DALTON

We finally gave up our snow shovels and headed for the sun. Unwilling to travel by a sardine can with wings, we opted for the romance of the rails. At Penn Station in New York City, we climbed aboard "The Crescent" bound for New Orleans. While Amtrak still has improvements to make if they expect growth in passenger rail travel, our experience was a mostly positive one.

Refusing to sit up for 31 hours in a coach seat, we booked what is called a "Roomette" -- and boy was it ever tiny. Two facing armchairs fold together to become a lower berth while an upper berth drops down from the ceiling. When the beds are made up, there is enough room for one pair of feet on the floor in front of the door, near where a toilet and folding sink are located. Truly the organization of this Lilliputian space gives new meaning to the word "compact."

When the beds are stowed, the space blossoms with head and leg room. There is even a fold-down table near the window, perfect for playing cards or working. There are also cup holders, a trash bin, and a coat rack with space for two hangars. All this and the gentle sway of a moving train with scenery speeding by your window.

Granted we saw a lot of rusty commercial buildings and garbage-strewn embankments from the window; but we also saw beautiful city skylines along the Eastern seaboard, and blue herons and white ibis fishing in small streams across the South. Sadly, we slept through both the Carolinas; but we woke for breakfast in Atlanta, Ga.

The dining car provides three meals a day on a fixed schedule, with a lounge car providing smaller meals and beverages all day. Dining car meals are included with the price of the sleeping car, so we took all our meals there. They still have cloth covers on the tables and fresh flowers in vases by the windows. The menu is limited; but there was always more than one satisfactory option -- including vegetarian fare.

Because the train was fully booked, we shared tables with other couples for most meals. We especially enjoyed the company of a husband and wife from England, who were traveling all the way to the West Coast. He was a retired employee of British Rail, who truly loved train travel. This was their third transcontinental trip, and at every stop possible, they hopped off the train so he could take a picture of his wife in front of the station sign. Many of the other couples we met were also retirees, traveling for fun or to see family members in other states. We received lots of travel tips for our short stay in the Big Easy.

The scenery in the South surprised me. We saw hundreds of miles of uninhabited land. We saw multitudes of poor, ramshackle houses. As we moved into Mississippi, we began to see more creeks and swampland. By the time we reached Louisiana, the amount of water increased dramatically, reaching a crescendo as we traveled on a causeway right across Lake Pontchartrain near the outskirts of New Orleans.

The best part of train arrivals is that they occur right in the middle of a city. When the train stopped in New Orleans at 7:30 in the evening, we could see the lights of the Superdome and other downtown buildings. It was a very brief cab ride to our hotel, so we were able to continue our holiday with a stroll down Canal Street within half an hour. The lure of Bourbon Street was great; but the lure of a king-size, stationary bed was stronger, so we wandered back to the hotel and climbed happily into bed.

Anne Horrigan Geary is a regular Eagle contributor.