Travelling in style on the Orient Express

Winning an Instagram competition is never an expectation upon entering, but to win a trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is almost beyond belief. (Thank you, Aspinal of London.) A once-in-a-lifetime kind of trip, travelling from Venice to Paris on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is the stuff dreams are made of, and is one of the ultimate ways in which to travel in true style.

Boarding
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Wednesday 25 June 

09:35 – time to go 

A private transfer picked us up from our hotel. We stepped outside and saw a water taxi bobbing in the water, waiting to whisk us off to the train station in Venice. On arrival, our Belmond rep (that’s the company that owns the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and many other luxurious trains, boats, and hotels) showed us straight to the platform and, finally, at 10:40 the train pulled in, gleaming and regal with its navy blue carriages, the windows dotted with pink lampshades. The thrill was almost too much to bear; I became really rather anxious about boarding as my husband and his camera paced up and down the platform admiring the train, looking to see if it had a steam engine (it doesn’t), taking photos and generally marveling at the its beauty. My anxiety might have had something to do with the bad dream I had the night before about missing the train altogether but in all honesty, I think I was overwhelmed with anticipation and disbelief.

11.05 – all aboard!

We were in carriage B, cabin 3, where a half bottle of chilled Tattinger awaited us. Of course, at 20 weeks pregnant I couldn’t indulge too much – a few sips of from my husband’s glass and I stuck to the fresh orange juice instead. 

Those first steps onto the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express will always be remembered – as I climbed up and into the carriage, what struck me was the highly polished 1920s wood, everywhere. Our cabin door was open and though it was narrow, inside the cabin felt spacious. On the left was a sofa, and a small table with a reading lamb sat beneath the window (which, delightfully, opened halfway with a roller handle). There was even space for a little stool, for resting your slipper-ed feet.

13:00 – lunch en route

Lunch was gratefully received, mostly because I was finding it difficult to switch off, to realise that the travel on this occasion was as enjoyable as any holiday. It’s difficult to comprehend, in this life we lead of constantly being ‘switched on’, that we can just be. Even odder is the realisation we were en route – usually ‘getting there’ is time spent scrolling social media or frantically replying to emails before turning on automatic replies. 

In the first of three dining cars we were served tomato gazpacho with king prawns and chicken, a fish dish with leek and black rice, and a cherry and coconut dessert (divine) which was followed by tea, coffee and chocolates. To sit on a train at a perfectly laid lunch table complete with tablecloth and linen napkins, savouring lunch as we passed through the Italian Dolomites was verging on an out-of-body experience. I was convinced we had been transported to the pages of an F.Fitzgerald novel.

16:00 – tea and cake

A short walk back to our cabin after lunch left us with a couple of hours to watch the scenery roll by. Again, it wasn’t easy to allow ourselves not to work but after an hour of feeling a bit fidgety, relaxation took over – the view was so beautiful and serene, gently passing by the window. It was almost hypnotising.

Enjoying the journey home was another unusual experience. Usually we’re travelling to get somewhere as fast as we can so that we can chill out once we arrive, but the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is designed to allow you to enjoy the whole process. This new take on travel felt extremely beneficial to wellness and state of mind and before I realised it I had nodded off a little, the hours passing me by until it was time for afternoon tea in our cabin, served in silverware with cups and saucers, an accompanying miniature pistachio macaron or two.

The train pulled into one of many platforms not long after we finished our tea, so we took the opportunity to stretch our legs, get some fresh air and take some photographs. The weather was beautiful, the breeze welcome (although there is air conditioning on the train it’s always invigorating to breath in fresh air), and walking on solid ground helped to steady the ‘rocking’ motion that was becoming familiar after six hours on a moving train.

19:00 – dinner is served at sunset

Soon, it was nearing dinner time. I freshened up at our teeny tiny basin, and did my hair and makeup by the window (there are sockets for charging your phones, etc and for plugging in other electricals – I was glad of this because I’m the kind of girl who likes to have some sort of control over her hair and her gadgets).  Admittedly, we did have to sit out of the way of the other while getting dressed, but it was fine, we enjoyed the last of the champagne from earlier in the day.

Dinner was a fine affair. We were seated at a table for two (the small proximity of the carriages means you may well be seated with other guests, all part of the fun really, inviting conversation and tall tales) and the view from our window, framed perfectly by plush curtains, was astonishing. The sun was setting over the Austrian countryside, quaint little houses and sparkling rivers and even a waterfall all bathed in a golden light as dusk fell.

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We were served white fish with pressed caviar to start, followed by lamb dressed with fiery spices the chef had picked up in Istanbul. Next, husband had the cheeseboard (beautifully presented to him on a platter with figs, grapes and crackers) and I had the lemon sorbet topped with a plump blueberry. Finally, a fourth course appeared in the form of a white chocolate panacotta pyramid, the creamy body working in total harmony with the biscuit base. A glass of champagne, tea, coffee, and a quartet of rich, smooth, cocoa-dusted truffles completed our dining experience with elegance and style (and swollen tummies). 

