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All Aboard the Luxury Caboose

Ride The Rails In Style- In a Private Rail Car


Let’s face facts: Air travel can be too stressful these days, what with labyrinthine security lines, overbooked flights, and terrible food—if there’s any food at all. On a recent trip, I had two flights cancelled, the airline lost my luggage, and I was left stuck in Denver International airport. It was enough to make me swear I would never return to the Mile High City.

But then I was invited to take a two-day jaunt in a private rail car from Emeryville to Denver, and I realized it would be foolish to hold a grudge against an entire metropolis just because its airport was once my personal hell. I hopped on board, and rediscovered the train-loving little boy in me. You can keep those rat-race methods of travel: Riding in a luxury rail car makes getting there—even to Denver—all the fun.

Rail Ventures schedules trips in immaculately restored rail cars for unhurried travelers with a taste for the finer things. Each of the company’s four cars—the Bella Vista, the Gallatin River, the Glacier Park, and the Yerba Buena—attach to an Amtrak train such as the California Zephyr, which runs from the East Bay’s Jack London Square, Emeryville, and Martinez stations to Chicago, via Salt Lake City, Denver, and Omaha. While the rest of the passengers make do in the regular cars, you travel in the lap of luxury.

As I board the Bella Vista, the porter, friendly but formal, takes my bag and shows me to my quarters—a cozy bedroom on the bottom floor of the two-story car. Although built in 1955, just after the “Golden Age” of railroading, the car was completely refurbished in 2001, and its interior feels brand new. The car sleeps up to eight passengers; as many as 24 can ride during the day.

My master bedroom—one of two such rooms in the car, along with two doubles down the hall—is elegant, with teak and mahogany walls. There’s a large couch (which will later become a queen-sized bed) and a giant window from which to watch the world whiz by. I freshen up in my private bathroom (also cozy, as space on the car is a precious commodity), and head upstairs to the view level.

The train’s gentle rocking motion takes a few minutes to get used to, but it becomes comforting once I get my rail legs. The Zephyr slips past Richmond toward Martinez along tracks that hug the coast of the Carquinez Strait. The other passengers and I kick back in comfy swivel chairs, sip mimosas, and stare out of the concave view windows at an East Bay you’d never see from your car.

As we head toward Sacramento, our porter, Elton Anderson, invites us to be seated for lunch. We are treated to a hearty Mediterranean chicken over rice, paired with a Sauvignon Blanc. The train runs parallel with the cars on Interstate 80 at a cruising speed of 70 mph, and Diana Krall serenades us through the stereo system, cool as the ice cream dessert.

Soon, the tracks cut away from the highway, and the Zephyr rolls through pristine countryside—and a snow squall.

Fortunately, there’s no need to pull over and put on tire chains. Fat white flakes fall on the roof’s domed windows. The experience is slightly surreal—like being tucked into a cozy Tahoe cabin, but still making great time.

The porter tends to our every whim and desire—mixing cocktails, making snacks, changing the music—as we relax. A one-man service whirlwind, Anderson also prepares our rooms and sets the dining area for an elegant dinner. Executive chef Mark Roumiguiere, who is the only other staff member on board, has prepared a meal of tender salmon and crisp asparagus. Although the food has a contemporary Californian feel, it still fits with the train’s old-fashioned dining experience. The men come to dinner in coats and ties; the women are similarly formal. The gentle sway of the train buoys the conversation: We chat about our experiences with world travel and the tragic breakup of some Hollywood celebs as we cruise through the night.

My companions soon head off to bed, but I select The Magnificent Seven from the Bella Vista’s extensive DVD library to watch on the view level’s plasma TV. As magnificent as the seven are, especially in surround sound, the many hours of scenery and fancy food have made me drowsy enough to call it a night. Retiring to my room, I find the couch turned into a bed—it nearly fills the space.

I slip between the soft, cotton sheets, and the motion of the train begins to rock me to sleep. I nod off into a comfortable doze, though not a deep sleep. Perhaps it’s the excitement of sleeping on a train for the first time, but I can’t get enough of the tingling, soothing, vibrating sensation of the rails beneath my bed. It seems a shame to sleep through it, but I finally nod off for good.

I awake to a sunrise over the Great Salt Lake that’s far more impressive than that plasma widescreen upstairs. After a pancake and scrambled egg breakfast, I spend a few hours lingering over Carl Hiaasen’s newest novel. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had such a leisurely morning. My fellow passengers write postcards, take naps, and share stories.

The scenery is stunning. Dramatic buttes jutting out of the Utah plains highlight a western landscape of which movie directors’ dreams are made. The golden hues of late-afternoon light on the Colorado Rockies would make Thomas Kinkade drop his brush. As the sun sets, our group puts Some Like It Hot on the plasma screen.

Marilyn Monroe says she’d like to meet a guy who has his own private rail car. After watching Marilyn shake Manhattans in a hot water bottle, we laugh at the film’s classic final line (“Well, nobody’s perfect …”), and turn away from the screen to find the lounge candlelit for pre-dinner cocktails. I’ll have a Manhattan, just like Marilyn.

We’re seated for a dinner of tenderloin of beef medallions with wild mushroom ragout and roasted garlic mashed potatoes, accompanied by a hearty Cabernet. Cracking through the sugary crust of my crème brûlée, I wish Denver were farther away.
We spend our final hours aboard the Bella Vista cruising through magnificent Rocky Mountains, silhouetted against a purple sky.

Arriving at the Denver station around 10 p.m., I step onto the platform and take a last look at the rail car before it heads off to Chicago. It’s been 37 hours since I boarded the Bella Vista in Emeryville, but I feel like I’ve been on vacation for a week. The train disappears into the night, and I grab a taxi to my airport hotel (where my bed won’t rock me to sleep) to catch some shut-eye. I’ve got an early flight back to Oakland, out of—sigh—Denver International.

For information, call (888) 533-7245, or go to www.railventures.com .


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