Cruising and classic rail journeys have always been good bed companions. Historically, ships and trains have docked at major stations or anchored in iconic seaports with a sense of “arrival”; this still cannot be compared to a motor vehicle or an airplane today.
It was only a matter of time before the legendary Orient Express, which first sailed from Paris to Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1883, opened a floating hotel. The company, owned by the Accor group, will launch its first cruise yacht in 2026, 140 years after the luxury train carriages made their debut in Paris. Orient Express Silenseas will have 54 Suites, two pools, two restaurants, a spa, talk-easy bar, and an amphitheater for cabaret-style entertainment.
The announcement comes as the brand prepares to launch a portfolio of hotels and a new train service, La Bella Vita. Orient Express La Minerva and Orient Express Palazzo Donà Giovannelli will open in Rome and Venice, respectively, in 2024.
The luxury brand is not the first to embark on custom-made cruises. In 2015, Yangon heritage hotel The Strand launched a 25-cabin vessel designed according to its sister property to sail along the Irrawaddy in Myanmar. Aman, the Four Seasons and more recently the Ritz-Carlton hotel group have launched ships.
But what really sets the Silenseas apart is something a little more structured: the dizzying trio of tough, glass-polyester panels that fold like fans. Having a combined surface area of 4,500 m2, the sails will be pulled on a 360-degree adjustable balestron (rigging) with three tiltable masts reaching a height of 100 meters. It will be the world’s largest sailing cruise ship at launch (Golden Horizon and Star Clipper are the world’s largest square-rigged ships). The 220-metre-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.
Innovative stuff. Guillaume de Saint Lager, vice president of Orient Express, says the project began a year ago when French shipbuilding company Chantiers de l’Atlantique proposed Solid Sail technology. Working in conjunction with an innovative rigging system and providing the right wind conditions, Solid Sail can operate at maximum thrust. Touch paper burned for hybrid sailing ship.
“We had the idea for a luxury boat, but it came down to timing and a perfect product fit,” says De Saint Lager. “The yacht is green, futuristic, artisanal and French. I said, ‘Let’s go’.”
He adds that modern craftsmanship will be central to the Silenseas experience. “Trains and boats are part of our history and are very interconnected. They also share a lot of common characteristics; famous shipbuilders have worked on trains as well.”
Guillaume says the ship is neither a hotel nor a train, but is part of a portfolio of “luxury experiences” that could one day extend to air travel. “Silenseas will be a showcase for French style and resourcefulness – quality woods, fine cuisine and quality service. We want to create an air of nostalgia, but it’s also about finding the right balance. We do not want our guests to date the design.”
Located in the port of Saint-Nazaire near Nantes, Chantiers de l’Atlantique has a multitude of shipbuilding backgrounds. Famous structures include Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 and Celebrity Cruises’ Edge class ships, and the upcoming yachts Ilma and Luminara from The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection. It can also claim the groundbreaking SS Normandie, which first crossed the Atlantic in 1935. Normandie reached New York at such speed that he took the Blue Riband (transatlantic speed record) on his first voyage.
Silensea passengers can expect impeccable service on board (the crew-to-passenger ratio will be almost one-to-one), gourmet cuisine, and a luxurious experience. “Whether it’s fine dining, flatware, linens, or the turn-down of a suite after guests leave for dinner, it’s about adapting existing brand concepts,” says De Saint-Lager.
While the exact amount has yet to be announced, the fees will be sold all-inclusive and include all but the most expensive Champagnes and wines. Inspired by the dazzling golden age of the 1930s, Silenseas will call at Portofino, St-Tropez, and other classic Mediterranean ports, and in winter their rugged sails will take their guests to the Caribbean.
De Saint-Leger expects Silenseas to attract an international clientele, primarily British and American travelers, with land excursions including visits to private beaches, vineyards and perhaps a chef-hosted dinner at a waterfront restaurant. But for de Saint Lager, it is the journey that counts. “The experience is more about the journey than ticking places on the to-do list. We want our guests to relax, have fun and enjoy being with their families.”
“As long as we follow our mantra of sustainable and ultra-luxury, the playing field for us is huge.”
In the 1930s, the Orient Express became known as the “King of Trains”. Time will tell if the naval counterpart gets a similar crown.