Porters wearing white gloves and blue suits with gold braiding whisk our suitcases through Paris’s Gare de L’Est. As the station starts to fill with commuters in winter coats, I follow the luggage in a conga line of black bow ties and sequinned dresses. Soon I’m walking along a red carpet that runs almost the entire length of platform 6.
In the dining car of my train — a vision in navy blue and gold known as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) — a top Paris chef is preparing oysters and chapon de Bresse. In my cabin, where the antique walnut panelling has been buffed to a mirror shine, my ski boots are being stowed on an Art Deco luggage rack as I go in search of a cocktail.
This is not how I’m used to travelling to the Alps. Over the past 30 years my memories of getting to European ski resorts from London mainly involve being wedged, as a kid, into an old Vauxhall for epic drives across France — or grim, pre-dawn dashes to the airport. Luxury was a free chocolate on a Swiss airliner. I have never been asked to wear a bow tie.
On a frosty night before Christmas, almost 140 years after the original Orient Express service to Constantinople first chugged out of the same Paris railway station, I’m trying out a new winter route for one of its successors. Late the next morning, at the end of a special inaugural journey, the VSOE will arrive in Moûtiers, from where it is a short drive up to the celebrated resorts of the Three Valleys ski area.
As well as travelling to the slopes in uncommon style, I’m rolling into a corporate battle for domination in a thriving market for luxury sleeper trains. Next year, two giants of France’s hospitality sector will go head-to-head, trading on the legend of the Orient Express, and zealously guarding variations of a brand with a back-story that is more convoluted than an Agatha Christie mystery.
But before I attempt to unpick this tussle for luxe-rail supremacy, my priority is reaching the “bar car”. I find Victor, the barman, who recommends a 3674, a twist on a fine and dandy named after the carriage we’re standing in, which was built in 1931. Soon, gin ripples spread across my crystal coupe as we roll out of Paris. A pianist strikes up on a baby grand.
In dining car 4095, known as the Voiture Chinoise, waiters in pressed white jackets walk between golden velvet chairs and extravagantly draped windows. A starter of oysters arrives from the kitchens, where Jean Imbert, the hotshot chef at the Plaza Athénée, is manning the stoves.
The dish is a nod to the menu on the inaugural Orient Express journey in 1883, which was hosted by a Belgian entrepreneur called Georges Nagelmackers. He had conceived the idea for the train in America, where George Pullman, a Chicago industrialist, had launched his own “palace cars” in 1867. Nagelmackers beat Pullman to the European market, where his Orient Express was a hit, reaching a peak in the 1930s with new routes and carriages that hummed with Art Deco splendour.
Yet the brand never quite recovered after the second world war. By 1975, travel writer Paul Theroux was unsurprised the train had inspired so many crime writers, “since in most respects the Orient Express really is murder”. After a succession of downgrades, including the disappearance of any dining cars, the last scheduled Orient Express sleeper service with a lineage that could be traced to Nagelmackers’ original ran between Strasbourg and Vienna in 2009.
It would again be left to competing businessmen to revive the splendour of the old trains and sow the seeds for a new rivalry on the rails. In 1976, James Sherwood, an American-born London-based shipping container magnate, bought the Cipriani hotel in Venice and began buying 1920s and 1930s Orient Express carriages. In 1982, he launched a London-Paris-Venice service, with a cross-Channel ferry ride, via the Simplon tunnel through the Alps.
At around the same time, Albert Glatt, a Swiss businessman, launched a rival Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express starting in Zurich. Sherwood’s company, originally called Orient-Express Hotels, was a success, growing to include numerous other hotels and luxury trains. Glatt’s enterprise failed in 2007 and the “Nostalgie” carriages were abandoned in Poland.
Budget aviation almost derailed the sleeper train. But then came the new boom as airlines suffered in the age of climate anxieties and the pandemic. Eurostar tells me that bookings for connecting train journeys between London and the Alps, via Paris, have tripled this season compared with the pre-pandemic winter. Demand is also high for weekly direct winter services from London to Moûtiers using a Eurostar train chartered by the tour operator Travelski (you’ll have to find comfort where you can on the seated overnight journey).
Across Europe meanwhile, sleeper trains of all classes are in vogue again — and the luxury end of the market is hotly contested. In 2014, Sherwood’s enlarged group rebranded itself as Belmond, abandoning the “Orient Express” in the company name, which it had used under licence from the French rail operator SNCF (although retaining the right to use it specifically for its Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train). In 2017, SNCF struck a deal instead with France’s Accor group, which includes hotel chains from the budget Ibis to Fairmont and Raffles, and has wide-ranging plans for the Orient Express brand.
Last month, Accor and Italian partner Arsenale opened reservations for the Orient Express La Dolce Vita: a lavish new 11-carriage train with a 1960s theme that will begin services across Italy next year. The group is also working on Orient Express hotels, with two due to open next year in Venice and Rome and aspirations for eight more by 2030. Meanwhile, Accor’s own historic Orient Express train, made up of Glatt’s now restored “Nostalgie” carriages, is due to start rolling in 2025.
Not to be outdone, Belmond gained major financial backing of its own with a $3.2bn sale to LVMH, the French luxury conglomerate, in 2019, a year before Sherwood’s death aged 86. Belmond’s flagship train now has multiple routes, including its classic Venice service. Early last year, the company recruited Imbert as the train’s chef. This summer, it will unveil two newly restored carriages containing eight new suites with private marble bathrooms. They will create a third category between my “historic cabin”, with its bunks and shared bathrooms, and the train’s larger grand suites, which wouldn’t look out of place in the Savoy.
