Beach getaway. Road trip. Alpine holiday. City vacation. All fun, all kind of predictable. To inject wow factor into your summer vacation, why not tack on something unexpected: a train escapade—wait for it—with a sleeper cabin.
You may think of a train as simply a mode of transport. And, dismiss it as less expedient than a plane flight. But to kids, getting from A to B by locomotive fires the imagination on all cylinders. Think about it: every detail- meals in the dining compartment, walking from car to car, maintaining balance while using the bathroom, being lulled to sleep by the train’s manic gyrations- is pure fantasy, Hogwart’s with a side of Polar Express.
Aside from the fun factor, traveling by train presents teaching moments. Whip out a map and talk geography—how far are you from home? Which state lines are you crossing? Which mountains and lakes can you see? How is the topography different from what you would see out of the car window in your hometown? Use the scenery whizzing by as prompt to discuss distance. How many miles is it to your destination? And also history. Imagine how different life was for people before the convenience of traversing the globe by train or plane. Many hardly saw the world beyond their home state.
Though parents may be seduced by week long itineraries, an extended train trip with children is not ideal. Keep the experience short and sweet, 48 hours maximum. Because, like most of Harry Potter’s spells, the magic of riding the rails has a shelf life and you’ll want to exit before the novelty evaporates. There are hundreds of itineraries out there. Some basic, others with full scale bedroom suites complete with high thread count linens.
Here are some ideas:
You may think of Amtrak as the overcrowded-oft delayed-commuter train whisking worker bees throughout the Northeast Corridor. But, Amtrak is also a relied-upon vacation resource equipped with in-house travel agents and long hail trains that are decidedly more upscale than there commuter cousin. They may not be four star, but dining and sightseeing cars as well as sleeper cabins-roomettes, bedroom and a limited amount of larger family bedrooms (all convert from seating into sleeping berths) are comfortable and efficient. Amtrak offers hundreds of routes. The sleeper cabins, though, are only available on routes south/west of Washington and west of Chicago and New Orleans with one Auto Train option that runs from outside of Washington DC to Orlando.
Our first favorite is from Seattle to Whitefish The fourteen hour trip careens through stunning Pacific Northwest scenery depositing you at a tiny depot (car rentals available) just forty-five minutes from Glacier National Park (buy passes in advance) where you can hike through gorges and wildflower blanketed meadows, cross the famous Going- To- The- Sun road, spot waterfalls and enjoy abundant wildlife sightings.
Next is Chicago to New Orleans. Board at 8 pm and, the following afternoon, you’ll be ready to tackle the Big Easy’s wild brew of culture. Kids don’t need to see Bourbon Street to get a handle on Nola’s party vibe. It’s in the rainbow-colored Creole houses of the French Quarter, the buskers of Jackson Square, the impromptu trumpet blasts and parades. Don’t miss criss-crossing the city on the St. Charles Streetcar, taking a mule-drawn carriage ride through the historic Garden District, ingesting a Po’boy on the banks of the Mississippi and experiencing an evening at Rock and Bowl, an old school bowling alley with dance floor where there is a nightly line up of zydeco, funk, blues and “swamp pop”.
To pay a visit to the Mouse House by way of riding the rails, the Amtrak Auto Train will ferry you and your car between suburban Washington, D.C. (Lorton, Va.) to suburban Orlando (Sanford, Fla.) which is 50 minutes from Disney World.
Note: when booking a sleeper cabin, meals on board are included. Oh, and kids ( 2-13) pay half fare. For alternate overnight trip itineraries, Amtrak’s 800 number is staffed with sunny vacation planners eager to assist with planning.
For a decidedly more upscale experience, Belmond, offers “journeys” in historic Pullman cars that smack of train travel’s Golden Age. Case in point: The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, an overnight trip from London to Venice that delivers the white glove glamour of an Agatha Christie setting. This is a formal experience with a serious dress code (no jeans or sneakers) a home run for children who love to get fancy. You start the trip in London on the Belmond British Pullman, a series of restored carriages (some were used by the royal family) and zip through the countryside to Folkestone, enjoying a traditional afternoon tea. After a transfer under the Chunnel, you’ll board the storied Venice Simpson-Orient-Express in Calais. A dedicated steward will show you to your cabin where you’ll relax and swap day clothes for evening attire. Then you’ll feast upon an elaborate multi course dinner before repairing to the bar car to hear the resident pianist tickle the ivories.
The next afternoon, after watching the scenery morph from alps to canals, you arrive in Venice. Belmond also does a more relaxed, kid friendly trip in Ireland. The Grand Hibernian travels round trip from Dublin to Belfast and includes off-board sightseeing-a Belfast highlights tour, a stop at The Titanic Experience museum (the ship was constructed in Belfast), a visit to Curraghmore House, a grand mansion in Waterford. Expect elaborate meals as well as evening entertainment (local musicians, story tellers) on the Observation Deck.
It’s Canada’s 150th anniversary, the country’s celebratory verve heightening the appeal of a visit in 2017. Here, landscape hugging train rides are a thrill,often taking days to cross from British Columbia to Quebec. An easy one nighter is from Montreal to Halifax on Via Rail Canada . Book a Sleeper Plus Cabin, a private room that a porter converts into comfortable bunk beds while you dine. With this class of service comes all meals and access to the scenic dome in the Park car, essentially a chill out room with floor to ceiling windows for panoramic viewing. This 22 hour journey is banked on either side by killer kid-centric activities. Tap into Montreal’s (the world’s second largest French-speaking city) Euro-charm in the Old Quarter. Then hit the Museum of Fine Arts and the Botanic Garden which features an Insectarium with 250,000 specimens. Before boarding the train, pick up some snacks at the historic Jean-Talon open air market. Halifax is all about coastal recreation: biking hiking, rafting, kayaking, whale watching. If you have time, drive up to Prince Edward Island, the setting of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s iconic children’s book Anne of Green Gables. As with Amtrak, there is an 800 number for customer assistance.
Read the full story in Men’s Journal here