Our Venice Simplon Orient Express Review
A trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train has been on our bucket list for years, and imagine our excitement when we found we could combine a cruise on the Cunard Queen Victoria from Southampton to Venice. With our friends Pam and Graham, we booked the trip and started counting the days until departure. As both couples love cruising with Cunard, this was a double win. Our review of the Cunard’s Queen Victoria gives a good insight into this beautiful ship. Venice was as moving as ever, with the historic sites all around us. Simply stunning. But this article is our Venice Simplon-Orient-Express review.
Ship to Orient Express Train Challenge
At the time of writing most cruise ships docked at the Stazione Marittima west of the city in the Venetian Lagoon (Italian: Laguna di Venezia). The cruise terminal is some way from the railway station ‘Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia’, from where the Orient Express departs. Being cautious, we checked it out the day before departure as we had an overnight in Venice at the end of our cruise.
We didn’t realise that there is no easy way to get from the Cruise terminal to the train station with our luggage ready for boarding. Our post looking at the challenge of getting from the cruise terminal to the train station is worth a read.
Luckily we had booked a ship to station transfer through Holiday Taxis to pick us up at 9 am. Taxi firm had it down to pick up at 11 am, so quick phone calls were made and eventually a minibus arrived to take us to the station. Now, this taxi driver was a smart cookie. He knew a short cut across some railway lines and into the back of the station. He organised a trailer to bring our luggage right up to the train: brilliant service and much-relived passengers. Big Tip for him!
On our journey, we were travelling from Venice to London, departing at 11 am from the Santa Lucia station and arriving at the following day at around 6 pm in London’s Victoria station. A day and a half of 1920s luxury, being pampered with lots of fine dining, impeccable service plus incredible scenery as we travelled through Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France and the United Kingdom.
Once at the station, we made our way to platform 4, magically transformed from a regular platform the previous day into a dedicated Orient Express check-in. Interestingly there was no signage, and we had to ask several people for directions, so we just followed all the well-dressed people who seemed to know where to go.
The check-in process was straightforward and at this point, all the luggage we had for our 2-week cruise was checked in and taken away and travelled in the baggage carriage. The next time you see this is when you arrive at your destination, in our case London. You are only allowed a single carry-on bag (and a garment bag) per passenger which gets delivered to your cabin. There is a good reason for this as space onboard is minimal.
Extremely polite VSOE staff dealt with the check-in procedure, and then we were escorted to a coffee shop where a spacious area had been set aside for VSOE Guests while we waited for the train’s arrival. Coffee and nibbles were complimentary; water was not—1.50 Euro for still water.
After suitably refreshing cappuccinos, we made our way back to the platform, where the numerous carriages of OE had arrived, all shiny, polished and gleaming. Staff were lined up along the track and available in their smart uniforms for photographs.
At this point, you could feel the excitement as everyone savoured the moment they boarded the Orient Express for the experience of a lifetime.
The Orient Express Train
The train was beautiful, gleaming in its blue and gold livery and the well-dressed staff were there to greet us in their pristine blue uniforms The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train amazingly long for such a small number of passengers. Unlike the suburban trains in the UK where everyone is packed in like sardines, this felt very spacious. The walk along the platform was so enjoyable; it felt like we were making history. No people were queuing, no rushing, and a lot of cameras in action. And so many smiles, it was infectious.
After being escorted the length of the platform, we arrived at our cabin E3 which, on first glance, was extremely small.
The train was not full just 121 passengers, with a capacity of 150. Apparently, this is normal on the run from Venice to London as we have heard that the reverse route, London to Venice, is always sold out. We believe new brakes had been fitted on the train recently as there has been a smell of carbon of the brake pads each time it slowed.
The temperature on the train is hot, and it is a tribute to the staff onboard working that they have to work in such hot conditions in their heavy uniforms.
Our Carriage Steward Carlos gave us a short introduction to himself and said he would pop back later.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train has three types of cabins – singles, doubles, and suite cabins. 90% of the cabins are double cabins. Each carriage has a single cabin and a suite cabin, which is two interconnecting rooms.
