Aboard the most luxurious train journey Asia has to offer

Last year I took the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express three times. As a passenger, not as a hoarder or stowaway. I can’t imagine what good deeds I must have done in a past life to deserve such spoilage. By the end of the third trip I had concluded that the entire VSOE operation was virtually beyond improvement. Fresh as new banknotes. No significant flaws, nothing is missing.

But having just returned from a trip between Singapore and Penang on the rebooted Eastern & Oriental Express – another beautifully engineered time machine of a train, run by the same people, Belmond, as the VSOE – I’m wondering if I should previous perception somewhat revised. If the VSOE is missing anything, it’s the opportunity, remote but real, that does exist while on the E&O, to spot a Malayan tiger vigilantly lurking in the green embankment next to the track.

Despite the old-fashioned appearance – approximately Victorian with Art Deco elements; dark green and cream with polished copper lettering and a rampant tiger motif on the outside; glossy cherry wood paneling and silky, velvety, jewel-toned fabrics inside – the E&O is no old train. The service was launched in 1993. The service was suspended in 2020 and resumed in 2024, with rolling stock being renewed and modified in the meantime. Two new three-night seasonal itineraries have been introduced through Malaysia and a new culinary curator has been appointed, Taiwanese superstar André Chiang, who rose to global fame at the three-Michelin-starred Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier.

One of the State Cabins aboard the restarted Eastern & Oriental Express

One of the state cabins on board the restarted Eastern & Oriental Express – Ludovic Balay

On this particular outing, the sybaritic stakes were even higher than usual. It was a special Solaire Journey organized and hosted by Veuve Clicquot, the first in a series of three such journeys to take place in 2024 on Belmond trains on different continents (details below).

A few minutes outside Singapore’s Woodlands station, we had crossed the causeway and entered Malaysia. I joined about half a dozen passengers in the open-air observation car. The rain drummed on the roof. A warm breeze blew some of the rain in, causing the group to gather in the center of the carriage. The corridor of palm trees we walked through shimmered darkly. “Well,” someone joked. “It really is a jungle there.”

The Eastern & Oriental Express offers a luxurious cocoon from which to watch the world go byThe Eastern & Oriental Express offers a luxurious cocoon from which to watch the world go by

The Eastern & Oriental Express offers a luxurious cocoon from which to watch the world go by

From start to finish, the trip flowed as easily as the champagne (Veuve Clicquot, of course). Not exactly smooth, as there was constant rocking, tilting, jerking, squeaking and clanging as the train moved unhurriedly along tracks laid more than a century ago. Far from being a nuisance, these inevitable disruptions soon seemed as soothing and reassuring as the sound of popping corks.

I was surprised by the diversity of the audience. High rollers, couples in love, trip-of-a-life types, foodies, train nutters. Of course also champagne notes on this trip. A wide spread of nationalities and ages. Two funny young women from Los Angeles, one of whom wore Chanel from head to toe, all day, every day, including, at dinner on our first night, a feather headdress that could have caused the hornbills and blue-throated bees. diners behind our windows staring in amazement with their beaks open.

Steven King tastes wine aboard the Eastern & Oriental ExpressSteven King tastes wine aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express

‘The journey flowed as easily as the champagne’: Steven King tastes wine on board the Eastern & Oriental Express – Martin Colombet / Veuve Clicquot

The dinners were wonderful occasions, worth dressing up for. André Chiang explained that he planned to take us on a journey from Asia to Europe and back, navigating through herbs; Veuve Clicquot’s cellar master, Didier Mariotti, promised to supplement that journey with a parallel adventure of his own in the history of the house, as expressed in a selection of vintages.

We stopped for excursions on days two and three, the first in Taman Negara National Park, in the center of the country, the second in George Town, on Penang, off the west coast in the Strait of Malacca. I had distant memories of George Town from a visit as a child more than 40 years ago, but was struck by the intensity of the swirl and bustle. This impression was reinforced by the fact that I saw much of it from the back of a Vespa, on the back of a local guide who, between breaks to inspect works of art on the streets, saw a temple with a traditional puppet theater and other sights. , chatted excitedly about her dinner plans. “Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t leave Malaysia without having a curry.” Her advice took on a prophetic air when, back on the train that same evening, André Chiang delivered a sensational Penang duck curry with muscat grapes and pineapple, paired with a sumptuous Veuve Clicquot Cave Privée Rosé 1989.

