For excellent food and scenery, you cant beat the train

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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.

The Alaska 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 up.

Alaska Railroad: GoldStar service

After Royal Celebrity, Princess and HAL got their domed cars, the Alaska Railroad must have been feeling a little envious. The dining section of the first-class GoldStar car on the Alaska Railroad.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.

Raves: Passengers 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 Fairbanks.

Alaska Railroad 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 by.

Alaska 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.

Interiors: Theres 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.

Holland Americas McKinley Explorer

Princess Midnight Sun Express

Royal 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.

Interior 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.

Royal Celebrity 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 car.

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.

To contact Rebecca Tobin, managing editor of the print edition of Travel Weekly, send e-mail to [email protected].

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