Riding the rails in style on the American Orient Express

October 08, 1995|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Norman MacDonald leaned back in the plush chair and gazed out the rear-facing bay windows of the train's observation car as it sped across the Midwest plains.

"I rode this car when it was on the 20th Century Limited," the Mukilteo, Wash., man reminisced. "I remember this raised section in the back."

Mr. MacDonald, who designed locomotives for General Motors before he retired, remembers when the 20th Century Limited was the most famous train in the golden age of American railroads that ended in the 1950s. But on this August day in 1995, he was traveling on America's first transcontinental luxury train, the American Orient Express. All the cars on this private train are vintage models carefully restored to their 1950s elegance, and its route across the country is tailored to provide daylong stops at interesting points.

This is not a train whose purpose is to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as its steel wheels can rotate. Passage on the AOE is more like sailing on a cruise ship. Train stops are like ports of call: Passengers disembark to take a land excursion, then -- some hours later -- reboard to freshen up, have cocktails and gourmet dinner, enjoy after-dinner conviviality in the club car and retire to their cabins as the train speeds to another locale. It's a way of travel that appeals to many.

"I always wanted to go cross-country by train," said Elizabeth Vail of Monte Sereno, Calif. She and her husband, Glenn, particularly enjoyed the food, which was prepared by on-board chefs from Seattle restaurants, and the accommodations.

"I like the beds -- they're good-sized," she added, noting that on some other trains the beds are much narrower.

Traveling on the AOE takes you back to an age when train cars were works of art as well as utilitarian carriages. Rich Honduran mahogany paneling covers the interiors and exteriors of compartments. Embossed leathers cover the walls of the club cars, inlaid woods and original oil paintings decorate the dining cars. Each of the two club cars has a grand piano, marble-top bar, plush sofas and chairs. All compartments have panoramic windows, wash basins and their own enclosed toilet facilities.

Nothing like these cars has been on American tracks for years -- not since a train called the American European Express refurbished these very same cars in 1989 and began offering luxury trips between Washington and Chicago. That effort failed, and from it, years later, has risen the American Orient Express, also a luxury train, but with a new owner and a different mode of operation.

The old American European Express traveled from Washington to Chicago in a day and a night, and the dress and ambience were elegant. The new American Orient Express takes its time (a week) getting from Washington to Sacramento, and while the elegance is still there, nobody gets dressed up.

As grand as they were, none of the svelte trains of the past -- famed carriages like the 20th Century Limited, the Broadway Limited and the Santa Fe Chief -- took passengers over every mile of rail from coast to coast. Somewhere along the route, passengers had to switch trains. The AOE goes the whole way, and it's not simply a mode of transportation; it's a train that tours.

Destinations are the same whether visited by car, train or airplane. But style in getting there is something else -- and that's what AOE is selling. As on a cruise ship, the train is the passenger's traveling home away from home. He or she unpacks once, takes "shore" excursions when the train reaches a destination, and returns to dine, enjoy others' company and sleep while the train moves on.

Excursions included

On the AOE, all excursions are included in the price. Buses met our train, and passengers were whisked away to tour Jefferson's Charlottesville in Virginia and Lincoln's Springfield in Illinois, or to see a re-enactment of the 1869 "golden spike" ceremony at Promontory Point in Utah that marked the completion of the nation's first transcontinental railroad -- to name some of the excursions taken on our journey.

Traveling this way, it takes a week to cross the country, compared to the three days a scheduled Amtrak train requires going straight through. Regular Amtrak trains, however, would not have the kind of service passengers get on this train.

Two lecturers mingled with the passengers and gave afternoon talks as the train rolled through the countryside. A pianist entertained passengers in the afternoon and evenings. With two club cars plus the parlor/observation car at the rear of the train, there was plenty of room to mix with other passengers and watch the passing scene in comfortable surroundings.

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