Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Belmond’

The Orient Express Revisited

VSOE-EXT-SCE-08.jpg VSOE

[UPDATE Journeys on the VSOE are now on hold until March 2021.]

Now synonymous with Agatha Christie and that infamous journey, the original Euro Night train number 469, monikered the more romantic sounding “Express d’Orient”, made its inaugural journey from Paris bound for Constantinople in October 1883. The train which Christie caught, and placed her fictional sleuth Hercule Poirot onboard, however was the Simplon Orient-Express – one of several luxury sleeper trains that cropped up as an offshoot linking the port town of Calais in northern France with Istanbul (previously Constantinople) and ran through the 1920s and 30s.

Luxury trains fell out of favour with the advent of the second world war and airplane travel. Then American businessman James B Sherwood bought a few antique carriages at auction in Monte Carlo in 1977 which seemingly sparked a quest for him to seek out more vintage carriages. After finding them variously abandoned in sidings and people’s gardens across Europe, used as pigeon transporters and in one case a brothel, they were lovingly restored to their Art Deco splendour and launched as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in 1982.

One of the carriages bought by Sherwood at auction in Monaco was sleeping car 3425. It is the oldest of the sleeping cars on the VSOE having been built in 1926 and was marooned in a snow drift 60 miles from Istanbul for 10 days in 1929 (allegedly sparking the idea for a certain murder mystery).

And the Venice Simplon-Orient Express (a mouthful but now the official name for legal reasons) is in the spotlight once again with the release of the new Kenneth Branagh film Murder on the Orient Express starring Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfieffer and Penelope Cruz. So what’s it like to travel onboard? You’ll be greeted aboard by your be-capped and white gloved personal cabin steward who’ll take care of you for your entire trip. Firstly by showing you to your cosy cabin where your luggage will already be waiting.

vsoe_1366x570_platform_luxury_travel09 VSOE

The twin cabins come with bunk beds – probably the most deluxe ones you’ve encountered with an upholstered ladder. During the day time there’s no sign of your sleeping arrangements but when you return from dinner your cabin steward will have cleverly transformed your sofa into cosy beds with crisp sheets and fine blankets. After breakfast perhaps while you’re taking a stroll the length of the train, your steward will whisk away the beds and your cabin will once again become a sitting area. In true authentic fashion, each cabin has a concealed washbasin while loos are found at the end of each carriage.

vsoe_1366x400_cabin_luxury_train19vsoe_1366x570_cabin_luxury_train17 VSOE

As well as the famous sleeping cars the train is made up of three dining cars and a bar car complete with grand piano and resident pianist. Each carriage features polished wood, beautiful marquetry, plush fabrics and antique details.

VSOE-REST-INT-07.jpg VSOE

The VSOE operates on continental Europe – contrary to popular belief the it does not travel to the UK. Rather, the train is embarked or disembarked at Calais and the journey to or from London is completed through the Euro tunnel and the Belmond British Pullman train once in Britain.

While the most popular route is to and from Venice, just once a year the VSOE makes a five night journey between Paris and Istanbul. The exclusive journey follows the route of the inaugural 1883 train journey stopping in Prague, Budapest and Bucharest along the way.

vsoe-acc-cab-36 VSOE

While the Venice journeys have a feel of celebration the journey to Istanbul is about adventure, says general  manager Pascal Deyrolle. The six day journey from Paris Gare de l’Est station follows in the footsteps of the original train route in 1883. As the VSOE journeys towards the edge of Europe passengers stop for overnight stays at hotels in Budapest in Hungary and Bucharest in Romania with the rest of the nights spent onboard.

After crossing the Danube from Romania into Bulgaria the train arrives in Varna, a beach resort town with a surprisingly grand station building with a wonderful Art Nouveau roof. You’ll spot the Black Sea and then smell the scent of the ocean in the air when you disembark, just as the original passengers experienced. On the early routes, passengers would disembark at Varna and cross the Black Sea by ferry before picking up another train.

