All Aboard the Orient-Express

The original Orient Express traversed the route from Paris to Istanbul, the 19th to 20th centuries. But really it traveled the realm of the imagination, with passengers longing for a bit of the luxe intrigue they found in Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel “Murder on the Orient Express” and the many movie versions it inspired.

The Orient Express’ spirit – not to mention its name and some of its destinations and train cars – survives in the Orient-Express Hotels Ltd., whose chairman of the board, Jesse Lovejoy, lives with his wife, Pat, in Larchmont, often the starting point for their great escapes with their five children.

Orient-Express Hotels Ltd.  has luxury hotels, restaurants, river cruises and tourist trains around the world, including the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in Europe, the Eastern & Oriental Express in Southeast Asia and The Royal Scotsman in Scotland.  Among the 36 stylish hotels the company owns, co-owns and/or manages are the Hotel Monasterio in Cuzco, Peru; the Hotel Splendido in Portofino, Italy and, opening in March 2013, a 92-room property in Santa Barbara, Calif., which, Jesse says, “If we get it right, it’ll be a recreation of old-time Hollywood glamour.”

After serving on the board of directors since 2000, Jesse was named chairman in 2011.

It’s a role that brings perks along with responsibility, including unusual family adventures that evoke another era, with the Lovejoys as marvelous armchair tour guides. Listening to their recollections, you realize Agatha couldn’t have put it better.

The not-so accidental tourists

“My favorite, favorite spot? Oh, we have so many of them,” says Pat, before she recounts the story of their trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Jesse says that train “was actually acquired by this company decades ago by purchasing the cars originally at auction and then picking some up here and there, and then ultimately doing a massive job of refurbishment” in order to update the beautiful old coaches.

And the windows? “Yes, they’re still full of Lalique,” he says.

The whole experience of going to Victoria Station (in London) and then taking the train to Venice through Paris is just a wonderful experience,” Pat says. “We did it with our children and some friends who also had their children. It was just like going back in time.

We were riding these really beautifully restored old trains with gorgeous wood paneling. The food is delightful. You have this breathtaking scenery, and you’re passing through these countries and then you end up in Venice at the train station…. It is just mind-boggling and especially in Venice, which is so mystical to begin with anyways. Just imagine.”

Here Jesse chimes in, “We went with three daughters, and part of the fascination of the train is that people actually put on black tie for dinner. We went with another family that also had three girls at the time from one who was really just a preschooler up to late teens, and they’re putting on their dresses and doing their hair to have dinner in this very elegant, white-tablecloth, seated dining car with, of course, the waiters in black tie as well… They wanted to dress for dinner, I will say that,” he laughs.

“And then after dinner you go to the bar car. The pianist just plays for as long as you want to stay up while you’re rocking and rolling through eastern France on your way up to the Alps. Then you go to bed and you find that the compartment has been transformed into this little bedroom, and you wake up in the morning and you’re in Switzerland,” he says with great energy, “You’re up in the mountains and the cows are walking by with bells on their necks with snow-clad mountains in the background, and they come in with coffee and croissants and so forth.

“The scenery is really remarkable on this trip because then you come down out of those Swiss Alps into the Italian mountains and you’re following (a valley), so you’re coming down these Alpine rivers into northern Italy and then finally to Venice. And as Pat said, you’re getting to Venice and getting off your train and being met by people from the Cipriani Hotel we own in Venice and they put you in one of the hotel boats and take you up the Grand Canal.”

Jesse lowers his voice and says, “I mean, it is probably the most extraordinary entrance into a city that any of us have ever experienced. It was just incredible. The kids just thought it was fantastic.”

“We took many, many pictures and we do every time we go back to Venice. With all the children, we’ve always traveled,” Pat says.

She adds that the Orient-Express is in fact quite kid-friendly and lately, she’s been seeing more families with children traveling, even with grandparents on-board.

“We were worried that our youngest at the time, and this was about 10 years ago, would be bored. But the fact of the matter is that kids find trains fascinating. They hang by the window and watch the scenery go by for hours,” Jesse says.

Into Africa

“The typical Orient-Express customer,” Jesse adds, “is a person with a very international outlook, a person that is looking for something really special if not beyond special and is looking for a vacation or a break from routine, which is a real and serious change of pace and an experience that will be a memorable one.

“A large number of guests at our properties are celebrating an event—  whether it be an anniversary, a wedding, a birthday, a family reunion or a college graduation – and our customers come back a lot.”

“There’s very much a repeat customer,” Pat says, recalling instances of running into Westchester friends in Sicily and Venice and once, on the side of Machu Picchu. (The company co-owns PeruRail, which also operates the first-class Hiram Bingham luxury train).

The Lovejoy family, like many other Orient-Express guests, celebrates special events in fabulous places and a few years ago embarked on a grand journey to celebrate a daughter’s college graduation.

“We asked her what she wanted for graduation and she said, ‘I would love to go to Africa but bring the whole family,’” Pat remembers. “So that’s what we did. It was an amazing, amazing trip.

“We started in Johannesburg and ended up in Cape Town with three different camps in the middle, and it was something we will always carry with us for the rest of our lives. And that’s how most people feel when they go to Africa. It’s the ultimate adventure…. I recommend it to all of my friends. If you want a once-in-a-lifetime, very, very special experience, go on a safari in South Africa.”

“The game camps that Orient-Express has in Africa are in the country of Botswana,” Jesse says. “And the Okavango Delta is where this gigantic river flows into the desert and sinks into the desert and basically disappears into the sand. And it creates…. a huge marsh full of flowing rivers, still waters, reeds and it’s the place where all of the animals for hundreds and hundreds of miles around will congregate… .It’s some of the most stunning landscape you’ve ever seen,” he says.

“The accommodations were these beautiful tented suites,” Pat remembers. “And there’s the smell in the air of the sage. We were talking about it the other night. One of my daughters said, ‘I will never forget the smell as you went out early in the morning.’

“You go out at 7 in the morning to see the animals, and just the experience of seeing a herd of giraffes walking by or the elephants coming out and just kind of sauntering by, or being in a boat and seeing the crocodiles or the hippos, was just phenomenal. We don’t have that here. It’s there, it’s an amazing experience, and, of course, the guides were phenomenal. It was very educational but very luxurious. And you didn’t have to dress up. It was relaxing and you’re just out there with your family for 10 days with the views and the animals.”

“When we were flying back from our trip to Africa,” Jesse says, “my stepson – who is now 32, so he must have been about 29, is a very visual, interesting guy and he’s a filmmaker – he turned to me and he said, ‘I have to tell you. I knew this trip was going to be amazing, and it was even better than I ever dreamed.”

“It really was,” Pat interjects, “He had an amazing time.”

“He actually sat in the front of the vehicle with the guy driving the whole way,” Jesse says with a laugh.

“Part of what you might call the objective of Orient-Express is always to deliver the local experience of where you are in contrast to many luxury hotel brands which try to deliver a very similar product in various parts of the world,” Jesse adds. “And, of course, in many cases, they do a wonderful job of it. But what Orient-Express wants to do is deliver a distinct product all over the world.

“Our customers are hardworking people by and large, probably overly hardworking, just like the kind of people you and I know in Westchester, and when they want to take off, they want to be with their family for some special time, and that’s absolutely key to our attraction.

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