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The bar car gets lively on the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express.Handout

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Do you have tickets for the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express? Or did you book the future Orient Express? Or maybe you’re on Orient Express La Dolce Vita?

Confused? You wouldn’t be the first traveller to wonder why there’s more than one luxury train with the historic name. Heavy with symbolism and heady with Agatha Christie mystique, the legend of the Orient Express is a powerful marketing tool. And now two companies are capitalizing on it.

The Orient Express passenger train first left Paris Oct. 4, 1883, and needed a couple of steamships to get travellers all the way to Constantinople (now Istanbul). When the line was completed in 1889, daily rail service began with luxury sleeping and dining cars, making travel more elegant and easier than it had ever been. Over time, wars and border disputes disrupted the regularly scheduled service but it ran almost continually until May, 1977, when direct service from Paris to Istanbul ended. Most travellers would rather fly. (Government-run railways ran shorter routes and less fancy rail cars under the Orient Express name until 2009, but it was not the same trip.)

In 1982, U.S. entrepreneur James Sherwood (of Cipriani hotel fame) launched the private, opulent rail service – the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express – on restored rail cars. This train, now run by Belmond, a luxury hospitality operator, is the one most people think of when dreaming about the grand era of rail travel.

A long-standing copyright agreement with SNCF Group (the French rail company that historically owned the Orient Express name) allowed Belmond to call its service the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express (as long as all four names are used). That agreement has recently been extended, and in the summer of 2022 hospitality conglomerate AccorHotels bought the Orient Express name outright. Accor is readying its own Orient Express luxury rail service in central Europe and Italy – not to mention a bunch of new high-end hotels and a yacht in years to come under the OE brand.

(Ironically, nine years ago Belmond Ltd. used to be called Orient-Express Hotels Ltd., and ran its hotels, trains and cruises under that name before a new agreement was struck with SNCF. But that’s another corporate story.)

A historian discovered forgotten rail cars from the old Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express at the border of Poland and Belarus.Handout

Once Accor had the OE brand in hand, ordinary sleeper cars wouldn’t do. It needed the right rolling stock to match the legendary name. A historian was sent in search of carriages that hadn’t been seen in decades – not since yet another version of the Orient Express, the Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express, operated by a Swiss rail enthusiast between Zurich and Istanbul – stopped running in the late 1990s. Using Google maps, the historian discovered 17 cars at the border of Poland and Belarus, which are currently being restored.

With La Dolce Vita launching next year, and Accor’s Orient Express in 2025, is there room on the rails for three sumptuous Orient Express trains? Apparently so.

Increasing demand meant Belmond added more trips late last year and will launch a VSOE ski train to the French Alps for the 2023/24 season.

“Rail travel really allows people to slow down and relax,” Gary Franklin, Belmond’s vice-president of trains and cruises, said. “You have time to read, you have time for conversation, you have time to enjoy amazing meals with new scenery outside the window every moment.”

Trains also play a big part in the move toward more sustainable travel. Though, as Guillaume de Saint Lager, Accor’s vice-president, Orient Express, points out, it’s how luxury rail travel combines environmental sensitivity with pampering that makes it so popular. “It’s an incredible experience once you step on board the train, which is unusual for a lot of people today,” he said. “The market is big enough to have different offers. At the end of the day, the choice will be made by which date you want to travel and to which destination.”

So, which one do you book? All are bucket-list trips that cost a bundle but offer a seductive blend of history and glamour. Here’s a quick look at what to expect.


A grand suite on board Belmond's Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express.Handout

Began service in 1982.

Routes: The legendary Paris-Istanbul or Istanbul-Paris journey (five nights) runs once a year, from $31,000 a person/double occupancy; also, multiple one-night trips throughout Europe from London and Paris to Venice, Vienna, Budapest, Florence and more, from $5,300 a person/double occupancy.

Historical cabin on board the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express, set up for nighttime.Handout

Inside: Restored Pullman carriages from the 1920s are resplendent in art-deco decor; three formal dining cars feature Lalique glass panels and floral marquetry; sleeping cars let you snooze in another era of sophistication: grand suites have marble ensuites and free-flowing Champagne service, newly added slightly smaller suites have private bathrooms, while historic compartments offer banquette beds and shared bathroom facilities; Bar Car 3674 serves midnight brunch. Formal evening attire is requested, jeans are not acceptable at any time.

“We’re the leader in luxury rail travel. We’ve got six trains around the world and continue to offer an unrivalled experience … and we’ve got a lot of knowledge about how to do that within the railway network in Europe,” Belmond’s Gary Franklin said.

Orient Express La Dolce Vita

Lounge car on the Orient Express La Dolce Vita, styled by Italian Design firm Dimorestudio.Handout

Begins service in 2024.

Routes: One and two-night journeys within Italy, leaving Rome to Palermo, Monferrato, Maratea, Venice, Portofino and more, from $2,860 a person/double occupancy.

Inside: Channel your favourite Italian style icon before boarding. The train’s restaurant, bar car and sleeping carriages were built in the 1960s and 1970s and will reflect the best of 20th-century Italian art and design styled by Milan-based Dimorestudio. Expect 12 cabins with couches that transform into beds (all have private bathrooms) or splash out on one of 18 suites in shades of orange, terracotta and purple with brass finishings. Formal attire is encouraged at dinner, flip-flops are forbidden onboard.

“Discover the old Italy in a few days,” Accor’s Guillaume de Saint Lager said, adding Orient Express La Dolce Vita will be like cruising Europe by rail: “It is a new market, where you discover a country but with a train, which is great because you can connect capitals, which you cannot do with boats.”

The future Orient Express

A room in the Presidential suite, which fills an entire train car in the future Orient Express.Handout

Begins service in 2025.

Routes: Destinations and pricing are still being worked out but Accor promises the Paris-Istanbul route is part of the plan.

The design for the restaurant car in Accor's Orient Express train, launching in 2025. Desinged by Maxime d'Angeac & Martin Darzacq for Orient Express, Accor. OEFutureHandout

Inside: Decor plans were revealed late last year in Paris and at Design Miami. French architect Maxime d’Angeac researched the train’s design history and is restoring the rolling stock once used for the Nostalgie-Orient-Express – 12 sleeping cars, a dining car, three lounge cars – to reflect the art-deco era. Plans for the sleeping cars include suites (with ensuite facilities), twin berth compartments and one presidential suite, which will take up an entire train car; under vaulted glass ceilings in the bar car, tables with Lalique glass lamps will include two call buttons: one for Champagne and the other for wait staff; in the dining car, warm muted colours play up art-deco styles in trim, marquetry, carpets and lighting.

“We want to demonstrate that Orient Express is a renewed ultraluxe brand that has succeeded to combine luxury and experiential [travel] with sustainability,” Accor’s de Saint Lager said.