A week or so ago I mentioned that a trip on the Venice-Simplon Orient-Express was still an unchecked item on my bucket list. That set me to browsing through the photos from a train journey we took back in 2016. The Grand Hibernian was a new route inaugurated that year by Belmond – the people who operate the VSOE as well The Royal Scotsman, the Eastern & Orient Express, the Hiram Bingham to Machu Pichu, and the Andean Explorer. Hibernia is the classic Latin name for Ireland and true to its name The Grand Hibernian did a tour of Ireland with an optional side trip to Belfast and Waterford. We choose the five day-four night journey which took us to Cork, Killarney, Galway, West Port and back to Dublin. I booked it in April 2015 when Belmond first announced the service. It was to be my 70th birthday celebration combined with our anniversary – I was ever the optimist.
In their literature Belmond referred to it as being more relaxed than the VSOE and Royal Scotsman experience but still with all the elegance, luxury and first class service of their signature trains. And indeed it was.
The train had the quiet comfort of a country home with hints of Georgian Dublin – muted colours picked up from the tartans of the various counties and warm woods. Everything was included: meals, fine wines and premium liquors, entertainment, and tours. And there were always pleasant surprises: Laurent Perrier champagne for our cruise on the Lakes of Killarny, oysters and Guinness on the platform as we waited for our train to be shunted in at West Port, morning coffee at the manor house at Blarney Castle, a jaunting cart ride through the streets of Killarny, and a champagne lunch at Ashford Castle.
We checked in at The Westbury in Dublin and enjoyed a light lunch before making our way to Heusten Station where we were greeted by the Train Manager and a piper who led us to our train. A welcome glass of champagne was offered, we were introduced to the service crew and escorted to our cabins.
There was one hiccup as the journey begin – what we in the airline called a mechanical. After stowing our suitcases we were asked to meet in the lounge car and advised of the delay. We had been scheduled to have a very elaborate afternoon tea as we journeyed to Cork however the train would have to go off-station for an hour or so. But never fear we would still get our afternoon tea. The piper escorted us through the station – to the wondering eyes of commuters – to The Happy Hooker. Now less you fear for our moral safety a “hooker” is a type of fishing vessel – honest! And the Happy Hooker was the pub/restaurant at the station. There to even more wondering eyes we found the entire tea service from the train had been brought over and set up. We were served our oolong, savouries, sandwiches, scones, and sweets along with more bubbles from the champagne region. When it was time to return the piper led us back to the comfort of the Grand Hibernian. Did I mention this was first class all the way.
The cabin was small but comfortable with twin beds and its own bathroom with shower. It was compact but full provided with fluffy towels and fine toiletries. The sheets were Egyptian cotton and blankets were Irish wool. As much as I enjoy overnight trains I am a light sleeper which can be a problem, however the train remained stationary on a siding each evening so there was no rocking and rolling or click-clack.
Our impromptu afternoon tea had given us an opportunity to meet some of the other passengers and particularly two delightful if slightly eccentric sisters from Dallas, a charming Dutch couple, and several other couples. It also meant that the first evening’s dinner had none of the awkwardness that often accompanies the first night of a cruise or tour.
The dining cars were elegant but relaxed. Yes we all dressed for dinner – ties were not required but jackets were – and the service was impeccable but warm and friendly. The three course meals were prepared in the small galley kitchen and featured regional lamb, fish, poultry and local produce. A range of breakfasts were on offer – continental to full Irish – and in the evening pre-dinner amuse-bouches were constantly being circulated. Only one lunch was served on the train and the others were taken at first class venues at various stops. At lunch in an old (circa 1600) stone quay side house by the Spanish Arch in Galway we had a surprise concert by Nan Tom Teaimin. She is one of the great singers of Sean-nós or “old style” Irish music and it was a privilege to hear her in a private intimate setting.
The lounge car was situated at the rear of the train and the large windows were perfect for watching the green – and I do mean green – countryside go by. Every evening coffee, cognac, and liquors were served in the lounge from the well-stock bar. W e were entertained by a variety of performers: a story teller, a Celtic harpist from Trois Rivières, Quebec, a guitar duo, and the Baileys – a well-known folk trio.
The various stops along the way took us to Blarney Castle, the Lakes of Killarny, the Cliffs of Mohr, Galway town, Ashford Castle, through the lush but often rugged countryside and along the wild Atlantic Coast.
There were so many highlights of that four days but one particular adventure was perhaps the most memorable: the School of Falconry at Ashford Castle. They claim: You will never forget the moment when your hawk first swoops down from a tree and lands on your gloved fist. And they were right!
When we left the train in Dublin our next stop was London and then onward to Southampton and a transatlantic journey on the Queen Mary II. After that sort of trip maybe a day on the VSOE would be a bit of a let down??
The word for January 28th is:
Adventure /adˈven(t)SHər,ədˈven(t)SHər/: [1. noun 2. dated verb]
1. An unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.
2. To engage in hazardous and exciting activity, especially the exploration of unknown territory.
Middle English: from Old French aventure (noun), aventurer (verb), based on Latin adventurus ‘about to happen’, from advenire ‘arrive’.