The World’s Best Luxury Train Trips: Portugal’s The Presidential Train
The World’s Best Luxury Train Trips: Portugal’s The Presidential Train
Like the famous Orient Express, Portugal’s own The Presidential Train is a perennial member on the exclusive list of the world’s most luxurious train trips. Onboard, passengers are treated to world class dining prepared by a rotating cast of Michelin-starred chefs as they make the one day return trip from Porto to the Douro Valley wine region.
More than that, passengers get to experience riding on what was once a purpose built train to serve royalty. They will, decades removed, be in sitting in the same seats and dining in the same carriage that was once reserved for the likes of kings, queens, presidents, heads of states, and popes since 1890. It is history…unfrozen and untethered from time.
A Second Farewell For The Presidential Train
To say it was a privilege to be guests on this luxurious train journey would be an understatement, but the whole thing felt even more poignant after stepping on board and learning that we would be on one of the Presidential Train’s final trips (for a second time in it’s storied history).
A little backstory.
In 1970, the Presidential Train carried the body of Portugal dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, following his death, to his hometown of Vimiero. That was its farewell trip and would have been the end of the story, had the train not been restored in the 2010s by a Portuguese entrepeneur, Gonçalo Castel-Branco, to take a new list of guests on a world class culinary tour to the Douro Valley.
For 6 1/2 years starting in 2016, the train welcomed world class chefs and lucky passengers on daily weekend trips from Porto to Quinta do Vesuvio and back.
On October 29, 2022, The Presidential Train welcomed 6 of the best Portuguese chefs to come aboard and create an unforgettable final dining experience. The train will then pull into Sao Bento station one last time and return, indefinitely (because who can say forever), to the National Railway Museum as part of its permanent exhibition.
Our own journey took place on September 11th, just a month and a few trips before the final farewell.
Bringing The Presidential Train Back To Life
But let’s rewind.
The story of how The Presidential Train was brought back to life goes something like this. After Salazar’s funeral journey, the train decommissioned, moved away and mostly forgotten about for decades.
Eventually, it found a home at the National Railway Museum in Entroncamento, where Gonçalo Castel-Branco happened upon it and immediately fell in love.
As he tells it, “at dinner that night when I tried to share what I had seen with my family and said, ‘we must have an idea for this train!’ to which my 10-year-old daughter replied, ‘why don’t we make a restaurant on it?”
That idea stuck, and after years of restoration, pitching the idea to investors, partners, chefs and purveyors of Portugal’s finest products, permission to run the train on the historic Douro Valley line was secured and The Presidential Train was reborn.
Returning To A Different Era Of Travel
Practically speaking, those wanting to travel to the Douro Valley can take a train that goes from Porto to Pinhão or Pochinho for about 24 euros roundtrip. The journey is about 3-3.5 hours each way in a comfortable modern train.
By contrast, The Presidential Train costs 750 euros. Simply riding on a historic train carriage, especially one without any modern facilities or amenities and costing hundreds more, would hardly seem like enough of an appeal to justify the price difference.
But sharing the same path is where the comparison ends.
In an age where speed and efficiency rules, one can easily question how some slow and old train trips that cost between $4000-$10000 and beyond can exist. And yet they do.
The Belmond British Pullman, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, and the Mahajaras’ Express are regularly sold out months in advance. The Cruise Train Seven Stars in Japan has a 4 day 3 night trip that works on a lottery application opened for just one month a year for trips in the following year.
The demand is there…because these train rides, the slower and longer they are, offer an nostalgic escape to a different time where traveling was mostly a privilege.
And those who could afford such travels, had the same taste for high class comfort and service on the road as they did at home. One can hardly expect Monsieur Hercule Poirot to dine on canned tuna when he ventures outside of England to solve a murder.
Michelin Starred Chefs…Aboard
With that in mind, the foundation behind Gonçalo’s The Presidential Train experience was one built around the senses and, of course, the stomach. And there’s no better way to provide high-end dining than to just bring on board a changing cast of Michelin-starred chefs to design a bespoke dining experience lasting from the first few moments you step onto the train and ending only when it returns to its station of departure.
With the sheer number of different Michelin-starred chefs that have been invited to cook on The Presidential Train, I wonder if there’s anyone who’s more connected in the high-end Portuguese dining scene. And passengers on the train are the luckily beneficiary of that network.
On our journey, we had Chef Diogo Rocha, author of three award-winning books, and a holder of a Michelin Star since 2019 for his Mesa de Lemos Restaurant.
Paired with him was Chef Óscar Geadas, a member of the Portugal’s culinary society and known for his turn as a jury member on Masterchef Portugal. Geladas, too, has held a Michelin Star since 2019, for his restaurant, G Pousada.
In other words, we were in good hands.
