When we were invited to join the debut journey of the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train — recently restored in glorious, over the top splendor — we jumped aboard for a trip to remember.
PARIS – It’s 6:00 p.m. on a cold December night in Paris. My black car pulls up to Gare de L’Est, where gentlemen in tuxedos whisk me and my luggage through the busy concourse to platform 6. I myself am dressed in black tie, or as close as a guy who doesn’t own a tuxedo (ans doesn’t check bags) can get, anyway. It’s not my usual train attire, but then again, this is not your usual train.
I’m here to board Belmond’s legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (or VSOE for short) to preview a new, ultra-glamorous overnight journey into the French Alps. The trip is a first for the storied train, a time capsule of golden age travel composed of seventeen painstakingly restored carriages from various luxury train services, including a number from Orient Express trains of the 1920s and ‘30s that has been criss-crossed Europe for more than 40 years. Debuting in December 2023, the new winter route will connect Paris with such ultra-glamorous ski destinations as Courchevel (via Moutiers), Megève (via Albertville), and Tignes and Val d’Isère (via Bourg-Saint-Maurice).
Also on board the train, to everyone’s excitement, is Jean Imbert, the social media savvy Top Chef winner who rocked the French culinary world in 2021 after unseating chef Alain Ducasse at his three-Michelin-star temple at the prestigious Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris. In April 2022, Imbert took charge as the train’s chef de cuisine, the latest feather in the cap for the 41-year-old cuisinaire, who has opened restaurants with Dior and Pharrell Williams, reimagined the menu at Cheval Blanc in St. Barts, and, most recently, won his first Michelin star for his opulent Old World-inspired cooking at Jean Imbert au Plaza Athénée less than a year after opening.
Ready for a night of high-class debauchery (and headline-making French food), I climb aboard the train at Sleeping Car 3544, which I learn once served as a wartime brothel when it wasn’t carrying the rich and famous as part of Le Train Bleu, a luxe overnight service that ran from 1886 to 2003. (If these walls could talk.) A porter in a blue suit and white gloves shows me to my cozy cabin (emphasis on cozy), where my luggage is neatly stowed overhead and a glass of champagne awaits my arrival.
No sooner had I figured out how to lock and unlock my cabin door (trickier than it should have been on a train so synonymous with murder mystery) than we get the call for dinner. There are two seatings to ensure staff can properly welcome and serve every guest, and I luck out with the earlier one. By this point, I’m fast friends with my neighbors (because this is what you do on the VSOE), so we stumble together down the narrow hallways to the famous Bar Car 3674, where the party has already started.
It’s a scene out of a movie: Handsome bartenders wheel and deal cocktails, musicians in penguin suits play piano and sing in dulcet tones, and guests in sequin dresses and three-piece suits move about like it’s the 1920s. As we weave our way through the crowd, the train staff place a small TV on the baby grand piano to screen the World Cup match between France and Morroco. It’s another first for the train, which doesn’t have TVs or even WiFi, but we’re in France, and this football game is a must.
Down in the L’Oriental dining car, one of three gorgeous carriages with its own unique history and design, it’s a feast for the senses. Chef Imbert’s table d'hôte menu is ever-changing based on the route and the season, and ours is like a lavish Christmas dinner. Oysters with sabayon start things off, followed by a choice of Bresse capon with chestnut, squash, and cranberry sauce or turbot with champagne sauce, truffle gnocchi, and sorrel. There’s a never-ending supply of fine wine, along with natural sourdough bread from Éric Kayser and custom Bordier butter made exclusively for the train.
No fine French meal is complete without the cheese course, which comes around just before the musicians funnel in. A festive sing-a-long ensues as a decadent yule log is served. Before I know it, it’s almost 3:00 a.m., and I’m one of the last to leave the bar car, which stays open until everyone has their fair share of cocktails and conversation for the night. The train is stopped, which happens strategically on routes to pick up fresh ingredients, switch out locomotives, and, in our case, wait out the darkness so the most scenic stretch of our short route unfolds for all to see in the daylight.
