By Nancy Stephens
Ever experienced the thrill of a train trip? Has your blood pressure accelerated just imagining what it would be like? Such was the excitement my husband and I experienced for the mid-January to mid-February visit with our Montana family.
When our son asked us to care for our two small grandchildren during his military training school, this was the perfect time for the Amtrak train trip we'd been wanting to take.
Knowing it would take us 40 hours to travel from Champaign to Whitefish, Mont., we wanted a small sleeper compartment (they are called "roomettes"). This was ideal since at our "senior" age we knew we didn't want to sit upright in coach all those hours. The superliner roomette was 3-1/2 by 6-1/2 feet. By booking a roomette, we were afforded "first-class" status. This gave each of us two bags checked round-trip at no charge as well as two (very small) carry-on bags, Red Cap service, access to the Metro Lounge during layover time at Union Station in Chicago, our roomette, all meals including beverages, and many extras on-board. With the "senior" rate, one can estimate this trip around $1,300 for two. We found this to be most reasonable for all it included.
After boarding the City of New Orleans train at the Illinois Terminal in Champaign in the early morning, it was but a three-hour ride to Union Station in Chicago. During our layover, we explored the beautiful Great Hall in Union Station, walked outside to view the Sears/Willis Tower just two blocks away, and enjoyed lunch at the upstairs food court as well as complimentary snacks and beverages in the Metro Lounge.
At departure time, we were met by our compartment attendant for the duration of our trip. She was a joy, entertained us all the way and gave excellent attention and service (tipping is optional). Our roomette was small but adequate and not at all claustrophobic. It was most comfortable with a large window for viewing the countryside, plush facing seats that turned into a bed for sleeping and a pull-down bunk overhead for the second passenger, a small folding table, and adequate lighting for reading. Restroom facilities were just down the hall, and a full-size shower and another restroom were just a few steps down the stairs to the lower level.
Riding through downtown Chicago and seeing the Chicago River was an excellent beginning for our voyage. We entered Wisconsin at sunset and in time for our first meal aboard. The dining room attendant had greeted us at our compartment soon after we boarded to make arrangements for our assigned dining time.
Breakfast and lunch were served during designated hours, and passengers made their way to the dining car at their leisure. At each meal, guests were seated at tables for four so we enjoyed different tablemates. Meals were good and selections varied. Tipping is optional but encouraged.
A cafe car and lounge were available to all passengers to purchase food, beverages and snacks. Coach riders could purchase meals in the dining car also. The glass observation car was available to everyone for viewing the countryside, and food and drinks could be consumed there also.
Stops to board and detrain passengers were numerous along the way and each station stop was different in duration. Since the train was nonsmoking, smokers were allowed to detrain when a stop was 20 minutes or more at a designated station. Several short stops were to let trains pass.
A brochure in our compartment provided times of arrival and miles traveled. Another brochure explained what we were seeing along the way, which gave us delightful anticipation. It seemed as though we were gliding on air as the ride was very smooth.
After our attendant prepared the compartment for sleeping, we chose to observe the lights of the passing towns and station stops until sleep consumed us. During the night, we passed through the remainder of Wisconsin and Minnesota and most of North Dakota. We awoke to a beautiful day with lots to see along the route. We enjoyed three delicious meals with pleasant tablemates and gorgeous sights until darkness overcame us with another four hours to our destination.
It was dark when we traveled through Glacier National Park, but the lights of the train gave us fleeting glimpses of the trees heavy with new snow. It was breathtaking! As we pulled into the Whitefish station, we were filled with excitement to see our young grandchildren and their mother who were awaiting our arrival. What joy seeing their faces after almost 10 months! They live in the small town of Big Fork, Mont., near the Flathead Lake about 45 minutes south, so the drive gave us time to get reacquainted with the little ones.
Whitefish is a popular destination all seasons of the year since it is near Glacier National Park — hiking, picnicking, wildlife and glacier viewing in the warm months and winter sports when it is cold. Snow sports are most popular, with Whitefish Mountain Resort a short drive from downtown. Free parking areas are available with free shuttle buses going up the mountain several times daily. We took advantage of this service to watch the skiers and snowboarders while enjoying a cup of hot cocoa and a delectable dessert.
Shops afford guests a variety of selections for ski equipment and clothing. Downtown Whitefish is a haven for cozy coffee shops, interesting specialty stores, and mountain gifts.
Restaurants and good lodging can be found everywhere at reasonable prices. With so many offerings, it is hard to decide just what to do in the time available. During this visit, we enjoyed a two-horse open sleigh ride. On a previous visit, we chose a dogsled ride. With Glacier National Park nearby, one would be foolish not to plan time there also.
During this 30-day visit with family, we celebrated our grandson's third birthday and our granddaughter's second. What fun! And my husband was honored to present our son with his next military rank.
However, the time arrived for our return home. It was time for hugs and another tearful parting.
Beginning our ride early in the morning afforded us a full day of sightseeing and what we had missed passing through when it was dark. One cannot describe the magnificence of Glacier National Park with its snow-capped mountains looking like a frosted layer cake, flowing streams and overall beauty. Wildlife, even during winter, venture out to be seen — wolves, deer, elk, coyotes, eagles, antelope.
Crossing into North Dakota at Williston at nightfall, we found ourselves in rich oil country. After another day of delicious meals, interesting tablemates, wonderful scenery and a restful night's sleep, we awoke as we arrived in Minneapolis. After stopping for fuel and water for the train and a stretch for the passengers, we were on our way again to Hastings.
We crossed the Mississippi River and the Vermilion River, and as we approached Lake Pepin, the winter home of bald eagles, we were in awe of about a hundred of them feeding in the water nearby. We were enjoying lunch as we crossed into Wisconsin, seeing the Dells, Portage and Milwaukee, where we could view the Miller Brewery.
Soon we crossed into Illinois, and Union Station welcomed us back to the Windy City. After a few hours' layover, we boarded the City of New Orleans back to Champaign, where we were met by family for our drive home.
Nancy Stephens is a Danville resident.