We were sipping champagne in the club car when a gent in tails sat down at the baby grand to improvise a medley of "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and something reminiscent of "Murder on the Orient Express."
It was a small touch, but it typified our ride on the American-European Express, the ulta-luxurious train that began service last year from Chicago to New York with a stop at Washington, D.C.From the crisp linens to the polished mahogany to the army of stewards in swank uniforms, these people spare no effort to evoke the romance and nostalgia of train travel.
The train suspended operations during January and February. It resumes service March 1 with a consolidated schedule: two trains a week between Chicago and New York, with stops at Indianapolis, White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., Baltimore, Washingon, D.C., Wilmington, Del. and Philadelphia.
A one-way ticket from Chicago to Washington costs $495 per person, based on double occupancy, for the cheapest compartment.
We had scarcely pulled out of Chicago's Union Station - on time at 5:30 p.m. - when the chief steward knocked at our compartment to welcome us aboard, explain the rules (the dress code forbids blue jeans) and invite us to the club car for champagne.
Recognizing that passengers are paying top dollar, the operators of the Express throw in every conceivable amenity. The six-course dinner, wine included, rivaled the best meals we've had at pricey restaurants. Porters hauled our luggage and escorted us through the train station. A steward stopped by to schedule our morning showers and deliver fresh terrycloth bathrobes. The porter who turned down our berths left chocolates on the pillows. Godiva chocolates.
Of course some pleasures of train travel require nothing more than a comfortable seat and a window.
Train travel lets you look right into America's back yard. Outside Warsaw, Ind., I saw a string of cars lined up at a cornfield crossing, waiting for the train to pass so they could be on their way to ... what? A farmhouse hearth? A local tavern? A high school basketball game?
Washing up before bed, I was puzzled by the clackety-clack of the railbed echoing inside our tiny washroom - clear as a bell and louder than in the sleeping compartment. When I drained the sink I realized it emptied directly onto the tracks, creating a wind pipe. The song of the rails rushed directly into the compartment, as musical and rhythmic as Pete Seeger singing a railroad song.
Of course, trains have their drawbacks. Even on a luxury train the quarters are cramped. With the berths folded down in our compartment, there was scarcely room for two people to take off their socks at the same time. And good luck if you need to descend the skinny ladder from the upper berth, in the swaying darkness, for a midnight visit to the water closet.
Morning brought sunshine, the handsome church spires of Cumberland, Md., and another of the pleasures of train travel: mingling with fellow travelers in the dining car.
If we had any complaint about the American-European Express, it's that we felt too spoiled. You can scarcely turn around without bumping into a waiter or a porter or a steward with some new morsel or anecdote. (You're expected to remember the service at the end of the ride, when the chief steward comes around to settle your credit card bill for extra purchases - and tips.)
Breakfast over, we returned to the club car for one more cup of coffee and a glance at the newspaper. Then we had 45 minutes to pack and get ready for the nation's capital.
At 11:04 a.m. we pulled into Washington's Union Station - eight minutes early and as pampered as we'd felt in years.
(Reservations on the American-European Express can be made through travel agents or by calling 1-800-677-4233.