It started with a bet: The actor David Hasselhoff, of "Knight Rider" and "Baywatch" fame, was telling his wife how convenient it would be to take a plane from Amsterdam to London. "Only an hour!" he said.
But she doesn't like to fly. She proposed a wager: "You fly, I'll take trains. We'll see who gets there first."
The Hoff arrived at Schiphol the required time before takeoff only to find that the flight was delayed. And upon arriving in London, he encountered more delays waiting for his luggage. In the end, she arrived at their hotel four hours ahead of him.
From there, "she talked me into going to Glasgow on a night train." He had no complaints about the sleeper car, though he didn't get much sleep. "I kept listening to the accents of the girls running up and down the corridors. Incredible accents."
And once he started traveling by train through Europe, he became hooked. "You go through villages, over bridges. You get to see the land, the countryside, and experience different languages and food. And when you get there, you're there! And you've got your luggage with you! It's great!"
I was connected to Hasselhoff earlier this week by Trainline, an app for booking rail in Europe, which hired the actor as their pitchman. He's fronting a contest in the U.S. to choose the company's "chief conductor," who will win a train trip through Europe, among other prizes.
Though he's a paid promoter, there was little question that he's also a genuine rail enthusiast: "My favorite route is St. Moritz to Zurich. Unbelievable, just breathtaking." Switzerland, he believes, is the No. 1 country for train travel, though he cites Croatia as another beautiful but less expensive option. And despite its cost, the Venice-Simplon Orient Express is "on the list."
He somewhat reluctantly acknowledged that he has traveled by rail on other continents, hesitating to give his comment on those experiences. "I'm not really supposed to talk about it," he said, noting that he had strayed into that discussion during a previous interview and was reminded by Trainline that, after all, Trainline books trains in Europe.
Though he lives in California, there's a strong Hasselhoff connection between the actor and Europe that many Americans don't know about. After "Baywatch," he became a singing sensation in Austria, Switzerland and Germany, his popularity peaking after he sang "Looking for Freedom" at the Berlin Wall in 1989. To this day, there is a small (Hasselhoff calls it "low-rent") David Hasselhoff Museum in the basement of the Circus Hostel in Berlin.
The Hoff is celebrated at the David Hasselhoff Museum in Berlin. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann
As with many things Hasselhoff, the museum, such as it is, reflects a tongue-in-cheek appreciation for a star who rose on sex appeal and has aged with good humor, projecting a careful mix of self, self-promotion and self-parody.
For instance, asked what he's up to next, he answered, "I've got lots of things going on because of [1980s nostalgia] and because of being David Hasselhoff and la-la-la." Among the projects is an upcoming show on Amazon Freevee streaming service in July. ("We got fantastic reviews. We thought we were off and running. But now we're off. And not running.")
The Hasselhoff-Trainline connection is the latest in the time-honored tradition of travel brands and celebrity spokespeople. Switzerland has Roger Federer, Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway. Turkish Airlines has Morgan Freeman. And Shaquille O'Neal was named Carnival Cruise Line's chief fun officer.
While I have little doubt each is sincere in their endorsement, I admire Trainline's choice of The Hoff, possibly for the exact same reason the company reproached him for talking about non-European rail travel: One senses he is, always, his authentic self; there's a good likelihood he won't stick to the script.
I'll take authenticity over script memorization any time.
A mural of The Hoff on the wall of the Berlin’s David Hasselhoff Museum. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann
And it's really time that train travel gets its due. Flights are full and expensive. Slow travel is very much in vogue. Taking the train, you don't have to arrive hours before departure. You begin and end in the center of town. You don't have to wait until you've reached 10,000 feet to turn on your laptop. Nobody asks you to lower the shade if you're looking out the window. And Hasselhoff is right to point out the impact of experiencing languages: When I was in Switzerland last year, in one day I had conductors address me in German, French and Italian as I moved through the country.
Admittedly, European (and, for the most part, Asian) trains are more reliable and convenient than in the U.S. It's not Amtrak's fault; lack of government investment, airline lobbying against high-speed rail and commercial freight lines' continuing refusal to yield the right of way to passenger trains contribute to Amtrak's challenges. But if you have the time, and you value the journey as much as the destination, then rail will be the option of choice.