Jim & Julie's Rail Travelogue
With the Amtrak/VIA North American Rail Pass
Greetings from the Jim/Julie Travelog-rail this time,
When we return home I look at it as work-sort mail, yard trimming etc. It
takes about a week after each trip to get caught up. Consequently I'm
constantly planning another trip to leave ASAP because as our friends the
Prouts said..." there are so many beautiful places to see/you meet the
nicest people/get educated each day and so little time."
The subject trip was something very few people do and it was so good that
I've already put together another adventure for next year. Want to join
EXPECTATIONS: When we began our clickety clack travels with Dave/Ginny
Bousquet (ages 70 and 65, but think their 55 with their unflappable
adventurous attitude) we anticipated card playing; riding 20 different
trains; sleeping 19 nights on the trains and 12 in hotels; traveling
20166 miles at a cost of $.13-14/mile per person; two clothes washing
times in Boston/Toronto; traveling through 41 of the lower 48 states and
most of the Canadian provinces; having the same five items to choose from
per meal on Amtrak; reading; watching the scenery for animals; arriving
regularly late on Amtrak and having them create some misadventure for us.
(all the above occurred except the latter as we were close to being on
time; early on Canada's Via Rail; the surprises were a couple of hotels).
The North American Rail Pass at $427.50 gives a person unlimited 30 day
coach riding. The money comes in for food, the hotels and upgrades for
the sleeping car accommodations which include the meals.
ACTUAL RESULTS: [Trip began October 18, 2002. -Ed.]
None of us tired of schlepping the bags/rail travel. It
was always an adventure to see something new. On the Coast Starlight
between Los Angeles to Emeryville(Oakland) the very nice Parlour car was
removed since it had asbestos in it and the state of Washington had
denied its entry until it was removed. We had a sightseer/dome car in its
place. An obnoxious person was put off the train in Paso Robles into the
arms of the police.
The next day we caught the Zephyr to Chicago where Julie and I won an
Amtrak deck of cards by correctly identifying the only collegiate athlete
to have been drafted by all three major sports-Dave Winfield. We strained
to pick up the World Series game via radio.
It's a short 20 hours (925 miles) from Chicago to New Orleans where we
had dinner at Emeril Lagasse's NOLA restaurant. Since a bridge was out,
we backed up 10 miles to arrive in Memphis. The towns in
Mississippi/Louisiana are decrepit with lots of trash/junk around.
Amtrak's food prices have increased with a chicken pot pie at lunch being
$8 and yet at dinner a great filet mignon complete meal was only
$18.50(included in our sleeping car cost). Ridership in October/November
is very light and we rarely had to wait to eat our meals on the white
linen table cloth tables. Our sleeping cars were half filled unlike
summer where you have to reserve several months in advance.
Upon arriving in Miami I noticed a dead vulture on the front of the
engine. Hotel.com said our hotel was close to the Amtrak station, but a
$34 one way cab ride in sticky humid weather said differently.
Viewliner(not Superliner) sleeping cars from Miami to New York( 27 hours
and a 30 degree change) and later from Washington D.C. to New Orleans
were superior economy bedrooms with a toilet in them instead of down the
hall plus a DVD player(Men in Black II; Mr. Deeds, Ya Ya Sisterhood)
with better lighting. It was nice to be in the upper bunk and have lots
of head space with a window.
It was the end of October and the leaves were beautifully late in
changing their colors; red/orange/yellow and green. During our three hour
layover we toured the National Postal Museum in D.C. All the trains
between Washington D.C. and Boston are powered by overhead electricity at
110 miles/hour for most trains except the new Acela Express at 150
miles/hour with a very smooth ride. (The Acela regional trains still have
the old equipment so you want to be on their Express to experience the
best Amtrak has to offer). The door between the cars is clear so you can
see into the next car and it's flat/smoother walking between cars where
the doors open automatically. All seats have tables with computer outlets
and we played cards for the five hour run with the train being half
filled. It was here that we made the acquaintance of the Mayor and his
staff from Sorrento, Italy who gave us a small bottle of lemon liqueur.
The Acela Express saves 90 minutes off this run, when compared to other
trains, and is the only train with a TV, which was in the cafe car
On Sunday we took a day trip on the Downeaster from Boston to Portland,
Maine with lunch being a tasty 1 1/2 lb. lobster roll at the Doubletree
hotel next to the train station. We recommend spending the $8 to upgrade
to Business Class for all the non alcoholic drinks you can consume, a
newspaper and more comfortable seats. Again the fall colors were
beautiful on this three hour one way trip.
End part one!
31 Day Train Trip- Part Two
The only big city station that was below par was Atlanta-small, no
parking and no first class lounge. It was good that Atlanta was just a 30
minute crew change stop and not where we were boarding. Reaching New
Orleans again we had the morning available and we took the local bus to a
good zoo where we saw two white Bengal tigers and some monkeys/birds
we've never seen before.
Arriving in Chicago(so many trains go through this town) at 10A.M. we
made our noon reservation for a nice Italian lunch at Coco Pazzo's and
then a $20 cab ride to the very interesting Science and Industry Museum.
