Category Archives: Luxury

All aboard for private train travel

Courtesy Patrick Henry

The Warren R. Henry is a dome car that was built in 1955 for the Union Pacific Railroad.

With Amtrak on pace to set another ridership record this year, it appears millions of Americans are reserving seats on the nation’s rolling stock. Some are going a step further and reserving entire cars.

“Chartering a private rail car is a civilized way to travel,” said Bart Barton, publisher of Private Varnish, the magazine of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO). “It’s a step above Amtrak — and sometimes two or three steps.”

And just like Amtrak, the business is seeing a rebound. “Last year, the charter business was down,” said Barton, “but during the first part of this year, it seems to be coming back pretty strong.”

Of course, traveling by private rail car is not as simple as hopping on the Downeaster or Heartland Flyer. In most cases, the cars are owned by individual railfans and chartered by groups that must reserve them well in advance. Outfitted with chefs, stewards and well-stocked kitchens and bars, the cars are hooked on the tail end of long-haul Amtrak trains, which, needless to say, imposes limitations on itineraries and schedules.


“Mostly it appeals to people who have a love of railroads from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” said Patrick Henry, owner of the Warren Henry, a 1955 dome lounge car with a formal dining room, and the Evelyn Henry, a 1954 sleeper car with six double bedrooms and one queen suite. “It’s Americana at its finest.”

Courtesy Patrick Henry

The Warren R. Henry offers a panoramic viewing room upstairs.

It’s also a more diverse experience than many people may realize. As the leading organization for private rail-car owners, AAPRCO currently lists 63 cars available for charter, ranging from “party cars,” designed for special events and other one-day excursions, to combination sleeper/lounge cars configured for multi-day, cross-country trips.

Among the most posh are the so-called “business cars,” luxury-appointed sleeper/dining cars that railroad executives utilized to travel in comfort as they conducted business around their steel-railed empires.

The Chapel Hill, for example, features mahogany interiors, original brass hardware and vintage railroad silver and china. With a formal dining room, lounge area and four bedrooms, it’s a classic example of what fans of private train travel refer to as a yacht on rails.

Not surprisingly, such travel doesn’t come cheap. On the Chapel Hill, a three-day charter between Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., will cost around $20,000 as will a similar trip between Chicago and San Francisco on the Warren and Evelyn Henry cars. The former sleeps six; the latter, up to 10.

“It sounds like a lot, but remember, that includes a chef, a steward and your food and beverage,” said Henry. “In most cases, it also includes your alcohol which is really popular because it’s about the only thing to do other than watch the scenery go by.”

The rates also include the haulage fee — currently $2.10 per mile — that Amtrak charges to pull private cars as well as other ancillary charges.

There are also less expensive ways to get a taste of the experience. As past president of AAPRCO, Stan Garner operates the Pony Express, a 1941 baggage car turned party car with paneled walls, antique bar and parquet dance floor. Designed to carry 25 to 30 people, one-day excursions between Los Angeles and San Diego typically run $4,500 to $5,000, making it a unique venue for birthday parties, anniversaries and weddings.

“It’s about enjoying the trip,” said Garner, “instead of trying to get somewhere in a hurry because you’re just not going to.”

That’s a big part of the appeal for John Bertini, a Houston urologist who has chartered private train cars on several occasions for family vacations. “It’s an opportunity to slow down, to enjoy a different perspective and to spend time together,” he told “It’s something we don’t get to take advantage of in our hurried lives.”

Which, says Bertini, speaks to yet another benefit of traveling by private train car — the benefit of what it isn’t.

“It’s not having to take your shoes off; it’s not having people be rude to you, and it’s not having to be crammed in a seat for hours,” he said. “Imagine the opposite of your typical travel experiences — that’s what the private rail-car experience is like.”

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

Dig in! Hotels you don’t have to leave for fine food

The Saguaro hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., houses Distrito, a restaurant that features the street food of Mexico City.

In one tasty trend, star chefs and top hoteliers are teaming up across the United States. Here are some places worth taking your taste buds:

Four Seasons Hotel, Baltimore
Stay here now: The year-round heated infinity pool has great views of the city’s harborfront.

Food cred: Two spots by Michael Mina (the café fries beignets to order) will open along with an outpost of L.A.’s Lamill Coffee.

The Saguaro, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Stay here now: Mexican architecture and desert wildflowers both helped inspire this total renovation of the former Hotel Theodore.

