Nostalgic Journey Through the West

On luxury rail operator American Orient Express, clients will feel like they've gone back in time to the romantic era of rail travel.

By: Mary-Ann Bendel

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 train.

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.

First-Class Standards

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 observation cars.

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 maintenance services.

“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 reading.

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 private showers.

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 other incentives.

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 conditions.

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 companion.

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.