Review: Venice Simplon-Orient-Express to Courchevel
There’s an extra whiff of glamour in the thick Parisian air. It’s just after 5pm and the sun sets like a luminous halo over an extra moody Eiffel Tower as I scramble to find my cufflinks in the ultra-swish Bulgari Hotel. High modern Italianate chic oozes through every nook and cranny of the palace (think sexy portraiture, scalloped couches and total marble maximalism), and then there is me: the old-school 30-something in a classic Ralph Lauren suit feeling somewhat out of place waiting for my driver. My destination? Gare de l’Est to hop on the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express to Courchevel.
It’s the first time its swish tracks have scurried down to the alpine fortress since it originally set off from London to Venice in 1982. Face powdered and slacks prim, a dash of vintage Hollywood reigns supreme throughout its fabulously ornate and storied Art Deco carriages whose recent fans have included everyone from Pharrell to the Beckhams. Ask die-hard fans and they’ll tell you nothing beats the rhythmic sway of the VSOE. The nexus of unapologetic maximalist nostalgia on scale, there’s something quizzically refreshing watching the world stream by out of those huge festive décor flecked windows. Perhaps it’s those ever-changing views or all the flash pomp courtesy of the VSOE-stamped crockery, but for me this inaugural journey down to the Alps oozes the very thing the long train journey to nowhere is about: total escapism. This is the old world of glamour; of sophistication; of a theatrical sketch of the past, and it’s utterly hypnotic.
From all corners, beautifully polished wood, stylish marquetry and plush fabrics wow. But above all, it’s really the views that impress as you roar into the mighty Alps bound for Moutiers. Grand lakes dazzle; mist plunges down from the precipices of craggy hills and pastoral landscapes pull the heartstrings for hours on end. It is, in a succinct nutshell, stonkingly fabulous. Remarkably, it’s only until now the train has meandered this far down the French countryside this time of year. Journeys on the luxe train have traditionally only run from March through to November, and as part of the extension, Belmond is set to debut a total of ten new winter routes. The goal is to bring a bit of extra glamour (and convenience) down to the slopes of Europe’s most famed alpine winter destinations.
Then there’s the food, of course. The man tasked with filling up your bellies (and your glasses) is bad boy French chef of the moment, Jean Imbert. ‘I want you to feel part of the history and the magic of the train when you eat,’ he tells me while in his Grand Suite, the well-polished ‘Budapest’, snapping the views. ‘When I told my parents I was appointed chef of the VSOE they said “wow”, and that’s the reaction I want my guests to have here.’ And wow it is. Organic, seasonal and French to a tee, Jean’s posh nosh is all about French haute cuisine with a ‘comfort’ twist. The main action takes place in the dining car, the magisterial L’Oriental for a five-course banger with wine pairings. Think juicy chapon (chicken), a fine bit of turbot and oysters…all very French. Come daytime, brunch comes courtesy of coddled eggs with caviar, a scampi ravioli and a top-notch tarte tatin crowned by a dollop of vanilla ice cream. It’s all so delicious. Post-feast head to the bar car. The party goes on day or night with singers, shakers and piano maestros eager to get your tooshes shimmying and your hands shaking. The pisco sours are non-negotiable and worth the hangover by the time you reach the snow.
Book The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express: From £3,785, belmond.com