6 October 2017 by Lisa Ayling
Wexas rail expert Lisa Ayling recounts her journey from London to Venice aboard one of the world’s most iconic trains – the Orient Express.
London Victoria – the UK’s second-busiest station – often isn’t the most inspiring of places. But, when the British Pullman rolls in, it’s an occasion. The carriages are resplendent in gleaming livery, interiors shine in polished darkwood and crisp tablecloths recall a time more civilised. Even the most seasoned of commuters had to stop and stare while suited stewards, all bright brass buttons and brighter smiles, escorted us from the private lounge to our seats.
I had to pinch myself when I settled into my armchair; I was in a carriage that was once part of Winston Churchill’s funeral train. Others still had carried the likes of the Queen Mother, visiting heads of state and Prince Philip. There’s even Her Majesty the Queen’s very own favourite carriage. But, while you can expect everything from ornate mosaics to Art-Deco motifs, we were all treated to the same utterly flawless level of service. In my time working in travel I’ve had the good fortune to stay in some of the world’s finest hotels. This was right up there. The indulgent brunch was paired with a Bellini cocktail, stewards made sure we were well settled as the Kent countryside swept past and a brass band heralded our arrival at Folkestone. They’ve thought of every small detail, down to taking your passport to handle all border formalities.
Then, after a channel-tunnel hop, it was time to board the Orient Express at Calais. All the staff were lined up to greet us, impeccable in white gloves and those iconic blue hats. I was then escorted to my private berth by our personal carriage attendant – whose presence was always just a press of a button away. I recommend requesting a carriage towards the end of the train to minimise night-time foot traffic on its way back from the restaurant car. It’s also important to note at this stage that this is, after all, a historic train. So, you should expect exquisite oak panelling, lacy dollies and washbasins over en suites and WiFi mod cons. You’ll have to use the mosaic-tiled lavatories at the end of the carriage.
But, this is all part of the charm, adding to the sense that you’re reliving history. My fellow passengers responded in kind, with the train quickly abuzz with a palpable sense of excitement for the journey to come. As I wandered along the train to explore, everyone had their cabin doors open, not just to take in the view from both sides but to socialise. In fact, in between friendly conversations, I don’t think I saw a jot of France until we rolled into Paris – the station setting for the evening meal. You can’t have fine crystalware being knocked over, of course!
After changing for dinner, we made our way down to the restaurant cars. There are three to choose from, each beautifully restored to their 1920s heyday. There’s the Lalilique glass panelling of the Côte d’Azur, the gorgeous marquetry of the Etoile du Nor and the black lacquer of the L’Oriental. In each, multi-course menus showcase the best of fresh ingredients from the route, with Brittany lobsters and Mont St Michel saltmarsh lamb among the highlights. Naturally, it was all capped off with a visit to the opulent bar car where I was as impressed as much by the range of cocktails on offer as I was with how they’d squeezed a piano in there. Then to bed, where we found our berth transformed with the plush settees replaced by crisp damask sheets.
We woke the next day to views of the Austrian Alps and a delightful breakfast, served in our cabin by our attendant. With the tracks sweeping along green valley floors, our route really gave us a sense of scale as we stared up at those giant peaks. As it was October, there was a slight dusting of snow, coupled with fresh blue skies – beautiful. A lazy morning gave plenty of pause to take in the views and some time to browse the boutique before lunch of three perfectly presented courses. Then, before I knew it, we were taking afternoon tea as we crossed the Venetian Lagoon where we were met by a water taxi for a cruise along the Grand Canal to our hotel.
It really was like living Downton Abbey.
What to pack for the Orient Express:
- A trip on the Orient Express is an event. Ladies, while a ball gown might veer on the side of impractical, a cocktail dress is perfect. Tiara optional.
- Gents, outside of your private cabin you’d be out of place without a suit, preferably a tie with meals, too. A few couples, in keeping with the occasion, had even dressed in vintage 1940s classics.
- Space is limited – this is early-20th-century train travel after all – so pack a simple overnight bag. If you’re continuing your journey afterwards, larger luggage will be stowed.
Inspired by Lisa's journey? Take a look at our tailor-made itinerary or speak to her on 020 7838 5875 to find out more.