With President Obama chartering the Georgia 300 for his inaugural and celebrities such as Dan Aykroyd and shampoo-and-tequila magnate John Paul DeJoria maintaining their own well-appointed railcars, the preferred method of travel for the Victorian rich, dubbed Private Varnish, is making a discreet comeback. Step onto one of the 130 or so private Amtrak-certified railcars around the country and you'll see why: It's everything a cramped seat in a cigar tube with tiny portholes isn't. Most feature multiple sitting rooms and sleeping quarters with real beds and chairs, full kitchens, and even rear decks for enjoying a nightcap while America slides by. Private cars typically latch on to Amtrak trains, then uncouple in cities here and there (or at resorts that still maintain sidings from the Gilded Age, like Saratoga Springs, New York, and the Greenbrier, in West Virginia), giving you your own lodge downtown. In a private car, say devotees, the transportation itself becomes the vacation.
Preview vintage cars at the open-to-the-public private-railcar convention, in Chattanooga this September. Ready to take the plunge? Amtrak-ready cars start at $275,000; or plan to spend around six figures to update the electric and other systems on your own salvaged car. Among the great fixer-uppers now available: the sleek stainless-steel 1935 Mark Twain Zephyr [$600,000; railmerchants.net]. If you don't have half a million dollars lying around, then chartering is your best bet: Pick a route and check Aaprco.com or Privaterailcars.net for cars based at either end. Expect to pay $7,500 per day for eight people.