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Travel Trending with Kathy Witt: Savor the journey on Amtrak

Kathy Witt, Tribune News Service on

Published in Senior Living Features

There are many reasons travelers choose train travel over other modes of transportation – and there are many reasons why they don’t. Nobody chooses a cross-country rail excursion to get somewhere fast, ignore the views, keep to themselves, binge-watch shows or pack food along (as has become the norm with plane travel).

Rail travelers are a special group of adventurers who are willing to take their time and savor the journey to the destination. They anticipate being blown away by the views (some of which can only be experienced by train), enjoy socializing with people from all backgrounds, indulge in quiet time for reading and pursuing other interests and hobbies, and appreciate meal time in the dining car.

I recently boarded Amtrak’s California Zephyr for a laid-back trek from Chicago to Emeryville, California, (near San Francisco), an excursion that took two and half days, presented a constantly changing landscape – not to mention parade of passengers. The trip framed in large picture windows the most breathtaking scenery, from the charming small town of Helper, Utah, outlined in white lights to the soaring Sierra Nevadas. And I loved every minute of it.

The slow pace

Whiling away the time watching the scenery roll by as the clock ticks down town by town is part of the allure and one of the best perks of traveling by Amtrak.

Disregard the timetables. Slowdowns happen along the route. Amtrak can make up for some lost time, but things come up – like a bridge in Sacramento that was raised to let a boat pass through, causing a 15-minute delay. And it’s OK.

The conductor’s narration keeps passengers in the know about points of interest, like Moffet Tunnel west of Denver. Named for Colorado railroad pioneer David Moffat, the tunnel opened nearly a century ago, cutting through more than six miles of the Continental Divide. It’s about 15 minutes in pitch black (and passengers are asked to remain seated throughout) as the train chugs to the tunnel’s western portal, located near Winter Park Resort.

Those views

Because of scenery like that of Winter Park, the California Zephyr is considered one of the most scenically beautiful train trips in North America. Leaving Chicago, it runs west through the plains of Nebraska to Denver (and that exhilarating dark stretch through the tunnel), rolls through the heart of the Rockies to Salt Lake City and onward to Reno, Nevada, through the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas with towering granite peaks and into Sacramento, California, before arriving in Emeryville.

History buffs will be intrigued to see landmarks named for the ill-fated Donner Party, the group of pioneers trapped in the snow-pounded Sierra Nevada range in the winter of 1846-47. There is Donner Pass, rising steeply above the brilliant blue waters of Donner Lake, and the Donner Memorial State Park nearby west of Truckee, California, one of the stops on the route.

Views are best enjoyed in the California Zephyr’s observation car or in a private sleeper car. Sleeper car accommodations include roomettes and bedrooms, the former consisting of two seats that convert to an upper and lower bunk and the latter offering a sofa and separate chair that transform into upper and lower beds plus in-room sink, restroom and shower.

The bedrooms feature twice the space of the roomettes, especially handy when changing clothes or getting ready for the day. Once the roomette is turned down for the evening, standing room is limited to a space measuring roughly about two or so feet wide by one foot deep. Tight, but manageable – and most important, private.

Both roomettes and bedrooms have upgraded bedding, pillows and towels, and both come with complimentary meals and lounge access, priority boarding and a dedicated first class attendant, who helps get passengers settled in, turns down the beds and puts the coffee on in the morning.

Get social

Since seating in the observation car is communal, there is much sharing of tables with strangers. Most are friendly, chatty and ready to welcome a new seatmate. Train travelers generally share a love of trains, a penchant for adventure and a sense of humor. A “we’re all in this together” spirit prevails, and strangers very quickly become friends.

 

On my excursion, passengers in the observation car included a bride’s fivesome in full party mode who entertained everyone with their stories and endless selfies; a group of 13 women friends who talked about all the trips they’d shared together over the years; and a group of Amish travelers from Colorado, one of whom entertained everyone with harmonica tunes.

Quiet time

Traveling by train is the perfect time to read the book or books you’ve been meaning to start (or finish), play cards or board games with traveling companions or people you meet on the train, or work on projects or hobbies.

One among the group of 13 women brought along supplies for handcrafting beautiful art glass chimes and spent many an hour crimping and assembling beads and showing fellow passengers in the observation car the step-by-step process. The bride donned her specially designated T-shirt and posed for photos. A regular train traveler filled everyone in on the Rocky Mountain Train Show – the largest such show west of the Mississippi – which takes place annually in early April.

Moving feast

The biggest draw of train travel? The meals. Breakfast, lunch and especially dinner are special occasions on the train, ones served on white linen-draped tables. Although sleeper car passengers can arrive for breakfast and lunch anytime during open hours, tables are shared with four to a table.

For dinner, the dining car attendant visits the sleeper cars when passengers board and asks their preferred reservation time. Passengers are called for 5:30, 6:30 or 7:30 seatings – again, sharing tables.

The breakfast menu includes continental breakfast, scrambled eggs and three-egg omelet, a breakfast quesadilla and Amtrak’s signature breakfast specialty, a puffy thick-cut brioche French toast served with seasonal berries, whipped cream and powdered sugar. For lunch, grilled cheese, grilled chicken Caesar salad, burgers (either beef or plant-based), chili and a grilled patty melt are among the options.

The three-course dinner begins with an appetizer – pearl tempura shrimp or green salad with baby brie. Entrées include pan roasted chicken breast, Atlantic salmon, a pasta dish and Amtrak’s signature flat iron skirt steak – all served hot and tasty from the kitchen, brought to the dining car by way of a dumbwaiter and delivered with little wait time by a dining car attendant.

Dessert is offered at both lunch and dinner and is typically a rich and irresistible morsel like an ooey-gooey chocolate fudge cake, butter cake or a blondie with chocolate chips and toffee. The first glass of wine or other alcoholic beverage is also included with dinner.

Plan your travels

Amtrak operates more than 300 trains daily to more than 500 destinations, including the California Zephyr. Roomettes and bedrooms are offered as well as a choice of coach seats.

Bring antibacterial wipes and a hot spot as there is no Wi-Fi aboard this particular train. Meals are included for passengers in the sleeper cars. Those with coach tickets can eat in the dining car but must pay for their meals (currently $20/breakfast, $25/lunch and $45/dinner).

For more information, visit www.amtrak.com.


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