Crossing the border from Bulgaria to Turkey, the train stops and all the passengers alight to have their passports stamped in person at the customs booth. Pascal admits to being worried about how passengers would react but has found that they think it’s fun and enjoy chatting to their fellow passengers on the platform as well as the passersby who gather to look at the train. “It’s a social element on the platform. It’s absolutely my favourite aspect of the trip,” says Pascal.

vsoe-bar-30

VSOE

Guests are encouraged to dress up onboard so cocktails and dinner is particularly fun with everyone in Art Deco inspired frocks and Black Tie. The bar car can be a bit of a crush with guests crowding in between the two dinner sittings but a Champagne Bar has been created within one of the dining cars. Most importantly, like all the best bars it doesn’t close until the last guest has gone to bed.

https://www.belmond.com/trains/europe/venice-simplon-orient-express/

The Rivers Less Travelled – New Journeys in Myanmar

 

The intriguing Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, flanked by Thailand, Laos, China and India, has opened up to tourism in recent years and one of the best ways to see the country is by boat. As many of the roads in Myanmar are in poor condition, some villages and areas can only been accessed via the waterways. Belmond Orcaella, a boutique sized river cruiser, is designed to reach remote, less travelled areas of Myanmar between July and March, avoiding the hottest and rainiest months of the year.

As a passenger you may choose to start your journey in the bucolic central region of Myanmar at Bagan or Mandalay, or alternatively at Yangon in the south of the country near the Bay of Bengal. Yangon, the former capital, is home to the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda, fascinating markets and historic colonial buildings as well as Southeast Asia’s largest reclining Buddha. Waterways connect Yangon to the great Ayeyerwady River which runs north to south through the centre of Myanmar. So for guests staying at Belmond’s Governor’s Residence hotel in Yangon (below) it’s possible to begin your trip here.

GRS-EXT-01.jpg

Read more

Me oh Myanmar

The Governor’s Residence, Yangon/Rangoon

 

As we enter The Governor’s Residence in Yangon we are heralded in by the “welcome gong”. Turns out that Yangon/Rangoon in Myanmar/Burma, is a very hospitable place; I spotted three welcome signs in the first five minutes of leaving the airport. And everyone we meet is friendly and curious about the tourists now visiting their country.

Read more

All aboard the luxury express

Eastern & Oriental Pic: Ian Lloyd

[UPDATE: Johnny Depp and Amber Heard boarded the same train – though journeyed in the reverse direction of Bangkok to Singapore – for their honeymoon in south east Asia. The Eastern & Oriental is a sister train to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express on which Depp filmed the 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express directed by Kenneth Brannagh.]

Cocktail hour can be a precarious business on board the Eastern & Oriental Express. There’s a risk of losing great splashes of your G&T overboard with every sway of the train. But standing on the open sided observation deck at sunset, passing by the verdant scenery of South East Asia, is worth any effort incurred. And of course being a passenger on a luxury train is really no effort at all.

Our journey had begun in Singapore where we spent the night at Raffles whose white shutters, balustrades and wrap around balconies outside; and dark wood, ceiling fans and antique furniture within took us back to a more gracious era. Perfect before boarding the E&O for a three-day journey through Malaysia and into Thailand, disembarking in Bangkok.

Pic: Shane Arnold

Now, 24 hours later, we are deep into the Malaysian countryside. And with darkness swallowing up the last of the view, it’s time to dress for dinner. The E&O is owned by the Orient-Express company [Update: now rebranded Belmond]and as such features exquisite marquetry and fabrics. Unlike the Venice Simplon train that runs through Europe, the carriages are not Art Deco originals. But what they lack in authenticity they make up for in modern comforts – ensuite bathrooms, the aforementioned observation deck and a reading room (home to a resident reflexologist and a fortune teller). There’s also the bonus of some pit stops along the way.

Eastern & Oriental

The first takes place just before dinner when we pull in to Kuala Lumpur station. It’s fun to walk up and down the platform in our finery, and see the pleasure on the commuters’ faces when they look at our gleaming train, but the best bit is to come. As we leave the station, tucking into our first course of goose liver wrapped in Chinese with pumpkin and coconut veloute, we spot the Petronas Towers sparkling in the darkness.

Eastern & Oriental Pic: Mark Hind

In the bar car after dinner the gregarious pianist, Peter, keeps playing until the last guest goes to bed. On this occasion, not us – we are out stayed by a young couple from the UK. When we return to our State cabin it has been transformed into a bedroom, the sofa and lounge chair magically turned into twin beds.

Eastern & Oriental Pic: Mark Hind

“Did you sleep well?” enquires our steward, Sarawut, as he brings us breakfast in our cabin the next morning. When we sheepishly reply in the negative he is not that surprised. “Some people don’t on the first night, it’s like sleeping through an earthquake.” At 8.35am we pull into Butterworth station. All the passengers set off on the first of our excursions to the island of Penang, passing a sous chef wheeling a trolley filled with ice along the platform.