We enjoyed walking through the diesel powered Pioneer Zephyr("Silver
Streak") which in 1934 averaged 80 miles/hour from Denver to Chicago.
This signalled the end of steam power which was finally phased out
approx. 17 years later. In the farming exhibit I had fun climbing up in a
big modern Deere harvester to see 50 different computerized buttons and
pretend to plow the field by watching the huge movie screen in front of
the harvester. This is an interactive museum where there's fun for all.
At 8:15 P.M. we boarded one of Amtrak's best viewing trains, the
Cardinal, with one Viewliner sleeping car. How could you go wrong with
dinner at 8:45 with generous serving of salmon, roast pork filet mignon
etc. On our way to Washington, D.C. along the Ohio River with its
barges/tugs, the train highballed at its top allowable speed of 79
miles/hour through the beautiful fall colors. Kentucky and West Virginia
were spectacular. The DVD movies didn't work, but we had already seen the
ones that Amtrak was showing for that period. In Charleston, the
beautiful state capital's golden dome was seen. East of Montgomery there
were some nice falls in the Kanawha River when going through the
impressive New River Gorge which featured the longest steel arch span
bridge- over 1700 feet near Fayette, West Virginia.
For five hours in Washington D.C. after spending the night at the Holiday
Inn Capitol we walked our legs off at the Museum of American History(part
of the Smithsonian) and National Aquarium before the three hour ride to
New York. The many government buildings are large and the Smithsonian's
new building will be the study of the American Indian.
Our first misadventure occurred at New York's Best Western Hotel which
was booked through Expedia. com. They only had a queen bed for the four
of us even though our confirmation said two double beds. Where hotels are
high priced we book one room to save money for a few hours sleep. We now
know that Hotel or Expedia .com only guarantee you a room and it could be
one or two beds/smoking or non smoking. It's best to call several days in
advance directly to the hotel to confirm your reservation, but even
that's not fool proof. Calling Expedia, they offered no help which is
like stealing from us. We had the hotel move out the furniture and we
slept on the mattress while the Bosquets enjoyed the box springs set side
by side on the floor. Everyone was a good sport.
The next day it was on to Canada where we looked forward to a new menu
selection from their Via Rail. We took the Adirondack train on the 381
mile beautiful trip to Montreal with 145 miles being along the wide
Hudson River and along Lake Champlain. It was November 3 and the fall
colors were still blazing. We passed West Point, freighters and many long
barges pushed by tugs going up river. Since it was the weekend there was
a National Park Service narrative guide on board who gave us the history
of the Hudson Valley. Amtrak has many of the guides on their trains.
Unlike the Aspens in the West, which change to yellow all in one grove of
trees, the colors are random in the East since all the trees grow
together, wherever. This causes a plethora of colors across the hills.
Getting off our train in downtown Montreal we went upstairs to Fairmont's
Queen Elizabeth hotel and had a beautiful view of the morning's snow
fall, a yellow lighted Christmas tree and the many large buildings. We
spent the day walking four blocks to the subway which took us to the
Biodome at Olympic Park. At their small zoo we saw some unique exhibits-
bats in two caves with enough light to see them fly/land and hang by
their tails; the inside of a beaver lodge where the two animals shared an
apple and carrots after swimming in through their secret entrance. All
the movies were in French so we passed on that killing time event. The
city's underground is huge with many shops, theatres and restaurants.
After seeing the immense St. Catherine's church with gold
statues/paintings, we boarded our 7 P.M. Via Rail trip to Halifax.
31 Day Train Trip- Part Three
Angels Win! Angels Win! Angels Win!
It was nice to be able to see the last three games in our hotel rooms
even if they ended around 1:00 A.M.
Also enjoyable was reading a daily newspaper; we get one delivered to our
train room on the Amtrak rides. Nightly showers are no problem even
though we're rocking on the rails.
Halifax, Nova Scotia was cool/dry and the Westin Hotel next to the train
station tried to put us into a smoking room. After holding firm and the
hotel gave up their "good/bad guy" routine, they were creative and put us
in a very large room with one king bed and two roll aways. This occurred
after we had reconfirmed our no smoking room via telephone two days
earlier. Due to the favorable exchange rate, the room cost each family
$57 US. Halifax is a modern city built on the hills along the waterways
so cruise liners can dock right downtown. This is also the advantage of
trains which usually arrive right downtown of the vibrant large cities.
By use of Westin's free shuttle we went six blocks downtown and had
breakfast with the locals at C'est Si Bon. I had my first coffee au
chocolate and could get addicted to it if it wasn't for the $2.75 price.
We spent our free time shopping in the large mall which continued a long
ways being connected to hotels/businesses-all inside to avoid the 30
degree weather outside. At 1:05 P.M. our overnight train left for
Montreal and the snow. We had adjoining bedrooms so the partition could
be removed to make it into a "suite" complete with a table which we used
to play cards across Canada to Vancouver. In making tough judgements, I'd
say Amtrak's food was preferred, even if the portions were too large, and
Via Rail had the better sleeping accommodations with the beds going
across the room instead of lengthwise. The train lost 65 minutes when it
hit a deer and the antlers injured some cables on the front of the
engine. The ride in the very same car as yesterday was bumpier which we
attributed to the snow on the rails.
