Last updated: 12:12 PM ET, Tue March 17 2015

Luxury on the Rails

Selling the allure of high-end rail journeys

Vacation Agent | Car Rental & Rail | James Ruggia

Luxury on the Rails

PHOTO: Rocky Mountaineer offers comfort on the West Coast.

Luxury land cruising by rail commands the devotion of some of the world’s wealthiest travelers.

The romance of luxury rail has been passed down from the early days of modern travel as Edwardian passengers boarded the original Orient Express in Paris for the journey to “Constantinople” and a stay at the Pera Palace, maybe spotting Greta Garbo in the lobby or even Mata Hari escorting an admiral to her suite. Agatha Christie passed the flame to subsequent generations who now ride luxury rail on six continents. The allure keeps growing and so does the product. A new luxury train sells out regularly in Japan, and a new train coming to Ireland proves that the market is growing.

Luxury rail riders found a pot of gold at the rainbow’s end in December when the coming of the Belmond Grand Hibernian was announced. Ten carriages are being transformed into a luxury sleeper train comprising 20 cabins with accommodations for up to 40 guests with interiors that promise to conjure up the feel of Ireland’s Georgian architecture as well as its folk lore. The train will include two restaurant cars, an observation bar car, and four interconnecting suites that can be configured to accommodate families. The train will run a series of two-, four- and six-night packages that will combine the Dublin base, Belfast and Cork with plenty of stops for daily excursions such as tours of historic estates, golf outings and more.

PHOTO: Belmond’s Eastern & Oriental features luxury suites.

The Belmond Grand Hibernian will be Belmond’s seventh luxury train. In the U.K. it will join the Belmond Royal Scotsman as Britain’s other overnight luxury train and perhaps feature combination programs that can explore the Celtic world of Scotland and Ireland in a comprehensive joint program. The company also operates the Belmond Northern Belle and the Belmond English Pullman in the U.K. The Belmond Hiram Bingham carries travelers to Machu Picchu.

On the Continent, Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is returning to Scandinavia in 2015 for the first time since 2013 on the new “Nordic Adventures” on June 1 (Venice to Stockholm) and June 6 (Stockholm to Venice). Venice, Copenhagen and Stockholm are at the center of Venice-Simplon’s four-night, five-day Scandinavia journeys. The packages are from $6,486 per person, double occupancy. The route moves through Italy, Austria and Germany with two nights in Copenhagen at the Marriott before arriving in Stockholm. The journey includes two days and one night traveling on board Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. In Copenhagen, the program includes sightseeing and a gala dinner at an exclusive venue before rejoining the train for an overnight journey to Stockholm.

In Southeast Asia, Belmond’s Eastern & Oriental Express features en-suite cabins for up to 132 guests; three dining carriages serving European and Asian cuisine; and a Bar Car with nightly entertainment. The train’s Observation Car gives passengers a rich visual experience of Southeast Asia. Daily excursions are made to such destinations as Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Huay Yang and the Cameron Highlands, with a night at the Cameron Highlands Resort, which is located on a tea plantation. Every season the train adds new itineraries off of the core route connecting Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

This year, Belmond’s Eastern & Oriental Express will operate the five-night Fables of the Peninsula from Singapore to Bangkok on March 29 and the two-night The Ancient Kingdom of Lanna departs on its inaugural journey on Oct. 15, roundtrip from Bangkok and including historic cities in northern Thailand. Prices start from $7,372 per person double for the Fables of the Peninsula experience. Prices start from $2,426 for the Ancient Kingdom of Lanna journey per person double sharing a Pullman cabin and including all table d’hôte meals.

The Ancient Kingdom of Lanna departs from Bangkok and visits Lampang and Chiang Mai before returning. The Lanna kingdom was a small kingdom located between the two powerhouse kingdoms of Siam and Burma. Its capital, Chiang Mai, now finds itself as a gateway between Thailand and the emerging destination of Myanmar, where the Belmond Road to Mandalay will celebrate its 20th anniversary.

The Belmond Orcaella cruises the Irrawaddy and the temple-studded Chindwin River.

Last year, Belmond launched a microsite on its website for LGBT travelers looking to experience Belmond’s full product line.

Rocky Mountaineer
There were good reasons for our agent readers to award The Rocky Mountaineer a Travvy Award as the Best Train Experience Worldwide. Though the train now operates with three full tiers of service, there’s a high overall culture of quality that plays throughout the experience. The tiers of RedLeaf, SilverLeaf and GoldLeaf have at this point been so fully realized as luxury products that the two higher tiers are actually surpassing RedLeaf in demand.

In GoldLeaf, bi-level dome cars lift passengers above the ground for a much better view of the passing scenery. SilverLeaf uses a single level domed coach with panoramic views that offer a larger viewing area than provided by RedLeaf Service. SilverLeaf, like GoldLeaf, features hot meal service to guests’ seats, additional Onboard Attendants and more.

The Rocky Mountaineer offers 45 programs built out of five core routes through the Pacific Northwest and the Canadian Rockies, including such destinations as Alberta, Vancouver, Banff, Jasper, Calgary, Seattle, Whistler and Lake Louise. Passengers are given an entertaining and informative explanation of all they’re seeing from well-trained hosts who have not only studied the flora and fauna of the landscape, but have also taken courses in storytelling. Onboard meals are prepared by chefs who have trained in Michelin-starred kitchens using locally sourced ingredients.

This year, as Rocky Mountaineer celebrates its 25th anniversary, it finds itself as a valuable partner with the lines that operate in the Alaskan cruise industry. The trains, departing from Seattle and Vancouver, connect seamlessly with those cruises. About half of Rocky Mountaineer’s passengers combine their train journey with a cruise. Agents can get all the details by signing up for TRACKS, the company’s specialist training program.

Maharajas’ Express
Unlike India’s other leisure train experiences, the Maharajas’ Express can travel all over the country on several itineraries. The train carries just 88 passengers, a good scale for luxury service. The range of suites on the Express includes the Deluxe (112 square feet) with twin or double beds with bathroom; Junior Suite (150 square feet) with twin or double beds, writing table and bathroom; Suite (220 square feet) with double bed, living area, bathroom with bath; and the Presidential Suite (448 square feet) with two double bedrooms with bathrooms (one with a tub), as well as a living/dining area. The two dining cars each seat 42 guests. Two lounge cars serve complimentary drinks.

Altogether the train offers five itineraries. Three of them are seven-night itineraries, such as the Indian Panorama (from $5,980), which runs a circular route out of Delhi through Jaipur, Ranthambore, Agra, Gwalior, Khajuraho, Varanasi and Lucknow. There are also two three-night packages. For example, the Gems of India (from $3,850) goes from Delhi to Ranthambore, Jaipur and Agra.

Rail Companies in Japan
Japan began running the Seven Stars of Kyushu train in 2013. The train opened many eyes to the possibility of land cruising by rail. The $33 million train has been such a hit that it now has to be booked well in advance. It offers 14 suites in seven carriages with interiors in walnut, rosewood and maple. The train, which carries up to 30 passengers, has a crew of 25 members, who were all trained in high-end ryokans. The train operates a two- and a four-day itinerary.

Both Japan Rail West and Japan Rail East are looking at creating rail cruise products. JR East is targeting 2016 to launch a cruise train.

For more information on Rocky Mountaineer, India, Japan

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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the March 2015 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.