Food for thought aboard the Orient Express

Stay at The Fairmont Singapore and journey back in time with a tour of the fabled 'king of trains'

So many staycays, so little time. What makes this package special?

The Fairmont Singapore's Classic Journey Through Time With The Orient Express Exhibition staycation centres on a whistle-stop tour of the world's first luxury train.

Included in the one-night package are two tickets for the pop-up exhibition Once Upon A Time On The Orient Express at Gardens by the Bay, which is on until June 13.

My husband and I check in at Fairmont Singapore in the afternoon and get ready for the tour, which begins at 6pm.

In the room, we are greeted with chilled champagne and a sculpture of roses made from chocolate, sprouting from an edible pot containing chocolate "soil".

I chomp on the flora while my husband uncorks the Taittinger.

A couple of hours later, we book a taxi for the West Lawn at Gardens by the Bay. Transport to and from the exhibition is not included in the staycation.

The real draw is the way the exhibition has been put together in Singapore and the first time parts of the Orient Express have been shown outside France.

The exhibition starts at a replica of a 19th-century Parisian train station facade in a massive pop-up tent, which houses two train carriages, a 2,000 sq m museum with more than 300 artefacts, the Orient Express Road Cafe, a gourmet restaurant and a souvenir shop.

First impressions?

My journey starts to chug along nicely at the majestic display of a 158-year-old dark green locomotive with an attached coal compartment outside the tented exhibition area, against the dramatic backdrop of Marina Bay Sands.

The locomotive is one of three parts of the original Orient Express, which collectively weigh more than 100 tonnes and took more than six years of high-level talks before finally making it to Singapore by sea in December last year.

The steam-powered enterprise - which left Paris on its maiden journey on June 5, 1883, for Varna, Bulgaria - was the world's first luxury train, dubbed "the train of kings and the king of trains".

From June 1, 1889, the train started a direct route to Istanbul, which took four days and had stopovers at Munich, Budapest and Belgrade.

What awe it must have inspired, racing through the countryside with its trailing steam plume and coal smoke.


The Orient Express passenger train at Gardens by the Bay. PHOTO: ST FILE

What are the high points of the Orient Express tour?

Our tour guide, Ms Desiree Ong, Swissotel The Stamford's assistant chef concierge, greets us and starts reeling off names, dates and places.

The Orient Express was the brainchild of Belgian civil engineer Georges Nagelmackers, who created it for Europe's royals, celebrities and the well-heeled.

We step inside two train carriages. Inside - a Pullman made in 1920 and a Fourgon in 1929 - my eyes are drawn to the well-worn upholstery and the ephemera placed on the tables, as if the passengers had taken a toilet break and were about to return to their seats at any time.

Pearls from Syrian chanteuse Asmahan are strewn on one table, near a bottle of 1933 champagne and a super-long cigarette holder.

On one table, the Daily Mail's front page screams: "We are at war with Germany", on that fateful day on Sept 3, 1939.

American spy and entertainer Josephine Baker has her place at the table too. The author of Stamboul Train, Graham Greene, is evoked through an antique Remington typewriter and a bottle of gin.

One of the most captivating - and spine-chilling - compartments is the exhibit area for Dame Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express. There is a coffin with what looks like a body in a shroud, with stab marks and dried blood.

This is a re-enactment of the murder scene in the novel by the celebrated author, who was a regular passenger on the Orient Express, accompanying her husband Max Mallowan, a professor of archaeology at London University.

After the tour of the carriages, Ms Ong leads us to the sprawling museum area, with exhibits of fine Art Deco cabinetry and marquetry.

There are also turn-of-the-century posters, with sections of the interiors showing how seats on the train were converted to luxury beds and hundreds of artefacts.

The exhibits piece together a larger mosaic of how the West got its first glimpse of the East through Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire - and what sparked the beginning of a multicultural Europe.

What is worth indulging in?

After our tour, I head to the gift shop. There is an eclectic range of Orient Express souvenirs, from pop-up greeting cards showing the train's silhouette against prominent city skylines at $14.90 each to monogrammed umbrellas at $29.90.

At about 9pm, ravenous after more than three hours of touring, we head back to the hotel for a shower and in-room dining .

Our orders of fragrant Bombay Lamb Biryani for my husband and sizzling Grilled Sea Bass for me arrive just in time, as we position the chairs near the balcony to take in the stunning night view of the Marina Bay area from our lofty perch on the 20th floor.

Verdict: Bliss or miss?

As the tour of the Orient Express exhibition is not something to be hurried, it is best not to squeeze too much into your itinerary. We were so exhausted, we slept in late on Saturday morning and gave the complimentary breakfast at Prego a miss.

We also skipped a dip in the two outdoor pools on the eighth floor. There is also a Willow Stream Spa, which we did not have time for.

(Above) The Orient Express passenger train at Gardens by the Bay. (Left) Booth seats at Prego restaurant, which offers a complimentary breakfast as part of the staycation package.
Booth seats at Prego restaurant, which offers a complimentary breakfast as part of the staycation package. PHOTO: FAIRMONT SINGAPORE

Hot tip

Head to the adjacent Raffles City to check out a wider brunch selection at the basement dining level.

A big plus about Fairmont is that there are lots of shopping options just around the corner from the hotel, including Raffles Hotel Arcade and the Capitol Singapore mall.

• This staycation was hosted by the hotel and is part of a weekly series. For more staycation reviews, go to str.sg/SuiteLife

• For more stories on exploring Singapore, go to str.sg/sg-gowhere.




FAIRMONT SINGAPORE

WHERE: 80 Bras Basah Road

INFO: fairmont.com/singapore/offers/orient-express-packages

ROOMS: 778 rooms and suites

RATES: From $438 ++ (plus $100 on weekends) for A Classic Journey Through Time with Orient Express Exhibition 2D1N staycation package. The price includes tickets for two adults to the Orient Express Exhibition, complimentary breakfast at Prego restaurant, and two Orient Express cocktails at Anti:Dote bar

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2021, with the headline 'Food for thought aboard the Orient Express'. Subscribe