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ON THE RAILROAD AGAIN: Trains, Planes, Boats and More Trains Around North America

ON THE RAILROAD AGAIN: Trains, Planes, Boats and More Trains Around North America

Old Aug 8, 20, 4:58 am
Original Poster
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Airlines Million Miler, United Airlines Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond Level
Posts: 9,946
ON THE RAILROAD AGAIN: Trains, Planes, Boats and More Trains Around North America

NOTE: This report covers travel that took place back in October and November of 2019. Although I started writing the report back then and got about halfway through it, a number of factors contributed to my putting it off until last month. If you are one who prefers your trip reports to be more current, please be forewarned.

It’s that time of year again – time to come up with a plan for how I’m going to spend the next seven and a half months now that my perennial summer employment in Denali National Park has once again come to an end.

This is not a particularly happy time for me. Unlike some, I love my job. Yes it’s true - I’m one of those lucky people who actually enjoys going to work each day. My job is pretty easy, too. Five days a week it is my good fortune and privilege to drive 48 of America’s most tenacious travelers on an eight hour 134 mile journey through the wilds of Denali National Park. Along the way we get to see some of the world’s finest subarctic landscapes spiced up with exciting sightings of moose, caribou, grizzly bear and Dall Sheep. Occasionally we might even get to see one of Denali’s less commonly seen animals such as a wolf, a fox or if we’re really lucky - a wolverine.

Grizzly Bear
This is one of the best looking Grizzlies I've ever seen. Look at that fur! Like he just came from the fur dresser!

Wolves in the road along west Polychrome

I generally enjoy seeing wildlife every bit as much as the next guy, but what I truly enjoy most about my job is the scenery and the social interaction with my passengers throughout the trip. The scenery in particular is spectacular and different each day depending upon the weather and the time of my run. On a sunny day the colors and textures are really highlighted to astonishing effect. I often advise my passengers – don’t just see a mountain or a valley. Take in the entire picture and revel in the colors, the textures, the shadowing.

Evening shadows color Fang Mountain and the Savage River canyon
This picture would take on an entirely different mood were it 9:00am on a clear summer morning

Polychrome close up with glaciers and fireweed

Thoroughfare Valley's Autumn Colors
As seen from the trail below Eielson Visitor Center

Behind the scenery are fascinating histories of volcanism, sedimentation, glaciology and uplift resulting from tectonic subduction. Then there are stories about the animals, the human history, the park history… I get a lot of questions from my riders and that interaction is a huge part of what makes my job so enjoyable.

If it were up to me our season in Denali would last eight months out of the year. Unfortunately, Mother Nature has other ideas. By mid-September the leaves have fallen, the grasses have turned from green to yellow to grey, most of the birds have flown south and night time temperatures are dipping into the twenties. A mantle of fresh snowfall colors the high peaks and with each passing week it moves lower and lower until finally it reaches us down in the valleys. Most years our last day of operation is about September 15th. The first day of snowfall on the road can be anywhere from mid-August to late September. Back in 1992 it snowed 14” on September 8th and closed the park down a week early. Another year we didn’t receive our first significant snowfall until December. Regardless, the busses stop running by mid-September and so I must pack up my truck and head back home to my cabin in the woods outside of Fairbanks.

* * * _  _ * * *

I’ve never been one to sit around all winter waiting for spring to come. Those that do are usually the ones that fall victim to maladies such as SADS or Seasonal Affective Disorder Syndrome. That’s a fancy term for winter time depression, apparently brought on by hormonal changes resulting from diminished daylight. That and diminished levels of vitamin D.

I first moved up to Fairbanks back in 1989 and I still find winter every bit as alluring and exciting as I did during my first winter 30 years ago. Yes, it can get cold – sometimes extremely so – and the days are definitely shorter. It is hardly dark, though. On December 20th – the shortest day of the year – the sun rises at about 11:00am and sets at about 2:45pm. The path of the sun is quite low – i.e. a very gentle ascent and descent on the southeastern horizon – the result being that the sun doesn’t plunge but rather eases below the horizon and so there’s a good amount of quality twilight on either side of sunrise and sunset. By mid-January – just three weeks after winter solstice – we’re already gaining 3-4 minutes per day of additional sunlight. By March we’re gaining about seven minutes per day – almost an hour per week.

My approach to not only surviving but thriving during the winter months in Fairbanks is simple. Have a reason to get up each day. Wake up with things to do – things you look forward to doing. Some days that might be as simple as going out to lunch with friends. Or going to work – especially if it’s a job you enjoy. The Fairbanks North Star Borough has a population approaching 100,000. It is home to the second largest university in the state as well as two military bases. There are winter festivals, sporting events, theater companies, a symphony orchestra, lots of live music and an abundance of great restaurants around town.

So, while I’m in town – between all of the activities mentioned above, not to mention interacting with friends in the area – I’m a pretty busy guy. And a happy guy. I mean who’s got time for winter time depression? Life goes on regardless. Get on with it.

That said, travel is and always has been something I enjoy and pursue vigorously throughout the year. Heck – it’s in my DNA. When I was a little kid, I spent a lot of time thinking about it. Since I’ve been an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time doing it, to the tune of 5.6 million miles flown and about 1.5 million traveled via terrestrial conveyances. If I’ve got some extended free time, for sure I’m gonna use some of it to take a trip or two to somewhere interesting.

I’ve often written about my travels and, since 2001, I have published many trip reports here on FlyerTalk. Some of you may even be familiar with me. As Seat 2A, I’ve authored seventy-nine trip reports totaling almost 1.4 million words. And that’s just the trips I‘ve actually written about. Heck, I just got back from a two week trip to Australia’s Queensland that I didn’t bother to write about despite having flown down there in Business Class on American and back in Business Class on Qantas. Fifteen years ago writing about a trip such as this would have been a no-brainer but the reality for me these days is that I’m starting to tire out with regard to writing about your basic everyday premium class flight experience to wherever it may be. Indeed, I’ve still got a trip report to complete from my First Class trip down to Australia two years ago. That trip included over and back in First Class aboard the A380 with all-Business Class travel around Australia including Alice Springs, Tasmania, Brisbane and Perth. Somehow though, I’m finding it difficult to find the inspiration to complete that report in a timely manner. As much as I’ve enjoyed writing these reports over the years, if I didn’t know better I might think I was depressed.

But no, depressed people don’t dream up, plan and subsequently travel on trips such as the one I now present for your consideration. This one’s a doozy – one of my finer efforts if I don’t say so myself. Let’s take a moment or two to talk about how it all came to fruition.

* * * _  _ * * *

Way back in June, I came across an Alaska Airlines Club 49 deal offering travel between Fairbanks and Boston for $199.00 each way. The fare was valid for travel in October and November. I had no real reason to travel out to Boston but at the same time I’m always on the lookout for good low cost fares that’ll allow me to add more mileage to my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan account. After last year’s late autumn excursion to Thailand, Singapore and Australia wherein I cashed in 255,000 miles for First Class travel out and back aboard Japan Airlines and Emirates, my mileage account was starting to feel a bit depleted.

In any event, this trip started out as a mileage run with the purchase of two round trips between Fairbanks and Boston in mid-October. But hey – there was no ignoring the fact that mid-October is also the best time for peak autumn colors in New England – arguably the best place for viewing fall colors anywhere on the planet. So then, why not take a few days, rent a car and make a road trip through the region?

Now while I’m always up for a good road trip, I’m also more than amenable to a good train ride or two. Amtrak’s Adirondack runs between New York City and Montreal with much of the route running along the Hudson River and Lake Champlain. It is a route of spectacular beauty, especially in the fall. In years past, Amtrak has added an old 1950s era full length dome car to the train during peak fall colors. Unfortunately that’s no longer done and, since I’ve already ridden the Adirondack on a couple of previous occasions, I decided to look into excursion railroads around the region.

As a longtime subscriber to both Trains magazine and the Railroad Passenger Journal, I was aware that the northeastern United States was quite the hotbed for excursion railroads or tourist trains as some might call them. To that end, I’d seen ads in Trains magazine for a book listing every excursion train and railroad museum in North America. We’re talking narrow gauge steam trains, dinner trains, murder mystery trains, wine trains and all of the various museums located throughout Canada and the U.S. The book is published yearly and retails for about $25.00, but I went online and found last year’s edition for sale on eBay for just $7.00.

Once the book arrived, I spent a good couple of days pouring over it and identifying various railroads that met the standard I was looking for. I wasn’t interested in short 10 mile roundtrips behind some cute little steam engine. I was looking for longer rides offering First Class or deluxe accommodations and/or meals. To that end I found eight railroads in six states that I wanted to ride. Truth be told, I identified nine but given that I’d be near Cooperstown, New York on part of the trip, why not also work in a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

So then, I’d put together a pretty nice little trip thus far, starting with the two roundtrip flights between Fairbanks and Boston (the initial impetus for it all). On my first trip, I’d arranged for a stopover in Portland, OR so that I could check out the Mt. Hood Railway, located in the eponymous town just an hour up the Columbia River Gorge from Portland. Next, I’d fly from Portland down to Denver on a separate ticket and then ride Amtrak’s California Zephyr through the Colorado Rockies and Sierra Nevada mountains to the Bay Area, have dinner in San Francisco and then catch the Coast Starlight back up to Portland. From there I’d continue on to Boston where over the next two weeks I’d be riding aboard trains traveling through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Vermont and three in New Hampshire. In between those rides I’d be driving through beautiful fall foliage along some of New England’s most scenic byways.

