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Riding the rails in style on the American Orient Express


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.

Each of these cars had a bar as well as a grand piano, and served continental breakfast for those who did not want the regular sit-down breakfast in the dining cars. Meals were on a par with good restaurants anywhere, although the preset menus offered no entree choice and some portions were rather small. At one meal, for example, the vegetables consisted of a tablespoon of julienne carrot and string beans -- hardly enough to whet the appetite.

Other drawbacks? It would be nice if trains flew along their tracks at a steady clip, but the reality is that they tend to have a lot of stops and starts, waiting for other trains to pass or clear the tracks ahead. Also, some railroads do not maintain their roadbeds as well as others, so some portions of our trip rode rougher than others.

Accommodations are tight, as they are on all trains. Deluxe sleeper compartments have upper and lower beds, the lower one becoming a cabin-wide couch during the day. The only storage space is above the wash basin and below the lower bed, so passengers are advised to travel light. All compartments have their own enclosed toilet facilities, but only the presidential suites have their own shower. Each car has a shower compartment.

One accommodation plus: The train also has single sleepers, priced about 20 percent higher than the deluxe sleepers. "Older women traveling alone particularly like this," said Charlene Brannon, vice president of sales for TCS Expeditions, which operates the train. As on most train trips -- and on upscale journeys of any kind -- the passengers were nearly all in the 60-plus age group, which has both the time and the means to make such trips.

Obviously, this kind of travel isn't inexpensive.

A nine-day transcontinental trip across America on the AOE (seven days on train, one night at a hotel at the beginning and end of the trip) starts at $4,990 per person for a deluxe sleeper, double occupancy.

Next year, AOE will also offer weeklong national park trips, departing from San Antonio or Denver with stops at the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce and Rocky Mountain national parks. Prices start at $3,990.

What's in a name

Despite the similarity in their names, the American Orient Express has nothing to do with the Venice-Simplon Orient Express luxury train that runs between London and Venice, though both have borrowed the Orient Express name from the original early 20th-century European luxury train. The AOE is owned by a Swiss company, Reiseburo Mittelthurgau, which has been running the train on weekend excursions from San Antonio to Branson, Mo., the past eight months.

Riding a train like this may seem like a throwback in this day and age, but it's really a pleasant wind-down from today's frenetic pace. No telephone calls to answer, no meetings to attend, no schedules to meet (except for meal times and excursions). Unlike riding in airplanes, you can walk around, and all America passes by your window. Cities and towns flick past, each with its own personality. The landscape changes from plains to mountains, from woods to deserts, from sunlit to moonlit.

It's easy, too, to take up with other passengers. In the club cars or at meal times, I passed the time chatting with fellow travelers, and not one was uninteresting. It was serendipity at 50 miles an hour.

At the same time, there are those for whom this kind of travel would be absolute torture. Let them ride airplanes. Leave the trains to us.

If you go . . .

The American Orient Express is operated by TCS Expeditions, a Seattle tour operator that specializes in unusual deluxe tours, among them around-the-world tours by private jet, icebreaker voyages through the Arctic, the Nostalgic Istanbul Orient Express from Beijing to Moscow and the Anatolian Express from Istanbul to Damascus.

* Routing: This year's transcontinental trips went via Chicago, Denver and Salt Lake City to end in Sacramento. Next year's will go the southern route, from Washington to Charlottesville, Va.; New Orleans; San Antonio; Santa Fe, N.M.; the Grand Canyon; and Los Angeles. And the reverse, of course.

* Fares: Transcontinental U.S. trips, $4,990 to $7,450 per person, depending on accommodations. Regional AOE tours are priced lower.

dTC * Included: Six nights aboard train, one night in a hotel at each end of the journey, all meals except pre- and post-trip dinners at hotels, all excursions and other group activities, lectures and presentations, transfers and baggage handling.

* Not included: Airfare to and from embarkation and disembarkation cities, gratuities to on-board staff, liquor and soft drinks.

* Information: TCS Expeditions, 2025 First Ave., Suite 830, Seattle, Wash. 98121; (800) 727-7477 or (206) 727-7300.

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