Without doubt this was one of those trips that really did take my breath away. All members of the team at Haslemere Travel are exceptionally fortunate to sample the beautiful destinations that we send our clients to on a couple of occasions each year. It is important that we can make personal recommendations to our clients and ensure that we meet each individuals specific needs and what better way than to try for ourselves.
Haslemere Travel is a privileged members of the Belmond (formerly Orient Express) ‘Bellini Club’ for many years. One of only 21 agents in the UK and 200 in the world. Our status ensures that Haslemere Travels clients are always given the top VIP treatments when staying at any of their properties, trains or boats. In March 2014 Orient Express under went a rebrand to the name Belmond – a collection of iconic hotels, trains and river cruises. I was interested to see how the brand change had affected three of their most prestigious properties and was therefore very excited to accompany a group of luxury agents and Kirker Holidays to Florence and Venice. Flying into Pisa with BA made perfect sense, as there is a great selection of flights and times to choose from. An easy hours drive to the center of Florence and we were sat in the sun enjoying some traditional Italian fare and watching the passers by.
The afternoon was spent exploring the city with the most amazing guide, Francesca, who treated us to the Renaissance wonders at the Uffizi gallery. A guide is an absolute must, especially if you stay is only short. In only a few hours we had seen the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Titian, but my favorites would have to be Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and The Holy Family by Michelangelo.
Following an afternoon in the bustling center of Florence, it was a welcome delight to work our way up into the hills overlooking the city and arrive at the highly anticipated Belmond Villa San Michele. Dating from the 15th century, the Villa’s facade is attributed to Michelangelo; you can probably tell that he is fast becoming my favorite.
The traditional villa is majestic atop of the hillside and the Italian terraced gardens are dotted with sweet smelling lemon trees and fragrant roses – the perfect place for a glass of Prosecco in the sun. Meals are taken on the terrace overlooking the city, if the weather allows, however the rooms within the villa are decadently furnished and would be perfect for those chillier nights. With a pool, fitness center and massage gazebo, the melee of tourist jostling to take the perfect ‘selfie’ in the center of the city seemed like a million miles away. A children’s club is available from May to September and rooms can be kitted out with all the necessary child friendly amenities. It was a sad event to leave this gorgeous property, but more wonders awaited us in Venice.
The private high-speed train from Florence to Venice took only 2 hours. At times we reached over 300km per hour! Stepping out of the Stazione St Lucia, the site that met we was everything I had imagined Venice to be. The ten-minute water taxi ride took us along the Grand Canal and was the perfect position to sample Venice at its best. A variety of gondola’s moored patiently outside the impressive facades of the many hotels and museums that Venice has to offer, with direct water access being a primary feature. We moored for lunch at the Londra Palace, situated just a few steps from St Marks Square and overlooking St Marks Basin. The promenade in front of the hotel is rare in Venice but as we sat on the terrace of the Do Leoni restaurant the view was not lost upon us.
The afternoon was spent with an expert guide on a whistle stop tour of the Doges Palace. Of particular interest was the world famous Bridge of Sighs, linking the Doges Palace with the prisons, which once held captive Giacomo Casanova. The Bridge of Sighs was supposed to refer to the sighs of prisoners who, passing from the courtroom to the cell in which they would serve their sentence, took a last look at freedom as they glimpsed the lagoon and San Giorgio through the small windows. As afternoon turned to dusk, it was time for us to leave behind our espresso cups and gelato in St Marks Square and board the exclusive motor launch that takes guests to one of the worlds most iconic hotels, Belmond Cipriani. There are few people who do not know of the wonders of this world famous hotel, so my expectations were high! Five minutes by boat and you arrive at the island of Giudecca.
The Belmond Cipriani exudes classic Venetian style and has all the amenities you would expect from a world-class hotel. Dining in the wonderfully glamorous, yet informal Cips Club that evening was exceptional, with its views overlooking St Marks square, the icing on the cake. As with any top hotel, it is not only the fixtures and fittings that make it a special place, but the team behind the scenes and front of house that truly add the ‘je ne sais pas’ to a wondrous stay. Its no wonder that Cipriani regular, George Clooney, chose to return here as part of his wedding celebrations. After a fabulous night sleep and a delicious breakfast overlooking the lagoon, it was time to move on, but more excitement awaited us as we arrived at the Santa Lucia station. There really isn’t a more beautiful train than the Venice Simplon Orient Express. Having never been a huge train enthusiast, I was intrigued to discover exactly how this could possibly be the most luxurious way to travel between Venice and London. From the moment of embarking the train in Venice a steward is on hand (ours was David), dedicated only to the passengers in his carriage, for every minute of your journey. I know this as I accidently pressed the emergency button in the middle of the night whilst trying to find the light switch and a minute later a VSOE pajama clad David was at my door (I felt very foolish and full of apologies). We were scheduled to dine in the second seating for both lunch and dinner, so enjoyed plenty of ‘fizz’ after the train departed at 11am, followed by a quick explore of the carriages. The marquetry was beyond beautiful and with three dining cars (one for each meal – lunch, dinner and brunch), each of a different style, my favourite was adorned with Lalique glass, where we enjoyed a sumptuous dinner.
The sheer pleasure of the VSOE is its timeless elegance and the opportunity to do absolutely nothing. Beyond a stroll through the carriages, possibly chatting with other passengers and listening to their travel tales, there is nowhere else to go. We did stop momentarily in Innsbruck to change drivers and stretch our legs. A good companion or book is the perfect accompaniment to the stunning views (mainly Austria) and of course the amazing food and wine that seem to flow freely during the journey. Apart from a brief interlude to change for dinner and of course overnight, it does feel like you are enjoying gourmet cuisine non-stop.
With no en-suite facilities I was puzzled as to how I would dress for a black-tie dinner, but the facilities in the cabin were just adequate to glam oneself up. Cocktails before dinner with a pianist playing on a baby grand piano, followed by an exquisite dinner prepared in a kitchen no larger than a large broom cupboard, once again the VSOE failed to disappoint. On returning to my cabin, David had re adjusted the interior to set up a very comfy bed with full turn down amenities. I slept like a log and woke up in Paris the following morning, where a light continental breakfast was served in my cabin.
Some guests do depart or embark in Paris, but our journey was to take us on to Calais, where we would leave the beautiful VSOE, cross the Channel and meet the Orient Express British Pullman in Folkestone and enjoy the final leg our journey to London Victoria, whilst enjoying afternoon tea and British sparkling fizz.
This is a trip that everyone must do at some point in their life! I had imagined that all those aboard the VSOE were of retirement age and above, but I chatted to a few young couples who were on honeymoon and a two best friends who were enjoying this as a joint 40th birthday treat.
It really was the most magical experience and one that I will never forget. Needless to say I’m quite taken by train travel now…as long as it’s the Orient Express way.
For further information on this experience or any other travel adventure please call us on 01428 658777.