We Tried It: A Ride on the Real-Life Orient Express
What It Is: An overnight trip from Venice to Paris on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the modern-day version of the luxury train made famous by Agatha Christie (and now by Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer onscreen) in Murder on the Orient Express.
Who Tried It: Samantha Miller, PEOPLE Senior Editor
Level of Difficulty: 2/10. OK, it’s not exactly hard being pampered on the ultimate luxury train. But hey, it’s not easy to walk on a rocking train, especially after a couple of the signature Guilty 12 cocktails. (The dozen ingredients? They’re a mystery, of course.)
I’m a fan of far-flung travel, crime novels and most things old-timey, though my usual ride is a jam-packed F train to Brooklyn. So a chance to ride on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express was a giddy opportunity to go back in time. The original Orient Express trains started rolling in 1883, ushering in a golden age of travel for Europe’s elite. Starting in 1977, the luxury travel and leisure company Belmond started hunting down original, exquisite 1920s and 1930s train cars to create the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which makes pricey trips (Venice-London starts at over $2,000) among cities including Paris, Venice, Prague, Budapest and Berlin.
So what’s it like to travel like the one percent of 100 years ago? It’s a bit like first-class airline travel — with a much, much better sense of style. The dining and bar cars are jaw-droppers, festooned with Art Deco stained glass, intricate marquetry and Lalique crystal. The sleeping cabins are tiny but perfectly designed, with seats that convert to bunk beds, a diminutive sink behind sliding doors, original coal heating, and an amenity kit that includes plenty of scented lotions and dry shampoo. (Nope, there are no showers, and the toilets are at the end of each of the carriages. That’s fine for an overnight trip, but multi-day voyages a century ago might have gotten a little less than fresh, and let’s hope Christie’s passengers, stranded after an avalanche, brought some wet wipes.)
As I boarded at Venice’s Santa Lucia station, the sleek and scenic staff — handsome men from chefs to stewards — posed in formation outside the train, Instagram-ready in their spiffy uniforms. After a welcome glass of champagne from our carriage’s dedicated steward (a gently flirty Italian), it was time to navigate down the narrow hallways to the 1920s dining cars. Lunch was served as the Palladian villas of the Veneto rolled by, eventually replaced by the picture-book mountain villages of the Dolomites, Austria and Switzerland.
The food included classy, if not avant-garde, dishes you’d be happy to get in a fancy hotel restaurant. A few broke through as memorably delicious, like a starter of intense asparagus veloute with foie gras ravioli and, at the black-tie-attire dinner, succulent lamb with ras-el-hanout spices. Wine costs extra — something to keep in mind if you’ve blown your entire budget booking a bucket-list trip.
You can save most of your boozing, though, for the magical bar car, a sumptuous yet cozy space with plush
seating, a piano player and spirited sing-alongs. “Why aren’t all bars exactly like this?” I pondered somewhere near Liechtenstein. (OK, I only noticed the Liechtenstein location tag on my photos after the fact, but doesn’t that call for another mysteriously green Guilty 12?)
Returning to the sleeping carriage sometime in the wee hours, I climbed a velvet-stepped ladder to my snug bunk, spending a few hours drifting in and out of sleep to the rocking of the train. A cruel 6 a.m. wakeup time was tempered with coffee, fresh orange juice and flaky croissants as the sun rose over the fields in rural France. We piled out at Paris’s Gare du Nord at 7:30 a.m., tired, a little unwashed, and sad to rejoin the 21st century.
The Verdict: If you’re a travel buff up for a splurge, riding the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is a whole lot more memorable than a first-class airline trip. Traveling in a work of art is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it doesn’t come cheap.