It's 9am the Friday before St. Patrick's Day. I'm standing in the Amtrak station at Jack London Square in Oakland wearing a green sequined top hat, Mardi Gras beads including a massive blinking shamrock, and a bright green shirt. From the looks of things, I'm a little underdressed.
Around me are people decked out in three-piece shamrock suits, women in sparkly tutus, and one man who looks strikingly like a leprechaun. We're all waiting for the same thing: the Reno Fun Train.
This party on rails has been traveling from the Bay Area since 1963 (barring a brief hiatus in the early 1990s), taking gamblers and vacationers through snowy California to The Biggest Small City in the World. The train, now run by Key Holidays in partnership with Amtrak, was originally created as way to bring more tourists to Reno during the winter months, as well as to provide employment opportunities for railroad staff during what is typically a slower season for train travel.
And it's not a bad gig for a magician or an Elvis impersonator to sure—the king of rock-and-roll makes regular appearances here, chatting up guests and crooning in Club Locomotion, the train's dance car; the 15-car convoy also houses first-class and coach cabins, a smoking car, and a piano lounge. While most of the cars look like your average Caltrain, the Gold Car—a first-class option that goes for an additional $80 each way—has festive booths in place of rowed seating and a dome top that offered a birds-eye view of the world as we chugged by.
There is also a dining room where on-board meals are served, and this is where your Gold Car ticket really makes a difference. While your counterparts in coach do their best to choke down chicken pot pies from KFC (and turkey sandwiches on the return), Gold Car guests chow on three-course meals (think salad, a protein such as grilled chicken or a burger, and key lime pie or a brownie for dessert). It's not exactly four-star dining, but it's not half bad, either. Anyway, you'll hardly notice after your four free drinks. You can also BYOB—my group of craft beer-loving friends opted to share a handful of interesting bottles; a group nearby popped a bottle of bubbly after we pulled away from the station.
But save some energy for when you actually do arrive in Reno—it may surprise San Franciscans, but there are burgeoning arts and foodie scenes here. You can also spend Saturday hitting up some of Reno's craft breweries, including the Brewer's Cabinet (ask about the Kegs and Eggs special), Imbib, and the Depot.
All in all, you'll spend about as much time awake in Reno as you do on the train, which departs for the East Bay at 10am on Sunday. Once again, the party ensues, although this time it's a bit more subdued, no matter how much Elvis gyrates.
// The Reno Fun Train runs weekends in February and March, beginning Feb. 23, 2018, with themes including Mardi Gras and St. Patrick's Day, which coincides with the city's annual Leprechaun Crawl. Passengers can book a roundtrip train ticket from Oakland ($279), or opt for a hotel package ($50 to $130 extra) that includes discounted rates at the Silver Legacy, Peppermill, Sands, Circus Circus, and Nugget. For more information, go to keyholidays.com.