Murder most unhurried

1 May 2006 by business traveller

It was 9.30am on a Friday morning, and my train pulled slowly out of a bustling London Victoria station on its way to a party political conference in Brighton. But this was no ordinary commuter train, and the conference would prove to be somewhat short-lived, at least for one particular individual. For I was on the Orient-Express, a train synonymous with luxury and intrigue, and not for the first time there was murder on the menu.

Ever since 1982, when the restored carriages made their inaugural trip from London to Venice, day trippers, honeymooners and, increasingly, corporate clients have boarded the Orient-Express in search of a class of travel previously reserved for royalty, heads of state and wealthy individuals. Indeed, the MICE potentials (meetings and incentive travel – or perhaps murder, intrigue, crime detecting and entertainment) have encouraged companies such as Coca-Cola and Merrill Lynch to jump on board the bandwagon to sample luxury from a bygone era.

Even before you board the train, the Orient-Express has done its utmost to recreate the service that passengers would have experienced back in the company's heyday in the 1920s and 30s. Its ticket office is away from the main commuter area, and walking inside really does feel like going back in time, with period armchairs and art deco prints on the walls. Impeccably dressed conductors help passengers board the restored carriages of the British Pullman before serving bucks fizz, smoked salmon and caviar as the train trundles out towards the countryside.

Each carriage has been painstakingly restored to its original specifications, from the upholstery and brass handles to the wonderful mosaic flooring in the lavatories. Some date back as far as 1925, and have seen action on prominent occasions such as Winston Churchill's funeral. The original passenger service declined in the 1950s due to the availability of air travel, and was discontinued in 1977, only to be resurrected in the early 1980s with luxury packages designed to cater for special occasions, from marriage proposals to corporate reward days.

The schedule is, of course, subject to the same signalling and weather constraints as any other locomotive, but far from checking my watch and wondering if we would arrive on time as I am accustomed to do most mornings, I found myself lounging back, champagne flute in hand, wishing that all commutes could be like this. And that's before the entertainment started. This particular day trip was a murder mystery event, with the plot and actors supplied by Murder on the Menu, a corporate entertainment firm specialising in incentive, training and team-building events, and whose previous clients include The Daily Telegraph, IBM and Virgin Atlantic Airways.

It wasn't long before characters started popping their heads around the polished walnut panelling to deliver their witty one-liners: "Good morning, my name is Sir Geoffrey Fraffly-Riche, and I am the party chairman of the Well Meaning Democrats, or the WMDs for short – have you found us yet?"

The plot continued to thicken satisfyingly as we headed towards Hove station, where a quick coach transfer took us to Brighton's Royal Pavilion, a building whose striking Taj Mahal-style architecture contrasts with the Chinese-garden-at-sunset interior hallways. Our guide for this part of the trip was a knowledgeable member of Blue Badge, a registered national body of tourist guides who are available for hire by individuals, schools or corporate clients. Although Orient-Express offers set itineraries for individuals and groups, it is also possible to charter the entire train and tailor-make corporate days to suit a company's needs.

It was inside the Pavilion's Music Room that the bell tolled for one unlucky conference member, leaving passengers to ponder the motives of the remaining characters during the extended trip back to London. The train passed through rolling Hampshire countryside to give us sleuths enough time to try to solve the mystery. On the way we were supplied with some hearty brain food in the form of mint pea soup, Welsh salt-marsh lamb and a Great British cheeseboard, which in my book beats a shrink-wrapped sandwich and lukewarm cup of tea any day.

The London to Brighton day trips are just one part of an extensive Orient-Express offering in the UK, which includes excursions to Bath, Cambridge and Leeds Castle with the British Pullman. For those looking for trips further north, the Northern Belle operates out of Manchester to cities such as York (including trips to York Minster), Leeds and Chester, while the Royal Scotsman, a smaller sleeper service with a capacity of just 36 (as opposed to over 200 on the British Pullman and Northern Belle), offers "Highland" tours from Edinburgh. Prices start at around £160pp for a one-way trip to Chartwell House (returning by coach) including lunch, rising to £4,840pp for the fully inclusive eight-day Grand North Western extravaganza in Scotland.

And of course the Orient-Express doesn't just limit itself to British shores, with probably the most famous trip of all being the London to Venice ride. Passengers take the British Pullman down to Folkestone, where a ferry connects them with the French wagon-lit carriages on the continent. Passing through Paris and beautiful Alpine scenery before arriving in Venice, passengers then have the choice of flying home or doing the whole journey again in reverse. One-way prices start from around £1,390pp for the overnight trip, or £2,015pp for the return trip. Trips to Prague and Budapest are also available, and from 2007 Krakow will be added to the list, while even further afield the Orient-Express runs services in Asia and South America, including a trip to the heart of the Inca ruins in Machu Picchu, Peru.

The longer trips in particular lend themselves to once-in-a-lifetime events such as anniversaries, and the company can cater for special requests to ensure that the Orient- Express experience is as memorable as possible.Anna Nash, PR executive for Orient-Express Trains and Cruises, says: "Many people choose to spend their honeymoon with us, and of course we are popular for special occasions such as marriage proposals. One gentleman even went to the trouble of having the engagement ring frozen in an ice cube for his fiancée to discover!" Back in Hampshire, I put the finishing touches to my whodunnit-and-why answer sheet. But for those of you wondering who the guilty culprit was on this trip, my lips are sealed – although I can say that for once the butler didn't do it.


The Orient Express, tel +44 (0)845 077 222, orient-express.com

Murder On The Menu, tel +44 (0)1633 896 111, murderonthemenu.co.uk

Blue Badge Guides, tel +44 (0)20 7403 1115, blue-badge-guides.com


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