There is something romantic about the idea of traveling by rail, a nostalgia that hearkens back to the times before planes, evoking the golden age of travel. There is an undeniable glamour in arriving to a new destination in a train cabin, while the landscape outside passes by and the rumble of the tracks becomes pleasant background noise—and all at a pace much more suited to luxuriant contemplation.
An added bonus for the PC era (post-COVID-19): Train travel is also a way to see the world while still maintaining some degree of social distance.
It’s no surprise that one of the most understatedly elegant journeys by carriage is still the vaunted Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Part of the Belmond family, the Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is a timeless experience—and one that will be remembered for a lifetime.
The history of the train goes back to 1977, when late American businessman and Belmond founder James B. Sherwood purchased two Art Deco train carriages from an auction in Monte Carlo, with plans to create a route connecting riders across Europe. He continued to purchase additional cars—many of which were part of famous routes from the 1920s and 1930s, including Rome Express and Le Train Bleu—which were restored to their Art Deco glory. Sherwood’s dream of a train that would crisscross multiple countries was finally realized in 1982, with the inaugural trip from London to Venice.
Today, the completely refurbished Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient-Express comprises 17 classic midnight-blue carriages, including sleeping cars, dining cars, and a tasteful bar car complete with a grand piano and accompanying pianist. In another nod to a past era, the dress code is decidedly formal. The attention to detail is unparalleled: Guests are first welcomed on board by stewards dressed in blue and gold (the crisp white gloves are a nice touch) and welcomed into private cabins adorned with rich fabrics, dark wood finishes, and intricate marquetry patterns; two tons of brass lettering and crests adorn the exterior of the carriages. In other words: the very best of the best, with absolutely no expense spared or detail overlooked.
“There is no feeling like stepping on board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express,” Pascal Deyrolle, general manager of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express who has worked on the train for over two decades, tells Grazia USA. “From the second you see the 1920s and 1930s carriages pulling into the station you can feel the excitement in the air. The moment guests step on board, they are transported back to the golden age of travel and it’s amazing to see their dreams coming true as they explore their cabins and begin their journeys.”
The train’s stunning Grand Suites offer the most decadent experience, with Baroque furniture, hand-woven fabrics, hand-carved headboards, and delicate glass fixtures. The original top-tier suites include the Venice, Paris, and Istanbul and are adorned with delicate silks, woven fabrics, embossed leather, and Baroque furniture. Chic and elegant, each evokes the spirit and the traits of the cities for which they are named: The Venice draws inspiration from Italian indulgence, for example, while the Paris emanates French haute couture vibes. The Istanbul offers guests a chance to experience the best in Turkish opulence, with fabrics and wares from the city’s famed Grand Bazaar.
Three new quarters—the Vienna, Prague, and Budapest—have been added for the 2021 season and named for European cities visited by the train, from which designer Wimberly Interiors took inspiration. The Vienna has a decor that is ornate yet classic, adorned in rich hues of emerald and gold, a nod to the grand palaces and landmarks found in the Austrian country. Nicknamed the City of a Hundred Spires thanks to stunning displays of Baroque and medieval architecture, Prague and all of its richness is the inspiration for a suite decorated in gold and maroon tones with hand-embroidered cushions and Cubist-inspired mosaic patterns. Finally, the Budapest evokes the romantic spirit from both sides of the Danube—Buda and Pest—with Gothic and Ottoman furnishings and detailed marquetry.
These premier accommodations also feature private bathrooms with a shower, a personal 24-hour cabin steward, free-flowing champagne, in-suite dining, and private transfers to and from the train. The Cabin Suites, Twin, and Single Cabins are also equipped with the finest amenities, including luxe bedding, plush banquettes, cozy bathrobes and slippers, and thoughtful reading lights, perfect for cuddling up with a book as the world outside passes by.
“Over the last few years, rail travel is seeing a huge resurgence and we really wanted to give passengers all over the Europe the chance to travel,” Deyrolle continues. “The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express offers an excellent solution for guests wishing to travel between countries without having to fly. Our team is also on hand to ensure the process is effortless: from booking to navigating country travel requirements to departing for their next destination.”
Dining on the Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is an experience like none other. The train’s three dining cars—Cote D’Azur, Etoile du Nord, and L’Oriental—offer unique experiences and ambiance. Cote D’Azur was built in 1929 as a first-class Pullman, complete with Lalique glass, while Etoile du Nord, from 1926, was originally used in Paris and later switched to the Amsterdam-based Edelweiss line before again moving to the Lusitania Express from Lisbon to Madrid. The L’Oriental was created as a Pullman dining car in Birmingham in 1926, running on the Etoile du Nord line and, later, the Lusitania Express. Upon purchase for the Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the carriage was revamped and refitted with spectacular black lacquer panels.
And then there’s the food. The day starts with an impressive continental breakfast spread served in the cabin, including everything from fresh bread and smoked salmon to eggs, truffles, and even caviar. During the train’s season, more than 12,000 flaky and delicious croissants are served.
Lunch and dinner are highlights of the trip and are served in the decorous dining cars with fine crystal glassware, fine china, and service that is second to none. Afternoon tea aboard the train can also be enjoyed, as well as an assortment of petits fours. Dinner is prepared by the train’s French chefs and served in two seatings, featuring a four-course set menu meal (a la carte options are available and dietary restrictions are accommodated). Diners can expect upscale fare using seasonal, locally sourced ingredients brought on board at stops along the way, including lobsters from Brittany and salt marsh lamb from Mont St-Michel.
Guests donning formal black-tie attire—think jackets and gowns—can then head to the lively bar car for a nightcap and to hear the piano music and live jazz from the train’s very own baby grand. When it comes to tipples, there are endless options: More than 1,700 bottles of champagne are served in a season but the Guilty 12 cocktail, made with cognac, Cointreau, bitters, and champagne, remains a favorite. (The bar staff make and serve more than 1,000 glasses of this specialty drink throughout the season.)
When it’s time to retire for the evening, a majordome (that’s butler, in more common parlance) helps prepare the stateroom into comfortable and relaxing sleeping quarters with cozy bedding (monogrammed linens feature prominently), as well as top-notch toiletries from Temple Spa.
The craftsmanship of the train itself is rivaled only by the service provided by the staff on board, in their quest to give guests on the train a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient-Express offers a flawless, “bucket list” experience for discerning travelers, so it’s no surprise that many opt to use the train as the backdrop for life’s most precious moments: Not only can carriages be reserved for charters and groups, but each year more than 30 romantic marriage proposals take place aboard the various routes.
“We have a very varied clientele. The train is about celebration and stepping into the mystery of a legend, so we see couples celebrating their big milestone anniversaries, friends seeking new destinations and wanting to experience the journey as part of the destination, and travelers who want to party throughout the night whilst traveling across Europe,” Deyrolle tells Grazia USA.