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Take a Luxury Train to See America

By Denise McCluggage

(Rest in Peace, D)

American Orient Express on the Pacific Coast photo: courtesy of AOE

Think cruise ship. On land.

On shining rails that crisscross the continent affording scenes of snow-capped mountains, deep-forested canyons threaded with glinting rivers. Or intimate close-ups of crops in rows and old barns, county-seat courthouse squares and barbecue backyards of city suburbs. And the thrumming heart of great cities.

So think cruise train. And, like cruise ships with ports of call featuring guided land tours of historic sights and scenic wonders. And shopping time for those of us thus driven.

Think retro luxury recalling the passenger rail heyday when sleek Streamliners with evocative names like 20th Century Limited, Santa Fe Super Chief, Burlington Zephyr were the preferred mode of Point A-to-B-ing.

Dinner in the dinah, nothing could be finah….
Think meticulously restored rail cars with interiors of polished mahogany inlaid with lighter woods. A domed car, a club car with baby grand piano and sink-into armchairs, a boat-tailed observation car with comfortable, clubby seating. Bars of course. Dining cars aglow with lustrous brass, shining silver on snowy napery. Fresh flowers. Gleaming crystal. Signature china in royal blue, cream and gold (the train's exterior color scheme.) Capable, attentive service. Superior meals of inventive preparation with the soul of a chef in evidence. What wine tonight?

During the day as you pass through the idle dining cars you might catch a glimpse of the intense young chef and cohorts rapt in planning sessions. They treat their restaurant on rails as if it were a side-street eatery in the city on the brink of discovery.

Lucius Beebe never had it better in his private rail car. Think this and more and you've thought up the American Orient Express.

American Orient Express (hereafter AOE) in its present manifestation is a relatively new (1997) and certainly innovative approach to travel which allows passengers to sample the elegance of rail travel as it was half a century ago while experiencing the country in a manner denied by high-flying jets and high-speed Interstates.

It is nostalgia resonating from past to present building new memories for the future. It is an elegant, pleasant and provocative way to get up close and personal with the marvels of the continent, both natural and historic.

Aboard the AOE
photo: courtesy of AOE

The vehicle for this experience is a quarter mile of vintage private train, lovingly (and expensively) renovated. The trains (there are now two full sets on separate journeys) ply rail routes carefully chosen to make the most of astounding scenery with schedules laid out to take advantage of daylight hours and peak seasons. For instance on the "Antebellum South" itinerary which I took in early April from New Orleans to Washington D.C. fragile dogwood caught the sun in the brown-limbed woods. Azaleas were still bright. Spring hazed the hills with its fragile new green and in the nation's capital the cherry blossoms were at their delicate best. Talk about timing.

Another AOE route makes an autumn leaf-peaking pilgrimage through the maple brightness of New England, upstate New York and Quebec. With AOE it's not the getting there that counts it's the being there at the right time. (See "Itineraries" below.)

The AOE tours are train-based, but scarcely confined to the train. The train is parked on sidings or at stations with passengers disembarking to widen the tour via motorcoach, van, horse-drawn carriage or shanks mare, whichever is appropriate for closer encounters with national parks, cities, mansions, public buildings, plantations, cemeteries and/or shopping streets. Oh yes, boats are an option on the itineraries including Glacier National Park.

On my Antebellum South trip I found the provided guides informative and entertaining. In New Orleans, Anne Lenhard, a retired kindergarten teacher, explained in a voice as sonorous as a church bell why she is called "Queen of the Cemeteries."

Savannah Cemetery
photo: Denise McCluggage

To anyone mildly acquainted with southern writers it was no surprise to find cemeteries twining throughout the itinerary. Besides New Orleans's unique aboveground mausoleums there was the Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah featured in the book (and movie) "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." One can say with confidence that death is alive and well in the Southland.