Georgetown, the capital, has UNESCO heritage status on account of its abundance of historical buildings. We are all now settled into trishaws as we are pedalled around the ancient streets. Had I known it was an unofficial race I may have chosen a younger cyclist – the task of pushing both me and my husband seems a little much for ours. But the leisurely pace means we get a good view of the beautiful buildings from old merchants houses to Chinese temples filled with red lanterns or bright pink firecrackers. We pass through Little India, China Town and the Street of Harmony (so called because it’s home to a church, a temple and a mosque) and make a promise to return for a longer stay.

Eastern & Oriental Pic: Ian Lloyd

Back on board it’s time for lunch. From his tiny galley kitchen chef Yannis Martineau has prepared a tom yam vichyssoise with quail followed by pan roasted seabass with Sichuan style vegetables. Yannis’ dishes are a perfect blend of East meets West with local ingredients and techniques incorporated with his French fine dining background. At Penang, he took the opportunity to stock up on spices which will we try tonight in a delicious beef medallion curry.

We gain an hour today, as we cross the border into Thailand. The scenery changes noticeably. Palm trees give way to paddy fields, small temples can be glimpsed through tree tops and in the distance we spot a huge golden Buddha statue.

Eastern & Oriental Pic: Ron Bambridge

From the observation deck we get an unbeatable taste of local life. We pass through rural stations where food stalls are set up along the platform. A couple of Buddhist monks in their distinctive orange robes chat on a bench. In one village the locals are sitting in a row of deckchairs having an evening foot rub. Children riding bicycles try to keep up with us. Everywhere, people stare or smile and wave – the train has an uplifting affect on everyone who sees it.

Eastern & Oriental Pic: Mark Hind

To celebrate our crossing into Thailand, a traditional Thai dancer is performing in the bar car this evening. There’s the usual merriment as the she entices guests up to join her. The trip is a convivial one: there’s something about a train journey that draws people together. Friendships are forged in the bar car, on the observation deck, over lunch and dinner. Our fellow passengers range from other couples to families with young children or teenagers, and several singles. There are honeymooners, Ruby wedding celebrators and at least one blossoming romance.

Our last day on board and the train manager announces that we are running slightly late but I think we are all secretly pleased to have some extra time on the train. When we pull into a stop right next to the River Kwai bridge we cause quite a stir. The tourists are intrigued and delighted by the train.

Eastern & Oriental Pic: Ian Lloyd

We leave them to their photography and embark on a gentle raft journey along the Kwai, floating under the notorious bridge as a local historian tells its story. Our tour continues to the Thailand Burma Railway Centre, a small but well run museum and the adjacent cemetery for Prisoners of War – a soothingly pretty spot. Everyone seems moved by this visit; it is undoubtedly one of the best experiences of the trip.

We re-board the train at the photogenic Kanchanaburi station for the last leg of the journey. As we draw closer to Bangkok the temples become bigger and more frequent. On the outskirts of the city, hard hatted construction workers wave at the train with the same enthusiasm as the school children in the countryside.

Soon we draw alongside canals – the city’s famous khlongs – and know we about to reach Hualamphong station. The frenetic station is a shock after the cosseting of our train trip but we are soon back to the comfort we have grown accustomed to when we check into the Mandarin Oriental. We are staying in the Author’s Wing, the original part of the hotel named after the likes of Somerset Maughan and Noel Coward who stayed here. At the heart of it is a gorgeous colonial style conservatory with rattan chairs, cream shutters and a Gone with the Wind staircase. It’s as fitting an end to our trip – although you can also take the train from Bangkok to Singapore, with an extra night onboard.

Inside the Authors’ Wing at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok

On our last evening in Bangkok we catch the wooden shuttle boat over the Chao Praya river to the hotel’s Sala Rim Naam restaurant. In the opulent setting of a Thai pavilion we feast on the set banquet menu including fried snow fish in red chilli sauce, roasted duck with tamarind and warm flour dumplings with coconut milk. All the while entertained by a traditional show.

Mandarin Oriental boats crossing the Chao Praya river

Tomorrow we will be leaving Thailand but alas the journey involves airports and planes not stations and luxury trains. If only travel was always as glamorous as the E&O.

For more details on trips aboard the Eastern & Oriental see http://www.belmond.com/eastern-and-oriental-express/

%d bloggers like this: