Cruise Passenger hops aboard the most luxurious (and expensive) train journey in the Alps, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Lovers of winter sports and linen tablecloths – and red carpets, white gloves, polished brass, gleaming marquetry, velvet upholstery and all the other trappings of a train de luxe – rejoice. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) has launched a 21-hour, once-a-year itinerary from Paris to Bourg-Saint-Maurice in the heart of the French Alps.

The new route, which runs in late December, reflects a growing enthusiasm for slow, green and experiential travel. The train takes more than eight hours but generates less than 12 kilograms of CO2.

However, it’s the experience that sets the VSOE apart – indeed, puts it in a class of its own. And with the tariff for a top compartment for two just shy of £10,000 ($19,355) per person and places on board selling out months in advance, you’d jolly well hope so.

It’s a glorious throwback to a mode of travel grown so unfamiliar as to have become novel again. So old-fashioned it’s new-fashioned. This includes the historically authentic Heritage Cabins. They’re gorgeous. Jewel-like marvels of thoughtful, elegant design. But tiny.

Old is new again on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

First-timers are often taken aback. (“Really? That’s it? And no shower? And a shared loo at the end of the carriage?”) Hence the popularity of the recently introduced Suite and Grand Suite categories, which are respectively about two and three times bigger than Heritage Cabins, and have their own bathrooms. I’ve travelled in each of the three categories and can tell you that any additional space in your compartment makes a disproportionate difference. Most VSOE itineraries, like this one, are overnighters, with a handful of exceptions including Paris to Istanbul, which takes five nights.

The journey is the experience

I started with a night in Paris beforehand, having arrived from London on the Eurostar. Because of the meticulously stage-managed nature of the whole VSOE performance, the before and after parts of the holiday can suffer in comparison. Not, however, on this occasion. I got off on absolutely the right foot at the Plaza Athénée.

Though the hotel is famous for its window boxes overflowing with red geraniums (apparently the happy consequence of Marlene Dietrich’s affair with Jean Gabin), its inner courtyard was no less delightful in its wintertime guise, as an ice-skating rink illuminated by great cascades of fairy lights suspended from the rooftops.

Combine that coup de théâtre with a sumptuous Second Empire-styled suite, a treatment at the luscious new Dior Spa and dinner at Jean Imbert au Plaza Athénée and I could almost have stayed put and forgotten about the Alps altogether.

But the mountains were calling. The train left the Gare de l’Est at 15:20. A couple of hours later we were somewhere in the Champagne region, following the course of the River Marne in the twilight. I raised a glass of fizz to the terroir outside from which it had sprung.

The Venice Simplon Orient Express passing through the Brenner Pass, Austria.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express passing through the Brenner Pass, Austria.

The sky and the water were silvery blue, the rest of the landscape shadowy and indistinct. Soon it would be dark. The train’s windows would turn into mirrors, blinds would be drawn.

I remembered a previous trip from Paris to Venice in the summer. It had an entirely different feel – more, I think, because of the season than the route. We were encouraged in advance to leap out of bed at dawn to admire the sun as it rose over – or rather between and around – the Alps.

Of the early birds who did make an appearance around 5am, several were in their pyjamas. Somehow this contributed more to the joyful tone of the occasion than all the dinner jackets and spangled party frocks of the previous night put together.

If this winter journey was necessarily more tucked-up and inward-looking, it was no less convivial. There’s only one service, in the week before Christmas, and it’s the VSOE’s last run of the year. The staff were excited about going home for the holidays while the passengers were excited about spending the festive season away from home, some in Chamonix, others in Courchevel and Val Thorens.

The excitement increased as we got further into the mountains – and was mirrored in the expressions on the faces of local commuters unaccustomed to seeing the glossy blue carriages glide past their platforms.

Nothing to do but lounge around.

Cooking on a train is chef’s pain

Everyone on the train, it seemed, was singing, almost all the time. Even the chef. Jean Imbert, the tousled French prodigy who succeeded Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée in 2022, was recruited to oversee the VSOE’s kitchen the following year. I chose to stay at the Plaza Athénée for that reason: I wanted to compare Imbert’s hotel and train cooking.

But the result of my delicious experiment was inconclusive. Dinner in the plush, ornately mirrored dining car on the train was as satisfying as dinner in the plush, ornately mirrored dining room at the hotel. (On the train: leeks with black truffle, egg yolk and parmesan shortbread; Bresse chicken with Albufera sauce; hazelnut and coffee Yule log. At the hotel: brioche with caviar; lobster à l’américaine; plum soufflé pancakes.)

A fish dish by chef Jean Imbert.
A dish by chef Jean Imbert.

“The problem with cooking at the hotel,” Imbert says, “is that I’ve got everything I could ever need at my disposal. The problem with cooking on the train is that I haven’t.” Which must be the only respect in which the VSOE observes a less-is-more policy.

I alighted at Moûtiers, the gateway to the gigantic Trois Vallées ski area, on the dot of 11:38. A short drive brought me to Méribel, an extremely prepossessing resort. Trading my gently swaying suite for stationary piste-side luxury, I bunked down at Le Coucou. Its ski-in/ski-out location is unimprovable; the staff is young and friendly; and the look of the hotel is at once respectful of its context and endearingly playful.

Nobody needs a reason to take the Venice-Simplon Orient Express. But if you did, getting to Méribel in fine style for Christmas and New Year would be as good a reason as any.

The plush comfort of a cabin showing a couch and table and chairs in a wood panelled room.
Enjoying the comfort of your cabin.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express essentials

The next Venice Simplon-Orient-Express departure to the French Alps is on December 19, 2024. Departing Paris’ Gare de l’Est at 15:20 and calling at Albertville (10:36), Moûtiers (11:38) and Bourg-Saint-Maurice (12:45). Prices range from £3785 ($7325) per person based on two sharing a Historic Cabin to £9975 ($19,307) per person for a Grand Suite.

This includes a round-the-clock personal steward, meals accompanied by the sommelier’s choice of wine, unlimited soft drinks, coffee and tea, and transfers within Paris to Gare de l’Est. Grand Suite guests also enjoy a check-in service, champagne and caviar upon arrival in the Alps.

For more information on Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, click here.

An attendant watches over as a couple depart the Orient Express.
A trip well spent.