Despite the flurry of camera phones furiously snapping photos as the train pulled into the station, I felt like I'd drifted back in time.
The effect was due to the train itself, the private, three-car Great Western Limited. The conductor, in his formal uniform and smart cap, welcomed us aboard, where bow-tied servers ferried water pitchers back and forth in preparation for our journey. It may have been 2015 outside on the platform, but inside the Pullman Co. dining car it felt like 1956.
The interior of a restored Great Western Limited private streamliner train, which dates to 1956. Photo Credit: Sarah Feldberg
That's exactly the point aboard the Great Western Limited, one of the private streamliner trains that Uncommon Journeys uses as the centerpieces of its seven- to 17-day explorations of the U.S. and Canada, starting at $2,495. The itineraries boast titles like In the Path of Lewis & Clark and Great National Parks of the West and read like greatest-hits lists of North American destinations: Yellowstone, Canyonlands, Glacier, Napa Valley, San Francisco and Vancouver. Along with travel by vintage train, some tours include river cruises and multinight stays at iconic properties such as Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel.
Our destination was the Bay Area, and our route from Reno, Nev., was a stunner. Curving Vista Dome windows showcased the scenery as we wound past the quaint storefronts of Truckee, Calif., ravines bristling with pine trees in the Sierra Nevada and the snaking channels of Grizzly Bay. There was a comfortable rhythm aboard the train. With the gentle pace and the graceful views, I almost felt like I was watching a hyper-real IMAX movie with very little plot. Even the mundane seemed magical.
Setting the tone was our vessel, three cars hitched to the end of an Amtrak train, which dates to 1956 and has been faithfully restored to provide the kind of luxury rail experience no longer prevalent in the U.S.
A dining car aboard the Great Western Limited.
In the dining car, tables flanked by flush banquettes were decked in white linens and set with porcelain dishes and real cutlery and glassware. Cocktails flowed, as the servers strolled the rocking car with professional ease, delivering complimentary mimosas and beers. Aboard the train, everything was included in the tour price.
Lunch included made-to-order grilled cheese on Texas toast, Caesar salad with blackened chicken or grilled salmon and a hefty cheeseburger with all the trimmings. There were warm, white-chocolate macadamia nut cookies for dessert.
While one of the Great Western Limited's cars is devoted to dining and lounging, the other two are sleeper cars with various bedroom configurations, from the spacious suite with two private bathrooms to the snug roomette for a single guest.
Stepping out onto the open-air deck at the rear of the train, I spent a few moments watching the track stretch out behind us. It was hypnotizing. The feeling of the wind and the train's chugging motion was simultaneously lulling and electrifying. I couldn't help but pull out my phone to record a quick video. It may have been 1956 inside the Great Western Limited, but modern technology was better suited to documenting the loveliness.