Nearly 100 years after Bar Car 3674 first dazzled luxury travellers, its operator Belmond ushers in a new era of rainbow-hued, inclusive glamour on the legendary Paris to Venice rail journey. The Experientialist® joined the iconic train in November last year to ‘Travel with Pride’ on the Venice Simplon Orient Express, A Belmond Train.
The white-tuxedoed bar team aren’t quite sure what has hit them, but take in their stride the deluge of orders for espresso martinis that is rolling in. Other waiters balance trays laden with bubbling champagne flutes high overhead, deftly dodging the up-for-it revellers who, rocking their most fabulous finery, pack out the legendary Bar Car 3674 on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE). They might as well hand out bottles at this rate. A mirror ball bounces little rays of rainbow shimmer around the magnificent vintage carriage. Stephanie Glitter – Milan drag royalty – sits sultrily on top of the baby grand piano, gesticulating and shoulder-dancing to the music, simultaneously beckoning over handsome strangers with gloved, bejewelled hands.
Over the tiaras and spangly headdresses adorning these Dapper Dans and Danielles, we spot the fluorescent pink hair of Sophie Scott from Sophie and the Giants, who is performing vocals alongside longstanding collaborator Purple Disco Machine. As her set ends, disco beats courtesy of the world-famous party institution Horse Meat Disco mix almost melodiously with the clickety-clack of the train thundering down the tracks somewhere (quite possibly in Switzerland) – who knows, who cares? The punters didn’t – except those who step out at station stops for a cigarette – but then, so engrossed in the celebrations, we don’t think they care that much either.
The merriment continues until the wee hours and a delicate but much welcomed ‘Midnight Brunch’ keeps our hunger at bay until breakfast (we mean lunch – we’re most definitely sleeping in). We laugh at the astonishment of eager, early-morning commuters as we pull through stations and wave at trainspotters on the platform for whom this must be a rare sighting – a magnificent vintage locomotive, pulling a set of elegant art-deco carriages, the most famous of which pulsates with disco lights and inebriated passengers. Definitely one for the log book…
This edition of Travel with Pride on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express is all about celebrating self-expression, inclusivity and diversity. It goes the distance to show that purpose-driven inclusivity can be done authentically. It is hosted by producer and actor Gary Janetti and renowned Canadian fashion stylist Brad Goreski, both adding plenty of colour to the occasion. The train’s globally renowned carriages are magnificently transformed into a flamboyant party venue, with electrifying performances and relaxed camaraderie. Copiously champagne-fuelled, we enjoy informal yet signature, on-point Belmond hospitality, graze on phenomenal cuisine by Michelin-starred Chef Jean Imbert in a Lalique-panelled dining carriage, and relish any available downtime (only really enough for us to change into our glad rags) in the train’s magical cabins. There aren’t many shortcuts to happiness in life, but we can safely say that this journey is one of them. It’s an almost overwhelming outpouring of queer joy.
This is the second time that operator Belmond has programmed a Pride ride for the VSOE, one of its global portfolio of unique luxury trains. Part of a purpose-driven strategy, ‘Travel with Pride’ was born at the suggestion of the luxury hospitality group’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Board, a landmark initiative to help the brand foster a greater sense of belonging for LGBTQ+ people and curate products that engage the community – in the words of Belmond’s website: ‘celebrating modern queer brilliance’. OutThere is a proud founding member of the board.
Leveraging two iconic trains – British Pullman and VSOE – ‘Travel with Pride’ took shape in 2022 when Belmond offered two distinct journeys on each train. British Pullman’s journey coincided with the 30th anniversary of Brighton Pride, bringing revellers from London to the southern seaside city and back again. Entertainment was provided by Drag Race UK superstars, while the train was wrapped in a rainbow flag to mark the occasion.
The other journey, much like the one we’re on now, was in support of the UK-based transgender-led charity, Not a Phase, which is committed to uplifting the lives of trans+ and gender-non-conforming adults through community initiatives. This wasn’t a rosy first ride for Belmond. The brand came under significant fire from homophobes and transphobes on social media, proving that there is still much work to be done when it comes to LGBTQ+ acceptance. But Belmond doubled down in support and solidarity with the community and immediately announced its second journey, again in support of Not a Phase.
Belmond has a long history of inclusivity. A Gold Global partner of the lnternational LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA) for nearly a decade, it has consistently stepped up its efforts to promote inclusive travel and directly welcome LGBTQ+ travellers. The brand recently evolved the advisory board into an LGBTQ+ Commercial Committee – another industry first – dedicated to turning discussions into priorities and actions, alongside improving the company’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Belmond, across all its properties and experiences, welcomes all travellers to celebrate self-expression, inclusivity and diversity. Beyond the ‘brand marketing’, these initiatives send a greater message to the industry and LGBTQIA+ community on the importance of fostering an inclusive environment in travel.
While we’re still waiting to hear the dates for the next ‘Travel with Pride’ on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, we can assume, like the last two years, that it will be sometime in early November 2024, so do make sure to block out some time and position yourself in Europe during that period (Belmond has many other properties on the continent to help extend your vacation pre- and/or post-).
We hope that the next journey will see a greater balance of paying punters to invited VIP guests, after all, more cabins sold means that the charity benefits to a greater degree. As this sort of event generally goes, the audience makeup leans heavily towards gay men, but unlike other LGBTQ+ events that skew naturally this way because of the entertainment and programming, there isn’t any reason why Travel with Pride on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express should only attract men. Belmond has been very careful in curating the content for the journey so that it appeals to and is inclusive of all parts of our rainbow family, so there is great potential to see even more diverse and intersectional travellers – queer women in particular – onboard future journeys.
When reviewing Belmond’s many journeys by rail – and we are proud to say we’ve done every one of them, even those since decommissioned – we’ve always been careful about using the phrase ‘the golden age of travel’. It’s an apt term, often used in cases like these, to describe a journey that evokes nostalgic luxury style and hospitality. But it also, sadly, describes a time of inequitable privilege when many people, especially those from diverse backgrounds, were wilfully excluded just for being who they are. But, having been on this fabulously inclusive journey with Belmond, we’re confident that the golden age is now. A hundred years on from its debut, it seems that on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the ‘roaring’ 20s – albeit the 2020s – are alive and hitting their stride. Bravissimo Belmond!