At this point I suppose I could have done the reasonable thing, called it a good itinerary and returned home until Thanksgiving or Christmas. However, as many of you know who’ve read my trip reports over the years, once I get started on planning a trip, the excitement sets in and - much like a full blown alcoholic after two or three drinks - I pick up momentum and so become more receptive than ever to the idea of following my impulses wherever they might take me. One of my greatest impulses is to travel. As the renowned author Robert Lewis Stevenson so aptly put it:

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, But to go.
The great affair is to move.

* * * _  _ * * *

As a long time subscriber to a news magazine called “The Week”, I’d often seen ads therein for a company called American Cruise Lines. They specialized in small ship cruising along the Mississippi, Ohio, Columbia and Snake rivers as well as the Great Lakes and select coastal cruises such New England coast and the Canadian Maritimes.

I’ve never been particularly enamored with the idea of taking a traditional cruise aboard a huge 4000 passenger modern day cruise ship. Aside from the fact that I can’t imagine traveling anywhere with so many fellow passengers, I just don’t have much interest in a dozen potential meals a day, onboard casinos, musical reviews or any of the many other onboard distractions. When I think of travel aboard a boat, I mainly envision myself sitting on my own private balcony taking in the view with a good book while sipping occasionally from a nicely chilled cocktail – a Piña Colada perhaps or a simple glass of good bourbon over ice…

In any event, I had recently banked a tidy profit after divesting myself of a couple of properties here in Alaska and so decided I’d use some of the proceeds toward booking a cruise down the Mississippi River. I’ve always wanted to do a river cruise, if only because I’ve always enjoyed nature and scenery over man made attractions. On a river cruise the scenery is right there on both sides of you.

Back in seventies – before many of our western rivers became so crowded from overuse – we used to do five and six day trips on the Green, Yampa, Colorado and San Juan rivers. We’d paddle down in 4-5 passenger Avon Redshank rafts, the perfect size for riding class 3 and 4 rapids. On the really big rapids – like Hell’s Half Mile on the Upper Green or Warm Springs Rapid on the Yampa, the Redshanks were small enough to be easily portaged by hand around the worst of the rapid.

Aside from running the rapids, my favorite part of these trips was just being on the river, soaking up the sun and taking in the incredible beauty of the colorful canyons of the Colorado Plateau. Honestly, my preference would be to return to those canyons of northwest Colorado and northeastern Utah in a paddle raft but alas, physically I’m just not up to it any more.

Instead, as a passenger aboard a much larger 150 passenger paddle wheel driven river boat, I can ditch the paddles and life jackets and take in the surrounding beauty from the luxury of my own balcony-equipped stateroom or perhaps from a comfy seat in the Paddlewheel Lounge where the beer is bound to be colder than those miserable tasting cans of Coors that we used to drag in the river behind us so many years ago…

It should be noted here that these river boat cruises are not inexpensive. The one week cruise I booked cost me almost $7000.00! Still, both the opportunity and the money were there and so after a bit of research and a couple of phone consultations, I pulled the trigger on an 8 day, 7 night river trip from Memphis down to New Orleans aboard a paddle wheel river boat named the “Queen of the Mississippi”.

Christened in New Orleans in August 2012, the five-deck, 150-passenger paddle wheeler conjures the halcyon days of riverboat travel, complete with a bright red paddle wheel (for effect only, as the ship is diesel-powered). This is exactly what I was looking for.

There was just one little problem. The only available river boat cruise with single occupancy didn’t depart Memphis until November 9th. All of my New England excursion train trips would be completed by October 21st. So then, what to do in the interim?

Oh, that’s never been a problem for me. Over the years, I’ve become a real pro at making my day dreams come to fruition. So, I figured out how to do two things I’d been wanting to do for a while plus I came up with an interesting addition to this trip that I never thought I’d ever book in the past. Here’s what happened…

So my last New England train ride was set to happen up in New Hampshire aboard the North Conway Scenic Railroad’s fall colors excursion on October 21st. Rather than fly back home from Boston as originally scheduled, I cancelled that flight and rebooked aboard a nicely priced JetBlue Airbus from Boston down to Ft. Lauderdale. From there, two things would happen. First, I’d be able to try out the new Brightline train being operated by Virgin Trains between Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Of course, I booked round trip First Class, complete with lounge access at both stations. Next up, I’d get to spend a couple of days with old friends from Denali who’ve been working in the Everglades since the late 1980s.

Next up, I’d head north to Toronto aboard an Airbus A321 operated by my 202nd airline flown. When your passion for commercial aviation is as high as mine, it’s always exciting to fly upon a new airline!

Now, the reason I was heading to Toronto was because I’d stumbled across a fare sale limited strictly to ViaRail’s First Class accommodations. These days, if a trip calls for overnight travel on a train, I’ve got to have a sleeper. Some of this is due to the fact that I can no longer sleep in an upright seat – at least nowhere near as well as I used to be able to. The other reason falls back on that old saying “Luxury once experienced soon becomes a necessity”

ViaRail’s First Class fares are normally quite a bit higher than comparable fares on Amtrak for travel of similar distance and accommodations. In general they’re a bit too steep for my budget, so although I’d always wanted to ride upon ViaRail’s famous trans-continental streamliner “The Canadian” over its entire route between Toronto and Vancouver, I wasn’t holding my breath that it would happen any time soon – if at all.

Imagine then my surprise and delight to discover that ViaRail has regular First Class fare sales covering travel over most of its system. Better yet, there were sleeper accommodations on Sale for the October 27th departure out of Toronto. So I booked myself a Lower Berth from Toronto all the way across Canada to Vancouver. Truth be told, I had really wanted to book a roomette but alas, I waited one day too long. Even so, berths rate as First Class accommodations on ViaRail which means they come with full meal privileges in ViaRail’s excellent dining cars. Additionally, they come with access to any and all lounge cars including ViaRail’s famous dome equipped Park Cars. As an added bonus, berths offer the widest single beds of any accommodation on ViaRail.

ViaRail’s Canadian takes four days and four nights to make the journey across Canada to Vancouver. And, as fate would have it, it arrived in Vancouver just in time to take advantage of what for me would be a new style of transport down to Los Angeles.

* * * _  _ * * *

A week or so earlier, I’d come across a Princess Cruise internet flyer advertising a four day three night cruise between Vancouver and Los Angeles for just $189.00 per person. Hmm… $189.00, eh? I figured that would probably be a converted broom closet somewhere down by the engine room. Further inspection revealed that I wasn’t far off in that estimation.

I was curious though… how much would they want for a balcony room? As it turned out, balcony equipped cabins could be had for about $650.00 single occupancy. But then I noticed that balcony equipped mini-suites could be had for just $735.00. I clicked on one just to see what the total price would be and was given the option to upgrade to a Club Class Mini-Suite. For just $150.00 more, Club Class would include special dining options such as your own area of the dining room where you could choose to eat at whatever time suited you. Additionally, the enhanced menu apparently included items not available to non-Club Class or full suite passengers. Also worthy of note were perks such as priority boarding and disembarkation as well as nightly canapés and wine splits delivered to your cabin on request.

Ah what the heck – I’ve come this far, why not go whole hog?

And so it was that I booked myself the best possible accommodations one could have on a Princess ship short of a full-on suite. Here’s a picture and a diagram of a mini-suite.

Star Princess Mini-Suite
Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises

Star Princess Mini-Suite Layout
Photo courtesy of cruisedeckplans.com

I’ll leave Vancouver on the afternoon of November 1st and arrive in Los Angeles on the morning of the 4th. Since my paddle wheeler wasn’t set to depart Memphis until the 9th, that would leave me with five days to come up with an interesting and entertaining way to get to Memphis. So for starters I booked a flight from LA up to Seattle on the afternoon of the 4th. I’d have dinner with friends in Seattle that evening and then settle into a roomette aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder the next afternoon for a two and a half day ride across the mountains and high plains of the north central United States to Chicago. From there I’d fly down to Memphis, arriving one day before the departure of the Queen of the Mississippi down the river to New Orleans.

So then, what do you think so far? Does this itinerary sound like one worthy of a few hours of your time to read about how it all unfolded? We’re talking about a month and a half of travel here. There are no - repeat no – international First Class flight segments. And, worst – or best – of all depending upon your perspective, it’s about 60000 words worth of reading. I might add that this report also has over 250 photographs embedded in it. That’s more than some photo reports! Now I know what you're thinking: “As if 50 thousand some odd words isn’t enough to put me off, now I’ve got to deal with all these pictures as well.” On a positive note you can take some solace in my approach to photo inclusion – that being: Just because I took the picture doesn’t mean I have to dump everything I have into the report. I grew up in an era when we had to buy film and pay a fair amount to have it developed. As such, I literally couldn't afford to take too many wasted pictures. I try to compose good pictures every time I push the shutter button. Ideally, I’d like to think of my pictures as tools to augment the written report without being a distraction to it. Hopefully the pictures and words will play off each other to create a literary ambiance that contributes to taking you along for the ride.

Truth be told, my trip reporting days are definitely beginning to wane if only because it’s becoming progressively more difficult for me to take trips like this, much less do a lot of day to day things in life. My right hand is progressively going numb, indeed both hands are getting pretty clumsy. My feet, legs, butt and back muscles are all getting progressively weaker, making walking a lot more difficult. I've noticed even my tongue gets tired sometimes while commenting on some aspect of the park during my summer bus trips. Although it sounds like it, don’t worry, so far as everyone knows I don’t have ALS, though I tic nearly all of the boxes for it. My neurologist says what I have is a seven syllable ailment that in my case will manifest more like a slow motion stroke. Eh – whatever... The operative word here is slow and I’ve been dealing with this for over fifteen years. Besides, I’m not one to sit around bemoaning my lot in life, whatever it may be. Truth be told, I don’t have time for this stuff. I’ve still got things to do and places to go and that is and will always remain my focus. All things considered, I’ve had and continue to enjoy a pretty darned good life. At this point I can definitely relate to the Energizer Bunny. I’m going to keep going like I always do until I simply can’t go anymore.

