I’m standing in one of the “most expensive hotel rooms” in the world.
Per square meter, that is.
That’s according to Matthieu Ollier, manager of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, who said the train’s Grand Suites cost 24,000 euros ($25,850) for a one-night trip from Venice to London.
That’s $2,000 per meter — if you can secure a spot. Bookings in the Grand Suites often start a year in advance.
Thanks to a last-minute cancellation, I won the freelance journalist’s equivalent of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket — a call from Belmond, the luxury company that owns the train.
Could I join? Unsurprisingly, I squeezed it into my schedule.
But at a time when the 31-hour trip for a couple costs more than low-wage workers in the United States make in a year, could the one night experience possibly be worth it?
Ollier explained that by traveling in one of the Grand Suites, I was joining an elite group of former passengers, including John Travolta (who has traveled “many times”), Angelina Jolie (“Just her and her daughter, no assistants”), Kate Winslet, the Beckhams and, perhaps most fittingly, Wes Anderson.
Each carriage has a story. I’m in 3309, the train’s oldest sleeper car. Built in 1926, it operated along various Orient Express train routes in the 1920s and 1930s, including routes connecting Paris to Bucharest and Munich to Istanbul.
Indeed, in February 1929 the carriage was marooned in a snow drift outside of Istanbul for five days, an incident that inspired Agatha Christie’s famous novel “Murder on the Orient Express.”
It has three suites, one of which Christie herself stayed in — now called the Budapest Suite.
The Budapest Suite
This suite is a work of art on wheels, a mobile celebration of Art Deco luxury and craftsmanship. Embroidered silks sit alongside beautiful Lalique glass and Baccarat crystal. The mirrors alone cost 27,000 euros each, a train employee told me.
Surprisingly, most guests on the train have a washbasin in their cabins but must share a bathroom — albeit an impeccably kept one — but the Budapest Suite has an ensuite bathroom featuring onyx, marble and Murano glass.
Space on the train is at a premium, even in the Budapest Suite, so guests are advised to pack a small bag. Closet room is also limited, but there’s enough room for a steward to hang the tuxedos and dresses that guests bring on board for dinner.
Grand Suite guests are welcomed with a chilled bottle of Veuve Clicquot Saint Petersbourg Champagne — served as and when you like for the entire journey — along with a tin of Steluga Tsar Imperial caviar to spoon over blinis.
The part of the suite which quickly becomes my favorite is arguably its most modest — the sofa. From it, I enjoyed Europe’s beauty on cinematic display through the large windows of the carriage — from the snowy Italian Alps and the chalets of Austria’s Brenner Pass to the green pastures of Switzerland and the vineyards of France.
Cocktails and cuisine
One iron-clad guarantee on board the train: You will never go hungry.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’ partnership with Chef Jean Imbert from the one-Michelin-starred Jean Imbert au Plaza Athénée in Paris has ensured that the cuisine is genuinely stellar, at every service.
From the Champagne breakfast — served in-suite — to the afternoon teas and four-course dinner, this is a journey to forget about calories.
It’s puzzling how plates of such artistry and finesse are produced in such a tiny kitchen. A quick look shows it’s six meters long and one meter wide — with five chefs inside.
Guests don tuxedos and glamorous evening dresses for dinner, which starts with cocktails in the Bar Car. Aa a pianist serenaded us, the feeling was one of being transported back in time.
Bumps in the road
If you have the means, this is a very special way to travel.
But there were a few bumps in the road. For starters, getting online wasn’t easy. The on-board Wi-Fi service never worked for me, but I was able to connect to other networks at various points along the way.
The Budapest Suite’s bed is big, comfortable and luxurious, but obviously train travel involves a lot of movement — and a fair bit of noise. Ear plugs are provided, and you’ll need them to get a full night of sweet dreams.
The ensuite bathroom is described as “spacious,” but that’s a generous definition. But if moaning about the size of a marble bathroom on board an almost century-old train carriage isn’t the definition of first world problems, I don’t know what is.
Is it worth it?
Paying nearly $28,000 for a one-night train trip from Venice to London is almost beyond belief. You could hire a private jet for less.
But it’s the historic nature of the journey that makes the experience unique. In a fast-paced, always-on world, there’s something to be said for slow, elegant travel.
It’s also worth remembering that train travel is more sustainable than most modes of transport, especially private aviation.
Data shows many travelers aren’t cutting back on travel, despite the global cost-of-living crisis, but this trip is out of reach for pretty much anyone bar the 0.1%.
If you’re lucky enough to have pockets this deep, there are few travel experiences to match it.