The whole point of traveling is to see something new and experience something different. But too often, individual travelers and group leaders get stuck in a rut of letting the sights and sounds pass them by, whether through a motorcoach window or on a walking tour.
Many of the tour operators of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP) have tapped their creativity to find unique experiences for travelers in the destinations they visit. These TAP itineraries go beyond the norm to give people a chance to drive a steam locomotive, travel with a TV show host, cross an international border, see a national park in a new way and, maybe, just maybe, speak to the spirits.
Drive the Rails
In a recent episode of CBS’ smash hit “The Big Bang Theory,” Leonard buys Sheldon a certificate for the ultimate train experience at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum in Ely, Nevada. The closing scene shows Sheldon operating a coal-fired locomotive, shirtless in bib overalls, his face smeared with grease and a grin.
Ever since the episode aired in February, the museum’s Be an Engineer program has “been selling out all the time,” but Leisure West Tours still has priority, said owner Lee Dahl. Travelers on Leisure West’s Railroad Engineer: Ultimate Experience itinerary “have to have a shirt on, but they get great big smiles on their face,” he said, jokingly.
People often don’t realize they’ll be at the throttle, blowing the whistle and signaling at crossings, because “they just think it’s not something they could ever do,” he said. And it’s not just five minutes in the seat. The in-depth program gives each participant nearly an hour at the throttle of two locomotives. Guests start on the diesel engine, which is more straightforward and less overwhelming than the century-old, coal-fired steam locomotive, Dahl said.
Over the course of two days, each person gets to drive each locomotive and may also operate a two-person speeder car and the “hand-pump cars you used to see in the old cartoons,” Dahl said.
The Nevada Northern Railway, including the engines, buildings and rolling stock, is a National Historic Landmark. The railroad was built in 1905 to reach the copper mines about 140 miles north of Ely; but when the mines shut down in 1978, so did the railroad.
“They thought they’d be back to work as soon as the mine opened back up, and it never did,” he said, so everything is much as they left it: tools, equipment, paperwork — including workers’ time cards.
Yellowstone in Winter
Yellowstone National Park is a different place in winter. Snow blankets the ground, muffling ambient noise. Wildlife stands out, stark against the white carpet. Steam from geysers and thermal pools turns into billowing columns in the freezing air.
“It’s just really quiet,” said Shawn Horman, vice president of Western Leisure. “It gives you a different experience in the park.”
Yellowstone’s winter season — when there’s enough snow cover for over-snow travel on the roads — usually runs from mid-December through mid-March, and Western Leisure typically runs its trips to the park in January and February.
For travel, the company uses a combination of modern snow coaches — vans or minibuses that have been converted to tracks for winter driving — and historic snow coaches, which are basically World War II-era snow machines. Each can hold eight to 12 people.
The snow coaches are “totally part of the experience,” Horman said. Local guides drive and narrate, showing passengers where wolves are feeding on a carcass or where bison “like to lay on the warm ground,” he said.
Groups also ride a horse-drawn sleigh into the massive herd on the National Elk Refuge near Jackson, Wyoming.
“You’re out on the elk refuge with magnificent views of the Grand Tetons, and there’s, on average, 4,000 elk on the refuge,” Horman said. “They’re used to the sleighs — they don’t run away. All the bulls are fighting and wrestling all day long — it is a fabulous experience.”
In addition to standbys like Old Faithful, the itinerary can also include attending the weekly broadcast performance of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City and a tour of Utah Olympic Park near Park City.