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Cruising by Train to Reno Is Fun and Games

<i> Mallan is a free-lance writer living in Paradise, Calif. </i>

The time goes quickly aboard the Sierra 49er Express. Passengers stay entertained by a wandering magician, a handwriting analyst and board games. And have you ever tried dancing to a live band on a swaying dance floor? It’s good for lots of laughs and maybe a two-step you didn’t know you could do.

Welcome to the world of entertainment trains, the cruise ships of the rails and a popular part of the rebirth of U.S. train travel.

California’s newest is the year-round Sierra 49er Express, a refurbished, privately-operated train for skiers, gamblers and other weekend escapists. It wends its way twice a week from San Jose to Tahoe or Reno. Southern Californians can also fly north and board the train at Amtrak stations in Oakland or Sacramento.

Strolling bards dressed like old-time train engineers play just about any tune you request. There are great guitar renditions of such traditional train songs as “Rock Island Line,” “King of the Road,” “Kansas City” and “City of New Orleans.”

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During daylight hours, the views traveling through the long canyons are spectacular, with vistas of Donner Lake surrounded by rich pines, snow-capped mountains and rolling meadows.

Most riders of the Sierra 49er Express say that wining, dining and dancing their way to the casinos or the slopes eliminates worries of traffic or weather conditions and allows a relaxing or high-time weekend to begin a little sooner. There’s ample room to store skis and luggage below each car.

Dinners come with green salad, choice of three entrees that include salmon filet, breast of chicken or tender beef steak accompanied by herb sauces, plus a rich dessert and coffee; all are included in the price of your ticket. Beer, wine and cocktails are extra, but reasonably priced.

The train currently offers several classes of travel. All classes have access to the lounge or club car, and include all entertainment. Deluxe-class passengers have a choice of seating in side-by-side, airline-type reclining seats or comfortable booths with wide windows. Luxury-class offers upstairs dome cars with magnificent views, as well as separate downstairs lounges and dining cars with overstuffed chairs and soft carpet.

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The train offers either a package--which includes two meals on board, two nights at your choice of hotels, transfers between train and lodgings, free entertainment on board and a Sierra 49er discount coupon book--or simply round-trip tickets that include two meals and all entertainment on board.

Weekend trips depart Friday afternoons and return Sunday. Hotel choice determines the cost on packages. In Reno, for example, passengers can stay at Circus Circus for the all-inclusive price of $217, Bally’s for $247 and Harrah’s for $262. In Tahoe, the choices range from the Cal Neva Lodge for $247, the Northstar at Tahoe for $292 and the deluxe Resort at Squaw Creek for $337. Monday thru Wednesday packages are about $30 less. Prices increase after April 30.

Children’s and senior discounts are available.

For more information on Sierra 49er Express trips, contact Transcisco Tours, 601 California St., San Francisco 94108, (800) 765-4937.

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