After a few hours of shut-eye (don’t expect a ton of beauty sleep), I awoke in my cabin, whose banquette seating had been transformed into a sleeping berth while I was out the night before. I ring for my porter, who changes the room back and delivers breakfast, an assortment of viennoiserie I barely touch because brunch starts in an hour. I slept in, and the coffee (and views of the Savoie) hit the spot.
On the topic of rooms: They’re magnificently decorated, all heated via coal furnaces, and come in three categories. Historic cabins like mine sleep two, are snug but surprisingly accommodating (there’s room for everything), and even have vanities for freshening up concealed within. (Toilets are shared down the hall.) Grand suites are extremely luxe and come with en-suite bathrooms with showers, spacious living quarters, and free-flowing champagne. This year, eight new suites in four different designs inspired by European landscapes will give guests an option in the middle in terms of space and price.
Over in the Côte d’Azur dining car, famed for its stunning René Lalique glass, they’re pouring champagne before 11:00 a.m. and serving coddled eggs with caviar, langoustine ravioli in a bisque, and a classic tarte tatin, whose scoop of vanilla ice cream dances around our plates as the train maneuvers into the majestic Rhône-Alpes. Intended to fortify you for the adventure ahead, it’s indulgent and over-the-top — and exactly the way you’d want to cap off such a luxurious journey.
Before the train pulls into Moutiers and our cars take us up the mountain to Courchevel, I have just enough time to pen a couple of postcards, which the train staff provides and will mail for you with special postage after the trip. I try and write something profound about the experience, imagining myself a writer from train rides past, but can’t come up with anything good.
It just goes to show: A trip like this is hard to put into words.
Plan Your Trip
Departures and Dates
Overnight trips start at £3,785 per person for Historic Cabins, £7,300 per person for the new Suites, and £9,975 per person for Grand Suites. Rates include dinner, breakfast, and brunch, as well as all soft drinks and shared transfer to Gare De Lyon in Paris. Guests staying in the Grand Suites get a private car transfer from Albertville, Moûtiers, or Bourg-Saint-Maurice to their final destination. There are four departure dates starting in December 2023: From Paris to the French Alps on December 15 and 21 and from the French Alps to Paris on December 16 and 22.
While this article focuses in the Paris to the Alps route, there are 68 available VSOE journeys. Overnight trips including Paris to Prague, Amsterdam to Venice, Vienna to Paris, and London to Verona. Four-night round-trip options from Paris go to Vienna, Prague, Venice, and Budapest.
Where to Stay
I recommend arriving at your point of departure at least a day early to give you time to get dolled up for the evening service. It’s not easy getting ready on the train unless you’re in a larger suite.
In Paris, I stayed at Pavillon Faubourg Saint Germain, which opened between the Seine and Café de Flore in April 2022. There are plenty of great hotels closer to Gare de L’Est, but it’s always a treat to stay in this area, especially around the holidays. The rooms are luxuriously sexy, and there’s a chic brasserie with a salon-style bar that pays homage to James Joyce, who once lived at this address.
In the French Alps, I stayed at Ultima Courchevel Belvédère, another ultra-luxe resort with thirteen ski-in and ski-out residences at an altitude of 1750 meters, a short drive from 1850 and 1650's lively bar and restaurant scene. Each residence has four or five private bedrooms spread across multiple levels that sleep up to eight to ten adults, with a communal area for drinking, dining, and gathering with your group at the top floor. They feel like private ski chalets but with access to butlers, chauffeurs, and personal chefs. Also on-site: a wonderful spa and picturesque pool for unwinding after the slopes.
What to Do
I asked chef Jean Imbert what he’d recommend doing in Paris and Courcheval before and after the trip.
In Courchevel: Go skiing. I love the Dou du Midi run. If you don’t want to ski, have a hot chocolate on the terrace with my friends at Cheval Blanc Courchevel in the alpine garden.
In Paris: Start with a coffee at Dior at 30 Avenue Montaigne, complete with handmade pastries we make in the building, then have lunch at Le Relais Plaza (in Hotel Plaza Athénée) with dishes inspired by my grandmother.