Happy days are here again, on the 'Luxury Express' to Florida

January 05, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

NEW YORK -- They should be the most sweet-tempered visitors Florida has seen in a long time, travelers spared the cramped ordeal of the airplane, the tired jostle at the baggage claim. People ready to greet Florida with the sunny ebullience of the state's first great promoter, Henry Flagler.

For those who have the time and money, the chance returns to travel to Florida as Flagler once did. America's only privately run passenger railroad, the Royal Floridian, offers twice-weekly service from New York to Miami with stops in Orlando, West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, providing a glimpse into luxuries little known since ol' Henry was King of the Railroad Barons.

It's a brand of travel dedicated to the proposition that passengers should arrive in celestial moods. A passage so pampered that if the station stop were Death Valley, one would step from one's coach and say, "My! Isn't life grand?"

"I have never seen happier people in my life," says Ron Black, regional sales director for American-European Express, the company offering this posh service. "Everyone is so used to the horrors of airplane travel -- the delays, the plastic cups and plates. Everyone is happy on the train."

And why not? Passengers boarding at New York's Penn Station have a thick blue carpet rolled out for them on the platform as liveried porters swoop down on their baggage.

When the passengers step down from the train at the end of the ride, the entire staff -- from chef de train to the lowliest steward -- forms a line to bid them adieu, calling each passenger by name.

Along the way, travelers move from fresh-squeezed juice in their compartments to the four-course luncheon, to High Tea, to the champagne hour, to the five-course dinner in a leisurely gourmet's orgy.

Reading, chatting and endless digestion are performed in some of the grandest cars ever to rattle down the rails. There's the Bay Point club car, complete with ceiling murals, ebony-and-brass bar and tinkling baby grand. And a restored observation car, rescued from the old 20th Century Limited -- the very car in which Cary Grant met Eva Marie Saint for the sexiest moment of Hitchcock's "North By Northwest."

Conceivably, one might stop raving when the bill arrives. For the Miami-New York round trip, fares start at about $1,500.

The train now known in the travel game as the Luxury Express is the brainchild of Panama City, Fla., businessman William Spann. With major backing from the European company that runs the restored Orient Express, Mr. Spann's trains seem to have tapped a small but wealthy market among train buffs and lovers of finer things.

Service runs along Amtrak and CSX rails with locomotives from those companies pulling the load. From Miami, travelers on the luxury train will, if they wish, be shuttled to Key Largo for a few days.

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