Friday, July 11, 2008

A grand introduction to the GrandLuxe

So today is the day, the day we’ve been waiting for. We need to repack our bags, attach the pink tags, hand them in at the GrandLuxe reception and commence our American train journey adventure. GrandLuxe Rail Journeys is the new name for the American Orient Express. They had two reasons to change their name, firstly they were keen to offer trips beyond America and felt their current name precluded that and secondly, and probably slightly more imperative, the Orient Express Company much famed for hanging around Venice, wanted their name back rather urgently! The train is comprised of 1930’s restored carriages and will be our home for the next week. We have received our itinerary for today and there’s the check-in, followed by local inspired light lunch and then an orientation meeting. We had a latish brunch so weren’t inclined to partake in a little chilli sprinkled repast so thought we’d wait for the orientation meeting.

I had a slight foreboding that our first meeting would be a series of rules that we had to abide by and curiously our table companions (J and S from Dallas) were in a similar mind. Tash one of our tour leaders asks us to pack our ‘flexibility pants’ which sounds like some sort of reinforced knickers but turns out to be precognitive advice to be prepared for the unexpected!

It’s not all admonishments thankfully and the dire warning about not wearing high or open toed shoes on the train are slightly distilled which I am grateful for as I seem to be mysteriously wearing high heeled strappy sandals – whoops!

After a short coach ride we arrive at our shiny blue and gold train for the first time. We are escorted to our carriage with is Santa Fe (curiously the nearest we ever got to Santa Fe) and are met by Becky our butler for the week. We spend the next hour or so squirreling away our worldly possessions in every little cubby-hole we discover in our cabin before changing for dinner. We are delighted to discover the GrandLuxe cabin is of more generous proportions than their European cousins and we have our own en suite facilities – oh joy!

The vintage carriages of our train were assembled from museums and private collections throughout America and elegantly refurbished in mahogany enhanced with delicate marquetry, polished brass and heavily embroidered overstuffed lounging chairs and all the mod cons of plumbing, air con and safety features. Though possibly a little too much air-con! We have a full consist of twenty-one splendid carriages and apparently three Amtrak engines pulling and pushing all that tonnage. The train length is 1/3 of a mile so we may have to disembark at slightly less salubrious stations due to our impressive size.

It is not required to ‘dress for dinner’ as the attire is a little more casual on this version of the luxury train but I need very little encouragement and decide that I will start as I mean to go on with a smattering of sequins and just a soupçon of bling. Well any excuse really!

We make are tottering way to the bar carriage, Mark our genial mein host offers us the first of many glasses of bubbly. I ask if he happens to have packed any Chambord which thankfully he has so we decide to introduce the delights of Kir Imperials to our fellow travellers (DD are you not proud?) The bar car is Seattle and wittily has a painted frieze of blue sky turning to black clouds (I'm assured that is very Seattle) and then the indigo inky night sky shimmering with golden stars and adorned with more brass and walnut.

We are ensconced in our armchairs clutching our Kirs and listening to Bonnie, the resident pianist tinkling the ivories with a couple of show tunes waiting for our dinner sitting to start. We opted for the later sitting so we can linger over our meal if so desired. Whilst savouring the canapés one of the waiters Chad enters the bar car with a flourish touting for business. He sweeps us up as well as the two elegant ladies sat opposite us and suggests that we all share a table in Zurich. We make our way through the Chicago dining car and try to anticipate our dinner delights. Chad seats us at our linen clad table dripping in blue and gold china, crystal, swaths us in more linen and brings us our menus. Now the gourmet dining commences!

Our appetizer is Pan Seared Scallops finished with fresh Cilantro Aioli. Now this is more like it! A perfectly plump silky scallop tinged from the pan searing with a delicate coriander spiked garlicky dressing, and I’m not even a fan of coriander. We are in safe hands here.

I have to pass on the soup of Roasted Roma Tomato garnished with Chives but every one assures me that it is very fine indeed and looks rather fetching in its tureen.

The salad is Organic Mixed Greens composed with Shaved Red Onions, Maytag Bleu Cheese, candied Pecans and a Raspberry Vinaigrette, there’s not enough blue cheese to distress me unduly and the deep, fruity dressing is rather lovely with the crunchy leaves. It seems that we’re all enjoying the meal and we get to find out about our wonderful dining companions Miss MJ and Miss E from Dallas. They are exactly the sort of people I hoped we’d meet on this trip, fabulous ladies who enjoy a good feast (even if they have to be half portions to cope) and a touch of feisty southern belle to boot.

We are having such an entertaining time we almost forget than Chad is still plying us with delectable food.

For the main course we have a choice of three, Wild Rice Stuffed Cornish Game Hen, Seafood Stuffed Halibut served with steamed Citrus Jasmine Rice or my choice the succulent Beef with Parmesan-Herb Crushed Potatoes, sautéed Asparagus, then finished with a Red Wine Demi-Glace. I might have wanted my demi-glace to have been a little more reduced but that could possibly be my fault for diluting it by asking for rare beef. It’s a great pepper crusted taste though and flying all this way means that to my delight asparagus is back in season again.

The desserts are Vanilla Bean Cheesecake sitting on orange jus topped with candied orange peel, French Crepes filled with a Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse served with Crème Anglaise or simply a plate of Seasonal Fresh Fruit. I plump for the crepes, just a tad fluffier than I'd make but then I always make savoury ones so the thicker consistency goes very well with the moussey filling, the crunchy chocolate bits and the plump raspberries.

We had been fabulously fed, splendidly served and Miss MJ and Miss E assure that breakfast is another treat in store. Being 'Golden Railers' they are well versed to the pleasures of GrandLuxe travel and give us the low down on what wonderfulness we can expect from the next week.
Let the journey begin!

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