On one bright day we clip-clopped through the delightful streets of Charleston, SC and the rows of handsome houses. The sun was beaming but the air bore unseasonable chill making the lap robes in the wagon behind the big gray (breathing smoke plumes) more than welcome. Our lady teamster, dressed in a natty version of a confederate army uniform, was truly witty, charming and knowledgeable. Good hands on the reins, too.

After the heyday of passenger trains in the '40s and '50s, ridership plunged steeply (82% in a decade) yet trains still maintained a romantic hold on the souls of travelers. Yes, the convenience of the family sedan on Eisenhower's burgeoning Interstates and the speed of transcontinental airlines drained away business, but the pleasures of a gently swaying rail car, the countryside sliding by the window, the plaintive trailing of a train whistle still tugged at the imagination of the traveler. The late Ted Rose, a superior painter of trains and their environs wrote: "Railroads are to the American landscape what the blues are to American music: a connective underlayment - original, intact and human scale."

Mike, a porter on the AOE photo: Denise McCluggage

Thus boarding the AOE train in New Orleans (and probably at every embarkation city) passengers greeted by the uniformed staff and assisted aboard by the porters are all wearing the same anticipatory smile. Maybe they are recalling a rail experience of their youth; maybe they are train buffs adding new miles to their life list; maybe they have never set foot on a train, but just ahead for all of them lies a unique adventure. And they sense it.

Each AOE trip begins with an introductory welcome reception and dinner at the hotel where the first overnight is spent. Train staff and passengers meet and mix. After breakfast on the first day is a tour of the embarkation city, lunch at a special restaurant and then a late afternoon boarding of the train.

The Pullman cars bear city names, both European and American - Berlin, Washington, Savannah, Paris, Montreal, Portland, Denver. Seattle is the club car with the piano. A professional tickler of the ivories helps turn the car into a relaxed and amiable boite every cocktail hour and again after dinner. Both voices and glasses might be raised. Laughter and chatter and even some serious conversations. (And murder - but more about that later.)

Dinner might be in either Zurich or Chicago (or so the dining cars are named.) Choose one tonight, another tomorrow. Or stake out a claim. No set seating assignments.

Dinner aboard the AOE
photo: courtesy AOE

Warm lamplight spills across the tables, seating for two or four. Dine where you like with whom you like or alone with your thoughts or a book. The extended dinner hour is from 6:00 to 9:00. And, forgive me for being repetitious, but the meals are consistently a cut above excellent. Five course dinners with three entrée choices. Regional touches where possible.

A glance in the kitchen will reveal frenzied activity in a tiny space and yet each plate emerges into calm and order. During the day as you pass through the idle dining cars you might catch a glimpse of the intense young chef and cohorts rapt in planning sessions. They treat their restaurant on rails as if it were a side-street eatery in the city on the brink of discovery.

Not every day is a travel day. For instance, our train sat on a siding in Richmond for two nights. One day we toured that historic capital (of Virginia and of the Confederacy) and visited a historic plantation. The next day the group boarded motorcoaches to visit Thomas Jefferson's Monticello near Charlottesville. Having been to Monticello twice in the past two years I opted (as anyone can) to stay onboard the train that day and "get some work done." Well intended.

However I lazed about perusing several books on trains (including one of Ted Rose's paintings) I found in the train library. I could have moseyed over to the old train station, now a youth museum, but the great motionless calm of the train and the cozy privacy of my compartment were the stronger draws. I do like trains. Moving or still.

Accommodations: About those compartments: space is at a premium in anything as long and skinny as a train, but the compartments (five different configurations) put every inch to good use. Surprising how useful a "closet" with a mere four inches of hanging space can be.

All but one of the five compartment styles (the Single Sleeper) are intended for double occupancy. All have their own private water closet in a compact little room and a sink and vanity in the cabin.

The shower room for occupants of the Single Sleeper and the basic Vintage Pullman (which makes into a lower and upper berth) is at the end of the car down the aisle. (Terry robes are provided.) Schedule your preferred shower time with the porter who sees that the shower room is cleaned and squeegeed dry immediately afterward. The Parlor Suite, Deluxe Suite and the double-size Presidential Suite all have private shower compartments.

