Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Still “King of Trains,” IRT Says
From the moment I saw the carriages gleaming blue and gold in the morning sun at Venice Santa Lucia Station, I knew my trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) would be magical.
A trio on the platform serenaded us with ’30s jazz standards as my steward, Paolo, decked out in his royal blue uniform and white gloves, showed me to my cabin, gave me a tour, and poured me a welcome glass of champagne.
Paolo’s impeccable service and gracious manner completed my feeling that I had time-traveled into some distant, glamorous past.
My twin cabin was diminutive, but perfectly suited to my needs. A couch in green and pink velvet, trimmed with Venetian lace, ran the width of the cabin. At night, the indefatigable Paolo expertly converted it into a cozy twin bed.
My cabin also boasted a matching footstool, lamp, folding table, and corner bar with glasses and bottled water. The wash station was cleverly hidden behind concave doors.
(The wash station was much more than a sink. Hidden behind the doors, I found: several mirrors, storage cubbies and special VSOE bath amenities sourced from Temple Spa.)
Two luggage racks provided ample storage for me (although I highly recommend handing off any extra-large suitcases to the staff when you check in). The handily-placed hooks on the walls and dress hangers gave me space to store my fancy evening attire.
And the rich wood marquetry in my cabin and throughout my carriage had been freshly renovated, so the floral motifs on the walls were especially vibrant.
Admittedly, there was no bathroom in my cabin; with the exception of the brand-new Grand Suites, there are no bathrooms in any cabin on the VSOE.
But the staff kept the bathrooms at the end of each carriage impeccably clean, and there are more than enough bathrooms to accommodate everyone.
After a thoroughly pleasant hour watching the increasingly dramatic Italian countryside unfold outside my window, I made my way to the bar car for a pre-lunch aperitif.
The bar car — named 3674, and also freshly renovated in sophisticated blue animal prints — is the social hub of the train. The jazz trio already had a few guests singing along to old standards by the time I arrived.
The waitstaff, dressed in sharp white, seemed to be everywhere at once. They “danced” with the often-unpredictable undulations of the train — balancing trays bearing 5 or 6 brimming cocktails. I marveled at the feat time and again. I never saw a single drop spilled!
Later in the afternoon, I retreated to the “Etoile du Nord” dining car for the second seating of lunch, as the Italian Dolomites came into increasingly sharp focus outside the windows.
Executive Chef Christian Bodiguel is an unassuming, behind-the-scenes presence on the train, but his food steals the spotlight. Imaginative, classic French and Continental fare is beautifully presented and served with white tablecloths, fine china, and crystal.
As a vegetarian, I am always curious to see what I will be served in lieu of meat. Chef Bodiguel did not take the easy way out and simply swap out the meat for something meat-like, as would be the custom in almost any other dining situation.
Instead, at each meal, I had an entire menu specially crafted for me. My three-course lunch consisted of asparagus soup; cannelloni with ratatouille, olives, grilled sucrine (what Americans call Bibb or Boston) lettuce and hazelnut; and Amalfi lemon mousse for dessert.
The food was only equaled by the phenomenal service in the dining car. “Five stars” does not begin to describe the professionalism of a VSOE waiter. Much like in the bar car, the fluidity and care with which every waiter moved, spoke, and served us was something special to witness.
After lunch, we made our way to car number 3539. Built in 1929, it is the oldest car on the train and still retains many original details. The candlestick holders in the hall and the built-in pocket-watch holders in the cabins remind you that you are in a moving museum as much as a luxury train.
As we were admiring the beautiful old finishes, large snowflakes began to fall outside the train, further enhancing the Agatha Christie-esque feel of the carriage. We were now in Austria and fast approaching the Brenner Pass.
Next, it was time to attend the much-anticipated Grand Suite unveiling party. The Suites were absolutely breathtaking, and I can’t wait for our guests to see them in person.
Just a few highlights of the Suites include: large double bed, en-suite bathroom with rain shower, sink, toilet, and heated floors and walls (so your mirror will never fog!), living space with couch, table, and chair, Dyson hair dryer, free-flowing champagne, and the option to privately dine in your cabin.
After our Grand Suite party, we were seated for dinner in the “Cote d’Azur” dining car, with stunning Lalique glass panels depicting Bacchanalian maidens.
Our five-course dinner was one of the most opulent meals I have ever eaten. Truffled risotto, morel and almond cream vol-au-vent, and dark chocolate and cereal gateau were the features on my vegetarian menu. My dining companions had lamb chops that one of them declared “the finest I have ever eaten!”
We were all full to bursting but exceedingly content by the time we finished our dinner and retired to the bar car for more music and merrymaking.
Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, I retired to my cabin to find my couch had been converted into an inviting bed. I fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the train, humming jazz tunes in my head.
Read Part II of Rachel’s story, which encompasses Day 2 of her trip: brunch on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Chunnel crossing, & her journey on the Belmond British Pullman.
Rachel M. Hardy, luxury travel advisor and IRT’s VP of Sales & Marketing, was one of a select few to witness the VSOE’s over-the-top, new Grand Suites. Read her story here.