I had long wondered why Ireland, unlike neighboring Scotland, did not have a luxury train from which to view its glorious scenery. I was therefore extremely interested to learn that Belmond (formerly Orient-Express) was planning to launch just such a train in August 2016, to join the ranks of the Royal Scotsman and the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
Belmond had to start from scratch by purchasing 10 carriages and a locomotive from Irish Rail. These were shipped to Scotland to be re-engineered and painted in their distinctive livery of midnight blue. The next stop was Antrim, in Northern Ireland, where 40 craftsmen spent 35,000 hours transforming the interiors. As configured, the Grand Hibernian now has five sleeper cars, each with four cabins, for a total of 40 passengers; two dining cars; and an observation car.
At Dublin’s Heuston Station, a kilted drummer escorted us and our fellow passengers across a red carpet leading to the waiting train. As soon as we boarded, we were impressed by the caliber of the workmanship. Elegant wainscoting graced the passageways to the cabins, and custom-woven wool-blend carpeting clad the floors. Our cabin had two large windows, with both curtains and pull-down shades. Its interior was chiefly cream, with bright accent pillows, as well as a dark wood desk and a built-in armoire. The comfortable bed was made up with coverlets by Avoca, an Irish company that has been weaving high-quality textiles since 1723. I especially approved of the easy-to-reach reading lights. Original artwork adorned the walls. And then there were the grace notes, such as petite Galway Crystal vases with fresh flowers and a crystal tray with a ring holder. All cabins have en suite baths. Each is small but a model of efficient design, with white subway tiles on the walls, aquamarine tiles in the shower and sufficient counters and shelves for toiletries.
Attention to detail was evident throughout all parts of the Grand Hibernian, most notably in the observation car, with its walnut veneer and leather banquettes that made perfect perches for watching the verdant hills and the spectacular coastline slide past.
Our fellow passengers turned out to be a congenial group of people from the U.S., Britain, Ireland and continental Europe. Meals provided the principal opportunity to socialize. The two dining cars had slightly different configurations: Wexford came with tables for six, Sligo with tables for four. Overall the dishes that emerged from the two small kitchens were outstanding. Highlights included a confit of duck with lentils and mushrooms, a fine seafood soup, and a perfectly cooked piece of beautiful Irish beef.
In the evenings the train would “stable” for the night, meaning that it remained in one place. This allowed for local performers to provide after-dinner entertainment in the observation car, as well as to permit motion-free sleep. (Personally, I find being on a moving train a great inducer of sleep, but I realize that I am in the minority.) Excursions on our three-day itinerary were supposed to include a visit to Giant’s Causeway, a remarkable geologic formation on the north coast, but this was canceled due to track problems. Instead we went to the exceptional Titanic Belfast museum and then journeyed down to Waterford. There we toured Curraghmore House, the home of the Marquess of Waterford, and took tea with his lordship and his son, who raises polo ponies and makes his own whiskey. We also had a chance to visit the new House of Waterford Crystal factory, where we enjoyed a Champagne reception and an opportunity to shop at a discount.
I was extremely sorry when our brief journey came to an end. I had especially enjoyed the time spent with our excellent guide, Vincent Butler, a fount of wide-ranging knowledge. The staff in general were friendly, kind and accommodating. Travel on the Grand Hibernian is much like being aboard a country house hotel on wheels.
Tel. (800) 524-2420
Belmond offers three itineraries on the Grand Hibernian. The season is from mid-April to mid-October.
- “Taste of Ireland” is a two-night trip. Cabin, from $3,220 per person.
- “Legends and Loughs” is a four-night trip. Cabin, from $5,515 per person.
- “Grand Tour of Ireland” is a six-night trip. Cabin, from $7,845 per person.
Rates include all meals and beverages (including alcohol) and excursions described in the itinerary.