Venice Simplon-Orient-Express … Rarely have so many travel fantasies been caught up in just four short words. So I’d be lying if I didn’t say we were mildly disappointed to be checking in at a portable desk on a platform at Venice’s bustling central station, an Orient Express rug laid on the floor in a strange bid at exclusiveness.
The check-in girls were glamour personified, slim, Italian, beautiful – a real eyeful for the appreciative male passengers. But they seemed strangely incongruous as they led their smartly-dressed clients through crowds of travellers with backpacks to a reserved corner of the station buffet for coffee and biscuits. A rather different deal from the private check-in lounge at London’s Victoria Station at the opposite end of the journey.
My husband and I were returning from ‘La Serenissima’ after an Adriatic Cruise, the ultimate finale to a special occasion holiday. We’d enjoyed a daytrip from London on the British Pullman part of the operation the year before, so were eagerly anticipating the chance to see Europe slide past the windows of our luxury carriage and be waited on hand and foot.
Check-in may have been slightly underwhelming, but the experience stepped up a gear when we were summoned from cafe to train and shown to our private cabin by our uniformed steward. It doesn’t take long to explore your compact quarters – a bench seat in patterned upholstery, gleaming walls of polished wood and, in the corner behind a curved door, a bijou vanity unit with complimentary toiletries. Clothes are hung opposite the bench seat, your overnight baggage – only one holdall or suit carrier per person – stowed on a high level rack. Every inch of space is utilised to create your own private cocoon for the next 36 hours.
At this point it’s worth mentioning a few practical issues which do, it has to be said, deter some potential passengers. These beautifully restored carriages all date from the 1920s so there is one shared toilet per carriage and no shower facilities. Dressing gowns are provided (on loan) and complimentary slippers (to keep). And if you have issues with travelling backwards on a train, this trip is definitely not for you. We had the engine behind us as we powered out of Venice across the lagoon, only to find that after a one of several stops along the way, the engine had changed to the other end and we were going forwards.
One of the big highlights of any trip on the Orient Express is the dining experience and I still don’t understand how they can turn out such high class food and dress the tables so elegantly in such cramped surroundings. The staff training and general running of the operation is seriously impressive. Table d’hote menus, with a choice, are included in the basic price, with a la carte options, and they seemed willing to cater for guests with food allergies or strong dislikes at no extra charge. The odd glass of fizz is included, but otherwise drinks are on top.
We had naively imagined that we would while away many of the hours at table, enjoying lunch with a view, but meals are served in two carefully-timed sittings in one of several different but equally elegant dining cars, all intricate marquetry and gleaming crystal. You can choose to eat à deux or – as we did – join another couple which we much enjoyed. Nor do you get landed with the same couple if you choose to share, which offers a chance to make new friends.
There was, however, no chance for us to make friends over a drink. The one beautiful bar car was crammed with Japanese visitors and as we had opted for the 9.30 dinner sitting, there was little chance of negotiating the restaurant cars in search of a quiet drink at the front of the train. Choose the earlier dinner sitting however and you return at 9.30 to find your bench seat transformed into bunks and nowhere to sit.
All of which sounds hugely picky. The chance to relive the golden age of international rail travel, to eat lobster for brunch, and dress up in your gladrags (DJs for men; posh frocks for us girls) was the perfect way to end our special holiday. But although some people become addicted to the trip, for us it was really a one-off – partly on price (expect to pay around £2,200 a head, though you might – like us – find a good-value cruise and train package through an agent) and partly on comfort.
The bunks are surprisingly comfortable, but I didn’t sleep well on a moving train – at least not until we got to France and hit the high-speed rail tracks – which makes the second day long and rather tiring. It starts with nearly an hour in Gare de l’Est in Paris around 7 am, before taking a circuitous route to Calais where we left the Orient Express and transferred to a coach for the trip through the Channel Tunnel. At Folkestone we then waited for the Belmond British Pullman to arrive whilst entertained by a period jazz band. Sinking into the luxury of our wing chairs for a sumptuous, calorie-laden afternoon tea, we trundled through Kent and south London past platforms of bemused commuters – a serious case of Us and Them!
We wouldn’t have missed the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express trip for the world, but next time we want to travel in period style, I think we’ll stick to a day trip on the Belmond British Pullman.