James Bond had it shaken – not stirred – on it, Wilhelmina Murray owes her immortal soul to it, and Mr. Rachett got whacked in it. It’s the Orient Express, synonymous with romance and exoticism (and intrigue and mystery) and the unsung hero of “From Russia with Love,” “Dracula,” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” And yes, it still runs.
With the Orient Express, getting there isn’t half the fun – it’s all the fun. Criss-crossing the imperial cities of Europe, from London to Istanbul, Budapest to Krakow, think of it as upscale travel upended: The mode of transportation is the whole reason for your travels, rather than the means of getting from Point A to Point B. You very literally let the luxury run away with you.
Agatha Christie and company would be very unfamiliar with the Orient Express of today, and at the same time, not so. Technically speaking, the present 5-star luxury hotel on wheels, whose full name is the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, is not the same Orient Express the writers of yesteryear knew. That company went bust in 2009, but it would take a shrewd eye to see it; a private company bought the original 1920s Art Deco cars and relaunched the service with all the legendary class and sophistication intact. It was done so seamlessly that you and Dr. Van Helsing would never know the difference in your race against the undead.
To step into your cabin car is to step into the Gilded Age itself, and nowhere else is the vintage splendor of days gone by more on display than in the Cabin Suites. Combining two private cabins, travelers can luxuriate in a private lounge with a banquette sofa, footstool and table in the first cabin, and sleep swaddled in the finest linens in the second. Paneled in rich, warm woods with finishes of brass and fine glass, all Cabin Suites contain old-style porcelain washbasins, plush towels and rich toiletries discreetly tucked away behind a concealed door. At your beck and call is a 24-hour steward service, called by your personal cabin bell.
And dining on the Orient Express is no less luscious than your quarters. Dinner could include steamed fresh salmon and spinach roulade; salmon tartar and eggplant pancake; or filet of beef pickled with coarse salt, dill, juniper and coriander, topped with berries served raw, thinly sliced and roasted with a tangy red wine sauce. Three individually-styled Restaurant Cars – Cote d’Azur, Etoile du Nord or L’Oriental – serve lunch, dinner and brunch via snappily-dressed waiters, while breakfast and afternoon tea are served to passengers in the comfort of their cabins.
Here’s an insider’s tip: The stylish heart of the Orient Express, and often where all the dastardly plots are hatched, is the Bar Car. Lovingly transformed and designed by phenom Gerard Gallet along original lines, and replete with a trained pianist tickling the ivories, it is in such a space that some of the most famous passengers (the real ones) of the Orient Express (Belgium’s King Leopold II and Tzar Nicholas II, to name a few) contemplated the world of their times.
It should come as no surprise that the Orient Express gained the moniker “the King of Trains and the Train of Kings.” It earned it. It also has another nickname, “The Train of Spies,” and it earned that, too. But in spite of the mythic subterfuge the train inspires, no one ever gets murdered on it, no matter what Poirot says. Yet. (Mwa-ha-hah…)