One of the perks of living in Montana is not having to depend on public transportation — that is, until you want an adventure that can only come from public transportation.
Last spring, I struggled to think of a family vacation that would be affordable and fun for the entire family. We thought about driving to the desert, but that’s a two-day car ride one way. After careful consideration, we came up with the idea of taking the Amtrak train out to the West Coast.
I’ve always had romantic visions of the sleeper and dining cars of train travel — gazing out the large panoramic windows while enjoying a gourmet meal with linen table clothes and a glass of wine; retiring to a private sleeper cabin to be rocked asleep; and finally waking at my destination, fully refreshed and ready to tackle a day of sightseeing, museums and trendy restaurants.
In my quest to fulfill this nostalgic experience, I had to overcome some logistics and plan a trip that not only I would enjoy, but one that my husband and our two young kids would as well. Our kids are five and eight, so a city destination of quiet museums and fancy restaurants would have to wait.
Amtrak travels along the Montana Hi-Line, departing from 12 small towns — including Malta, Havre, East Glacier and Whitefish — with destinations of Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Vancouver, British Columbia, and many stops down through California.
Our plan was to take the train to Portland and rent a car to get to our final destination: the Oregon coast.
After perusing the Amtrak route map, we decided the closest departure "city" was Havre, a 4½ hour drive from Livingston. But we knew it would be worth it.
And was it worth it? You BET!
The train was an overnighter, so we reserved the family sleeper cabin, large enough for four people. We boarded it in Havre at 5 p.m. and arrived at the beautiful Portland Union Station the next day at 11 a.m.
Upon boarding, we were greeted by incredibly friendly porters and staff. Each train car has an attendant similar to a hotel concierge. They helped us get our luggage settled and made our dinner reservation for the dining car.
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While we were out at dinner, they transformed our cabin from a comfortable sitting area to inviting, turned-down beds with clean linens. The shared bathrooms are just like an airplane bathroom and were down the hall from our cabin. To my surprise, there was even a small shower with clean towels. In the morning, there was fresh coffee and juice to be enjoyed in our cabin.
We had some time to relax before our dinner reservation, so we were eager to check out the domed viewing car. There is a café/lounge car where you can purchase beer, wine and spirits to take to the dome car, your cabin or your seat. However, when we were packing for the trip, we didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t want to be unprepared, so I threw in a nice bottle of wine, a few Maker’s Mark minis, some juice and snacks for the kids, and my plastic picnic wine glasses.
The beauty of train travel is that you can pretty much pack the kitchen sink if you want to. There are no liquid limitations, bag searches or lengthy security lines.
So, we poured ourselves a fine whiskey and found our way up to the domed viewing car. There, we were greeted with gorgeous panoramic views of the rolling plains of the Montana Hi-Line. The kids enjoyed the freedom to walk around or stand at the window to watch the scenery pass by.
From the domed car, we went to the dining car for dinner. To my delight, we were seated at a table with linen tablecloths and napkins. The menu didn’t disappoint either.
With an array of items including grilled flat-iron steak with a three peppercorn sauce, a seared salmon filet with chili-lime butter sauce or a grilled Angus hamburger, we were all able to find a flavorful and enjoyable meal, complete with wine, beer or juice. We were even surprised when they asked what we’d like for dessert — Häagen-Dazs ice cream, tiramisu or cheesecake. When passengers ride in a sleeper cabin, all their meals are included in the ticket price (excluding alcohol or gratuity), making it even more valuable and well worth the experience.
After our sunset meal over the golden Montana plains, our kids wanted to return to our sleeper car to jungle gym on the ‘bunk beds’ until falling fast asleep to the swaying and rocking of the Empire Builder Train. And really, who could blame them?
We arrived at Portland's Union Station, downtown near the trendy Pearl District and Chinatown, at 11 a.m. We rented a car through Amtrak’s booking site and the rental company was a quick walk — or taxi ride — away.
And that’s it — we were on our way to the coast! Sure, we could’ve flown and been there in one day, but this is an experience our family will never forget.