“If I had a magic wand and could make any travel dream come true what would you wish for?”
When a fellow travel writer asked me this question I was momentarily stumped. A year earlier I would have wished for Antarctica or Machu Picchu but it had been a very special year and both of those travel dreams had come true.
I realised that for years those two dreams had been at the top of my Travel Wish list and that now they had become a reality I needed to be clear on my next ultimate travel dream. How could the universe and I work together to make it happen if I didn’t know what it was?
So I took a moment, and opened my mind to all of the travel dreams I have had throughout my life. And the answer was there in a flash.
The Venice Simplon Orient Express.
The ultimate train experience for someone who loves the romance of rail, I would have loved the chance to ride the rails in those vintage carriages anywhere.
When I discovered the VSOE, as she is also known, was planning a history-making journey with its first trip between London and Berlin it felt like the universe had winked at me.
Belmond British Pullman Train – The Start of a VSOE Journey
As I’d been so focused on the Venice Simplon Orient Express I’d overlooked something pretty obvious. That being, a VSOE journey from London starts on a completely different train.
The Belmond British Pullman is the train that carries passengers through the English countryside, then everyone is transferred to a luxury coach for the Channel Tunnel crossing, before first stepping onboard the VSOE in Calais.
As much as I was looking forward to being on the VSOE, I loved the way this gave me the chance to experience two extraordinary trains.
Another time capsule on the tracks, the Belmond British Pullman is made up of a series of train carriages that have been exquisitely restored with art deco marquetry, art nouveau lamps, velvet armchairs and mosaic toilet floors that could be a postcard in themselves.
Our VSOE journey began at London’s Victoria station.
As I checked in the bulk of my luggage, only keeping on hand what I’d want on the train itself, I smiled at the other passengers who clearly shared my sense of excitement. When I spotted some ladies dressed in gorgeous vintage frocks with cloche hats I wished I’d embraced the same look and promised myself I would do just that if I was ever lucky enough to do the journey again.
Somewhat surprisingly, the lounge didn’t have tea or coffee on offer, which led to some well dressed passengers popping into Victoria station’s cafes. But it wasn’t long before the umber and cream carriages pulled into the station and we all excitedly went to find our seats.
In Europe, the VSOE train carriages are known by number. In the UK the carriages have names, and are mostly named after the mistresses of the men who built them, or so the story goes.
Our carriage was not named for a forbidden love, but instead for a swan. Or should that be some stars? Our carriage was called Cygnus and along with fellow Belmond British Pullman carriages Perseus, Minerva, Phoenix and Ibis was once part of the Golden Arrow train.
Long before I was born, Cygnus was carrying royalty and heads of state, and in 1965 she was one of the carriages to join Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral train. It was the last time a steam locomotive would be used in a state funeral.
Every carriage has a story, and every carriage also has a beautiful mosaic floor in the toilets. Cygnus’ one with the swan being so pretty it featured on the back of our brunch menu which made me smile and made the souvenir all the more special.
The brunch itself started with blinis and included pastries, fresh fruit cocktails with yoghurt, and scrambled eggs with Scottish smoked salmon and caviar on a warm crumpet. And while we may not have been hungry after all of that, there was no resisting the lemon and olive oil cake with whipped cream and a nice cup of tea as we watched the green English countryside go by.
After savoring breakfast, I went exploring, getting to know each of the carriages through their little history lesson panels, and chatting to train manager Norbert Sprater who explained some of the work that goes into the carriages, rightly comparing using them as a train to using an antique Bentley as a taxi.
All too soon we were arriving at Folkestone. As we disembarked I whispered a promise to Cygnus that I would be back one day for a purely Belmond British Pullman journey. Then we could have more time together, but for now there was another train waiting. Well, two. First we had to ride on a bus on a train.
Crossing the Channel Tunnel
When I first discovered two different trains were needed in Europe and the UK for the journey I thought it was an issue with the track gauge. It turns out that is not the case, and rather than being about the width of the rails it’s to do with the width of the train carriages and the fact that they can’t all fit into each other’s train stations.
Which is why there is a section of the VSOE journey that takes place on a coach. Which then gets onto a train to be transported through a tunnel.
We’d been told the Channel Tunnel transfer would be made on a ‘luxury coach,’. Turns out it was rather spacious and very comfortable with four seats around tables throughout the front, and a large lounge area at the back.
Our friendly hostess had Hush Heath Balfour, Leslie’s Reserve bubbles on offer, an English sparkling wine made from classic champagne grapes, and after having our passports checked and a bit of a wander around duty free it was time to get back on our coach which was then loaded onto a train to take us across.
