A journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train was something I have always wanted to do – it is one of those true luxury travel experiences that are on everyone’s bucket list. After a taster journey on the Belmond British Pullman, the sister train of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, earlier this summer, where we were treated to ‘The Dinner’ with 2-star Michelin celebrity chef Tom Kerridge, we knew good things were coming our way. Very good things indeed.
On this journey, we were travelling from Venice to London, departing at 11am from Santa Lucia station, and arriving at around 6pm the following day to London’s Victoria station. Seventeen hours of 1920s luxury, impeccable service, incredible scenery (as we travelled through Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France and the United Kingdom) and fine dining. And a glass of champagne or three.
We made our way to Venice’s main train station and had a little bit of trouble finding where we were supposed to get to – not sure if I was expecting more signage, but in the end, it was a matter of following well-dressed people, as they kind of stood out.
One of the things I loved when I got my travel documentation, was to read carefully about the dress code. It stated: ‘In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, you can never be overdressed on board‘. Needless to say jeans, shorts and trainers are not allowed on board, but in all honesty, there were some people almost breaking the code, and that made me sad. It is a special occasion and Mr. O and I were determined to, well, be ourselves, and dress the part. It is never a chore, believe me.
I must confess to one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. You know that moment. Everyone had that moment. I had it once 14 years ago as I was trying to board a plane – and did not have my passport with me. I saw the passports in the morning before we left our hotel, and I can swear to God that I put them in my handbag. But, when we were asked for them, they were nowhere to be found. BUT, for some bizarre reason, and as the lovely hostess was calling our hotel, and calling a water taxi, I decided to check our suitcases and found them inside my bag. I was blushing and Mr. O was very silent. No words were needed. You would think I had done this before.
At this stage, you let go of your luggage and you can check-in items that you will only see when you arrive at your destination (in this case, Paris or London), and you are allowed a carry-on bag (and a garment bag) per passenger which will be delivered to your cabin. The idea is that you have as little with you as you can, as you can imagine, space is limited.
Mr. O and I, together with other passengers, were then escorted to what we thought was the lounge, similar to the one we had visited at Victoria Station – but there is not a dedicated lounge at Venice, and instead, all VSOE passengers use a very nice coffee shop, where a spacious area has been pre-booked and you can have tea, coffee and biscuits.
And all of a sudden, it was 10.30am and the train was arriving at the platform. I have to say, this was and will always be one of the most treasured travel memories of my life. Everyone, without exception was so excited to be about to embark on such an experience, everyone looked like children at a candy store. And that was lovely – no one was ‘too cool’, every person (we had 120+ passengers on board on this date) looked truly happy.
The train was a beauty – and I have to say, the staff had the best uniforms ever. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train was quite long, but the walk was one to be enjoyed slowly, but surely. There were no queues, no rushing, and a lot of photographs being taken. And so many smiles, it was infectious.
And, I am not quite sure how to put this, the recruitment process at the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express follows very strict procedures, which surely you will understand if you look at every photograph.
We made our way towards our carriage (J) which was almost at the end of the train – for reference, the passenger sleeper carriages are at each end of the train, and the restaurants, piano bar, service and kitchen carriages are in the middle. Walking from one end of the train can take a good 15 minutes, and that depends on good you are walking in motion.
When we got to our carriage, we were met by Vincent, who was our Cabin Steward. A true Frenchman, with a great sense of humour, we knew we had nothing to worry about from the moment we first met.
There are 3 types of cabins on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train – single cabins, double cabins, and suite cabins. 90% of the cabins are double cabins and on each carriage you will find a single cabin and a suite cabin, which is basically two interconnecting rooms.
As luck would have it, we were actually assigned a suite cabin, which meant we had twice the space. There is no first class or second class on this train – everyone has paid exactly the same and has the same level of service. The double cabins sleep up to 4 passengers, are increasingly being used by families (with very well-behaved children, I have been told).
We were escorted to our cabin, where we found our luggage stowed away, and the first thing we did was just unpack our garment carriers so that our evening attire would be in tip-top shape for the festivities to come. All of a sudden, we felt the train move and we were on our way to Verona. Everything was simple and so different from an airplane.
We found a chilled bottle of champagne and nuts waiting for us, and we couldn’t resist it – it would be rude to. So champagne glass in hand, it has time to explore the our cabin.
In each cabin, you will find a basin and a vanity unit (with very interesting storage). I knew that there would be no showers, but I also knew it was kind of half the fun. I obviously took baby wipes, but I was very keen to see what was offered in terms of washing products – and possibly, the best wash bag in the world. Ever.
