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7 Great US Train Trips

Wednesday, 16 May 2012 03:17 PM

By Peter Greenberg

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For some, it’s the only way to travel. For me, it’s one of the best ways to see the real America.

Aboard a train, you can embrace one of the most romantic notions of travel and discovery. It’s all about the journey, not the destination. Here are seven diverse train trips to consider.

1. National Parks of the West:
Looking for an affordable, family-friendly vacation? Visit our majestic national parks. Add in train travel, and it’s an authentic American experience. During these trips you’ll immerse yourself in the natural history of these grand parks and have a personal guide through the cities.

Travel planners Vacations by Rail offers a fully escorted, 11-day tour of Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Glacier National Park that incorporates two iconic train trips: the California Zephyr from Chicago to Salt Lake City and the northerly Empire Builder from East Glacier Park back down to Chicago.

This is the real American West, with ample opportunities for photographing the Colorado Rockies as you chug through the mountains, followed by an in-depthtour of historic Salt Lake City.

Daytime excursions of Grand Teton and Yellowstone are the highlights for any nature and wildlife enthusiast, followed by a motor coach tour to the spectacular Glacier National Park, where the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road is considered one of the can’t-miss driving experiences in America.

Tip: Aboard the California Zephyr, visit the Sightseeing Lounge, a glass-walled compartment on the upper level that offers first-class views of the spectacular scenery.

In spring and summer, Amtrak partners up with the National Park Service for a Trails & Rails lecture program between Denver and Grand Junction, Colo.

2. Off-Season in the Grand Canyon:
Skip the summer road trip to the Grand Canyon and travel by train in the offseason, between December and March. It’s more affordable, and you won’t have to face the overwhelming crowds of the high season.

No matter what time of year, you can arrange a Grand Canyon trip on your own. Williams Junction is only 60 miles from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, and it’s accessible from both Chicago and Los Angeles on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. From the Amtrak station, a free shuttle transports passengers to the Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel in Williams, where you can grab the two-hour train to theGrand Canyon at 9:30 a.m. and return at 3:30 p.m. No hurry, no hassle.

3. Delicacies Down South:
This remains one of my favorite rail routes in the country. It’s aboard the Southern Crescent, which begins its journey in New York, stops in Washington, D.C., and then heads all the way down to New Orleans.

Most people associate the East Coast corridor between New York and Washington, D.C., with the high-speed Acela Express train, but the Southern Crescent long-haul passenger train is a much more leisurely experience that exposes you to the lesser-known, more bucolic parts of America.

As you head deeper south toward Atlanta and Birmingham, you’ll pass rivers, mountains, and forests, finally completing the journey in New Orleans in the evening, just as the city lights up for the night.

Tip: One of the stops along the way is the tiny town of Meridian, Miss. If you can take a side trip, get off and follow the crowds to Weidmann’s Restaurant, and order the black-bottomed pie. If you stay on the train, find your way to the dining car. The folks on the Crescent bring a number of the pies onboard during the stop. But within 20 minutes of leaving the station, there’s never any left.

4. Jazz, Blues, and Rock by Rail:
Amtrak’s City of New Orleans train traverses the 900-odd miles from Chicago to New Orleans with a stop in Memphis, so a trip that incorporates all three of these musically vibrant cities is easy enough to coordinate on your own.

If you want take the work out of it, Amtrak Vacations can customize the experience. Want to experience a four-star hotel in New Orleans but stick to a budget in Memphis? Not sure of the hot restaurants in town? They can help plan all that in advance.

Starting at about $1,295 per person, a journey begins with a two-day tour of Chicago, with options like a hop on/hop off city tour or an architectural river cruise. Dinner is covered by a voucher that includes all taxes and gratuities.

