What It’s Like to Stay Aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Ultimate in Luxurious Slow Travel
For those with the means, this is truly time travel for the ages.
BY Chris Dwyer  |  May 17, 2023
5 Minute Read

What do Angelina Jolie, the Beckhams, Kate Winslet, Wes Anderson, and John Travolta have in common? Besides stratospheric fame, they are just some of the passengers to have recently graced the historic suites of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the legendary train which gently winds its way along European routes, most famously across the Venetian lagoon through to the stunning Swiss Alps, up through France and eventually into London.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has never advertised its journeys, partly because literature and popular culture have already made it such an icon. From Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express onwards, the legendary train has become a byword for intriguing, unrivalled luxury like no other. Today, for a cool HK$110,000 per person, guests can spend around 36 hours in the unmatched luxury of Christie’s original suite as it heads from Venice to London.

Hotel Cipriani

With a precise 11 am departure from Santa Lucia railway station, an overnight is advised, but that is never a hardship in a city known as La Serenissima—“The Most Serene.” Given that the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is owned by Belmond, the perfect night before departure comes at its famed Hotel Cipriani, another local legend. Although regular guests George and Amal Clooney were not around, a sublime dinner at the Cip’s Club restaurant overlooking the Venetian skyline featured a Bellini cocktail and a flawless beef carpaccio—both invented by none other than Giuseppe Cipriani himself. Following sweet dreams and a bountiful breakfast buffet—but be warned, you are wined and dined almost constantly on the train—an elegant wooden Cipriani motorboat whisks you along the Grand Canal past envious onlookers to the station.

As the magnificent Grande Dame of the Rails pulls in, she elicits gasps from passengers and other visitors alike. It is a common motif throughout the journey as people constantly stop, stare, and invariably pull out their phone to take a photo. This is more than a train. It is dreams on wheels. 

Budapest Grand Suite

The platform provides the first interaction with your steward—in my case, the charming Antonina from Moldova, who explains how she will be taking care of my every need throughout the journey. It starts with a tour of the truly spectacular Budapest Suite. Exquisite marquetry on the walls is matched by lamps by Lalique and Baccarat, while I am told that just one of the mirrors costs HK$230,000. Unlike other accommodation across the train, the six suites all boast a private WC and shower in a bathroom crafted in onyx, marble, and Venetian granite. Sinks are handcrafted from Murano glass, the amenities are by Guerlain, and you are encouraged to keep them, as well as the impossibly fluffy bathrobe. 

As if that is not enough, the elegant double bed makes you forget you are on a train and the table is soon decked out with Veuve Clicquot Saint Pétersbourg champagne and an entire tin of Steluga Tsar Imperial caviar.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express passing through near Roppen, Austria

My favourite spot, however, quickly becomes the suite’s sofa, the ultimate front-row seat to the non-stop IMAX widescreen presentation as Europe unravels itself in front of you. It is an exhilarating view of the cinematic majesty and diversity of the continent’s landscapes, from snow-capped Italian Alps to the chalets and jaw-dropping sheer cliffs of Austria’s Brenner Pass, verdant rolling valleys in Switzerland dotted with church spires, and France’s vineyard-decked plains. 

While you could easily be forgiven for not wanting to leave your suite, a large part of the joy of this extraordinary journey comes in meeting fellow adventurers in the three restaurant cars—L’Oriental, Etoile Du Nord, and Côte d’Azur—and the Bar Car. Menus are crafted by chef Jean Imbert, the dynamic French maestro of Michelin-starred Jean Imbert au Plaza Athénée who was recently named one of the 50 Most Influential French People by Vanity Fair, an inspired hire who ensures that the cuisine wows at every service. How his team create such beautiful plates from a tiny galley kitchen travelling at over 90 kilometres per hour defies belief. 

Bar Car

Highlights at lunch, served as we headed through sun-dappled vineyards just past Verona, included an exceptional roasted guinea fowl with mushroom stuffed rigatoni, but drinks and dinner were the real showstopper.  

The dress code on board demands a jacket and tie at lunch, with formal evening attire and glamorous finery at dinner—hence almost every passenger was decked out in black tie or elegant dresses. With a pianist tinkling away, a white-jacketed barman mixing me a perfect Old Fashioned, and a crowd warming up for dinner as we navigate Swiss valleys under a slate-grey evening sky, it is difficult not to find the whole experience rather surreal as you remember you are actually aboard a train. After elegant canapés and meeting new friends, there is an outstanding pithivier of beef with foie gras and a Périgord jus that would grace any Michelin-starred restaurant, accompanied by your choice of champagnes and wines that keep flowing throughout. Given this intake, it is perhaps unsurprising that one sleeps pretty well during the journey.

As the affable French train manager Matthieu Ollier told me: “It’s not a traditional voyage. You can’t do it anywhere else, it’s truly unique. It moves, it’s noisy, it’s slow—but it’s the nicest place on earth—there’s a soul here.” 

He’s not wrong.  

Waking slightly bleary-eyed, I raise the blinds in the Budapest Suite to be greeted by the mist-covered hills of Champagne, an apt location given that a fabulous breakfast with more Veuve Clicquot is served in the suite as we pull into Paris. Thereafter, we carry on up to Calais and transfer seamlessly, through luxury buses on the Channel Tunnel, to the British Pullman in Folkestone for the final leg up to Victoria Station. Belmond couldn’t possibly let you go unfed, so a classic British afternoon tea was perfectly on point.  

Istanbul Grand Suite

With luggage neatly laid out for our arrival in London, it reminded me of something else Ollier had said: “Louis Vuitton originally created trunks for passengers travelling by train. We are coming back to our origins (Belmond is owned by LVMH)—and our original travellers.” 

For those with the means, this is truly time travel for the ages.

All images courtesy of Belmond.