There was a time in North America during the 1940s and '50s when a journey by rail featured sleek streamliners with comfortable, clean interiors, comfy private rooms, elegant dining and the finest service.
Many of us can recall such trains: the Super Chief, California Zephyr, Empire Builder, 20th Century Limited and many more. What happened to them? The jet plane -- the 707 and DC-8 moved us from city to city swiftly and often at lower cost than the luxury passenger trains.
In 1971, the government took over U.S. passenger trains and called it Amtrak. The passenger trains have never been the same. There is, however, a growing demand for deluxe train travel, often referred to as a "land cruise." Amtrak has selected certain scenic routes and upgraded such trains as the West Coast's "Starlight" that travels up the coast from Los Angeles to Seattle and the "Empire Builder" from Seattle to Chicago.
Upgrades to the coaches include new carpeting, pleasant staff, and food service featuring recipes drawn from the bygone heyday of train travel. There are flexible meal times rather than the custom of fixed dining hours.
Private passenger rail companies have sprung up in both Canada and the United States. They have taken many former streamliner passenger cars and totally rebuilt and/or refurbished them to be even more comfortable and luxurious than they were originally. Probably one of the most famous of those has been around for more than 10 years, and is best known as the "American Orient Express."
This year, the name of the "American Orient Express" is changing to "GrandLuxe Rail Journeys." The company owns perfectly matched equipment and features deluxe travel. The route is from Jackson, Wyo. to Seattle, Wash. and vice versa, themed as a culinary adventure.
You can also travel the national parks of the West, the Great Northwest and Rockies, and the American Southwest. All gourmet meals are included as well as sightseeing at each stop and much more.
GrandLuxe Rail Journeys is now offering a nine-day Mexico itinerary which begins in El Paso, Texas and travels through Mexico, with visits to the Copper Canyon, Colonial Mexico sites and Mexico City. There are many departures for the remainder of this year and next. Prices begin at $4,500 per person.
The Mexico train trip is expensive, but remember, the price includes just about everything you will require for this very deluxe rail adventure.
I like the Canadian rail tours offered by a very old and reliable company, Cartan. You can order their Canadian Rail Journeys brochure by a simple telephone call.
If you have little time for your summer vacation, try Cartan's Romantic Rockies by Rail. You'll fly to Vancouver and stay overnight. The next day, you tour the city, then board VIA Rail's Canadian.
You climb into the Canadian Rockies and depart the train at Jasper. You'll have plenty of time for sightseeing and then travel by motor coach along the Ice Fields Parkway to Lake Louise.
Later, you move on to Banff, then to Calgary for your flight back to Arizona.
Included is sightseeing in Jasper, and the Lake Louise and Banff areas. This is seven days of some of the grandest scenery you'll find anywhere. Cartan offers longer itineraries which include more rail travel and some with rail and car rental, plus they book the hotels for you.
You may wish to travel across Canada. Cartan can arrange this.
Some travel companies offer rail and cruise itineraries. Cartan and Train Holidays put these interesting vacations together.
You can take a train up the West Coast to Portland where you board a sternwheeler river boat and then cruise up the Columbia River into Lewis and Clark territory. You can also travel by train up the West Coast to Seattle, and ferry over to Victoria, B.C. Or, train to Vancouver and board a luxury cruise ship for a seven-day sail through the Inland Passage of Alaska.
Cartan and Train Holidays can help you with these and many more great itineraries.
If you're into the very exotic, you might look into traveling through Russia and Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Or, the great Australian train trek on the famous Ghan or Sydney to Perth on the Indian Pacific railway. You'll have something to talk about for the rest of your life.
Since 1921 Paris and Istanbul have been linked by the legendary Orient Express. This train has been totally re-built and continues to feature the finest service: dining, fine wines and you just may be seated next to a film star, royalty or world leader. But be forewarned, be ready to sell the farm to afford the Orient Express experience.
Enjoy your rail adventures. They are very special experiences.
Helpful contacts include
GrandLuxe Rail Journeys: 1-800-320-4206
Train Holidays: 1-800-543-2846
Cartan Tours: 1-800-422-7826
Orient Express: www.orientexpress.com
Rail adventures closer to home
Verde Canyon Railroad
The only way you can enjoy a "land cruise" today in Arizona is on the Verde Canyon private train or the Grand Canyon Railway.
One of the most scenic train experiences in our state is a ride on the Verde Canyon Railroad's historic route from Clarkdale to Perkinsville and back into Arizona's other "Grand Canyon."
