July 19, 2010 by Jools Stone
Venice Simplon Orient Express Review
The Orient Express is surely a landmark journey by anyone’s standards needing little introduction. It’s the ultimate in deluxe train travel in Europe, perhaps the world. Boarding this train lets you step back in time to the glitz and glamour of a bygone age, the golden age of rail travel between the wars.
But considering the sums of money involved there seems to be precious little objective information about it, as I discovered when I was planning my own trip on it earlier this year. There are a few varying reports on tripadvisor, and of course an excellent first hand account by rail trip guru the Man in Seat 61, who inspired me to take the plunge myself and cook up an elaborate proposal trip. Obviously there is the OE’s own site and their numerous online partners, who effectively re-package the same information, but that’s about the size of it.
Back in January to beat the midwinter blues I decided to book a surprise trip with the pretext to pop the question to my equally rail-crazed girlfriend. It wasn’t a step I took lightly, (the train I mean) being the most expensive journey of my short and sheltered life, but readers I’m pleased to say that it did not disappoint. So what can you expect for your money and how does it all work? Can it possibly live up to all the hype of a thousand Poirot re-runs? Well, my friends fret not, sit back, buckle in and do not adjust your sets, I’ve done all the arduous spadework so you don’t have to and with this two part trip report, I am about to fill you in.
Isn’t it ridiculously expensive?
Granted, this is not budget travel by any stretch of the imagination. The standard journey – from London overnight to Venice – currently sets you back almost £1600 per person per leg. And no, they don’t do off-peak returns! But there are a few options which cut the cost dramatically. You can go (as we did) as far as Paris for less than a third of the full Venice fare. And if you do the journey in reverse, departing from Paris to Blighty, you can shave a further £20 off. Personally I think it’s worth the additional small splurge. To emerge from all that luxe travel blinking into the grubby, grey daylight of Victoria Station seems the very definition of anti-climactic to me. Also, if you’re in Central Europe you can take advantage of similar deals for trips between Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Krakow and Istanbul, while Rome- Venice also makes for a short dash in the same price bracket. Some of these routes run sporadically, take a peek at http://www.orient-express.com/web/vsoe/fares.jsp for full route information and the latest prices. Of course the most budget friendly option involves a journey on humble British soil (various routes from Edinburgh to Kent via London or York exist) from around £170 per person with dinner included, but that’s not really getting into the true spirit of it in my book.
Before you go
Once you’ve booked you’ll get sent your rather plush travel documents in the post, all in plain cover if you request it. This comprises a nice blue and gold zip up ‘leather-look’ ticket wallet with matching luggage tags, a well detailed city map (Paris or Venice), the tickets themselves and a small FAQ style booklet. Their friendly and helpful UK-based customer service staff will field any additional questions you may have by ‘phone.
On the day
You’re advised to arrive at Victoria at least an hour before the 10.45am departure and while this may not be strictly necessary it’s a good idea as you can then avoid the queues and bag a seat in the smallish departure lounge. This is stocked with copious posters, teddies and other souvenirs if you like that sort of thing, but there are opportunities to buy most of these on board or online after the event. All of the day’s menus, itinerary and branded toiletries (soap, toothbrush and paste etc) can be happily stashed in your case and taken home with you as souvenirs at no extra cost.
Reception staff take care of your bags loading them into the hold until the French leg of the journey, so make sure that you have anything you need to lay your hands on in your hand luggage, but they will remind you of this anyway. You then take your seat in one of six individually designed day cars on the British Pullman. These cars are beautifully decked out with gorgeously upholstered and commodious sedan chairs which are grouped around tables of four or two depending on how many is in your party. (For the full blarney concerning the cars’ history, provenance, art deco marquetry and such, please see the OE’s site or check out some photos on flick’r) After twenty minutes or so – and much excited chattering among your travel companions – it’s chocks away and the silver service begins. Few memories will outlast mine of supping on a deliciously fresh Bellini (peach juice with champagne) while exchanging merry waves with the suburban families tending their gardens as I glided through Dulwhich and into Kent. It’s all too surreal for words.
Let the eating commence
Without much shilly-shallying the serious business of your first of two five course meals is upon you. While this is actually served closer to most people’s breakfast time to lunch, the OE brunch is well worth forsaking your regular boiled egg and Marmite soldiers for. The menu changes regularly, but on our trip we enjoyed a fantastically fresh melon ball fruit cocktail for starters, followed by smoked salmon, caviar with scrambled eggs on toast. Extra room was then miraculously found for the traditional English ‘fry up’ course (if you can possibly tar it with that brush) and a wonderfully light and moist pear and frangipane tart, finished off with filter coffee and souvenir chocs.
This is all served up with an unfailingly polite, but easygoing, unfussy manner by an ever-revolving team of old fashioned cockney gent waiters, who announce each individually dispensed foodstuff as they plonk them down onto your plate. (For some reason this brought the classic Two Ronnies sketch to my mind. ) Their service standards are so ingrained that they even habitually refer to each other as ‘sir’, as they jostle past themselves in and out of the Tardis-like kitchen to bring you the gourmet goodies.
Good golly, a thousand words already and we’re not even out of Kent yet! I’ll leave it there for now, but be sure to check back for part two of this great rail adventure, coming soon.