On the Orient Express

A murder is the one luxury not afforded on the famed train

By: Mary Ann Treger

The Jacuzzi at the Hilton Los Cabos overlooks the ocean.
Guests can opt to dine in one of
three cars on the Orient Express.
I take several deep breaths. I don’t want to miss a whiff of the pricey perfumes on stylish women garnished with elongated earrings, sequins and chiffons, or the subtle aftershave scents emanating from tuxedo-clad men. We are traveling from Budapest to London on an overnight trip aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express before hooking up with the QM2 for our transatlantic crossing home, and I want to absorb every aspect of this moving work of art.

Our adventure begins at the Budapest train station where a cosmopolitan group of mostly over-50 Europeans, Japanese, Americans and plenty of Brits await departure. Several couples are dewy eyed, maybe celebrating a birthday or anniversary. All are revved up about this experience.

“So who’s the murderer?” I playfully whisper to the dapper Irishman next to us.

Under most circumstances this odd question would rouse the police, but since we’re about to board the setting for the famed murder mystery, he whispers a la Inspector Poirot, “It’s that woman in black, the one with her much younger companion.”

Like a scene straight out of a movie, posing on the platform is an intriguing character along with a doting escort. They have to know people are staring despite the fact that it is around 80 degrees she is dressed in a heavy long-sleeve black outfit and black leather gloves. Her companion is meticulously dressed in a dark suit and tie. We can’t help but wonder: Is this an ordinary couple dressed to pay tribute to this legendary transport of spies and murderers or is there a real bona fide mystery surrounding them? Either way, they provide perfect waiting-room conjecture.

This is the second Image
Venison chop with bacon-wrapped loin is
one of the culinary delights on the train.
All Aboard
Promptly at 8:40 a.m., Jacques, our steward, leads us to a cozy compartment in one of 12 shiny navy-and-gold passenger cars. A flame-stitched tapestry banquette sofa flanks one wall. A small sink is concealed behind two curved mahogany doors. Toiletries, bottled water, slippers and a thin cotton bathrobe are efficiently tucked in slots. These are vintage Wagons-Lits carriages, restored to the grandeur of the 1920s and ’30s. Such accurate restoration unfortunately means no private toilets (one is at the end of each car), no showers and no air-conditioning. “Champagne and canapes,” announces Jacques as he deposits goodies into our compartment.

Who cares that it’s 9 a.m.? On the Orient Express, champagne is the drink of the hour, any hour.

Before we take a sip, the maitre d’ appears to schedule dinner reservations there are seatings at 7:15 or 9:30 p.m. Time is marked by stops in Vienna, Munich and Paris, but mostly time is marked by meals delicious, elaborate meals. Fresh salmon marinated with juniper berries and savory herb blinis. Rib of milk-fed veal simmered with cream, morels and Tokay wine. Complex four-course meals are meticulously prepared from scratch by on-board French chefs.

The food is only topped by the ambiance of three dining cars, each one is different, but all are adorned with brocade draperies, velvet chairs and romantic lighting. It’s hard to pick a favorite the Lalique Pullman has exquisite glass insets; the Chinoise car is adorned with black lacquer panels and the Etoile du Nord has intricate marquetry. Waiters clad in crisp white jackets trimmed in gold braid buzz about pouring wine and fetching hot bread. With a staff of 40 for 150 passengers, no one waits for anything.

While we dine, Jacques transforms our compartment into a bedroom, but before retiring, we return to the bar car where the party atmosphere continues.

Since the Orient Express never leaves the continent, the next afternoon we disembark in Calais where motorcoaches take us through the Chunnel and on to Folkstone where we board the British Pullman for the remainder of our trip to Victoria Station.

As for that mysterious couple, we learned from another equally curious passenger that they had adjoining compartments (the train’s only version of a suite) and dined alone, but we never learned more. Fortunately, no one was murdered on board or at least not that we know of.