Our train is a little delayed, we’re told. I hear a squeal of delight from the woman in the compartment next to mine. No groans, no eye-rolling, no phoning home to have dinner put on the back burner.
I share her excitement.
We’re on the Venice Simplon-Orient- Express and, though our arrival in Venice has been the subject of much anticipation for the duration of our 35-hour journey, the prospect of snatching a few extra minutes aboard the world’s most iconic train is worth raising a glass of champagne to. So we do, and not for the first time on the long trip from London to Venice.
We toasted the beginning of the journey with a glass of prosecco in our compartment; a perfect little Art Deco pod, all delicate marquetry and beautiful upholstery. Then there was an unforgettable dinner as we left Paris and a particularly pretty stretch of scenery in the Dolomites that we thought deserved a clinking of glasses...
It was with good reason that the Orient Express earned the nickname “the King of trains and the train of Kings”. It has played host to spies, revolutionaries, celebrities, crooks and royalty. Hercule Poirot solved his trickiest case aboard it, while James Bond caught it too.
Contrary to popular belief, the Orient Express is not a specific train. It was a service, a very luxurious one launched in 1883, which used different carriages at different points in its history. In the 1920s, for example, there was a daily departure from Paris to Istanbul, a journey which took three days.
The Second World War and increasingly-accessible air travel put an end to the party, but the name was relaunched in 1982 when the Venice Simplon- Orient-Express took its maiden journey.Today’s service – which incorporates restored carriages from the 1920s and 1930s – runs weekly from March to November, offering guests the ultimate validation that the means of arrival can be as exciting as the destination itself.
The journey departs London’s Victoria station in the morning and incorporates a short coach trip through the Channel Tunnel before pausing in Paris around dinnertime to pick up a few more guests. Passengers sleep on the famous train for one night before it pulls into Venice the following evening. But what of the hours between? No murder at midnight, fortunately, but in every other sense, this is a trip that lives up to the legend. Upon boarding, we’re shown to our compartment by our cheery steward, Hugh, resplendent in blue and gold livery. Our home for the next 35 hours is a neat, sweet compartment that’s pure period film set; from the wood panelling to the Art Deco light fixtures. Indeed, an obligatory fire extinguisher in a corridor is one of the few 21st-century intrusions I spot on the whole journey.
As the train pulls out of the station, there’s time for an explore (each sleeping carriage is slightly different so it’s worth walking the full length of the train at least once) before we dress for dinner. We have been told that it’s impossible to be overdressed on the Orient Express, and sure enough, it’s dinner jacket and evening gown territory.
We dine in one of three very different, but equally opulent, restaurant cars, where beautifully prepared scallops, lobster and beef emerge from the compact galley kitchen as if from Mary Poppins’ carpet bag. After dinner, guests retire to the bar car, a sumptuous carriage with a baby grand purring in the corner. All deep velvets, dark wood and shiny fittings, it’s understated and classic, with lashings of luxury and no hint of self-parody.
Luxury is expected on the Orient Express, of course, and it is key to the experience, but I find myself most excited not by haute cuisine or popping champagne corks but by the sense of complete immersion in the nostalgia of old-fashioned rail travel.
Catching glimpses of open compartments while making one’s way along the carriage; sliding an old window all the way down to take in the view of the Swiss Alps while being buffeted by the alpine air; stopping briefly at a deserted, snow-caked platform. These are the memories I’ll treasure.
Then there’s the unique lullaby of wheels rattling over international borders and the promise of a new view and a new country (the train travels through France, Austria, Switzerland and Italy) come dawn.
Guests return from dinner to find their compartment changed from a daytime configuration to cosy bunk beds and I’m quickly rocked into a blankety stupor by the hypnotic motion of the train. One dreamless night later, I’m being served breakfast in my cabin against a backdrop of fog-encircled mountains.
Guests spend the day playing cards, reading books, dozing and chatting over coffee in the bar car. An elegant lunch is served as we hurtle through the Dolomites, while afternoon tea is taken in our compartment.
But all good things must come to an end. Too soon, we are pulling into Venice – but there the promise of more excitement lies ahead.
The iconic way to reach the city, of course, is by boat. However, arriving by train has a unique charm. We take in the view from the bar car, faces pressed against the windows to glimpse the marble mirage in the distance. Suddenly we are in Venice and back in 2013, though not quite back to reality. Many guests of the Orient Express choose to stay in the Cipriani on their arrival in Venice, and it is to this haven – almost as iconic as the train itself – that we are whisked upon arrival.
The Cipriani is owned by the same company and happens to be Italy’s most expensive hotel and a favourite with visiting celebrities. Set on three acres of Guidecca Island, a short hop across the lagoon from St Mark’s Square, it has a free, 24-hour motorboat service which takes guests to the heart of the city in less than ten minutes.
An Olympic-sized swimming pool – the only one in Venice – keeps the beautiful people cool in the heat of the day while the tourists clog the city’s arteries, and in the evenings they zip across the water to drink Bellinis in Harry’s Bar. We join them for a night, still suspended in the bubble of luxury that surrounds the Orient Express.
Home time, and our mode of transport is not an opulent train, but a budget airline which spends a good chunk of the journey flogging scratchcards and duty free to passengers. Poirot wouldn’t have stood for this, I think. The journey may be just shy of three hours – less than a tenth of the time it takes to reach Venice by train – but what an unpleasant three hours they are. We’re not delayed, however. In fact, we land ten minutes early. And this time, I’m grateful for it.
A standard return between Edinburgh Waverley and London’s King’s Cross with East Coast starts from £34, tel: 08457 225225 or visit www.eastcoast.co.uk for details.
Prices for a three-night package start from £2,670 per person based on double occupancy, staying on board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express from London to Venice for one night and two nights at Hotel Cipriani in Venice. This includes all table d’hote meals on board. Breakfast is included at Hotel Cipriani and the price includes transfers to and from the hotel. Tel: 0845 077 2222 or visit www.vsoe.com