Showering while the train is moving can be an exercise in agility but grab bars are plentiful and well placed. Actually, it’s more fun than anything.

I was alone in my Vintage Pullman but in imagining a fellow traveler I didn't envisage any serious crowding problems. The public cars are rarely more than a car length or two away so roommates can expand and contract their needed personal space with a little planning. And the porter is handy for quick conversion of the bench seat into a berth or back again.
Stowage could be a problem if you house two clotheshorses in the same compartment. (Casual dress is always right though you can show off as much as you like, if you like.)

Besides that four-inch hanging space there's a large floor-level drawer under the seat. It swallows a surprising amount. My luggage was a wheeled duffle bag that, when largely empty, slipped under the seat next to the drawer. It would also have fit in the high deep shelf (above the water closet room) at eye level with the upper berth. That's where I put my carry-on backpack (computer, camera etc). But please do note that there's no off-site storage. All your baggage, empty or full, remains with you so make sure any bag can be compressed to less than six inches.

Itineraries: Of the eight itineraries most take eight days and seven nights. The transcontinental trips are 11 days and 10 nights.

Spectacular scenery that presses in on the domed car seems to be most admired. It is not by chance that the dome car is named "Copper Canyon." The route between Tucson AZ and Copper Canyon in Mexico is perhaps the most popular offered. The Copper Canyon trip includes airfare between Chihuahua and Tucson. (Or vice versa depending on the direction of your chosen tour.)

The Canadian Rockies are equally spectacular and The Grand Trans-Canada Rail Journey between Vancouver and Montreal (or reverse) gets right in the midst of them and schedules a stop at Jasper National Park.

Patrick Henry in Richmond, Va.
photo: Denise McCluggage

Several itineraries grow equally intimate with the American Rockies. National Parks of the West is one, the Great Northwest and Rockies is another.

New for 2004 will be The American Southwest from San Antonio to Los Angeles with stops in Santa Fe, Sedona and Phoenix.

Then, new this year, is the coastal between Los Angeles to Seattle (with guided tours of the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, Muir Woods, Napa Valley wine country, Multnomah Falls and Portland.)

And, note this, there's still time to make the last run of the Great Transcontinental Rail Journey. That route will be discontinued after 2003. Its last trip, beginning in Washington D.C. October 28 and ending in Los Angeles November 7, does Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Santa Fe and the Grand Canyon. How cool is that?

I earlier mentioned the autumn trip through the Northeast and the Antebellum South trip that I took. Get a brochure (see below) and dream.

History: AOE, though not connected with the Orient Express in Europe, can trace its origins to nostalgia for that exotic rail route, the site of the Agatha Christie mystery "Murder on the Orient Express." The idea of restored vintage rail cars to commemorate the golden age of train travel felt its way through several concepts. The old cars were methodically located and meticulously restored to a high standard under the direction of William F. and Melissa Spann of Florida's Bay Point Yacht and Country Club.

The cars began their new life as part of AMTRAK service between Washington DC and Chicago. The idea was that business people would appreciate luxury, ease and time in their workaday travel. It seems most preferred crowding, haste and getting there fast. The posh train service lasted about a year.

Increasingly it became clear that tourists were better appreciators of vintage luxury than business folk. Through experimentation and a number of owners, (now Henry Hillman of the Pittsburgh steel Hillmans) the cruise train concept with ports of call for off-rail expeditions evolved and the AOE found its identity. That evolution is ongoing with Mr. Hillman as president and CEO. New itineraries are researched and added as return clientele push for ever more choices.

Themes and entertainment: The various itineraries might have themes attached to them. Common to the Antebellum South trip are the themes "Civil War" and "Jazz," both particularly apt for the route. Lecturers (or music) appropriate to the theme are scheduled for the club car while underway and off-train excursions are aligned with the theme.

My Antebellum South trip saw the inauguration of a new theme: "Murder on the American Orient Express."

