With 250 different tours to choose from, Great Rail Journeys Tour Managers have the opportunity to lead rail holidays all over the world. When asked to name his favourite tour, veteran TM Nick Firth doesn't hesitate to choose USA Coast to Coast.
"When I did my first 'Coast to Coast', I was told it has a wow factor," admits Nick, who has led more than 50 tours for Great Rail Journeys. "And it really does".
It is certainly an impressive sounding itinerary, spread over 21 days, crossing the US from the Atlantic to the Pacific and visiting some of the most popular destinations in America along the way, including New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco. There are also some superb scenic railway journeys, a visit to the spectacular Grand Canyon and a journey across the Rocky Mountains.
When pressed on exactly what it is that creates the "wow factor", Nick finds it hard to put his finger on the reason.
"From the hustle and bustle of 24-hour New York, to the stunning Rocky Mountains and the incredible Grand Canyon, and San Francisco where nobody ever looks out of place, this is a truly unique trip."
Nick has led tours as simple as "Yorkshire Christmas Markets", and as challenging as the "Trans-Siberian Express", escorting groups for Great Rail Journeys in the UK, Italy, Germany, France, Vietnam, Austria, Russia and India. But USA Coast to Coast has proven to be his most popular; Nick will soon lead his tenth US holiday by rail, a privilege that he assures us "does not diminish with repeated visits". So what is it that tips the balance?
"I think it's the sheer diversity of the tour that makes it my favourite", he finally decides. "There's the elegance and sophistication of Washington DC, the incredible buzz of New York, the vibrancy of Chicago, the beauty of Rocky Mountains National Park and the awe-inspiring scenery of the Grand Canyon. Then there's the totally different atmosphere on the west coast - the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles and Hollywood, the unforgettable views of the Pacific coastline on the Coast Starlight train, the remarkable character and hilly streets of San Francisco, and the infamous prison island of Alcatraz."
And in the middle of all that is the mighty Grand Canyon, which Nick cites as the tour's stand-alone highlight: "Awesome is a much over-used word today, but it barely describes the view from the South Rim, or more particularly from the air", he says. "It is my favourite, but only by a hair's breadth over Monument Valley, and the Rockies."
It is not an unusual thing to hear; so often, it is the awe-inspiring scenery, rather than the big cities and attractions, which customers and Tour Managers are eager to praise.
There are also several lesser-known highlights on the 21-day tour, which Nick doesn't hesitate to point out; "The guided tour of Queen Mary is not to be missed, as it is absolutely fascinating." After finishing her career as an ocean-liner (and a WWII troopship), Queen Mary is now permanently docked in Long Beach, California - somewhere she has been since her retirement in 1967. Today, Queen Mary is a floating hotel with three world-class restaurants.
"The Durango and Silverton Railway is another highlight, because it gives a sense of what it must have been like when the railway was built, looking over the side of the carriage at the sheer drop to the river below, and marvelling at how short a time it took to build with the equipment they had at the time.
With so much to see along the way, Nick has no doubt that the travelling by train is the very best way to discover the US, its people and the fascinating continent on which America was founded.
"Crossing the USA by train is just fantastic because you get to see the way Americans live by making the journey through their communities in the countryside, through the cities and mountains. Taking the train is one of the slower ways to cross America, so you also have the chance to see the countryside and take it all in, especially the vastness. Heading through the Rockies is always a standout, as is travelling along the Colorado River - in some places where other vehicles just can't go."