But hey, enough palaver. Let’s get on with this trip report! If after this lengthy 4700 word preamble you still feel up to reading about domestic travels aboard trains, planes, boats and more trains, go grab yourselves a nice plate of vittles and something even tastier to drink. Then find yourself a comfy chair and settle in for a colorful adventure along the rails, roads, rivers and coastlines of America.


Last edited by Seat 2A; Aug 12, 20 at 9:45 pm
Seat 2A is offline  
Old Aug 8, 20, 5:00 am
Original Poster
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Airlines Million Miler, United Airlines Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond Level
Posts: 9,946
October 2, 2019
Alaska Airlines First Class ~ 737-700 ~ Fairbanks, AK to Anchorage, AK ~ 1145a – 1250p
Alaska Airlines First Class ~ 737-900 ~ Anchorage, AK to Portland, OR ~ 335p – 805p ~ Dinner

Why does it so often snow on the days I’m scheduled to leave home? Unlike some, I actually enjoy winter in Alaska. I especially delight in a good snowy day. Today’s snow was the best kind of snow, too – not a blizzard with wind but lots of big puffy flakes slowly falling to the ground. It was like being inside of a snow globe after it’s been vigorously shaken.

As has so often been the case over the past few years, my neighbor Sharon drove me out to the airport. We often provide this courtesy for each other, though admittedly Sharon has provided far more drop offs and pick-ups at Fairbanks International than have I. I do my best to address this disparity by buying Sharon lunch now and then at a variety of Fairbanks’ finest eateries.

Today I had lunch in Anchorage with a couple of friends and fellow Denali drivers who were kind enough to meet me at the airport and take me out to one of the better Asian restaurants I’ve ever eaten at. My meal was delicious and there were so many good looking meals listed in the extensive menu that I was already considering ways to adjust upcoming connections through Anchorage this fall and winter so that I or we could come back and investigate the offerings further.

My flight down to Seattle found me seated in my current favorite seat – not 2A but rather 2D. Over the past few years it’s become more important for me to not sit too long, and so I try to get up and take a stroll to the back of the plane every now and then. Seat 2A was my favorite seat for so many years because I really enjoyed the daylight and particularly the view, especially during climb out and descent. Additionally, I’ve always preferred the ambiance of being “in the mix” as opposed to sitting in row one with a bulkhead facing me all flight long. I still miss the views out the window a lot, but given my limitations in moving gracefully out of the window seat into the aisle, I reckon I’m doing my potential seatmates a favor by taking the aisle.

Therein raises another interesting point that came up fifteen years or so ago here at FlyerTalk and resulted in quite a of back and forth supporting both sides of the issue. At issue was the constant stream of coach passengers passing through the First Class cabin while using the First Class lavatory. In my case, it’s quite the opposite as I tend to be the only First Class passenger walking back through the main cabin to use the rear lavs. The reason for this is simple – due to the downward curvature of the fuselage at the forward end of planes like 737s, I have to lean backward to pee. That doesn’t work for me. The rear lavs are more spacious in a vertical sense, so that’s where I go.

Dinner was a choice between a Baked Rosemary Chicken breast and a Portobello Mushroom Lasagna, although the flight attendant limited his description to “A chicken breast or lasagna”. Seatmate and I both agreed that our Flight Attendant said “Lasagna” and so that’s what I ordered because I like lasagna. Alas, like a distressingly significant number of Alaska’s Flight Attendants that I’ve encountered on over 1600 flights, ours was friendly but otherwise illiterate with regard to culinary terminology. The correct term would have been “ravioli”. No doubt some of you may be thinking “So what?” but ask any Italian American and you’ll find that there’s quite a difference between Lasagna and Ravioli. Like most airlines, Alaska provides its flight attendants with a sheet describing the meal choices. Indeed, I saw that sheet sitting in the galley when I boarded. Unfortunately, our flight attendant couldn’t be bothered to provide an accurate description of the meal choices off the printed description he was provided.

Although I generally go with the meat entrée, I also enjoy vegetarian food and a nice cheesy lasagna actually sounded pretty good. Seatmate and I both ordered that. Alas, what we were served was a pair of 3” ravioli pillows filled with a bland mushroom paste and topped with a colorful but equally bland sauce. Per my tastes at least, this is one meal I hope Alaska drops from the rotation and/or replaces with proper lasagna.

Portobello Mushroom Stuffed Ravioli

Aside from the meal gaffe, our flight attendant did a nice job serving drinks and clearing off the finished meal trays in a timely manner. I had a nice chat with seatmate and managed to finish all but three entries in the airline magazine’s crossword puzzle.

In Portland I stayed over at the Howard Johnson’s. For whatever reason the rates are surprisingly low and with a complimentary upgrade as part of my status benefits, I always get a nice room.

Ah… as my head hit the pillow, I couldn’t help but think how good it is to be back on the road again. The words and melody of Willie Nelson’s classic ballad floated through my mind as I drifted off into slumber…

On the road again
Goin' places that I've never been
Seein' things that I may never see again
And I can't wait to get on the road again

October 3, 2019
Hood River Railroad ~ Diamond Class ~ Hood River, OR to Odell, OR R/T ~ 1130a – 330p

I awoke to a grey and rainy day at 9:00am, showered and then headed to the hotel lobby to partake of the last vestiges of the complimentary continental breakfast – for me coffee, a sweet roll and a bowl of raisin bran. Reasonably fortified, I then headed out to my Nissan Rogue and hit the road for the town of Hood River, located 62 miles to the east up the Columbia River Gorge.

Almost immediately, I got into trouble. The problem was that from my hotel out off of 82nd and Sandy Blvd., the only onramp to I-84 was for westbound traffic. I was aware of this and had asked the hotel front desk about how best to access the eastbound ramp. The directions I was given sounded simple enough but either they were wrong or I didn’t hear them correctly – probably the latter. Anyway, I spent a good 20 minutes driving around East Portland before finally finding an onramp for 84E about three miles away.

With the unplanned delay, I had real concerns about getting to the train station in Hood River in time for the scheduled 11:00am departure of my train. I pushed it as much as I safely could along the well patrolled I84E and as things turned out, I arrived at the Mt. Hood Railroad Depot at 11:20am – ten minutes before departure.

Four different types of tickets were available for today’s midday departure. The least expensive entitled one to a simple Coach seat. Next up was First Class, though the seating was basic wooden chairs around tables in a parlor car with a bar at one end. After that you could buy a seat in the dome car, but you’d be downstairs with padded seats around booths and tables. For just a few dollars more, you could have a seat in Diamond Class, upstairs in the super dome under the glass. Seating was buffet style, i.e. comfortable padded bench seats facing each other with a table in between. The primary benefit of dome seating is not comfort but rather the ability to see not only out to the side but also above and forward of the train. This is especially appreciated when traveling through mountainous country or in a canyon like the Royal Gorge.

Although the Mount Hood Railroad offers dinner trains as well as themed train rides such as Christmas and Thanksgiving runs, today’s 17 mile round trip to the small town of Odell, OR would journey along the Hood River and through woods, orchards and vineyards. Upon reaching Odell, we’d have an hour stop allowing us to detrain and wander the small town or perhaps enjoy a lunch in one of the two restaurants.

I had purchased a seat in Diamond Class aboard one of the 1950s era super dome cars. I’m a firm believer that if you can, it’s always good to travel in the best available accommodations. In the case of excursion trains like this one, we’re talking an additional $15 to sit upstairs under the super dome. To me at least, for a chance to revisit one of the classic experiences from 1950s era train travel, that’s money well spent.

I was assigned to the 70 year old Super Dome “Sky View”, an ex-Santa Fe car which had been stripped of its old Westours livery in preparation for being repainted in the Mt. Hood Railroad’s attractive blue, yellow and maroon livery. Its all-silver finish harkened back to its days with the Santa Fe, one of only two railroads to operate all-stainless steel liveried trains west of the Mississippi – the other being the California Zephyr which was operated in conjunction with three railroads.

Sky View awaits departure

What’s interesting is that prior to their service here with the Mt. Hood Railroad, these dome cars were owned and operated by Holland America Westours who operated them between Anchorage, Denali Park and Fairbanks. Because I used to be able to ride for free with Westours as a non-rev passenger back in the 90s – a benefit I took advantage of often - I may well have ridden upon one of these cars while they were up in Alaska.

Mt. Hood Railroad Superdomes still wearing their Westours colors
Photo courtesy of Mt. Hood Railroad

Climbing up the stairway into the car’s vestibule, I paused briefly to grab a quick photo of the lower seating area before continuing on up a narrow stairway to the upper level.

Downstairs seating aboard the Sky View

Upstairs seating aboard the Sky View

This train was not sold out and had I wanted to I could have taken a table to myself down at one end of the train. Upon boarding however, I had no idea of the load and so I took my assigned seat, joining my seatmate Jen – a nurse from Eugene, Oregon who was working up in the Hood River area a few weeks. I enjoyed chatting with her and so I just kept my seat.

It’s worth noting that the weather had improved considerably as I drove east up the Columbia River Gorge. Portland’s rain soon was left behind to be replaced by a nice mixture of clouds and sun. By the time I boarded the train in Hood River it was mostly sunny.

