Trains....for most they are simply a point-A to point-B proposition. A means to an end. A nearly extinct mode of transportation, called upon only when a car or airplane is otherwise unavailable. Few would choose to ride the rails just for the fun of it, but each and every passenger aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train does just that. Their journey from point-A to point-A is one willfully taken and paid for. Of course, the combination of a spectacular view, gourmet meal, and yes, plenty of wine, all tends to have that effect on people.
|Anything called Le Gourmet Express has to be good...|
The wine train takes guests on a three hour journey through the picturesque landscape of Napa Valley, aboard fully restored dining cars which date to the early and mid-1900s. The railway which the wine train uses dates to the 1860's, and was previously used to transport guests to the resort town of Calistoga and the healing waters of its hot springs. Today, the route begins in downtown Napa, wanders through the vineyards and tiny town of Yountville, before turning around in St. Helena for the return journey.
|The view for much of the ride...|
We booked the wine train for our first day in Napa Valley; the idea of a nice relaxing ride paired with a four course lunch, seemed like the perfect way to begin our visit. A sense of dread washed over me, however, at the sight which greeted us upon arriving at the train station. Tour busses...two of them. The kind which dot the interstates of Florida, transporting droves of retirees to casinos and their nickel slots. As if reading my mind, MJ took the opportunity to remind me that this was a "wine" train. Relief would come soon enough...
|Of course, by "relief" she really meant this...|
While we waited for the train to arrive, and our fellow passengers set to hoarding the free samples of Merlot, we killed a little time by visiting the wine shop. Our meal on board the train only included a glass of sparkling wine, so we decided to pick up a bottle to enjoy throughout the journey. We went with an old favorite - Chateau Montelena Chardonnay - which was pretty fairly priced considering we were a captive audience at a tourist attraction.
We reserved our ride in the Vista Dome car, who's elevated seating and domed windows was said to offer the best panorama of the passing landscape. There are two other options for dining aboard the train: the "Gourmet Express" and the "Silverado BBQ." Both were appealing in their own way, but the view from the Vista Dome was an easy sell.
|Our booth in the Vista Dome|
After settling into the cozy booth, our server brought the glasses of sparkling wine, and put the bottle of Chateau Montelena on ice. We shared a toast as the train slowly pulled away from the station, watching as the scenery changed from the narrow streets of Napa to a seemingly endless expanse of vines.
|More of the view...|
A short while later, it was time for the main event...lunch. It couldn't have come at a better moment, since I had worked up quite an appetite in my fully relaxed state.
|MJ's Tomato Soup|
|The shrimp and scallop appetizer. Yes, that's salmon roe on a train...|
|Rarely can you go wrong with Beef Tenderloin|
Toward the end the main course, our server let us know that the air conditioning in our half of the Vista Dome car had stopped working. She warned that it could get a little hot, and invited us to take our dessert in the adjacent lounge car where there were two seats reserved for us. We had just come to a stop in St. Helena, so we took this as a perfect opportunity to explore the rest of the train...
|Practicing for my very own "Whistle Stop Tour"|
|MJ waving to her adoring fans...|
Just as the server had warned, when we returned to the Vista Dome car our section was a little steamy. So we put in our dessert order and headed to the more comfortable confines of the lounge car. We sat down just as the engine passed by to hook up on the opposite end of the train for our return to Napa.
|The engine passing by to take us home...|
While I know many would have kicked up a giant fuss over being moved out of the Vista Dome, I actually liked the lounge car quite a bit better. The swivel chairs were incredibly comfortable, and it was nice having a different perspective on the passing landscape. Not to mention that right about now, most of our fellow passengers were into their second or fifth glass of wine, so we became fast friends with a few of the tour bus crowd.
|MJ had a pleasant trip back to Napa...|
The return to downtown Napa seemed to pass quite a bit faster than the outbound leg of the journey. You wouldn't have guessed that, however, given the grumbles from the nickel slots that we returned nearly an hour late. MJ and I were enjoying ourselves too much to notice, although we got off the train just in time. The wine was wearing off, as was my patience for the whine coming from our fellow passengers...
|The creme brulee helped also...|
When it comes to attractions like the wine train, there's two investments that should always be considered: money and time. The wine train was a good value for the price paid, however in my opinion the $139 fare for lunch in the Vista Dome warrants an additional glass of wine with the meal. I realize that alcohol sales probably keep the business afloat, but when you board a wine train you expect there to be more...wine. It also didn't make much sense that there was a $15 corkage fee for a bottle purchased at the their own wine shop.
|The traditional dining car.|
The other investment is that of time. If you are only in Napa for a day or two, I'm not sure that devoting a large chunk of a day to the wine train is the most efficient use of that time. While it is an awesome experience, if you are looking to explore the area, the wine train isn't going to show you much. On the other hand, if you are in Napa for several days like us, then the wine train is a great alternative to yet another day filled with tasting rooms.
|The bar car...This place had potential...|
Easily the biggest highlight of our experience on the wine train was the food. I had read many positive reviews of the meal, but I still came into our visit with pretty low expectations. My theory was the wine train is basically a giant mobile banquet...how good could it really be? As it turns out....insanely good. Each plate was beautifully presented and tasted even better. This food snob was impressed, and that's one thing I didn't expect to say as we disembarked the train.
|So much awesome food...One tiny kitchen.|
In the end, there's one thing that can't be denied about the Napa Valley Wine Train... It is truly a unique experience, and one that is quintessentially Napa Valley. There aren't many places in the world that can attract busloads of tourists for a point-A to point-A train ride, but when you combine incredible scenery, insanely great food, and even a few glasses of wine, it's easy to see why this is one of the most popular attractions in Napa Valley.
If you go...
- Take a bottle of wine
- Visit the lounge car, even if you're in the Vista Dome
- Check out the wine tasting in the bar car
Special thanks to the Napa Valley Wine Train for hosting our experience on board. As always, all opinions, including that of tour groups, are strictly my own.