Our scheduled departure from Sao Bento station was 11:30 am. After checking in at 11 and being handed a welcome invitation reminiscent of old train tickets, we eagerly began to explore the different carriages.
At 11:29 am, we were in our cabin just in time for a server to arrive with a bottle of sparkling 2016 Niepoort Spumante Olo. At exactly 11:30 am on the nose, I had the first, of many, glasses of wine in my hand.
A few minutes late, we were off and the same server came back with a little amuse bouche of cured tuna that just melted in my mouth. The sun was starting to warm up the day and our cabin as we followed the Douro River east away from Porto.
Let The Lunch Begin
A second appetizer of partridge terrine came out alongside a refill of our glasses, which I happily accepted. We had a chance to chat with the couple also in our cabin. The gentlemen was a food writer in Lisbon, so we shared a mutual appreciation for good eats and travel.
The cabin itself has the same look as it once did in the past, but with new interiors commissioned to be remade by the same company that made the original.
Shortly after 12, we were invited to take our seats in the dining carriage for lunch. Dining like this on an old train has long been one of my dream bucket list items. Everything was ready and neatly laid out. Crisp linen cloth, spotless glasses for the white and red wines and of course the menu.
A Culinary Showcase of Portugal’s Flavors (Part I)
First thing to note. Our waiter informed us that all the wine we’d be drinking on the train today was from the Niepoort Winery, a historic producer of port wine in Portugal since 1842. Their wines are considered to be some of the best in the country.
We started with a 2021 Douro Redoma Reserva Branco. Bright and fresh with a slightly dry finish.
It was served alongside the first course, Scarlet Prawn with White Bean. The prawn was from the southern Algarve region and the humble white bean is a staple in many of Portugal’s traditional stew.
Here, they are both presented very simply. The prawn was soft and sweet and the texture was so delicate, but still had a firm bite to it. The beans were prepared in a way that reminded me of risotto. I could have easily eaten a dozen more of these prawns.
Next was a 2018 Niepoort Vinhas Velhas Bairrada. I really liked this white and found it very crisp with both fruit and floral notes, acidic but not in an overly sharp way.
The second course was a cod neck with “couscous.” Bacalhau (dried and salted cod) is a staple of a food as you can find in Portugal and can be prepared in so many ways that chefs have no shortage of methods of preparing and serving it.
The “couscous” of the dish was a take on the grain but in a very rustic and creamy way giving a bit of textural contrast to the more firm but melt in your mouth tender cod. The whole dish was topped with a savory foam.
Using The Same Toilet As Queen Elizabeth
With a few glasses of wine already in me, it was time to excuse myself to visit the restroom. Relieving oneself on a moving train in an always too tight and always too dank smelling toilet is rarely something to look forward to, but not on The Presidential Train.
The toilet itself has a seat made of solid wood to match the interior of the restroom and train. Connected to the exposed water piping is a mechanical flushing lever with vintage plated signs pointing to “Fechada” for closed and “Aberta” for open. I love these details and it was very satisfying to flush.
The faucet and sink was unlike any that I’ve seen in my travels. What I thought was the lever to turn on the water was actual the spout itself. Swing it towards you and water comes out. I may or may not have stayed in the toilet longer than usual to admire all the little details.
And it wasn’t just the toilet. These original details were everywhere on the train and helped to really sell the feeling of traveling back in time.
I definitely stood there imagining how Queen Elizabeth II probably once stood to wash her hands in the very same small restroom before making her way through the corridors back to her seat.
A Showcase of Portugal’s Finest Flavors (Part II)
For our third course, we had Kid Goat and Potato. This was my favorite dish of the meal. The meat was tender and rich with a jus that brought out the slight gaminess in the thin layer of fat on the goatling.
It was served with slightly sweet compote and…a piece of potato. Obviously, not just a piece of potato, as you can see, but an elevation of a simple ingredient into a realm where it could be a dish on its own.
In this case, it looks like a potato was peeled into one long and uniterrupted slice that’s then rolled into a tight cylinder, baked and then cut to form a beautiful medallion of potato that’s crispy and crunchy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside.
The Wines Never Stop Coming
We had also moved to the red wines now with a 2019 Niepoort Charme. I found this wine to drink very much like some of my favorite Cabernet Francs in the way it’s complex but very smooth. A robust wine with notes of fruit, but not in a too sweet way.
The alcohol percentage is only 13.5% in this unfortified wine, so this would be a great red for day drinking. Not that I do that of course.
I noted that we each had at least 6 glasses of wine by this point and it was only 1:35 pm when we pulled in the town of Regua and the sort of halfway point before reaching Quinta Do Vesuvio.
