But the best part of dining on the train is not the food, or the scenery passing by, but the people you meet. Unless you're traveling in a party of four, at each meal you're seated with other passengers.
Among my dining companions were a former city manager of Bloomington, Ind., who was taking time off before starting his new job as a professor at Indiana University; a retiree from England who was fulfilling his lifelong dream of visiting the U.S.; a retired couple from Michigan headed to Reno; a group from Galesburg, Ill., returning from a bowling tournament in Reno; a couple from Australia completing a five-week tour of the States; Mike from San Francisco, whose family business is restoration of old buildings and houses and who was headed to a wedding in Denver; and possibly the most delightful couple in the world, Ruth and Colin, from London.
She's an executive at Heathrow Airport; I gathered that he's retired and spends his time going to cricket and rugby matches and holding court at the local pub, which he said on occasion admits women.
She's Scottish, he's from Wales, with personalities to match, and while I never quite discerned what he had done for a living, at one time Ruth was his secretary.
They had a bedroom on the Zephyr, a considerably larger sleeping accommodation than the roomette, with a sofa that converts into a bed.
Asked if the bedroom compartment bed was big enough for two people, Colin said, "If they were on honeymoon, yes. After 30 years together ..." and he gestured upward, referencing the sleeper's upper berth.
It's not surprising the number of British and Australian tourists treating the Zephyr as a "land cruise," given that they avoid the headache not only of driving in a foreign country -- but one where people drive on the wrong side of the road.
Relaxing and friendly
I would guess about three-fourths of the sleeping-car passengers were on vacation, as opposed to trying to get from point A to point B, with the percentages probably reversed for passengers in coach.
It would be pointless here to go on about the spectacular scenery. By the time we got to Donner Lake and the Sierras, it was almost scenery overload -- as if it was hard to believe there was yet another spectacular vista.
Rail travel isn't the way to go if you're in a hurry, but it provides a relaxing, friendly, comfortable way to see parts of the country you'd never see by air or car, including sections of big cities probably not endorsed by the local chambers of commerce, and small towns where you can literally discern the right and wrong sides of the tracks.
Based on questions and inquiries, I was surprised to learn how many people have never been on a train.
For a brief sample of what train travel is like, it's possible to catch the Cardinal on out-and-back trips on eastbound 50 and westbound 51 on Wednesdays, Fridays or Sundays.
While many folks make the round-trip for an afternoon at The Greenbrier, I'd recommend staying on an hour to Clifton Forge, a charming little railroading town in the Allegheny Highlands.
There's a great restaurant/pub across the street from the station, Jack Mason's, and the C&O Railway Heritage Center is a short walk away. Featuring a museum, several restored railcars and C&O steam engine 614 (currently in Greenbrier Express colors), it's well worth a visit.
Want to go?
Total round-trip was about $1,150. With sleeper car reservations, you pay a rail fare (normally, the lowest coach fare for the route) and an accommodations charge. (The accommodations charge is the same whether there are one or two passengers in the compartment.)
Like airlines, Amtrak uses bucket pricing, with rates going up as space is booked. I got the lowest bucket for a Zephyr roomette, at $263, but the rates can approach $800 at peak demand.
As noted, the accommodations charge includes all meals in the dining car, as well as complimentary coffee, juice, bottled water and daily newspapers.
Amtrak's website (Amtrak.com) is useful for researching trips, but AmSnag.net is better. With it, you enter departure and destination stations and date of travel and it will display up to 30 days of all available routes, with all fare and accommodations options.
Reach Phil Kabler at ph...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.