Ask anyone for their idea of an iconic train, and the answer will always be the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. This famous train has seen many iterations in its history, but currently it runs as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, run by Belmond, and still retaining its Golden Age charm that has enthralled passengers for many years.
The head of our Great Rail Journeys Independent brand, Sally Hauser, was fortunate enough to venture from Venice to London on board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, so we interviewed her about her experience, and from the way her eyes light up from the first question, it is undoubtedly a good one.
How did it feel to be on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express?
It felt amazing. Really, really special. Going on the Orient Express has always been a dream of mine, it was always a bucket list item, like seeing the Grand Canyon. It was also one of those experiences that I never thought would actually happen, so I felt so privileged to be able to go on it. As someone who has always been passionate about travel and trains, the Orient Express has always been the iconic train to go on, and when you're on there, it's like going back into the 1920s.
Talk me through your time on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
From the beginning it's a luxury experience. I went from Venice, so I was met at my hotel by a representative of Belmond, who escorted me to the train. The first sight was amazing - the iconic blue train stretching out, it all felt a bit surreal. Laid out in front of the train was a red carpet, and the staff were all outside to greet passengers. When you board the train, you are greeted by a cabin steward, who takes you to your cabin and pours you a prosecco and leaves you to settle in, after which you're taken to one of the restaurant cars for lunch. In the afternoon, you have some time to explore, before you start to get ready for dinner - which is outstanding by the way - whilst your cabin attendant transforms your cabin into sleeping quarters. You can have a drink at the bar, and it doesn't matter how long you're there for because the bar closes when the last person leaves.
Day 2 comes and when you wake up, you ring for your attendant, and you are served breakfast in bed. No sooner have you finished that and it's time to pack your bags and settle down for a three course brunch, and by the time you're back in your cabin it has been set to rights, and it's nearly time to get off the train in Calais. I boarded the Belmond coach back to England, and when we arrived at Folkestone, we were met by a brass band playing 1920s classics, and the Belmond British Pullman [the sister train of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express], which we rode back to London Victoria, enjoying afternoon tea on the way.
What stood out to you?
The staff were absolutely incredible. I have a few allergies, and no matter which restaurant car I was in, they would greet me by name and assure me that the food I was eating was safe. It's very hard to describe, but you feel lucky to be receiving service at this level. They treat everyone on board the same, however their treatment feels special. It's obvious that they take great pride in what they do, and they are happy to share the experience of travelling on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express with other people.
It's also pretty mind boggling how the food is done. The kitchen is tiny, and they'd have chefs in there working like a well-oiled machine to cater for the full capacity of the train. None of the food is frozen, it's all prepared fresh, and the plates come out pristine and exquisitely flavoured.
What was your favourite part of the train itself?
Strange as this sounds, my favourite bit was the corridors. There's just something about them - the décor, the windows - everything is very 1920s and beautiful, with impeccable marquetry that has been so lovingly taken care of throughout the years. The windows especially, because they're these large picture windows that stretch down the length of the corridor, so there's an incredible amount of scenery just passing by as you're on board, as the light shines off the highly polished wood.
Wandering around, I could also read about the history of the carriages on the plaques in each one. Each one has its own unique history, for example one was once used as a wartime brothel, one might have been found disused in a Sheikh's back garden, and another was used to sign the armistice that ended World War I!
What hints and tips do you have for those going on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express?
One of the main things is to just explore the train. Don't spend all of your time in one place. There are so many little things that make the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express so incredible, like the history of the carriages and the boutique.
Tipping on the train is customary. A good guide is to tip €50 to your cabin attendant, and leave €50 in the envelope in your cabin, which goes in a pot for the rest of the staff.
It might also be an idea to bring earplugs at night - not for other passengers but for the train itself! It can get a bit loud for light sleepers, so come prepared, but this is a small price to pay for the authentic experience of the original carriages.
Final thoughts on Venice Simplon-Orient-Express?
It was one of the best experiences of my life. No matter who you are, whether you like films, trains, history, or just a good luxury journey, it is something that you must do at some point in your life.