Travel by train across the continent was always on our “bucket list” and when the invitation came for a long overdue family visit to Ottawa, my wife and I thought it was a great opportunity to fly there and take the train back. Why not see if “getting there is half the fun?”
Checking with VIA Rail resulted in a bit of a cold shower; the cost of sleeper accommodation was much more than we could afford. Not wanting to give up, we decided to check Amtrak for a similar journey across the U.S. and, to our pleasant surprise, their rate was far more reasonable. So, our trip planning took on a different dimension. We decided to go by rail from Ottawa for a few days to New York City and Washington D.C. and then take the train home from there. Travel and accommodation arrangements made online, we packed for the trip.
Ten wonderful days were spent with our family in Ottawa before taking VIA Rail’s early morning two-hour shuttle to Montreal. A comfortable, several-times-a-day commuter, it was our connection to the Amtrak train leaving for New York City. Transfer was simple and we were in our reserved seats of the “Adirondack” line, said to be one of the most scenic rail trips, and looked forward to this daylong journey.
Seating on trains is far more comfortable than even business class on an aircraft: big cushy reclining seats, fold-down tables, lots of legroom and the opportunity to walk around at will. The train chugged south and halted at the U.S. border for customs and immigration. After a more rigorous inspection than when flying or crossing by car, we soon continued our journey to New York City.
This is early spring and trees are just budding; we travel along the shoreline cottages of Lake Champlain, then follow the Champlain-Hudson Canal.
Late that evening we arrive at Penn Station - our first time in New York City, and it’s almost midnight when we are settled in our hotel.
Next morning in brilliant sunshine, we hit the streets and it was love at first sight. We had great accommodation, the most wonderful six days of prowling the city, perfect weather, friendly natives – we decided our next visit would be longer. Much could be written about our experiences but we had a train to catch!
Seated in business class for the three-hour commuter run to Washington D.C., it is a better-sprung coach with even more comfortable seats and free beverages – much smoother and more pleasant than the ride from Montreal. There are many “suits” onboard travelling to the capital on this warm and sunny day. We roll by the bedroom communities of New York City, Trenton, N.J., Philadelphia, P.A., Wilmington, D.E., Baltimore, M.D. - all brief stops with a glimpse of the cities both interesting and entertaining. We arrive at Union Station, Washington D.C., and are in for a treat: the station is a stunningly well-kept architectural gem, more like a palace with soaring vaulted ceilings, marble and statuary, and trendy restaurants - all of it humming with activity!
The capital of the U.S. is a tourist Mecca. It’s the “must-see” destination for monuments, museums, the Capitol and the White House: a feast for the senses. We are on the go for five days before packing up for the long train ride home.
We were advised that it was best to check large suitcases and only use our carry-on luggage, so we packed accordingly. At the stately Union Station, we confirm our journey: the “Capitol Limited” overnight to Chicago, a five-hour layover and transfer to the famous “Empire Builder” for the run to Seattle and bus from there to Vancouver. Luggage checked in, the sleeper passenger’s lounge takes hand baggage for safekeeping; we are free to sit down to a nice lunch in one of the restaurants.
Time to board the double-decked “Superliner” and, finding our sleeper compartment on the upper level, we are greeted by an attendant who explains all the facilities. The comfortable couch pulls out to be a bed wide enough for two, plus there is an upper bunk, a pull-down centre table, armchair, little closet, vanity with sink, A/C controls, a 110 volt plug, private toilet/shower combo, and lots of towels. We marvel at its compact but comfortable functionality. Minutes later, another attendant takes reservations for dinner: all meals and beverages are included in the ticket price. This is a civilized way to travel!
Smooth track, lovely scenery: Potomac River Valley, the Appalachian Trail running parallel; Harper’s Ferry, Shenandoah River confluence; all very pretty and steeped in history highlighted station-by-station in the little railway pamphlet provided. Before we know it, it’s dark and time to claim our dining car reservation.
Tables for four are set in white with fresh flowers. Seated with a pleasant couple, we peruse the menu, which offers steak, chicken, salmon and pasta dishes. I order the steak and it’s perfect, while my wife enjoys the herb roasted chicken. A glass of wine and good conversation; this is like a cruise!
At bedtime, the attendant converts the seating and lays out bedding. We practise some fancy footwork while we undress in the now reduced floor space but manage well.
Awaking early next morning, we look out upon sunny Indiana and after a nice hot shower, the day looks good. Breakfast is near South Bend while greening fields, forests, and neat towns, the “heartland U.S.A.,” roll by the diner’s window.
