Since 1969, restaurant, hotel, travel & other witty reviews by a handpicked, worldwide team of discerning professionals—and your views, too.

Venice Simplon Orient-Express - Review

Nostalgia on Wheels

by Alain Gayot

A cabin in the Venice Simplon Orient-Express train
A cabin in the Venice Simplon Orient-Express train

Luxury Rail Trips

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 (VSOE) 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 Simplon-Orient-Express route was established in 1919. The train was like an intimate, itinerant manor house for blue-blooded travelers, but by the mid-twentieth 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 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 VSOE in 1982.

Enjoy quaint vistas from the Venice Simplon Orient-Express train One of three restaurant cars on the Venice Simplon Orient-Express train
Quaint vistas
One of three restaurant cars

Because the VSOE 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 seventeen 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 VSOE 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 VSOE books up early, so it's best to plan a season ahead. Rates for the Paris-Venice journey begin at $2,760, one way. Rates for other VSOE journeys range between $990 and $19,900. To reserve, go to www.orient-express.com

 

Check our Guide to Italy and The Best of France

Read additional features on luxury train travel:
Recapturing the Golden Age of Rail
Rocky Mountaineer Railtours

 

(Updated: 02/05/13 CT)

Whether looking to travel across the Australian Outback, the Canadian Rockies or historic Europe, these opulent trains will let travelers see the countryside in comfort.
Boutique fleets are the hottest thing on the high seas, promising smaller passenger lists, larger staterooms and sophisticated resort facilities.