Trains harken back to days gone by, which lends an element of romance to riding the rails. And while you can travel by car to most of the same destinations, the scenery (and the opportunity to relax) just isn’t the same.
Smoky Mountains: Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
When the Murphy Branch of the Western North Carolina Railroad opened in the 1800s, it allowed for vigorous commercial trade and a boom in passenger transportation. But rail travel eventually declined as automobile travel became commonplace.
Today, known as the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, this curvy stretch is traveled via various vintage train cars from across the country, offering rail and history buffs a chance to ride more than 50 miles of track and revel in the natural grandeur of the southern corner of the Appalachians.
Running year-round, the full-gauge railroad offers passengers adventures that celebrate each season. When spring break is in full swing, visitors can opt for the Nantahala Gorge excursion, departing from the Bryson City depot. The trip, just under five hours, takes you along the Nantahala River, past wildflowers in abundant bloom and verdant budding forests where wildlife includes hundreds of bird species as well as red wolves, black bears and elk.
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If you’re considering riding the train, note that you have options. Along with standard coach, you can select a leisurely journey in a plush, first-class vintage lounge or dining car that includes lunch and cocktails. However, if you’d rather experience a more in-your-face ride, with the breeze whirling through your hair and the sounds of the flowing river in your ears, then the open-air gondola car might be just the ticket.
Back at the Bryson City depot, you’ll find the Smoky Mountain Trains museum. Engaging adults and kids alike, the museum boasts a massive Lionel model train collection, some pieces dating to the early 1900s, as well as an area just for children and a realistic train layout nearly the size of a basketball court. Entry to the museum is included with the purchase of a train ticket.
In addition to the highly touted fall foliage rides, seasonal Tuckasegee River excursions and family events such as Peanuts Pumpkin Patch Express and Easter Beagle Express, Great Smoky Mountain Railroad offers group excursions, BBQ & Brews dinner trains during summer months, Jim Henson’s Dinosaur Train and the wildly popular holiday Polar Express.
226 Everett St., Bryson City, N.C. 1-800-872-4681, www.gsmr.com.
Georgia: SAM Shortline Excursion Train
You might not expect a train ride through southwest Georgia to offer insight into how it is to live in Papua, New Guinea, or what the inside of a school house in Africa feels like. But chances are you would expect to see the boyhood home of the 39th president, Jimmy Carter. A ride on the SAM Shortline Excursion Train nets you all three — and more.
Originally known as the Savannah, Americus and Montgomery Railroad and running from Georgia to Alabama in the 1880s, the SAM Shortline is now like a rolling state park through Crisp and Sumter counties.
Made up of historic cars that include Budd stainless sleepers transformed into climate-controlled coaches, the line offers slightly different trips, depending on which days you travel. Select the Watermelon Express train ride and your journey begins east at the depot in Cordele, which bills itself as the Watermelon Capital of the World, and winds its way west, ending at Plains, where you can spend time making your way around the top-notch Jimmy Carter State Historic Site.
In Plains, you can take a self-guided tour of the train depot-turned-museum that served as the 1976 presidential campaign headquarters for Carter. Wear comfortable shoes, because you’ll want take a walking tour of the Jimmy Carter Boyhood Farm, which transports you back to the 1930s for an opportunity to see what Depression-era life was like in rural Georgia. When you’re done, hop back on the SAM, relax, and enjoy the ride through gentle hills on the way to Cordele.
If you’re a car buff, consider the spring excursion to the Plains Car Show in early April. Board the train at Veterans State Park, pass over Lake Blackshear and through Americus, and then stretch your legs during a short layover in Archery, where you can have a look at Carter’s boyhood home before your final stop in Plains for the show.
The Americus Adventure ride chugs through Georgia Veterans State Park and on to Americus, home of Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village and Discovery Center. There, visitors can experience a life-size re-creation of poverty housing along with a variety of Habitat for Humanity house styles from more than a dozen countries.
SAM provides climate-controlled coach seating with padded bench seats as well as premium Americus Car seating that offers tables and chairs; the Samuel Hawkins Car is available for those wanting a lounge. Food is available to purchase on the trains. Passengers with wheelchairs will find a chair lift at each boarding platform, but let the reservation agent know your needs when booking a trip.
105 E. 9th Ave., Cordele. 229-276-0755, www.samshortline.com.
Chattanooga: Incline Railway Bottom Station
Since you’re no longer likely to be chased by a passel of gun-toting outlaws, riding a train doesn’t usually bring to mind a thrill ride. However, a ride to the top of Lookout Mountain on the trolley-style Incline Railway — one of the oldest attractions in Chattanooga — will get your heart pumping and your eyes popping. They call it “America’s most amazing ride.”
