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Friday, July 1st, 2011

Romance Reborn: The Simplon-Orient-Express

The Simplon-Orient-ExpressDo you ever wonder what it would have been like to travel in the heyday of elegance and comfort? With the revival of the legendary Orient Express, an important part of that era is reborn.

At the time, ocean liners and luxury trains formed the very pinnacle of stylish travel, and amongst these, few could rival the allure of the Simplon-Orient-Express. Revived in 1976, it is a unique experience in a world made up of mass-tourism, congested airports and busy roads, taking discerning travellers back to a time that was less harried and stressful, and altogether more enjoyable.

If these days the offer of luxury destinations is very broad, the means of getting there doesn’t quite meet the same standards. Short of having your own private jet or mini-cruiser, travel is often the price you pay for getting somewhere special. The ideal suggestion, therefore, is to combine the two, making travel itself part and parcel of a very special occasion.

This is exactly where Orient Express fits in and how it positions itself in the market. Known above all for the iconic luxury rail journeys that link London, Paris and Venice to most glamorous European capitals through a series of mouth-watering itineraries, the company has grown to encompass luxury travel in the classic sense with a range of elegant hotels, resorts and rail journeys across 25 countries on five continents.

The original Simplon-Orient-Express still forms the benchmark and inspiration, but these days you can vary the setting to include the Andean Mountains of Peru, the waterways of France and an exquisite river cruise in Burma. The plush Pullman trains, private river barges and stylish cruisers on the Irrawaddy recall classic elegance and comfort, accompanied by personal service to match. Once arrived, there will be an Orient Express resort in which to continue the experience on terra firma.

Crème de la crème

The Simplon-Orient-ExpressFor those with the time and the means to spare, there cannot be a better way to experience the best of Europe in a voyage that crisscrosses the continent in the luxurious manner of old. Starting out at London’s Victoria Station, guests are attended by their personal steward, who will be preparing the mahogany-clad cabin as you explore the train and get ready for the trip through the countryside of Kent and down towards the Channel Tunnel.

With the Continental Wagons-Lits of the Orient Express matching their British counterparts for comfort and opulence, the scene is set for travel in its most refined form. Watch the French countryside slide by as you head for Paris, enjoying a gourmet lunch, a drink in the bar or lounge, and the space to stretch your legs before rolling into Paris’ famous Gare de l’Est.

Following its classic route, the Simplon-Orient-Express sets out across an Alpine wonderland before arriving at one of its most iconic destinations: Venice. To arrive in Venice by train is to experience one of the classic moments of travel. Slowly revealed, this floating town comes alive in all its shimmering glory; and naturally the accommodation is the Hotel Cipriano. A classic among classics, it is not only operated by Orient Express but actually inspired its very revival.

From here, some will want to savour the pleasures of Italy, rolling across the Po Valley and through Tuscan landscapes to Florence, Europe’s artistic treasure trove. Here the preferred destination is the Villa San Michele, a peaceful and elegant setting with views over Florence. A world of possibilities lays open for exploration in the Mediterranean, ranging from luxury island resorts and private residences to city destinations that combine culture with stylish hedonism.

The Simplon-Orient-ExpressIf still somewhat reluctant to relinquish the classic rail journey experience, and this is a distinct possibility given that it is the most comfortable, pampered and convenient form of travelling such distances, then there is always the option to head for the very edge of Europe. The ‘Oriental’ in the journey’s name relates to Istanbul, that city of beauty and mystery on the bridge of two worlds, so to set out from Venice towards old Constantinople is to complete the journey in its purest form.

You may miss the likes of Budapest and Prague on this particular itinerary but are richly rewarded with scenes of natural beauty as you traverse the Balkans en route to the capital of the former Ottoman Empire. Travellers on the original Orient Express would be passing from the Austro-Hungarian Empire into Ottoman-held territory at roughly the halfway mark, though today you have to wait until the final stages of the trip before you cross into the small area that makes up Turkey’s European landmass.

Arriving in Istanbul marks the end of the most iconic luxury rail journey in the world, though it also forms the beginning of an exotic exploration that will engage all the senses. In Istanbul Europe meets the Middle East, and present and past come together in a city whose energy and growth beguile just as they mingle in the air with exotic scents, sights and the ever-present aura of a glorious past.

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