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DESTINATION: THE ROCKIES

On Different Tracks

The Rockies: Recalling the glory days of rail travel from a well-appointed luxury train.

September 10, 2000|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — There are no bouquets, brass bands or crowds. Still, the American Orient Express arrives at this small town near the Utah border like visiting royalty. Its brakes shriek, and burnished blue and gold cars slow to a stop alongside the Union Pacific Customer Special, a vintage train the freight company uses for wining and dining VIPs. This is a golden moment for train aficionados, a rare chance to see these two grand old luxury trains together.

Trains that recall the time when railroad travel was a pleasure are an all-but-extinct breed. Nowadays we want to get where we're going fast, never mind the sights we miss along the way, the fellow passengers we don't get to know and the incivility that seems an unavoidable part of air travel.

For nostalgic people like me, only a few deluxe, overnight excursion trains still exist, like Europe's fabled Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Royal Scotsman and the Palace on Wheels in Rajasthan, India.

In this country, there's the American Orient Express, or AOE, which I rode in June on a tour called "Rockies and Yellowstone." AOE aims to give travelers a taste of the pampering that was common on long-distance routes during the glory days of American railroads and to help travelers reclaim the rewards of seeing the country by train. Owner Henry Hillman Jr. modeled the AOE experience on cruise ships. "Cruising is a pleasant way to see things," he says. "I want people to be able to see the U.S. the same way."

And there are similarities between a high-end cruise and a ride on the AOE. There's no swimming pool or putting green on board, of course, but a pianist plays old standards in the club car during cocktail hour. A cabin steward leaves the next day's itinerary, with a chocolate, on your pillow at turndown. And every day there are bus tours that serve the same purpose as cruise ship shore excursions, giving passengers a chance to see sights that aren't on the train line.

In fact, on my trip, it sometimes seemed we spent more time touring by motor coach than by railroad, which satisfied some passengers. But if you love trains and can't think of a better way to pass the time than by sitting idly watching the scenery while a steward attends to your every whim, a ride on the AOE could be frustrating.

Seeking a blissful railroad experience, I've ridden on lots of Amtrak trains, which offer many scenic excursions, particularly in the West. Tracks on Western routes were laid a century ago with an eye toward scenery and to promote tourism, according to Alfred Runte, a train historian and author. Trains belong in the Western landscape in a way that airplanes, buses and automobiles don't, he said.

But Amtrak discontinued two historic Western routes several years ago--the Desert Wind from L.A. to Salt Lake City and the Pioneer from Denver to Portland, Ore. Moreover, the company's long-distance trains are often subject to delay. And even the most expensive Amtrak sleeping compartments bear little resemblance to the posh American Pullmans of yesteryear. For people who'd like to be treated the way Lillie Langtry, Andrew Carnegie and Oscar Wilde were when they rode American trains a century ago, Amtrak may not be the best way to go.

AOE has just one train, which runs seven itineraries, including a 10-night transcontinental journey between L.A. and Washington, D.C., a seven-night exploration of the national parks of the West and a nine-night cross-Canada trip. Its 16 cars, restored for $1 million each, date to the '40s and '50s and are lined with mahogany, polished brass, murals and faux marble. Bus trips to attractions such as Yellowstone (which, like several other national parks in the West, can no longer be reached by rail), lectures and musicales, accommodations (both on and off the train) and sumptuous meals are included.

My trip, the seven-day, six-night "Rockies and Yellowstone" tour, began in Salt Lake City. It went north overnight to Idaho Falls, Idaho, where we took a two-day bus tour of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks (staying both nights off the train at the Lake Hotel in Yellowstone). On the fourth night, we turned around and headed back to Salt Lake City by train. The next day we took bus tours of the Utah capital and a nearby copper mine. The AOE left the Salt Lake station in the wee hours of the morning, so by breakfast time on the sixth day, we were crossing eastern Utah. Those who wanted to take a bus tour of Arches National Park and the canyons of the Colorado National Monument got off in Thompson, Utah, then met the train in Grand Junction.

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