Established in 1895, the Incline Railway cuts through Lookout Mountain at an amazing, straight-up 72.7 percent grade, allowing for views of the lush surroundings as well as panoramic vistas of Chattanooga from the climate-controlled train outfitted with plenty of observation windows.
Once you reach the top of Lookout Mountain, make time to wander among Civil War points of interest. The round trip takes about an hour, but there are plenty of activities if you add Ruby Falls and Rock City to your visit. Both sites offer special events throughout the year. Spring brings Fairytale Nights, Earth Days and Southern Blooms at Rock City, while Racin’ at Ruby celebrates NASCAR. And music fills the air at Incline and Rock City through the summer months.
3917 St. Elmo Ave., Chattanooga. 423-821-9056, www.lookoutmountain.com.
Napa, Calif.: Napa Valley Wine Train
Nowhere is the flavor of luxurious European travel more evident stateside than on board the train that meanders through the rolling vineyards and past the venerable wineries of Napa Valley.
Turning out wines as good or better than some French vintages, Napa Valley easily earns its reputation as a premier food and wine destination. And the elegant Napa Valley Wine Train, with its beautifully renovated turn-of-the-century heavyweight Pullman cars and mid-century Vista Dome car, offers passengers a three-hour, 36-mile round-trip ride from the city of Napa to St. Helena and back.
The wine train presents passengers with options galore year-round. You can select from various lunch or dinner jaunts with meals prepared in the train’s kitchens, as well as vacation packages that include hot air balloon rides. And, naturally, you’ll want to include a tour of one of the well-known local wineries, including Domaine Chandon and the popular Grgich Hills.
But hardcore rail buffs might want to spend the afternoon riding the short-line railroad with the crew in a historic Canadian FPA-4 ALCO engine. Don’t wear your good duds; this is the real deal.
1275 McKinstry St., Napa, Calif. 1-800-427-4124, www.winetrain.com.
Vancouver, B.C.: Amtrak Cascades
If the chance to spy bald eagles overhead and Canadian geese in the water below as Pacific Northwest scenery rolls by sounds like an ideal way to while away four hours from Seattle to Vancouver, look no further than Amtrak Cascades. This train trip provides an excellent family vacation without the added stress of flying or driving.
The Pacific Northwest leg of the Cascades leaves from the newly renovated, historic King Street Station in downtown Seattle and takes you to British Columbia in refurbished European-style train cars. Book business class seats for added comfort, more leg room — and fewer passengers. Once boarded and settled, you can wander to the bistro car for a casual meal and a micro brew or some of Seattle’s famed java.
In the wheelchair-accessible lounge car you can enjoy a book, a bite to eat or a rousing video game — with headphones, please. These seats come with outlets so that you can keep your electronic devices juiced up during the trip.
The ride ends at the Pacific Central Station in downtown Vancouver, where passengers will pass through Canadian customs, so make sure that each member of your group has the appropriate documents. Adults must have a passport and children under 16 need a certified birth certificate copy.
King Street Station, 303 S. Jackson St., Seattle. 1-800-872-7245, www.amtrakcascades.com.
Orlando, Fla.: Hogwarts Express at Universal Orlando Resort
When it comes to train travel and fantasy, the Hogwarts Express is pretty much the end-all, be-all for Harry Potter fans. And this summer visitors to Universal Orlando Resort will get a dose of reality when they board the legendary train in a new ride that allows them to travel between two gated theme parks. Guests will be able to ride the rails between Universal Studios, home of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley, and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Hogsmeade, which opened in 2010. The new Diagon Alley attraction boasts a ride (Escape From Gringotts) a restaurant (Leaky Cauldron), ice cream parlor and themed shops.
6000 Universal Blvd., Orlando. 1-954-558-1784, www.universalorlando.com.
Florida: Seminole Gulf Railway Murder Mystery Dinner Train
Whether you’re fascinated by railroads or an admirer of an old-fashioned whodunit, your needs will be well met on this killer ride, which combines fine dining and 20 miles of an authentic working freight rail line with a good dose of comedic talent.
You can play along and try to guess who committed the crime while attending to your five-course meal (the menu changes monthly) in one of the elegant dining cars, or simply sip on your Murderous Margarita, nibble a freshly baked roll and enjoy the show, without having to mind the details.
Each white linen-dressed table seats four, and prepaid advance reservations are a must. The train runs throughout the year. Each jaunt takes a little over three hours, but the Murder Mystery Dinner Train offers special events around various holidays that run a bit longer.
Colonial Station Depot, 2805 Colonial Blvd., Fort Myers, Fla. 1-800-736-4853, www.semgulf.com.