Get on track with these trips, says Aby Dunsby
An enticing mixture of show-stopping cities and epic natural scenery make the US a quintessential country for exploration – and while road trips still reign supreme, rail is a serious pretender to the crown.
Even if its size means the train isn’t the speediest way to get around, for those who value the journey as much as the destination, it offers views you just couldn’t get from a plane, and weary drivers can leave the hard work to someone else as they kick back with a glass of wine to soak up the sublime vistas in comfort.
“The demand for USA rail vacations continues to grow as UK travellers seek alternatives to the more traditional fly or drive packages,” says Todd Powell, chief executive and co-founder of Vacations by Rail. “We have seen the highest increase in itineraries which combine independent scenic trains journeying into the heart of the national parks with the legendary long-distance coast-to-coast routes.”
Whether it’s a short jaunt or a cross-country train ride, a rail journey can also provide the perfect opportunity for you to bolt on extra bookings, as clients are often keen to add activities, tours or excursions around a rail journey. From luxe options to cheap-as-chips commuter trains, we pick out a handful of the most interesting rail journeys America has to offer.
1 MOUNT WASHINGTON COG RAILWAY
Where: Climbs 3,500 feet to the top of Mount Washington, the highest summit in New England.
What: Distance: six miles round-trip; journey time: three hours. Operates only at weekends between April 30 and Memorial Day (the last Monday in May), then daily until Columbus Day (second Monday in October).
Why: It might not be the longest or most high-profile of the US’s rail journeys, but this antique train has been chugging passengers up to New Hampshire’s highest peak since 1852, and taking the route on the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway offers clients a real slice of American history.
Passengers have an hour to spend at the 6,288ft-high summit, where the view spans the mountains and valleys of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, with Canada to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. A visit to the Mount Washington Observatory’s Weather Museum provides some intriguing stats about Mount Washington’s conditions in winter, which rival those of Mount Everest and the Polar regions.
The views are impressive year-round, but the best time for this train trip has to be September or October, when the colours of autumn blaze across the hills and valleys from the summit, broadening the appeal of this journey beyond just dedicated train-spotters.
Book it: Great Rail Journeys offers a new 10-day New England in the Fall tour for 2017, priced from £2,095. The trip includes a journey on the Mount Washington Cog Railway and a round trip on the North Conway Scenic Railroad, eight nights’ accommodation (room-only) and various excursions, valid for departures in September and October 2017. Book by June 3 for a £100 discount.
2 CITY OF NEW ORLEANS
Where: Chicago to New Orleans.
What: Distance: 926 miles; journey time: 19 hours, 30 minutes. Runs daily, with the first train leaving Chicago at 08.15 and the last train leaving New Orleans at 19.37.
Why: For fans of folk, blues and jazz, a pilgrimage to America’s three most music-rich cities – Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans – is a must, and taking the sleeper train allows clients to ride in the shadows of American music greats like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Elvis Presley. The route is served by the Amtrak national train service, which offers plenty of legroom, complimentary blankets and reclining leather armchairs for as little as $105 return, making it ideal for those on a tight budget.
Clients needn’t ride the whole route: the prettiest leg is out of Memphis, following the Mississippi through mangroves, past plantations and into the buzz of the Big Easy. For clients wishing to really make the most of each city en route, allow a good 10 days with time for overnight stops along the way.
Book it: Riviera Travel offers a 14-day Deep South USA Plus Texas tour from £2,299 including return flights to Atlanta, all transfers and a journey on Amtrak’s ‘City of New Orleans’ rail service from Memphis to New Orleans, plus 12 nights’ room-only accommodation and excursions. rivieratravel.co.uk
3 COAST STARLIGHT
Where: Los Angeles to Seattle.
What: Distance: 1,377 miles; journey time: 35 hours. Runs daily, with the first train leaving Seattle at 09.00, and the last train from Los Angeles at 21.00 each day.
Why: Clients looking to put a new spin on a classic West Coast trip can take Amtrak’s Coast Starlight and get ready to Instagram their journey away thanks to excellent panoramic views of surfer dude-teeming beach towns and the Cascade Mountains’ sloping cliffs.
Suggest that passengers riding the whole route pay the extra cash for the roomette option: a private room for two where seats transform into beds, and where the ticket price includes wine tasting and food.
For the best views, which are between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, clients should visit the sightseer lounge car, where all seats face floor-to-ceiling windows.
