Travel

Whisky in Paradise

Our man boards the legendary train
By Jim Leggett
Inside the bar car
Inside the bar car
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VS-O-E to those in the know) is the most storied set of carriages in the world. It promises to take you not just across Europe, but to transport you back in time. With its polished wood, sumptuous upholstery and antique fixtures, the train epitomises the glamour and elegance of the Golden Age of travel.

 A photograph of H.R.H Princess Michael of Kent aboard the Orient-Express with owner James Sherwood reminded me of a meeting with H.R.H, and a memorable Prague-to-Paris luxury VS-O-E whisky tasting adventure. We dined with H.R.H at Charlotte County Club in N.C. years ago, but that’s another story.

Following a delightful weekend in Prague, City of a Hundred Spires and meandering zigzagged medieval streets, sampling the once-banned bevvy in one of the many new absinthe bars, we’re relaxing on the banks of the River Vltava.

I’m humming Smetana’s Die Moldau atop the iconic cobblestoned Charles Bridge, and my wife Eileen breaks the spell: ”Time to head for the main railway station!” That's where a very special train awaits us.

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, saved from oblivion (after its last run in 1977) by U.S. businessman and train enthusiast James B. Sherwood, stands there in all its refurbished glory.

We’re headed for Paris aboard this train of kings; about to experience rail travel at its luxurious best. Splendidly uniformed staff wait at each polished-brass rail entrance; tickets are checked, then we are personally escorted down elaborately wood-panelled corridors to the sleeping car suite.

For overnight excursions VS-O-E Continental trains boast three restaurant cars, opulent Piano Bar car (with resident pianist) and two
staff baggage cars. There are 17 carriages in total, each almost as they were in those near-vanished glory days of train travel. Each car, lovingly restored, features detailed marquetry panels, crystal glass, upholstered armchairs, fresh flowers, impeccably polished brass insignias, Art Deco lamps and assorted touches of elegance.

“Oui monsieur, and here we are,” smiled our steward, turning a cabin door handle and revealing a cocoon of luxury, all ours for the duration of the journey. We half expected Hercule Poirot or Agatha Christie to pop by any minute! ‘Attire’, reads an introductory pamphlet; ‘Tasteful, casual-but-elegant attire is always a mark of distinction aboard such a sophisticated train. In the evening, jacket and ties for men, and semi formal or formal dresses for women are expected.’

Jeans and T-shirts? Heavens, no! Not owning a tux, I’d rented one from a wedding supply shop, cummerbund, bow tie, the lot. In the meantime, my Christian Dior black blazer, matching trousers and shoes would suffice; I left Eileen to change, and raced off in search of the sumptuous Bar Car, handily just four carriages to the front. While superb French wines and exotic signature cocktails begged attention, I was in the mood for single malt. The rest could wait for dinner with Eileen.

I ordered a Glenmorangie 10 Years Old, a long-time favourite. We’d shared one at a New Year’s dance in Palm Beach, Florida, years back, where we first met, and waltzed barefoot down a sandy beach in the moonlight to Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre – ‘our’ song ever since. As the train pulled out, Eileen was dressing in our suite. I was hungry. Menu in hand, Caviar Beluga beckoned but I settled instead for Saumon fume d’Ecosse et sa Brunoise (Smoked Scottish Salmon with diced avocado), which was superb and accompanied by a decent whisky too.

Assorted passengers trickle into the Bar Car, nodding hello and as eager as I to break the ice. Conversation soon flows once the toasting glass is hoisted, 'cheers' or equivalents in French, German, Spanish, Hungarian and New York-tinged American soon follow.

Moments later, Eileen arrived when, making to sit down next to me (just as the waiter arrived seeking madam’s drinks order), her ring caught her silver knit dress. Trying discreetly to smooth the offending snag, the hell-bent mischievous ring took aim, now at her black pantyhose, tearing a very visible seam from thigh to knee!  “Blimey, I need a whisky!” she gasped in un-whispered exasperation, much to the bemused and sympathetic smiles of fellow train buffs. Talk about breaking the ice!

As conversation flowed, we were strangers no longer and invitations to join this or that couple for dinner flowed like wine. We settled instead for a celebratory Louis Roederer Cristal 2007 and, as things turned out, an extremely happy pre-dining hour with new-found Bar Car friends.
 ‘Take your seat for the culinary adventure of a lifetime as you journey across Europe in style. Unique dining experiences abound. Local, seasonal produce stars as we take fresh ingredients on board at stops along the route. Glance through the window and you may spot executive chef Christian Bodiguel and his skilled team inspecting lobsters from Brittany or salt marsh lamb from Mont St Michel.

 Speaking of train buffs, when James Sherwood’s bid at the Monte Carlo auction sale of O-E rolling stock won the day, most of the legendary carriages suffered from post-WWII neglect, that and the downturn in rail travel as jet planes siphoned off more and more travellers. The year 1883 saw the birth of the fabulous Orient-Express which at one time ran from Paris to Istanbul. By 1978 the circus had left town.

“When I first went to Steamtown in 1978 I knew absolutely nothing about trains of the Orient-Express,” writes author Shirley Sherwood in Venice- Simplon Orient-Express the World’s Most Celebrated Train. As I clambered in and out of derelict Pullmans with smashed windows and filthy marquetry I was secretly amazed that my husband felt something could be rescued from the mess.”

By 1982, James Sherwood’s ambition and dream came to fruition with the launch of his celebrated Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
One derelict car made by the legendary Wagons-Lits Company was discovered being used as a potting shed in an English garden. Another had served as a brothel for Nazi troops.

 Following years of meticulous restoration, one by one the carriages were transformed back into the elegant French-polished treasures they were in days gone by. No detail was forgotten and every carriage has a name as well; Ione was built in 1928, Vera in 1932, Phoenix in 1952.
Sleeping car 3544 boasts an extra large lavatory; it was used in Limoges during the war and was in the Dutch Royal train from 1946 to 1948. Others in camouflage trim were used by the German Army, while others served with the US Army Transportation Corps. One such carriage was 3539 and period photographs show her in the wartime special livery of the Corps. A rich history is alive and well here.

WHISKIES GALORE
We were bound to sample from the Bar Car’s extensive whisky cabinet, after dinner drinks were served to the relaxing accompaniment of piano delights; Tennessee’s Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel caught my eye.
Eileen opted for Johnnie Walker King George V with a splash of spring water on the side.
Yes, we did request Mull of Kintyre – a fitting epilogue to our whiskies in luxury grand excursion.

SEASONAL SENSATIONS
Be enticed by the flavours of Europe aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Set menus that celebrate exceptional artisanal cuisine are an inclusive part of your trip. Drinks and à la carte options are also available at an additional charge. Don’t forget to inform us of dietary requirements in advance for a culinary journey that’s tailored to you. — Taken from the VS-O-E brochure.
Watch the world go by
Watch the world go by