Picture the scene: the plush velvet of your seat gleams in the soft glow of silk-shaded table lamps and your wood-panelled cabin whispers of a sound night’s sleep as you glide along the tracks between Paris and Venice on the world’s most famous train. With the blur of green countryside darkening with the inky dusk, there’s nothing to interrupt your reverie... except the other pesky passengers of course.
It needn’t be like this. Those with bank balances as big as their bucket lists can ensure there are no other guests onboard by hiring the whole train privately (averting any Agatha Christie-esque disasters in the same breath). It costs around £340,000 to do the classic Paris-Venice itinerary in this way, leaving the French capital in the late afternoon and arriving in La Serenissima the following day feeling very serene indeed.
Further ‘standard’ private options include the five-day Paris-Istanbul journey, when guests can hop on and off the train with a guide to explore Budapest and Romania’s grand, many-turreted Peles Castle (which passengers on the first-ever Orient Express journey visited in 1883 after a personal invite from the king).
But because the super-rich don’t let anything as trifling as train timetables dictate their breaks, it’s also possible to divert from the usual routes in favour of a dream itinerary. When one customer wanted to extend a holiday with time in the Dolomites for example, he chartered the Belmond Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express to take him to nearby Bolzano.
These personalised routes are logistical headaches that can take up to two years of planning, but they don’t phase Belmond’s VP of trains and cruises Gary Franklin. “We pride ourselves on providing an utterly bespoke service, from onboard entertainment to menus,” he says.
From creating an in-carriage spa to transforming the three restaurant cars into clubs complete with throbbing DJ booths, no job is too big. Unless it is actually too big. “The only requests we cannot accommodate usually relate to space and height restraints,” says Franklin.
Many clients clamour for the onboard presence of Head Chef Jean Imbert, who also presides over the kitchen at Paris’s Plaza Athénée and the Cheval Blanc St Barths and whose recent Instagram posts include a casual snap in the kitchen with Beyoncé and Jay-Z. “We’re happy to try and accommodate those requests if they’re compatible with the chef’s schedule,” says Franklin.
If not, it’s possible to bring another guest chef along for the ride, though the motion of the train may cause a wobble or two. “A great amount of planning goes into these requests because the chefs need to familiarise with the train kitchen and the existing team ahead of the trip,” says Franklin. “Unfortunately, certain foods simply do not work on the train, such as souffles: they are almost impossible to make due to unpredictable movements.”
Any disappointment this may cause might be offset by the fact that this trip can be, remarkably, relatively good value for money. When filled to a maximum capacity of 120 guests (as the train sometimes is when private clients are hosting overnight birthday or wedding celebrations), one night aboard a private charter from Paris to Venice works out at around £2,855pp – slightly less than the usual cost to rent a cabin (around £2,920pp).