By Sharon Whitley Larsen
"Is this your first time on a sleeper train?" asked the friendly lounge car attendant as he served me a glass of wine, the lights of a small town passing fleetingly by in the dark window.
I assured him that I had been on numerous overnight trains: from London to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Penzance; Paris to Rome; St. Petersburg to Moscow — even Los Angeles to Chicago.
I have always loved taking overnight trains and do it any chance I get. And I've always been partial to sleeper trains in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom, which my husband Carl and I have experienced on several occasions. Our most memorable overnight train was the 12-hour trip from London to Fort William, Scotland. From there we caught the Jacobite steam excursion train to Mallaig, a charming fishing village.
To me, taking an overnight train is relaxing, exciting and romantic with a real sense of adventure. You can use every valuable moment of daylight to sightsee and save on the cost of a hotel room while you journey to your next destination. And you get to meet some interesting people!
Recently Carl and I decided to visit Aberdeen in northern Scotland, where we spent a couple of nights before boarding the Caledonian Sleeper to London's Euston Station — a 10-hour journey. We figured that this way we would have extra time on the train instead of boarding farther south in Edinburgh.
It helped that our hotel, the Ibis, offered us a late check-out at 6 p. m., as we requested, for just an extra 10 pounds (about $15.50). We left our luggage at the front desk and strolled to La Lombarda, which claims to be the United Kingdom's oldest Italian restaurant — since 1922. After our relaxing meal with Chianti, we retrieved our luggage and took a short taxi ride to the train station.
Just before boarding at 9:10 p.m., Carl took our large luggage to the front baggage car. We packed just what we needed for this night in carry-ons.
Once aboard we found our compartment — a Standard Sleeper Berth, twin, with bunk beds. On each bunk was a folded towel, a welcoming "Sweet Dreams on the Caledonian Sleeper" travel pack, which included soap and an eye mask, and an issue of Sleeper magazine.
We stored our carry-ons on a rack above the window. There were two bottled waters for us, a mirror and an under-window counter that pulled up, revealing the sink. ("Not drinking water," a sign reminded us.) There was a full-length mirror on the back of the door with a "Do Not Disturb" sign that we could put out. The air-conditioned compartment had a call button for the attendant, a ladder for me to reach the upper berth, and a small pull-out tray by each bed, which had two comfy pillows and tiny overhead reading lights. Toilets were located at the end of each coach.
Our attendant came by to take our breakfast order (coffee or tea) and asked what time we wanted our wake-up call.
Promptly at 9:43 p.m. — the scheduled departure time — a whistle blasted twice.
"Here we go!" I said to Carl.
We headed to the lounge car to have a farewell Scottish toast. In just a few hours we would cross the border to England. As it was mid-May, it was still light outside. We passed houses and apartments on the right, the North Sea on the left.
We joined several other passengers in the lounge car: One man read a book, another typed on his laptop, a woman sat on a small sofa reading a magazine, a few people sat at tables, quietly chatting while they sipped drinks and ate a late dinner.
The Caledonian Sleeper has taken strides to offer locally sourced food, as the menu noted: "From lamb and duck to salmon, fruit and cheese — not forgetting haggis —Scotland has earned a reputation for producing some of the finest food to be found anywhere in the world."
As its Sleeper magazine pointed out: "Foodies will be delighted to see our chefs have transformed the Caledonian Sleeper menu to ensure it takes full advantage of Scotland's rich larder. Every quarter we'll be updating the offerings to reflect the best seasonal produce available across the country, with every meal giving you a true taste of Scotland."
There was a selection of wines — starting at $6 — from France, Chile, England, Italy, Argentina and South Africa. And more than a dozen kinds of whisky, including Macallan, Laphroaig, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich.
Dinner choices — about $10 to $15 each — included Rannoch Smokery, Clunes Lamb and Cockburns Haggis.
One young female passenger entered the lounge to take a dinner-to-go back to her compartment. As lights flashed by and the sky grew darker, the train seemed to bounce and swerve as it zipped along the tracks. By 10:30 p.m. most passengers had retired to their berths. But Carl and I stayed, relaxing as I sipped my wine and he his whisky.
Local cheeses and chocolates were offered for dessert snacks, and for those who wanted to breakfast here, there were several items from which to choose, including Creamy Highland Porridge with Caithness honey for $5.50.
Once we headed back to our comfy compartment, Carl raised the window shade, promising, "I'll close it after the next stop."
Well, that didn't happen! I think my train-nut husband was awake most of the night, just gazing out the window. He was excited when we crossed the famed Forth Bridge just outside Edinburgh and when the train made station stops, with all the hustle and bustle involved with watching other passengers departing and boarding.
Gradually I dozed off, the rocking motion luring me to sleep.
At 5:30 a.m., Carl, who finally had been snoozing on the lower bunk, got up to head to the lounge car that provided better window views. I lingered on the top bunk until 7, when the attendant rapped on the door, bringing our coffee, tea and breakfast biscuits. We pulled into Euston Station 45 minutes later. London calling!
The Caledonian Sleeper is destined to get even better: In 2018 it will introduce 75 new state-of-the-art carriages, including en-suite berths, pod flat-beds and cradle seats. I can't wait to try it out!
WHEN YOU GO
For general information: www.visitscotland.com and www.visitbritain.com
Ibis hotel, Aberdeen: www.ibis.com/gb/hotel-5170-ibis-aberdeen-centre/index.shtml
La Lombarda Italian Restaurant, Aberdeen: www.lalombarda.co.uk
For Caledonian Sleeper information, booking and ticket prices: www.sleeper.scot
To purchase discounted travel and sightseeing passes, and for information on BritRail: www.visitbritainshop.com/usa
Sharon Whitley Larsen is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com
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