There were also branded tissues, many many bottles of Acqua Panna around the cabin (replaced throughout the journey), and wonderful Fragonard goodies. But the ‘dry-shower’ Temple Spa range was truly unique (and very effective, for the record). I tried pretty much every product and they were very good.
There are no loos in each cabin – but there are two per carriage. They were always impeccable and I never had to queue, so no issues there either.
At first, Vincent came to say hello to us, but also to explain how everything worked – we also handed over our passports, which were kept throughout the journey as we were obviously crossing various borders, including non-Schengen countries. We were also visited by the Maitre d’Hotel who came to explain how each meal worked and we were given the option between two seatings for lunch and dinner.
As it was 11.30am, we weren’t quite ready for the 12pm seating, so we chose the 2pm seating, which gave us time to just sit down and enjoy the ride. There was no rush.
Under an hour after Venice, we made a stop in Verona. Throughout the journey there are quite a few technical stops – very handy for smokers, as you cannot obviously smoke on the train – which allowed everyone to stretch their legs every now and then. Some stops were too short, but others were 20-30 minutes and it was good to be ‘in Innsbruck for 2o minutes’, for example.
Before we knew it, it was time for lunch – and we were starving! With the train fare, ‘Table d’Hote’ meals are included. This means that there is a set menu for each meal, and if you want to order off-menu, you pay extra, as you do for any drinks. Needless to say, that the team will be extra careful with any allergies or dietary restrictions, but you need to do this at the time of booking.
For lunch, we had duck foie gras which was wonderful. Those babies did not die in vain, is all I can say. This beauty was followed by pan-fried John Dory with butter beans and the best most exquisite mashed potatoes: it was made of white potatoes and violet. To finish, we had pineapple roasted in brown sugar and ‘its sorbet’, with yummy salted caramel mousse. Obviously, this is not the time to diet or even think about it. As we were always moving, the calories were almost negative. Trust me.
You are assigned a table and dining car, and during the journey, you will get to try a few of them – only the decor differs (and its distance from the bar), but gives you a little change of scenery.
Before retiring to our cabin, we actually walked around the train just to see everything in day light, before we headed back. We politely declined afternoon tea at around 5pm as we seriously could not eat, and I am not ashamed to say we managed a little nap in between writing postcards for our friends and family and also readers who had requested a postcard. Each cabin comes with 4 (and it is a free, but not express service, but then again, who cares if a letter takes a week or two?), and I had so many requests coming through Twitter, that I asked for quite a few more, and just wrote away.
We woke up when the train stopped – which I found quite interesting. I was a bit worried if I would sleep ok, but I assure you – no issues there. The motion worked wonders and the ‘problem’ was when the train stopped.
This time around, we were in Innsbruck for a longer stop as we had to change engines. What? Well, it was actually quite interesting. The train (and there is only one Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train, for the record, which goes on different journeys each time around Europe), is pulled by an engine, and each time you cross a border into a new country, you need to get a new one. The process was quite quick, but it was something I had never thought about, so it was interesting to see.
At this time, it was almost 6pm and perfect to see some of the scenery – I loved glancing out of the window and seeing how dramatically different the scenery was. And stunning.
We were visited again in our cabin to select our dining time (obviously it had to be the 9pm sitting) and it was time to get ready, as cocktails in the bar awaited. That meant a DJ (tuxedo) for Mr. O and a long evening dress for yours truly.
I had heard many many stories about the legendary bar cart and seriously could not wait. It was also where the whole train come together and you could see a many passengers at the same time in the same place.
We had a pre-dinner Gin & Tonic (very good to see different varieties, with Monkey 47 and Fever Tree being our clear favourite) and also canapés. Regarding the passengers, I often wondered if the average age was over 70, but I have to say – it was not. More than half the guests were in their 40s and 50s, with many 30-somethings like me, and obviously people who have enjoyed longer lives and it was a fantastic mix. Everyone was keen to chat and we did get to hear some fantastic stories.
Dinner was superb. All meals we had were true fine dining and I don’t know to this date how they prepare such dishes on a moving train. Walking around in heels wasn’t easy, taking photos was challenging, and I will always be in awe of the skill demonstrated by the team. No one ever spilled anything (I did, worry not).
For dinner, we started with a crab claw and avocado tartare, followed by veal, white truffle puree and sautéed potatoes. We spent a very significant part of the meal perusing and experiencing the cheese selection and I don’t know how, but we even got to try the lovely (and light) lemon cake and vanilla panna cotta. We paired this with a nice bottle of Barolo.
