My sister and I had just finished a flight of 11 sparkling wines from Chandon when my brother-in-law, the designated driver, asked if we'd be interested in going on the Napa Valley Wine Train that evening. "Tickets are only $146 each for a three-hour train ride plus dinner," he told us, and in our carefree buzz, we tossed our credit cards his way, no questions asked. Sober, I may have told you the vintage train that chugs all along the Napa Valley in California is an expensive, gimmicky tourist trap. I avoided going on it for years, but my opinion completely changed after I experienced it firsthand.
Stepping inside this 1915 luxury train, I felt instantly transported to the past, as if I were on the way to Westworld. Caught in the excitement, I took dozens of pictures from every angle of the train and loved exploring the old-school details. I'll be honest: I don't remember much about the food other than the steak was a good, bloody medium-rare and I left uncomfortably full (in a good way). However, I'll never forget the spectacular views of the valley, the interiors of the train, and experiencing the fascination of traveling by rail. I was also surprised to learn that the train doesn't take you from point A to point B — it's a round-trip excursion. Despite this, I did not grow weary of the repetition but rather was glad to have more time to take in the expanse.
I loved my first wine train trip, but I did learn some things that I plan to keep in mind for my next reservation. Take heed and follow these tips if you're thinking of booking a trip.
1. Book two weeks in advance.
We went on the Fourth of July weekend and luckily scored dinner tickets last minute, but for the most part, you'll need to plan the trip in advance, especially during busy Summer months.
2. Check in early.
Unlike a dinner reservation, you do not want to be 15 minutes late to this event. You are asked to check in by 5:30 p.m. so you can hear a welcome seminar before boarding the train. This is also a great opportunity to take pictures in front of the train (aka hang off the handles).
3. Go for the dinner — not lunch.
If you can swing it, reserve your spot in the Summer for dinner. At the height of the season, the sun doesn't set until close to 9 p.m., and the entire valley is washed in golden light, making for stunning photos. The train departs at exactly 6:30 p.m., so you will still have several hours to explore the train, take in the sweeping views of the valley, and snap photos on the caboose of the train, without feeling pressed for time. Fun fact: we even witnessed a proposal on the caboose — talk about free entertainment!
Also worth noting, Napa Summers can reach up to 100 degrees. Though the trains are air-conditioned, it can be hot and stuffy inside the Pullman cars, which is why I recommend dressing the part and opting for the later seating, when the valley has cooled slightly.
4. Paying for wine is extra.
The wine tour comes with a "welcome taste of wine" and plenty of food (several filling courses), but all other wine is à la carte. We had a good buzz going and found the prices to be on the high side, so we opted to drink the complimentary water with dinner and coffee with dessert.
5. The best spots cost more.
You won't get to choose your seating with the standard ticket. However, I'm willing to pay extra — $221 per person — to score a table on the Vista Dome, a car with glass windows that curve up to the ceiling so you can see expansive views of the vineyards and sunset.