As the coach engine has to be turned off for the crossing, it can get a little warm onboard without air conditioning, so it’s best to have optional layers for this section. It’s also possible to get off the coach and stretch your legs, though I was one of few curious enough to have a little look around.
Then the time came to hop back on board and for the coach to make the short journey to Calais train station where the legendary train was waiting.
First Impressions of the Venice Simplon Orient Express
Sometimes you can dream of something for years and then the reality turns out to be a bit of a disappointment.
That was not the case when I met the Venice Simplon Orient Express for the first time. There was a slight drizzle as we stepped off the coach but nothing was dampening my spirits. The band was playing, and the staff was all lined up smiling in their blue uniforms with white gloves and pillbox hats.
A personal steward then guided me to my cabin. While twin cabins have both upper and lower berths to sleep two, my companion and I had interconnecting twin cabins and by keeping the door open created a shared suite.
As they are the original sleeper cars from the 1920s and ‘30s, the cabins are quite compact, but that authenticity made the journey all the more special for this train lover. This was the real deal. This is how people travelled all those years ago and how I’d been dreaming of travelling for years.
Keeping the divider between our cabins open meant we had a feeling of extra space, as well as being able to share our excitement as we discovered our cabin, and we happily oohed and aahed over every little feature from the detailed marquetry on the walls and Lalique glass above our washbasins to the collection of Temple Spa products in the beauty travel packs.
I may only have brought a few things on board but somehow I’d managed to strew them all over my lounge as I retrieved my dress for the evening, which of course would have to be the moment there was a knock on my cabin door.
And there was Pascal Deyrolle. The man who started as a steward on the VSOE 25 years ago and was now the general manager of the Venice Simplon Orient Express. Pascal had come to introduce himself and I soon discovered he’d been looking forward to this trip even longer than I had.
In fact Pascal first started dreaming of taking the VSOE to Berlin 25 years ago when he started working on the train, and I loved the way travel dreams were coming true not only for first time passengers like Zac and I, but also for the GM himself.
As with Belmond British Pullman, the carriages on the VSOE all have stories to tell, including Sleeping Car 3309 which was part of the journey that inspired Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express after it was stuck in a snowdrift for ten days in 1929.
While most of the carriages have been brought back to their former glory and look like the cars they were before, one has undergone a more dramatic change.
In years gone by, the Orient Express had dining and sleeper cars. There were no bar cars back in the day but in 2016, that changed on the Venice Simplon Orient Express.
An old dining car was transformed into the 3674 Bar Car, and with its iconic blue and gold livery and patterns inspired by the train’s marquetry you wouldn’t guess that she wasn’t part of the original line up.
As well as comfy places to lounge, the 3674 Bar Car has a piano and a small space for a band. Here a three-piece band from Berlin played jazzy renditions of classics and I became fascinated by an instrument I’d never seen before. In the break the band explained it was a modified saxophone known as a tubax. Oh yes, we’re learning new things every day.
While the official dress code on the VSOE is smart casual, and jeans are a definite no-no, at night a lot of guests like to go black tie. I had fun embracing the dress code and when we went for a pre-dinner cocktail in the bar car we found we weren’t the only ones.
“I’m a princess at last!” one guest laughed when I complimented her on her beautiful pink satin dress, worn with long gloves, stole and a tiara. Belmond’s Venice Simplon Orient Express travel tips page says “You can never be overdressed on the Venice Simplon Orient Express” and I’m happy to report that’s true.
One thing worth noting is that apart from the welcome glasses of Prosecco when you board, alcoholic drinks are not included in the fare and at €22 for a cocktail it would be easy to run up quite a tab in the bar car. Something to be aware of before buying the bar a round of drinks.
As such I didn’t do too much research into head barman Walter Nisi’s cocktail menu, which features a mix of classics and VSOE specials. But we did rather enjoy the Guilty 12, inspired by the Murder on the Orient Express novel. As the bartender explained, its ingredients are kept a mystery from everyone but those who make it behind the bar. So I can’t tell you what’s in it, but I can tell you it was light and refreshing and rather lovely.
Along with the cocktails, the bar car has an impressive champagne list, and a caviar menu developed with caviar producer Petrossian, including shots of Alverta Royal caviar, caviar cubes and fine sheets of pressed caviar. I must confess though I try it occasionally a little caviar goes a long way for this gal so I decided the caviar on my crumpet was enough for the day. But if caviar is your thing, this is a good place to be.
It’s also a good place to be fascinated by how nimble the waiters are. As we sipped our drinks and nibbled on the largest olives I’ve seen in my life I was very impressed by the way they could nip through such narrow spaces on a moving train without bumping any of the glasses on tables. A good talent to have in this bar.
