Getting Railroaded for Pleasure

| Wednesday, 05 Mar. 2003
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There's nothing like a fall foliage cruise to historic seaports in the northeast, for both the sheer splendor of the autumn color and the charm of the ports. The season is short, and how better to soak it all up than by adding a day or two--or four--to the experience?

Fall foliage cruisers have a new option for a pre- or post-cruise land extension. J.R. "Randy" Parten's love for old rail cars and his partnering with cruise lines (including Carnival and Holland America Line) offer cruisers an unparalleled train ride. You can also do it on your own for whatever cruise you choose.

When he's not running his little cattle ranch in Texas ("Only 2,600 head, Ma'am"), Parten took up the unusual hobby of collecting old rail cars. He parked them around the country for years, and then got the idea of bringing back the golden age of rail travel.

Or perhaps the "aluminum age"--because the 50+ cars he collected are those shiny, silvery ones that the older readers among us used to see shimmering by on the tracks. Manufactured by the Bud Company in the late '40s, those cars were the pinnacle of elegance and luxury when people finally had money to spend after World War II and rail travel was the ultimate experience.

The experience is back now, in the form of the Acadian Railway Company.

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Each car has been splendidly restored, with interiors brought up to modern standards, and each has a different identity. The original car numbers are still proudly displayed as the train whistles by.

This fall is the inaugural season for the Acadian, and at almost every stop along the way, people come out to watch the train go by and the passengers wave to them.

On the 10-hour Montreal-New York run, the "Lake Champlain", which winds through the magnificent Hudson Valley, cars are attached to an Amtrak train on its Adirondack route. If you choose to go further afield from Montreal, either before or after, to quaint St. John by way of Maine or further into the Maritime Provinces, you'll be on one of Acadian's private trains, driven by twin vintage locomotives.

The only stop along the way, in either direction, will be to clear Customs/Immigration, which is done on the train. Bring your passport to make life easier. Once the Train Master hollers, "Aaaaaaall Aboard!" after carefully looking at his gold pocket watch, you will step back into time.

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Even though the departure hours are early, your sleepy eyes can't fail to miss the highly polished wood, the gleaming brass and the laid-back decor in comforting peach and blue, held down by patterned carpeting in hunter green, burgundy and touches of gold and blue.

Once the train pulls out, the staff - all charming young women -- swings into action, asking if you would like coffee, tea, soda, a glass of water (with a floating slice of lemon), juice, or anything else. Almost before you can answer (or fall asleep), you're told that that fruit and pastries are available.

Leaving from Penn Station, you'll be served a light breakfast (in addition to the goodies that are out at almost all times) and a multi-course lunch. Lunch (or dinner, if you are coming southbound from Montreal) is served, small course by small course, on small plates. In keeping with the tradition of bar/parlor cars, it comes bit-by-bit. The tables are small. There is no formal dining car on the Lake Champlain run. Service may be in two seatings, depending upon the number of passengers aboard.

When it's not being used for food service, the parlor car is a gathering place for passengers. Bar service is available at a reasonable $4 per drink. Try the bloody Mary offering, "with" or "without" - it has celery seed around the rim of the glass.

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If you choose to extend from Montreal to Maine, St. John, or the Maritime Provinces on either end, you'll find a domed dining car with food equal to or better than cruise ship fare. The galley/prep area is about the size of a standard inside cruise ship cabin. The outcome is a treat for even the most jaded palate. The china, crystal, silver and napery, is all "first boat." There's no coffee in Styrofoam cups or drinks in plastic "glasses" on Acadian.

The vestibules between the cars are an unexpected joy. They feature Dutch doors and, if the weather is clement, this is the place to watch the leafy world go by (or have a cigarette, as the trains' interiors are all non-smoking.) Dedicated photographers will get their best shots there, too. As for me, I finally came to understand why dogs like to hang their heads out car windows.

On the extended options, cruising Moosehead Lake (yes, you do see moose), seaplane "flightseeing" adventures, small pleasure boat rentals and standard city tours are available. (I saw two moose on the pontoon boat cruise, but I think it was the same one, twice.)

Departures on the New York-Montreal (and vice-versa) run tend to be on the early side, so choosing a convenient hotel should be part of your action plan. When disembarking in Montreal it would be impossible to catch that day's train to New York, so it's an opportunity to spend a day (or more) and enjoy a city full of bilingual, cross-cultural wonderful surprises.

The Fairmont Queen Elizabeth is just above the Gare Municipal (that's Quebec French for "city train station") and also above an immense 18-acre "underground city" with shopping opportunities that will dazzle even the most seasoned veteran. Dedicated elevators take you to the Queen's front desk.

In New York (8 a.m. departure; be at Penn Station by 6:30), get in early the day (or days) before, buy tickets for a Broadway show, and report to the Pennsylvania Hotel, just across the street from Penn Station and only a block from Macy's. (The hotel's phone number really is PEnnsylvania 6-5000. Another trip back into time!) Just be sure to ask for a renovated room.

The Acadian Railway people will be happy to put a personalized hotel/train package together for you, including your hotel requests.

Visit the web site at www.thetraincollection.com or call 866-91-TRAIN.

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