With the limitations of current air travel due to Covid-19, many people have been investigating the possibility of travelling by rail, not only in the UK but also overseas using a variety of operators including Eurostar. Many of the international services around Europe are now starting to reinstate overnight sleepers including cities such as Vienna, Zurich and Berlin.
Whilst these will provide a quick and efficient service to many of the different parts of the continent, you may be looking for something a little more luxurious. One such service is the Venice Simplon-Orient-Expresswhich I was fortunate enough to use between Venice and London some time ago. I was picked up at my central hotel overlooking the lagoon by water taxi which whisked me in a few minutes to the main station where I was welcomed by the on-board staff. Consisting of several restored restaurant cars and overnight cabins, you will not only have the opportunity of trying out your meals in locations on board but also have a drink in the bar whilst enjoying music from the resident pianist.
Travelling on this train is not cheap but it is certainly a once in a lifetime experience. For some people regular trips on the Orient Express have become part of their lifestyle but they are definitely in the minority. For most of us it will be a special birthday or anniversary. On arrival at the train, you will be taken to your cabin which will be your home for the next couple of days. Your own cabin attendant will introduce themselves and explain what will happen. Remember they are there to cater for your every need on your journey.
My route from Venice took me via the Brenner Pass through Austria and then onto Paris arriving at the English Channel where you had to leave the train for a coach transfer through the tunnel and then onward using the Belmond British Pullman arriving at London Victoria in the early evening. The food on board both trains is quite sumptuous and there is an extensive wine and champagne list to go with the various dishes. The cuisine is prepared by a top chef in a tiny kitchen with some splendid results. The train also has a small shop where you can by a memento of the trip. You will spend most of your time in your cabin which at night-time will be cleverly converted by your steward into a sleeping compartment but don’t forget to utilize the lounge which is quite magnificent. Whilst this is very luxurious, you must remember that you are travelling on a restored train and so be prepared to use a toilet at the end of the carriage ( I booked a twin bunk bed cabin however double beds are available at higher grades) The train travels through the night so also be ready for train noises on your journey. These minor points however do not in any way detract from this unique experience. Your fellow passengers are often as interesting as the train itself and on my trip I met a German baroness and someone who had always wanted to take this journey and so had brought an array of period clothing with her. Dressing up for dinner is a must so pack your DJ and long dresses. The food on-board is quite splendid and the Chef Christian Bodiguel is always around. If you get the chance do disembark from the train in Paris for a few minutes and watch how the staff restock and to stretch your legs. I was fortunate enough to leave the train also in Innsbruck when it made a short stop. If you do decide to dig deep into your finances and take this trip, I would recommend that should you be going to Venice then you might consider boarding in Paris. This way you will not have to deal with disembarkation and coach transfer at the Channel Tunnel. Perhaps you could take the Eurostar from St Pancras and then make a quick transfer over from the Gare du Nord.
Once the Covid-19 situation is under control and travel is easier, you should also consider the Rocky Mountaineer which runs from the Rockies to Vancouver and vice versa. I joined the train in Jasper and took my seat upstairs in Goldleaf Class (well worth the extra cost) around breakfast time. The send-off was pretty impressive with music and fond farewells. The service on the train is impeccable and the scenery is breath taking as it makes its way for two days through the mountains and down to Vancouver with one overnight stop in Kamloops. There is an endless supply of cocktails, wines, nibbles and a selection of wonderful main meals on board. There is an on-board commentary and any wildlife including bear sightings are announced over the loudspeaker system. Meals are taken in the restaurant downstairs and there is also a small open area where you can take in the views. The seating is very comfortable but do make sure that you request a front facing seat if possible near the front of the train. The train cuts its way through a large number of tunnels and for much of the time runs alongside the river so you may have to swap over seats as you progress. For me this was easy as there were several empty seats on both sides. The fare includes wines from the region. The staff were excellent and the night stop over included a suite in a local hotel with breakfast the next morning on the train. An amazing trip.
Finally, I have to mention the Adirondack, the train that runs from Montreal to New York. A day long journey, if you have the time this is a very good alternative to the plane. There were plenty of seats and a special waiting area at Montreal Central Station for travellers of a certain age. The route includes a long stretch near the Hudson River when you should spot a large selection of birds. The train eventually arrives in the centre of New York in the early evening. Don’t forget that you will be crossing the border early between Canada and the USA so have your papers ready. This train doesn’t have any of the luxurious compartments or seats which go with the other two trips but it is a great way of seeing the beautiful country side of Vermont and New York State and so I can thoroughly recommend it.
Always check the latest FCO advice regarding quarantine restrictions, as well as the prevailing Covid-19 protocols before booking.
Photos courtesy of Godfrey Hall.