The Best 5 Luxury Trains
by Alain Gayot
Beginning in 1883, the Orient Express set the standard for Gilded Age travel on the European continent, offering luxury service between Paris and Istanbul. Today, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express keeps the spirit of its namesake alive with fin de siècle elegance aboard restored train cars from the 1920s and 30s. A variety of journeys link top tourist destinations like London, Prague and Budapest, making the train perfect for honeymooners or business travelers looking for an overnight getaway after a long week of meetings.
If this elegant train had been designed as the set for a movie, there's no question as to who would have written the script. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is pure Merchant-Ivory, devoted to authenticity and steeped in the refined world of the aristocracy. No blue jeans, no tennis shoes, no mobile phones in public spaces ... in other words, no unseemly intrusions from the modern world.
Among the train's collection of Continental European routes is a run between Paris and Venice. This overnight experience incorporates dinner; breakfast served in your compartment against the bucolic backdrop of Switzerland; lunch taken in the Italian Dolomites; and late afternoon tea sipped as you cross the Venetian Lagoon. Enveloped in the slower pace of a bygone era, we took our morning meal in a dining car adorned with elaborate mahogany inlays and Lalique light fixtures, while outside cows grazed serenely in alpine meadows and cute, clean villages passed by. Later in the day, the landscape evolved into endless sweeps of vineyards.
The original Orient Express made its first trip in 1883 from Paris to Romania, and the Orient Express route was established in 1919. The train was like an intimate, itinerant manor house for blue-blooded travelers, but by the mid-20th century, the upper crust was in decline and the luxury rail lines of Europe were reaching the end of their glory days. This bastion of the golden age of travel might have faded away entirely were it not for Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Hotels chairman, James B. Sherwood, who purchased two old Pullman cars at a Sotheby auction in 1977. Total restoration of these and other historic cars resulted in the revival of the Orient Express in 1982.
Because the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express contains cars from Europe's most prominent lines, it is difficult to separate it from the history of train travel on the continent. The train is comprised of up to 17 carriages, all of which date back to the early 1900s and still feature their original old coal heaters. In keeping with tradition, each has its own identifying number; Bar Car 3674 was built as a dining car in France in 1931, and Dining Car 4141 was constructed as a first-class Pullman and decorated by René Lalique in 1929. Sleeping accommodations are equally character-filled, from 3425, which was part of the Orient Express service used by King Carol of Romania for his love affairs, to 3544, which served as a brothel during WWII.
While not crafted for the movies, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has seduced its fair share of movie makers, offering berth for characters as varied as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Disney's Cruella DeVil. The reason for this is simple. When seeking a glimpse of Europe's cultured past — whether you're a director or sybaritic globetrotter — you will not find a more genuine experience.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express books up early, so it's best to plan a season ahead. Rates for the Paris-Venice journey begin at $2,060, one way. Rates for other journeys start at $720 and up.