The Belmond Company was established in 1976 when American James B. Sherwood purchased the legendary Hotel Cipriani on the island of Giudecca in Venice, northern Italy. Long considered one of the leading luxury hotels of the world, its room rates begin at USD $1,400 per night.
Today the Company’s collection is diverse, spanning land and water, adventure and relaxation, combining a strong local presence and international acclaim. The Company owns, part-owns and/or manages 37 hotels, including iconic properties such as the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, St. Petersburg; Belmond Copacabana Palace, Rio de Janeiro; Belmond Maroma Resort & Spa, Riviera Maya; and Belmond El Encanto, Santa Barbara.
The Company’s seven tourist trains include the legendary VSOE in Europe, the Eastern & Oriental Express in Southeast Asia and the Belmond Royal Scotsman in Scotland. The company also co-owns and manages the PeruRail in Peru, which operates, among other routes, the Cusco-Machu Picchu train used by nearly every tourist to Peru.
In Botswana, Belmond operates Safari’s and in New York it owns ‘21’, one of New York’s most storied restaurants whose clientele includes movie stars, Presidents and captains of industry.
Belmond also has two river cruise operations, the Belmond Afloat in France, which operates luxury péniche-hôtels (barges) on the inland waterways of France and the Belmond Road to Mandalay on the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar.
With such a glamorous history, one can expect the highest of praise for the 50 year old Road to Mandalay cruiser. The atmosphere on the long, slender boat reflects a decidedly vintage but also eclectic mix of Burmese, British, modern and traditional styles. The 43 spacious en-suite cabins are air-conditioned and furnished with beautiful fabrics and polished teak.
The ship offers multiple room types including Single, Superior and Deluxe—all on the lower deck. The Deluxe is slightly roomier than the Superior and both come with twin beds. State Cabins, situated on the floor above, together with the Governor’s Suite, are larger still with double beds. All cabins have large windows but none have balconies so everyone tends to head up to the top deck for the best views—adding to the social feel of the journey.
The sprawling observation deck is the ship’s showpiece, with its scalloped canopy, dipping pool, cocktail bar and outdoor-living-room lounges. A fitness room, nightly entertainment, spa rooms, world-class cuisine and an attentive staff round out the luxury.
Indeed, Belmond Road to Mandalay is a magical and iconic journey down the Ayeyarwady River, evoking times gone by. The boat stops at some of the country’s most awe-inspiring wonders such as the spectacular ancient city of Bagan, the royal capital of Mandalay and the sacred Sagaing Hills. Sagaing, with numerous Buddhist monasteries, is an important religious and monastic centre. The pagodas and monasteries crowd the numerous hills along the ridge running parallel to the river. The central pagoda, Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda, is connected by a set of covered staircases that run up the 240 m hill.
The boat carries up to 82 passengers, offering a posh oasis in a nation of thatched-hut villages, rice paddies and thousands of Buddhist pagodas. Each day is filled with events, excursions, and entertainment. Aside from shore excursions guests can partake in topical talks from a range of local and international experts or join a cooking class to learn some Burmese specialties.
As well as a range of activities in the fitness center, yoga and tai chi are offered on board and at select locations along the route. A juice bar serves healthy drinks. On certain journeys, Belmond Road to Mandalay features renowned guest yoga teachers, most especially Dr. Hla Tun, the ship’s resident doctor. He is available on call for guests 24 hours a day. In addition to his work as a physician, Dr Tun has instigated and continues to run an extraordinary philanthropic program. Since the ship began operating, he has liaised with local people and guests of the ship to build and run 26 schools in the region which offer medical assistance.
The cruise takes you along the fabled Ayeyarwady River through some of the most untouched and peaceful areas in Southeast Asia. Starting in the Himalayas, the great Ayeyarwady River runs vertically down through the center of Myanmar, towards the Andaman Sea. As it flows it passes Mandalay, the country’s last royal capital, and Bagan, home to over two thousand ancient pagodas. The Belmond Road to Mandalay cruise ship links these two great destinations, gliding through vast plains and open farmland. This is a chance to forge your own adventure while crafting a meaningful and lasting connection with the land and its people. Guests can choose to travel north to south along the Ayeyarwady from Mandalay to Bagan or vice versa, both take part in shore excursions. Perhaps a horse and cart or bicycle tour of Ava, an ancient imperial capital from the 14th to 19th centuries or a walking tour around the small riverside town of Mingun and a visit to the famous unfinished stupa, Pahtodawgyi.
