It's hard to think of a more relaxing way to spend a winter weekend than to board Amtrak's Empire Builder in Seattle on a Friday afternoon, sip champagne and linger over a salmon dinner in the dining car, go to sleep, and then wake up the next morning at the Izaak Walton Inn outside Glacier National Park in Montana.
I took two days off from work for our 35th anniversary, and was impressed that it was enough time to get here, spend three full days cross-country skiing and reading by the fire, and be back in Seattle by early Tuesday afternoon.
The secret to "maximizing'' your time is taking Amtrak's Chicago-bound overnighter to and from Essex, Montana where the Izaak Walton Inn was built in 1939 by the Great Northern Railway.
The trip from Seattle takes about 16 hours. Not much of it is in daylight this time of the year, but we woke up to beautiful mountain scenery at breakfast both coming and going. Sleeper cars include meals and little bottles of free champagne. The train literally stops at the Izaak Walton's front door in the little town of Essex, halfway between the West and East Glacier Park entrances. We were very impressed with Amtrak's service. When our car attendant greeted us by name, it was like stepping back in time to when getting on a train (or a plane) meant you were going somewhere special.
We arrived around 10 a.m., normally to early for check-in, but the inn is used to people on the train arriving early. No one had been in our room the night before so they let us have it. It was snowing hard which made the room and the downstairs sitting area feel very cozy. There's literally no where to go once you get here - kind of like being on a cruise ship, only surrounded by snow instead of water.
We did a fair amount of skiing, but the daytime temps didn't get above 5, and one night the thermometer outside the door read 18 below. Fortunately the inn has a good restaurant. We spent a lot of time reading by the fire, drinking wine and sampling the huckleberry cobbler.
Maybe next time we'll rent one of these cabooses outfitted with kitchens and bathrooms. A luxury locomotive next to the lodge even has a fireplace.
The snow was perfect. All the trails are groomed, and some are lighted at night. Rooms book up early in the summer tourist season, but there are usually plenty available in winter. I'd recommend staying over a Sunday night. After most of the locals left on Sunday, we had the place almost to ourselves.