Long before the dawn of private jets and first-class flights, movie stars and royalty and the fancy-rich traveled through Europe onboard luxury trains – the most iconic of which was the Orient Express. Once upon a time, it was the only way to travel in style.
Superstar Josephine Baker glided through the carriages in her finery, British writer Agatha Christie was so enamored with the glamor and mystery that Murder on The Orient Express was inspired by her travels en route home from the Middle East, and the Maharaja of Cooch Behar famously tipped the staff in diamonds.
With a first run in 1883, the Orient Express was dreamed up by wealthy Belgian Georges Nagelmackers, after he was left impressed by the advances in train travel during a trip to America. The press sensationally dubbed the luxury train the Orient Express. Its maiden voyage was from Paris to Constantinople. While the original Orient Express ceased service 45 years ago, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (one of the companies that ran one of three popular routes in the early 1900s) was revived by American entrepreneur James Sherwood. He scoured international auctions for vintage carriages – including those from the famed Orient Express – which he lavishly restored to the tune of €16 million, before relaunching the train service in 1982.
Once synonymous with the bygone era, the slow travel movement is enjoying a renaissance. Emerging from a post-pandemic world, there’s a desire to swap stressful, jet-set breaks for slower, more serene modes of transport. Stylish, sustainable train travel has become more enticing than ever. “For some who had been rushing through life, they realized they were missing a lot in their effort to try and do a lot,” says Dr Saliha Afridi, psychologist and managing director of The LightHouse Arabia. “COVID-19 forced them to slow down and made them realize how much they needed that. So now when they travel they seek the meaningful type of travel rather than rushing through and sightseeing.” She adds: “Slow travel is anchored in the values of appreciation, intentionality, deep connection, mindfulness, and deep engagement with the now. If we are overly focused on ‘doing’ and not enough ‘being’ then we will most likely miss a lot of what the experience holds for us.”
Being in the moment is a prerequisite on arrival at Cipriani, A Belmond Hotel, Venice, aptly described as an oasis of calm in the historic city. If you’re traveling in from abroad, a night in Venice is required as the train departs around 10am. Choose to stay at the train’s sister hotel located on Giudecca Island and you won’t regret it. With its sprawling residence complete with fragrant gardens and an impressive Olympic-sized swimming pool, it’s no wonder Amal and George Clooney chose the Venetian hideaway for their nuptials. Welcomed like family, with genuine warmth and affection, guests often leave the glamorous bubble with heavy hearts – but by private speedboat to Venice Santa Lucia station.
Here to experience the romantic route from Venice to Paris for Vogue Arabia, there’s an undeniable buzz in the air. The shiny royal blue Venice Simplon Orient Express, A Belmond Train, Europe – the grand dame of luxury travel – with its opulent gold trimmings, is breathtaking. As Italian commuters crowd around, cheering and taking pictures of the gleaming museum on wheels, it’s a surreal moment – this is a once-in- a-lifetime trip.
Chilled drinks and Petrossian caviar welcome guests to the decadent world of the Grand Suites. Designed by Wimberly Interiors, each suite takes inspiration from Europe’s most enticing cities – Paris, Venice, Istanbul, Vienna, Prague, and Budapest – while preserving the heritage of the 1920s art deco design.
Belgian Melissa, proudly the second-ever female stewardess onboard, shows us around The Venice Suite, home for the next 24 hours. It’s Italian indulgence at its finest with baroque furniture, delicate glass lamps, polished marquetry, and sumptuous fabrics. With a Venetian silk wallpaper backdrop offsetting the midnight blue headboard of the queen-sized double bed, it exudes romance.
Grand Suites also have the added benefit of a bijou en suite, which features a Murano glass bowl sink reminiscent of a work of art, a brass-piped shower, an antique-style toilet with wooden seats, and mosaic flooring. Guerlain toiletries, which pay tribute to the famous Bee Bottle, add a hint of nostalgia.
With no Wi-Fi or TV, guests are encouraged to indulge in the art of old-fashion conversation, admire the vistas, and write thoughtful vintage postcards. “It’s so special as it’s the only genuine experience that allows you to go back in time. It’s like a time capsule,” train manager Pedro Coelho exuberantly explains the appeal of the train. “The future is more slow travel as we’re departing from gathering material goods to gathering memories. People want memories they can treasure forever, which the VSOE gives them.”
A-list couple Victoria and David Beckham were on the same track, choosing the memorable train to celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary this summer. Special occasions are the reason for most trips, and over 30 diamond rings are sneaked on for proposals each year. Coelho adds: “Whether you’re a celebrity or someone who’s spent their life savings on the trip, everyone feels that same level of excitement as it’s such a unique experience.”
The Beckhams join a roll call of famous faces who have traveled on the train, including John Travolta, Julia Roberts, David Suchet (who adopted his classic Poirot style during the day), The Rolling Stones, Pharrell Williams, and Hollywood’s hottest new footwear designer, Amina Muaddi.
Like all guests, celebrities adhere to the guide attached to your ticket, which states that you can never be overdressed for the VSOE. Jeans, shorts, T-shirts, and trainers are strictly forbidden. Dinner is black tie, with many ladies embracing the roaring twenties theme with flapper dresses. Beautiful Lalique glass panels set against an art deco interior with blue-gray shades bring the gastronomy odyssey alive in the Côte d’Azur dining car. Executive Chef Jean Imbert has cast his creative magic on the culinary experience, beautifully executed by onboard Chef Alexandre Viala who serves up the exceptional seasonal dishes. The highlight of the four-course evening feast is the American-style lobster sourced from Brittany. It’s exactly like being transported back in time as impeccably dressed guests dine in the classic carriage as the train weaves its way through Switzerland’s quaint villages at dusk.
Follow the sounds of the baby grand piano to the iconic bar car 3674, where drinks such as the Guilty 12, inspired by Agatha Christie’s famous novel, are served. Guests are a melting pot of cultures and fascinating characters – the stylish Japanese couple, the animated blonde celebrating her milestone birthday with her husband, and an elegant American mother traveling with her son.
Waking up to the hazy sunshine of the French valleys, as breakfast of truffled scrambled eggs is served in the privacy of the Grand Suite, is one of many special moments. Twenty-four hours after departing Venice, the artisan of travel arrives fashionably late (only by a few minutes) in Paris. Coelho is right, boarding the train is like entering a time capsule. The magic of the golden age of travel still lives on in the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, but you have to experience it to believe it.
Such is the demand for unparalleled luxury on wheels, French hospitality group Accor and SNCF Group, owners of the Orient Express brand, have announced the 2024 comeback of the original train. Next year they’ll debut the Orient Express La Dolce Vita, whisking travelers through 14 Italian regions, as well as Istanbul, Paris, and Croatia. The new trains will join fabulous fleets across the world, such as The Maharaja Express, Eastern & Oriental Express, and Pride of Africa, which all promise to spoil guests with world-class luxury and service during unforgettable adventures.
T.S. Eliot once said: “The journey, not the destination matters…” and with the likes of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express leading the way for slow travel, with a sprinkle of romance and nostalgia, it seems the 20th-century poet was well ahead of the game.
Accommodation aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient- Express, A Belmond Train, Europe, for a Classic Journey from Venice to Paris starts from €3,465 per person for a Historic Cabin, €10,318 per person for a Grand Suite, and from €6,526 per person for the Suite cabin category. A room at Cipriani costs €940 per night, belmond.com
Originally published in the September 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia