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Luxury travel: back on track.

"In ten minutes something will happen in this dining car that has never occurred before aboard this train. It'll be self-explanatory," said the chef de train, answering a request for a tale of intrigue and romance.

Shortly after, a young couple walked into the 40-seat Zurich Dining Car, a room whose colors are warm and inviting and highlighted by mahogany paneled walls with bird inlays, paintings, and polished brass sconces. The young man resembled a rock star with shoulder-length blond hair and boa constrictor cowboy boots. The woman was more subdued with dark hair and a short black dress.

The chief steward served them a bottle of 1987 Dom Perignon. After toasting the woman, the 27-year-old New Jersey sales representative dropped to one knee and, clutching her hands in his, asked, "Will you, Joy Dorice Guastella, marry me?"

The startled 32-year-old catalog designer answered immediately, "Yes, Karl Schafer, I will marry you." The couple embraced. The chief steward then brought forth a silver platter holding a black velvet case atop Belgian damask linen folded in the shape of a rose. Schafer opened it and removed an $11,000 radiant-cut diamond ring and placed it on her ring finger. In the club car the next morning they drew up the list of guests for their October wedding in a New Jersey museum.

The chic American-European Express (AEE) train, considered by many to be America's most luxurious travel experience, has everything, even intrigue and romance. Twice a week it travels round trip both eastbound and westbound, with New York and Chicago as the terminating points. It stops in Philadelphia; Wilmington, Delaware; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia; Indianapolis, and Chicago.

The train is operated in conjunction with the storied Zurich-based Nostalgie Istanbul Orient Express, which explains the European half of the train's name. Operating since 1977, it runs luxury charter railroad trips twice a year from Paris to Istanbul.

"For the first time in this century, the finest train in the world isn't European. It's American," declares William F. Spann, who masterminded AEE's $15 million creation. The Florida developer is owner and president of American-European Express.

"As a kid, I had a train that ran around the Christmas tree. Like all kids, I had fantasies of the train running out from under the tree and going off to great, exotic places with me being the conductor. Well, this one got out from underneath the Christmas tree," Spann continued.

The Union Pacific Railroad built most of AEE's cars in the 1940s and 50s. At the time Spann bought them for AEE, derelicts and hobos were using many of them as homes. At a cost of more than $1 million each, the cars were gutted and refinished by skilled cabinetmakers and yacht builders in Panama City, Florida.

"Their windows were broken, copper and brass stripped, walls cracked, and doors and floors shattered. In general, they were only reflections of their proud past," Spann says.

Thanks to his efforts, luxury travel has returned to American tracks. "It died in 1967 when the 20th Century Limited ended its run. We've survived as a nation without it, but Americans deserve alternate means of transportation," he says.

This train, which began service in 1989, combines bygone elegance with modern conveniences like air-conditioning, a fax machine, and cellular phones. When you're in the mountains though you might be temporarily beyond technology's range.

Traveling on this train is relaxing. "No one is asked to strap himself into a seat on an American-European Express train," Spann said. "There are no trays to snap into place, no microwaves, no approach patterns, thunderstorms, runway congestion, plastic forks or paper napkins. Instead there are beauty, peace and polish, and time to enjoy it all."

A single journey can accommodate up to 166 passengers and a staff of 22. Each train consists of a locomotive, baggage car, five or six sleeper cars (depending on ridership), two dining cars, a club car, and a parlor lounge/observation car.

If two people are traveling together, detailed negotiations are necessary in the tiny mahogany and marble bedrooms. They contain a toilet and enamel sink, individually controlled air-conditioning and heating, storage space for luggage, and a closet to hang four items.

When the beds are up, you sit facing a wall three feet in front of you. When the bunks are down, one person should stay in bed while the other moves around or uses the bathroom, or there'll be a lot of bumping into each other. Spann calls this "train etiquette" and insists experienced travelers do it automatically.

"If they've known each other a long time, the bedrooms will do," he said. "If they're getting to know each other, they should take the Presidential Suite," which has room to walk around in, or the drawing room, which is a larger bedroom. The Presidential cabin has two single beds on the floor, with a night table between them (the beds fold up to make two sets of facing armchairs by day), a built-in chest of drawers, a small table for writing, with its own chair, and a private shower.

All other travelers shower in a compartment at the foot of each sleeping car. Before retiring for the night, the passenger sets the times with the porter for a wake-up call and a shower. The next morning the porter brings a terrycloth robe and sock slippers. On a table in the shower's dressing area are shampoo, bath oils, and soap. A sign in the shower politely asks travelers to limit their showers to three minutes to conserve water, although there is plenty of hot water.

Bill Andrew, "Mr. Bill," or chef de piano as everyone calls him, plays 1920s to 1940s Gershwin and Cole Porter tunes on the ebony-finished baby grand piano in the St. Moritz club car. "I often play medleys, such as four or five songs with the word moon in them-'By the Light of the Silvery Moon,' 'Blue Moon,' Moon Glow,' Moonlight Becomes You,' " he says. To some rowdy groups he hands out songbooks for rousing after-dinner sing-alongs.

The club car has a midnight blue ceiling with the Milky Way sweeping across it in 23-karat gold leaf. Swiss Alps meet the sky on both sides of the car, creating a majestic mountain scene. An ebony-and-black-granite bar is at one end of the car.

Travelers eat every two hours, beginning with a champagne-and-canape reception when they board. Dinner is a seven-course gourmet meal.

"I don't want people leaving here bloated," said chef William Stepek. I try lighter versions of French cuisine with oriental or California flavors, not rich, heavy, classical French sauces. They're lightened with reductions and not finished with creams." Passengers can request nutritional or special menus when making reservations.

Atop the piano each morning is a continental breakfast of breads baked on the train. Travelers can eat a three-course American breakfast in the dining car and two hours later a delicious lunch there. Settings consist of fine china, oversized silver flatware, and faceted crystal glasses. At a additional charge, passengers can order from an A la carte menu, which includes caviar, pate, small appetizers, and a choice of four entrees. Room service is available, including railroad coffee served by the pot and an hors d'oeuvres plate of caviar, salmon, and pate de foie gras.

The coaches sway back and forth much less than most travelers remember other trains doing. When the restorers rebuilt the coaches, th lead into the floors to baffle sound and add ballast, making the coaches heavier so they ride more smoothly.

Attire aboard the train ranges from formal evening wear to sophisticated business attire. In both the club and dining cars, jackets and ties are required of gentlemen during evening travel. "Black tie is popular among gentlemen for evening service," as a brochure AEE sends to travelers before their trip states.

Children are welcome aboard although an adult must accompany all those under age 16. They must also share a room with an adult when traveling overnight.

Rebecca Yount, a Washington, D.C. psychologist, says AEE "is a great way to travel with a child, because Samra (her three-year-old daughter) can socialize with the other passengers ... We spent at least two hours sitting and watching burgs and rivers go by. We waved to people in front of houses and factories. This is what much of America looks like, small towns and farms," Yount said.

Repeat passenger Alan Demovsky, who owns a legal service in New York, calls the train "the nicest one in the country, that's for sure. This is a train for people who love trains. I'm almost a little embarrassed. I don't like to be pampered so much. You leave your luggage in the office when you check in and it's in your room when you get on. No schlepping luggage around. This has almost the feeling of a cruise ship. It's nice to have a train like this for people who can afford it."

A trip on the American-European Express is not inexpensive. The most expensive option is $984 (1,154 miles from New York to Chicago in the Presidential cabin). AEE says traveling with them is less than the combined cost of coach airfare between New York and Chicago, a night in a fine hotel, comparable meals, and ground transportation. AEE's fares include all meals, wine with dinner, a champagne and hors d'oeuvres reception and onboard gratuities. But it is customary for porters to receive cash tips, which generally range from $10 to $100, as a pamphlet from AEE states.

As the train crept into Washington, D.C. one and a half hours late (but who cared) and passed the Washington Monument and the Capitol, Mr. Bill played "America the Beautiful." It was a nice final touch.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:train travel, American-European Express
Author:Crowley, Carolyn Hughes
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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