Our double cabin was configured as a lounge with a banquette sofa, footstool, small table with a washbasin cabinet with hot and cold water. At night time it converted into a cosy bedroom with an upper and lower (bunk) bed.
Champagne and nibbles were waiting for us in our cabin, and we felt it would be rude not to indulge. Suitable chilled and refreshed, it was time to explore our cabin.
In each cabin, there is a basin and a vanity unit with an unusual storage arrangement. We knew there were no showers and felt this was half the fun. With lots of anti-bac products, we were well prepared, but there were plenty of toiletries around the cabin.
Tucked away behind glossy oak veneered doors were a sink, mirrors and a storage area for toiletries. There was a padded upholstered sofa, the width of the cabin, which at night transforms into bunk beds – that should be fun! A pull-out table and stool and overhead racking completed the furnishing of the area which was to be our home over the next couple of days.
Carlos came back to give us the full lowdown and explain the intricacies the cabin and how everything worked. We also had a visit from the Maitre d’Hotel who came to detail how the restaurant system worked. We had the choice of two seatings for lunch and dinner.
Before long, it was time for lunch – we chose the 11:45 first sitting, and we were starving! With the train fare, ‘Table d’Hote’ is included meaning that there is a set menu for each meal. To order off-piste, you pay extra, as you will do for any drinks and other extras. The team were extra careful with any allergies or dietary restrictions, but you need to do this at the time of booking.
After about an hour after leaving Venice, we made a stop in Verona to pick up passengers who had stayed at nearby Lake Garda and Bowen. During the journey, there are quite a few technical stops – convenient for smokers, as you cannot smoke on the train. This allows everyone to stretch their legs and get a breath of fresh air. Some stops were quite short, but others were typically 20-30 minutes or so.
Out lunch consisted of a three-course meal, all of which was nouvelle-cuisine portions. The first course was a salad of chicken, oysters, asparagus, bacon and lettuce. Main was John Dory fish and dessert Berries with fruit pannacotta. The wine we chose was a 2009 Chianti Classico, and yes it did have the Rooster on the label!
The Restaurant Carridges
There are three restaurant carriages on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, all with an individual feel and décor.
Dining Car 4095 L’Oriental
Built by the Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company in 1927 was commissioned as a Pullman Kitchen Car. It has an Oriental theme with Chinese style black lacquer wall panels.
Dining Car 4110 Etoile du Nord
It was built by the Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company in 1926 to serve on the Etoile du Nord Pullman Train and features impressive marquetry.
Dining Car 4141 Côte d’Azur
Built-in 1929, this was originally a 1st Class Pullman Car used on the Cote d’Azur Pullman Express. The carriage showcases Lalique glass panels.
For the journey, you are assigned a table in one of the restaurant cars, but during the trip, you will get to try all of them
Still so hot, so we changed into the cotton dressing gowns and had a quick snooze before afternoon tea, which consisted of two tea bags, a small pot of hot water, barely enough for two cups, milk, napkin and an Austrian style pear Helene pastry each. No top-up of hot water, but it was all very beautifully presented.
We stopped briefly at Brenner station over the border in Austria. The heat is subsiding a little now that we have reached the Alps.
Another stop at Innsbruck for 30 minutes, this time to swap engines and stretch our legs. It is still hot!!! What? Well, the engine changing was quite interesting. For the record, there is only one Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train, which travels on different itineraries around Europe. The train is pulled by an engine of the national rail company of the country you are transiting. So, each time you cross a border into a new country, you need to get a fresh new engine to pull the train. The process was quite quick and entertaining to witness.
Le BAR Car ‘3674’
We had heard many many stories about the legendary bar carriage so could not wait to experience this.
This is located the heart of the train and known as Bar Car ‘3674’. A great place to relax and do some serious people-watching. A great place for aperitifs and nightcaps before or after dinner. There is a real buzz about this place with happy guests chatting plus the gentle music of the resident pianist on the baby grand.
We had a pre-dinner Gin & Tonic, Hendricks and Fever-Tree Tonic of course. Good selection on board, considering the lack of space.
Passengers were mostly in their 40s and 50s, with a surprising number of 30 years olds celebrating something or other.
