The Orient-Express has long been synonymous with luxury travel, intrigue, romance and the mystery of the East. Just to hear the name conjures visions of fine foods enjoyed in polished wood dining cars and champagne in crystal glasses. Immortalised in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient-Express and Ian Fleming’s To Russia with Love, the Orient-Express represents a link between the safe places we are familiar with and the exotic places we dream of visiting – the wild steppes of Hungary and Romania, the soaring minuets of Istanbul, and ultimately the mystical and vaguely dangerous Orient itself.
Running between London and the most splendid cities of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, Vienna, Prague and Budapest, today’s Venice Simplon Orient-Express service is a nostalgic throwback to the days when the great European empires were ruled by monarchs in glittering courts. Its route allows travellers to enjoy some of Europe’s finest culture, in cities such as Venice, Paris, and Brussels. There is even a picturesque northern route to Stockholm, a nod perhaps to the former Swedish Empire’s role as a Great Power. But today’s Orient-Express only makes the iconic journey from Paris to Istanbul once a year, whereas the original service ran to Istanbul regularly, taking passengers to the Ottoman Empire and the very brink of Asia.
And that is what made the Orient-Express renowned. In the days of the British Empire, when the well-to-do headed East for pleasure and excitement, and diplomats headed East on secret errands, the luxury carriages of this famous train were the fastest, most comfortable and most civilised way to travel. The diplomatic Great Game, played out around the courts and embassies of Eastern Europe and the Near East, was a bloody and hazardous occupation. But thanks to the Orient-Express, at least the diplomats taking part could journey in style.
When adventurous travellers are thrown together for days at a time, with little to do except enjoy awe inspiring scenery, drink, eat, gossip, and flirt, it is hardly surprising that they occasionally fall in love. Naturally therefore, the Orient-Express became associated with romance. There has in any case always been something stimulating about travel, especially travel to exotic and slightly dangerous places, that seems to encourage people to throw caution to the winds and engage in whirlwind affairs. Whether novels of the period created the image, or the image shaped the novels, there are no end of books that set romance, intrigue and mystery on this trans-continental route.
Yet despite being the most famous and written about, the Orient-Express was by no means the only luxurious train service taking wealthy and adventurous people to far flung places. If you had the money and the inclination you could travel by luxury train to Greece, Africa, and further afield. And you still can today. Although the Orient-Express remains the best known of the luxury trains, there are many other services equally steeped in romance and adventure.
Rovos Rail is a super luxurious service in Africa that combines sumptuous dining in wood panelled carriages with stunning African scenes and a mobile safari. Aiming unashamedly at a privileged clientele, Rovos caters for those who want to see the raw heart of Africa, but see it in style and comfort.
The Rovos’ routes traverse half a dozen African countries, taking in many of the most dramatic sights of the most dramatic of all continents, including Victoria Falls, the Kruger National Park, Cape Town and Kimberley. The journey ends in Dar Es Salaam on the east coast, just a short hop across the water from the exotic trade emporium of Zanzibar.
The equally splendid Eastern & Oriental Express is a modern homage to the spirit of the original Orient-Express, carrying wealthy passengers to Thailand, Singapore and the magical beauty of South East Asia. Against this subtropical backdrop it too creates an environment conducive to romance, perfect either for honeymooning couples or those sharing a discrete liaison.
However, luxury train services need not be confined to exotic or tropical climes. All that is required is an attractive scenic backdrop that inspires and moves. For many travellers, it as much the ambience and cosseting as the exotic location that forms the attraction. Belmond’s Royal Scotsman service is another exclusive train that proves the point, carrying passengers in club-like conviviality from London to Edinburgh, or on a tour of the magnificence of the Scottish Highlands. Here they can look forward to shooting parties and fine malt whisky, and all the comforts of a good country house hotel, while touring the lochs and heather clad slopes of this wild land.
What these luxury services all have in common is a nostalgic glimpse of the style and sophistication of a bygone age, when beautiful women wore furs and diamonds while sipping cocktails and flirting with men dressed in impeccably tailored dinner jackets. Travelling on one of these trains you fleetingly recapture the elegance of Hercule Poirot’s dining companions en route to the East, the daring of James Bond’s adventures in Istanbul, and the sheer unapologetic hedonism of the 1920’s, a time when men and women who had lived through the Great War were determined to enjoy life to the full.