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.
Cameras at the ready, veterans are happy to alert novices to the photo ops around most every bend: desert, red-rock country, the gulches that hid Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid after robberies, canyon walls you can almost reach out and touch, multiple mountain ranges. The ever-changing panorama mesmerizes.
An hour into the trip, the eerie "mothball fleet" of California's Suisun Bay come into view. They're dozens of World War II-era vessels, moored together and rusting for a half-century.
Later, Ghamarian and her twin sister — who has been tied up tending to a passenger who wobbled onboard reeking of alcohol and who has kept to her room ever since — stand in a vestibule between cars, hair blowing in the wind, and watch evergreens and the Sierra foothills whiz by. "This is God's work," Maria says. "Blessed."
As the train climbs toward Donner Pass, where stranded 19th-century pioneers turned cannibalistic, club car bartender Owen O'Farrell jokes that he should be serving finger sandwiches.
In the dining car, Debbie and Keith Pardue of Murray, Ky., both 55, marvel at the views and say they never expected Keith would be alive to see them. He had to learn to walk and talk again after a serious head injury while biking, had an aneurysm, and last May his heart stopped. Debbie gave him CPR, he had open-heart surgery, and now they're retired. "We're living as hard and fast as we can," Debbie, a former teacher, confides in the kind of intimacy that comes easier in the cocoon of a train.
Because passengers on the GrandLuxe journey have no access to the Amtrak cars, nor can they disembark till Chicago, much time is passed making friends and trading life stories.
The gregarious troop to the lounge car at cocktail time, when Manhattan entertainer Annie Lebeaux settles in at the piano. She takes requests (the University of Texas fight song for a couple from you-know-where), plays Oscar-winning tunes and asks her audience to name the movies, and presides over debates such as what Billie Joe and his girlfriend threw from the Tallahatchie Bridge in the 1967 hit Ode to Billie Joe. No one can say for sure.
This trip is pretty tame, says Aslett. Not like the one during which a sexily attired former pro-football cheerleader scandalized wives of fellow passengers after a few drinks by "showing off dance routines and wiggling her fanny," Aslett recalls. "I had to have a talk with her."
On the second night, Mike Silverstein, 59, of Washington, D.C., provides more sedate entertainment — sitting in with Lebeaux for a duet on the City of New Orleans, a mournful ode to train travel.
And all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain't heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again
The passengers will please refrain
This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.
The lyrics resonate with the train buffs, who mouth every word.
The song also speaks to the difficulties facing GrandLuxe, formerly known as American Orient Express. The upkeep and running of its cars is costly; bookings for some of this year's trips were so slow that they were canceled.
Plans to attach to Amtrak's Washington, D.C.-Florida car train this winter were scrapped due to lack of interest; crewmembers are off till March. Some of the announced GrandLuxe Zephyr journeys were canceled this fall. This one could have carried twice as many passengers.
"There is always a chance a trip could be canceled if people don't book it," GrandLuxe spokeswoman Jane Andrade says. But she says the company's regular train tours are a go for 2008.
As for future Amtrak/GrandLuxe collaborations, "it's still up for discussion," Andrade says. "We went into it not knowing how it would go, and the Zephyr did seem to resonate" with passengers.
Indeed. It's hard to peel away from the window, even at 2 a.m., when dark woods and fields are flying by. But sleeping on a train is as comforting as being rocked in a cradle (even if the sleepers with bleach-scented sheets can't compare with cushy hotel beds).
As the flat, silo-dotted farmland of Iowa, small-town Main Streets and the mighty Mississippi whiz by on Day 3, when asparagus-boursin cheese omelets and yet another gooey chocolate dessert are served, Silverstein muses: "This is quite a show. There's a tone and texture of America that you can't experience anywhere else."
While Champagne corks pop to celebrate the train's arrival in Chicago, passengers gather one last time in the club car.
The Sears Tower glides into view, and passengers snap photos and exchange addresses. Glasses are raised, and Lebeaux takes her place at the baby grand to strike up a rousing version of Chicago.