Review by Fiona Duncan, published 16th March 2001.
It was not a good start. As we were directed to a position at the overcrowded Venice Simplon-Orient-Express check-in desk at Victoria Station, we were roundly abused and accused of queue-barging by a fellow-passenger. One or two others sprang to our defence. There was nearly an ugly scene. Perhaps there would be a murder on this Orient Express.
In the mock-twenties waiting room we surveyed our companions. Many of the occupants seemed a great deal older than the period armchairs, each with an antimacassar, in which they sat. Others were younger, but scored low on glamour. One was filming the empty chair opposite. Then a vision appeared - a blonde beauty clutching an Asprey carrier bag and a much older man. This, surely, was our femme fatale, the bit of glamour they absolutely promised us on the Orient Express. We felt a little dispirited.... until the British Pullman which was to take us as far as Folkestone pulled into the platform, a gorgeous sight, each curtained window framing a white-clothed table, a red-shaded lamp, a vase of freesias. We boarded, and were instantly soothed, cheered by the champagne lunch and the cosy intimacy of our carriage as we chuntered through the dreary suburbs. We were in Ibis, built in 1925, with Greek dancing girls decorating the marquetry panels.
We should pass over the crossing to France. Enough to say that, as yet, there is no Orient-Express-style equivalent to the Channel Tunnel, although the coaches that picked us up at Folkstone and took us through the tunnel were of the luxury variety and charming hostesses were on hand with drinks and nibbles during the 45-minute journey to Calais. And so on to the continental train, the Orient- Express itself. We squeezed along the corridor of our carriage to our little compartment (they are all the same size, with a communicating door for those who wish to take two together).
How exquisite it was, with its banquette seat, its little table, its washbasin with cupboards and shelves tucked behind curved doors, its large window. How kind and helpful our steward, and how lovely to be alone. We made ourselves at home, then later ventured to the piano bar, but finding it stuffed with a gaudy group of champagne-swilling, flash-bulb popping smokers, we hastily retreated. We ordered drinks, and emerged again only for dinner, when the darkening skies, intimate lighting and ravishing dining cars managed to flatter almost everyone. There was our femme fatale, resplendent in evening gown, her creaky husband, like many others, in black tie. After dinner, as the train hurtled through the night, our companions packed into the piano bar. Wobbling and jiggling in their seats, liqueurs bouncing in their hands, they bravely attempted to fraternise and have a party. We sneaked off to bed.
As we reached our swaying carriage, we found our steward stoking a small boiler with coal for the hot water and heating. Everything in the carriage, built in 1927, is original. It is truly a piece of living, working history, which is what makes it so special. In our absence, our compartment had been transformed into a deliciously cosy bedroom. The blinds were drawn, there was a tapestry-covered ladder to the top bunk, the lovely marquetry gleamed in the lamplight. I'd rather be in this private haven, rattling through the night, than anywhere. The strange noises that steal into our sleep, the whooshes and whistles, the clanks and rattles and station tannoys, only serve to heighten the mystery and deepen the sense of security. And where will we be when we wake up?
Switzerland, is the answer. Ridiculously pretty, bright green meadows fringing a towering jumble of glistening white peaks. Breakfast comes with a polite knock: coffee, fruit salad, croissants. We stretch our legs at Buchs, and again at St Anton, where we watch the electric engine being changed. A steel hook is all that connects it to the long line of royal blue carriages that snake behind. The air is refreshingly cold and clean. We wish we were going all the way to Istanbul. We don't want to get off. The couple next door, two of the old dears first glimpsed at Victoria, almost don't. This apparently is their 60th journey since the Orient Express service started again under its present management in 1982. The couple on the other side don’t seem quite so enamoured. She calls home on her mobile: "You don't get much sleep on this thing. It's very noisy and it moves all night long".
We lunch in the Dolomites. We descend from the mountains to the Venetian Plain. Verona, Padua ... we are on the causeway...
We step down from the train and shake hands with our steward. He was the star of the show, gentle, knowledgeable, a master of his craft. We collect our bags and walk out of the station - straight on to the Grand Canal at sunset. At around three times the cost of a business class flight, the Orient-Express is by far the most expensive way of travelling to Venice (although you should bear in mind that the price includes three superb three-course meals and breakfast). But who remembers an anonymous flight? The train journey remains a delicious memory, worth every penny at least once in a lifetime.
Travelling from London to Venice or vice versa on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express takes 31 hours and costs £1,350 per person. The price includes all meals but not drinks. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express operates from March to November. Reservations 0845 077 2222 or www.orient-express.com