Book it: 1st Class Holidays offers a nine-day Californian Rail Journey from £1,529, including a Sonoma & Napa Valley winery tour, and travel on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from San Francisco to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to San Diego. The price includes eight nights’ accommodation based on two sharing, excluding flights.
4 GRAND CANYON RAILWAY
Where: Williams, Arizona, to the Grand Canyon.
What: Distance: 65 miles; journey time: two hours, 15 minutes. Runs daily 364 days a year, with the first train departing Williams at 09.30 and the last train departing Grand Canyon at 16.30.
Why: Few sights are as awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon, and there is something impossibly romantic about this feat of nature coming into view as clients board the old-world vintage trains of the Grand Canyon Railway. Most of the five million people who visit the Grand Canyon each year access the South Rim by mule or on a hike, so taking the train offers a more leisurely experience that’s ideal for older passengers or those with young children.
Book it: Railbookers’ 13-night Route 66 holiday by rail includes a trip on the Grand Canyon railroad, as well as 11 nights’ hotel accommodation, standard-class rail travel, roomette accommodation with meals on two overnight trains and some meals and tours, from £1,539.
5 ACELA EXPRESS
Where: New York to Boston.
What: Distance: 231 miles; journey time: four hours. Departs 05.04 from Boston and arrives in New York at 08.44 each day.
Why: “The East Coast is Travel 2’s most popular destination in the US for rail journeys, which is due to the number of key locations and major cities that clients can see in one trip,” says Ross Sinclair, senior product manager for the USA at Travel 2.
Travellers who fancy tagging Boston on to a New York break can do so by jumping on an Amtrak train, a convenient way of seeing the two cities and a chance to buy back some time if they plan to go on and explore more of New England. This speedy commuter service isn’t the best way to sightsee, but it’s well worth knowing about for time-pressed travellers keen to squeeze in as much of the East Coast as they can.
After a trip to Boston, home of the American Revolution and the Red Sox baseball team, clients who take the train will arrive into the Big Apple’s Pennsylvania Station, which is just a block away from shoppers’ magnet Macy’s and two blocks from the Empire State Building.
Book it: Travel 2 offers a seven-day Boston and New York by Rail tour, including a journey on Amtrak’s Boston to New York train, plus return flights from London, from £1,039, for travel in February 2017.
6 DURANGO & SILVERTON NARROW GAUGE RAILROAD
Where: Silverton to Durango, Colorado.
What: Distance: 45 miles each way during the summer season from May 7 to October 29, and 26 miles each way from November 25 to May 6. Journey time is nine hours round-trip in summer and five hours in winter.
Why: For devotees of Wild West history, a journey on board the legendary Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is an unforgettable one, riding on the same tracks as miners, cowboys and settlers of the Old West took more than a century ago.
The historic train has been rolling since 1882, when it transported silver and gold out of the San Juan Mountains. Today, the steam-powered tourist train winds through canyons in the remote wilderness of the San Juan National Forest, climbs towards Colorado’s snow-sprinkled peaks, and finally stops in Durango, a town born in the Gold Rush era and located near Mesa Verde National Park.
Book it: Cosmos Tours & Cruises has introduced an 11-day Historic Trains of the Old West tour. It includes rail journeys on the Durango & Silverton Railroad through the San Juan National Forest, as well as the Pikes Peak Cog Railway to the summit of Pikes Peak. Prices are from £2,745 based on a twin-share departing September 17, 2017, including return flights and nine nights’ bed and breakfast.
Tap into the interest generated by Billy Connolly’s recent ITV documentary Tracks Across America to sell US rail trips
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ASK THE EXPERT
Emily Morrison, product executive, Funway Holidays:
“Amtrak’s rail network connects the major cities with unexpected gems along the way. The service is comfortable, efficient and very affordable, with tickets from New York to Washington DC starting at about £30. Rail holidays appeal to clients who want to travel to more than one destination without driving. Customers can also meet other travellers, watch the passing scenery over a glass of wine in the dining car rather than above the clouds at 30,000ft, and go to bed in one region and wake up in another.”
Best of the rest
The Alaska Railroad
Whether clients want wildlife, craggy-faced mountains, bustling ports or urban escapes, the Alaska Railroad’s got it by the bucket load. Collette’s Alaska and The Yukon tour includes a journey on the Alaska Railroad.
The California Zephyr
One of the most scenic routes in the US, the California Zephyr (pictured) goes from Chicago to San Francisco via the Rockies and Sierras. Vacations by Rail has a California Zephyr experience that includes this Amtrak route.
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