By now, we were looking forward to dinner. All meals we had were authentic fine dining, and we still don’t know how they manage to prepare such stunning dishes on a moving train.
Dinner is Served
READY for dinner at 6.45 pm.
It was so hot in the carriages as we dressed up in our finery, the men in Tuxedos DJ’s, so cruel for them not to be able to take their jackets off.
We started with Red Mullet and Seas bass fillets with slow-baked fennel and black olive tapenade with sesame oil, followed by Herb Crusted rack of lamb. For dessert, we tried the Chocolate Gateau with Vanilla Bourbon Custard. Again we sampled the Chianti Classico.
After dinner, we needed a walk, which we could do courtesy of another train stop. A short relaxation in the Champagne Bar before bed. Although late, it was still uncomfortably hot, with thunderstorms and heavy rain threatened.
A Great Night In
We had a great evening and enjoyed the whole, once-in-a-lifetime experience but now was the time for bed, so we went back to our cabin to find it transformed into a bedroom with bunk beds and a ladder.
So we decided Mike up the ladder on the top bunk and Anita on the bottom bunk. No air in the cabin, so we have to open the window, but it is now raining, so do we get wet or suffocate????
With the train travelling at speed, the rain poured in the window to soak the poor soul on the top bunk. There is no air conditioning on board, and this was a big problem for us with the heat. We did have a small fan in the cabin, but it didn’t help. Eventually, the rain stopped, and everything was fine.
As there is no loo in your cabin, you must use the communal facilities at the end of each carriage. During the day, no problem, but in the middle of the night with the train rocking and rolling, it is a challenge. First, you need to negotiate the bunk bed ladders and then creep along the carriage in your nightwear and hope the facilities are vacant! We know how to live!
We didn’t sleep too well, what with all the excitement of the whole experience plus the heat. Early morning and we were up before the train arrived in Paris where some passengers were to leave the train.
Once up we Carlos know that we were ‘ready for breakfast’ which meant a trip down the carriage for a ‘strip wash’ and use the facilities. When we got back, the cabin was transformed once again into a comfortable sitting area, and a delicious continental breakfast was waiting for us.
Soon Gard du Nord, Paris station loomed, and we were allowed out to walk up and down the station platform. For some, it was the end of their destination, but we are going through to Calais to pick up transport to take us through euro tunnel and our final stage of getting aboard the British Pullman to Victoria.
Vast quantities of provisions were loaded for the kitchens to prepare our brunch at 11.45 am and future journeys.
We were on the first seating for brunch at 11:45, which would be our last meal on the VSOI as shortly afterwards we would be arriving in Calais and switch trains. More on that later. But before, it was time for one last meal. One last perfect meal. Brunch!
Bring On The Brunch
Not that we were starving, but we started with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, followed by a broiled lobster. For our dessert, we had La Tarte Tatin and decided that champagne was the only drink to say a proper goodbye to the Venice Simplon Orient Express. Good choice.
There was a tinge of sadness as we were to arrive in Calais shortly. Collection of luggage from the cabin now took place as this would be making a separate journey to London, Victoria.
Time to Say Goodbye
A convoy of Luxury Kings Coaches was at Calais station to meet us and take us through customs and onto the Euroshuttle to Dover. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train does not cross the channel into the UK. The journey took about half an hour, and before we knew it we were back in the UK.
Joining the Belmond British Pullman
As we arrived in the UK, our drop off was at Folkestone West station, where we waited for the sister of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. The Belmond British Pullman would be our fabulous ride to London. We waited in a little station lounge for the train to arrive, and we had the loveliest welcome from a local jazz band.
Our journey to London took under two hours, and it went so quickly, over in a flash, but we savoured every moment. We were welcomed with a glass of sparkling British Rose and treated to our final meal of our two-day experience – a delicious afternoon tea.
The End of Our Orient Express Adventure
Before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye. We all loved our time onboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and its sister train in the UK, the Belmond British Pullman. This trip was on our to-do list, and we are pleased to have ticked this one off the list. The train is an icon of luxury, the staff simply brilliant, the food was exceptional, and this is one adventure we will always remember fondly.