Iconic, indulgent, unforgettable: these three words immediately come to mind when one thinks of the Orient Express. The service that began in 1883 exuded elegance and style and inspired writers (including Agatha Christie, of course), filmmakers, and the jet set.
While the original service no longer exists, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) was established in 1982 with a fleet of restored vintage cars and an eye toward impeccable service. It retraces many of the routes run by its predecessor, including the Venice-to-London run.
Now owned and operated by the luxury brand Belmond, the VSOE is still committed to excellent service. Riding the rails on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is an unforgettable experience. Here are a few of the reasons why.
We arrived at Venice’s Santa Lucia station in plenty of time for an 11:30 a.m. departure. The VSOE’s porters retrieved our bags from the gate and delivered them to our compartment. When it was time to proceed down the platform and approach the train, we were absolutely starstruck by the dazzling colors. All of the coaches -- restored vehicles from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’50s -- were painted a glossy, rich blue with gold embellishments. There is no other train like it on the rails, and we felt like royalty just walking up.
When we found our car, we were greeted by a smiling steward wearing a blue uniform adorned with shiny gold buttons. As I climbed the stairs into the train, he reached out his white-gloved hand to help me aboard. The gesture made an instant and indelible impression; I knew this was going to be a magical travel experience. Our steward walked us down the aisle to our room and asked us what lunch seating we’d prefer. We told him we’d prefer lunch at noon, and he left to attend to other passengers.
We took a few moments to poke around our compartment (our bags had already arrived and were stowed) and then explored the rest of train before lunch. Our room was small but richly appointed with dark cherry wood accents, a jacquard-upholstered sofa, a small table with a lamp, and a corner cabinet that concealed a washbasin. There was also a large picture window.
Belmond has done an incredible job of maintaining an Art Deco flair onboard the VSOE. There were three dining carriages, all accented with Lalique glass panels and rich black lacquer and impeccably set with silver, crystal, fine china, and crisp white linen. We took a quick peek at the bar car, also an Art Deco vision with brass accents, velvet curtains, chaise longues, and a baby grand piano tucked into the corner. By then, we realized it was already time for lunch. We had been on the rails for nearly 30 minutes and had hardly noticed, since the ride was so smooth.
Important: We looked the part as well. The VSOE is not the place for shorts or flip-flops! Plan on looking sharp for the trip’s duration; black tie is recommended for dinner.
From the moment we stepped onboard, we felt the pride and professionalism of the VSOE’s staff. We were on the train for 36 hours, and not once did we need to ask for a single thing. Every need was anticipated and provided for in an efficient yet friendly manner.
Every surface, from our compartment window to the floor in the dining room, had been polished to a gleam. The stewards all wore white gloves, and any inch of the VSOE would have passed a white-glove cleanliness inspection. The train was as clean as the whistle that blew as we pulled away from Santa Lucia.
Our steward served our in-room high tea, took care of our dining reservations, and transformed our room into sumptuous sleeping quarters while we were in the bar car after dinner. The next morning, we had newspapers waiting, and when we came back from breakfast, the room had been converted for day use. Our steward made it very clear -- from the moment he showed us to the compartment until just before we disembarked -- that if there was anything he could do for us, we had only to push the steward button. We never needed to, which speaks to the level of service we encountered.
We experienced the same level of care and attentiveness when taking our meals and in the bar car. The service was simply perfect.
We enjoyed several meals on the VSOE: a three-course luncheon, high tea in our compartment, a multicourse dinner, breakfast, an afternoon nosh, and another high tea. All meals were included in the price of our VSOE ticket. Passengers are assigned a dining car; each serves a similar menu.
The food was, in a word, exquisite. An entire team of chefs worked to prepare the food, which was French-inspired. The presentations were gorgeous, the portions were generous, and the food was of gourmet, five-star quality.
While lunch and breakfast were both delightful, dinner was the standout. The ambiance was elegant and chic, with passengers from all over the world dressed to the nines. The evening’s four courses were seasonally inspired and lavishly prepared with many indulgent ingredients, including lobster, caviar, and truffles. And like on trains anywhere else in the world, we had the chance to meet new friends while dining. We chatted with a British chemist and her nuclear physicist husband -- and even caught a glimpse of a famous footballer -- during dinner.
Another spot where we spent time was 3674, the bar car. While alcoholic beverages were not included in the price of our ticket, the well-mixed drinks and the people-watching were worth the extra cost.
We headed to the bar car for a pre-dinner cocktail and returned for a nightcap before slipping back to our compartment. In addition to a full bar that churns out beautifully crafted cocktails, 3674 has a separate champagne bar stocked with vintages including Taittinger and Cristal. Still in a food coma from the sumptuous dinner, we sat in our plush wingback chairs, sipped our drinks, and looked out the window at the incredible Alps. A member of the staff played the baby grand. It was one of many pinch-me moments.
We were captivated by the route. From Venice, it cut across the Italian Dolomites, headed north and then west through the Alps in Austria and Switzerland, and then took us through the French countryside to Calais, France.
As the train pulled away from Venice, we looked out at little Italian towns and adjacent fields planted with grapes and other crops. As the terrain became rocky and steep, we saw that the farmers had cut their fields diagonally into the mountainside to make the most of the land. The Dolomites, which were named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2009, are popular with skiers, hikers, and climbers. These jagged, gorgeous peaks are showstoppers, and the lush valleys dotted with villages we passed along the way were charming. With its tall pines and tranquil meadows dotted with wildflowers, the scene looked like the backdrop for The Sound of Music. We half expected to see Maria come singing down one of the hills!
The train headed north, and after high tea, we found ourselves in Innsbruck, Austria. We briefly stepped out onto the platform to stretch our legs. The air was crisp, clear, and chilly, even though it was summer. The mountains towered over us, and most were capped in white. As we looked about, we could only imagine how busy the winter ski season must be!
One more forget-me-not moment: We stopped briefly in Switzerland, and as the train came to a halt, we lingered at an observation window opposite our compartment. We found ourselves looking straight at the most picturesque Swiss chalet, right down to the red geraniums in the window boxes. An elderly couple, both wearing thick sweaters, stepped out onto their porch to wave at the train. We saw them, grinned, and waved right back.
We slept through most of France and woke up outside Paris, where we took our breakfast on the train. Once we reached Calais, we disembarked and boarded a luxury coach for the Channel crossing. Then we boarded a British Pullman train for the short trip to London. The white cliffs of Dover were an interesting sight, but honestly, they lacked the wow factor after our incredible journey.
For so many reasons, we would take this trip again. Our experience onboard the VSOE was everything we could have imagined and more. It was not a point A to point B trip -- you’re certainly not paying premium for simple transportation. Rather, the VSOE provided a trip back in time to an era where glitz and glamour reigned supreme. Getting there -- in high fashion and fabulous style -- was more than half the adventure.
Singles, twins, and suites on a variety of routes are available on the VSOE; you can find more information, including 2019 schedules and pricing, here.