And it's aboard the famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

In "The White Hotel," D. M. Thomas’s surreal novel in which a singer corresponds with a fictionalized Sigmund Freud, many of the fever-dream sequences take place aboard a train. Little wonder. Trains — with their ever-changing mise-en-scènes, dramatic plunges into light and shadow, and commingling of public and private life — are literally transportive settings, and have inspired countless authors, from Thomas to Agatha Christie and J. K. Rowling.

Now Belmond, which operates the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, has added a new chapter to its own narrative, with the launch of the train’s first-ever wintertime journey between Paris and the French Alps. Which is how, in December, I found myself in Paris wearing a floor-sweeping Halston gown, standing on a red carpet in the Gare de l’Est station, the sounds of a swing band swirling around me in the chilly winter night. A line of blue-and-gold-liveried stewards stood before my portal to the past: 17 midnight-blue carriages, their glowing windows offering a tantalizing, fringe-trimmed glimpse of the adventure ahead.

I was about to set off on a preview of the VSOE’s new Alpine route. The train goes from Paris to Albertville, Moûtiers, and Bourg-St.-Maurice, where guests can disembark and continue on to their preferred ski resorts, including Megève and Chamonix-Mont-Blanc; Courchevel and the Three Valleys; and Tignes-Val d’Isère. 

The attractions for skiers are obvious, but Pascal Deyrolle, the VSOE’s general manager, thinks the new journey has plenty of appeal for everyone. To begin with, it’s one of the few VSOE journeys on which guests can immerse themselves in snowy scenery. “The atmosphere on board is also quite special at this time of year, with our historic dining carriages and the bar car all styled for Christmas,” Deyrolle said.

The impeccably restored 1920s and 30s carriages made me feel immediately transported — especially when my friendly steward, Elenora, guided me to my cozy, wood-paneled sleeper cabin. Car 3483 was an ideal vantage point from which to contemplate the snowy countryside and the quaint French villages sliding past. And, should literary inspiration strike, there were postcards on the desk (the crew, I was told, would mail them from stops along the way).

Last summer Belmond added eight new suites to the VSOE, each conceived and crafted by French designers and artisans to reflect the landscapes — forests, mountains, lakes — the train passes through. Suites have their own marble bathrooms and a spacious lounge area that converts to either a double bed or twin beds. There are also six Grand Suites, each inspired by a European city. The Istanbul Grand Suite, for instance, features embossed leather, hand-carved wood, and embroidered pillows and rugs that evoke the city’s Grand Bazaar. These plush accommodations also offer private in-cabin dining, 24-hour butler service, and free-flowing champagne.

But there was plenty of bubbly to go around in Bar Car 3674, where the party was already in full swing when I arrived that evening. Guests were carousing in their sparkliest, most Gatsbyesque attire, while a tuxedoed baritone belted out “Tu Vuò Fà l’Americano” and “Volare,” backed by musicians playing a trombone and a baby grand. Everyone was enthusiastically singing along, encouraged by train-themed cocktails like the Choo Choo Train Martini. 

Dinner was prepared by Jean Imbert, who was appointed the VSOE’s chef last July. Imbert, who heads a namesake restaurant at Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, and Dior’s restaurant at its Paris flagship, researched old menus and replaced the train’s china with bespoke French porcelain. He also had mood lighting installed in the VSOE’s famed dining car, which is adorned with Lalique glass panels. “Everything is different from a regular restaurant,” said Imbert, whose team rapidly loads deliveries of fresh produce, Tetris-style, into fridges during stops. “The kitchen is very small; only two or three people can work in it at the same time.” 

Apart from the logistical challenges, the setting demands a certain stately nostalgia. Inspired by a traditional French Christmas dinner, my meal consisted of luscious sabayon-draped oysters, AOC-certified chapon de Bresse (capon) served with chestnuts, squash, and a cranberry sauce, and a yule log infused with coffee and crunchy Piedmont hazelnuts. “It’s a very special dish for me,” Imbert said of the dessert, “because I used to make it with my grandmother for our Christmas dinner. So it reminds me of all these beautiful moments with my family.”

After digestifs in the bar car, where the party continued well past 2 a.m., I returned to my cabin to discover it had been transformed into a plush boudoir, my bed swaddled in sumptuous linens and topped with a vibrant blue kimono (ideal for late-night ablutions, as Historic Cabin guests use shared toilets). Happily spent, I fell into a deep sleep and woke at dawn to views of snow-dusted country houses. A call button summoned the ever-efficient Elenora, who tucked my bed away before delivering viennoiserie, steaming Dammann Frères teas, and fresh fruit in swirly Murano glasses. I spent a hushed few hours cocooned in my robe, cradling a hot cup of tea and watching the landscape slowly brighten as we headed toward Moûtiers, my final destination.

Summoned to brunch (another indulgent feast of fluffy coddled eggs and caviar, langoustine ravioli, and more champagne), I mused on how satisfying it felt, defiant even, to submit myself to the train’s leisurely pace — where the proverbial journey was indeed the entire point. Which, as it happened, was Deyrolle’s recommendation for guests on this new route. He urged me to revel in the joy of just eating, reading, or simply gazing out the window. “My best advice would be to hit pause and slow down.” 

A-List Travel Advisor Tip

“Peru’s most famous site, Machu Picchu, can only be accessed by train or the classic Inca Trail hike. Most people don’t know this, but you can do both in one day: take a train that stops at Km 104 and hike the final section. You can feel very smug that you experienced the hiking, without any of the discomfort.” — Thomas Robinson, Dehouche

A version of this story first appeared in the December 2023/January 2024 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Romancing the Rails."

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