Food cred: Philadelphia star chef Jose Garces serves Mexican street food at Distrito and custom-roasts beans for the coffee bar.

Public, Chicago
Stay here now: Celeb hotelier Ian Schrager tones down his usual over-the-top style at his first Midwestern hotel.

Food cred: At night, the Pump Room restaurant becomes a 1930s-style supper club with small plates from superchef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

The NoMad, New York City
Stay here now: Opening in March, the NoMad is the first U.S. project from designer Jacques Garcia of Paris’ Hotel Costes.

Food cred: Eleven Madison Park chef Daniel Humm’s menu will focus on family-style dishes cooked over an open hearth.

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Luxury resorts rebound from bankruptcy

Courtesy of The

A view of Palmyra’s club house from the main resort pool.

Psst. Want to buy a luxury resort with 280-plus rooms overlooking a sandy beach in Montego Bay, Jamaica —  once valued at $150-million — for pennies on the dollar?

It’s called The Palmyra Resort and Spa and it’s going on the auction block on March 28. It needs a little work — one of its three towers is still a shell and the spa is only partially completed — but, according to John Cuticelli, CEO of Racebrook Marketing Concepts, which is handling the auction, the resort offers “the most compelling opportunity in the global hospitality market right now.”

It also offers a snapshot of what happens when developers conceive grand plans and then run smack into the realities of the Great Recession. Touted as one of the top 10 most exciting real estate developments in the world by Travel Leisure in 2007, the half-built resort has been in receivership since July of last year.

“There are a substantial number of hotels that are currently lender-owned and there are a substantial number that are on their way to being lender-owned,” said Bruce Ford, senior vice president of sales at Lodging Econometrics, which tracks the commercial real estate industry. “But there are also plenty of buyers who are ready, willing and able to pick up those assets at a discount.”

Consider some of the recent deals:

  • According to the South Florida Business Journal, the 340-room Gansevoort South Hotel in Miami Beach, Fla., was sold and renamed The Perry South Beach in early February, two years after the hotel was taken over by its lenders after the previous owner defaulted on an $89 million loan.
  •  On February 22, reported that the Two Bunch Palms Resort Spa in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., — long a popular hideaway for Hollywood stars — was sold, almost two years after it went into receivership.
  • United Capital Corp. recently purchased the 254-room Ocean Place Resort Spa in Long Branch, N.J., a year after the previous owner filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to avoid foreclosure, according to the Atlanticville newspaper.

While the particulars vary by property, these and countless other hotels and resorts were victims of the same economic forces — easy credit, the belief that real estate values could only go up and the subsequent freeze on commercial lending — that wreaked havoc on the residential real estate market.

“Going back to 2007, everybody was getting all that easy money,” said Glenn Haussman, editor in chief of “Then, all of a sudden, the market went bust and all these payments started coming due. The banks would ‘extend and pretend,’ hoping they’d get their money back, but eventually they realized that wasn’t going to happen.”

The good news for travelers is that when new owners pick up properties at a good discount, they tend to spend money on renovations and other improvements.

“This is just what the doctor ordered to get these properties healthy again,” Haussman said. 

Presumably, that’s what will happen with The Palmyra once it’s auctioned off. According to Cuticelli, “Thousands of people have visited the auction website, a good percentage have asked for more information and a smaller percentage have registered to participate.” He declined to provide more details on minimum bids or an estimated sale price.

Of course, if you miss out on that deal, rest assured there will be others. In fact, just last month, it was announced that the posh Cap Juluca resort in Anguilla, British West Indies, where rooms average more than $900 a night, is to be sold at auction on May 2.

To get in on the action, all you need is a cashier’s check for $250,000 and the ability to bring the total deposit to 10 percent of your winning bid within 24 hours.

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

Great hotels that won’t break the bank

From Tanzania to Cambodia, Travel + Leisure’s Nilou Motamed shares some of the best hotels all over the world where you can get the most bang for your buck.

Let’s face it: all too often, “affordable accommodations” means your basic cookie-cutter chain-hotel room or a property that’s seen better days. But—surprise!—it can also mean an award-winning hotel at a reasonable price. And who doesn’t want that?

So when Travel + Leisure asked its readers to pick their favorite properties in the magazine’s annual World’s Best Survey, T+L took note of which spots wouldn’t break the bank.

