On track for dinner
by Tara Sanderson

All aboard...The whistle blows as a wisp of steam billows into the crisp air. With a chug, the engine starts the Cascadian Dinner Train a rolling down the old, rickety railroad tracks leaving from Elbe, Washington.

The 1920's steam engine passenger train sways to the musical clickety-clack sounds from the tracks as it slowly travels the foothills of Mt. Ranier. Bright Fall colors reflected in Alder Lake are splendid as the train pauses to change course away from the temporarily broken tracks leading to Eatonville.

Through lush forests filled with ferns, streams and tiny waterfalls, the train follows the tracks back past Elbe and up to the shimmery Mineral Lake. Along the way, a herd of elk nibble on the tall, dewy grass in a nearby field, paying no mind to the vintage train passing before them.

Passengers relax and sip on cocktails as they enjoy the four-hour railroad excursion, anxiously awaiting the five-course meal to come. The train stops briefly on an old bridge over a flowing river to add more water for the steam. From the bridge, Mt Ranier waits, proudly revealing the indentation behind its peak which one assumes is a crater.

Inside the lounge car live entertainment sets the mood as the train continues its course. Aromas from the kitchen tease a hungry stomach and increase anticipation on the only steam powered dinner train west of the Mississippi where the food is entirely prepared on board.

The conductor announces dinner and the passengers make their way to the dining car. A fresh vegetable tray adorns each table in a pre-selected seating arrangement. Second course arrives momentarily with tossed green salad and tangy shrimp cocktail.

Each table is positioned by a window, allowing diners to continue to enjoy the ever-changing scenery while savoring their meals. The delectable main-course is served with a baked potato and a choice of mouthwatering prime rib, grilled salmon or ground ostrich steak. The meal is completed with dessert and coffee or tea.

After dinner, the train stops at Mineral Lake for folks to stretch out and take a stroll down to the lake. A whistle calls all passengers back as once again steam powers the locomotive on.

Harmonious melodies continue to add ambiance as the entertainer sings behind the voices of various conversations. Outside, the sun is setting creating calming shadows across the natural setting. Riders on horseback stop by the tracks, waving as the train passes.

"Yes!," a little boy shouts from his seat as he victoriously beats his father in a game of memory, others laugh joyously over a joke only heard by their ears. A couple cuddles, gazing out the window and chatting softly, while still others travel from car to car, appreciating each for its uniqueness. Towards the caboose, one passenger car stands open, allowing the brisk wind to caress a chilled cheek as smokers inhale their cigarettes.

Although each passenger shared the ride, each took away a different special memory. Couples looking for romance, friends enjoying a day together and families celebrating birthdays all take pleasure in the memorable experience of the once forgotten sounds of a steam locomotive.

For some, the end of the ride would complete the train experience. For others, it would signify just the beginning. While passengers climbed into their cars to head home, others walked into the Mt. Ranier Dining Company to pick up their key for a night's stay at the Hobo Inn, old boxcars converted into hotel rooms, and breakfast in the morning.

Once in the room at the Hobo Inn, you have to laugh at the goofy framed painting of an old hobo beside the bed. The rustic car shakes a bit as a big truck passes and you smile, telling yourself this is an experience. After all, not everyone can say they've slept in an old boxcar.

The Cascadian Dinner Train runs in partnership with the Mt. Ranier Scenic Railroad Steam Train Adventure, The Mt. Ranier Dining Company and The Hobo Inn.

The fare for the four-hour Dinner Train is $55 per person. The Dinner Train, Hobo Inn and breakfast package is $200 per couple. The one and one-half hour trip aboard the Scenic Railroad Steam Train Adventure is $9.50 for adults, $8.50 for seniors, $7.50 for juniors (12 to 17) and $6.50 for children under 12.

For reservations aboard the Mt. Ranier Cascadian Dinner Train call, 1-888-RR-DINER.

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