Try a nostalgic train journey across Ireland, complete with formal dinners and luxurious carriages.
Beyond the windows of the gently swaying dining car, darkness descended. The heaviness of the rain and our speed were increasing at roughly the same rate — optimal conditions for cocktail hour on a luxury train. With an Irish gin and tonic in my hand, I watched the manager of the Belmond Grand Hibernian place a line of small electric lamps on the long table. As the author of a number of books about trains, I had hoped for just this kind of nod to railway history when I'd put this journey on my travel to-do list. Table lamps in the restaurant cars, often shaded in pink silk, were symbols of the trains de luxe of the late 1800s and 1900s, especially those of the Wagons-Lits company, whose sleepers — including the various Orient Expresses — carried stylish travelers across Europe until the 1970s.
The Wagons-Lits carriages were midnight blue, as are those of the Grand Hibernian, but in other ways this new offering from high-end train operator Belmond strikes out on its own. The carriage interiors are modeled not on those of earlier trains but on notably immobile phenomena: the Georgian mansions of Dublin. Hence, wood paneling in the sleeping compartments, tweed upholstery in the observation car, and an actual mantelpiece in one of the two dining cars.
The train manager switched on the lights. "We always have the lamps on for the last night," he said. This would be the final evening of six for those on the Grand Tour of Ireland itinerary; for me, it was the last of two, since I was on the shorter Taste of Ireland route. I had boarded on Saturday morning and eaten lunch as we headed north from Dublin, the train gliding above the silvery water of the Malahide Estuary under a misty Irish rain. I sat opposite an Austrian gentleman with a flower in his buttonhole, who explained that he had "experienced all the Belmond services" and had traveled on the company's flagship, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, 68 times. "It is actually a very convenient way to go from Innsbruck to Paris," he said. The VSOE, by the way, is not to be confused with the old Orient Express beloved by Agatha Christie's generation. That is now defunct, though a new feature film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, out this month with Kenneth Branagh starring, is a testament to the train's enduring appeal.
As dessert was served (Guinness-and-chocolate cake with wild-blackberry sorbet), we skirted the Irish Sea and the beaches of Balbriggan and Gormanston. By the time we crossed the viaduct over the river Boyne, I was sitting at the desk in my compartment, imagining myself one of the railway-borne statesmen — Ferdinand Foch, commander in chief of the Allies, perhaps — who patrolled the Western Front in converted Wagons-Lits dining cars during World War I.
I contemplated a lie-down on the bed: not the planklike arrangement of so many sleeper cars, but a snowdrift of fresh-pressed white linen, topped by a plump embarrassment of pillows. Unlike the old Wagons-Lits, where washrooms were shared on even the most sumptuous trains, my cabin had its own en suite, with a shower clad in white tiles with beveled edges, like the ones in the Paris Métro.
Forty miles later, we crossed the border into Northern Ireland, where we stopped to visit the Titanic Belfast museum, which stands on the docks where the ship was built by the firm of Harland & Wolff. The exhibition is housed in a glass-and-aluminum-sided building that is designed to resemble a four-pronged star when viewed from above. The prongs are supposed to suggest the prow of the Titanic and are of the same height. "A lot of people think it's meant to be the iceberg," the coach driver confided.
We were shown to a private function room for a reception of wine and canapés, which I consumed rather sheepishly while looking down on the Titanic slipway, where an outline of the ship appears, flanked by silhouettes of the too-few lifeboats. Later, I wandered through the exhibition in a melancholic reverie, which was deepened by the fact that, by a special concession, we Hibernians had the place to ourselves. Especially poignant was the low-lit floor devoted to images of the ship's sinking, including the sheer wrongness of the ship with its hull perpendicular to the ocean, like a duck feeding beneath the water.
The Grand Hibernian is the country's first luxury sleeper train, though the island of Ireland is really too small for sleepers — they would fall off the edge before morning. So after heading south, to Eire once again, we slept berthed in pretty Dundalk Station. Stepping onto the platform, I discovered a small museum in a former waiting room, the door propped invitingly open. There was a photograph: Dundalk Station, September 6, 1957. It looked no different from Dundalk Station today.
Dinner, which was widely acclaimed, began with Irish grouse offset with cauliflower purée and hazelnut sauce. Fillet of Atlantic turbot followed. Afterward, there was traditional Irish music in the observation car. I liked the players' exuberant shouts of "D minor!" or "Key change!" It was like being in a pub in the Irish countryside, long after closing time.
My guilty secret as an advocate of night trains is that I often find them sleepers in name only. I tend to lie awake, trying to rationalize the baffling movements of the train: the frustrating interludes of slow crawling, the provokingly long stops. Spending the night berthed at Dundalk Station, I discovered that the solution is to remain stationary but take in the railway atmosphere through the sound — dimly apprehended — of the occasional passing train. I slept as well on the Grand Hibernian as in a good hotel.
The next morning, I ate breakfast as we rolled again past the beaches at Gormanston and Balbriggan, now brightly sunlit but still deserted. We returned to Dublin and began heading south, through a hundred miles of the Emerald Isle, its famed 40 shades of green on full display — the reward for all that rainfall. The observation car was now a comfortable drawing room, with people reading the papers, drinking coffee, talking in an indolent, Sundayish way. We approached the elegant town of Waterford on the southern coast, running alongside the Suir River, whose dark blue water matched the color of our train exactly. We boarded a coach that took us through dense woodland to Curraghmore House, the slightly battered but extraordinarily beautiful home of the ninth Marquess of Waterford. His family has lived here for the past 847 years. The former butler to the eighth marquess conducted the least prim country-house tour I have ever been on. If I'd carried an umbrella, however sodden, I'm sure I could have hung it from the elephant's trunk inside the front door, one of several hunting trophies I saw around the estate. After getting chilly as our guide explained the reason for the crack halfway up the staircase (the rakish third marquess had ridden a horse up it), I sat next to a roaring fire and gazed through the windows at the 2,500 acres of formal gardens.
We reboarded the coach for a guided tour of the factory where Waterford Crystal is made. For those passengers more interested in what was in the glass, a reception in the factory shop followed — and the more champagne we drank, the more Waterford Crystal was sold.
That evening, there was more live music in the observation car, and one of the waiters danced a jig, earning raucous applause from passengers who in some cases were only one glass of champagne away from joining in. We were now "stabled" at Bagenalstown, Carlow. As at Dundalk, the station was so quaint I wouldn't have been surprised if a steam train had puffed past in the night.
As we approached our terminus the next morning, most of the passengers were in the observation car. It is a tribute to the operators of the Grand Hibernian that the mood was one of outright dejection. "Oh no!" a woman exclaimed, as the platform slid alongside us. "Dublin!"