Polar Express FRONTIER
Chasing the spirit of Christmas, JACINTA TYNAN discovers a winter wonderland
Ever since a young boy in his blue dressing gown and slippers was transported to the North Pole on board the Polar Express which pulls up at his bedroom window ‘wrapped in an apron of steam’, a generation of children have dreamed of being bestowed the same exclusive passage.
In a small town just west of Flagstaff, Arizona, on Route 66, they can. Because it’s here that such magic awaits.
Each winter during the festive season the Polar Express departs twice nightly from historic Williams bound for “The North Pole”.
Thousands of excited children — and grown-ups — including me and my two boys, true believers, many decked out in their winter PJs like the boy in the story — the book and the movie — clamber aboard each year clutching their copies of The Polar Express (stocked, handily, at the station gift shop) to take their seat in this 1985 Christmas classic reimagined.
By day, and every other time of the year, this train is part of the historic Grand Canyon Railway which, apart from a two-decade hiatus to 1989, , has been chugging gg g adventurers to the Canyon since 1901. The diesel locomotives and grand carriages are all original, each with their own unique history, acquired from train services across the US and restored and refurbished to retain their quaint vintage charm with wood panelled walls and upholstered bench seats.
These cars are souped up for yuletide with festoons of twinkly lights and mistletoe garlands, inside and out.
Us Polar Express ticket holders are greeted at the door not by Tom Hanks, who played the conductor in the 2004 animated film but, pretty close, complete with gold pocket watch, who makes his way down the aisle punching each ticket with a smiley face.
A band of merry ‘chefs’ weave between the seats serving warm choc chip cookies while balancing a teetering pyramid of hot chocolates.
“Welcome aboard The Polar Express” booms the conductor, and we’re spirited off to relive the adventure so familiar to children all around the world, many of whom have come from far flung homelands especially for this moment.
There’s a communal Polar Express read-along, the voice of author Chris Van Allsburg narrating his famous story as the chefs hold the pages aloft for all to see.
No book necessary for most kids who are quite familiar with every word. (The Polar Express movie on repeat loop at Williams rail depot also helps refresh the storyline). There’s a Christmas carol sing-a-long too, all the old favourites, as we thunder northward through the ‘wilderness’ closer and closer to The North Pole. Eventually, the train slows to a crawl, the conductor urges us to keep our eyes peeled, the entire carriage of festive revellers chanting “I believe, I believe” as wide-eyed kids compete with a bustle of poised iPhones, pressing their faces against the windows for a closer look.
And, lo and behold, out of the darkness, Santa’s reindeer appear nestled in the snow beside a team of cheery elves, his workshop festooned with a blaze of lights.
There’s Mrs Claus, waving furiously and, could it be? The big man himself clutching his belly and ho-ho-ing, straight out of central casting.
Nobody sees him do it. Santa’s crafty like that. But the next thing he’s on board, bursting through the carriage doors like a rockstar, singing autographs, posing for selfies and presenting each child with a silver sleigh bell, just like the one so beautifully illustrated in the book, ‘the first gift of Christmas’.
The Christmas magic doesn’t need to end there. And for most P.E. visitors it doesn’t. True Christmas tragics often combine their visit to Flagstaff with a stop-off at The North Pole. Yes, you read that right. Portals for the North Pole Experience (known as NPX) depart Flagstaff twice a day from November until December 28 whisking families off to Santa’s Grand Workshop with special access to the factory floor and his top secret ‘Area 47’ Sleigh Hangar housing his famous sleigh and mission control. They work side by side with the elves building toys, earning their Elf Diploma from Elf University.
The Polar Express and NPX are the drawcard for some 180,000 tourists to Flagstaff every northern winter but the city is a magical destination at the best of times.
On New Year’s Eve locals gather in the snow to count down a giant pinecone which drops from a 120-year-old hotel in the old town square. A pioneer timber and railroad town along Route 66, Flagstaff retains its historic charm with a streetscape of original and mid century buildings, many of them pubs and restaurants specialising in South West USA and Mexican cuisine from just across the border.
American grill is the go at the iconic Black Bart’s Steakhouse — all Wild West swing doors, moose heads and wagon wheels — where the wait staff belt out show tunes while dropping plate-swallowing steaks before us then leaping to the stage to finish the number.
Several original Flagstaff stores have stayed the distance including Babbitts ‘Ranchers and Merchants’ started by the five Babbit brothers in 1888 and still going strong, now an outdoor outfitter with all you need to equip you for the snow capped mountains beyond. From central Flagstaff you can be in the heart of The Grand Canyon in an hour-and-a-half, an easy day trip.
A day trip which begins for many pioneers, like us, with breakfast at the Grand Canyon Cafe which has been serving up classics like Southwestern skillet, green chile burritos and chop suey (a nod to the original Chinese owners) to Route 66 travellers since 1942. It might be funkier these days but remains hallmark old American diner where famished lumberjacks come to refuel alongside tourists like us. My boys prop up the soda bar devouring stacked pancakes and sky high milkshakes with a cherry on top.
We’re at the south rim of the Grand Canyon by mid morning, hopping from one breathtaking lookout to the next, stunned into uncharacteristic silence by the vast gaping vista surrounding us. There’s a more hard core way to do the Grand Canyon, hiking into the steep valley 1.8 kms below for a spot of river rafting or camping. But with children in tow, this is the go: full frontal exposure to the awesomeness of nature — one of the Seven Natural Wonders of The World, no less — via a gentle amble along the partially paved rim trail from south to north.
Kids aged 4-14 can qualify as Junior Rangers here — and at most US National Parks — by
learning about the local history and nature and taking a pledge to protect the environment. My boys become Junior Rangers at Walnut Canyon too, 15 minutes from Flagstaff, which we hike the next day beside 12th century ancient cave dwellings, sketching native cactuses and hugging giant fir trees.
We also go skiing in Flagstaff. Arizona Snowbowl, an eight-lift ski resort as good as any you’d find back home, is just 20 minutes away. Even in a slow snow winter, snowmaking does the trick with 2300 vertical feet of runs for me and ski school for the kids.
We’re back in town in time to take in the constellations of the northern winter sky at the Lowell Observatory, which they’ve been doing here since1894. We spend an awe inspiring evening peering through the original Clark telescope which was used to map the moon for the Apollo program in the 1960s. Lowell’s other humble credentials include discovering Pluto in 1930 and the rings of Uranus in 1977. The Apollo astronauts practised driving the moon buggy at nearby Cinder Lake Crater Field created by NASA for its moon-like topography.
Flagstaff is a Winter wonderland hitting peak form at Christmas, although it’s evident it retains its beauty all year ‘round. We wake to squirrels and woodpeckers in the trees outside our window at The Little America Hotel, much to my kids’ delight. It’s these critters they talk about most in the months since our visit. And the night they jumped aboard The Polar Express.
As another Christmas approaches and those memories start to fade, a tiny silver bell sits beside their beds, and they can still hear its “sweet sound”, proof that they didn’t imagine a thing.
The Grand Canyon is stunning in winter with snow all around
Sky News Presenter and author Jacinta Tynan and her children stayed as a guest of Flagstaff Convention & Visitors Bureau and Little America Hotel