Travel

In 2024, It’s a Race to Own Luxury Train Travel

Two luxury travel companies are competing for the revival of the historic Orient Express.

Photo courtesy of Belmond
Photo courtesy of Belmond
Photo courtesy of Belmond

Luxury trains are riding the express line in 2024. As travelers ditch airplanes, embrace slow travel, and adopt “main character” mindsets, the idea of an old-fashioned, cinematic railway journey has never felt so appealing. And there’s no train so glamorous as the storied Orient Express. While the LVMH-owned Belmond has been conducting trips on the original train’s Art Deco carriages since 1982, the French hospitality group Accor will be throwing a hat into the ring with its own revival, set to unveil in 2024, just in time for the Paris Olympic Games.

Originally designed by Belgian businessman Georges Nagelmackers in 1882, the Orient Express, Europe’s first transcontinental express train, ran for more than 80 years with the romantic mission of uniting the East and West. With its mahogany bars, velvet-draped drawing rooms, and five-star dining, the Orient Express attracted famous passengers like Lawrence of Arabia, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, actress Marlene Dietrich, and Leo Tolstoy. Writers like Graham Greene and Agatha Christie immortalized the voyage through literature, and the train has since been featured in various film adaptations of James Bond and Murder on the Orient Express.

In 1982, an American shipping executive named James Sherwood revived the train, which had been defunct since 1977. He spent more than $30 million tracking down the original carriages scattered throughout Europe to create the “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express,” now owned by Belmond (historically, France’s national rail service, the SNCF, owned the Orient Express and eventually allowed Belmond to use the four-part moniker “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express”).

Since 1982, the train has been zipping more than half a million affluent passengers through London, Paris, Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, offering glitzy perks like free-flowing champagne and 24-hour cabin stewards.

Photo courtesy of Belmond
Photo courtesy of Belmond
Photo courtesy of Belmond

The train features 18 original 1920s and ‘30s carriages. “Almost 100 years ago the best designers of the time-including Prou and Lalique-were summoned to decorate the carriages that today form our train,” says Gary Franklin, vice president of trains and cruises at Belmond. “References to these designers and their Art Deco style can be found in the new suites that debuted in 2023, which have been designed by artisans that are proud custodians of these century-old crafts.” A cabin on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express starts at about $22,000 per passenger.

But another golden age revival is on the horizon, one that has claimed ownership of the “Orient Express” name by purchasing it outright. Around the same time Sherwood was sniffing around for old train cars, Swiss tour operator Albert Glatt was purchasing his own, in what would later become the Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express, running from Zurich to Istanbul. It’s the same train Michael Jackson boarded in 1992 for his “Dangerous” tour. Despite the train’s success, it suspended its service a few years later and disappeared.

In 2015, industrial researcher Arthur Mettetal conducted a worldwide inventory of Orient Express cars for the SNCF and came across a YouTube video of a familiar train in motion, posted by an anonymous user. Using Google Maps, he tracked down the vestiges in Warsaw, Poland: It was indeed the Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express. Accor acquired the train in 2018, enlisting architect Maxime D’Angeac, who has worked on design projects with luxury houses like Daume and Hermès.

Like Belmond, Accor will honor the Art Deco style of the original Orient Express, boasting features like plush green booths, mirrored ceilings, and panels featuring the famed glasswork of Suzanne Lalique. Mirroring Belmond’s impressive portfolio of hotels, trains, and cruises, Belmond is launching a few luxury properties under the Orient Express banner in 2024-La Minerva in Rome and the Orient Express Palazzo Donà Giovannelli in Venice.While Accor’s Orient Express won’t hit the rails until 2025, the first cars will be on display just in time for the Paris Olympics. And to tease things out even further, the company is launching La Dolce Vita later this year, a set of six trains embracing 1960s Italian design. The concept will offer one to two-night itineraries across 14 different regions in Italy, as well as three international destinations including Paris, Istanbul, and Split.

“Following a resurgence in the allure of luxury rail travel, often in a more eco-conscious way, we are seeing more and more companies looking to launch into this sector and see this as further evidence that demand is strong,” says Franklin.

Perhaps in an effort to compete, Belmond has recently upped their offerings. “We took mountain enthusiasts and skiers from Paris to the French Alps for the first time this past December,” Franklin says. “The train traveled from Paris through some of France’s most untouched countryside and up to the Alpine train stations of Albertville, Moûtiers, and Bourg-Saint-Maurice, where guests could choose to disembark.”

The company is also boasting a brand new journey from Paris to Portofino, launching in June, as well as a second rotation of the historic five-night journey between Paris and Istanbul, which is typically offered once annually. Franklin notes that Americans in particular are taking an interest in Belmond’s international offerings. “The US market is growing remarkably, from representing 16% of total business on the books in 2023 to 20% in 2024 already,” he says. “None of our guests book our train by chance.”

Photo courtesy of Belmond
Photo courtesy of Belmond
Photo courtesy of Belmond

Luxury trains are also flourishing beyond the famous Paris to Istanbul route. Switzerland’s famous Gornegat Railway recently unveiled an exclusive “NostalChic” experience, where passengers can enjoy a four-course gourmet meal as they ascend Matterhorn mountain. Railbookers is capturing the very best of luxury train travel with a four-continent, 13-country “Around the World by Luxury Train” journey, departing this August. This year, Belmond is also reviving the Eastern & Oriental Express, a train that once traveled across Malaysia, from its five year hiatus. Rocky Mountaineer continues to lead the charge in North America, offering panoramic views of Canada and the American West from glass-domed coaches.

And such luxury locomotives will continue to prosper well after 2024. The UAE’s railway operator Etihad Rail and Italian hospitality company Arsenale (the same company that worked on Accor’s Orient Express) have announced a collaboration to build a high-end, cross-country train that will ride from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi’s Liwa desert.

“We are past the era of fast, frequent travel and guilt-free consumption,” Franklin says. “The concept of luxury travel has evolved to coincide with purposeful, sustainable and immersive experiences.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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