Upon arrival back in predominately French speaking Montreal we waited 20
minutes and left on a Via Rail 5 1/2 hour commuter train to English
speaking Toronto. At all the stops Via maintains modern stations unlike
some of the "under funded" Amtrak shacks. This train was the only one
without a cafe car and they sold cold sandwiches by pushing a cart down
the aisle like the airlines. This was an express train which cuts an hour
off the others which make more stops. In Toronto we had our only complete
day off from trains since the schedule couldn't connect any better with
our next train to Vancouver which only runs three days a week. Like
Montreal, Toronto is also large/modern with flat agriculture(corn, hay)
and pastureland along the rail route.
Following our afternoon arrival we walked four blocks from our hotel to
do the laundry. This left the next day free for exploration of the
largest underground shopping center- THE PATH, 6.25 miles; 1200
shops/services; linking 48 office buildings and 6 major hotels. Lunch was
enjoyed against a background of big band sounds with a great view from
Toronto's #1 landmark-CN Tower. It's 115 stories up and revolves every 72
minutes. The underground/above ground at 2 P.M. on a Friday were teeming
with people( why aren't they working?) like New York. The Path, like
Montreal, flows up and down at various levels. Besides the subway, we
also took electric streetcars. On the river front of Lake Ontario there
are many high rise apartment/condos. The city has a high percentage of
minorities with Asians being the largest group.
The last travelog will be there long (number of cars and three nights)
train to Vancouver. Love, Jim
31 Day Train Trip- Part Four and "The End"
9:00 A.M. we left Toronto sitting in the dome /rounded parlour car which
Via calls their Park car at the end of the train. For the next three days
we played cards, had wine tasting and champagne, and good food as we went
across bleak snowy Canada to Vancouver. When the train refueled we got
out to stretch our legs in 15 degree weather at Sioux Lookout, Winnipeg
and Edmonton. After leaving Jasper in the Canadian Rockies we were
treated to sightings of 20 Rocky Mountain Big Horn sheep complete with
rams, deer and two different fox couples(4). Vancouver was its typical
rainy weather and 50 degrees. Via trains usually arrive on time and this
ride was 30 minutes early at 8:20 A.M.
After a three hour bus ride we arrived in Seattle, but not before losing
a young Canadian lady passenger at the border because she didn't have a
return round trip ticket. Prior to boarding our Amtrak sleeping car for
Chicago at 4:45 we had three hours to explore Seattle. One block east of
the station was Chinatown for a good lunch which was a welcomed different
fare than on the trains. Then we walked two blocks for the $1.25
streetcar ride to Pioneer Square(attractions observed which we'll do next
time-underground tour, glass blowing, Klondike Gold Museum with movies)
and to various river front piers(tour Russian submarine, Elliott's for
seafood, aquarium, ride the monorail, go up the space needle). Three of
their five old fashion streetcars were running and were purchased from
After we left on the Empire Builder for Chicago we stopped at Everett,
Washington and surprisingly were greeted by 250 people, Elvis
impersonator, music etc. It seems we were the first train to use their
new station and it was being dedicated. Waking up the next morning we
again were surprised to learn that wonderfully the train was three hours
behind due to a freight derailment near Wenatchee in the night. This made
for outstanding viewing from the dome sightseer car going through
Montana's Rocky Mountain/Glacier National Park which normally isn't seen
due to night time schedule. We were rewarded with sections of the
Kootenai River being turquoise color; two moose in the river; an eagle
which Ginny spotted; beautiful Tamarack trees turned yellow mixed in with
the green pine trees.(we were told that these are the only pine trees to
lose their needles) for a great looking forest. On board we watched My
Big Fat Greek Wedding and passed on Spiderman.
The next morning in Minnesota we followed the large barges on the
Mississippi River for 140 miles; onto Wisconsin and arriving in the city
of really tall buildings, windy Chicago at 6:45(90 minutes late). After
storing our bags the following morning at Amtrak's Metropolitan Lounge,
we walked two blocks to the Brown Line El(elevated) train ($1.80 to go
all over Chicago) to the Merchandise Mart. Unfortunately it was mostly
offices/show rooms with only some shops on the first floor. The Board of
Trade was closed after 9/11 so we spent two hours riding the EL seeing
the sights. That afternoon we boarded the Southwest Chief to Fullerton on
our final journey. We waited two hours at Fort Madison, Iowa to cross the
Mississippi River since the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad
personnel couldn't get the bridge down to lock. Consequently it was an
hour late arriving at home base.
We all thought this was a great adventure! Sightseeing, eating well,
listening to our CD's, playing cards, reading and listening to our
traveling comedian, Dave Bousquet, made the trip always entertaining.. If
any of you would like to join us next October SCHLEPPING BAGS all over
the USA/CANADA feel free!
December will be spent at our usual Y's Men Tree Lot earning money for
one of our favorite charities-YMCA. May you all be blessed with Happy and
Jim and Julie