When you get invited to spend the weekend on the world’s most glamorous train, there is only one response. Here, we describe our 30-hour journey from Venice to London on board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
Riding this Grand Old Dame of trains is an experience like no other. It’s a bucket list tick not only for rail aficionados, but for the general public alike. It’s a trip that when mentioned, inspires equal parts mystery and jealousy. Here we describe what life is actually like on board the train.
Guests start their journey with a welcome pack – you’re briefed simply; bring your finest black tie. You meet your fellow travellers, who are elegantly suited (jeans and trainers are strictly forbidden on the train at all times), and giddy guests post for pictures at 11am on the platform at Venice Central Station (In fact, the majority, after a brilliant night's sleep at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani, the most famous hotel in Venice).
In front of you is the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, with a glossy-blue engine carriage at one end, and a small wooden clock showing the departing time at the other. The train's waiters, butlers and chefs stand proudly in their royal blue uniforms by each carriage door ready to welcome the riders. The mood is set that this is going to be a classy affair.
After being whisked into your numbered carriage (with hand luggage and suit carrier allowance only) you’re shown to your individual cabin. The basic rooms consist of a plush sofa-cum-bed covered in Liberty-style fabric, shelves and hangers, a small table with a lamp and a flower, and a basin and mirror. Bathrooms are located at the end of each carriage in marble-clad mini-salons. If you want the luxury of an en-suite and a shower, you’ll have to shell out for a suite.
Each cabin has been lovingly, and clearly painstakingly, restored to its art nouveau heyday. The detail in the marquetry on the wood-panelled walls and on the silver fixtures is exquisite. In fact, these are all restored century-old original carriages. Soon you delight in old fashioned travel, shunning the mod-cons.
Once you’ve got your bearings, your personal carriage attendant comes by to explain dinner times, dress codes, and produce a map showing the route through the Swiss alps, as well as confirm that he is on hand for anything – and we mean anything – you might need. He also adds that the drinking water is provided in cans to help minimise plastic waste – a conscious modern touch.
As you sit back in your seat, you sigh, relax, and begin to enjoy the ride. From Venice the train rolls through Italy’s flatlands, past Verona and Milan, then north. After a while an announcement lets you know lunch is ready.
Walking through the cabins you reach your designated dining car. Freshly pressed linens, silver cutlery, the finest silverware and crystal glasses only here. The menu is set, and advised by food preferences filled out weeks prior. The train also picks up fresh food and bread at mini stops along the route.
Lunch is European classics; pasta, fish, etc., all cooked with amazing delicacy and precision considering the tiny size of the rocking kitchen, and the number of diners that need to be accommodated.
As you fill your stomach whilst meandering around the Swiss lakes, sun beaming in, it is hard not to enjoy the free flowing wine and conversation with your neighbours. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express becomes at this point, an incredibly social affair.
After lunch it is lounge time, which can be split between the your cabin or the bar, for those feeling a little claustrophobic. Then the dinner prep starts. Each cabin butler brings you champagne and caviar to the room, as you don your finest black tie whilst watching the wooden chalets and snow-capped mountains roll past. And a word of warning; this is no regular black tie – people go all out for the 1920s aesthetic. Expect white gloves, tails, medals, and the odd pair of spats. This writer chose to wear a pair of black suede Baudoin & Lange lounge slippers, hand made in London from the finest materials – the perfect pair of shoes for the ultimate black-tie-suave.
By now the lunch carriage has been transformed ready for two dinner sittings. Dinner is a lot like lunch, as your white-paper menus are presented, food brought out, and drinks constantly topped up. The dark of the evening however, only heightens the atmosphere as conversation and frivolities ramp up. The food is again, of the highest order, and several courses soon slide by as the clock face begins to blur.
After dinner is when the bar comes alive. In the beating heart of the train there is a live band who play modern versions of jazzy hits as guests drink cocktails while lounging in plush zebra-print chairs around mahogany tables. The sound of crystal chandelier parts clinking as the train rides around mountain bends only heightens the mood. Then, by midnight, the carriage is gathered around the baby grand piano, joining in with choruses of song, and it begins to feel every bit as fun and decadent as the Agatha Christie book.
The following morning you’re awoken in bunk beds (cleverly converted from the sofa) with fresh pastries, coffee and orange juice, as well as views of the French countryside. After a lie in, you re-dress, bleary-eyed, into your suit, and make your way back to the dining car for brunch.
Here you again rejoin your fellow passengers, recounting stories of each others' evenings, while dining on lobster. A glass of champagne eases you in and the early morning rolls into lunchtime with a wonderful sense of casualness and ease.
After, your bags are packed and sent to London without you, and you have a few hours down time in your cabin – the perfect point at which to use your Venice Simplon-Orient-Express toiletries to freshen up (which come in a plush white leather vanity kit), and write your envy-inducing postcards that the train post with their own watermark (which apparently is a big deal to collectors).
The next stop is a station in northern France where guests shuffle from the train, saying their goodbyes and taking their last photos, before boarding a coach through passport control then the Chunnel, with yet more champagne.
Back in England, you head to the nearest train station to board the British Pullman – the most famous English train. On board you are re-seated in equal opulence for afternoon tea. As eyes start to become heavy with the amount of scones tea and consumed, you ride through the Kent fields back towards your final destination, Victoria Station in London.
Disembarking feels like the end of an era. As guests wheel away their luggage, goodbyes are said between strangers that now feel like companions. Anyone who has shared this once-in-a-lifetime trip has a lifelong bond. You feel like you've become part of an exclusive club, whether it has been a saved-up-for treat, or simply another weekend away. Indeed, that is the joy of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express; young and old, rich and not-so, everyone comes together to revel in the joy of the ride, not the destination.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express from Venice to London is the jewel in the crown of train rides and its history, luxury, and exclusivity are in a league of their own. The only thing you feel left lacking when you leave is a sense of when you can book onto their seven day, once-a-year trip between London and Istanbul (which stops at hotels so you can take a shower, don't worry).
Words by Harry Seymour