Should we go all-out and pay for the posh seats on the scenic excursion on the train, or maybe save some dollars and ride in the regular seats? It's a choice everyone has faced from time to time.
The cruise to Alaska that took my wife and me via the Inside Passage with stops at Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway was exceptional. There was so much to do and see.
Months before our cruise to Alaska, we spent some enjoyable hours researching the various shore activities that would be available to us at each of the stopovers. Several friends had recommended we take a ride on the White Pass scenic railroad when we visited Skagway, so we set about searching for options.
The promotional videos we watched and websites we browsed convinced us that this ride was a 'must-do' experience. Then we discovered we had two options: take the ride in a regular carriage; or, for a hefty fee, ride in style with all the comforts. What to do. We sent off a few emails to the tour provider to help us make our decision and eventually parted with our hard-earned cash, purchasing tickets for the posh ride on the train.
The White Pass and Yukon railroad had its beginnings in 1896 when gold was discovered in the Klondike and the rush was on. There were two ways of getting to the goldfields from Skagway: the Chillkoot Trail and the White Pass Trail. Both were rough and hazardous, but the White Pass Trail, albeit a little longer, was considered the best prospect for a railroad to be built and so the project began. The Klondike Gold Rush became a fascinating part of history and it was set in some of the most spectacular scenery that you will find anywhere, so it's no wonder that today the railroad remains, not for gold-diggers anymore, but for tourists.
After our cruise ship docked in Skagway, we went ashore and waiting for us was the train. One carriage at the front of the train, right behind the engine, for the posh travellers – us – and a dozen or so regular carriages following on behind. The regular carriages contained rows of seats on either side of an aisle as you would expect. That was about it. The posh carriage, however, was different.
Our carriage had swivelling Chesterfield lounge chairs arranged one on either side of an aisle. A small table was located between sets of chairs on which we were able to set our canapés and beverages. The carriage accommodated about 12 passengers, had its own bathroom, and a bar attended by our knowledgeable young tour guide who kept us informed along the way. It also had its own covered observation deck at one end of the carriage, which was just perfect for taking photographs of the breathtaking scenery we passed.
Even better, for the return journey the engines, which had pulled us up the mountain, were relocated to the other end of the train at the turn point so they could pull us back down the mountain. We were no longer at the front of the train, we were now the last carriage and had an uninterrupted view of the passing panorama from the observation deck, all the way back to Skagway. What a spectacular ride!
All this while being informed, continually offered canapés, nibbles and whatever beverages we wanted.
I could end the story here and say that we were delighted with our decision to fork out for the expensive seats. The tour was worth every cent. The scenery was amazing and the tour guide was truly attentive to our needs and bursting with information. I feel I now have a good understanding of this chapter in history.
But there’s another side to this story I must tell you. You see, we were a bit sheepish about telling our fellow travellers on board the ship that we were taking this train ride in style, knowing from our conversations that many of them were doing so in the cheap seats. I’m sure you will appreciate how we felt. During our discussions with our fellow travellers prior to the train trip we avoided the subject of seating, saying that if we didn’t catch up on the ride we would do so over coffee afterwards.
There’s more. This was the first trip of the season for the train. Some maintenance issues were still ongoing, it seemed.
No sooner had we left Skagway and begun the climb up the mountainside than the train came to a steady halt. Our tour guide was in communication with the engineers and explained to us that the engine was having difficulty getting the power necessary to pull the train up the mountain, and the matter was being worked on. Some time passed. Then some more. Meanwhile we nibbled on the canapés and sipped on our favourite beverages while chatting with the others in the carriage. Comfortable seats, bar, bathroom, delicious nibbles and our favourite beverages.
Eventually our tour guide reported the engine was being contrary and would need attention back at the depot. We commenced the return journey. To save time however, we were advised that a second engine was on its way and would be attached to the rear of the train to assist with the power needed to get the carriages up the to the mountain pass, the turn point. More time passed and the second engine arrived and was connected to the train. We were off again, up the mountain. One engine at the front pulling and the second engine behind pushing.
The journey progressed. We in the posh seats by this stage were having a wonderful time, and did so until the journey’s end.
It was over coffee with our travelling companions on board the ship that we discovered they in the cheap seats didn’t enjoy the waiting experience quite like we did. While we passed the waiting time nibbling on canapés and sipping our beverages, our friends in the cheap seats had to make do with bottled water and sharing whatever sweets and snacks they could find in the bottom of their day bags. This while fidgeting on the not-so-comfortable seats.
This aside though, every one of them enjoyed the tour immensely. The sheer beauty of the scenery outweighed the inconvenience of the waiting at the start of the journey. We never mentioned our experience at the front of the train.
Whether you decide to pay a bit extra and ride at the front or take the tour in the regular seats, if you find yourself in Skagway at some time, take the train ride. It is truly a unique experience.