The USA has much more to offer the tourist than guaranteed sunshine and bargain shopping, and there’s a relatively unknown way to discover what this country is really all about. Most people think of travelling by car or plane but you should certainly investigate America’s wonderful trains - perhaps the last means of luxury transport available to everyone. The 25,000 mile Amtrak rail network takes in almost all states, giving a choice of 500 destinations and access to such tourist essentials as San Francisco, the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon.
The Iron Horse
Railroads opened up America more than a century ago and some of today’s long-distance trains still follow the original pioneering routes. They also use many of the great stations built during the golden age of passenger travel. An impressive example stands in Washington, DC, decorated in gold leaf and restored to its original grandeur with dozens of shops, restaurants and a multi-screen cinema. Chicago’s Union Station features a marble and brass waiting room as large as many a cathedral. It’s said that Al Capone used to stop by for his daily shoeshine in the shower room below.
Hotels on wheels
US trains are like mobile hotels, boasting gleaming aluminium twin-decked coaches, air-conditioning, observation cars and uniformed attendants who make you feel you have stepped into a 1930s Hollywood movie. Reclining seats are thick and soft, with comfortable leg-rests so that you can snooze after a meal or sleep through the night (a good way to save on hotel bills). Pillows and subdued lighting are provided by the attendant.
Trains also have traditional sleeping cars with cosy bedrooms ranging from single 'roomettes' to family size affairs for those travelling with children. Accommodation includes breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining car, as well as complimentary tea or coffee and a newspaper delivered each morning. Meals are of a high standard, including regional specials such as freshly caught trout or barbecued spare ribs. Video films of recent vintage are shown in the lounge bar during the evenings, when the place becomes lively with impromptu parties and poker games.
Time to unwind
The atmosphere on board is invariably relaxed and the modest speed perfect for sightseeing, so this is a great way to explore the landscape and meet the natives. You have room to stretch out or walk around and instead of racing above the clouds you can watch an entire continent unroll outside the wraparound windows. Even occasional glimpses of city backyards can be fascinating, although trains are scheduled to pass through the less prepossessing areas by night. Children are particularly well catered for with games and other amusements and rarely become bored with the thrill of riding the tracks and making new friends.
Chance encounters are a vital part of what makes American train journeys such a rewarding experience. One day it may be a group of Italian schoolgirls heading for Niagara Falls, the next it is Australian backpackers in Texas. US trains are friendly places and you’re sure to run into someone interesting. You can learn a lot by sitting next to a Kansas City mortician or a drag artist on her way to entertain the troops in San Diego. Between small towns and big cities you also experience the country’s sheer size and variety, getting a feel for what this land must have been like before the days of McDonalds and Coca Cola.
Best of all, ticket prices are amazingly low and visitors from overseas benefit from an array of passes that make this one of the world's great travel bargains. You can stop off en route as often as you wish and for any length of time, so given a little planning you should find a train to take you almost everywhere you want to go, and perhaps to a few places you hadn't expected. It's easy to work out an itinerary that lets you see more of this diverse country in a short time than is possible any other way. And as the bell clangs and the conductor calls out 'All aboard!' you soon discover why the railroad experience is so delightfully addictive.