Express to the Orient: On board the world's most famous train
Luxury train travel
A journey to die for? Leslie Ann Horgan takes a luxury trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
I'm standing swaying with a crystal glass in one hand, black streaked down my face, laughing like a madwoman.
No, I haven't just offed someone in a Poirot-worthy plot (let's get the Agatha Christie reference out of the way early). I've actually been trying to put on liquid eyeliner... on a train moving at 100 miles per hour... after half a bottle of Champagne. It's only at this moment that the surreality of the situation actually hits me: I am on the Orient Express.
The day had begun in an altogether more dignified manner as I checked in at the Belmond private lounge at London's Victoria Station. Our journey to Venice was to begin aboard the British Pullman, which would take us to the English coast. The train consists of 11 historic carriages, which represent the remnants of the golden age of British rail travel and its evocatively named services; The Brighton Belle, the Golden Arrow, The Queen of Scots. I found my seat - a plush armchair - in Ibis, the oldest of the carriages, built in 1925.
Next year sees the return of luxury rail to Ireland, with the launch of the Belmond Grand Hibernian service. It will offer two, four- and six-night journeys departing Dublin and taking in Belfast, Cork to Galway, or both. With all-inclusive prices starting from €3,200pp, it will rule out many Pullman passengers - enjoying a €350 daytrip which I guessed to be retirement or silver wedding anniversary presents.
After breakfasting on smoked salmon with crumpets and peach Bellinis, we left these passengers at Folkstone and made our way by coach through the Channel Tunnel to Calais. At first sight of the famous train itself - gleaming in the 5pm sunset with its uniformed staff lined up to greet us - I felt a pressing awareness that this was a level of posh far beyond even my most glamorous moments.
First launched in 1883, the Orient Express has always been synonymous with luxury travel. Although most people think of it for the famed Paris to Constantinople line, it in fact provided several different routes to Eastern Europe. Hosting everyone from royalty to movie stars, it was a five-star service from the outset.
In 1906, the Simplon Tunnel - the longest in the world, linking Switzerland and Italy - was opened and trains for Venice and Constantinople were directed through it, thus renaming the service the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE). Luxury rail was all but destroyed during World War II when tracks were closed and carriages torn apart for materials. A much-reduced VSOE limped on until 1962. It was only rescued from extinction by shipping magnate James B Sherwood, who scoured international auctions to find the original carriages and had them lavishly restored before relaunching the service in 1982.
The expression 'small but perfectly formed' could have been written for the VSOE. My cabin contains just a seat, a fold-down table, a stool and a concealed washbasin - yet every detail, from the Art Deco flowers set into the lacquered woodwork to the brass luggage racks overhead, is opulent. It is small, but certainly not cramped, and I stretch out comfortably when the seat is later turned into a bed by the stewards (I sleep like the dead under any conditions, and happily did so on a moving train).
Our carriage has eight single-occupancy cabins. Couples travelling together would need to book two and open the interconnecting doors, or choose a carriage with double occupancy drop-down bunks. For a ticket price of €3,000pp per night, there are shared toilets, no showers and no Wi-Fi - but that doesn't seem to matter when you've just stepped back into the 1920s for a 24-hour, 1,100km journey across Europe.
Sipping from the bubbly that my cabin steward, Marco, opened on arrival, I could happily spend the evening watching France roll by, but there is a black-tie dinner to be attended... which is how I now find myself with the eyeliner dilemma.
With make-up finally in place, I make my way to the first of the two bars - one cocktail, one Champagne - for a pre-dinner drink. While meals are included in your ticket, alcohol is extra, and the prices - €14 for a bottle of Heineken, €22 for a vodka and soda - are high, to say the least. While I didn't see anyone splash out €490 for the Imperial Beluga caviar listed on the menu, the type of passenger the VSOE attracts can clearly afford it. Most are aged over 50 and, though some are newlyweds or on a bucket-list trip, the majority seem well acclimatised to this style of travel.
I quickly become accustomed to the food on offer. Dinner (in Paris) is a stunning lobster starter followed by delicious beef; breakfast (in Switzerland) is truffle scrambled eggs; lunch (in Milan) is stuffed quail. The delicacy of the gourmet dishes, each prettier than the next, makes me wonder aloud how chef Christian Bodiguel could possibly make them on a train.
Multiple-course meals followed by languid digestion more or less sums up what there is to do. Though there are several stops, we're allowed off only once for a 20-minute stretch, spending the rest of the time watching everything from industrial sidings to snow-capped mountains.
From that first giggling realisation through the remaining 24 hours of the trip, "I am on the Orient Express" is looping in my brain. For me, the reality more than lives up to the romance and allure conjured up by the name. Will the same be true of the Grand Hibernian? My guess is that wealthy Americans who attach a mysticism to Ireland will delight in it, but for the rest of us the cost will probably outweigh the appeal. If only Beckett or Joyce had written a novel about a train…
What to pack
Your glad rags. As the guide attached to your ticket states, you can never be overdressed for the VSOE. Dinner is black tie, and many of the ladies on board opt for period-appropriate 1920s-style ballgowns. Jeans, shorts, T-shirts and trainers are forbidden during the day.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) operates multiple daily flights from Dublin to London Heathrow, from €34.99 each way. Its Dublin to Venice route re-opens on February 13, offering up to five flights a week from €49.99 each way.
Where to stay
Prices for a one-night journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express from London to Venice, plus two nights' stay at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani (pictured) - where the Clooneys held their wedding - start from €4,341 per person. That's based on double occupancy and includes transfers, set menu meals on board, hotel breakfast and a Venice walking tour. See belmond.com or call (+44) 203 117-1300.