21:30 – a cocktail or two 

After dinner we relocated to the bar car (named 3674),  fabulous with its art deco design and baby grand piano. After a twenty minute wait to be seated, we ordered cocktails – a Rusty Nail for him, a virgin Mojito for her. The drinks came, a small Evian too, and some tiny cake-like treats, exotic in their sticky sweetness. It was the first occasion to pay for anything and at 44 euros we enjoyed every last drop of our cocktails. 

Cocktails
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The atmosphere was jolly, the guests in high spirits fulled by the rush of the train, the alcohol and the glamour of it all. If I hadn’t been pregnant I’d have worn something beautiful and convinced my better half to order another Rusty Nail, a bottle of champagne, perhaps have a chat at the bar as the pianist played, listen to the jazz after he’d finished. As it was, my feet were swollen and I was ready to change into my pyjamas and lie down. And so we bid bar car 3674 goodnight and made our way through the narrow carriages back to our cabin, sleep chasing us as we went.

23:00 – bunk beds and posh pillows

Our cabin had been transformed for night time by our porter, Ricardo. A carpeted step ladder showed my husband the way to his bed, while I unwrapped my Venice Simplon-Orient-Express kimono robe, washed my face and brushed my teeth before scurrying up the corridor to the WC. Thankfully, I didn’t bump into anyone, nor did I in the dark of the night. Murder on the Orient Express was not what we had in mind, though we both found it hard to sleep with the train hurtling along at great speed in the dead of the night, blackness on all sides. When sleep did come, it was comfortable thanks to the fine bed linen, plush pillows and extra blankets, but we didn’t feel particularly well-rested come morning.

Thursday 26 June

08:00 – good morning from France

I woke at 6am, drifting in and out until 8am when I hurried up the carriage to the WC again to freshen up. I was delighted to return to the cabin ready for the day ahead, my husband just stirring. As he woke, I raised the blinds to reveal a bright blue sky over green fields with horses and hay bales dotted here and there. We were in France, so when the continental breakfast of tea, coffee, fresh fruit and croissants arrived it was most apt. Ricardo made up our cabin and served breakfast, leaving us to come-to with a strong cup of tea.

11:30 – lobster for brunch

The route from Venice to London usually goes via Paris mid-morning, but we had been re-routed through Austria and Switzerland due to strikes and so our arrival into Calais was on schedule for 13:00. Thankfully it made no difference to our journey – but we were grateful we hadn’t taken the decision to disembark at Paris to enjoy an afternoon there!

Brunch started with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, with another offer of champagne, followed by a half lobster dressed with a modest helping of creamy white sauce and piped mashed potato with truffle. It was delicious and a real treat and yet felt natural – there was no ‘stuffiness’. It was incredibly enjoyable, and as relaxed as any other Sunday brunch. 

We finished with tea and coffee, and headed back to our cabin via the boutique where we picked up a few souvenirs (two magnets, a teddy dressed as a porter) for around 80 euros.

13:10 – goodbye Orient Express, hello Channel Tunnel

Shortly after brunch we arrived at Calais where we said goodbye to Ricardo and the beautiful Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. It was a sad moment, to realise the main part of our special journey was over, but it had been such a gorgeous time that we left smiling.

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Ricardo
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We were guided to the luxury coach (our luggage was taken care of) which was to take us through the Channel Tunnel, and were given first class treatment with drinks and snacks on board and a fast-track through passport control. We arrived at Folkestone station in the afternoon sunshine, where we found a quartet band playing jovial music to welcome us on what was a sunny afternoon, both literally and figuratively.

15:30 – afternoon tea on board the Belmond British Pullman

The Belmond British Pullman is another Belmond train and though we didn’t find its appearance and decor as jaw-dropping as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, it was charming with its free-standing (and super comfy) arm chairs, lamps, crockery and drapes. Plush isn’t quite the word for this train, perhaps refined is better. We sat down to chat, plugging in our phones to be fully charged for our flight home later. We relived the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express journey through Europe, comparing it to our current experience – we agreed that, if there were to be a ‘next time’, we would get off at Paris and fly home from there so that we could spend time enjoying the city. An afternoon in Paris appeals more to us than taking all day and evening to travel to Calais, take the tunnel and train to London, and flight to Edinburgh.

However, we had no cause to complain as we were brought yet more delicious food as we coursed through the picturesque English countryside. (I still can’t understand how the Belmond team produces such a high quality of fine dining aboard a moving train.) Afternoon tea consisted of a goats cheese tart (amazing), sandwiches (fluffy and soft), cream scones and a plateful of delicate little cakes of which there were four each, all washed down with bottomless cups of tea. 

17:45 – a bump back to earth from heaven

All too soon the suburbs were upon us, the buildings growing higher and closer together as we approached inner-city London. We pulled into Victoria train station and the heavenly dream was well and truly over. Our bags were lined up on the platform, and though there was no melee like you might find at the end of other journeys, it was clear by the noise, smells, and crowds that we were safely back on earth. We found our cases, and caught the Gatwick Express to the airport for our flight back to Scotland, both noting how much less fabulous life suddenly was but both glad to be returning home to the familiarity of our life together.

Thank you to Aspinal of London for the incredible prize, to Belmond for the experience, and to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express staff for looking after us so well. 

The Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Venice to London journey starts from around £2,450 per person. Find out more.

Day trips on the Belmond British Pullman start at around £297. Find out more.

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