It was also during our little stop that chefs Diogo and Oscar came out to mingle with the guests. I loved their playful energy and was glad to be able to personally express my appreciation for their dishes. It was also a nice little break before dessert.
World Class Staff
I have to take a moment to remark on the rest of the staff. From my first conversation talking to The Presidential Train’s marketing liaison, Sofia Santos, to the moment I stepped off the train with a fully and warm belly, everything was so professional but warm.
That’s the best way to describe it. I’ve been lucky to experience some amazing world class service around the world, but in some places, it can feel very old-fashioned or formal or even cold.
Everyone we encountered on the train seemed very excited to be there and we felt the kind of hospitality you’d like to see as a regular rather than just purely professional service. The smiles felt genuine and everyone was eager to help us make the most of the experience.
This is very much a testament to the type of people The Presidential Train brings on board.
A Dessert To Pretty To Eat
São Pedro Velho Strawberries and Basil. The name gives only a hint to the composition of the dish, but what came out was a visual delight that equally teased the palate with so many different ingredients and flavor. Sweet, tart, creamy, refreshing, and crunchy only sort of describe how everything comes together.
This was a fun dish.
And it came out with, naturally, a port, a Niepoort Bioma Crusted. I don’t alway seek it out, but I always enjoy a good port that’s not too sweet when the opportunity presents itself.
I learned here that a crusted port is a blend 2-3 ports that are then matured. They compare well with vintage ports. Both leave sediments at the bottom of the bottle which adds to the character and profile of the wine. And both are rarer in production than your normal port.
The Man Behind The Presidential Train
One of the unique aspect of the The Presidential Train is that man behind the whole concept, Gonçalo, goes on every journey with the passengers. Early on, he stopped by our cabin for a welcome onto the train introduction. During lunch, he was going between the two dining carriages and chatting with the guests.
Though I knew the wines would still continue to pour, I thought we were done with the meal. I was wrong. A plate of petit fours with truffles and cookies came out to accompany an afternoon coffee. With the warm sun and the ample amount of wine, I was glad for a caffeine fix.
Moments later, we pulled up to Vesuvio station. The meal was timed to finish at the perfect moment. Here, I was actually relieved to get out and stretch the legs after a full 3 hour meal (we never actually returned to our cabin once lunch started).
Following Gonçalo, we get to a picturesque vineyard that could easily be straight out of Italy. Here, he gave us a little history about the train and the winery before taking us to the estate.
Experiencing Quinta Do Vesuvio
Home to the Symington family, whose been producing port wine in the Douro Valley since 1882, the Quinta Do Vesuvio is one of their finest estate and one that’s not usually open to the public.
Through The Presidential Train, we got the chance to visit this private working estate to enjoy a selection of wines and vintage ports (cigars and cocktails were also available) on their estate terrace that overlooks the adjacent chapel.
For those interested, Gonçalo brought us to the stone lagares to show where the grapes are still stomped by feet and the wine is still produced in the same original method every year following the harvest.
UPDATE: Quinta Do Vesuvio is for the first time offering private tours to the estate that includes a tasting and lunch. This visit requires advanced reservation and costs between 450-500 euros per person depending on the group size.
At around 5:10 pm, we stood by the station tracks to await the return of The Presidential Train with its distinctive whistle. Then it was back on the train. This time, our table was on the opposite side of the carriage to give us a different view for the return journey. A thoughtful touch.
There’s Always Space For Charcuterie
A new menu card was provided and a quick count revealed 15 different “dishes.” I had no idea how we would eat all of that if the lunch was anything to go by.
As it turns out, several of these items were all plated together into two “charcuterie” platter. The first I would call a meat and cheese plate.
- 12 month aged Ilha cheese from Lactacores
- Chiba goat and sheep cheese from the Queijaria Cheese Shop
- Varanegra cured ham from Salsicharia Estremocense
- Smoked sausage from Pinhao
- Sweet red pepper jam from Jose Gourmet
The second was more of a seafood charcuterie plate.
- Cod pate and cuttlefish and shrimp pate from Jose Gourmet
- Trout with garlic and parsley and smoked sardines from Jose Gourmet
All of this was served with a selection of Niepoort wines and a very refreshing cold tea. At this point, I am admittedly a little more than tipsy, but the flavors of the never ending treats continued to deliver.
I slowed down on the wine and made we pretty much consumed all the bread alongside the charcuterie and cheeses to keep from getting drunk.
Slowing Down Time
As a photographer, I was compelled to step away from the table every few minutes to try to capture the magic of the fast changing sunset light and landscapes.
Leaning out the window, with the feeling of the wind in my hair and the wine doing its thing, I was at peace. There was a happiness that begged for time to slow down, for the light to stay the way it was, and for the journey to keep going forever.