True to the description of this ride on the railroad’s website, we did indeed roll along the Hood River for a while before heading up into the hills toward Odell which was located almost 1000 feet higher than the river valley. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that taking pictures through the glass of the dome would not work very well given the reflection back at me, an effect exacerbated by the sunshine. I suppose I could have relocated to the vestibule and taken a few shots through the open Dutch door windows down there but I was having such a good time talking with Jen that I just kept my seat and enjoyed the scenery visually. Once we left the river valley, much of the route was through heavily forested areas where there wasn’t a lot to see but the nearby foliage. Were it fall foliage this would have been more interesting but alas, Oregon is not known for the quality of its fall foliage.

Pretty views along the Hood River

Rolling through the forest enroute to Odell

Roads, houses and lumber mills predominated as we approached the little town of Odell. There wasn’t much to the downtown – a few shops, a small school, an auto repair business, a church or two… A pretty park with picnic tables was located right next to where we stopped, so Jen and I decided to visit a nearby deli and purchase sandwiches before returning to eat them in the park.

One area of common ground between Jen and I was that we’d each been to a lot of Grateful Dead concerts back in the day, as well as enjoying bands like the String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon and Railroad Earth. I have hundreds of hours of downloaded live music from all of these bands and so I promised to burn Jen a few CDs and send them to her. These days you can buy a spindle of good blank CDs for about .18¢ each. It’s hard to imagine how much money I must have spent back when it cost about $4 to but a good quality blank Maxell XLII 90 minute cassette. At one time I had over 400 cassettes worth of bootlegged Grateful Dead concerts alone. Of course I listen to a lot of other music as well and so when one day it occurred to me that I had tapes in my collection that I hadn’t heard in over five years and might not hear for another five years, I decided to trim my bootleg collection down to my fifty favorite shows. The rest I either sold or gave away to appreciative listeners.

The train awaits passengers in the shadow of Mt. Hood on a pretty day in Odell, OR
Photo courtesy of Mt. Hood Railroad

The ride back down to Mt. Hood was along the same tracks and through the same scenery. With so much of the trackage running through heavily forested area, I would say that from a scenery perspective this was a pleasant ride but not a spectacular one. Unfortunately we never got to see Mt. Hood, at 11,250’ Oregon’s tallest mountain. Its upper reaches remained clouded in throughout the day. Regardless, if you’re in the area and fancy an inexpensive way to enjoy a couple of hours relaxing aboard some vintage railcars while rolling through pretty countryside, I’d recommend a ride on the Mt. Hood Railway.

Heading back to Portland, I turned in my rental car and returned to Portland International for my short flight up to Seattle.

October 3, 2019
Horizon Airlines Economy Class ~ DHC-8-400 ~ Portland, OR to Seattle, WA ~ 830p – 925p

There’s really not much worthy to report about this short flight up to Seattle other than I purchased the through fare from Portland on into Denver the next morning for the surprisingly affordable fare of just $107.00 one way. Horizon’s Dash 8s operating the busy corridor between Portland and Seattle are reliable and reasonably comfortable aircraft for the 35 minute flight, and while I totally appreciate the economics behind using these fuel efficient turboprops on a route of this distance, I still miss the days when larger jets – including widebodies – were routinely scheduled on this route. Check it out!

Portland to Seattle Schedule 1988

Back in the 70s and 80s there were always a few widebodies operating each day between these two cities. Many of them were tag-on flights to Portland after the widebody had flown into Seattle from a larger city back east, such as New York or Atlanta. Over the years I’ve flown this route aboard a Northwest 747, A United DC-10 and an Eastern L-1011 not to mention a wide variety of other jetliners ranging from little Horizon Air Fokker F.28s to United DC-8-71s.

Upon arrival in Seattle I called the Ramada Inn SeaTac – the one located at 167th St & International Blvd – NEVER the other one – and soon their driver Bounay arrived to whisk me off to the hotel. I stay at this property about a dozen times a year and though many of the front desk staff would appear to come and go, Bounay and the morning driver Mustafa have been reliably there for years. So too has been the Chinese lady (whose name escapes me at present) who runs the excellent Ginger Palace Restaurant downstairs. I love the food there.

As a Diamond level member in the Wyndham Rewards program, I’ve yet to have this hotel ever offer me the complimentary suite upgrade advertised as a benefit of attaining my Diamond Level status but occasionally the staff has found me a room facing the street below. These rooms are convenient to the elevator as well as the laundry and noise from the street has always been so minimal as to be negligible. Rumor has it however that some guests don’t like these rooms because they also face the cemetery located across the street.

October 4th, 2019
Alaska Airlines First Class ~ 737-900 ~ Seattle, WA to Denver, CO ~ 750a – 1135p ~ Snack

A 6:00am wake-up call was followed by a 6:30 shuttle back to the airport. I was pleased to find that I’d been upgraded to First Class upon re-issuing my boarding pass. I breezed through the Clear checkpoint, caught the train over to the North Satellite and soon was quaffing good hot coffee in the Alaska Lounge.

People who don’t fly very often occasionally ask me how I deal with flying so much, especially given the hassle of dealing with crowded airports, long lines, the security checkpoints, etc. Here at FlyerTalk, we’ve probably all been asked this question at one time or another and I’d like to think this morning’s experience at SeaTac was a perfect example of how it should go for those of us who’ve earned all the perks relative to status and/or benefits we’ve purchased such as airline lounge memberships.

As I breezed through the airport this morning, I could definitely relate to George Clooney’s character in the movie “Up In The Air”. After almost 6 million miles of flying I’ve learned how to travel light – just a 22” roll-a-bord – and after avoiding check-in lines by either pre-printing my boarding pass or checking in at one of the many automated kiosks, I avoid even longer lines at security checkpoints via my memberships with TSA Pre√ or Clear. Clear in particular has been a real godsend since the TSA Pre√ lanes are starting to become a lot busier in some airports. Having lounge memberships with both Alaska and United as well as an unlimited access Priority Pass card, I’ve always get an airport lounge to relax in prior to the flight. Finally, as a Million Miler with Alaska who also has Super Duper Diamond Encrusted Kryptonite Status (aka Gold 75K) I often get upgraded as was the case today. If I’m not in First Class, I’ve always got complimentary seating in the premium coach seats available at time of booking. Upon arrival, I’m often amongst the first people off the plane and, with no baggage checked, I’m out of the airport and on my way that much faster. Finally, with high status in two major car rental companies, I just walk in, pick up my paperwork and go pick out a car. As such, my life of flying – or should I say our life of flying for those of you who relate to this - could hardly be easier or more enjoyable.

We had a fairly full load on this morning’s flight down to Denver. Alaska commenced service into Denver back in the 1980s, stopped for a few years and then returned in the early 2000s. Prior to Covid-19 it was operating about five nonstops a day, and from my considerable experience on this route, its flights have been extremely well patronized. Indeed, I’ll bet that in the case of the Seattle to Denver market, Alaska wouldn’t mind having an occasional 767 sized aircraft to schedule in once in a while.

Aside from that, there’s nothing special to report on further. This was a standard two hour domestic flight that included a hot breakfast. Where back in the good old days we would have been offered a choice of entrees typically including an omelet of some sort, today we were offered something the flight attendant described as Breakfast Bites.

Breakfast Bites on Alaska SEA-DEN

These tasted like one of those pre-fab breakfast entrees you find in the freezer section at your local supermarket. They were a bit dry and lacking in flavor but thankfully between the coffee and a sachet of Cholula Hot Sauce (which I always carry a supply of in my daypack) I was able to choke them down.

One of the nice things about Alaska’s gate C-39 in Denver is that it’s the closest to the central commons area of the airport concourse and so there are no long walks down to the train below. Two stops on the train and you’re at the main terminal and on your way.

I had an appointment up in Fort Collins this afternoon, after which I had to return my rental to the airport and catch the light rail from DIA into downtown Denver where I’d booked a hotel for the night to better position me for tomorrow’s early morning departure of the California Zephyr to the Oakland suburb of Emeryville. Years ago, the trip from DIA into downtown Denver would have entailed an hour and ten minute bus ride. These days, with the completion of the 23 mile A Line light rail from DIA into Denver’s Union Station, downtown Denver is now just 37 minutes away aboard a comfortable Wi-Fi equipped train.

The A-Line Train awaits departure in the shadow of the DIA Westin

At Union Station, I called for a complimentary pick-up from my hotel for the night and then stopped in for a local craft beer at the Terminal Bar.

It’s worth noting here that it wasn’t so long ago that Denver’s Union Station offered little more than a few hard backed wooden pews in a cavernous main hall. There were no restaurants and, from what I recall, not even a place to buy a cup of coffee.

Following the blizzard of 1982, the city of Denver got fresh new leadership with a vision that included building a new airport and revitalizing Denver’s Lower Downtown District, or LoDo. One can see the benefits of that vision in the 16th Street Mall and the return of shops, hotels and visitors to the area. Coors Field, the home of baseball’s Colorado Rockies, is located just a short walk from Union Station. The Wynkoop Brewery - Denver’s first craft Brewery – is just across the street from the station.

As part of the revitalization effort, the decision was made to save and refurbish Union Station. The city brought together a team of architects, engineers, urban designers and transportation experts known as the "Union Station Alliance" and charged them with transforming Union Station into a regional transportation center that would serve buses, light rail, commuter rail and Amtrak.

Since the project was completed a few years ago, anyone who’s had the good fortune to visit Denver’s Union Station – especially those of us like myself who knew it in the bad old days – would be immediately impressed with the results. The new Union Station sports a dozen new shops and restaurants (including a couple of great bars!) as well as the Crawford Hotel, a boutique hotel offering 112 rooms installed in the upper levels of the north and south wings. The station’s “Great Hall” serves as the hotel lobby. Inside, large windows flood the old waiting room - now the hotel lobby - with lots of natural light. If you look closely, you can see that the plaster arches above the windows now bear over 2000 carved Colorado Columbines—the official state flower.