Set off the next day on an overnight journey to Memphis in your own train roomette and arrive in the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll by morning.
The package can include a tour of Graceland, admission to the National HistoricLandmark of Sun Studio, dinner, and hotel accommodations. Set out early in the morning for New Orleans, where the package can include activities like the Court of Two Sisters Jazz Brunch, a tour of Mardi Gras World, and a hands-on class at the New Orleans School of Cooking.

5. Autumn in Branson:
If you’re a real music lover, why not get an all-in-one experience with a train trip to Branson, Mo.?

Although you can’t take a train directly into Branson, America by Rail can arrange a fully escorted Amtrak trip from cities all around the country, followed by a tour of Branson and its surrounding areas.

I recommend traveling in September or October to maximize the fall foliage experience. Imagine traveling from the maple-tree-laden East Coast onboard the Lakeshore Limited, bunked up in your private sleeping car. You’ll traverse the country’s scenic shorelines along the Erie Canal and Lake Michigan, and into Chicago where you’ll climb aboard the Texas Eagle to St. Louis.

Or from Northern California (Sacramento and surrounding stations), spend two days on one of the most scenic train routes in the entire country aboard the California Zephyr. Zip through the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains, see the bright gold aspens as you enter the Colorado Rockies. (Don’t worry, the less scenic parts of the trip take place at night.)

Once you arrive at your point city, a motor coach will take you to Branson, where included in the package are five performances (we’re talking classic acts like Andy Williams and Tony Orlando), as well as a scenic tour of the Ozarks.

Or if you want to do it on your own, fly into its new private airport, which is serviced by low-cost carriers AirTran, Frontier, and Sun Country, and hop aboard the Branson Scenic Railway, a privately operated locomotive. This vintage train is made up of restored 1940s and 1950s railcars, traveling across the White River and through 40 miles of the beautiful Ozark foothills.

6. Private Rail Cars:
For true rail enthusiasts, this is the only way to travel. Rather than booking a sleeper car on Amtrak, travelers can charter a ride on a fully restored classic train (called PVs for “private varnish,” a reference to the old style of wooden varnish that lined the interior). Since railcars don’t have their own engines, they often hitch onto an existing train and are pulled along for the ride.

The best part? You can personalize the experience entirely to your interests and the price usually includes gourmet, wine-paired meals prepared by a privatechef and a full staff.

Operators like Chapel Hill Railcar and Colonial Crafts Private Railcar offer everything from short weekend trips between Los Angeles and San Francisco to epic transcontinental journeys.

Of course, the big caveat is that this kind of luxe experience comes at a price: usually about $6,000 per day. But if you can grab a few friends to go along for the ride, you’ll set off on a trip that you won’t soon forget.

7. Montreal — Halifax:
If there’s one area where Canada truly outshines its southern neighbor, it’s the national rail service, VIA Rail. The ultimate train ride is the transcontinental Toronto-Vancouver route onboard The Canadian. But for those who don’t have the time (or patience) for such a lengthy experience there are some great, lesser-known options available.

There’s no better way to discover Canada’s vast and varied landscape than to take the train between the two very different cities, Montreal and Halifax. In cosmopolitan Montreal, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped off the plane in Paris, while coastal Halifax is a Mecca for maritime enthusiasts.

This particular train ride is a great option for couples and families: It’s only 22 hours and the scenery is always changing. Hop on in Montreal in the evening and settle in for dinner as you zip through the heart of Quebec. By morning, you wake up to views of the Chaleur Bay coastline, and by early evening, the train arrives in Halifax.

In the summertime, The Ocean passenger train has a sleeper touring class option which includes meals, access to the Park car with its panoramic views, and a series of short maritime lectures that highlight the history, geography, and cuisine of this region (including a demonstration on lobster catching).

And while summer is definitely the high season in Halifax, with maritime experiences, festivals, and events, savvy travelers can save big by traveling in the off season, between mid-October and early June. That’s when rates fall across the board and the big tourist crowds have gone home.

Peter Greenberg, CBS News’ travel editor, is the author of numerous books under the “Travel Detective” banner.

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