Monday 16 September 2019

Romance of the rails: My trip on board Ireland's only luxury sleeper train

Bairbre Power, no stranger to rail journeys, tries out Ireland's new luxury sleeper train...

The Belmond Grand Hibernian in action
The Belmond Grand Hibernian in action
Bairbre on board
The Kildare Observation car
Soup
Bairbre's cabin in the Leitrim carriage
Mark Donegan waits for the first customers to board the Belmond Grand Hibernian at Heuston Station. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
The lounge on board the Belmond Grand Hibernian. File Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
The lounge on board the Belmond Grand Hibernian. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
One of the cabins on board. Photo: Tony Gavin
One of the bedrooms on board the Belmond Grand Hibernian, pictured after it arrived into Heuston Station. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
The bar and lounge on board the Belmond Grand Hibernian, pictured after it arrived into Heuston Station. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
Members of staff with the Belmond Grand Hibernian, pictured after it arrived into Heuston Station for its Irish launch in 2016. File Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
The dining car on the train
The bar and lounge on board the Belmond Grand Hibernian. File Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
The Bar
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

Travel bucket lists are good for the soul.

They're the perfect excuse for daydreaming on dull days and the good times come when you get to actually tick things off.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

I did that in style with a massive swoosh when I recently spent two days and nights onboard the Belmond Grand Hibernian. It's Ireland's first luxury sleeper train and has sparked lots of interest, not least because of the eye-watering prices. It cost €3,100 per person sharing for two nights onboard its 'Taste of Ireland' package in April which plied its way between Dublin, Belfast, Waterford and back to Dublin.

I was determined to make the absolute most of my five-star trip and arrived early at Dublin's Westbury Hotel to meet my fellow travellers in the Sidecar Bar. We were handed tickets and a personalised journal with the itinerary of our rail trip for the next 46 hours.

I'd dressed in my best bib and tucker and rolled out the good set of matching luggage. I wouldn't dream of exposing them to the rough and tumble of airport carousels but this was different. No queuing, no checking on check-in or standing around departure gates with no seats here.

I handed over my luggage at the hotel and the next time I saw my bags they were in my private cabin, beside the table with a crystal tree for rings and a safe for my jewels. Shucks, if only I hadn't forgotten the Power family pearls!

One of the cabins on board. Photo: Tony Gavin
One of the cabins on board. Photo: Tony Gavin

There is a de-stressing quality that comes with train travel. The Grand Hibernian certainly doesn't roll from side to side and there were no annoying squeaking and hissing doors as we purred out of Dublin's Heuston station, passing through the once-secret underground tunnel under the Phoenix Park before linking up with the northern line to Belfast.

The day started with some pomp as we were welcomed on to the train. Memories of drudgery on the Dart ebbed away as I positioned myself at the end of the Observation Car with a crystal flute of champagne and gazed out wrap-around, gleaming picture windows.

The view over Malahide Estuary was stunning, like a Nathaniel Hone painting. The last time I wrote about a train on this route it was the packed commuter train serving Drogheda, when I interned on the local paper in the last century. I was now living my best life and experiencing two days of how the other half live.

The spacious Observation Car is tastefully decorated in a neutral palette so it doesn't fight with the ever-changing scenery unfolding outside. I took off my spectacles to get a better view of my travelling companions.

Mark Donegan waits for the first customers to board the Belmond Grand Hibernian at Heuston Station. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
Mark Donegan waits for the first customers to board the Belmond Grand Hibernian at Heuston Station. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.

Many were hardcore rail enthusiasts who travel the world for experiences such as this and I chatted with veterans of the Venice Simplon Orient-Express, the Royal Scotsman and the Andean Explorer in Peru, all run, as it happens, by Belmond.

There was an American couple doing six nights on the train all the way around to Galway and back to Dublin. "Trip of a lifetime," they nodded across. A Scottish gent in tweeds diligently took notes in a tiny notebook. He and his wife who were long time enthusiasts added a touch of glamour to the proceedings.

He dressed for dinner in a black evening suit, white shirt and gleaming cufflinks. The rest of us made an effort but he walked the walk and talked the talk. I was keen to experience what aficionados call 'the 'romance of the rails'. Nothing quite prepares you for the sight of the 230m-long train with its necklace of carriages, all painted in St Patrick's navy with a chrome art deco-style logo featuring a Celtic twist. It looks classy and once onboard, the experience expands by the hour.

Meals are served in the dining cars under oil paintings, with china, white linen table cloths, silver cutlery, crystal glasses and fresh flowers - a million miles away from my usual onboard catering experience. Mark Bodie, executive chef on the Grand Hibernian served exceptional food from his compact kitchen. His dedication to using local ingredients made for memorable, back-to-back dining experiences served by staff whose philosophy was 'nothing is too much trouble'.

The lounge on board the Belmond Grand Hibernian. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
The lounge on board the Belmond Grand Hibernian. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.

All the carriages are named after counties and my private twin-bedded cabin in 'Leitrim' was surprisingly roomy and cosy too. After socialising in the Observation Car, I was happy to go back and chill, plump up my duck-down pillows, pull on my robe and watch the world go by. In addition to twin-bed rooms, there are double bed and interconnecting cabins available and all have their own private shower-room and toilet.

We left the train in Belfast and were coached to Hillsborough Castle for a private tour and refreshments. Then it was back on the train and we travelled to Dundalk where the train was 'stabled' in the station overnight. Next day, we travelled to Waterford and jumped on a coach to explore Kilkenny before returning to the train for dinner, and entertainment. The following morning in Dublin we waved our reluctant goodbyes after breakfast.

Travellers who like to save up for out-of-the-ordinary treats will be tempted by a luxury train experience but if you are travelling solo, the bad news is that there's a 60pc supplement for solo travellers which pushes a two-day trip to almost €5,000. Luxury rail travel comes at a price.

What to pack

2019-08-24_lif_52682619_I1.JPG
Bairbre on board
 

It's not super dressy but the suggested dress code for evening is a jacket, with or without tie for men, and the equivalent for women. Jeans are fine for the daytime tours.

Eat & Drink

2019-08-24_lif_52680065_I3.JPG
Soup
 

All food and drink are inclusive. Culinary highlights included Anagassan lobster, Kilanure Dexter beef, Ballinwillin wild boar, black and white pudding and artisanal cheeses.

How much does it cost?

2019-08-24_lif_52713284_I6.JPG
The Bar
 

In addition to the two night trip, there's the four night 'Legends and Loughs' from Cork to Westport (€6,400pps) and the six night 'Grand Tour' linking Dublin-Cork-Galway-Westport-Dublin which costs €10,100pps.

Bairbre was a guest of Belmond. More details at belmond.com/trains.

Read more:

Top 10 Irish train journeys: Skip the traffic and travel Ireland by train

 

Weekend Magazine

Editors Choice

Also in Life