As promised, the station is also a hub for light rail as well as regional, express and local buses. A 22 bay underground bus complex opened in May 2014 and rail service to Denver International Airport was launched in 2016. I first got to utilize the new bus complex back in December of 2015 when riding a bus down from Ft. Collins to connect to an Amtrak train. It worked beautifully.

Denver’s Union Station from Wynkoop Street
Photo courtesy of Denver.org

Denver’s Union Station Great Hall
Photo courtesy of Denverinfill.com

Denver’s Union Station Great Hall
Photo courtesy of Denverinfill.com

Denver’s Union Station Great Hall
Photo courtesy of Denverinfill.com

Denver’s Union Station looking toward Downtown Denver
Photo courtesy of Denver.org

The famous clock and Travel by Train sign

The hotel van driver called me when she was five minutes out, so I finished my beer and headed out to the curb along Wynkoop Street in front of the station. My hotel for the night was the Ramada Inn Downtown Denver. I discovered this hotel some years ago while attending a two night set with a band called Railroad Earth who were playing at the Fillmore, just a few blocks away up Colfax Avenue. Although the hotel has its own restaurant, right across the street are three excellent restaurant/bars, my favorite being an Irish themed place that serves good cold beer, excellent hot sandwiches and occasionally has a band playing. Alas, there was no band tonight but the beer and food were as good as ever.
Seat 2A is offline  
Old Aug 8, 20, 5:02 am
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October 5, 2019
Amtrak Denver to Emeryville, CA 805a – 430p+1 California Zephyr ~ First Class

My shuttle back to Union Station departed the hotel at 7:00am. Surprisingly, the morning driver wasn’t familiar with how to get to Union Station and so we ended up exploring various avenues while taking quite the circuitous route before I was finally dropped off in front of the station at about 7:25am.

Those of you who’ve read my trip reports before may recall that I’ve reported on the California Zephyr a number of times previously. In fact, this is my 27th ride aboard the California Zephyr. Although I’ve lived in Alaska for over 30 years, I was born and raised in Colorado. The California Zephyr was the very first long distance passenger train I ever rode, and I’ve been in love with it ever since. Most rail travel aficionados would agree that the California Zephyr represents the most scenic long distance scheduled rail journey available in North America. That includes Canada’s famous streamliner The Canadian which I’ll be traveling upon later in this report.

For a railfan like myself, a ride on the California Zephyr is always a special treat, mainly because of the grandeur of the scenery through which it passes. Add to that the ambience of having my own private compartment with a comfortable bed and complimentary meals throughout the trip, not to mention the enjoyment of sharing the experience with a trainload of fellow travelers and I will never tire of riding this wonderful train.

As for the photographs, some of you may recognize a picture or two from previous reports. I’m not averse to recycling a good photograph with emphasis on the word “good”. If I feel a particular photo from past travels better captures the beauty of the moment I’m trying to visually display, I won’t hesitate to use it. That said, most of the photos employed in this report are from this October trip.

The California Zephyr arrives from Chicago at about 7:15am and stays in Denver for about 45 minutes. During that time it gets serviced. Trash gets emptied, food and ice get restocked and presumably the locomotives get refueled. For many passengers, Denver is a destination and so during the layover the car attendants are usually busy cleaning up the rooms, making beds, vacuuming, etc.

Boarding commenced at about 7:45. There are separate lines for coach and sleeper passengers and of course, sleeper passengers were allowed to board first. I noticed a group being ferried down to their car aboard an electric cart. Although I’d no doubt qualify for such a service, I’m generally fine with hobbling on down to wherever it is I have to go – be it an airport or a train station. I mean, as long as I can walk, I’d just as soon do so. Then again, on occasion cart attendants have seen me hobbling along in airports or train stations and offered me a ride, in which case I’m usually happy to accept. In today’s case, my car – Sleeper 530 – was located about 6 cars down, just beyond the diner. Each car is 88’ long, which translated to a walk of about 525’ or almost two football fields worth. Amtrak usually operates 2-3 sleepers on the California Zephyr and the 530 car is the best location of all as it is the first sleeper after the dining car. When it comes meal time, all I have to do is head upstairs and walk about 50 feet to the diner.

What?! Did you read that right? Did I just say I’d have to head upstairs before making my way to the diner? Indeed I did. Amtrak’s Superliner cars are bi-level. While double-decker passenger cars are fairly common on commuter railroads around the world, so far as I know Amtrak’s Superliner fleet are the only long distance double-decker trains being operated anywhere in the world. The Superliner fleet – in use on all long distance trains operating west of Chicago - is comprised of coaches, dining cars, Sightseer lounges and sleepers.

Trackside at Denver’s Union Station

Each Superliner Sleeper offers 14 Roomettes, 5 Deluxe bedrooms, 1 Family bedroom and 1 Handicapped bedroom. Four Roomettes along with the Family and Handicapped bedrooms are located downstairs. My favorite room is #11, located downstairs just to the right of the baggage storage shelves. Although most people are excited about the prospect of a seat or bedroom high on the upper level of Amtrak’s Superliner fleet, I always choose a lower level room for two reasons. First, the downstairs rooms are quieter because there is much less foot traffic passing by your door. All the inter-car traffic is via the hallway upstairs. As well, the train’s natural rocking motion can be exacerbated on the upper level and occasionally make for a difficult time walking. Depending upon the quality of the tracks, some people tend to ricochet their way down the narrow hallways, bouncing off walls and doors with equal abandon. One sleeping car passenger complained that her arms were bruised after just one afternoon on the City of New Orleans which has the misfortune of operating over some of the roughest trackage in the nation. One other thing I like about the lower level rooms is that the baggage storage shelves are located right outside my door.

Lower hallway on the Superliner Sleeper. Stairway on the right, baggage on the left
Room 11 is just beyond the baggage storage on the left

The Roomettes measure 3’6” by 6’6” and are accessed via a sliding glass door. During the day they offer two wide opposite facing seats that fold together to become a bed at night. Above them is a fold-down upper berth. Other amenities include four separate lights, an electrical outlet, a tall mirror, a fold out table, a small open closet with hangers and even a thermostat which I always turn to its lowest level. At my seat were two big fluffy pillows. There’s a center console between seats which houses a fold-out table. Along the window well behind it is a small storage space where you’ll typically find two bottles of water and a variety of pamphlets about the train. These typically include a route guide, a timetable, a safety card much like you’d see aboard an airliner and a brochure describing the train and its various services and attractions. Sometimes if you’re really lucky, you’ll find a copy of Amtrak’s excellent onboard magazine The National.

Perhaps best of all, each compartment has its own huge window, approximately 2’ X 5’, through which to view the passing scenery. Compare all of this to your average First Class Suite on an A380. While there’s no IFE or Wi-Fi, given that you’re traveling at See-Level, I’d like to think that nature’s parade passing by right outside your window more than makes up for it. Three public toilets are also located on the lower level, along with a shower room. The toilets are much like you’d find in an airliner but just a bit more spacious. For a single traveler, I think these roomettes are quite sufficient and comfortable.

Amtrak’s Superliner Roomette by Day

At the top of the stairway on the upper level is the service area for each car. In the morning, juice and coffee are available from this area.

Amtrak’s Superliner Service Center
Coffee, Tea and Juice at the top of the stairs

While the train sits in Denver, many of the passengers traveling through to points west of Denver chose to stay on board during the 45 minute layover and so life onboard continues apace. This includes service in the diner where breakfast was currently being served. Meals are included in the fare for all sleeper passengers, so I headed upstairs to join the festivities in the dining car.

Given the limited number of tables in the diner relative to the overall number of passengers on board the train, dining is a communal affair. For some people being seated with total strangers is initially a bit awkward but before long the shared experience of traveling together on a train while passing through beautiful countryside right outside your window combine to create numerous talking points from which conversation flows and friendships develop.

As I entered the diner, the chief steward came down to meet me at the entrance and showed me to an empty table. Soon I was joined by Arthur and Chloe, a couple who like me had boarded in Denver but were only going as far as Grand Junction, a city on Colorado’s western slope, not far from the border with Utah. Chloe’s parents lived there and the purpose of this trip was to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with them. Menus were already at the table so we each took a few moments to review our options. You can review right along with us by clicking the link HERE.

Shortly after we’d been sat, our server Janelle arrived with a tray bearing a variety of juices. She was a big and gregarious, not to mention efficient. Orders were quickly taken, coffee delivered, cream and sugar refilled… I was impressed. As for breakfast, I ordered my old standby – the veggie omelet and cheese along with a side of roasted potatoes, sausage and a biscuit. Unfortunately the 100 calorie chicken sausage was no longer available but what the hey – I love that pork sausage and I suppose the extra calories and fat won’t have too negative of an effect on me this one time.

My Favorite Amtrak Breakfast

At 8:10am my coffee jiggled slightly but did not spill as the engineers powered up the twin P42DC locomotives providing the motive power to lead the Zephyr out of the station and on to California. Combined, these two locomotives are capable of generating up to 8400 horsepower although I suspect considerably less was required to take us smoothly out of the Denver yards, gliding past Coors Field (where the Colorado Rockies play) and out into the northwest Denver suburbs. As we rolled past the usual inner city detritus, various announcements were made about the train, its amenities and the services to be expected. Smokers were reminded that the California Zephyr - like all Amtrak trains - is an entirely smoke free train, so regardless of what class one was traveling in, cigarettes could only be smoked at designated station stops.

