Review: Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Belmond
January 10, 2019 | Amie Keeley
Just the mention of this iconic train conjures up images of 1920s glamour and refinement.
Location: The Venice Simplon‑ Orient-Express (VSOE) takes in some of Europe’s finest cities along its various routes, including Verona, Innsbruck, Prague, Vienna, Rome, Stockholm, Istanbul, Berlin, Krakow and, of course, Venice. The most popular route is the 24-hour London-Venice service and vice versa which operates from March to November. Other journeys include Venice-Paris, Verona-Paris, London-Verona, Venice‑Budapest and Venice-Vienna.
First impressions: Just the mention of this iconic train conjures up images of 1920s glamour and refinement. The moment it rolls into Venice Santa Lucia station, everyone in the vicinity stops for a moment to marvel at the vintage carriages. That sense of grandeur continues as the staff in their traditional attire alight on to the platform to greet passengers. These friendly crew members are only too happy to pose for photos, before a cabin steward takes your luggage and shows you to your accommodation.
The facts: Made up of more than 27 original Orient-Express and British Pullman carriages which were sourced and restored in the 1980s, the VSOE has become the most famous rail journey in the world and features on many bucket lists. It was launched in 1982 by Belmond founder and American businessman James Sherwood, who had sourced two vintage carriages at auction. He went on to source many more and the VSOE was born. As a result, no two carriages are the same, with unique decors and upholsteries throughout. Each also reflects its past. I recommend walking through each carriage to read the plaques that tell the story of its former life; carriage 3309, for example, was the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
Cabins: There are four types of accommodation: cabin suite, twin cabin, single cabin and grand suite. Most of the train is made up of twin cabins. Each has a hand basin and mirror, luggage rack and hangars. At night, your steward adapts your cabin into a cosy sleeping abode, as the sofa and a top bunk, lowered from the wall, are transformed into beds with crisp sheets and thick woollen blankets. The preferred option is the cabin suite, formed of two twin cabins connected by a door, which allows for a more comfortable night’s sleep on the lower berths and more room to get dolled up for your black-tie dinner. The three grand suites are the most luxurious option. New this year, they feature an en suite, a large double bed and seating area with private bar.
Food: Anyone boarding the VSOE should come with an appetite, ideally a big one. Eating is the only real activity on board, so each meal time, or afternoon tea, is both a feast and an occasion. Set menus reflect classic French fine-dining done to the utmost standards, notwithstanding a whole load of calories. A particular highlight is the broiled lobster with fresh butter sauce and smoked salmon brunch, accompanied by champagne, and followed by a completely unnecessary and delicious caramelised tarte tatin. Drinks and à la carte options are not included and incur an additional cost. Dietary requirements can be catered for and should be submitted in advance. There are three dining cars – Cote D’Azur, Etoile Du Nord, and L’Oriental – and passengers get to experience each of these uniquely designed carriages along their journey at different meal times. The most striking of these is probably L’Oriental, with its black lacquer panels covered in intricate hand-carved designs, and plump red velvet seats. The gold and blue-hued bar car, named 3674, is the social hub of the train. Sip on a signature cocktail and listen to the sounds of the pianist play on the small grand piano in the corner. The carriage underwent a refurbishment in 2016 and introduced a champagne bar serving a selection of vintage bottles.
Wow: It’s hard to pick one stand‑out element. It could easily be the food, the decor or the grand suites. But the service on board deserves special recognition, from the personal cabin stewards who are available 24 hours a day and, in my case, gave me a personal tour of the train, to the impeccable waiting staff in the dining cars who took great pride in their work. The maitre d’, who comes to your cabin to take your meal orders, and the train manager, who is on hand throughout, reinforce a personal level of service which reflects luxury travel at its very best.
Amie is news editor of Travel Weekly. She has worked at the company for two years and has previously held news reporting roles at the East Anglian Daily Times, Ham&High, Islington Gazette and the Daily Mail.