Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Train Rides Refresh The Grand Canyon

About 4.5 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, but only about 100,000 make the trek to one of the seven natural wonders of the world by train. Doing so adds bookends to one of the most powerful and inspiring landscapes on earth.

Perhaps what makes both the entrance and the departure so unique is that it contrasts the immense size of the Grand Canyon with an intimate level of customer service. There is an authentic throwback charm to it all, one that is almost impossible to forget.

Why the best entrance to the Grand Canyon is Williams, Arizona. 

Williams, Arizona, has a history as colorful as any in America. Its downtown business district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. As such, and with a population of only about 3,000 people, it seems unlikely to change. Williams is timeless.

While there are other small inns and motels in the area too, most people taking the train include the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel as part of a bigger package. The hotel isn't historic but iconic. It was designed to resemble the century-old depot that housed the original Fray Marcos Hotel.

The rooms are well appointed, especially the 550-square-foot suites. For a modest upgrade, the plush couches (with pullout sleepers) and kitchenettes with an extra sink, microwave, and mini-refrigerator create a cozy, homelike atmosphere comfortable enough to consider an extended stay.

These suites are ideal for families. The only room larger is the Rail Baron Suite that was originally designed for former owners Max and Thelma Biegert. The 1,000-room suite features a living room, full kitchen, separate bedroom, and ensuite. It resembles a small short-term apartment with comfortable amenities such as leather furniture.

Many packages also include meals at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel  a buffet-style restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The buffets are augmented by made-to-order stations: an omelet station in the morning and pasta station at night. Dinners also feature a carving station and live entertainment.

The offering is surprisingly complete, given downtown Williams is a short two-block walk away. There are plenty of shops to explore, carriage rides, and a handful of restaurants that pay homage to different eras that make the town historic, ranging from its early days as a railroad frontier town to the road cruise culture that made Route 66 famous.

The package schedule that plays out in four days and three nights.

While there are many packages, the Canyon Discovery Plus is the most complete with two nights at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and one night at the Maswik Lodge inside Grand Canyon National Park. The Maswik Lodge has a much more rustic, cabinesque vibe in comparison, but it is hardly noticeable given the surroundings. Most of the stay inside the park will be on the rim.

After checking into Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and picking up train tickets, a buffet dinner is included. After dinner, it is easy enough to walk to the small historic downtown area or retire to the signature bar in Spenser’s Pub. It dates back to 1887; handcrafted by George O. Spenser in England.

In the morning, guests are invited to leave their bags to be placed on the train before heading out for breakfast. Make it reasonably early because the railroad puts on a campy and comedic Western shootout before guests board the train. (The actors work the train too, so watch for them.)

The train provides a leisurely two-hour ride to the Grand Canyon, with attentive service and roaming entertainment. Some areas are remote enough for wildlife sightings.

After arriving at the Grand Canyon, many train patrons take prearranged bus tours along one of three expanses that make up the Grand Canyon. It's easy to pack light for the tour as guest bags will be waiting in in their hotel rooms when the tour is complete (and they will be picked up from the hotel room after checkout the next day).

The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel Rolls Over 8.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Sine the Grand Canyon deserves its own review (look for part 2 soon), suffice to say that an overnight stay will change any perspective of the park (even if you haven't planned something more extravagant like an overnight at Phantom Ranch). It allows enough time for one or two partial hikes into the canyon and ample time to visit most attractions around the rim.

The stay is followed by a late train ride back, dinner, and a late checkout after breakfast at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel again. For other variations in and around the Grand Canyon, visit top travel deals at While Williams, Arizona, is preferred for anyone who appreciates the historic side of the area, Flagstaff is also close by for a bigger city feel.
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