Denver sits right at the base of the Rocky Mountains so it wasn’t long at all before the train began to wind its way up into the foothills northwest of Denver, heading up Boulder Creek just above Eldorado Springs and continuing to climb whilst passing through 28 tunnels enroute to The Big One – The Moffat Tunnel – 6.2 miles long at an elevation of about 9200 feet. Prior to the tunnel’s opening in 1928, trains had to climb up over Rollins Pass. You can clearly see the old railbed up the side of the mountain above the East Portal. The top of Rollins Pass is at 11000 feet and it used to take trains about five hours to get over the pass and down to the town of Fraser on the west side. Now, it takes about 10 minutes to get through the Moffat Tunnel and another 10 minutes to get to Fraser.

California Zephyr climbs through the Foothills west of Denver

California Zephyr climbs through the Foothills west of Denver

California Zephyr Enters the Moffat Tunnel
Photo courtesy of You-Tube

We stopped briefly at Winter Park, a ski area owned and operated by the city of Denver. Even though ski season is still a couple months away, there is still summer tourism and related activities in the area. By now we were about two and a half hours out of Denver and smokers were ever so happy for a chance to attend to their addictions. It’s been a long time since I used to smoke – including on many a trip with Amtrak in the 1980s. Back then, you could just light up anytime at your seat. Half of the lounge car was designated smoking. It was oh so nice to discreetly pour myself a glass of bourbon, fire up a Marlboro, recline my seat and watch as the plains, towns, mountains, rivers and canyons of America passed by out my window.

I’m thankful that I was able to quit smoking back in 1990. Thinking back to those earlier days, it would have been extremely difficult having to wait as many as six hours between smoke breaks. Indeed that alone would have been strong incentive to quit smoking. It was really more coincidence than anything else but when I finally quit in February of 1990 (after many failed efforts), it was the same week that smoking was banned on all domestic flights in the U.S. shorter than two hours. I had come down with a cold and hadn’t smoked for two straight days as a result. With that kind of a head start, I figured why not keep going? Fortunately I was able to do so. Thankfully I only smoked for eleven total years.

California Zephyr stops at Winter Park

Beyond Winter Park, the scenery is spectacular as the route picks up the Colorado River at the town of Granby and then follows the river for over 200 miles through Byers, Gore, Glenwood and Ruby Canyons. For most passengers, this is a good time to have a seat in the lounge car. Given all the spectacular scenery west of Denver, passengers usually head up to the car shortly after departing Denver.

Amtrak’s Sightseer Lounge cars are the best modern day railroad lounge cars that I have ever traveled in. They are vastly superior to anything I’ve ever seen in Europe, Australia or South America. The large glass windows along the sidewalls start at knee level and rise up a good five feet or so. Along the outside edges of the ceiling, curving down to the top of the wall, are more large panes. Be it daylight or starlight, the range of views available through all that glass is most impressive. This is especially true in mountainous terrain where the upper windows allow excellent viewing of the peaks or canyon walls above the train. Individual seats and small couches are available on one side of the car, while buffet style table seating is available on the other. In the middle of the lounge is a stairway leading down to a snack bar offering a wide variety of sandwiches, light meals, snack foods and beverages. More seating with tables is available down there.

Amtrak’s Sightseer Lounge Car

All praise extolling the benefits of Amtrak’s Sightseer Lounge Car notwithstanding, on the California Zephyr it is often full. By the time we’ve departed Winter Park, there’s usually not an empty seat to be found.

For a guy like me who’s looking to take some great photos, this is not a problem. Well, not much of one at least. Taking pictures through glass on a sunny day can be problematic though, given issues with reflection and clarity. To be sure, Amtrak could do a better job of cleaning its windows. Back in the day, there used to be a big automated window cleaner in Denver with large brushes and hot soapy water, much like you might see at a car wash. Alas, no more.

It also used to be that you could just stand in the vestibule and take photos through the open top half of the Dutch doors through which you enter the train. Alas, this is no longer allowed. A prominently placed sign on the upper half of the door window warns in bold red letters that opening the window is not allowed except by authorized Amtrak personnel. Amtrak claims it’s a safety issue – that rocks could fly up and injure anyone with a head out the window. Give that the train cars extend over the rails by a good foot or so at least, I can’t quite see how a rock – assumedly given impetus through contact with the train car wheels – would be able to shoot upward from the rails without first coming into contact with the body of the train car above. Cogitations such as this notwithstanding, the policy against opening the door windows while the train is moving still stands. There’s no reason for it. It’s just policy.

Be that as it may, I guess I can be a bit of an outlaw when the situation calls for it. I mean, opening that window for a better photograph is right up there with driving a few miles per hour over the speed limit. We’ve all done stuff like this before, we’re all aware of it and we’re all willing to roll the dice – up to and including facing the consequences if we get caught. Yep – you read that right. If the conductor came down and threatened to put me off the train at the next station stop, I’m not the kind of person who’s gonna give him a lot of guff. I’m not going to waste his time questioning why they have this rule or why I think it ought to be changed. To my way of thinking, the validity of the regulation is not mine to question in that situation. If I feel it needs to be changed, I can take it up with Amtrak at a different time. For the present time, the rule is posted and if I’ve been caught breaking it, I’ll apologize and face the music, whatever the tune may be. It’s that simple.

That said, the trick of course is to not get caught. As such, I’m always very careful to open the upper half of the door window just long enough to get the photo I want. I don’t hang my head or any part of my body out the window for extended periods, especially given that you could easily be seen by anyone a couple of cars back, including Amtrak personnel. At most I’ll briefly put just enough of my head out the window as needed to get the photograph. Then I duck back in, close the window and await the next scene I wish to photograph. I’ve been doing this for years and have gotten many fine photographs as a result. Let’s check a few out!

California Zephyr entering Byers Canyon

Looking back as we head into Byers Canyon

Tunnel coming up


Rolling through Gore Canyon

Returning to my roomette, I reclined my seat a bit and shot a couple of pictures from the perspective of my seat.

Leaving Gore Canyon

Looking down at the river below

Leaving Gore Canyon behind, the Colorado River turned more placid as it flowed through some bucolic high country valleys followed by some pretty red rock canyons.

High Country Valleys

High Country Valleys

Red Rock Canyons
AJO and lamphs like this.
Seat 2A is offline  
Old Aug 8, 20, 5:04 am
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It was about noon and we were near Bond, Colorado when I decided to head up to the diner for some lunch. On most Amtrak trains, breakfast never requires a reservation though occasionally lunch will depending upon the load and the crew operating the diner. Today no reservations were required though shortly after I’d arrived the diner filled up and so a waitlist was formed. Announcements indicating name and number in party were made as space became available.

The benefit of heading up to the diner a bit early was that I wanted to be free to take more pictures from my car by the time we entered Glenwood Canyon – for some the highlight of the trip across the Rockies. Check out this photo – taken by the Colorado Department of Transportation – showing Glenwood Canyon from above.

Glenwood Canyon from Above
Photo courtesy of the Colorado Department of Transportation

The train tracks run along the left side of the canyon, the highway (Interstate 70) along the right. Now then, imagine this view from 38000 feet above while looking out a jetliner window. Then imagine yourselves riding through it at “See Level” aboard the California Zephyr. Here are some pictures from that perspective…

Interstate 70 across the river

Road, River and Rail all in one canyon

Rocky canyon walls right out my window

Amazing Highway Architecture

Leaving Glenwood Canyon

The Zephyr arrives at the pretty town of Glenwood Springs in the early afternoon. The town is famous for its large hot springs pool – I believe it’s the largest hot springs pool in the world – as well as the beautiful Hotel Colorado, which is said to be where the Teddy Bear was designed as a gift to president Teddy Roosevelt during a visit in 1905.

Glenwood Springs Pool and Hotel Colorado
Photo courtesy of UncoverColorado.com

Leaving Glenwood Springs, the Zephyr rolls across the progressively more arid landscape of Colorado’s Western Slope. After a brief stop in Grand Junction, it’s on to the beautiful red sandstone cliffs of Utah’s Ruby Canyon. The best time to ride the California Zephyr westbound through here is during June and July when the longer days and the angle of the sun really highlight the beautiful colors of the canyon. Here – see for yourself!

Entering Ruby Canyon

Sun and Shadow in Ruby Canyon

The Goblins of Ruby Canyon

Looking Back at Ruby Canyon

The setting sun illuminates the Utah landscape

Following an extremely brief stop in Green River, Utah, we adopted a northwesterly heading and began the long climb up Soldier Summit and beyond to Salt Lake City. By now the sun had set and so I was relaxing in my roomette until the call rang out over the PA for those holding 7:15pm dinner reservations to report to the diner.

Joining me at dinner tonight were Chuck and Lisa who were on their third straight day of rail travel after having begun their trip out of Albany, New York aboard the Lake Shore Limited two days earlier. They were heading all the way to the end of the line – the Oakland suburb of Emeryville – after which they’d be renting a car and touring around California. Although they both could have flown to San Francisco for considerably less, they wanted to see the countryside along the way and in particular wanted to ride the California Zephyr. Two years earlier they’d ridden Amtrak’s Adirondack on a fall weekend trip up to Montreal. They were so taken with the scenery on that trip that they just knew they’d have to take another train trip, preferably across country.

Each table in the diner seats four and our one empty space was soon filled by Evan, a carpenter from Aspen, Colorado who was on his way to a friend’s wedding outside of Reno, Nevada. Aspen is just 45 miles down the road from Glenwood Springs. He was getting a break from building a set of condominiums in Basalt, Colorado – which as he put it was kind of a bedroom community of Aspen’s but with lower housing costs. The train was perfectly scheduled for him with an early afternoon departure, a mid-morning arrival in Reno followed by a mid-afternoon departure out of Reno and a mid-afternoon arrival on the trip home. Not only that, but the price was right at only $83 each way for a coach seat. Flying to Reno – especially out of Aspen’s Sardy Field – would have cost substantially more.