Slideshow: World’s top affordable hotels

The result is a list of great-value inns, hotels, and resorts that offer appealing ambience, top-notch service, and a compelling setting. And many offer nightly rates lower than the cost of an iPhone (with no two-year commitment).

Courtesy of Four Seasons Resorts

Four Seasons Carmelo, Uruguay.

Of course, Las Vegas is known for room prices that won’t empty your wallet (alas, the casinos do that), but even here there’s a luxury property with rates so good you’ll feel lucky even before check-in. The two-year-old Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas is a glamorous, Asian-inspired haven in one of CityCenter’s contemporary glass towers. Its 392 rooms and suites have floor-to-ceiling windows, elegant Oriental details, and glass-paneled bathrooms with deep-soaking tubs, while its 23rd-floor Sky Lobby offers glimmering views of the Strip, including the iconic Eiffel Tower replica. And Vegas being Vegas, it’s possible to find deals that cut the great rate even more.

If actual architectural wonders are more your thing, you can sleep affordably yet chicly on the edge of Cambodia’s most-renowned World Heritage Site at the 238-room Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf Spa Resort in Siem Reap. When you’re not out admiring Angkor Wat’s centuries-old temples, you can retreat to the soaring lobby with its Khmer-French design elements and rooms with soothing sage and gold décor.

Another exotic property offering top value is the 79-suite Serengeti Sopa Lodge, set in the hills overlooking the southwestern plains of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Bold African design in rich earth tones accented by local fabrics and artwork offers a true sense of place — especially when the view outside is of the wildebeest migration.

Closer to home, the rustic and tranquil charms of Vermont are on offer at 19-room Rabbit Hill Inn. Located in Lower Waterford and featuring rooms with fireplaces and antique canopy beds, this circa-1785, white-columned inn is ideal for a romantic couple’s getaway.

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Untold riches amid hotels’ lost and found items

The lost and found at the fabled Breakers resort in Palm Beach, Fla., is the size of a two-car garage and contains contents worthy of Fort Knox.

“There are expensive bracelets, Rolex watches and diamond earrings worth more than $10,000,” says Arthur Birmelin, director of security.

Mere baubles compared to some of the items distracted well-to-do guests have left behind at the oceanfront resort.

“We had one guest forget a satchel with more than $200,000 in jewelry,” he says. “Housekeeping found it. The watch alone was worth $100,000.”

The owner said it was a gift inscribed by Johnny Cash.

“She asked we mail it back to her in Nashville,” Birmelin says. “We told her insurance considerations prevented us from doing that so she hired an armored car to pick it up and drive it back to Tennessee.”

The richest people in America are just like the rest of us. They forget stuff, too. But it’s what they forget that fascinates us.

Diana Bulger is the spokesperson for the posh Fairmont Hotels Resorts. She canvassed her associates and found a laundry list of sundry items in the lost and founds of the rich and famous.

“A diamond encrusted Cartier watch, an entire set of golf clubs, a pair of Rolex watches, a brand new Louis Vuitton wallet, divorce papers, bags of marijuana, a professional flute — and somebody at the Fairmont Banff Springs forgot a car they’d left with the valet,” she said.

Bulger added that cash also is commonly left behind. Birmelin’s team has dealt with their share of that, too. And he’s talking about the currency, not the Man in Black.

“One guest checked out and left $5,000 in cash in one hundred dollar bills in the safe,” he says. The guest ignored daily phone calls informing him something of value was left behind.

“After about 10 days, he finally called back and said the only thing of value he could have possibly left behind was cash,” he says. “He said he always took a lot of cash to gamble and it was always in hundreds. But he couldn’t say how much.”

Unable to land a guess even in the ballpark, the guest amicably agreed to donate the loot to a worthy charity, a welcome destination for most of the unclaimed items.

The Breakers and the Breezewood Motel in Breezewood, Pa., may seem to have little in common. Rooms at The Breakers range from $400 to $2,400 per night; at The Breezewood, $32 to $37.80.

But they share an admirable quality that goes unmentioned in the guidebooks: integrity.

Breezewood’s owner Tim McCauley recently found a wallet with $4,000 in it.

“When he came to get the wallet, he couldn’t believe none of it was missing,” McCauley says. “I told him we’d be nothing without our honesty.”

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Chris Rodell is a Latrobe, Pa., contributor who blogs at