length gloves, and every cummerbund and tie you can imagine with a tuxedo.”
Riding the Paris-Istanbul Orient-Express was like attending a Broadway musical with oneself in the title role. The Orient-Express is not reality; it is delightful, delirious fantasy. Whether you’re a dyed-in-the-wool “rail fan,” an aficionado of Art Deco elegance and style, or both, it’s a fantastical trip which must be done.
How to Travel on the Orient Express
Paris-Istanbul or Istanbul-Venice Journey on the Orient Express
Please bear in mind, that the wait list for either Orient-Express annual journey is long. The six-day Paris-Istanbul journey departing Aug. 31 is already booked out completely — and I’m talking about 2012. This year’s trip sold out long ago, so if you’re heart is set on this itinerary, call us to get on the list for 2013.
Another option is Istanbul-Venice. Yes, that trip has a wait list too, but the Orient Express company saw fit to allocate to the Society space for up to 20 guests for this final departure of the season. We won’t have it long; call as soon as possible.
The Paris-Istanbul and Istanbul-Venice itineraries are identical, except for direction of travel and the western terminal city. Likewise, the 2012 cost is identical: $9,750 per person, in a double cabin, and $14,710 for single cabin.
Yet another option is the annual, 8-day, Venice-Krakow-Dresden-Paris-London tour, which includes off-train touring and five-star hotels. By Orient Express standards, it’s a significant bargain since single travelers pay no supplement, and guests sharing with another traveler get twice the normal space: two double compartments linked by a private, interior doorway. Tour runs July 5-12, 2012 and costs $8,400 per person, single & double.
If you wish, you can do this trip just to Paris (for $7,950 per person, single & double). However, you will miss the trip on the British Pullman all-day train from the English Channel into London — and trust me, you don’t want to do that. (I’ll explain why in another article)
Other Journeys on the Orient Express
Other itineraries serve Prague, Vienna and Budapest from Venice, but these trips include the rail trip portion only; you’re on your own during the 2-night stopovers.
Finally, you can compress your Orient Express experience into one of the standard two-day London-Paris-Venice (or vice versa) trips, which run many times during the season. I’ll cover these in a separate post.