The sound of a train whistle has always made me think of
far-away places. Recently, I had a chance to travel for a week on
the American Orient Express, a deluxe restored train recalling the
romance of the 1940s and ’50s, when luxury rail travel reached its
pinnacle. This trip, called Lewis and Clark Epic Journey, followed
the expedition route through the Northwest. The trip takes
passengers to Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Washington, and
ends up in Portland, Ore.
Eighty-one passengers boarded the train in Salt Lake City after
a night at the Little American hotel. After a night of train
travel, we arrived in Idaho Falls. This was the jumping-off place
for a look at Grand Teton National Park. These peaks rise suddenly
from a flat plain to 7,000 feet and are mind-boggling in their
beauty. Our first stop was the Museum of Idaho where we viewed
their presentation of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It was
excellent and interesting even if you aren’t a museum lover. Then
it was on to the Tetons for the only overnight away from the
We had a pleasant stay at the Snow King Resort in Jackson, Wyo.,
before heading on to Yellowstone National Park. We were lucky
enough to see a much larger than normal eruption of Old Faithful,
which along with the West Thumb Geyser, the Fountain Paint Pots
(boiling, bubbling mud) and other smaller geyser eruptions, made
this a stellar day. A relaxing picnic lunch on the outdoor balcony
of the Old Faithful Inn topped things off.
Back on the train, I looked around my cabin and decided, even
though it was small, the changing view outside the large window
made it okay. Wonderful canyons, wildflowers tumbling down
hillsides and pastoral scenes of cattle and crops being harvested
was part of each day.
I was in a car called Vienna. It was ordered in 1954 and
delivered in 1956 for use on the Union Pacific’s city service.
Although I was alone on this trip, my cabin was designed for two
people, as there was an upper and lower berth. The bed, made mostly
of wood, was very comfortable. There was also a sink and a separate
toilet but showers were down the hall. A writing table can be
pulled down from under the sink. Carpet and upholstery was blue and
maroon patterned. Storage was limited to two drawers under the bed
and a four-inch hanging closet with door hooks.
Buses would take us to see some of the sites and one of the
bright spots of the long rides was Kitty Robert, one of two tour
leaders. She was both knowledgeable and funny.
Responsible for all passenger activities and off-train tours,
she did a great job.
“You have to think on your feet a lot,” she said.
At one point, Neil Courtis, a day-hiking and fly-fishing guide,
joined us to talk about Yellowstone. He lives on a family ranch at
the northeast entrance to the park, and Yellowstone is clearly very
close to his heart.
Great Falls, Mont., does not have much left in the way of falls
because of a dam, but it is the place where Clark knew he had
chosen the right fork in the Missouri River to get to the Pacific.
The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center there is outstanding. The
Gate of the Mountain boat cruise gave us an opportunity to see a
moose, ospreys, red-tail hawks and bighorn sheep.
After Great Falls, the train stopped for a morning in Missoula,
Mont., a lovely small town with a Saturday Farmers Market filled
with flowers and vegetables. The train left about 1 p.m. so I had
the afternoon onboard to talk to some of the AOE staff as we rode
through the countryside on the way to Portland.
The hotel manager on the train, Roger Dekeyzer, loves his job
and the sense of nostalgia passengers have from their youth. Many
passengers are in their 60s and 70s and remember what train travel
used to be like.
“One couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on the
train,” he said. “They went to the dining car he dressed in tails,
she in an evening gown they looked right out of a ’40s movie.”
Passengers like the train so much that they book future trips.
Tom Weakley, 60, a retired Fortune 500 company executive has been
on five trips and has two more booked in the next two years. One is
the Autumn in New England and Quebec trip in October.
“It’s not a trip, it’s an adventure,” he said. “I feel pampered,
everything runs smoothly, it’s a first-class train.”
His favorite trip?
“My next one,” he said, laughing.
Meals and More
Many passengers said that they felt safe and secure on the
train, and everyone loved the food. The dining car is softly lit
with a romantic atmosphere. Signature china and fresh-cut flowers
on each table add to the ambiance of the room.
“We do meals reflecting the areas we are traveling through,”
said Doug Manqual, the executive chef. “I have five cooks and the
food served takes a lot of planning. A pastry chef makes all the
rolls and deserts on board.”
On my trip, the meals showcased northwestern cuisine and were
consistently excellent. Breakfast had a lot of fresh fruit, nice
omelets, traditional oatmeal, pancakes, fresh juices and hominy
grits. When lunches were onboard, there was a choice of the dining
room full-course meal or sandwiches and salads in the lounge or
Dinners had entrees like roast pork loin, Snake River trout and
salmon, Kansas City steak, buffalo strip, lobster tails and filet
mignon. House wine is complimentary at dinner. Seating at every
meal is open and the view is always beautiful while dining. It was
light until almost 10 p.m. each evening. Before and after dinner, a
Russian pianist from Austin, Tex., played old favorites and show
tunes in the lounge.
Bob Hicks is the train master responsible for all equipment and
“It’s a fun job, I’ve never had a day in 35 years I haven’t
wanted to go to work,” he said.
Meticulously refurbished, AOE honors the tradition of the great
stream liner trains The Twentieth Century Limited, Capitol Limited
and Santa Fe Super Chief.
There is a sense of timelessness on a train. Going slowly, at
about 50 miles an hour, it is a chance to get off the fast track
and watch the world go by without voice mail, E-mail, faxes or cell
phones. It’s a brief escape from the 21st century, and a look at
the West much as it has always been.
In addition to the sleeping cabins, there is a 1940s-era lounge
car with a full, tended bar and a dome car enclosed with 360-degree
viewing. An observation car is the last car on the train with plush
swivel rockers and tables for writing, playing cards or
Accommodations: There are five types of cabins
onboard: Vintage Pullmans, Single Sleepers, Parlor Suites, Deluxe
Suites and Presidential Suites. Each cabin offers a private
lavatory and sink; Presidential, Deluxe and Parlor Suites have
During the day, lower berths convert into a comfortable day
chair or sofa seat.
Cabins have large picture windows and individual controls for
air conditioning and heat. There is a private shower compartment in
each sleeping car.
Cost: One-week trips from $3,190 per person, with
discounts for early booking. Company offers agent commission and
Elevation: Passengers need to know on National
Park trips that elevations can reach 10,000 feet. The reduced
amount of oxygen may have adverse effects on pre-existing medical
Baggage: One medium-sized checked bag (10 x 16 x
24 inches) soft-sided suitcases or duffel bags are easiest to get
into the small cabin storage space. There is a four-inch closet
space with outside door hooks.
Disabilities: The carriages cannot accommodate
wheelchairs or walkers. Hallways are 24 inches wide, and doorways
into cabins are 18 inches wide. All passengers must be capable of
walking between cars on their own or with the assistance of a
Tours: Optional tours and theme trips are offered.
In towns and cities where the train pulls into the station, such as
Missoula and Portland, passengers can go on their own and not take
a guided tour.
Laundry: Limited laundry service is available.
Smoking: Smoking is permitted only in the
vestibules between cars.