By Tammy Kennon, Special for USA Today
NAPA, Calif. — In our hurry-up age of jet travel and road rage, sometimes an ambling ride through the countryside can be a balm for the soul. Add a gourmet meal, a bottle of wine and a vintage train, and you’ve got the perfect travel day.
These were the thoughts clickety-clacking around in my head as the Napa Valley Wine Train pulled out of the station on a lovely November day.
My ride was a mobile railroad museum, a flashy burgundy-and-gold number running on tracks laid in 1864 and powered by locomotives built in Canada in the 1950s. The 100-year-old Pullman passenger cars sport mahogany paneling with plush seats that conjure the era of 1920s first-class rail travel. And then, of course, there’s that train whistle.
The wine train’s appeal is so strong, it creates a bit of a problem for at least one person, executive chef Kelly MacDonald.
“My biggest competition is the train,” says Chef MacDonald. And he does not take that competition lightly.
“The stigma is that it’s touristy,” he said. “But, we’re really a fine dining restaurant that happens to be on wheels.”
Chef MacDonald talks faster than a locomotive about his passion: food. Emoting about locally sourced ingredients and sustainably raised meats, he describes the walnuts on his baby lettuce salad. He gets them California-fresh, blanches them to take away some of the tannins and then candies them himself. The goat cheese on that same salad comes from a small farmstead in the Valley where they grow their own grain.
“For me it was a product that was so special that I wanted to do something to it once it came into our house, our kitchen,” he said.
He gives the fresh goat cheese a light smoking with apple wood that comes from locals who call him up when they’re trimming their trees.
“That’s what Napa Valley means to me,” he said. “You put your own stamp on something already so beautiful. You just want to add to it.”
Along with the fresh ingredients and made-to-order dishes come the chef’s wine-pairing recommendations. The wine list, about 40 strong by the bottle and glass, features mostly Napa wines, many from the vineyards that unfold outside the train’s windows.
The soups and desserts (including a perfectly executed crème brûlée) are made in advance, but everything else gets cooked to order in the moving kitchen, a long narrow car that gives new meaning to the term “line cook.” The kitchen runs along one side of the car, and the other is a hallway with windows, an unusual feature that allows passengers the run of the entire train and a chance to watch the action – a lot of it – as dishes are prepared for as many as 125 guests, all seated at the same time.
On that clear November day when I was aboard, the train chugged out of the station and meandered north at a civilized 18 mph. Graceful Napa Valley, known worldwide for its production of world class wines, should also be known for its sheer eye appeal. Lying nestled between two forested mountain ranges, the valley remains largely undeveloped despite its close proximity to San Francisco.
At only 30 miles long, the Napa Valley is one of the smallest wine-growing regions in the world, but its wineries, about 400 of them, churn out more than 9 million cases of wine annually. Humans and nature have reached a rare détente in Napa Valley, both offering their best efforts to ennoble the other. The mountains flanking the Valley have a smattering of houses but retain their forest cover and jagged Palisades. The grapevines have the run of the valley floor, 45,000 acres of sprawling vineyards stretching in orderly rows.
Each season is as striking as the last. In summer, the grapevines wave their green leafy arms overhead and roses at the ends of the rows bloom in the many colors of wine — soft Chard yellow, delicate peachy blush and deep Cabernet. In the fall, the acres of grape leaves turn a daring gold, the trees a tapestry of crimson and amber, and the air grows ripe with the tantalizing aroma of grapes going about their business. Winter lays bare the genius of the vineyard workers, exposing complicated trellis systems and intricate manipulation of vines. March sprinkles in the happy orange of California poppies as the vines begin to awaken, known as bud break, and the annual circle of life starts another turn.
This bucolic, ever-changing tableau plays in full color as the wine train meanders its way halfway up the Valley to the tiny burg of St. Helena and then heads back, taking a lolling three hours to cover 36 miles.
Half the trip takes place in the dining car and the other in the lounge car, leaving lots of time for sipping wine in the tasting car, watching the kitchen at work or standing on the rear platform toasting the open-air view of Napa Valley.
And at the end of the line, what remains is a full belly, an empty bottle, a restful mind, a perfect day.
If you go
The Wine Train runs year-round. Check the website for specifics. All menus offer California cuisine cooked onboard. Several dining packages are available, including winery tours or Vista Dome dining in the dramatic observation car built in 1952 with an exclusive menu and dedicated kitchen.
Dining packages start at $124 per person. Make reservations online at winetrain.com.
MORE DINNER TRAIN OPTIONS
Royal Gorge Route
Cañon City, Colo.
Talk about a dramatic setting: snaking through Colorado’s grand canyon, a 1,000-foot-deep granite crevasse known as the Royal Gorge. The train ride begins and ends at the depot in Cañon City, about 45 miles southwest of Colorado Springs, and traces the path of the river on tracks laid in the 1880s.
An open-air car allows for the full impact of the cliffs towering overhead, the raging river rapids – and often rafters. You might also spot some of Colorado’s famous residents: bighorn sheep, bald eagles and blue herons.
Train service through the canyon runs March through December with a few special-occasion runs such as Mother’s Day and Christmas. Beginning in 2016, the train will run year-round. Dining options include breakfast, bistro-style lunch and a menu for young riders. Entrees are in the $10-15 range. Dinner (8 and older), $115 per person, has the most extensive menu along with suggested wine pairings from executive chef Jeremy Garnett. All menus feature local and organic ingredients.
The lounge has a full bar that includes local wines and microbrews, featuring Royal Gorge Route Rogue, an English IPA brewed for the train by San Luis Valley Brewing Co. More information: royalgorge2.wpengine.com
Essex Clipper Dinner Train
The Essex Clipper Dinner Train traverses the lush and lovely Connecticut River Valley, a 2.5-hour journey, in restored 1920s Pullman cars under the power of vintage diesel locomotives built in the 1940s. The onboard kitchen, built for the U.S. Army in 1953 and restored in the 1980s, lays out a four-course gourmet meal.
If you prefer a palette of gold, orange and flaming red, plan to ride when the fall foliage puts on its annual fall extravaganza.
The dinner train runs on weekends May through October and packages start at $80 per person for a four-course meal with a choice of five entrees. The Essex keeps a busy special event schedule, including some tailored for children. More information: essexsteamtrain.com
Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
Bryson City, N.C.
For an up-close look at the stunning mountains in western North Carolina, try the Nantahala Gorge Excursion on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. The 4.5-hour ride starts with a little bluegrass at the station in Bryson City and then rolls along the Little Tennessee River. On the 44-mile ride to the dramatic Nantahala Gorge, the train traverses the 100-foot-high Trellis Bridge over Fontana Lake before entering the gorge. Western North Carolina is home to more than 125 varieties of trees, which burst into a tapestry of color in the fall.
The Nantahala Gorge Excursion runs March through December. First-class tickets, which include a meal, start at $94 for adults, with reduced prices for children. The menu has a decidedly Southern flare, featuring pot roast and pulled-pork barbecue. A children’s menu includes hot dogs and chicken tenders. More information: gsmr.com