It's 3 o'clock in the morning. I'm stretched out in the lower bunk of an Amtrak sleeper cabin, lulled by the chug-a-chug of the train's motion and the starlit view from my picture window. My 4-year-old daughter Eve has caught the magic of the night's train ride as well. She's sitting at my feet, wide awake with her nose to the window, watching the silent world passing by.
When was the last time a plane ride -- especially one with children in tow -- inspired such a feeling of well-being and adventure? Train travel is a relic of a bygone era -- when time and comfort were plentiful, when just getting to where you were going was half the fun.
It can still be that way. One of Amtrak's hidden secrets is the overnight sleeper coach, which can transform a travel chore into an adventure for parent and child alike.
Sleeper service is available on long-distance runs throughout the Amtrak system -- from Boston, New York, Philadelphia and points between to destinations west and south. On the Night Owl, which makes the Washington-Boston run, the train departs daily at 10:30 p.m., with stops in Baltimore and Philadelphia shortly thereafter. The train arrives at Boston's renovated South Station at 8:35 a.m. with an earlier stop in Providence, R.I.
The schedule allows plenty of time for an evening at home -- and in our case, getting the kids fed and into pajamas -- before boarding. And the early-morning arrival makes a vacation's first day, or a whirl of morning appointments, that much easier.
When inquiring about sleeper service availability, don't take no for an answer. When I asked about sleeper coaches from Washington to Boston, I was initially told by an Amtrak reservations agent that no such service existed. Similarly, because so few sleeper cars are in service -- the Night Owl has only 16 sleepers -- they can fill up quickly. But don't give up: Persistent calls to Amtrak may result in the discovery of a space. For example, barely 10 minutes after I was told there was no sleeper available on the Thanksgiving night train from Boston to Washington, a second phone call won my family of four -- my wife Dori, 4-year-old Eve and Morgan, 5 months -- space with no trouble at all.
Half an hour before the train's departure, and before the crush of regular riders board, sleeper passengers are escorted to their rooms. Luggage is better left in the storage compartment near the car exits. There is room for essential bags in the sleeper, but space in these compartments -- really no more than oversized closets -- is at a premium.
While Eve scampered up and down the ladder connecting our twin-sized bunk beds, and shared the complimentary chocolates and writing pads with the baby, my wife and I used the time before departure to organize ourselves for the night's journey.
First I settled our accounts with the conductor, so that we need not be bothered during our efforts to get the kids to sleep. And I arranged for us to be awakened an hour before our arrival in Boston.
I then set out to explore our new abode. It would have been helpful if the conductor had pointed out all the various nooks and crannies, light switches and fans, but in the course of our round-trip journey, we made our own discoveries.
It's remarkable how much can be squeezed into these couchettes. Our sleeper, Amtrak's largest, was dominated by two twin-sized bunk beds; a separate, enclosed area contained a sink and toilet (no shower). The beds were more than big enough for each of us to share with a child; older children could easily bunk together. A door between adjoining rooms can also be opened to create a suite on wheels.
There is a large window in the lower bunk, tinted so that those outside cannot see in. The top bunk has no window, but does have a net that can be set up to prevent an accidental tumble.
The bathroom is a marvel of space conservation. A stainless steel sink swings down, Murphy bed-like, from the wall. There is plenty of hot water, which proved essential when it came time to warm up Morgan's bottle in the middle of the night.
The closet is the width of a sandwich, with just enough room to hang jackets and store shoes. It's so tiny, we happened upon it only on our return journey.
On extended trips, the lower bunk is metamorphosized into lounge chairs while the upper bunk is lifted out of harm's way during the day. We enjoyed no such luxury, however. Sitting, playing and eating were done without the benefit of chair and table.
As the train pulled out of Union Station, Dori and I broke out the complimentary wine and cheese we'd found on our pillows. There was great potential for a wonderfully romantic evening -- the two of us, the embracing motion of the train ... the kids.
We settled down for the night -- Eve and I in the upper bunk, Dori and Morgan below. This arrangement lasted a full four minutes, before it was decided that Eve and I were meant for the lower bunk, with its window. As we switched places, I was reminded of the famous stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' "A Night at the Opera," when the crush of servants, waiters and charwomen stuffed into Groucho's room burst out into the hallway. When traveling with kids, it doesn't hurt to have a sense of humor -- and an appreciation for the absurd.
Eve was immediately comfortable with the train's rhythms. So excited was she to observe the train's progress, it was difficult to get her to lie down to sleep. Making our way in and out of stations, riding over moonlit bridges and discovering that, at one point, our path took us only a few feet away from the ocean shore kept her riveted to the window.
Would that Morgan enjoyed the trip as much. She cried more than usual that first night. On the trip home, however, she had the better part of a restful night's sleep.
The conductor rapped on our door at 6:30 a.m., bearing drinks and an assortment of breads and cream cheese. Eve felt devilishly lucky to eat breakfast in bed -- and to escape our usual admonitions when she spilled the juice and jelly. We were just thankful for the hot coffee. We were all wide awake when the train pulled into Boston's South Station on schedule.
Three days later we were chugging our way back to Washington. Now train-traveling veterans, we found the return trip easier all around -- and because of a nighttime snowfall, particularly memorable. We're already planning another adventure by rail on the Capitol Limited from Washington to Chicago.
Round-trip tickets on Amtrak's Night Owl from Washington to Boston are $120 for adults, $60 for children 2 to 11. Prices are slightly higher during certain holidays. Round-trip sleeper charges are additional: $114 for one bed, $190 for two beds. For Amtrak information, call 202-484-7540.
Geoffrey Aronson travels frequently with his family.