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By David Clark

Travelling by train on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Where getting there is more than half the fun, David Clark eases back to soak up the scenery and embrace the elegance of a bygone era on one of the world’s great train journeys.

Something notable has happened in the luxury travel market. It’s exclusive and obscenely expensive, but for the first time a small number of fortunate adventurers have been able to travel back in time. 

The man responsible is American businessman James Sherwood. He is a travel enthusiast who loves exploring the globe but does not enjoy being ‘confronted with mediocrity’. That is to say he is not a fan of busy airports, long security queues and boring, soulless overnight flights. 

Sherwood fantasised about an era when travel was slower, more comfortable and supremely romantic – a time when the experience of the journey was the equal of the reward of the destination. He was chasing the faded beauty of elegance, polished gold, heavy crystal and French silver.

Sherwood purchased twenty-five dilapidated sleeper carriages, vestiges of the fabled, then defunct, Orient-Express. He then spent NZ$40m restoring them, with exquisite attention to detail. Five years later he relaunched the Orient Express as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

And so, in 1982, the resurgence of luxury train journeys began. 

At the time people thought Sherwood was mad and, while the concept was fun, they said it would never work. However they were proved wrong and others have now followed in seeking to emulate the opulent comfort and experience of travel in the late 1800s. Over the last 10 years (perhaps in part due to how arduous air travel has become), these extraordinary train expeditions have become so sought after that they are sold out a year in advance. 

There are perhaps only a dozen ultra-luxurious train journeys in the world – sometimes only one per continent – but each has a distinctively unique way of transporting the travel elite not just from place to place, but also back in time. The grande dame of such journeys is the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. If you only ever catch one train in your life, make sure it is this one.

Passengers on the legendary journey between Istanbul and London were monarchs, spies, fictional murderers and film stars. Post-World War Two, with the advent of high-speed trains and aeroplane travel, this train, like many others, was retired. Thanks to Sherwood’s vision it has returned more than a century after its first journey to ignite a renaissance in luxury train travel.

I don’t know if it is the glamour of the famous blue and gold carriages, with their rich mahogany corridors, or the steady rhythmic rocking of the train, but once aboard the pace of life slows. You feel like writing letters with pen and paper or reading old leather-bound novels. You half expect to receive a telegram mid-journey. You suddenly have time to relax with your significant other, drink in hand, and converse as the diverse landscapes slowly glide past.

The train is modelled on the grandest hotels of Old Europe with an Art Deco style that evokes the image of Hercule Poirot. The comfortable cabins are beautiful, with thick cosy blankets and rich oak panelling. Dining is an experience that tantalises the senses. Attire is formal dress (black tie and gown) and the visual scene is striking. As you sink into sumptuously upholstered armchairs in front of your dining table adorned with crisp white tablecloths, beautiful Venetian crystal glasses and elaborate silver cutlery, you look around the carriage at a room of animated travellers dressed as if they are attending a fairy-tale ball. (You cannot overdress on this journey – even a diamond tiara would not look out of place.) Meals are prepared on board by acclaimed French chefs, and smell and taste divine.

Being a passenger on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is a rare and special experience. Your days are a kaleidoscope of singularly unique moments set against the backdrop of breathtaking scenery and amazing cities. It is a journey for those seeking an authentic time-travel experience. There is no air conditioning (other than opening a window), each carriage has one shared toilet at the end, and there are no showers. You do however have a private basin in your room and the longer journeys include overnight stays in luxury hotels.

There are 26 routes across Europe and West Asia, including the popular Venice to London, and Paris to Istanbul via Budapest. The journeys range from two to six days and the fare in a luxury suite range between NZ$6,000-NZ$20,000 per couple, depending on the journey. Smaller more affordable cabins starting from NZ$2,338 are available – but who wants to economise on an experience like this?

In our fast-paced life of modern high-speed travel, it is very easy to whizz by and accidentally miss wonderful authentic experiences. A luxury train journey gives the traveller time to admire the view and savour the atmosphere. It is an extravagant, sophisticated and eclectic paragon of sumptuousness and splendour. Whoever it was that said, “getting there is half the fun", almost certainly travelled by train.

David Clark is CEO of the luxury travel company Discovery Black.