Over the years I’ve eaten just about everything on Amtrak’s menu, particularly the lower priced items from back in the days when I’d always travel in coach. These days, my go-to dinner entree is the flatiron steak. Amtrak’s chefs have an incredible track record of always cooking my steak perfectly medium rare – just as I’ve always requested. It’s uncanny how they seem to get it right every time. And the baked potatoes – only on a very rare occasion have they ever been anything but moist, hot and fluffy.

Amtrak’s Flatiron Steak

One of the perks of traveling in the sleepers on Amtrak is that you’re allowed to bring your own alcohol on board. With a 50ml bottle of Jack Daniels selling for $7.25 onboard plus another dollar for a tip, those who pay Amtrak to serve their drinks can run up a considerable tab in a very short time. Thankfully there was a liquor store just up the street from my hotel in Denver, so I managed to score a 750ml bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon for $27. When I arrived in the diner tonight, I brought along a glass of Buffalo Trace as well. Although nobody’s ever asked, if they ever did I’d say it was Ginger Ale. Honestly though, what really draws attention to people drinking alcohol is their behavior. It’s really amazing how some people just totally lose it, especially when drinking whiskey. Thankfully I’ve never been one of those types. On those rare occasions where I have drunk to excess, I typically just nod off.

One of the symptoms associated with my condition is a very slow but progressive muscular atrophy. While I still manage to shuffle along pretty well, doing so while under the influence of alcohol has become progressively more difficult – especially aboard a moving train. As such, the days of sharing my bottle with new found friends up in the lounge car are sadly over. Little matter though. By the time the last of our plates were cleared it was approaching 8:30pm. I bid adieu to my table mates and headed one car back to my sleeper.

The car attendant for my sleeper was a fellow named Joe. He was pleasant enough but for the most part I hardly ever saw him. He stopped by my roomette shortly after I’d boarded in Denver to introduce himself and explain the workings of the train. After learning that I was a seasoned veteran of the California Zephyr much less Amtrak in general, he instructed me to ring if I needed anything, after which he pretty much disappeared. That’s alright. After 30 years and over 200000 miles ridden on Amtrak, I know my way around these roomettes. Converting them from daytime to nighttime configuration is easily accomplished, so I did so on my own.

First, I lowered both seats into their fully flat position. Next I unlatched the upper bunk, retrieved the folded up mattress which had already been fitted with sheets and a blanket, and then unfurled it and placed it a top the flat platform created by both seats lowered into their flat position. Voila!

Amtrak’s Roomette in Nighttime Configuration

I should add here that had I rung the call button, I’ve no doubt Joe would have shown up to make my bed. That said, I’ve always been raised to make do for myself and in an instance like this, it took me all of three minutes to convert my roomette so it was no big deal. Joe probably could have done in one minute. Regardless, I won’t hold it against him. I’ll still tip him appropriately at trip’s end.

On that note, let’s talk a moment about tipping. I am surprised at how many people I’ve encountered that don’t tip on Amtrak. Perhaps some of them think it’s like the airlines where tipping is not expected. Others, knowing that Amtrak is a government run operation, may think that tipping of government employees is not allowed. Still others may be aware that their dining room staff and car attendants are very well compensated via union scale wages and so don’t feel a need to tip.

All I know is that tipping is allowed on Amtrak and it is appreciated by its onboard employees. They work extremely hard and don’t get a lot of time to sleep. In my job at Denali National Park, I too am very well compensated and after spending eight hours with me during which I’ve shared a lot of information about the park and its wildlife, many people will often tip me. We’re not allowed to post signs or make any mention of gratuities but if anyone feels good enough about their time with me and would subsequently care to bestow $10 or $20 upon me, they’ll get the same heartfelt thanks upon departing that they’d get even if they’d offered me no more than a smile and a handshake. So, from my perspective, tipping those who provide nice service is good karma. What goes around comes around.

For the record then, while tipping is not required on Amtrak, it is appreciated by their staff.

On my drive yesterday from Fort Collins back down to DIA, I came across that quickly disappearing breed – a used book store. Fort Collins is home to Colorado State University, so it’s not surprising that a used book store might survive a bit longer there. Sadly, online retailers Amazon and Alibris have gobbled up most of the book business here in America and so independently owned book stores are on the wane. I’m really sorry to see this. Any of you who’ve ever spent a pleasurable hour or two in Powell’s (Portland, OR) or the Tattered Cover (Denver, CO) or even your neighborhood mom and pop bookstore know what of I speak.

In any event, I came across a dog-eared copy of Edward Abbey’s classic tale of principled rebellion “The Monkey Wrench Gang”. Much like returning to a favorite vacation spot, it was nice to rejoin Hayduke and friends in their adventures and hijinks around the American Southwest.

I was still awake by the time we eased into Salt Lake City’s Union Station. Bright lights from the platform outside my window flooded into my roomette, so I closed the curtains and read on. By the time we rolled out of Salt Lake thirty minutes later, I was comfortably asleep.
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Old Aug 8, 20, 5:05 am
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The rail bed west of Salt Lake City is one of the better ones for passenger trains in America. It’s relatively smooth and as such allows Amtrak trains to attain their maximum permitted speed of 79 mph. Technically speaking, that speed is in a general sense. There are a couple of exceptions - mainly Amtrak’s “High Speed” Acela trains that operate the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, DC where speeds of up to 150 mph are occasionally attained. Additionally, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, the Chicago to Los Angeles train that operates over the old Santa Fe mainline, is allowed to travel as fast as 90 mph over select portions of track west of Albuquerque.

Meanwhile, onboard the California Zephyr we were making good time while speeding across the vast reaches of northern Nevada. Technically speaking this is the northern reaches of the Great American Basin – one of the four great deserts that make up much of the American West. The others are the Sonoran Desert (Arizona), the Chihuahua (New Mexico, west Texas) and the Mojave (Southeast California, western Arizona, far southern Nevada)

Daybreak in Nevada

Morning sun illuminates nearby mountains

I was thankful to find that the shower was available. Amtrak’s showers on its refurbished Superliners are spacious with plenty of hot water and a decent volume of spray and force. I was pleased to see that Joe had left the shower room well stocked with prepackaged soap and clean white towels. I generally travel with my own shampoo so there really wasn’t much more I could ask for. It should be noted that showers are not available to those traveling in Coach.

Amtrak’s Superliner Shower

A nice supply of clean white towels

Making my way forward to the diner, I was again was joined by Evan, the carpenter from Aspen with whom I’d dined the night before. Evan was traveling in Coach but said that with the seat beside him empty, he’d slept fairly well through the night.

My meals were complimentary so I ordered my old standby – the veggie omelet with a side of chicken sausage. I was pleased to see the return of those tasty chicken sausage links, especially since I didn’t think the train got restocked west of Denver. Meals are not included for coach passengers, but even so Evan came hungry and so ordered the same as I but with bacon rather than sausage for his side.

Breakfast on the rails in America

Evan was being met in Reno and then driving down to Bridgeport, a small town on US 395 south of Reno. A friend of mine’s son works with the County Sheriff’s Department there, so I gave him his name and said to say hello for me if he ever gets pulled over.

We were running on time this morning – indeed almost ten minutes ahead of schedule. It’s worth noting that the stories of Amtrak running late trains are rampant. Back in the bad old days, the host railroads used to essentially bully Amtrak trains, making them pull off on sidings to allow the more profitable freight trains to pass by. Early Amtrak presidents did not adequately address this but later president Joe Boardman did and the situation is now much improved. Indeed, it’s been my experience – which is considerable (I spent 19 nights on trains last year) that most Amtrak trains have arrived on-time or within 20 minutes of scheduled arrival time. Like anything, the negatives are often what gets reported upon while the good – such as on-time arrivals – are expected and thus taken for granted and as such are not deemed newsworthy. Airlines are the same way. Crashes make the news. On-time arrivals do not.

We were still sat in the diner as the Zephyr rolled through Sparks, Nevada after which the Reno suburbs became more apparent. Evan bid me so long and I wished him a great time at the wedding. Watch out for Deputy King!

Reno’s train station is located down in a subterranean concrete trench. While this allows for the more efficient passage of traffic overhead, it doesn’t make the station an attractive place to step off the train for a bit of fresh air. Unless, that is, you’re a smoker in which case you’ll have about 20 minutes to enjoy a smoke or two.

When I returned to my sleeper, I encountered my car attendant Joe converting some of the upstairs accommodations back to their daytime configurations. Keep in mind that each Superliner Sleeper offers 14 Roomettes, 5 Deluxe bedrooms, 1 Family bedroom and 1 Handicapped bedroom. If the car were full, this would result in as many as 43 beds needing to be made up. Again, that’s assuming every room were full to capacity. In reality, many of the roomettes are purchased as single accommodations such as mine and on this train at least I know the handicapped bedroom went empty throughout the trip. Regardless, Joe had a lot of work ahead of him, so he might have been mildly pleased when I requested that he leave my room in its nighttime configuration so that I could more comfortably stretch out and read later in the trip.

Shortly after departing Reno, the California Zephyr meets the Truckee River and follows it up a pretty valley as it begins the long climb into California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Gradually the clouds diminished and soon we pushed on under blue skies and abundant sunshine. We paralleled Interstate 80 for a short time and then veered above it to continue on over Donner Pass.

Cruising up the Truckee River

Rolling along I-80

Climbing up Donner Pass

While I certainly acknowledge that all mountain landscape is pretty to travel through, especially on a train, I must admit that the Donner Pass region of California’s Sierras doesn’t impress me much. Just a hundred and fifty miles or so to the south is the true crest of the high Sierras, down in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. I have backpacked extensively through that region and for me at least, that area is what the Sierras are all about. But hey – beauty is in the eye of the beholder and from my experience on this train most passengers seem to enjoy the Sierra crossing every bit as much as the Rockies crossing that we experienced yesterday, so here’s to them!