While it will run to the Alps and back only twice next December, the new route to Moûtiers — which will also include stops at Albertville and Bourg-Saint-Maurice — extends the train’s season (it has previously been out of action between December and February). Crucially, it also gives Belmond something to shout about before Accor’s big launch. Dozens of journalists have been invited to Paris from around the world to join the inaugural journey, where a small army of marketing executives are already at constant pains to distinguish their brand: this is not the “Orient Express”, I’m told repeatedly, but the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, A Belmond Train. (VSOE is also fine, and #VSOE is very much encouraged).
Dinner continues with a festive yule log that the pastry chef parades through the dining car before returning to the kitchen to slice it. After petits fours, I return to the bar to catch up with Pascal Deyrolle, the train’s general manager. Deyrolle, who started out on the VSOE as a cabin steward in 1992, has overseen subtle refurbishments and a move to new levels of luxury since taking charge in 2014. “We never touch the DNA of the train, but the biggest danger would be for it to become a museum,” he says. He insists that the Accor competition will be a complement rather than a threat.
The Frenchman must attempt to pull off a sleight-of-hand, creating a sense of unmatched luxury in 100-year-old carriages that still have shared toilets and are heated by coal-fired boilers. In the case of the new route to the Alps, he must also stretch time itself. After all, Moûtiers is about only five hours from Paris on scheduled day trains. Stringing out a service to include dinner, a night’s sleep, breakfast and an early lunch, while creating a sense of a grand journey, requires a lot of strategic stopping.
By the time I retire for the night, Reni the carriage attendant has turned my cabin into a very comfortable bedroom. My sleeping car, which was used as a brothel in Limoges during the second world war, has never looked better. But is also notably stationary, having come to a halt for the night at Dijon station. Falling asleep and needing blackout blinds to shield my eyes from the fluorescent platform lights doesn’t quite evoke the spirit of being lulled to sleep while rolling through some snow-covered forest. “I don’t mind being stationary for the night, but I think if we stopped at about 1am when most guests have retired and leave again at 6am, that would be nicer,” Deyrolle says.
As well as negotiating access to stations and lines, Deyrolle’s team must also charter local locomotives to pull the VSOE, which has no engine of its own. For the new French route, the carriages have to stop in Albertville before backing out on to the mountain branch line to Bourg-Saint-Maurice, a manoeuvre that limits the train’s length to 12 rather than the full 18 carriages so that they can fit between junctions while the locomotive changes ends.
Shortly before the Albertville reverse, I’m sitting in the other dining car — the Côte d’Azur, which has blue upholstery and original glass wall panels by René Lalique. I look out beyond my coddled egg with caviar, across snow-dusted vineyards, to the Bauges Massif, which rises to the north above the Isère Valley. Later, as the track begins to meander on the approach to Albertville, a quenelle of vanilla ice cream slides off my tarte Tatin the moment it’s served. I stifle a giggle as the waiter attempts an apology.
Before long I reach Moûtiers for the anticlimactic but short drive up to Courchevel, where I could ski for the afternoon if I get my act together. I wait instead until the next day and embark on a solo safari across the Three Valleys. The VSOE will never be the fastest way to get to the Alps, nor indeed the cheapest, but there is an escapist joy in reaching the mountains while being transported back to a golden age of rail travel. Just don’t call it the Orient Express.
Simon Usborne was a guest of Belmond (belmond.com). An overnight trip aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express from Paris to Albertville, Moûtiers or Bourg-Saint-Maurice starts at £3,750 per person, one-way, in a “historic cabin”, at £7,300 in one of the new suites, and at £9,975 in a “grand suite”, including dinner, breakfast and brunch
Four more ski trips by train
Val Thorens, France Cold temperatures and snow are due to return to the Alps this weekend, but the appalling start to the season has made high-altitude resorts seem all the more attractive. The good news is that Europe’s highest, Val Thorens, is now easier to reach by high-speed train direct from Paris and Milan. The longstanding rail route to the resort has been via the station at Moûtiers, a 75-minute bus ride to the north. However a €40mn cable-car connection introduced last winter has created a “backdoor” to the south: Modane station (four hours from Paris, three from Milan) is a 10 minute taxi-ride from the village of Orelle, from where lifts go up and over the Cime Caron into the centre of Val Thorens. Alternatively, Modane is also a gateway to the small but delightful ski villages of the Maurienne Valley, including Val Cenis and Bonneval-sur-Arc. valthorens.com
Winter Park, Colorado Known for its exceptional tree-skiing, Winter Park also boasts something highly unusual for a US ski resort — a dedicated train service. During a winter season that this year starts on January 13, an Amtrak train, the Winter Park Express, runs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from Denver’s Union station direct to the base of the slopes. The journey takes two hours and the train includes a double-decker “sightseer lounge”, with extra-large windows upstairs and a café downstairs. winterparkresort.com
Les Arcs, France Train journeys to ski resorts often necessitate a niggling final transfer by taxi or bus. Not so at Les Arcs 1600, which is reachable on two rails all the way from London. At Bourg-Saint-Maurice (served by direct trains from Paris), visitors cross a footbridge to board a funicular that climbs more than 800 vertical metres to the resort. lesarcs.com
Kitzbühel, Austria Arguably the world’s most celebrated downhill ski run, the Streif in Kitzbühel, has a station right at the bottom. Get off the train at the town’s Hahnenkamm station (less than two and a half hours from Munich, with a change at Wörgl) and you are a few paces from the gondola that takes you up the mountain. Kitzbühel is also part of Austria’s “Im Nightjet zum Schnee” programme, which offers packages including sleeper train tickets from as far away as Amsterdam and Hamburg, lift passes and hotel transfers. Alternatively, Dutch skiers can take the Tui Ski Express, which launched this winter and leaves every Friday evening from Amsterdam and Utrecht, arriving in Kitzbühel before 9am on Saturday (then continuing to other resorts including Zell am See and St Anton). kitzbuehel.com
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