For the record, no espresso coffee is served on board, apparently due to the pressure necessary, which the train engine cannot take somehow – our lovely waiter even said ‘imagine how hard it is for me, I am Italian’. Too true.
After dinner, we needed a walk, which was perfectly timed with a longer train stop, and obviously went back to the bar. For a drink, or three.
I really want to say that I went to bed at 3am, like many many others did (the bar closes when the last passenger goes to bed), but by 1am we were so sleepy, I cannot tell you. Something to do with the motion. So we went back to our cabin, to find it had been transformed into a bedroom. There were lovely details like mints and I loved the blankets.
We could have chosen to sleep on the same side of the cabin, whereby the back of the seat would have come up and made up a bunk bed, which is the normal sleeping arrangement, but on this occasion, and because I had the choice, we chose to sleep on each cabin (at a lower level).
And if some of you may think, ‘oh, that is small/weird’, my answer will be, ‘this is 20 times better than any airplane flat bed in the world, and costs the same as a one-way business class ticket from London to New York, or half a first class seat’. And it lasts 17 hours.
We slept like babies, babies, babies, and woke up when the train stopped in Paris, where half the passengers were to leave the train. I actually had planned to sleep until 8am, so I stayed in bed until after we left Paris. It was ‘weird’ to open the curtains and see a normal train station with people everywhere, so I decided not to.
As we got up, we let Vincent know that we were ‘ready for breakfast’ and that meant that we went to use the facilities (a dry shower, quite interesting) and get dressed and when we got back, the cabin was pristine again and a delicious continental breakfast had been served. I loved not having to get up and just enjoy a quiet breakfast (I do not talk a lot in the mornings, ask anyone who knows me) and enjoy the last bit of French scenery.
I thought the choice of products and brands on the train was very interesting – the staff was mostly French and Italian (and so is most of the route), but there were a lot of interesting choices, clearly appealing to the various European nationalities. I am sure that Italians would find scrambled eggs and smoked salmon for brunch weird, but there were other carefully selected options, like proper tea! I loved the variety and just thought it was a very nice touch.
We were on the second seating for brunch, and I was actually very sad. I knew that shortly after that meal, we would be arriving in Calais and switch trains. More on that later. But before, it was time for one last meal. One last very good meal. Brunch!
For brunch, we started with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, followed by broiled lobster. It ended with nougat ice cream and we decided that champagne was the only drink that would do this meal justice. We were not wrong.
But I was so so so so sad, I cannot tell you. An hour later, we were to arrive to Calais. In the meantime, our luggage was taken from our cabin (it would make a separate journey from ours to London Victoria), our passports were returned to us and the end was very near.
As we approached Calais, the skies opened and we got soaked, as we made our way to the 3 buses which were waiting for us. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train does not cross the channel into the UK, but worry not, there was something to this journey.
As we all got on the bus, we made our way to the Channel Tunnel, were we were to cross the channel by getting onto a train. I had done this twice before and it is fantastic as it takes only 30 minutes or so. But before, we all had to clear UK immigration before we left France, which meant we had to get out of the train, go through passport control and then back on the bus. Which, by the way, had the best driver in the world as I can assure you he got the bus inside the train in 3 movements or three. Very impressive.
As we arrived into the UK, we were dropped off at Folkestone West, where the lovely lovely lovely sister of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express was waiting for us – the Belmond British Pullman would be our fab ride into London (you can read about my previous experience here).
We waited in a little lounge while the train arrived, and we had the loveliest welcome by a local band. You can see the video right here.
Our journey to London took under two hours and it went so quickly, I cannot tell you. We were welcomed with a glass of sparkling rose (British, of course!!) and treated to our final Belmond meal – a very tasty afternoon tea, which is one of my favourite meals.
And before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye. I loved our 17 hours on board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and its sister train the Belmond British Pullman. I had an idea (or many ideas) on how this trip would go, and how wonderful it would be, but I have to be honest, it was even more than I ever expected. The train was incredible, the staff were out of this world (and so personable), the food was outstanding and the memories will be with us forever.
If you would like to see a promotional video which was actually shot on the journey I was in, just sit back and enjoy.
Disclaimer and fact box: I was a guest of Belmond, which is the new brand name of Orient Express Hotels, Cruises & Trains, on this journey from Venice to London, which lasts 36 hours and costs £1,990 per person, including set meals and excluding all drinks. To find out more about the various journeys planned for 2015 and beyond on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, and to book your next journey visit this website.