The dream of getting away for the trip of lifetime on the legendary Orient Express is something that most people won’t ever be lucky enough to realise. Fortunately the same company behind the world’s most famous train also run an alternative that eases through Scotland in a whirl of luxury offering once in a lifetime day trips on the Northern Belle. I jumped aboard in Edinburgh to taste a slice of the rail high life.
The Belle part of the name is an apt one. Most of the carriages may be ex-British Rail Mark IIs, but they have been completely remoulded to create a refined space awash with ornate touches. James Park Associates were the brains behind the design and they have tried to use as much British craftsmanship as possible in the impressive marquetry, fabrics and brass work. This is a train guaranteed to change your image of trains.
I boarded the carriage Duart– all the dining cars are named after British stately homes or castles. This one was brand new, but one of the oldest! It was an old dame that had just been lovingly brought back to life. I felt like I had slipped back in time into a world where timetables were more relaxed and a journey was a thing to savour rather than wish it was over. I settled in with the route maps they provided and prepared for a day of rail pampering.
We eked out of Waverley with a welcome Bellini cocktail before a sumptuous breakfast as we headed on the mainline towards Glasgow. Not the usual way I travel between the two cities! We pushed on, joining the world famous West Highland Line and skirting the shores of Loch Lomond as we went.
The choice was whether to get off at Dalmally and join the coach for a trip around Inveraray Castle or stay on to Oban. I chose to seek out the Atlantic at Oban. The scenery just kept getting more and more impressive as we rushed on to Loch Awe, with Kilchurn Castle posing in the sunshine as I took advantage of being on an older train and leant out of the windows to snap some photos.
I wasn’t the only photographer as along the route cameras clicked at the grand spectacle of the Northern Belle. People along the route also often waved at us, which was a nice touch and one that most people outside of the Royal Family don’t often get to experience!
The end of the line came at Oban, just over 144 miles from Waverley, where we had some free time. Back on board it was time for the decadent highlight of the day, a four-course feast for dinner. How they cook food this good on a train I’ll never know. Dinner kicked off with tastebud tingling spiced red pepper soup, then it was on to a succulent steak and an impressive cheeseboard that nodded to the Scottish route with a fiery Dunsyre Blue. The evening was rounded off with sticky toffee pudding and there was still time for coffee and chocolates before we were back at Waverley.
The Northern Belle may not be the sort of luxurious escape that you could afford to do more than once, but a day on this grand dame is a once in a lifetime experience that many of my fellow passengers were doing to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Like me they will probably never forget their day out on the ‘Orient Express of the North’.
- The Northern Belle offers a variety of Scottish departures throughout the year, which travel both around Scotland and also into northern England.