As we slowed to a station, I noticed a woman with a large basket of white bags expectantly waiting for the train. This image brought back memories of train travel through places like India or Myanmar, where each stop would offer passengers a chance to buy food and drinks from a chorus of vendors selling through the windows.
Next thing I knew, she was on the train going through the carriages and dropping off little white bundles on each table.
When I looked closer, it had a “The Presidential 2022 Edition” sticker on it. This small gesture left a deep impression on me since this was obviously pre-orchestrated to add another nostalgic element to the whole traveling on trains in the past experience. I loved it.
When we took off again, I used the last bit of light from golden hour to capture the many details that I had missed early in the day.
Room For Dessert
By this time, I had stopped drinking, despite the temptation. In between each plate, we walked around to the different carriages. Near the front, there’s a salon of sort with some comfortable vintage couches. The previously empty space was now occupied by a piano player who began to play a beautiful song for us when we entered.
We sat a while and just listened.
Whenever I saw servers moving along the corridor with a new dish, we promptly returned to our table. I definitely didn’t want to miss out on any of the many desserts that would come out wave after wave.
- Yuzo and Cardamom Financier
- Red Fruits Tartelette
- Carob, Tonka Bean and Salted Caramel Cookie
- Scones with Cranberries and Whipped Cream
- Red Fruits Jam and Pumpkin Jam with Walnuts
It just was never ending.
Portuguese Guitarra and Belgian Chocolates
While the piano music entertainment was obviously confined to the salon carriage, a Portuguese guitar player moved about and put on an evening performance in each of the dining carriages.
I recognized a couple of classical pieces that was being played on the traditional 12 string Portuguese guitarra and it was very relaxing to listen to while we digested our desserts.
Another beautiful detail that added to magic and experience of this type of travel.
And then as if all the desserts weren’t already enough, two servers came out carrying a beautiful wooden glass box that I initially mistaken from afar as a large cigar box. Close up, the content was instead columns of truffles and chocolates in all sorts of elegant and intricate shapes from Neuhaus, one of, if not the best, Belgium’s finest chocolatiers.
As we listened to all the different options, I was thinking aloud that it was so hard to choose while carefully narrowing down to 3 selections.
“Choose as many as you like.”
While that was tempting, I did stick with a more respectable 3 pieces and immediately wondered if I should have just listened instead.
Until The Train Pulls In
As we neared Campanha station, the dining had yet to be concluded and one final dish was brought out – a traditional Portuguese Caldo Verde. My curiosity was piqued earlier when I saw that a soup would be the last course AFTER all the desserts.
And yet, somehow the slightly creamy vegetable soup just worked to close the entire meal leaving us with a warm feeling in our bellies as the train pulled up to Sao Bento station around 10 pm.
A Parting Well Made
While I could not have asked for anything more to the day, The Presidential Train did not let us go away empty handed. Instead, it sent us off with several parting gifts.
The first was a gorgeous hard cover booklet, beautifully designed inside and out, to give us the story and history of The Presidential Train along with a breakdown of each part of our journey, the wines, the meals, the chefs, the vineyard and more. A gorgeous memento to remember a once in a lifetime trip.
When we stepped off the train and walked towards the exit, the full staff of The Presidential Train was already lined up to offer bright smiles and a warm farewell.
And then, for one last surprise, we were given a gift bag to take home.
“So the culinary experience doesn’t end here.”
Amongst the treasure was a small bottle of Graham’s 10 Year Tawny Port in a cute cylindrical packaging, a bottle of red wine, a beautiful artist sketchbook, and a bar of the wonderfully smelling bar of Portus Cale soap from Castelbel.
Was The Presidential Train Worth It?
At around 750 euros per person for a one day train journey, the price might seem a little daunting initially. But having experienced everything The Presidential Train offered, I have this to say.
Simply put, as far as luxury train rides in the world, The Presidential Train is far and away the most economical and value-filled trip that one can experience.
While I don’t know the exact economics of what putting together a trip of this caliber costs, I can say that Gonçalo and The Presidential Train spares no expenses in giving their guests the absolute best experience. And I have to speculate that this cuts incredibly deep in the profitability, if there’s any, of operating The Presidential Train.
From sourcing the train, pulling the Michelin-starred chefs away from their restaurants, bringing on board an endless supply of fine wines, procuring private access to Quinta do Vesuvio, and sending us off with all sorts of treats, the trip was worth every penny and more.
It feels like a deep passion project. A love letter of sorts to Portugal to showcase what the country has to offer in terms of history and culinary prowess. While the trips have come to an end, the memories imprinted on its guests over the years, will surely endure. I can’t wait to see what Gonçalo will set his sights on next.
If you’re looking for more quirky and interesting travel ideas, check out my bucket list for some inspiration and I hope to see you out there.
Updated on October 24, 2023