Ride of a lifetime: all aboard the Orient Express. (Travel Talk).
For a quick, luxurious run, fly to Paris or London, then board the Orient Express. If time is on your side, however, board the train at Venice and savor the overnight journey to London through Austria and Switzerland. It is a fantasy on wheels that echoes another era. One might recall Hercules Poirot's journey in Murder on the Orient Express or James Bond's derring-do in From Russia With Love.
Its inaugural journey was between Paris and Istanbul in 1883. And its mythical carriages (17 in all) have given passage to European nobility and international spies alike. By 9:15 a.m. you should be ensconced in your own private cabin in one of the historic Wagon Lits coaches, like Number 3544. The sumptuous Art Deco railcar is one of the originals that was built in France in 1929. If only the walls could talk. During World War II, for example, the coach, outfitted with nine double compartments, served as a brothel in Limoges, France. But alas, in 1946-47, it was resurrected as the Dutch Royal Train.
By 9:44 a.m. the train rolls seamlessly from the station and begins its journey toward France's northern coast. Breakfast is served: a pot of coffee, juice, assorted hot breads, and a copy of the International Herald Tribune. A faint trace of wood smoke wisps through the air. The steam-powered radiators that heat each cabin, and that heat the hot water that runs through the elegant and concealed vanity, are still fired by a wood stove.
Not long afterward, the maitre d' knocks on the door and dispenses a coupon for brunch, which begins at 11:15 a.m.
The dining car further conjures the heyday of rail travel with fine linens, silver, crystal, and superb cuisine. The brunch courses consist of scrambled eggs prepared with cream and topped off with slivers of smoked Scotch salmon, followed by lobster in a light butter sauce with asparagus and potatoes, then, a baked pear for dessert--all served with a choice of beverages, including wine and champagne.
Following brunch, the club car beckons. The pianist plays tunes by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin on the grand piano. Coffee and drinks flow. In one corner, European businessmen huddle; in another, a small wedding party celebrates; mid-car, two couples, retirees, chat and laugh, and savor their leisure.
By 1:00 p.m. you return to your cabin and prepare to disembark at Calais, in the north of France, at 1:30 p.m. There you will board a bus for the 30-minute tunnel journey beneath the English Channel. Complimentary English newspapers and refreshments are provided on board.
At Folkstone, on the English Coast, you will board a luxury British Pullman train for the journey to London's Victoria Station. High tea, including champagne, is served. Begin and finish your Orient Express holiday with two days at your choice of one of the Dorchester Group's luxury hotels: The Hotel Meurice in Paris or The Dorchester in London.
The Venice Simplon-Orient Express runs from March through November. Other European routes include: Venice-Prague-Paris-London (spend two nights in Prague in May, June, September, and October 2002); Venice-Lucerne-Paris-London (spend two nights in Lucerne a year). The cost is $2,020 per person/double occupancy. And the premier European journey, Paris-Budapest-Bucharest-Istanbul, offered once a year on Aug. 30 with a return from Istanbul to Venice on Sept. 5, is $5,575 per person/double occupancy. For more information, visit www.orient-express.com.