A ‘one off’ trip of a lifetime to mark a milestone birthday – that was what my husband Richard and I had set out to create when we were planning our recent trip to our favourite city – Paris. However, with only five days of holiday to play with, it needed to be something short but special.
By the time we were leaving damp, overcast Belfast behind, we knew we were heading for an unforgettable mini adventure to top them all. That was because we weren’t just hopping on a weekend flight to the French capital, we were going in style on the iconic Venice Simplon-Orient-Express from London.
The magic started before we even boarded the train. From the moment we first glimpsed the world-famous Wagon Lit carriages we knew that this was a journey we were going to remember forever. The hustle and bustle of everyday life literally melted away as we stepped back in time for a trip that features on most people’s ‘bucket lists’.
We actually kicked off our journey from Platform One at London Victoria to the Channel Tunnel on the historic British Pullman train. It promised to transport us “back to the glamorous era of the golden age of travel, a time when the journey was as much a part of the experience as the destination”. And it was certainly true to its word.
The gleaming umber and cream carriages that make up the British Pullman are literally steeped in history. We were delighted to find that our seats were on board the Ibis carriage, the oldest of this lovingly restored train. The carriages once formed part of the Bournemouth Belle and Brighton Belle and have been transformed back to their former glory by the same family marquetry business that made the original panels.
Snuggled down in our ample, comfy armchair seats covered in beautiful Liberty pattern velvet, we were in the perfect spot to enjoy not just the exquisite interior décor but the beautiful passing scenery too – once out of London, of course. Veneered panels boasted exotic art deco marquetry, while art nouveau lamps shed soft light on polished brass, bevelled glass and glowing mahogany fittings. Our intimate table was elegantly dressed with snow white linen, fresh flowers, embossed silver cutlery and the finest porcelain and crystal.
By mid-morning we were already two Bellini cocktails and a pot of coffee each down and were tucking into a gourmet smoked salmon and scrambled egg breakfast. The silver service was impeccable as was the convivial atmosphere on board as we slipped through the glorious English countryside en route to Folkestone. We savoured course after course and top up after top up. It really proved to be the perfect start to this exceptional journey.
However, we found the few hours coach transfer in between to the Orient-Express itself a rather irritating interruption to an otherwise delightful journey. Perhaps travelling the opposite direction across the Continent would be less disjointed, but then you would miss out on the beautiful British Pullman experience.
Mind you, once we arrived on the platform in Calais Ville and saw the Orient-Express waiting for us it immediately captured our imaginations. No detail had been overlooked on this legendary train – from the distinctive blue and gold uniformed stewards to the intricate marquetry, fine dining and vintage cabins. The original 1920s carriages had been beautifully restored to all their bygone glory.
Sparkling Lalique glass panels and burnished art deco panelling formed the backdrop for the glamorous adventure ahead of us. And since we just had the one day on board we were determined to make the most of every last moment.
We were met on the platform and our steward escorted us straight to our compact and bijou double cabin complete with original features and two glasses of chilled bubbly waiting to welcome us on board. It was set up in an exceptionally comfortable daytime banquette format which allowed us to enjoy the unfolding Continental scenes now outside – our own supremely privileged “window on the world”.
Other unique touches included beautifully decorated mahogany panels inlaid with delicate flowers and neatly stored in the corner an oak top lifted to reveal a petit washbasin. Meanwhile, at the end of the carriage a little pot belly stove was still stoked with wood by our steward to heat our water – amazing in this modern age!
Whether travelling to Paris or further afield you are promised a superb service and a veritable feast of opulent menus that make the train one of the finest travel experiences in the world. The atmosphere on board is one of pure refinement and incapsulates the style of the 1920s/30s era full of elegance, decadence and luxury. In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, they say “you can never be overdressed on board”. So after settling into our cabin and having a quick freshen up and change, we shimmied our way to the glamorous Bar Car. Sipping our cocktails, we soaked in the evocative sound of the baby grand piano playing in the corner and wondered when Hercule Poirot might put in an appearance.
It felt like no time at all until we were called for dinner. So it was off again for a transformation into our eveningwear for yet more sophisticated socialising. In our resplendent stork adorned L’Oriental Restaurant Car we were met yet again with crisp white table linens, fresh flowers, glistening silver and glassware and served a sumptuous table d’hote dinner.
As a vegetarian I was delighted to find that I was offered just as exceptional a choice of dishes as the regular menu. I feasted on gnocchi with black truffle sauce followed by vegetables in warka pastry with taggiasche olive ratatouille and potato puree, all rounded off with a mouthwatering white chocolate mousse with passion fruit filling. It was sheer decadence itself.
All too soon we were pulling into Paris Gare de L’est Station and our time on board the Orient-Express was at an end. To commemorate our once in a lifetime journey we decided to purchase an elegant memento from the train’s on board boutique stocked with a collection of specially created insignia gifts. Unlike the usual tourist tat we end up bringing home, it was a charming reminder of our trip on board what was definitely the perfect place for a celebration or special holiday.