They know about partying in Venice. This, though, was to be a party with a difference, rolling out from La Serenissima across five countries en route to Stockholm, the Venice of the North. It began at the luxurious Hotel Cipriani, where a cosmopolitan crowd of 150 travellers gathered for Bellinis, dinner overlooking the lagoon - and a night of static sleep. For, in the morning, boats would transfer us to the legendary Venice-Simplon Orient-Express. This time, however, the antique train would make railway history, exploring a new route north.
As we boarded the gleaming blue coaches, the destination plates showed 'København & Stockholm'. Our carriage, one of 15, had seen service as a bordello during World War II and much romance since. Each compartment was a jewellery box of marquetry, velvet upholstery and brass fittings with a concealed basin - exquisite, but no place for claustrophobes. Once we'd settled into our temporary home, there came the summons to lunch in one of three meticulously restored dining cars of Thirties vintage. Stewards served fresh asparagus and ten der fillet of venison followed by chocolate ganache, as the train trundled through the vineyards of South Tyrol. How did chef Christian Bodiguel's brigade confect such cuisine in a narrow galley? 'Practice,' he said. Of that there has been plenty. Since the original rolling stock was discovered and restored in the late Seventies, the Orient-Express has travelled more than 5 million kilometres in vintage style, conveying a cast as extraordinary as any assembled for the fictional journeys of Graham Greene, Agatha Christie and lan Fleming.
Our party-makers were no exception: glamorous Parisians; old-money Americans; thirsty Scandinavians; and a quartet of exotically dressed Singaporeans. 'It is impossible to overdress on the Orient-Express; the advance passenger notes had warned, advice that had clearly been heeded. Dinner jackets with decorations, shimmering cheong-sams, and ballgowns were the order of the night as Twen ties cocktails were shaken in the bar car. A pianist played show tunes on a baby grand: how they got it into the carriage, I never did discover.
Returning from dinner; we found our compartment had been transformed by steward Michael into a bedroom, the sofa converted to beds, the upper bunk reached by velvet ladder. As the Express traced an arc around the Austrian lakes, we were rocked to a sleep punctuated by distant whistles. By dawn, all motion had ceased and we awoke to find the train parked in a forest siding south of Hamburg. The local fire brigade was topping up the water tanks.
'Authenticity is everything,' explained Claude Ginella, managing director of Orient-Express, over lunch. This extends to the loos, mahogany thrones operating on the original direct-drop system, an approach that so consternated Danish railway officials that 10 health and safety officers were put aboard. Carriages and water are still heated by coal boilers and there is no air conditioning or showers, let alone WiFi - what might have proved a problem for us was overcome using the new Tep Wireless, a pocketable device that provided internet access everywhere bar tunnels. For optimum hygiene - and sleep - we passed alternate nights at grand hotels, including the newly renovated Copenhagen Marriott, exemplar of Denmark's devotion to eye catching style and contemporary comfort.
After a happy day's exploration of Copenhagen's old town, the multicoloured merchant houses of Nyhavn and the ancient sculpture collection at the Glyptotek, we rejoined the train at Malmö on the Swedish side of the great Baltic bridge for our final night aboard. Having left Venice bathed in spring sunshine, the Express now bisected an empty landscape of birch forest and frozen lakes with occasional glimpses of red-washed farmhouses.
On the approach to Stockholm, crowds turned out to wave. Television crews, photographers and journalists greeted our arrival. But this was not quite the end of the party, for passengers were transferred to the venerable Grand Hotel overlooking the Royal Palace and GamIa Stan,the old town. The hotel and train are of an age, both magnificently preserved and enjoying ever-changing views. Celebrations continued in the terrace bar and in the restaurant of Matthias Dahlgren, Sweden's superstar chef, supplemented by passengers due to join the train the following day for the journey back to Venice. Some had even bought return tickets.
Luxurious the Express may be, but in the manner of a leisurely age, when space limitations were more readily accepted. This new, longer route linking three of Europe's most aqueous cities offers an extended experience of pre-war travel at its most glamorous. After a speedboat tour of 14 of Stockholm's islands and a memorably simple lunch at Lisa Elmqvist's fishbar in Östermalm Saluhall market, it was time to return home. On the way to the airport, our cab was overtaken by the Express, a blue streak in the slanting sunlight. For a moment, we experienced the pang of outsiders looking in on a party.
Ways and means: Julian Allason travelled as a guest of the . While the route between Venice and Sweden is no longer in service, Venice-Simplon Orient-Express runs a number of other journeys throughout Europe.