The Alaska Railroad is a favorite link for
tourists traveling between Fairbanks, Anchorage and Seward, and
points in between like Denali National Park and Talkeetna; it
carries more than 450,000 people a year. Flying and driving between
points may well be faster, but the romance and novelty of the rails
cant be beat.
Most people are
on the train because they bought a cruise-tour package or another
type of tour package.
Railroad, a privately owned enterprise, operates the locomotives
and has its own distinctive yellow-and-blue cars and tour programs.
And the cruise lines with major Alaska infrastructure, Holland
America Line, Princess Cruises and Royal Celebrity Tours, link
their own private cars to the locomotive.
Over the past 10
years train travel has gotten more luxurious, and each cruise line
has bought, and then upgraded, a fleet of two-level, domed cars. In
the upstairs compartment windows form a transparent dome over
passengers heads, allowing nearly unobstructed views of the
scenery. A downstairs compartment houses a galley and a dining room
that serves gourmet food.
The train cars
are linked, but passengers are strictly prohibited from passing
through the cars. And even though a passenger probably would not
choose a cruise-tour or vacation package strictly on the decor of
the train car, I thought it would be interesting to take an Alaska
Railroad-sanctioned stroll between the cars on the Denali Star
service between Fairbanks and Anchorage, to see how they stack
Railroad: GoldStar service
Celebrity, Princess and HAL got their domed cars, the Alaska
Railroad must have been feeling a little envious. The Alaska Railroads answer is its
GoldStar first-class service, which last year began operating
between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The 89-foot car seats 72 in the
domed upper level, which affords views of the trees, mountains and
whatever wildlife ambles into the trains proximity.
Meals: The downstairs
restaurant is particularly fine, as it features vibrant,
double-sided glass panels by local artist Ayse Gilbert. For $12 you
can order the Railyard skillet eggs with cheddar and jack cheeses,
herb roasted potatoes and a choice of bacon or reindeer sausage,
plus coffee. Upstairs is a full bar.
Views: The best part
about the GoldStar car is its unique viewing platform just behind
the upstairs seating area. Everyone with a three-megapixel,
point-and-shoot camera or a Nikon with a long-range telephoto lens
was out on the platform at some point during the trip.
get a GoldStar pin and other perks. I considered the comfortable
seats underneath the glass domes to be a huge plus.
Drawbacks: Of course,
youll pay for all this luxury. The Goldstar ticket is $190 between
Anchorage and Denali and $290 between Anchorage and
hires student guides to point out scenery along the way, and our
student on the way from Fairbanks to Anchorage was hesitant and
added a few too many ums to the narrative. But on the plus side,
there was lots of quiet time to sit back and let the trees roll
Railroad: Regular service
Step onto the
Alaska Railroads regular cars and youre transported to the real,
nontourist Alaska, where passengers wear work boots instead of
expensive hiking boots purchased just for the trip.
no need to stand on ceremony: The tables in the snack car are
covered with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, and passengers
are passing the time with decks of cards. Each car is different:
One is green, another has tan seats.
No domed cars
here. Passengers look through ordinary rectangular windows. But
there is a viewing room in some of the cars, which means passengers
can climb a steep staircase to a smaller room upstairs and sit and
look out from a higher elevation.
Meals: Theres the snack
car. The same menu offered in the GoldStar car is offered in an
attractive bistro car; lunchtime offerings include Healys Miner
Lunch, a sirloin hamburger.
Raves: These are really
fun, unique cars. You get to travel like a local. And the price is
less than the GoldStar: about $129 from Anchorage to Denali and
$185 between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Drawbacks: No domed
windows. And the seats were a little uncomfortable, especially when
compared with the GoldStar: Consider that the ride from Denali to
Anchorage is eight hours.
Americas McKinley Explorer
Midnight Sun Express
Celebritys Wilderness Express
The cruise lines
each follow a similar format when it comes to the rail cars. These
are state-of-the-art, luxury coaches.
views: Princess goes with a
neutral palette thats very similar to the colors it uses on its
ships: Tan, burgundy and hunter green. It also does something
unusual with its configuration: Passengers sit four to a table, two
facing forward and two backward. I recommend trying to snag the
forward-facing seats, since sitting backwards on a fast-moving
train might be a bit uncomfortable.
also keeps the design very subtle, with butter-colored leather
seats. Its chairs upstairs can swivel around to form a foursome
with the group behind you, and headphone jacks nearby plug you in
to music selections.
HALs decor is
more eclectic: Purple, yellow, black and gray show up on chairs in
long, skinny stripes or crazy patchwork. Neat little touches like
wall sconces with antler designs accentuate the dining part of the
Meals: Food is not
included in the package price, although HAL does offer an optional
meal package with some of its cruise-tour programs. But during the
leg from Denali to Anchorage I saw several Royal Celebrity
passengers treating themselves to a steak or another meal in the
downstairs dining car. Also, Royal Celebrity has some sinful drinks
on the menu that can double as desserts.
Raves: Good food, good
seats, great views. All the cars -- the GoldStar, too -- have lifts
for wheelchair-bound passengers to get to the upper domed deck.
Whats not to like?
Drawbacks: Some of the
tour guides tend to be much more chatty on the cruise lines cars.
That can mean youll get lots more information on Alaska and the
surrounding countryside. But if you want to just kick back and
relax, its tough to tune the tour guide out.
Rebecca Tobin, managing editor of the print edition of Travel
Weekly, send e-mail to [email protected].