When I was in college, I dreamed of being a food writer. I wanted to travel the world, eat some of the most delicious meals, and write all about it. And let me tell you, dreams really do come true. As the Managing Editor of Wide Open Eats, I write, edit, and dive into everything that gets published on the site with a fine-toothed comb. I'm always pushing our writers to add their personality into the article, so whenever I get a chance to personally cover a story, I jump on it. And in this case, it was a wine train only an hour away in the small town of Bryson City, North Carolina.
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad has been in operation since 1988 hosting tourist excursions of the beautiful and scenic Nantahala Gorge and Tuckasegee River. The GSMR offers trips ranging from 3 1/2 hours to full-day excursions. During the year the company also offers special event trains including a Carolina Shine train, a pumpkin patch express, a Polar Express train during the holidays, and a wine train, which I got to personally experience.
For $125 a person, guests on the Uncorked experience can expect plush dining room seating, wine samples, and a four-course gourmet meal while enjoying the beautiful scenery in a first class car.
With a fresh Starbucks in our tummies, my train-riding companion and I arrived at the Bryson City depot with time to spare so we putzed around in the train museum (which is included in the ticket price) and had a ton of fun watching the model trains. Before we knew it, it was time to board the train ride.
The train was beautiful and we were escorted to a small table nestled against the window. A glass of wine and a cheese board were already on the table so we started to nibble and take a few photos and video shots. The wine was a Cava Brut from Spain and paired quite nicely with the cheese.
The train car soon filled up and not too long later the train began its 32 mile-roundtrip journey to Dillsboro on the Tuckasegee River excursion.
Once the wheels got rolling, our second course was placed in front of us. The menu showed a pumpkin bisque soup with toasted hazelnuts; something I was quite looking forward to. Unfortunately, the soup was served at room temperature with a sad sprinkling of slivered almonds. My partner and I both took a couple of spoonfuls and set the bowl aside, which prompted the server to ask if there was anything wrong.
"Yes, the soup is cold," I told her, spoon in my hand.
"Oh, I'm sorry about that." She replied, whisking the bowls of soup away, never to be seen again. At least we had a second glass of wine (a Cotes de Rhone Blanc) to nurse while looking out at the scenery. Or, the lack of it.
I was expecting trees. I was expecting rushing rivers, and paths and rocks. I got a little bit of that but I also got to see a lot of trailer parks, some cars in the river (which have been there since the 1950s), and pieces of trash along the railroad tracks. I know it was in the middle of winter in western North Carolina, but I didn't realize the train would be running right beside the same exact road we drove on to get to Bryson City from Asheville.
Just a few minutes later, another wine glass was poured (mind you, the third glass in less than an hour) and you could tell everyone on the train was starting to feel the wine a tad bit. We were served a chardonnay along with our main course- baked salmon with a Dijon cream sauce, beef slices with port wine reduction, carrot souffle, and creamy mushroom and spinach orzo. A big bush of parsley (bigger than my beef) laid on my plate. A server brought over a glass of cabernet sauvignon to enjoy with the meat (here we go, glass #4).
The salmon seemed a tad overdone and the beef was forgettable, but the carrot souffle, which honestly tasted a ton like sweet potato casserole, was superb. The train slowed to a stop and we were let off in Dillsboro for an hour and a half to walk around the shops or grab a beer or two at the local brewery.
We were to be back on the train by 2:15, and on the dot, the train started to depart. At this point in the journey, you could tell everyone was feeling really good. The woman at the table behind us was passed out against the window and at another table across the car, a man was having a lot of trouble trying to figure out how to take off his sweater. The train car was swelling with laughter and merriment. Our car host was knowledgeable and talked about the history of the region, something that I really enjoyed about the trip.
Our final glass of wine was poured for us and a plate of cheesecake was set down. It was okay; at most. It reminded me of a cheesecake you could get from a grocery store bakery department. The wine was too sweet for my boyfriend so he handed me the glass and waved down the server to buy a glass of the cava to enjoy. After 10 minutes the wine sommelier arrived with two glasses, "Couldn't remember if it was one or two, so I got you two!" Before I could dispute the mix-up, the sommelier had already rushed to another table.
We smiled and accepted the wine, tipping our glasses together. The train started the hour and a half ride back to Bryson City, and we spent the rest of the ride chatting and people-watching the other guests in the car. Like clockwork, the servers handed out bills, on ours was for two glasses of wine.
After disputing the bill and waiting another ten minutes we finally got off the train and waved goodbye to Bryson City.
Would I do it again? No. I was so excited about the food and wine, yet the food felt like a second-thought throughout the journey. The plating was simple, and for $125 a person, I expected something much grander, or at least seasoned properly and served at the right temperature. I could excuse the scenery because I know how barren trees get in the winter, and heck, I could excuse the weird timing of courses, but something that really bothered me was the simple things one would expect from a fine dining experience. Warm soup, properly seasoned meats, small decorative touches that made it seem like a meal worth over $100 to enjoy. I feel that it's unfair to add a sprig of parsley and call it a garnish.
Perhaps I'm being too hard. A week before I had gone on the train, I was in Paris enjoying food and wine at a Michelin Star restaurant. For $130 dollars a head we enjoyed seven courses of gourmet food (including pigeon!) with wine pairings. So is it completely fair to pit those two experiences against each other? Probably not.
So that's why I would love to experience one of Great Smoky Mountain Railroads more popular rides, like the Moonshine Experience to compare the two. They only offer the Uncorked event a few times a year, however, the Moonshine Experience is offered every single day in July, August, September, and October. Numbers like that don't lie, so it must be something real special, and I can't wait to try it out myself.