Dining on the Venice Simplon Orient Express
When it was time for dinner Zac and I were lucky enough to share a table with Pascal Deyrolle, who told us everyone has a favourite dining car on the VSOE.
There are three on board and it seems the most popular one is the Côte d’Azur, with its distinctive Lalique glass panels. Personally I was torn between the Côte d’Azur and the Etoile du Nord with its exquisite marquetry. And then I’d walk through the L’Oriental and think how gorgeous the Chinese style black lacquer was.
Needless to say, all three dining cars have been brought back to their original 1920s glory and are beautiful and romantic and I need to go back for another, longer journey so I can spend more time in each one.
There are set menus at each meal, though you can order a la carte meals at an extra cost. Dishes included iced blue Brittany lobster consommé with Ossetra caviar, taro ravioli on ratatouille and avocado mousse, followed by slow roasted Charolais beef with Blauburgunder sauce.
Pascal explained that all of the ingredients are sourced from the regions we were travelling through, and that the train had become part of the Sustainable Restaurant Association a few years earlier. They’d since looked at new ways they could reduce their environmental impact including changing their water supplier to reduce the transport involved.
Then he shared some big changes that had taken place and were about to happen on the train.
Every winter the VSOE carriages are taken to workshops in Clermont-Ferrand where every detail is checked, cleaned and restored.
Last winter there was a bit of a dramatic change along with all of the sprucing up. One that you can’t see but can definitely feel.
Belmond had air conditioning put into the bar and dining cars. This winter, all of the sleeping cars will receive the same treatment, so next season the entire train will be air conditioned.
Not that you will be able to see or hear it. Pascal says it was extremely important that the train didn’t lose its visual identity and so they have worked to make the air conditioning invisible.
While I like the way all the sleeping carriages still have coal boilers fired up, I also appreciate the nod to more modern comfort levels, and as our cabin was quite warm in the middle of the night I think the air conditioning will be a welcome addition.
But I am not among those who complain about the lack of showers on board.
While some are horrified at the thought of not being able to take a shower, I embraced it as part of the journey. Once again, the original trains didn’t have showers, and I like the fact that the train hasn’t given in and put them in.
Each cabin has a washbasin and my companion and I were both perfectly happy to freshen up with a little basin and washcloth action for our two-day and one night journey. Sure, if we’d gone a week without a shower it may have been different (this isn’t Burning Man, after all), but longer journeys on the VSOE stop at hotels every second night so guests can bathe to their hearts content before rejoining the train. A fine way to travel in my book.
The Joy of Slow Travel on a Luxury Train
As you can no doubt tell, I picked my travel dream well. I know there are some people who don’t get the point of taking a slow train when they can go to a busy airport and be zipped between London and Berlin in a couple of hours. Well, a few more hours if you factor in the fun of getting to the airport and all that waiting around, but you know what I mean.
But for me it was heaven. In the morning we woke up in our little beds with their super soft sheets and pillows, put on our navy and gold VSOE robes and sat down to breakfast in our cabins, and then realised the view outside was not what we expected.
We’d been told that we’d be coming through the prettiest part of the Rhine around breakfast time, and while the green countryside outside was very nice, we clearly hadn’t reached the castles, escarpments and vineyards section yet.
It turned out that in the evening there had been a delay at one of the stations and we were four hours behind schedule. As a punctual person that sort of news would usually cause me pain. That morning I felt a burst of joy.
We had longer on the train! We had a lovely lazy morning ahead where I could write postcards and letters to people on my VSOE stationery and put it in the onboard letterbox to be delivered with its special VSOE stamp.
I could have pots of tea and do a little reading and be relaxed and ready for the part where we went alongside the Rhine. And that is what I did.
Later that morning I caught up with Pascal and asked him how he was feeling about the delay. He smiled and told me most guests were like me and saw it as a bonus, with some telling him they could put on another dinner, get in at midnight and they’d still be happy.
After realising the train was fully stocked with enough food and drink for extra meal services, I was with those other passengers and would have preferred we slowed down rather than sped up to make up time.
In the end we did make up some of the time, and arrived in Berlin before dinner. Which considering the fact that other train lovers had turned out at the station to see the legendary train come into the beautiful Berlin Hauptbahnhof station for the first time is not a bad thing.
And then it was time to say goodbye to the train, and to get back into that city I love. The VSOE’s London to Berlin experience may only have one night on the train but is actually a three night experience with two nights at the Hotel Adlon Kempinski.
From one legend that had been brought back to life in style to another. The Adlon is not only five star luxury with a fascinating history, it’s right in the heart of Berlin and a hotel I had long wanted to stay in. Talk about travel dreams coming true.
Published under license from Well Travelled