After a red-carpet ceremony complete with champagne and a 25-piece band, 190 passengers left London's Victoria Station for Venice yesterday on the inaugural journey of the new Orient Express.
"Let's just hope it won't have any murder," said Lady Kilmarnock, one of the travelers, remembering the Agatha Christie thriller set aboard the celebrated luxury train.
Film stars, including Liza Minnelli and George Hamilton, joined royalty, socialites, celebrities and nostalgia buffs--may of them in '20s attire--and climbed aboard the gleaming carriages on Platform 8 at Victoria, normally home to a drab commuter service.
In a scene evoking pre-World War II ragtime and glamor, women in plumed hats and men in boaters and striped blazers took their seats for the sold-out journey into the past.
A bellboy in red tunic scurried along the platform with a billboard carrying messages for passengers, many of whom arrived in vintage cars and taxis.
The original Orient Express dates back to 1883. Five years after its demise, a renovated train is once again offering a first-class service between London and Venice, passing through Paris and the Simplon Pass in a 23-hour journey.
The Express' departure from Victoria represented the fulfillment of a dream for American James B. Sherwood, president of Sea Containers Services Ltd., the London-based shipping company that will operate the train by leasing track from the state railways of Britain, France, Switzerland and Italy.
Sherwood spent four years and $20 million buying and renovating 35 original Orient Express carriages from salesrooms, museums and scrapheaps all over Europe.
The new Orient Express, renamed the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, is actually two trains.
Chocolate-and-cream-colored Pullman dining carriages cover the distance between London and Folkestone. Once ferried across the English Channel, passengers transfer to refurbished Wagon-Lits for Venice.
The English section's seven cars have nothing so ordinary as train seats. Instead, overstuffed armchairs flank linen-covered tables. The Continental train has 194 beds, suites renting for $1,850 per trip, a pianist in the bar car and two lush restaurant cars.
The cars feature polished rosewood panels inlaid in rare woods with floral designs, hand-set mosaics on bathroom floors, lamps of Lalique glass, window blinds of moire silk and solid mahogany toilet seats. And when an overstuffed sofa is turned into a bed, out pops a padded rest to hold your pocket watch.
Sherwood estimates his investment will be recouped if the train runs at 75 percent capacity over the next four years.
"The interest has been enormous," he said before cutting a tape at the steps of a carriage and sending the train on its maiden journey through northern Europe.
"We have taken over 14,000 bookings up to the end of November, which is the equivalent of about 75 percent capacity," he said.
The one-way London-Venice fare is $465. Lunch of watercress soup, salmon pie and strawberries in wine between London and Folkstone is free. But chef Michel Ranvier's six-course dinner on the French side is $37 extra, and Wednesday's Italian lunch is nearly $28 more.
The train will run twice a week to Venice and back--Sherwood says there was not enough interest to take it all the way to Istanbul, the old train's destination--and three times a week on the Paris-Venice sector.
Maybe the new Orient Express isn't like the old days, when Mata Hari lounged on the flame-stitch upholstery, the president of France fell off the train in his pajamas and a chef invented Pear Melba for singer Dame Nellie.
But for Minnelli, who arrived for the maiden voyage with her husband, Mark Gero, it was a thrill nonetheless. "I've always heard and read about the Orient Express," she said, "but what a dream to actually do it."
The train was launched with a whistle from the stationmaster and fanfare from a bank of trumpeters in scarlet tunics.
"I declare the Venice-Simplon Orient Express resumed," said Sherwood. The band struck up a spritely "Charleston."