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Choo-Choo Special : Romancing the Rails : Elegance on wheels: a day trip from London

<i> Kuehl is a Denver free-lance writer. </i>

With the U.S. dollar worth about 50 cents to 1 sterling in the current exchange, those who have done England in style on previous visits are dumbstruck at the cost of mere survival in tourist London.

A “budget-priced” room near Victoria Station, with a bath down the hall, is priced at about $110 a night, service not included. Tea and scones in a Piccadilly tearoom run $12. A piece of mushroom pizza and a glass of mineral water at a vegetarian stand-up counter just off Trafalgar Square costs $5. A three-course dinner (fish, salad and dessert, one cup of coffee, no wine) in the Covent Garden area tallies $70.

That’s why a day-trip to Bath on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, total elegance on wheels, is a bargain at $240. From the time you board the train at its own plush check-in area at Victoria Station at 11 a.m., to the time you return in a state of bloated bliss at 6:30 p.m., you’re wined, dined, stroked and pampered.

Two hundred and forty dollars? You’re worth it.

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The excitement begins at 10 a.m., designated arrival time at check-in, long before the distinctive cream-and-umber VSOE Pullman cars roll in on Track 8. If you, as I, had been intimidated by the legendary train’s tradition of: “You can never be overdressed on the Orient-Express,” you might wonder what to wear for the occasion.

When we’d watched the European version of the VSOE arrive in Paris one night a couple years before, we’d seen passengers in enough sequined gowns, ermine coats, white cocktail hats and white ties and tails to costume an old MGM musical. But that was Paris near midnight. This was London at mid-morning. Most passengers showed up in conservative, well-tailored suits and knit dresses for women, sports jackets and ties or suits for the men. Definitely no jeans, no jumpsuits, no Reeboks. After much covert inspection of what other status-conscious travelers were wearing to ride the most famous train in the world, you could almost hear a collective sigh of relief.

In no time at all, strangers were offering to photograph each other under the Orient-Express sign--proof for the folks back home they’d sampled the high life in London.

When the train pulled in, passengers hurried to their assigned Pullman cars. Each of the nine carriages has a different decor and different history, but each has a glass-enclosed coupe (compartment) at the end reserved for smokers or special parties for four.

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Stewards in short white jackets with bright brass buttons seated their charges in deep plush upholstered wing-back chairs pulled up to window tables set for brunch.

Picture perfect table settings included starched damask linens, heavy silver, sparkling crystal goblets, fresh flowers in a silver vase and the Orient-Express traditional Art Deco brass lamp with its fringed silk shade. Everything from the porcelain to the silverware, damask napkins to the crystal goblets, crocheted lace antimacassars on the tall chair backs to the highly polished brass luggage racks overhead carried the VSOE logo.

It was easy to settle back in your upholstered throne, let your eyes wander from the inlaid paneled walls to the Art Deco tulip lights overhead, sip your Buck’s Fizz (fresh orange juice and champagne) and imagine yourself a member of the privileged class in the extravagant 1920s.

The more the steward kept glasses brimming with Buck’s Fizz, the quicker friendships were struck up across the aisle separating tables. A portly, courtly septuagenarian gentleman and his solicitous wife, accompanied by a birdlike sister-in-law dressed from head to toe in robin’s-egg blue velvet, could have come straight from a PBS casting call. The impression became even stronger when the gentleman looked up from his menu to glance out the window and commented: “Oh my, my, it’s coming down wet!”

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We’d hardly left the station when the food arrived. A pineapple, grapefruit and kiwi fruit cup came first, then an enormous slice of honey-cured ham garnished with two tomato halves, a mound of feathery light scrambled eggs sprinkled with chives. Just to be sure you wouldn’t go away hungry: a basket of delectable pastries and a selection of jams, honey and marmalades. Even the butter curls had that VSOE logo.

To wash it all down, there was an endless supply of Colombian coffee or tea. No sooner was the steward coming by with more Buck Fizzes than the procession started through the Victorian oval glass doors that connect the coaches. Passengers were comparison-shopping the splendor of their carriage with others. It became party time as each made his judgment known, and others chimed in.

“Go ahead and look at the other carriages,” our steward encouraged. “Everybody does it. The newest of the lot is Vera. See how you like the marquetry of the antelope leaping between pine trees.”

Vera wasn’t to my taste. Too “men’s clubby.” I preferred Phoenix with its oval insets of flowers on cherry wood or Ione with its burr-wood panels and Victorian frieze of colorful flowers. My seat assignment was in Lucille, distinctive for its Greek urn design on green-dyed holly wood. Very formal.

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The best part of Lucille was her W.C., with its stained-glass oval window, elaborate fixtures and mosaic tile floor depicting a goddess leaning against a yellow animal of some sort. A British lion perhaps? My new friend in robin’s-egg blue velvet checked later, then chirped: “The beast has spots--it looks like an ocelot to me.”

When we arrived in Bath (the trip takes about two hours), we had the option of joining the VSOE’s bus tour or exploring on our own. “Don’t miss that tour,” the steward advised. “It’s an especially good one.”

And it was, especially for the first bus, lucky in its guide of a scholar with a sense of humor. Through his eyes we saw the development of Bath from Roman spa to 18th-Century society watering hole, with strict protocol dictated by Richard (Beau) Nash. We learned the fundamentals of Georgian architecture while giggling at the gossip behind the nursery rhyme about the Duke of York.

We marveled at the achievements of architects John Wood the Elder and John Wood the Younger and the price Joan Collins pays for privacy at the Royal Crescent Hotel. Best of all we heard the exploits and achievements of Ralph Allen, the stone quarry owner who set out to make Bath the most beautiful city in England.

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There was time left over to test the water (mineral) and listen to chamber music at the Pump Room or stroll along the Avon to Pulteney Bridge. Everyone had been cautioned to be back at the train station by 4 p.m. because the VSOE waits for no one.

Reboarding was like homecoming, with each new acquaintance reporting on how he’d used his time in Bath, revealing discoveries that had been made, exchanging business cards “in case you happen to come my way sometime.”

Tables had been set for light supper on the way back to London. Large plates overflowed with smoked Scotch salmon wrapped around a generous serving of nut-like prawns and celery in mayonnaise, new potatoes in minted butter, a mixed salad of lettuce, baby corn, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and sugar peas in a vinaigrette.

For dessert: the VSOE signature Chocolate Roulade with chocolate sauce and steaming coffee. That roulade must be four inches tall of rich vanilla ice cream, surrounded by a kind of chocolate pudding that in turn is surrounded by a chocolate crust sprinkled with powdered sugar.

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By the time we’d devoured all that--and a very British finishing touch, a glass of port, to complete the aura of bacchanal--we were on the outskirts of London. The end of a perfectly extravagant day . . . and worth every penny.

GUIDEBOOK

London’s Orient-Express

VSOE service from London to Bath will resume April 3, priced at $270 per person. The excursion will be offered on alternate Wednesdays through Nov. 13, and on alternate Fridays April 12 to Nov. 8.

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Other day-trip destinations are Bristol (alternate Wednesdays, April 3-Nov. 13; $270); Salisbury (alternate Fridays, April 12-Nov. 8, $270); Leeds Castle (alternate Wednesdays, April 10-Nov. 6, $270) and Hever Castle (Thursdays and Sundays, April 4-Nov. 14, $180).

For more information, contact your travel agent or Orient Express Hotels Inc., 1155 Avenue of the Americas, New York 10036. Telephone (800) 524-2420.


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