It’s just shy of five minutes into the 2022 World Cup semi-finals, France versus Morocco. Château Yquem is being generously poured in crystal glasses. A handsome Italian man in a tuxedo plays Duke Ellington on the piano. And we are cruising about 74 mph on Belmond’s iconic Venice Simplon-Orient-Express en route to the French Alps. Allez!
Most journeys aboard this iconic train (not to be confused with the Orient Express, owned by the French railways in partnership with Accor) do not include such sporty entertainment, let alone televisions. After all, the idea is to travel back in time or to lose track of it entirely. Musicians play Jazz Age tunes while guests board the 12-car, 35-cabin train that dates as far back as 1926, and all are encouraged to wear formal attire to dinner. But this was a special occasion and, as we all well know from Agatha Christie, anything can happen aboard the OE.
As a France-based American who missed her adopted country win the World Cup four years prior during a summer sojourn in the States, I was invested in this year’s attempt to retain the title. After boarding the 7:05 p.m. train from Paris and checking into cabin No. 7 in car 3483, I shimmied out of my jeans and into a sparkly pleated skirt and chandelier earrings and painted a bleu, blanc, et rouge flag on my right cheek. Gripping the shiny wood-paneled walls to steady myself, I then walked in heels between the carriages to Bar Car 3674 where, atop a baby grand piano, sat a flatscreen tuned to the match.
While most passengers made their way past it to the dining car, I sat glued to the game, sipping the “Choo Choo Train” martini (Del Professore gin and Belvedere vodka plus bergamot Rosolio garnished with an edible flower) while sandwiched between French men in penguin suits and one very devoted chef—the Michelin-star recipient Jean Imbert—whose four-course meal was about to be plated two carriages down. The Wi-Fi signal was as shaky as our server’s tray full of caviar, but I still managed to catch France score both goals and advance to the finals. We then advanced ourselves to the carpeted dining car, where etched-Lalique glass walls reveal bacchanalian maidens; waiters in white vests with gold buttons drizzled champagne sauce over turbot and refilled our flutes with Laurent Perrier champagne.
Beyond showing le foot in the bar car, venturing to the Alps is a first for Belmond’s VSOE and, starting next winter, it will offer four trips to the region stopping at the following three stations: Moutiers (for Courchevel), Albertville (for Megève and Mont Blanc), and Bourg-Saint-Maurice (for Tignes and Val d’Isère). The overnight journey is roughly 18 hours and guests are on their own to experience the slopes or travel on from there. The one-way experience (Paris to the Alps or the Alps to Paris) includes a private chauffeur to the station, three meals (dinner, breakfast in the cabin, and brunch in the dining car), beverages with meals though not at the bar, and some swanky parting gifts such as a leather toiletry case filled with skin balms from British brand Temple Spa. The cost? A cool £3,785 (US$4,500) a person, based on double occupancy, for the historic cabin. (Multiply that by two if you’re alone. But at least you don’t have to climb a ladder to the top bunk!) The slightly roomier suites—eight new rooms debut in June—cost £7,300 (US$8,825) a person, based on double occupancy, and come with double beds, their own en suite bathroom, a 24-hour butler, and unlimited bubbly.
Following our late-night dinner and another “Choo Choo Train” martini that I probably should not have ordered given I was on a moving vehicle and toilets for my cabin category were shared, I returned to my room to find it transformed from lounge to boudoir: The upholstered two-seater couch was now a single bed with feather pillows and a wool blanket. Turn down included slippers left at the foot of the washbasin, a mini Viennese Imperial Torte to savor before brushing, and my suitcase stowed on the luggage rack above. I applauded myself for having set out my PJs prior, lest I pull a neck muscle trying to get my bag down. By the time I snuggled into my twin and turned out the light, the train had reached Dijon, where it remained stationary until 6 a.m. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about any potential motion sickness, I thought.
There were, however, lots of little noises—including when my neighbor returned hours later and had clearly not laid out her PJs. The Roaring Twenties, it seemed, lived on via thin walls.
It was still dark out when the train started moving again, so I actually slept the most soundly I had all night. When the sun began to rise around 8:30 a.m., I lifted the shade and wiped the condensation from my window, revealing the outside world as we passed lakes and small towns with Gothic church spires along the way. I then pressed the blue button above my head to signal I was ready for the coffee and juice I’d ordered upon boarding the day before. (I opted out of pastries, saving myself for brunch later on.) Once my beverages arrived 10 minutes later, I propped myself up in bed to sip my morning cuppa, hoping for a glimpse of snow.
It was too soon for that, though, so after overthinking my outfit for another fancy meal on a train followed by an afternoon of frolicking on a mountain (I ended up in wide-leg jeans paired with a turtleneck from Uniqlo and a colorful faux fur vest), I made my way to the dining car. As the last to arrive at my shared table of four singles, I didn’t score a window seat but was at least facing the direction we were headed, which I celebrated by ordering a Bloody Mary. The morning’s multicourse meal began with something that did not necessarily appeal given the previous night’s two martinis—coddled egg with (more!) caviar, cream, and potatoes—but I still inhaled it, even sopping up the sauce with one of the plump and warm sourdough rolls. While it was still a bit early to fully appreciate the bowl of langoustine ravioli that followed, I finished every last bite of dessert: warm tarte tatin topped with vanilla ice cream that nearly went sliding off the plate as we flew forward toward the Alps.
With only an hour or so before we disembarked, I used the postcards left in the room to pen some notes to family and my friends; I dropped them in the train’s designated mailbox where they’d be blitzed with a special stamp and sent off in style.
As the train came to a halt in Moutiers, some 400 miles from Paris, there was a rush of excitement while the stewards briskly moved about the carriages, double-checking luggage to make sure they were appropriately labeled lest any passenger lift a finger.
Stepping onto the track, the jazz trio serenaded us once again while snow flurries filled the air making for the most magical of arrivals. Onlookers waiting for the traditional fast train curiously snapped photos, no doubt expecting to see a celebrity or royalty.
Allez! I whispered again to myself, recalling the previous night on a whole with a smile. What a win.