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The Orient Express: The Golden Age of Travel

The Orient Express: The Golden Age of Travel

The Orient Express - Golden Age of Travel 

There is perhaps no name more synonymous with luxury travel than the Orient-Express. The first-class-only “train de luxe” originally started in the late 19th Century as a service to gently waft the cream of high society between Paris and Istanbul, but has since spawned an organisation offering myriad travel, hotel and experience packages across Europe, North and South America, Africa, and even Asia.

With the company’s signature weeklong London-to-Venice journey already fully-booked, we opted for “The Golden Age of Travel”—a five-hour round trip through the Surrey countryside aboard a steam-pulled train.

Starting at £375 per person (rising to £395 in peak times), it’s not cheap, but that price does include a five-course lunch, with champagne and half a bottle of wine each. (The same journey without the steam train is available for £310 per person.) 

Having arrived at London Victoria on a dank and miserable April afternoon, we fight through the crowds of commuters and make our way round to the dedicated Orient-Express check-in area, tucked away in a quiet corner of the station. It’s like being transported to another world. To our considerable surprise and delight, we are welcomed by a brass band, resplendent in vibrant yellow jackets and bow ties, who belt out period swing and jazz numbers while smartly-dressed passengers mill around, sipping the complimentary tea and coffee. (The dress code for Orient-Express day trips is “smart day wear”, meaning no jeans, trainers or t-shirts. Those attending an evening journey are expected to dress in black tie.)

Our tickets checked, we are ushered to our carriage by an immaculately-presented train guard, the gold buttons gleaming on his crisp white waistcoat. Each of The British Pullman’s 11 carriages are individually named, with their own unique décor and history. “Zena” featured in the 1979 Agatha Christie biopic Agatha, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman, for example, while “Perseus” was used to transport Winston Churchill’s coffin as part of his funeral train in 1965.

Our carriage, “Gwen”, dates back to the early 30s, when it was part of the famous Brighton Belle. After that train was taken out of service in 1972, the carriage was bought by Orient-Express in 1988 and painstakingly restored over 11 years. The results are simply stunning.

We sink into plush, velvet armchairs and sip chilled champagne while we take in our surroundings. Walnut panels line the walls, decorated with pearwood shell marquetry. Art deco-inspired frosted glass lighting bathes the area in a warm glow. All the fittings are polished brass. In front of us, the table is set with linen, crystal glasses, sterling silver cutlery, and an antique lamp. A selection of delectable canapés are quickly gobbled up. South West Trains this most certainly isn’t.

The loud and instantly-familiar sound of a steam train whistle punctures the silence. The carriage shunts gently as the engine struggles against the mass of the train. Thick clouds of steam fill the air, transforming the platform into a scene from an old horror film or 80s pop video. That wonderfully evocative scent of steam and smoke filters through the cabins. We inch forward, slowly, and we’re away.

According to the Orient-Express website, our journey promises “fine food and wine as you set off on a round-trip through Britain’s glorious countryside”. Unfortunately, it failed to fully deliver on both counts.

In fairness, one part of that is entirely out of the company’s control: The location. While the route started by taking us directly alongside Battersea Power Station, affording a perspective of the magnificent building that I’d never witnessed before, there’s no escaping the fact that the outskirts of London just aren’t that pretty.

Most of the five hours were spent crawling through areas of such outstanding natural beauty as Clapham Junction, Croydon, and Staines. Instead of rolling hills, we suffered a relentless stream of residential and industrial estates. I lost count of the number of building supplies yards we went past. It took us 90 minutes before we hit anything remotely approaching glorious countryside—the Surrey Hills—and even that proved a fleeting respite before we returned to the suburban drudgery.

Once you remove the actual journey element of the trip, all you’re effectively left with is a lunch. And £800 is a lot of money for two people to spend on lunch—particularly when the food was a long way short of what you’d get in any decent London restaurant.

The starter’s smoked salmon and broccoli parfait had been overcooked, leaving it slightly grainy, and the accompanying beetroot-cured salmon gravlax was under-seasoned. A second course of spiced carrot and butternut squash soup with coriander crème fraîche was fine, if underwhelming, but the tomato and sage-stuffed guinea fowl main, served with butterbeans, galette potato, and delicious creamed leeks, was disappointingly dry. Worst of all was the desert. What was supposed to be a rhubarb and orange cheesecake ended up being little more than a pot of soft, sweetened cream, with some stewed rhubarb on top and crushed biscuit at the base. It actually tasted pretty good—the balance between the sweetness of the cream and the tartness of the rhubarb had been expertly judged—but as a cheesecake, it was a total failure.

The cheese course was excellent, however, with a fresh and smooth nettle-wrapped Cornish yarg the highlight of an all-British selection. The post-meal coffee was satisfyingly strong and rich, and delivering the petits fours—an incredibly moreish white chocolate and strawberry truffle—in individual gift boxes was a lovely touch.

But, overall, the specific journey we undertook is hard to recommend—either as an experience day or a piece of fine dining. It was a perfectly pleasant day out, but if I had actually spent £800 on the tickets then I’d be left feeling a little short changed.

To put that price into context, a couple looking for a lunch-to-remember in grand surroundings could instead indulge in the six course tasting menu at The Ritz, wash it down with a bottle of Dom Perignon and a decent Margaux, and still be left over £200 better off. (The Ritz “Menu Surprise”, £85 per person; Dom Perignon, 2003, £270; Chateau D’Angludet-Cru Bourgeois Superieur, 2004, £129.)

That’s not to say that the Orient-Express is without its merits. Quite the contrary. In fact, while our journey was disappointing, I saw enough to be utterly convinced in the setup. It’s simply that the exceptional levels of service and jaw-droppingly beautiful carriages were not matched by the location. Five hours just isn’t enough time to escape from central London to the countryside proper—particularly on a slow steam train. It’s telling that the best moments were when we went through long tunnels: Being thrust into darkness and removed from the outside world immediately focused our attention on the inside of the carriage, and made us appreciate just how amazing the setting really was. In those all-too-brief moments, the Orient-Express was a truly magical place to be.

Location would not be an issue on one of the company’s various multi-day trips from London, or on any of the other Orient-Express journeys that depart from elsewhere in the country, of course. I particularly like the sound of The Royal Scotsman’s “Highland Journey”. Starting in Edinburgh, making it convenient for those traveling from elsewhere in the U.K., the two-night journey covers 540 miles of Scotland’s highlands, traveling up the east coast from Dundee to Aberdeen before moving inland through Inverness, Aviemore and Perth. The train only holds a maximum of 36 guests, each of whom are housed in private cabins. There’s even an open-deck observation carriage at the rear of the train from which to enjoy scenery that I know from previous travels to be truly spectacular. Yes, it’s a fair bit more expensive, at £2,350 per person, but as a once-in-a-lifetime event, I suspect it would be hard to beat. 

Chris Johnson

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