Although Chicago’s Union Station is the namesake of the beauty in D.C., this is just utilitarian. However, the original lovely station across the street is being refurbished to its old glamour. The Amtrak lounge once again hosts our carry-on bags and, with about four hours to spare, we take a 10-minute cab ride to downtown where we stroll the “Magnificent Mile” of Michigan Avenue. The street is ablaze with tulips and we work up an appetite for a deep-dish pizza lunch. A little shopping for snacks and a bottle of wine for the next leg - yes, you can take your own alcohol aboard – and we taxi back to the station.
We are now “seasoned travellers” and the identical layout of the sleeper compartment on the famed “Empire Builder” holds no mysteries. But still, just to be different, we get a little bag of toiletries (a la airline business class), some nice chocolates and then, “welcome aboard” with a couple of small bottles of champagne!
This leg of our journey begins at 2 p.m. and Illinois gives way to the Wisconsin of rolling farmland and dairies, which is very picturesque in the bright green of awakening spring. The scenery is ever changing and we try to break away from the window to read a bit, but enjoying the view is a better pastime.
We have a glass of wine before dinner and arrive in the dining car for our 6:30 p.m. reservation. The menu: grilled fresh walleye pike, barbecued-smoked pork ribs, chicken and lasagna - I must try the pike and my wife orders the lasagna. Both meals were wonderful and our conversation with the two women at our table made for a nice evening.
In Wisconsin’s Lakes Country, we watch the gorgeous setting sun and then cross into Minnesota. Preparing for bed, we take a mild sleeping pill to counter the expected train whistles and rocking. It worked. Next morning, day two, we are more rested and welcome North Dakota. We slept through Minneapolis, Fargo, and Grand Forks and now after a breakfast of corned beef hash and eggs (yummy), the endless prairie fields of last year’s wheat stubble roll by. Stopping in Minot, N.D. for half an hour, we get off to stretch our legs and find we have the “wobblies” - sea legs, like after a boat ride.
Spring is yet to come to North Dakota: bare trees, brown grass, cooler temperatures keeping patches of snow while melt-water puddles teem with happily frolicking ducks. Just past Williston, we pass into Mountain Time and Montana. The reason this state is called “Big Sky Country” is obvious. The vista is limitless, and it is getting hillier. More history passes by: this is Sitting Bull’s and Little Big Horn’s land.
The landscape is changing again, now dotted with the dipping beaks of oil pumps; they must be happy here with the resource and the high crude prices. A little surprise is announced: an afternoon wine and cheese tasting at 3:30 p.m. in the diner.
Presenting two reds and two whites from Washington State and three cheeses from Wisconsin, we are having a great time when the maitre’d announces a quiz game with bottles of wine to winners. My smart wife aces one of the questions and we get a bottle of lovely Riesling.
Sitting in our compartment and sipping wine, we get the first glimpse of the Rockies around 6 p.m. The majestic, snowy peaks seem to burst out of the plains of Montana and we feel the strain of the uphill climb as our speed decreases.
At dinner I order the ribs: moist, smoky, juicy, amazing - and on a train! I am gnawing on bones as we cut through Maria’s Pass at 5,200 feet (1585 m); awesome scenery of deep canyons, snow, impossibly narrow ledges for the track through parts of Glacier National Park. It is dark when we reach Whitefish, M.T., and another chance to get off for a leg-stretch.
One more sleep and this time we seem to be more “trained” as we greet day three.* The sun rises over the Columbia Valley; we are in Washington State and slept through the stops in Spokane, Wenatchee, Leavenworth, and now head towards Everett. There are spectacular views of the Columbia Gorge followed by rolling hillsides of fluffy white, like a sea of apple trees in blossom. Through a series of tunnels in the Cascades, twisting tracks along canyons with roaring waters below and snowcaps above, we break out into the Puget Sound area and stop in Everett.
An hour from Seattle, we pack up and prepare to say goodbye. Past Everett, the tracks are so close to the sea it seems like we are floating on water. At 9:30 a.m. we pull into Seattle, claim our checked bags and board the Amtrak bus to Vancouver. By 1 p.m., we are home.
Three days and three nights on the train homebound wasn’t just half, but all the fun! We missed the lineups and security checks of airports, crowded seating on a plane, bad food (if any) and the inevitable jet lag, all at a price very close to airfare.
I can't wait for the next ride!
SEPTEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
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