Mary Gostelow boards the world’s most luxurious train
Belmond is one luxury hotel group that sure knows how to run superb trains. OK, its Australian train was not a success, but every successful company has failures from time to time.
Belmond has been running trains for decades: the original Orient-Express in Europe, the Eastern & Oriental between Bangkok and Singapore, and now a train in Ireland, and it has operated the Hiram Bingham in Peru for years. The very carriages that had been designed and built in Queensland have now been shipped to Peru, adjusted as necessary, and South African Inge Moore was asked to do the interiors of what is now the company’s two-month-old Belmond Andean Explorer, emblazoned with the chakana cross of the Incas.
Belmond Andean Explorer sets a new and higher tone for luxury rail travel – it is even adding a dedicated spa carriage along for the ride. There are several itineraries, but I recommend boarding in Cusco for the three-day trip to Arequipa via Lake Titicaca. The easiest seamless service is to have overnighted beforehand at either of Belmond’s two adjacent palaces in Cusco, the more-relaxed Belmond Monasterio or the more-sleek Belmond Palacio Nazarenas, a favourite of Mario Testino and, separately, the Qatar royals. I was farewelled by the two properties’ gorgeously cuddly GM, Arturo Schwarz, and driven 10 minutes to the train, which had only arrived back in Cusco at 8.45am and by 10.30am there were already 40 passengers arriving for the 11am departure.
While waiting to board we were entertained with coffee, strawberry juice, dancers and some extraordinarily good local musicians. At 10.50 we were invited into the piano bar car, where the baby-grand was tinkling. Belmond Andean Explorer is absolutely all-inclusive, which means any of the drinks, but now it was glasses of an extraordinarily acceptable, and icy cold, Juvé y Camps Cinta Púrpura Reserva 2013. Then we were escorted to our cabins. The carriages are all just under 22 metres long, and some have two, some three and some four cabins. There are, in all, 24 double guest cabins, which take up eight of the total 17 carriage count (two more carriages accommodate the 20 onboard staff, which includes a nurse).
But trains are trains and, like cruise and river ships, and private yachts, space is at a premium. Despite having left half of my already minimal gear back in Lima, and being one of only three singles aboard, there was a momentary panic. Where to put everything? In fact, as I found last time on Seven Seas Navigator, there was 10 times more storage than I needed (memo to anyone coming on Belmond Andean Explorer: all you need are sneakers, layers of clothes and a lightweight parka, and add to this a heavyweight appetite). A simple programme card announced a light lunch, in either of two dining cars – it was a set meal, starting with a Peruvian street-food, choclo con queso (corn with cheese). Menus are overseen by Diego Muñoz, formerly with Astrid y Gastón. All the food, for a return trip, is prepped at Belmond Monasterio in Cusco. I was really impressed by my first tastes, which included a delectable wafer bread inset with Andean seaweed. No one had said this would be such a gourmet experience.
There is a Mexican family of 12 aboard, the majority of guests are Spanish-speaking and Christopher Mendoza, the onboard train manager who says he ‘won’ the job in a competition open to all Belmond’s luxury hotels’ managers in Peru, has sensibly allocated the few English speakers into one tour group. We got into small buses, which had followed us from Cusco, for our first tourist stop, at Raqch’i, a gigantic Inca settlement which still has standing stone and mud ruins soaring over 9 metres up, and remains of wood-free houses, and 166 circular stone warehouses. Next, back home aboard, we went on up to our highest point, La Raya, over 4500 metres ASL. It was time for afternoon tea – altitude-helping muña (a mint-like herb) tea in my case. This was followed shortly by drinks in the piano bar and dinner, when they kindly made me a salad with avocado in place of the stated tortellini, and the following duck breast was magnificent. Now to bed…
Which other operators could expect guests to emerge, outside in the dark, to watch the sunrise? But this is part of the agenda on the three-day Belmond Andean Explorer. The train had jolted to a sudden stop at 1.30am – yes, it woke even me – and raising the cabin blinds four hours later it was possible just to make out shadowy figures walking past the train, all heading to the right. There, 180 metres away, was the Peruvian shore of Lake Titicaca, and, as we watched, the sun came up. Being Belmond, hot cups of coffee were passed round, and hardly any of the 40 experience-seekers who were travelling on the train raised voices, as if in awe of the magic unveiling of the dawn scene. Yes, it was cold, and Moncler and North Face were augmented by alpaca blankets from the train: here at this altitude several needed five-minute gulps of the train’s oxygen.
I made my way back to the train and was first in to breakfast, at six sharp. Bliss, this is a proper à la carte meal. Carolina immediately brought excellent coffee and water, and a basket of warm breads, including two types of croissants. I had a half-pint of drinking yoghurt, two eggs sunny side up with mushrooms, and healthy wholegrain toast, and read the New York Times courtesy the local Movistar connection.
Today we were having a whole day trip on Lake Titicaca. First, on a modern speedboat through the reeds to the famous Uros floating islands, literally formed of reeds, and regularly boosted with fresh layers of green reeds put on top. Dotted among the residents’ reed houses are solar panels on stalks – yes, they have power, and internet. They get around, from one island to another, and to the mainland for shopping, and school for their kids, in extraordinary row-boats made, naturally, of reeds. It really was amusing to see some of the women, in Day-Glo dirndl skirts and ubiquitous felt hats, rowing as if they were in the Olympics.
