Luxury train trips are a perfect way to see the world
A night on board a luxury train can feel like a prize rather than a hardship
A passion for historic trains and journeys can be the only reason for signing up to the hefty ticket price to travel from Venice to London on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) train.
The exquisitely restored carriages and cabins are magnificent in the detail of the marquetry and the original Lalique panels in the dining car but, by today’s luxury standards, the overnight journey in a standard cabin is barely comfortable.
It may have been the first train to have soap on board but the lack of en-suite toilet and no shower on board the train is too much of a stretch for a luxury outing.
The experience and fine cuisine the historic train offers can be enjoyed if you’re properly prepared with the absolutely minimum amount of luggage. Large cases will be stored in a separate hold and are not available until disembarking. A suit and tie is required, but many opt for dinner jackets.
In 2018, three grand suites are being added to the VSOE rolling stock. Named Paris, Venice and Istanbul, they have full en-suite facilities, double beds and a sitting room.
In contrast, the Eastern & Oriental Express (E&O) train from Singapore to Bangkok is not limited by retaining period details and cabins have en-suite toilet and shower facilities. The starting point at Singapore’s Raffles Hotel is much more comfortable than the wooden benches of the Santa Lucia train station in Venice.
The state cabin has beds adjacent to each other (parallel to the tracks rather than at right angles as in the VSOE) and is much more comfortable for taller travellers.
This journey has two excursion stops — the one at the bridge on the River Kwai is the most interesting.
The geography in Europe is more interesting. The Italian Dolomites and Swiss Alps look like chocolate boxes when framed by the cabin’s embroidered curtains, whereas the major change as the E&O travels past Malaysia’s palm and rubber tree plantations via the causeway over the Straits of Johor is the shift away from mosques and minarets in the distance to Thai spirit houses in the back gardens of homes.
Belmond, previously Orient-Express Hotels Trains and Safaris, which operates both the VSOE and E&O routes, recently announced its newest train journey: the Belmond Andean Explorer, South America’s first luxury sleeper train. Already famous in South America for the Hiram Bingham train to Machu Picchu and Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel at the entrance to the Citadel of Machu Picchu, the Andean Explorer is set to take luxury train travel to the next level.
With stops at Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable water in the world, and lunch on a private beach with views across to the glacial peaks of La Paz, Bolivia, this journey has been added to my bucket list along with The Palace on Wheels routing through India’s Rajasthan.
With two great luxury trains — the sleek Blue Train and vintage-flavoured Rovos Rail — SA offers leisurely chugalugs. Both trains offer excursion stops that really add value, but I think the Rovos Rail Pretoria to Durban route is most recommended because of the opportunity to explore safari parks as well as an excursion to historic sites of the South African War.
The journey from Victoria Falls to Pretoria will remain among the most exciting for us after a burst dam near Gaborone in Botswana meant an unscheduled additional night on board the train while the washed-away rail tracks were replaced.
It is only when there are challenges that the very best or worst of people are exposed, and in this case, the aplomb and grace with which Rovos Rail train manager Daphne Mabala managed to arrange flights for passengers with imminent international connections while ensuring the comfort of the rest of us made the unscheduled night on board the train feel like a prize rather than a hardship.
Be sure to enjoy an afternoon tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel and one of the most romantic views of Mosi-oa-Tunya, The Smoke That Thunders, before you embark.
The English version of scones and finger sandwiches is served on the British Pullman train leg of the journey from Venice to London. After disembarking the Wagons-Lits carriages of the VSOE at Paris, the journey continues in luxury buses that travel under the English Channel to Folkestone in the UK.
There, a cheerful band welcomes passengers as they board the British Pullman dining carriages for the final journey to Victoria Station. Enjoy a refined tea, scones and clotted cream so yellow it looks like butter and a glass of champagne to wash away the tacky graffiti walls that will welcome you to London.