Instead of the Orient-Express, All Aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder
Amtrak will never be as glamorous as the Orient-Express, but the Rockies can stack up against the Alps any day. The Empire Builder (800/872-7245; amtrak.com; $779 for a family of four, including two nights in a sleeper car and meals), a Chicago-to-Portland or -Seattle route named for James J. Hill, who founded the Great Northern Railway, exposes travelers not only to the stirring peaks but also to the sheer breadth of the American landscape. The 46-hour journey unfolds as a string of astonishing snapshots: Chicago’s 1925 Union Station; the Great Plains; the snowy expanse of John Denver country; Washington’s eight-mile Cascade Tunnel, longest in the Western Hemisphere; and the giant snow cone that is Oregon’s Mount Hood.
Just before the final stretch, extend the experience with a layover in Glacier National Park, at the Izaak Walton Inn (406/888-5700; izaakwaltoninn.com; rooms for three from $165), in Essex, Montana. Built by the rail company in 1939 to house snow-removal workers, the lodge makes a great base for cross-country skiing.
Back on board, you and your crew can roam from sleeping compartment to dining car (which serves surprisingly tasty burgers and seared salmon, freshly prepared in the galley) to the Sightseer Lounge, with windowside swivel seats—IMAX will never top these panoramas. Along the way, the whole family can’t help but absorb a bit of geography, geology—and a Lewis-and-Clark sense of adventure.
The Canadian (888/842-7245; viarail.ca; Vancouver-to-Jasper leg, $1,946 for a family of four, including a night in a sleeper car and meals). This silver 1950’s classic runs across the country, from Vancouver to Toronto, three times a week. Jump aboard for the 17-hour leg between Vancouver and Jasper, when the train traverses the Canadian Rockies. You’ll stare out at 360-degree vistas of glacial lakes, alpine tundra, and caribou herds, your binoculars in one hand and a hot chocolate in the other.
Two-day trip for a family of four: from $11,320
A cocktail in the dining car: $17
Two-day trip for a family of four: from $779
A cocktail in the dining car: $5