LONDON — The Orient Express’ maiden journey between Paris and Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) in 1833 was a game-changer for travel on the Continent. The four-day trek involved two stages, the first starting at London’s Victoria Station. Aboard opulently-appointed Pullman carriages, passengers dressed to the nines were conveyed to Dover on the southeastern coast. There, they crossed the English Channel by boat to France (Calais), before continuing on to Paris.
The golden age of travel had arrived and soon royalty, heads of state and the well-to-do flocked to the luxury rail line as their choice of travel.
Still today, the mere mention of Orient Express conjures up thoughts of luxury, romance and intrigue — thanks mostly to Agatha Christie’s thrilling 1934 novel which was later made into a movie, Murder on the Orient Express.
Above: Travelling back in time even for a day can be luxurious aboard the Belmond Pullman.
Hungry for a taste of that wistful past, my aunt and I buy a ticket on the Orient Express — okay, not THE Orient Express but the Belmond British Pullman, its opulent British cousin that duplicates the English leg of the original 1833 route on a day trip that will have us back in London by bed time.
Standing on Platform 2 at Victoria Station, a rush of nostalgia overcomes us as we wait to board the exquisite Pullman cars, named after American industrialist George Pullman, who pioneered the first-class sleeper and restaurant cars that became the standard for luxury rail service throughout Britain in the late 1800s.
Stepping on to the chocolate and cream-coloured vintage cars is like stepping back in time — our meticulously-restored dining carriage, named Cygnus, dates back to the 1920s and features brass luggage racks and mahogany-panelled walls with exquisite marquetry. Our white linen-covered table, set with fine china, heavy crystal, elegant silverware and a lamp with a silk-pleated shade, looked like it was set for the Queen.
Rolling slowly out of the bustling British capital, views soon opened to landscapes of quintessential English countrysides dotted with grazing sheep — the perfect antidote for us and our fellow passengers who needed to escape from our busy worlds.
Above: From the moment you are welcomed aboard the fame train you enjoy only the best.
Attendants welcomed us with Peach Bellinis and light appetizers, followed by a sumptuous multi-course brunch (pastries, yogurt with fresh berries and scrambled eggs with chopped chives over a toasted crumpet with “London Cure” Scottish smoked salmon). By noon, we disembarked for an afternoon at Sissinghurst Castle Gardens, and on the return to London, lingered over a five-course dinner.
The atmosphere onboard was magically peaceful. That’s because cellphone use is discouraged. Not a single ping interrupted conversation and everyone seemed to be in their own blissful space. That is, until friendly chatter broke out as meals on silver platters were skilfully maneuvered through tight space with perfect choreography — one course at a time.
Train manager Andor Karadi stopped at our table to make sure we were happy guests and shared stories about the train.
“Do you know how we got the chairs into the carriages?” Karadi asked as we glanced at our hefty upholstered seats.
“The doors and windows are too small, so they were put through the roof.”
They’re never removed from the carriage. Regular refurbishment takes place inside the cars. We looked at our chairs again and wondered which royal figures, presidents or Nobel Laureates sat in the ones we were occupying.
Above: On the day trip from London you stop and tour special places like Sissinghurst Castle, above.
And every car has a name and a story. Cygnus was part of the 1965 funeral train for Winston Churchill. Phoenix was the royal carriage used by President Charles de Gaulle of France on his state visit in 1960. And during his state visit in 1996, South African president Nelson Mandela was partial to a carriage named Vera because of her springbok marquetry.
But this day-trip experience might not exist had it not been for American James Sherwood, who owned a shipping company based in Britain.
In May 1977, the Orient Express (which had evolved to the Simplon Orient Express), made its last run. While attending a Sotheby auction in Monte Carlo the following fall, Sherwood, on a whim, purchased two abandoned Pullman carriages. He was inspired by the awe the carriages drew at the auction and realized then that there was still magic in the Orient Express name.
Sherwood located the remainder of the rolling stock, restored the aging cars, and by May 1982 he brought the romance back with the relaunch of the Venice Simplon-Orient Express. A nostalgic Paris-to-Istanbul journey is offered once a year.
And thanks to this day trip, we might not have discovered internationally-renowned Sissinghurst Castle Gardens and learned the intriguing story of its founders — poet and landscape designer Vita Sackville-West and her author/diplomat husband, Harold Nicholson.
The couple bought the decaying property in 1930, then transformed the once aristocratic home-turned prisoner-of-war camp (during the Seven Years War) turned-derelict homestead, into one of England’s finest gardens. The castle and its 10 garden “rooms” are listed in the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty.
The16th-century tower was Sackville-West’s sanctuary where she wrote each night. She also kept journals about her lesbian liaisons that were never known to her children until after her death. Virginia Woolf was one of her lovers.
Back on the train just before sunset, attendants welcomed us back with Champagne and hor d’oeuvres, followed by dinner highlights of ballotine of chicken, seared fillet of seabass and dessert of traditional Eton mess cheesecake.
“Take a walk through the carriages,” Karadi urged us. “They’re all different and beautiful.” In the vestibules, he said, wooden plaques describe each car’s place in history.
Next time we’ll sample a different day trip. But then again, we just might cross the Channel.
JUST THE FACTS
• To learn more about the Belmond British Pullman, visit http://www.belmond.com
• Sissinghurst Castle Garden: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst-castle-garden
• My overnight accommodation while in London: Strand Palace Hotel, http://www.strandpalacehotel.co.uk
Dukes London, http://www.dukeshotel.com