When the Grand Hibernian first rolled out of Dublin's Heuston station in 2016, no one could have predicted Ireland's first luxury sleeper train would complete its final season just three years later.
Yet thanks to the pandemic, that's precisely what's happened. Belmond, with a portfolio that includes the fabled Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in mainland Europe and other luxury trains, hotels, boats, safaris and restaurants, has announced the Grand Hibernian is no longer.
Its statement says: "In response to the ongoing challenges presented by COVID-19, Belmond has … decided to relocate its Grand Hibernian train operation in the near term.
"The carriages that comprise the Grand Hibernian rake [a formation of coupled cars that comprise a train, minus the locomotive] will be carefully stored and will undergo renovation works to preserve their unique character whilst the interior design is evolved in keeping with the chosen destination, once known.
"While it is too early to reveal the location of the new service, Belmond expects this operation to remain within Europe, where demand for immersive, slow-travel experiences of this kind is increasing and local and regional markets have proven resilient outside government-mandated lockdowns."
It's sad news for Irish tourism and for passengers like me who have fond memories of the train where the drinks (ooh, Midleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey) and the craic (good times) never ran out. Passengers were made to feel special from the moment they approached the deep-blue and silver carriages at Dublin's Heuston station. As curious onlookers stopped in their tracks (a sight repeated at other stations), a piper welcomed us aboard. We strolled the red carpet before taking two steps up into another world where flutes of Laurent Perrier magically appear in your hand.
Kildare, the observation car and the contemporary train's communal hub, felt elegantly understated: the long booths, armchairs, carpet, curtains and cosy woollen throws were in shades of cream and tan, with the occasional pop of a mustard cushion and technicoloured fresh flowers. Closer inspection revealed an effort to ground the train in its Irish setting, with Celtic knots repeated in the carpet and wall panels.
My twin-bed en-suite cabin (one of just 20, making for an intimate journey) featured more blooms – a blush-pink lily and white lisianthus – sprouting from a crystal vase on the bedside table (a lipped edge ensured everything stayed put). This is where I would also find a handwritten welcome note, penned on a white card embossed with Celtic patterns.
I adopt the cross-cabin bed facing the window, although when we momentarily pull up at a suburban station I remember the glass is two-way and I'm on display to commuters. The other bed, slung parallel to the train's side, comes with a protective raised edge – hardly necessary when the train is stabled each night and at a standstill. The big surprise is the generous cabin-width bathroom that's not the least bit cramped.
Although there's every effort to make the journey as Irish as possible – traditional bands, poets and storytellers board each night to bring the craic right to our faces – a question always lingered at the back of my mind. Why would you pay more than one euro a minute to pootle about a country just 275 kilometres wide and 486 kilpometres long (plus that detour into Northern Ireland)?
For me, four reasons stood out. Meals were phenomenal – lobster from County Louth, beef wellington from a master butcher, desserts that were occasionally theatrical. The train, while in motion, was astonishingly quiet – we glided around the rails as though floating on a gentle Irish breeze. My fellow passengers were an intriguing lot, from the American femme fatale in stilettos to the Russian travel agents, the fun-loving intergenerational Filipina family and American squillionaires. And finally, there was captivating story-telling.
After all, it's thanks to our host, archaeologist Vincent Butler, that I now know some hawthorn trees are sacred fairy bushes in superstitious Ireland. "It was a dark world that people inhabited once the evening fell - the Black Valley [in County Kerry] only got electricity in 1976," he told us. "In the darkness were a whole range of otherworld beings ... such as the fairy folk or wee folk known to live under the bushes. The fairies would help you if you were in need but, if you crossed them or upset them, they fixed you big time."
The staff also included a Portuguese train manager, an Australian housekeeping steward and charming Irish attendants. In short, it was the United Nations on steel wheels. Collectively, they ensured you experienced a once-in-a-lifetime journey. With any luck, they will continue to do so for more passengers in the future wherever this Belmond train happens to end up.
The writer travelled as a guest of Belmond.