Passengers are enthralled as the eagle-decorated, vintage engines roll past towering, crimson cliffs, near ancient Indian ruins, over old-fashioned trestles and through a 680-foot man-made tunnel on the four-hour round trip.
This historic route between two national forests and adjacent to a wilderness area follows the upper Verde River. The train consists of first class cars from the era of American railroading dating back to the 1940s and '50s.
These cars feature living room style seating, complimentary appetizers and beverage service.
Coach cars provide chair seating on both sides of a middle aisle, along with a snack bar.
A so-called caboose features a personal valet, appetizers, premium beverage service and private outdoor viewing platforms.
The train is pulled by vintage FP7 diesel engines, two of only 12 such models remaining in North America.
A special feature of this train is the open platform cars located between every two or three passenger cars. The cars have bench seating, partially-covered roofs and open sides which are great for photography and close-up sightseeing.
The train's schedule depends on the season.
The 40-mile excursion to the tiny ghost ranch of Perkinsville rolls past remnants of a bygone copper industry and ancient Indian ruins dating back to 600 A.D. An on-board narrator informs passengers of nature sightings along the way.
During the summer, Starlight tours and a Grape Train (wine tasting) are added. In the fall, autumn showcases the gold, bronze and copper colors of the trees that line the river.
"Ales on Rails," the Verde Canyon Railroad's version of Oktoberfest is featured every Sunday in October, and ghosts and goblins inhabit the popular Haunted Halloween Express on Oct. 31.
Winter is time for eagle viewing from late November through March. More than 35 bald and golden eagles migrate to the canyon each year along with other migrating birds.
For reservations and information, call 1-800-293-7245.
Clarkdale is an easy two-hour drive from Payson.
Grand Canyon Railway
The Grand Canyon Railway experience is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Payson, through the beautiful northern Arizona country, to Williams, which is located just 30 miles west of Flagstaff on Interstate 40.
Williams has come to life again with the railway's success. The town's population is just under 2,000 today.
It once survived by being on Route 66. But, when the interstate came into being, Williams was by-passed.
The Grand Canyon Railway is based here and is the town's principal employer.
The train station was built by the Santa Fe railroad in 1901. Trains came from Chicago and Los Angeles on the Santa Fe main line. Passengers bound for the Grand Canyon transferred at Williams for the 69-mile run to the South Rim of the canyon. Santa Fe built two main lodges for its tourist passengers, with the most notable being El Tovar, situated on the rim of the canyon next to the rail station.
Today, one can enjoy the same comforts provided passengers many years ago by the Santa Fe.
The now privately-owned Grand Canyon Railroad is comprised of a number of rail cars built in the so-called streamlined era of the 1940s and '50s. The basic coach cars were built in the 1920s. All have been completely refurbished.
There are five classes of service. I recommend sitting in one of the Vista Dome cars. Views are spectacular.
The train trip begins with a Wild West shoot-out (great for the kids) next to the station beginning at 9:30 a.m.
Boarding begins at 9:50 a.m. and departs the Williams station sharply at 10 a.m. The hotel employees line the track in front of the station and wave a "goodbye" as the train departs.
Most of the year, the train is pulled by a diesel. During the summer, a steam engine is positioned at the head of the train. The rails head north through flat, open, high plains until the train nears the canyon's South Rim, where the scenery changes to mostly pine trees.
Looking east, you have a wonderful view of the San Francisco Peaks, the highest in Arizona.
During the scenic ride, Western-themed strolling musicians move through the rail cars taking song requests. You will probably get into the mood and sing along with the musicians as well as those in your rail car.
The train arrives at the South Rim station at 12:15 p.m. A short walk from the station to the canyon's rim brings the breathtaking sights of the Grand Canyon.
Bus tours, which include lunch, can be purchased in advance, which I recommend. The coach driver is your host. After lunch, you visit several lookout points and are provided with an informative narrative. Or, you may wish to make a lunch reservation in advance for the main dining room at the El Tovar Hotel overlooking the canyon. The food is great and the service is very good.
At 3:30 p.m., the train departs the Grand Canyon station and returns to Williams, arriving at 5:45 p.m. During the return rail trip, you'll enjoy more live music as you "cruise" through the high plains. And, be prepared for train robbers to ride along the side of the train with guns drawn, forcing the train to slow so they can board. The "robbers" are masked and move through the train asking you to give them your watches and wallets. All is in good fun, of course.
Take the children or grandchildren. They will get a big kick out of the train, the canyon and the true Western feeling of the experience.
Available also with the train experience is a stay overnight at El Tovar lodge at the canyon's rim.
Several packages can be purchased along with railroad reservations by calling (928) 773-1976.
Enjoy this special experience close to Payson.