California's boulder-strewn Truckee River and the Sierra Nevada Mountains provide five-star luncheon scenery as passengers in the GrandLuxe dining car spoon up tangy carrot-ginger soup topped with a dollop of chive oil and tuck into tender duck breast salad.
Servers in bow ties whisk away plates as '40s jazz plays softly and two men who've just met discover they both grew up in Pittsburgh. They swap stories about the Steelers and Franco Harris' famed "immaculate reception" touchdown that miraculously saved a game in 1972.
The pair, along with 21 fellow passengers, are rolling in white-tablecloth luxury on the GrandLuxe Limited aboard six '50s railway cars. The refurbished cars — aiming for Orient-Express opulence — are attached to Amtrak's California Zephyr, which passes some of the more historic and ahh-inducing scenery in the USA.
GrandLuxe Rail Journeys usually take clients on its own trips with stops for tours. This isGrandLuxe's first collaboration with Amtrak, a point-to-point ride on Amtrak's Emeryville, Calif.-Chicago route. While Amtrak passengers at the front of the train chew on burgers or heated-up lasagna during the 54-hour, 2,438-mile trip, GrandLuxe passengers dine on more sophisticated fare prepared by an onboard chef. Meals and wine at dinner are included in the fare.
"There will be a cooked-to-order breakfast, then lunch, then dinner," chirps GrandLuxe onboard general manager Pati Aslett, welcoming her charges at dawn on a recent Friday in the fog-shrouded Emeryville station across the bay from San Francisco. "It's a five-course dinner, but don't worry. The courses are small, so there's room for dessert."
Sip a bloody Mary "and watch the scenery go by — you don't have to drive," purrs the vivacious blonde before delivering a pre-boarding warning. "When you see your closet, don't scream. There's more storage space than you think."
Actually, there isn't. As butlers (GrandLuxe-speak for porters) take luggage and escort guests to their quarters, at least one couple who booked a $1,600-a-person wood-paneled "Vintage Pullman" room — 5 feet wide and 7 feet long, with a 4-inch-wide closet and two drawers — opt to upgrade to more spacious quarters.
Maria Ghamarian, a beaming butler on duty from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, shows a passenger how she'll fold down the Pullman's tapestry-upholstered seatback to become a bed and how a nozzle over the toilet serves as a shower in the 2-by-3-foot bathroom. She suggests using the stall shower down the corridor, which she scours between users. "Call if you want anything," she says, indicating a phone that connects to guest services 24 hours a day.
The train pulls out of Emeryville shortly after 8 a.m., and it's soon clear that many passengers — mainly baby boomers and retirees — are train buffs out to savor every minute of a gracious mode of travel that's missed by those who criss-cross the country at 35,000 feet and experience nature's majesty as toylike miniatures.
They've come with guidebooks that detail every stop and point of historical import (did you know that Wyatt Earp's pal Doc Holliday died of tuberculosis and that his grave is in Glenwood Springs, Colo.?). Some even packed audio scanners that let them listen in on conversations between train dispatchers and the Amtrak engineers.