Cruises and classic train journeys have always been good companions. Historically, ships and trains have stopped at grand stations or anchored at iconic seaports with a sense of “arrival” that is still unmatched by motor vehicles or aircraft.
So it was only a matter of time before the legendary Orient Express, which first ran from Paris to Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1883, would open a floating hotel. The Accor-owned company will launch its first cruise yacht in 2026, 140 years after its luxury carriages first left Paris. Orient Express Silenseas will have 54 apartments, two swimming pools, two restaurants, a spa, a speakeasy bar, an amphitheater for cabaret-style entertainment.
The announcement comes as the brand prepares to launch a hotel portfolio and a new rail service – La Bella Vita – later this year. Orient Express La Minerva and Orient Express Palazzo Donà Giovannelli will open in Rome and Venice respectively in 2024.
This luxury brand is not the first to opt for custom cruises. In 2015, the historic The Strand Hotel in Rangoon launched a 25-cabin ship, styled after its sister property, to sail along the Irrawaddy in Myanmar. Aman, Four Seasons, and more recently the Ritz-Carlton hotel group have put ships on the water.
But what really sets the Silenseas apart is something more structural: an eye-catching trio of rigid glass and polyester panels that fold like fans. The sails, with a total area of 4,500 m2, will be hoisted on a 360-degree adjustable balestron with three 100-meter-high tilting masts. At the time of launching, it will be the largest passenger sailing ship in the world (with the Golden Horizon and Star Clipper being the largest square-rigged ships in the world). The 220-meter-long hybrid vessel will combine wind power with dual-fuel engines powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG); Orient Express says it will eventually switch from LNG to green hydrogen.
It’s innovative stuff. Guillaume de Saint Lager, vice president of Orient Express, says the project got underway a year ago when French shipbuilder Chantiers de l’Atlantique proposed the Solid Sail technology. Working with an innovative rigging system and with the right wind conditions, Solid Sail can work at maximum power. The touch paper of a hybrid sail-propelled ship caught fire.
“We had an idea for a luxury boat, but in the end it all came down to timing and perfect product fit,” says de Saint Lager. “The yacht is green, futuristic, craftsmanship focused and French. I said, “Let’s go!”
He adds that modern craftsmanship will be central to the Silenseas experience. “Trains and ships are part of our history and are very interconnected. They also share many common characteristics; the craftsmen who worked on the famous liners also worked on the trains.”
Guillaume says the ship is neither a hotel nor a train, but part of a portfolio of “luxury experiences” that may one day even extend to air travel. “Silenseas will be a showcase of French style and savoir-faire – precious wood, excellent cuisine and excellent service. We want to create an atmosphere of nostalgia, but it’s also about finding the right balance. We don’t want our guests to be able to put the date on the design.”
Chantiers de l’Atlantique – based in the port of Saint-Nazaire, near Nantes – has extensive experience in the shipbuilding industry. Among his notable designs are the Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 class and Celebrity Cruises’ Edge, as well as upcoming The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, Ilma and Luminara yachts. It also boasts the groundbreaking SS Normandie, which first crossed the Atlantic in 1935. The Normandie reached New York at such speed that it set the Blue Riband (transatlantic speed record) on her maiden voyage.
Onboard Silensea, passengers can count on impeccable service (crew to passenger ratio will be almost one to one), delicious food and a luxurious experience. “It’s about adapting existing brand concepts,” says de Saint-Lager, “whether it’s good food, tableware, bedding, or making the bed when a guest leaves for dinner.”
While the exact amount has yet to be announced, fares will be sold on an all-inclusive basis and will include all but the most expensive champagnes and wines. Inspired by the glory days of 1930s cruises, Silenseas will call at Portofino, Saint-Tropez and other classic Mediterranean ports, and take guests around the Caribbean in winter on her sturdy sails.
De Saint-Leger expects Silenseas to attract an international clientele, consisting mainly of British and American travelers, with excursions on land, including visits to private beaches, vineyards and perhaps a chef-led dinner at a seaside restaurant. But according to de Saint Lager, it’s the journey that counts. “The experience is less about ticking places off your bucket list and more about traveling. We want our guests to relax, have fun and enjoy being with their families.”
He adds: “As long as we follow our eco-friendly and ultra-luxurious mantra, the playground is huge for us.”
In the 1930s, the Orient Express became known as the “King of Trains”. Time will tell if its marine counterpart will earn a similar crown.