Keith and Margo's Murder Mystery USA out of Los Angeles are experienced in staging interactive murder mystery programs but this was the first they would do on a train. They adapt existing scripts. Actors are imbedded in the group traveling as regular tourists.

As passengers boarded the train, they passed by a "dead" body and a "detective" investigating the crime. The game was on. As the trip progressed clues were discovered (and then kept on file for the game-players to study at will.)

An intended by-product of the mystery game is to stir the soup and set passengers talking to each other, asking questions and getting acquainted. That seemed to work as planned. The train capacity is 100 passengers though the April Antebellum tour had 60 aboard.

Some passengers said they had taken that particular train trip because of the murder mystery; some in spite of it. Both groups managed beautifully. Those who were involved in the day-to-day process of murder most foul were enrapt; those who chose not to participate weren't in the least bothered by the background hum of clues and motives. Coexistence was easy and amiable.

It could certainly be said that for both groups the first "Murder on the American Orient Express" was a success. Count on similar bloodletting and detecting occurring on other itineraries.

Cost: Given the evident expense involved in the AOE rail cars, their condition and upkeep; the quality of the dining experience, and the top-of-the-line off-train tours one would expect to pay well for the adventure. One does. This is not budget travel, but then the value quotient is high.

Sample costs: Two sharing a Vintage Pullman compartment on the Pacific Coast Explorer itinerary (eight days, seven nights) would pay $2,890 each. A Presidential Suite is $4,990 for each resident. On the Mexico and Copper Canyon itinerary a Deluxe Suite cost $5,890 each but that includes the charter flight between Chihuahua and Tucson.

Tourists enjoy cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. -- just one stop on the Antebellum South AOE trip.
photo: Denise McCluggage

Much, except getting to the train and home again, bar tabs in the club car and shopping sprees, is included. Tips for the train staff (about $15 a day) is not. House wines at dinner are included; ordering from the wine list is not.

Discounts ($300) are allowed for booking six months in advance. And return travelers, of which there are a growing number (I hope to be among them) are granted similar savings as automatic members of the Golden Rail Club. They also get 10% off on-train purchases including liquor and boutique purchases.

More information: Call this toll free number to request a brochure: 877-854-3545. Or write: American Orient Express, 5100 Main Street, Suite 300, Downers Grove, IL 60615-4651.

The website ( is helpfully complete but annoyingly spells "Santa Fe" as "Sante Fe" much of the time. But then computer people are not notably spelling mindful for some reason.

Tour rates and dates, booking information and details on discounts can all be found on the website. Or check with your travel agent.

Closing thoughts: Though children eight years old and above are accepted, I doubt that an AOE trip is an ideal choice for them. None was on the trip I was on. The lounge cars are designed for adult activities whether that be playing cards, reading, drinking, or conversation. Kids would have to be inordinately capable of self-entertainment and exhibit a unique talent for not being noticed to fit them in this scenario. In short they would likely be bored out of their tiny minds.

Then again train travel is not ideal for the lame and halt either. Train passageways are 23 inches wide, compartment doors 18 inches. Negotiating one's way on a swaying train is not recommended for anyone needing assistance walking. Though I am told this has not discouraged many who are determined to see the wonders of the world that are visible only from a train.

Suggestion: Grown children of parents who are on the verge of a notable anniversary would do well to look into an AOE trip as a memorable gift. Get all the sibs together and select the perfect itinerary. Surprise, surprise! Train travel is remarkably hassle free, takes place on solid ground over known pathways and is both something new and something old all at once. It's different. And cell phones usually work so keeping tabs is easy.

Think train cruise.


Travelers interested in a deluxe trip onboard America's premier, private train, American Orient Express (AOE), can now book their rail vacations with ease, online at .

By visiting the AOE website, passengers are able to plan their trip from start to finish. Online booking gives customers the ability to select itineraries and travel dates, as well as to view and choose cabin categories all with the click of their mouse. A deposit is required, with an amount due at time of 7 days. Final payment is due within 60 days. Check with the AOE website for specific fees.