Suite Life: Journey to the 1900s on an Orient Express staycation at Fairmont

The Fairmont Singapore's Orient Express staycation includes two tickets for the pop-up exhibition Once Upon A Time On The Orient Express at Gardens by the Bay.
The Fairmont Singapore's Orient Express staycation includes two tickets for the pop-up exhibition Once Upon A Time On The Orient Express at Gardens by the Bay.PHOTO: ST FILE

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 at the Gardens.

In the room, we are greeted with chilled champagne and a special sculpture of roses made from chocolate, sprouting from an edible pot containing chocolate granules for "soil". I chomp on the edible flora while my husband uncorks the Taittinger.

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

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 - during a pandemic, no less.

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.

While my husband adjusts his recording equipment to take video footage, I gaze at this cast-iron innovation of its time. What awe it must have inspired in all those who caught a glimpse of it, racing through the countryside with its trailing steam plume and coal smoke.

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 at the entrance of the tented exhibition area and starts reeling off names, dates and places enthusiastically for our one-hour tour.

We step inside two train carriages that were shipped to Singapore, apart from the locomotive and its coal compartment stationed outside the tented area.

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

Inside the carriages - 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.


The Orient Express was the world's first luxury train, and dubbed "the train of kings and the king of trains". ST PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

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

On another, the celebrated socialite Princess Marthe Bibesco's personal effects are carefully laid out. On one table, the Daily Mail's front page screams: "We are at war with Germany" in capital letters, on that fateful day on Sept 3, 1939.

American spy and entertainer Josephine Baker has her place at the table too. Near her, 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. In the centre is a wooden coffin with what looks like a body in a shroud, with stab marks all over and dried blood.

This is a re-enactment of the famous 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.


The well-worn upholstery and the ephemera placed on the tables make it seem as if the passengers had taken a toilet break and were about to return to their seats at any time. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

After the tour of the carriages, Ms Ong leads us to the sprawling museum area, with exhibits of fine Art Deco cabinetry and marquetry - signatures of the carriages' interior design during the 1920s.

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?


The night view of the Marina Bay area from the Fairmont Singapore. ST PHOTO: CHANTAL SAJAN

After our tour, I head for the gift shop while my husband continues filming. 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 around 9pm, we head back to the hotel for a shower and in-room dining, as we are ravenous after more than three hours of touring.

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-time view of the Marina Bay area from our lofty perch on the 20th floor.

Verdict: Bliss or miss?


The package comes with a complimentary breakfast at Prego. PHOTO: FAIRMONT SINGAPORE

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's a miss.

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

Hot tip

Head to the adjacent Raffles City to check out a wider brunch selection at the basement dining level. We shopped for scents and skincare, and bought tableware, at Japanese home ware store Muji. 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.


Fairmont Singapore


Enjoy Orient Express cocktails at the Fairmont's Anti:Dote bar. PHOTO: FAIRMONT SINGAPORE

Where: 80 Bras Basah Road

Info: Fairmont Singapore's website

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

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-go-where.