Bagan is the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, and home to over two thousand ancient pagodas. There are a multitude of ways to navigate its network of paved and dirt roads. For an authentic experience, rent a bike and travel to the Shwesandaw Phaya, a teak pagoda offering sweeping views of the city from the top of its turrets. The countryside surrounding the city is stunning, with the curving palm trees and soft sandstone stupas set against undulating hills. One of Bagan’s largest and most ornate temples is Ananda, a towering white edifice that houses four giant Buddhas. Fine examples of Bagan’s two artisan industries – terracotta tiles and lacquer – can also be seen here.
On the outskirts of Mandalay, the riverbanks are serene landscapes of palm trees and gleaming white pagodas topped with gold domes. Immortalized in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, Mandalay is the last royal city of Myanmar. Shrouded in mystique and allure, Mandalay is the center of Myanmar’s gold lead and marble craftsmanship. There are entire streets of artisans devoted to marble carving, with shops selling their wares. There’s also a chance to visit one of the many gold leaf workshops to see how the precious metal is still hammered arduously by hand to produce gleaming, paper-thin sheets. These are bought by local people to be rubbed on to Buddhas at the pagodas. Kuthodaw pagoda, at the foot of Mandalay Hill, features what is known as the world’s largest “book” – 750 marble tablets engraved with Buddhist teachings. By contrast Shwenandaw Monastery, a former palace of King Mindon rebuilt in this location near Mandalay Hill, is a serenely beautiful teak mansion featuring exquisite carvings.
In both Mandalay and Bagan passengers may visit one of the many local markets to see the array of fresh produce gleaned from the surrounding countryside. In the mornings there’s a profusion of carts selling mohinga, a clear fish soup with fine rice noodles which local people love to eat for breakfast, and freshly made rice or wheat noodles which are popular at any time of day. A particular favorite is the local specialty Mandalay Mondi – a rice noodle dish with chicken curry. Belmond Road to Mandalay passengers can see the noodles being made and even have a go themselves. In Bagan, guests may also visit a household that makes ponyegyi, a fermented soy bean paste which is added to curries and salads.
In between excursions, life on board is punctuated by culinary experiences from afternoon tea to cocktail parties. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in a spacious dining room and under shade on the observation deck. Guests are free to dine à deux although many choose to eat with new friends made on the trip.
An international buffet is served for lunch while for dinner there’s a choice of Western and Pan Asian set menus with Myanmar dishes such as the famous Tea Leaf Salad. To accompany the menu, there’s an excellent international wine list including a selection from the Myanmar wine producer Aythaya.
On one evening during the trip dinner is held on the observation deck with a live cooking station, barbecue and salad bar where guests can dine alfresco under the stars.
The Bar is the social hub of the ship, ideal for easy evenings spent with fellow travellers, enjoying pre-dinner aperitifs or lingering over late-night cocktails.
The general manager of Belmond Road to Mandalay, Eddie Teh takes immense pride in the smooth running of the cruise. Having experienced Myanmar’s smooth transition to the outside world, an important part of Eddie’s job has been to establish a relationship with villagers along the ship’s routes to make them feel that they are showcasing their homeland to foreigners. “There are many places where the local people are not familiar with having visitors and some haven’t seen foreigners before, especially when we introduce a new journey. When they feel a part of the visit, they become proud hosts and naturally engage with our guests who in turn are immersed in the experience and discover the true magic of Myanmar,” says Eddie.
Belmond’s Road to Mandalay river cruise is a bucket list adventure for sure. Included in the price of your voyage is all table d’hôte meals, complimentary soft drinks and local beer available all day along with house wine during lunch and dinner. For reservations or additional information go to www.belmond.com.