Travel & Leisure Travel, Food & Drink

Orient Express: The Return of Tailor-Made Train Travel

With heightened environmental awareness and demand for slow travel on the increase, luxury trains such as the famous Orient Express are back to offer travelers a very special journey

A trend that was already steadily on the rise pre-pandemic has accelerated in recent months: the desire to travel more slowly, more eco-consciously, and with more space to move around. Travelers also benefit from the flexibility only overland journeys can provide, as well as the chance to dine and relax in style. The increase in luxury trains such as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, traversing some of the world’s most scenic routes, are adding to this growing fervor for more leisurely voyages.

By traveling more slowly, we minimise our impact on the planet, gain a greater appreciation for the landscape we pass through, and afford more connections with both the people and places. Train travel can also provide a good dose of nostalgia, particularly if you opt for a 1920s restored mode of transport.

Internal view of a lounge bar on the Orient Express
Join the social hub on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, where Bar Car '3674' is the place to be for post-dinner cocktails. There’s live music, too, and the train’s resident pianist will play until the last guest is ready for their bed. Courtesy: Belmond

In mid 2021, The Washington Post reported that, in the United States, Amtrak had shifted its focus from business to leisure travel and was adding around 300,000 new customers each month. And in Europe, sleeper trains are having a revival with the revitalization of some of the continent’s most famous locomotives, along with the promise of new rail experiences.

This heightened interest in upscale adventures by rail runs parallel with the luxury travel segment’s shift towards authentic and unique experiences. Several rail options are now garnering particular attention as they pair sumptuous carriages and elevated service with a unique introduction to each area the train passes through.

SUmptuous interior of a Grand Suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
There are six Grand Suites to choose from on board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, each inspired by a different European city. Enjoy free-flowing champagne, 24-hour butler service, and private in-cabin dining. Grand Suite Istanbul is pictured above. Courtesy: Belmond

Belmond is garnering attention with its celebrated rail journeys across the world and the enhancement of its most legendary train routes—the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, British Pullman, and Royal Scotsman in Europe; the Andean Explorer and Hiram Bingham in Peru; and the Eastern & Oriental Express in Southeast Asia.

Now celebrating 40 years on the rails, Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has been designed to evoke the Golden Age of glamour on the classic London-to-Venice route or the once-a-year, six-day Paris-to-Istanbul journey.

Chef Jean Imbert leaning out of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
“I want to create beautiful moments that complement the train, which is the true star,” says chef Jean Imbert. Aiming to create a new level of classical perfection with each menu, Imbert works with local producers and artisans along the route. Courtesy: Belmond

In April, Jean Imbert, pictured above, was named chef of Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Since then, he has redesigned the visual identity of the three 1920s restaurant cars—L’Oriental, Étoile Du Nord, and Côte d’Azur—and created his culinary vision in private dinners within the six Grand Suites, as well as through the aperitivo hour of Bar Car ‘3674’, which also serves late night snacks such as lobster rolls and truffled club sandwiches.

Three of the train’s Grand Suites were launched in 2021 along with the introduction of five new boarding points in Rome, Florence, Geneva, Brussels, and Amsterdam, making it possible to travel overnight from Florence to Rome, via the Brenner Pass from Geneva to Venice, or take in Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam on the Venice-to-Amsterdam route.

The food on the British Pullman rivals that served in top London restaurants. You can book The Dinner, a seasonal five-course tasting menu prepared on board by renowned chef Tom Aikens and his team, paired with fine wines or champagne. Courtesy: Belmond

Another of Belmond’s celebrated trains, the British Pullman, also drew a fresh wave of attention in 2021 with the reimagination of one of its carriages through a cinematic design partnership with filmmaker Wes Anderson. Paying tribute to the Golden Age of both cinema and travel, the train’s Cygnus carriage is now instantly recognisable as his work, with the filmmaker’s signature aesthetic seen through its distinct color palette and Art Nouveau style.

In Italy, another iconic train journey is being brought back with the revival of the first luxury Orient Express train, which was founded almost 150 years ago by Georges Nagelmackers. The Orient Express La Dolce Vita is back on track thanks to Arsenale S.p.A. in association with Orient Express of Accor Group.

Welcoming its first passengers in 2023, Orient Express La Dolce Vita will see six trains embark across Italy, transporting passengers to Paris, Istanbul, and Split. From 2024, a stopover in Rome will feature the very first Orient Express Hotel, Minerva, and the Orient Express Venice Hotel is scheduled to open the same year.

Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer launches in the U.S.

Train with glass roof and sides with views of the mountains
The contemporary Rocky Mountaineer train offers panoramic views from the custom-designed glass-domed coaches, and there’s an outdoor viewing area to enjoy, too. Meals are regionally inspired and feature local ingredients. Courtesy: Rocky Mountaineer

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, another special train route has been introduced by the rail-tour company behind scenic trains from Vancouver to the Canadian Rockies. Rocky Mountaineer launched in the United States last year with a route connecting Denver, Colorado, and Moab, Utah.

The Rockies to the Red Rocks route takes passengers on a journey alongside the Colorado River and through a series of canyons, with onboard storytelling and culinary experiences along the way. There’s an overnight hotel stay in Glenwood Springs, too.

As more rail journeys traverse scenic and enticing corners of the globe, from the Blue Train and Rovos Rail in South Africa, to Seven Stars in Kyushu, Japan and The Ghan in Australia, travelers with time on their hands are spoiled for choice.

Banner image: The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Courtesy: Belmond