I don’t know about you but most days feel like a sped-up gauntlet of sensory overload . Every day a barrage of emails, information a nd appointment s competing for urgent attention. (Btw, it’s very rarely urgent.) We find ourselves reaching for a metaphorical pause button, something to mute all the noise. For some, it’s meditation or jogging; for others, bingeing on trash TV. Now, I’m not averse to the latter but, in December, I discovered the ultimate for headspace nirvana in these frenetic times: the Venice Simplon-Orient Express. More specifically, its new route from Vienna to Paris.
The truth is you can fly from Vienna to Paris in two hours and five minutes and it’ll cost you £38. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Expresstrain takes 24 hours and will cost you £3,785, but hear me out: this isn’t about an A-Z journey, it’s about an unforgettable experience. I’m talking bucket list stuff. It’s about the last true luxury: time. We all need more time; quality time, time to stop and think, time to feel and enjoy life. Time to sit (and sleep) in supreme luxury, watch pristine snowy landscapes whizz by and be waited on hand and foot.
From the start of this trip, the allure and legend of ‘The Orient Express’ preceded us, working its velvety magic. As the train departs from Vienna at midday on Sunday, I booked Saturday night at the highly recommended Hotel Imperial only to find they’d upgraded my wife and I to their vast Royal Suite, which has been enjoyed by Brangelina, Cruise & Kidman and even Queen Elizabeth II. ‘Well, it’s only appropriate if you’re travelling on the Orient Express,’ explained the friendly manager. Yes, quite.
Well rested, we were greeted on the platform at Wien Hauptbahnhof by the train’s staff and a band — more of which later — and shown to our ‘historic cabin’. Bijou is the word but I would happily trade my London flat for this cupboard-sized room. It was a mini-vision of 1920s splendour: a plump sofa that ingeniously transforms into bunk beds, a hidden basin, exquisite marquetry everywhere and a small table complete with a bucket of chilled champagne. What more could you possibly want? (Before you ask, there’s no shower — a pigeon-bath in the basin will suffice — and there’s a shared lavatory at the end of the carriage.)
Just enough time to pop the cork and unpack before lunch. Which reminds me, travel light: there’s not enough room to swing a handbag let alone a steamer trunk; for the very deep-pocketed, though, there are suites available. As city buildings blurred into white fields, we devoured foie gras, roast duck, rum baba and a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé. After a post-prandial coma and a quick costume change, it was back to the dining car for French 75s and a black-tie four-course supper with more Pouilly-Fuissé.
By this time, we were merrily chatting with our fellow diners. (Note to self: murder jokes tire quickly.) There’s something about an enclosed, extravagant environment — and good wine — that forces even the most reserved to open up; I’m sure the same can be said for some luxury cruises, but have you seen Triangle of Sadness? Behind us were a couple of sisters from New Jersey, each sitting with a toy monkey — ‘They go everywhere with us,’ they said creepily — and, opposite, Joe and Dennis from London, who kindly gave a strong painkiller to my wife for her worsening sciatica. What could possibly go wrong? On to the bar carriage…
Imagine the shiniest late-night bar, the comfiest of seats, strong cocktails (watch out for the ‘3675’, named after the carriage) and a band banging out Elton’s greatest hits on a grand piano. In short, my happy place. Everyone joined in for ‘Benny and the Jets’, or was it just me? And I distinctly remember my wife doing a perfect rendition of Cher’s ‘Believe’. By the time we pin-balled back to our cabin at 4am, we’d given a young couple from Washington DC some worrying life coaching and my wife had agreed to join the band on tour. Needless to say, as we rolled into a grey Paris, breakfast was a quiet croissant-and-coffee affair in our cabin.
My only complaint about this pinch-me experience? The Eurostar home felt like the rudest of awakenings.
Vienna to Paris on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, from £3,785 (belmond.com)