Their diet is baby fish, carachi, and dozens of different types of potatoes, and it shows as their girth is delightfully roly-poly, complemented by moon-shaped smiles. They waved us off, and we went on to a static island, Taquile, where at a proper restaurant half-way up an otherwise deserted hillside our lunch started with snacks of fava beans, cow cheese and potatoes (and went on to quinoa vegetable soup, grilled salmon, trout and rice, and bananas and oranges).
You never go hungry on a Belmond Andean Explorer trip, by the way. Back on board, any time you want, 24/7, there are any drinks you can think of: the displayed bottles include Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray, and I was told by my new Bostonian and Canadian friends that they make a neat gin and tonic and gin martini. I did not see big take-up for Glenfiddich or Johnny Walker Black or Red, or even Pisco sours.
Among the wines poured with set dinners were two Miguel Torres labels, Las Mulas Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2016 and a Santa Digna Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, but if you wanted anything else, you could always buy from the pay-extra list, say, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc at US$166, or Two Hands Bella’s Garden Shiraz at US$284, no vintages listed.
Really, nothing is too much trouble for this team. The two restaurant cars have permanently fixed tables for four on side of the aisle, and for two the other, with the one exception of a table for 12 set longside on, and permanently reserved for some of the Mexican party. One night we wanted a table for five. No problem, engineers came, clambered under a table for two to take it down so that our fifth companion could sit at the end of the adjacent table-for-four, thus allowing Carolina and her team of servers to navigate around where that table-for-two had been.
The third day aboard began with another pre-dawn start – the train had parked overnight near Lake Saracocha, in the Puno Region, apparently miles from anywhere but, according to onboard guide and sage Alvaro Zamara, between two spectacular lakes. Those who wanted to see the sunrise, a motley collection dressed in bobble hats, thick parkas and blanket wraps, gathered silently at 5.20am to be led up a nearby hill. Dawn revealed two stunning, isolated lakes. I was helped down the hill by one of the train’s Securitas guards (one was on the rear observation car platform 24/7, by the way, and there was extra security in the form of a car that trailed us over the entire three days). To thaw out, coffee and breakfast called, and this morning the warm viennoiserie basket had a choice of Danish, chocolate or raisin.
Then there was time to do justice to the cabin. Traditional brass fittings, things like overhead racks and filigree work, remain, but it was a stroke of genius to commission South African Inge Moore to update the interiors. Here, given the confines of rail carriages, she stresses unpolished wood floors or dark olive carpets and, throughout, masses of soft tweeds. The two restaurant cars have really comfortable brown leather chairs (wood tables have sage runners at breakfast and lunch, and full, just-ironed, white cloths for dinner). Cabins are softest moss, with matching fabric headboards, and carpeting: see how she adds more colour through throw cushions. The biggest bathrooms come with cabins Coca 1 and 2, main size 6×2.5 metres, bathrooms extra. All cabins’ beds have cubby-holes under the beds that are big enough to hold a pair of big suitcases, and beds come with soft Plumas Peruvian sheets and towels with the chakana (Inca cross) logo, and robes and slippers: used linens are returned, at the end of a double trip, to Belmond Monasterio in Cusco. There are safes. Shower water was instantly hot, almost boiling.
Honestly, this particular train journey, Cusco to Arequipa, is something that all luxury world travellers should experience, the kind of thing that separates getting into Machu Picchu before the hordes arrive, or going first into Hall 3 of the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an rather than Hall 1, like the crowds, or missing the thousands of superficial tourists at Angkor by knowing what to do when.
This is what Belmond Andean Explorer achieves, namely seeing parts of Peru that others do not reach. You also meet fabulous people of similar interests, and do a variety of activities, which in our case included a riotous pre-dinner game of charades initiated by a Canadian with purple streaks in her golden locks. Taking part with great gusto were a French quartet, a Brazilian sports manager who loves The Dorchester when in London and a Mexican 20-ish who filled me in on hostel etiquette and sharing rooms with complete strangers as he backpacked round South East Asia, alone – everyone, by the way, was well-travelled but hungry for more.
The last trek on this train was a good hike down to a small Sumbay cave with hundreds of 6000-year-old animal carvings. Back up at the train, moist towels and glasses of just-poured iced tea were offered. It struck me once again that luxury is full of details – now, the tables are set for the journey’s Last Lunch and the linen napkins are, for the first time, folded not as pyramids but as waves.
Actually, I do recommend following my lead and getting off the train a couple of hours before Arequipa at a lonely halt. Belmond arranged for me, and a couple of others, to be picked up at the newest Belmond property, Las Casitas in Colca Canyon. Here, in this Grand Canyon-like environment the estate has 24 hectares of lush gardens, working produce fields – inset with several dining tables – and a farm with alpaca and horses, for riding. Twenty detached casitas, starting from 80 square metres interiors only, have private gardens with year-round heated plunge pools. Inside, light mustard walls soar from tiled floors to open-gable wood ceilings: you have excellent Wi-Fi – not available on the train – and a real log fire, and the big bathroom, which has indoor and outdoor showers, has a tile floor that deliciously heats up at night. With a world-class spa and heated outdoor pool, this is the ideal stress-free resort, and of course Colca Canyon’s famous condors are a major draw too. One more pull is that Hotel Manager Aldo Del Campo can organise intimate weddings in the hotel’s sanctified Capilla.
Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world. Read her daily travelogue, www.girlahead.com