American Orient Express Takes Scenic Route Into Luxurious Past

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Had it with hotels? Done with dude ranches? Cruises make you crazy?

So ride the rails, darling.

Board the sleek, blue-and-white cars of the American Orient Express for a transcontinental tour--plus plenty of pampering.

Watch the landscape unfold from a comfy sofa in the leather-walled, brass-appointed club car.

Listen to the pianist tickle the ivories on one of two baby grands. Order a drink from the marble-top bar.

Ponder whether it will be the loin of lamb with fresh herbs and apricot-and-fig chutney, or the chicken breast with artichoke hearts, grapes and oranges.

OK, so train toilets are still tiny; the handsome tile-and-faux marble decorating scheme will divert you.

And the shower may be down the hall--but it will already be steamy when the porter greets you at your sleeping-cabin door with a fluffy robe.

"It's a pretty comfortable train," said Gregory Mueller, president of the American Orient Express. "It's like being in a rolling five-star hotel."

An expensive one: An eight-day trip from Los Angeles to Washington--via the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe, San Antonio, New Orleans and Charlottesville, Va.--starts at $4,990 per person, double occupancy. For $7,450 per person, there's a double-size cabin with a private shower.

The American Orient Express also offers a 10-day tour of some of the West's national parks--a Denver-to-Santa Fe run that starts at $3,990--and a five-day, Los Angeles-to-Santa Fe trip that begins at $1,990.

And there's an opera tour, a nine-day round trip from Los Angeles that features stops at Colorado's Aspen Music Festival and the Santa Fe Opera, starting at $3,850.

All the tours feature experts who ride the train and give lectures and slide shows on historical, cultural and railroad-related topics. There's also organized sightseeing at each stop.

Mueller says there has been little problem filling the train, which sleeps 100, for the 30 one-way trips scheduled this year.

"There's a huge, pent-up demand for luxury rail travel because you haven't had it for 50 years," he said.

Demand from whom?

For starters, from the affluent, just-turning-50 baby boomers, Mueller said.

"A lot of them never saw the United States; they went to Europe and backpacked. And a lot of them never rode trains," Mueller said. "They've been everywhere else, and this is one of the last trips left to do."

Railroad buffs, of course, account for some of the travelers, as do foreign visitors; a Japanese tour company has booked it for a transcontinental trip this month.

"This is something that is, frankly, a once-in-a-lifetime sort of trip. It's been grand," Ira Kulbersh of Chicago said as he boarded the Los Angeles-bound train in Santa Fe recently after a day of sightseeing.

Kulbersh said the cross-country trip was a "busman's holiday" for him and his wife.

He spent 30 years working for railroads, retiring in 1989 as chief mechanical engineer for Chicago & North Western Transportation Co.

The trip gave him the fun of railroading and a chance to show off his expertise--"I have had a ball with people asking me questions"--without any of the worry, Kulbersh said. "This is as good as it gets."

Marion Wilson and her husband were riding the American Orient Express back to their Los Angeles home from a business trip to the East Coast.

"It really is just a wonderful way to travel," she said.

The Wilsons have taken a similar luxury train in Europe, but this was more fun, she said.

"This is very casual. They don't expect you to dress up at night."

The train was put together in 1989, a $16-million project that involved refurbishing, inside and out, rail cars from the 1940s and '50s that had been owned by various companies, Mueller said.

The elegant observation car, with its curved bay windows, served 20 years on the New York Central's 20th Century Ltd.

Other cars in the 14-car train include seven sleepers; two dining cars, their tables set with linen and crystal; and two club cars. There's even an on-board laundry. A staff of 30 serves the passengers.

The train was assembled by a previous owner and operated for a couple of years in the East and Midwest as the American European Express, Mueller said.

It was mothballed, then bought by its current owner, Reiseburo Mittelthurgau, based in Zurich, Switzerland. The company also owns the Nostalgic Istanbul Orient Express.

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