American Orient Express: getting there's half the fun

Rail excursions attempt to re-create the luxury travel of a bygone era

Destination: Canada

November 23, 2003|By Tom Uhlenbrock | Tom Uhlenbrock,St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The portly man was in my face.

"I can't be in your pictures," he said. "I'm a government operative. It could prove very embarrassing."

Like its legendary European namesake, the American Orient Express that traversed Canada featured fine food and wine in the dining car, cocktails and a piano player in the lounge car and muffled conversation behind the dark mahogany doors of the sleeper cars.

And now, the train also had intrigue.

The graying man must have been among the 88 passengers aboard when we left the Vancouver station, but I had not noticed him until he approached me while I was photographing a young Cree dancer at a stop in Saskatoon.

When I examined the photos later, he was there, seated in the background, hiding his face with a brochure.

I took aside our tour leader, Kitty Roberts, who had dined with the man. She was flummoxed when I told her what he had said to me. "He seems very nice," she said. "He said he was retired, and traveled alone."

There were no murders on the American Orient Express, not even cross words. No Hercule Poirot showed up to solve the riddle of the mystery man.

The American Orient Express is not affiliated with the Orient Express, which inaugurated its Paris-to-Istanbul run in 1883 and still offers the most elegant ride on rails. But the American spin-off fills the same niche, using vintage cars to treat passengers to a luxurious, nostalgic experience.

It's all about the train, not the destination. You can travel from Vancouver to Montreal far cheaper and faster than the 10-day trip aboard the AOE. But getting there is all the fun.

Like a cruise ship

The names of the excursions offered by American Orient Express speak for themselves: Great Transcontinental Rail Journey, American Southwest, Antebellum South, Great Northwest and Rockies, National Parks of the West, Pacific Coast Explorer, Autumn in New England and Quebec, Mexico and Copper Canyon and, the one I was on, Grand Trans-Canada Rail Journey.

Each of the routes includes stops along the way, with side trips on buses to see the sights. The Pacific Explorer, for example, begins at Los Angeles and ends at Seattle, with visits to the Hearst Castle, San Francisco, Napa Valley and the Columbia River Gorge.

Some days on our trip across Canada, we ate, read, napped and ate again while our train rumbled through the scenery. Other days, the train idled on a siding while we took bus tours to Jasper and Banff national parks, stopping for wildlife and waterfalls and for a sumptuous buffet at Chateau Lake Louise. Each night, we returned to the train.

The concept of a luxury "cruise" train with stops at interesting places, much like a cruise ship with day trips to exotic islands, began when Henry Hillman, a member of a wealthy Pittsburgh steel family, bought the American Orient Express in 1997.

Hillman wanted to return to the bygone era when Pullman porters turned down your bed, bartenders in the lounge car knew just how you liked your martini and dinner was served on tables set with china, silver, crystal and linen.

He bought America's premier private train, with 11 cars from the Streamliner era of the 1940s and 1950s, each refurbished at a cost of more than $1 million.

Compact comfort

Joyce West, a pathologist from Cleveland, has traveled on the real Orient Express and was making her third trip on its American counterpart. She glanced around the dining car, with its ceiling border of painted murals, and said there were some similarities.

"But the cars on the Orient Express are from the 1920s and '30s, and where those decorations are painted, they would be inlaid in mother of pearl on the other train," she said. "And people don't wear their tennis shoes to dinner on the Orient Express."

Before we boarded the train in Vancouver, a beautiful city that is Canada's answer to San Francisco, Roberts, our tour leader, had a word of warning: "Usually, everybody takes one look at their cabin and says, 'Oh my God.' Just think 'compact, but comfortable.' "

I was in Cabin C on Vienna, a dark-paneled Pullman-Standard sleeper car built in 1956. A sofa pulled down into a single bed, and there was a second bunk bed tucked away above. Across from the bed, within reaching distance, was a wash basin in a mirrored alcove. A toilet was inside a small water closet. Two drawers were under the bed, and reading lights above. Compact, but comfortable.

Justine, the day porter, turned down the bed each evening and left a chocolate candy on the pillow. If asked, she would wake you in the morning with a knock, bring juice or coffee, and reserve a time for a visit to the stainless-steel shower and dressing room at the end of the car.

For more money, you can upgrade from the Pullman sleeper ($3,990) to a larger suite ($6,390) with two lower beds and your own shower. The cost does not include transportation to and from the train, so the total price per couple, with the upgrade, approaches $14,000.

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