Toot sweet, from Europe to Asia
Whether there is more pleasure in the travel or the arrival at one's destination is hotly contested. But having travelled on the Orient Express for my latest TV series, I am convinced the journey is the most pleasurable part.
I took a series of iconic train journeys for a six-part culinary show, Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains. Each episode features a different journey, so I got to experience some of the world's most iconic and scenic train trips. I went from Paris to Venice, Istanbul to Bucharest, and Budapest to Venice on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
Aboard the Eastern and Oriental Express, I travelled from Bangkok to Singapore and on to Malaysia. In the United Kingdom, I went from London to Whitstable and Rutland on the British Pullman and the Northern Belle, "sister" trains to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
For me this really was a dream come true. After nearly 30 years in the fashion industry representing supermodels including Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss, and hosting a number of popular foodie shows in the UK, I was given the opportunity to combine three of my favourite things - travel, fabulous food and five star service - in one show.
Being part of the generation that grew up with the evocative '70s movie, Murder on the Orient Express, featuring screen luminaries Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery, the Orient Express has long been on my bucket list. And there really is nothing quite like it - the train is extravagant, luxurious, romantic, glamorous and takes you back to the golden age of travel when everything was done with style and class.
These days transport is often just functional, so to experience getting from one place to another amid the glamour and elegance of a bygone era was really quite special.
The service on the Orient Express is unparalleled. The staff, immaculate in uniforms complete with white gloves, find no request too big or too small. The attention to detail is remarkable. Dinner is all silver service and fine china, and accompanied by the world's best wines. The dining carriages are beautifully lit and the tables are adorned with fresh flowers. You just sit back and submerge yourself in the sheer luxury of it all.
These great trains just ooze history. On the Northern Belle, the six dining carriages are named after grand British castles and stately homes. The British Pullman - named after George Mortimer Pullman, the father of luxury train travel - has carriages used extensively by the British royal family as well as European heads of state. Two of the carriages were part of Winston Churchill's funeral train, while others (the delightfully named Audrey and Vera) were restored after sustaining damage during air-raids over London's Victoria Station in 1940.
Each journey had its highlights. On the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, there were ever-changing vistas through the imposing Carpathian Basin, where the majestic Carpathian Mountains flow into the imposing Alps, the romantic Dinarides and, finally, the fairytale Balkans, before arriving in Istanbul.
Aboard the Eastern and Oriental Express, I loved the contrast of leaving ultra-modern Singapore and travelling through the jungles and rubber plantations of Malaysia, and seeing the glistening Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur lit up at night, then waking to views of lush paddy fields on the way to Bangkok.
Then, of course, there was the food and drink. On the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express I savoured signature cocktail The Guilty 12, created by head barman Walter Nisi. Inspired by Murder on the Orient Express, in which 12 passengers are guilty of the crime, the cocktail has 12 secret ingredients (I managed to detect six). The bar menu reflects the train's heyday during the United States Prohibition era in the 1920s and 30s, when European barmen really began developing cocktails with an international flavour.
During my journey from Venice to Paris on the same train, chef Christian Bodiguel served such delights as the best end of lamb on a tian of legumes provencal and the lightest dessert of floating islands, or ile flottante. But the standout was his veloute de chou-fleur avec filet de sole et beluga (cream of cauliflower with filet of sole and Beluga caviar). This from a man who looks like he never eats!
You would think it would be hard to get sick of eating the world's finest caviar, but after all this sensory overload I found myself hankering after a simple meal. I would have settled for cheese on toast but Yannis Martineau, the chef on board the Eastern and Oriental Express from Singapore to Bangkok, offered me an irresistible Malay curry. Thanks to my Caribbean heritage, this is one of my favourite dishes. I even had seconds, adding yet another reason for my expanding waistline during the four months we spent filming.
There were unexpected moments, too. While on the Eastern and Oriental Express in Malaysia, the train stopped on the bridge over the River Kwai. At first I couldn't understand what was going on when we were woken and given wreaths. Looking around, I realised there were a number of elderly war veterans on the train, some in wheelchairs, others with walking sticks. They had come from all over the world to make a pilgrimage. We were going to the Don-Rak war cemetery (also known as the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery), where the remains of nearly 7000 Australian, Dutch and British Allied prisoners of war who lost their lives during the construction of the Death Railway in World War II are buried. Some were as young as 19.
Of all the experiences I had while making the series, this was the most humbling.
Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains screens on the Travel Channel, SKY025, on Wednesdays at 8.30pm.
Sunday Star Times