One of the dishes created by chef André Chiang as part of a menu that combines Asian and European influencesOne of the dishes created by chef André Chiang as part of a menu that combines Asian and European influences

One of the dishes created by chef André Chiang as part of a menu that brings together Asian and European influences – Martin Colombet / Veuve Clicquot

But it is the national park that remains most vividly in my memory. Taman Negara is a place of extraordinary beauty and a verticality more dizzying than anything you could experience among the forest of steel and glass in Kuala Lumpur. Thanks to an agreement Belmond made with the local authorities, we had the park to ourselves for a few hours before the official opening. And thanks to our guide, a locally born biologist, aspects of the conservation challenges facing modern Malaysia were compellingly highlighted. The conversation focused on the fate of the critically endangered Malayan tiger, of which, according to some estimates, there are fewer than fifty left in the wild. About as many tigers in the entire country as there were passengers on board the E&O.

Hornbills in a rainforest tree, Taman Negara National Park, MalaysiaHornbills in a rainforest tree, Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia

Hornbills in a rainforest tree, Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia – Marc Anderson / Alamy

It’s a quirk of these train journeys to Belmond that, although in theory you have plenty of time to do absolutely nothing, the days and nights fill up without any deliberate effort on your part and rattle by without a dull moment. Magic tricks were performed at the piano bar, along with Nanyang jazz and hypnotic traditional Malay music for the sape and gambus. I promised myself I would find someone to teach me mahjong, but in the end, the closest I came to a board game was preventing a fellow passenger from swallowing a Go pebble she had scooped from a bowl full of them, mistaking it for candy . I suppose it would be possible to keep yourself to yourself if you wanted to – cabins in all three categories, Pullman, State and Presidential, are extremely comfortable, and even the smallest have their own bathroom. But a trip by train, or at least a train like the E&O, is a fundamentally social affair, a catalyst for conviviality and an antidote to boredom.

A word of advice on the end of the journey. It’s unlikely you want the fantasy of embroidered dragons and tasselled lampshades to hit the buffers at the same time as the train. I highly recommend staying at Raffles in Singapore for a night or two after disembarking to ease the re-entry process. Today it is certainly more beautiful than at any time in its long history, and it will make for the softest of landings.

The Eastern & Oriental Express, A Belmond Train, Southeast Asia offers two three-night routes, “Essence of Malaysia” (from November to February) and “Wild Malaysia” (from March to October, except June), from USD 3,750 (£2,992) per person. For bookings and more information, visit belmond.com. Raffles Singapore (00 65 6337 1886; lotteries.com) has rooms from SGD2,000 (£1,180) per night.

Champagne Railing: The Solaire Journeys

The yellow Veuve Clicquot label, the famous carte jaune, is one of the most recognizable colors of all champagne brands and an irresistibly cheerful sight. The cheerful associations of sunshine, growth and the rhythms of nature provide a useful link to the maison’s Solaire Journeys concept, developed in collaboration with Belmond. After the first Solaire trip through Malaysia with the Eastern & Oriental Express in April, two more trips will follow in 2024, also with the Belmond trains: from Vienna to Reims with the Venice Simplon Orient Express in July, and from Cusco to Arequipa and Machu Picchu on the Hiram Bingham and Andean Explorer in October. (Note the east-west order of the journeys – a typically thoughtful touch that fits the solar theme.)

Bottles of Veuve Clicquot safely stored in racks for on the goBottles of Veuve Clicquot safely stored in racks for on the go

Bottles of Veuve Clicquot safely stored in racks for on-the-go – Boby

These Solaire Journeys offer champagne lovers a unique opportunity to enjoy rare and exceptional Veuve Clicquot vintages in the company of cellar master Didier Mariotti, in an environment and against a backdrop as rare as it is exceptional. “There is no doubt that our environment and surroundings influence our experience with Champagne,” he told me during our recent trip on the E&O Express. “Colors, sounds, temperature, light, atmosphere, mood – they all play a role.” Over breakfast, lunch and dinner on these Solaire Journeys, and during organized tastings in between, serious oenophiles can consider the impact of such factors on the aroma, taste and texture of Veuve Clicquot champagne offerings, and take notes compare, in person, with the man who knows more about him than anyone else. The rest of us can just sit back, raise a glass and enjoy the view.

The next Veuve Clicquot Solaire trips are from Vienna to Reims on the Venice Simplon Orient Express (from £6,900 per person, July 4-6, 2024), and from Cusco to Arequipa and Machu Picchu on the Hiram Bingham and Andes Explorer (from £ 11,970 per person, October 21-26, 2024). For bookings and more information, visit belmond.com And veuveclicquot.com.

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