The Northern Belle vintage train will set off from Aberdeen for the first time in more than a decade next year, calling at Dundee and Perth to pick up passengers for a nostalgic, luxury-filled Scottish day trip.
On a leisurely journey in the autumn sunshine on the world-famous West Coast Line, I was fortunate enough to sample the 1930s-style opulence passengers can expect.
Awaiting the arrival of the Northern Belle at Dumbarton Central station, it soon became apparent the luxury train has garnered a loyal band of fans, captivated by its genteel excursions that evoke a bygone golden age of rail travel.
Among the well-dressed crowd eagerly anticipating a day out wining and dining amid incomparable scenery, there was much chat of previous trips, sights seen and fine food and drink enjoyed on board.
Of the “first-timers”, some were there courtesy of generous anniversary, birthday or Christmas gifts from family, while others had just decided to treat themselves on the West Highland Lunch excursion.
The Northern Belle has been running tours all over Britain for nearly 20 years. Prior to its launch in 2000, the 10 former railway carriages were stripped and painstakingly transformed to recapture the glamour and comfort of 1930s train travel.
Fitted with hand-crafted interiors, including intricate marquetry panels lining the walls, deep-wool Axminster carpets, moquette upholstery and specially commissioned brassware, each carriage is named after a British castle or stately home and has its own distinct identity.
After the claret and cream-liveried train rumbled to a halt in Dumbarton, the stylish tone for the rest of the day was set as uniformed stewards laid short red carpets to welcome passengers.
Boarding the Alnwick carriage, I was shown to a plush upholstered seat at a table immaculately set with white linen, china and cut glass, and invited to peruse the menu and help myself to canapes as glasses of champagne were served.
The West Highland Line has been voted the most scenic railway in the world for the past two years and on the day of my journey was bathed in early autumn sunshine, showing the stunning scenery at its very best.
Travelling at a sedate pace, our route took us along the banks of the River Clyde, through Helensburgh, high above the blue waters of Loch Long with superb views of The Cobbler and other southern Highland peaks, and across empty rolling moorland to Rannoch.
Along the way, a brief halt at Arrochar allowed passengers on a different excursion, who had joined the train before Dumbarton at Carlisle and Edinburgh, to disembark for a visit to Inverary Castle.
Lunch was a leisurely and delicious affair, spanning most of the journey, miraculously produced by chefs working in the tight confines of the train’s kitchens to feed 160 expectant passengers, and served immaculately by stewards clearly well used to the swaying motion of the carriages.
First came hot smoked salmon, juniper gravadlax and king prawns, served with horseradish cream and Marie Rose dipping sauce, which was followed by fresh pea soup accompanied by rolls and butter. The main course, arriving as we approached the inland end of Loch Long, was herb crusted chicken breast with mashed potato, kale, baby leeks, Chantenay carrots and Cheshire cider sauce.
In French dining tradition, the main was followed by the Great British Cheeseboard, carried from table to table by two stewards offering a selection of cheeses, along with crackers, fruitcake and Cheshire chutney.
And there was more to come, with a tasty white chocolate and blueberry cheesecake with blackberry sauce and cinnamon crumble on the return leg of the journey, before tea, coffee and petits fours were served.
A choice of quality wines and a wide range of other alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks were available to accompany the seven-course lunch. Passengers could also opt for a special list with glasses of wine to match each dish.
As we ate and enjoyed the views, there was on-board entertainment too, with a versatile musical duo roaming the carriages serenading travellers with guitar, trombone and song as well as a magician amazing them with a range of tricks.
Later, reflecting on a day of spectacular sightseeing, fine food and wine, music, magic and superb service, it was easy to understand why, for many who take a trip on Northern Belle, it becomes more than a once-in-lifetime experience.
Next summer, for the first time in more than 10 years, Aberdeen will be the starting point for one of the vintage train’s special excursions.
After leaving the Granite City on Friday August 21, it will call at Dundee and Perth, before heading to Ayrshire to visit one of Britain’s most beautiful stately homes, Dumfries House.
The trip will include a three-course lunch on the outward journey and a champagne reception at the start of the homeward leg, followed by a sumptuous five-course dinner.
DC Thomson Travel has teamed up with the Northern Belle to offer readers an exclusive package price for the outing, details of which can be seen in the advert on this page.
EXCLUSIVE READER OFFER
The P&J’s special day trip – Northern Belle Luxury Vintage Rail Tour visiting Dumfries House, departing on Friday August 21 2020 – from Aberdeen, Dundee and Perth stations has now sold out.
For any further information relating to Northern Belle Day Trips, please call the P&J Travel Team on 01224 338004.