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Venice Simplon-Orient-Express: all aboard the most glamorous train journey in the world

A suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express  (Belmond )
A suite on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (Belmond )

In the same way that I’ve never really embraced the notion of guilty pleasures — if you like something then surely you like something, regardless how embarrassing it might be (and I say this as a huge fan of the 2009 film The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds) — so I’ve never really entertained the idea of the gap year or bucket list. The gap year seems to me to be yet another misguided millennial birthright, the idea that higher education was so stressful, and the prospect of full-time employment so daunting that the obvious recourse is to spend 12 months getting drunk in as many foreign places as possible. Mad.

Likewise, the bucket list. There are lots of things I’d still like to do in the world, but I don’t have a secret Word Doc full of places I want to visit, bridges I’d like to bungy jump from (short list), or esoteric or especially fat books I want to read. I also have no interest in running a marathon in Madagascar, doing a triathlon in Tasmania or skydiving in the Seychelles. The bucket list in my eyes has always been a spurious diversion given further oxygen by social media platforms like Pinterest and Instagram. And while I’m a massive fan of Instagram, I don’t see it primarily as a vehicle for showing everyone the paragliding I did in Austria (apart from that one time I went paragliding in Austria).

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express passing through the Brenner Pass, Austria (Belmond)
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express passing through the Brenner Pass, Austria (Belmond)

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, though, that’s always been different, as the idea of taking it has sat quietly at the back of mind for years. I once took the train from Waterloo to the south coast for some launch (no idea how I got back), and the experience was properly spoiling, an old-fashioned idea of what rail travel might have been back in the day when it was a glamorous novelty rather than an unpleasant necessity. So I wanted to do it again.

The classic Venice Simplon-Orient- Express journey is the one from Venice to Paris, which takes 24 hours and is a thing of great wonder. Of course it makes sense to spend a bit of time in Venice beforehand if you can, which is what I did, at a recently and beautifully refurbished hotel called Ca’ di Dio. It’s situated on Riva degli Schiavoni, Venice’s main waterfront, and yet this former pilgrim hostel is the least touristy five star hotel in the city.

Hotel Ca Di Dio in Venice (Venice)
Hotel Ca Di Dio in Venice (Venice)

There is a sexy little bar, two great restaurants and so many well-furnished communal spaces (as well as a lovely secluded courtyard) that you feel an immense sense of freedom. The hotel feels clandestine and personal, and yet is actually quite large. They’ve chosen to decorate it in an almost modernist way, the concierge is full of brilliant off-grid suggestions (I spent a day wandering around the Jewish quarter), and the place feels contemporary while not feeling at all try-hard. I’ve stayed in most of the so-called “best” hotels in Venice, but I certainly recommend you try this one.

When it was time to join the train, I was escorted to the motorboat by members of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express team, who actually looked as excited as I was about the prospect of the journey. Nothing represents a brand more than the people working for it, and the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express team in Venice espoused the experience with such enthusiasm that your own excitement seems perfectly reasonable. And as soon as I boarded the train, I knew why. I was lucky enough to be given one of the few Grand Suites, and I have to say it makes all the difference. If you’re thinking of doing this — and I wholeheartedly suggest you do — then go the extra mile (or so) and go for the upgrade, as you won’t regret it. The double bed is almost the width of the train, while the living room and bathroom never felt less than palatial. This is real Art Deco luxury, where embroidered silk sits alongside Lalique glass, Baccarat crystal and table decorations that immediately transport you back to a time when there were more options on a train than cardboard sticks instead of spoons, plastic sachets of milk and Costa-quality coffee. On the train you are never allowed to forget that you are having an extraordinarily spoiling experience, whether that’s the chilled bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne and imperial caviar that’s waiting for you when you check into your room, or the white-glove breakfast service.

The dining room on board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (Belmond)
The dining room on board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (Belmond)

You are encouraged to enjoy yourself, so I did. Apart from the hours I spent soundly sleeping, there didn’t appear to be a moment when I wasn’t being asked to drink this, taste this, or order yet another course from an unforgiving menu that tempts as much as it excites. Over the course of my journey I ate so much food I thought for one brief, slightly marvellous moment, that I might morph into Monty Python’s Mr Creosote, having asked for one wafer-thin after-dinner mint too many. A friend of mine who has done the trip before said there was a minute when he started to question the appropriateness of sipping perfectly-served Chardonnay at midday in full bib and tucker (you are asked to dress for lunch and dinner, the latter quite formally) as you’re speeding through the Swiss Alps, but like him I soon forgot this after two or three glasses. After the fourth I started working out just how extravagant my pocket square was going to be at dinner (in the end I went the full Hermès).

Last summer, I was doing a job in the south of France, and got put up in a particularly swanky new hotel overlooking Monaco. In the way that seasoned (or, in my case, spoilt) travellers often start to expect more than is being delivered, I spent my time looking for faults — in the design, in the service, the food, the lot. In the end, I couldn’t find any, and I feel the same about the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. It is a perfect experience, an historic time capsule of an experience, and one that completely delivers. There were many on the train celebrating anniversaries and birthdays (big birthdays), and those who just wanted to cross it off their bucket lists. No one I spoke to was disappointed, while most of them thought the delivery was actually better than the expectation. Me, all I want now is a bucket list. Or maybe a gap year.

Guests are asked to dress formally for dinner (Belmond)
Guests are asked to dress formally for dinner (Belmond)

A one-night journey in one of the new suites aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, A Belmond Train, starts from £7,260 per person. This includes pre and post-journey transfers, a personal 24-hour cabin steward, suite with marble en-suite bathrooms, bespoke amenities, and a complimentary kimono and slippers, as well as a four-course dinner with sommelier wines, lunch and breakfast designed by Michelin-starred chef Jean Imbert. To book, visit Belmond.com