Cruising and classic railway journeys have always made good bedfellows. Historically, ships and trains have pulled into grand stations or dropped anchor in iconic sea ports with a sense of “arrival”, still unmatched by motor vehicle or plane today.
It was only a matter of time, then, before the legendary Orient Express, which first ran from Paris to Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1883, opened a floating hotel. The company, owned by the Accor group, will launch its first cruising yacht in 2026, 140 years after its luxury rail carriages first rolled out of Paris. Orient Express Silenseas will have 54 Suites, two pools, two restaurants, a spa, a speakeasy bar, an amphitheatre for cabaret-style entertainment.
The announcement comes as the brand prepares to launch a hotel portfolio and a new train service – La Bella Vita – later his year. The Orient Express La Minerva and Orient Express Palazzo Donà Giovannelli will open in Rome and Venice respectively in 2024.
The luxury brand is not the first to venture into custom-built cruising. In 2015, Yangon heritage hotel The Strand launched a 25-cabin ship styled after its sister property, to sail along the Irrawaddy in Myanmar. Aman, Four Seasons and most recently the Ritz-Carlton hotel group have all put ships on the water.
But what truly sets Silenseas apart is something a little more structural: a head-turning trio of rigid, glass-polyester panels that fold like fans. The sails, which have a combined surface area of 4,500 sq m, will be hoisted on a 360-degree adjustable balestron (rig), with three tiltable masts reaching 100 metres high. At launch it will be the largest passenger sailing ship in the world (with the Golden Horizon and Star Clipper being the largest square-rigged ships in the world). The 220-metre-long hybrid ship will combine wind power with dual-fuel engines powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG); Orient Express says it will eventually switch from LNG to green hydrogen.
It’s innovative stuff. Guillaume de Saint Lager, vice president for Orient Express, says the project got off the ground a year ago when French ship-building company Chantiers de l'Atlantique proposed its Solid Sail technology. Working in conjunction with an innovative rigging system and given the right wind conditions, Solid Sail can operate at maximum propulsion. The touch paper for the hybrid, sail-powered ship was lit.
“We’d had the idea for a luxury boat but in the end, it came down to timing and a perfect product match,” says de Saint Lager. “The yacht is green, it’s futuristic, it centres on craftsmanship and it’s French. I said: ‘Let’s go!’”
Modern craftsmanship will be central to the Silenseas experience, he adds. “Trains and boats are part of our history and are very much connected. They also share lots of common features; craftsmen who worked on famous liners also worked on trains.”
Guillaume says the ship is neither a hotel nor a train, but is part of a “luxury experiences” portfolio that might even one day extend to air travel. “Silenseas will be a showcase for French style and savoir-faire – fine woods, fine food and fine service. We want to create an air of nostalgia but it’s also about finding the right balance. We don’t want our guests to be able to put a date on the design.”
Chantiers de l'Atlantique - based in the port of Saint-Nazaire, near Nantes - has plenty of shipbuilding pedigree. Among its big-name builds are Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 and Celebrity Cruises’ Edge-class ships, as well as the The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection’s forthcoming yachts, Ilma and Luminara. It can also claim the ground-breaking SS Normandie, which first crossed the Atlantic in 1935. Normandie reached New York at such a speed that she took the Blue Riband (transatlantic speed record) on her maiden voyage.
On board Silensea passengers can expect flawless service (the crew-to-passenger ratio will be almost one to one), gourmet food and luxurious experience. “It’s about adapting existing brand concepts,” says de Saint-Lager, “whether it’s fine food, tableware, linen or the turndown of a suite after the guest has left for dinner.”
While the exact amount is still to be announced, fares will be sold on an all-inclusive basis and will include all but the most expensive Champagnes and wines. Inspired by the glamorous cruising heyday of the 1930s, Silenseas will call at Portofino, St-Tropez and other classic Mediterranean ports and in the winter, her solid sails will take guests around the Caribbean.
De Saint-Leger expects Silenseas to attract an international clientele of mainly British and American travellers, with on-shore excursions including visits to private beaches, vineyards and perhaps a chef-hosted dinner at a shoreside restaurant. But according to de Saint Lager, it’s the journey that matters. “The experience is less about ticking places off the bucket list and more about the journey. We want our guests to relax, have fun and enjoy being with family.”
He adds: “As long as we follow our sustainable and ultra-luxurious mantra the playground for us is huge.”
Back in the 1930s the Orient Express became known as the “King of Trains”. Time will tell if its maritime counterpart takes a similar crown.