As we descended down the western slope of the Sierras, we passed through numerous climate zones easily identified by the changes in trees and density of the overall foliage. Here’s a shot as we rolled through the forests just outside of Colfax, California.

Rolling down the west side of the Sierras

Eventually we pulled into Sacramento where for some odd reason is Amtrak’s published connection point for those connecting to points in Oregon and Washington. With an arrival time of 2:15pm, I’d be connecting to the 12:01 am departure of the northbound Coast Starlight. As such, I’d be looking at a 10 hour layover. In hot, dry Sacramento. No thank you. Especially not when the California Zephyr arrives at its terminus at Emeryville at 4:30pm and the northbound Coast Starlight departs from there at 10:00pm. During that five and a half hour layover, I’ll have more than enough time to catch Amtrak’s dedicated bus departing from the Emeryville Station and delivering passengers to three different stops in downtown San Francisco. The return bus from San Francisco to the Emeryville depot departs my pick-up point in San Francisco at 8:55pm, delivering me to Emeryville at 9:25pm. This leaves me about three hours to enjoy San Francisco – mainly by having a nice dinner. More on that in a minute…

Cruising along the eastern reaches of San Francisco Bay

Departing Sacramento, we passed through the university town of Davis and Joe DiMaggio’s hometown of Martinez before rolling along the shores of San Francisco Bay for about 20 miles. BART light rail connections can be made at the Richmond station and shortly after that the Zephyr arrives in Emeryville. Today we arrived 14 minutes early.

As I detrained at Emeryville, Joe was there to help me with my baggage. Additionally, he’d noticed that I didn’t move about the train car with as much vim and vigor as his other passengers and so had made arrangements to have an electric cart meet me and drive me the considerable distance up to the depot. This was so very much appreciated and I thanked Joe for a job well done and handed him a nice tip. I generally tip $15-20 per bed night but if for example I’d requested to dine in with food delivered to my room I would have tipped more. Today I tipped $25.

With five and a half hours until the departure of the Coast Starlight, I checked my roll-a-bord into storage and then boarded the waiting bus into San Francisco. I mentioned earlier that for those desiring to connect from the California Zephyr to Northern California, Oregon and Washington, Amtrak only offers a connection through Sacramento with that long layover. In order to do this the way I’m doing it via Emeryville, I had to buy a ticket from Denver to the San Francisco Financial District (Bus travel included) and then another from there up to Portland. All told, this approach cost me about $20 more than had I connected at Sacramento but given the more enjoyable option of dinner in San Francisco and a shortened waiting time, I considered it money well spent.

The bus dropped me off at the San Francisco Hyatt, located at Market and Drury. From there it was only a short four block walk over to the Hotel Griffin where my favorite restaurant in San Francisco is located. That would be Perry’s Embarcadero, located just off the lobby of the Griffon.

Serious restauranteurs knowledgeable about the San Francisco dining scene will probably snort with derision at my choice of Perry’s. San Francisco is known as a restaurant town with all manner of fantastic eateries. Perry’s – God forbid has three locations including a restaurant in the San Francisco airport. How gauche!

So why do I like this particular restaurant so much? Well for starters, I like the feel of the place. It’s got a great bar with lots of dark wood, nice lighting and a couple of well-placed TVs that always have some kind of sporting event on. There are a variety of attractive seating areas either inside the restaurant or out back on a small patio facing the Ferry Building and the bay beyond. And finally, The Menu offers a nice variety of very affordable dishes that are delicious and well presented. Also, Perry’s is the only place I know of that pours Johnny Utah Pale Ale. This is a beer brewed by Seattle’s Georgetown Brewing Co. Any of you that have ever enjoyed a Manny’s Pale Ale in the North Satellite Alaska Lounge at SeaTac or a Bodizhafa IPA at the C Concourse Alaska Lounge know what of I speak. Per my tastes at least, I’ve yet to taste a beer from this brewery that I haven’t liked.

Perry’s Embarcadero Bar

Perry’s Embarcadero Dining Room

Perry’s Embarcadero Street Front Dining Room

I have an old high school buddy who lives down in Los Gatos and sometimes he’s able to drive up and join me but alas, not this time. That’s okay – I’ve been doing so much stuff on my own for so long that dining out alone is no big imposition on me. Tonight, I scored a nice table outside on the patio, ordered the first of a couple perfectly chilled Johnny Utah Pale Ales, went through an entire cup full of those delicious bread sticks and ordered the chicken dinner with fingerling potatoes. Ah… heavenly…

I was back at the Emeryville depot by 9:30pm. Unfortunately the northbound Coast Starlight was running about fifteen minutes late, but it was a nice night out so I took a seat on one of the benches outside the depot and enjoyed a few pages from The Monkey Wrench Gang until the Coast Starlight pulled into the station.
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Old Aug 8, 20, 5:07 am
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October 6, 2019
Amtrak Emeryville, CA to Seattle, WA 1000p – 830p+1 Coast Starlight ~ First Class

With its 10:00pm scheduled departure out of Emeryville, there’s not a lot going on onboard the train when it departs Emeryville. My car attendant was a nice lady named Vanessa who had already converted my roomette into its nighttime setting. She explained that the Sightseer Lounge was four cars back and that the downstairs café would be open until 11:00pm.

Thanks, Vanessa. I think I’ll call it night for now and read for a bit.

Had the Coast Starlight still included the wonderful Pacific Parlour Car, I likely would have headed up to mingle with any of my fellow loungers. The Pacific Parlour Car was a dedicated First Class only lounge car in addition to the Sightseer Lounge Car which was open to everyone. By the way – I’m not British. For some odd reason Amtrak chose to use the British spelling for parlor – probably because some higher up thought it sounded classier. We Americans seem to have a bit of an inferiority complex for this kind of stuff…

However you choose to spell it – these Pacific Parlour Cars were wonderful additions to the Coast Starlight, and for many people they were reason alone to pay the extra money for First Class accommodations. Each Parlour Car was outfitted with eight large swivel chairs, a small lounge area with sofas and cocktail tables and six four seat tables with buffet style seating. At one end of the lounge was a stand-up bar offering a full range of beer, wine and spirits in addition to coffee, tea and soft drinks. At the other end was a small library with a collection of used books and board games. Downstairs was a 21 seat movie theater. Full meals featuring a menu unique to the Pacific Parlour Car were also available upstairs in the lounge area. Honestly, aside from sleeping and showers, it’d be very easy to spend the entire journey in this car. Oh yeah – did I mention that it also featured complimentary Wi-Fi?

The Coast Starlight’s Pacific Parlour Car

The Coast Starlight’s Pacific Parlour Car

Between the Pacific Parlour Car and the wonderful scenery enroute, the Coast Starlight really epitomized the fact that train trips are about the journey, not the destination.

Alas, the Pacific Parlour Cars were retired about three years ago. They were approaching 70 years old and the costs of maintaining them finally made further operation untenable. I was hoping that with the popularity of these cars, Amtrak might consider refurbishing some of its Sightseer Lounges into a similar type car but with a rehabilitation cost approaching 2 million per car and a congress that’s loathe to provide Amtrak any more funding than it absolutely has to, this would seem unlikely to happen.

In any event, it was after 10 so I brushed my teeth, switched out to my usual nighttime outfit of boxers and a t-shirt and delved back into The Monkey Wrench Gang. We were just departing Davis, CA when I shut the curtains and called it a night.

* * * _  _ * * *

When I awoke the next morning, we were running about an hour late. I had no way of knowing this except that the folks across the hall were getting off at Klamath Falls and said we were still about an hour out. What? Really?!! Maybe we can get a view of nearby Mt. Shasta, at 14180’ one of the tallest and indeed prettiest volcanoes in America. And so we did. Unfortunately, despite the pretty day for some reason my photograph did not come out as well as I would have liked so I’m going to use a photo from an earlier trip. Nothing has changed except that the land on the other side of the San Andreas fault may have slipped a couple of inches farther to the north. Either way, this view is definitely a highlight of the northbound journey.

Mt. Shasta towers over the tracks

Meanwhile, the shower was occupied – with a waiting line no less – so I threw on some clothes, dragged a brush through what’s left of my hair and headed upstairs for breakfast. On this train I was assigned the 1432 car – two cars back from the diner – so I had a bit of a walk compared to the convenience of my last accommodations on the California Zephyr.

There are few sights more welcome in the morning than the sight of your dining car as you enter…

Amtrak’s Superliner Dining Car

Now imagine that view with a few more people, the wonderful aroma of coffee and eggs and a smiling dining car host waiting to show you to a table. I was led to a table already occupied by three other people – Jeff and Katie, a couple from Chula Vista, CA who were traveling up to Seattle on vacation, and Emily, a college student at Reed College in Portland who was returning to Portland after a weekend visit to see friends in the Bay Area. She’d flown down and would have liked to have flown back but the airfare was so much higher on the way back – perhaps because today was Sunday – that she’d ended up booking the train instead. This was her first ride on any train other than a light rail. Jeff and Katie had ridden the train before and liked the experience enough that they’d basically incorporated the ride into their vacation as part of the trip. This was their first time having sleeper accommodations and they were totally enjoying it – especially in the dining car where they no longer had to worry about the cost of their meals.

As usual, I stuck with the tried and true – the veggie omelet with chicken sausage. Okay, so I did change things up a bit and went with grits instead of potatoes but otherwise, another great omelet. I used to get the French Toast every once in a while but it’s no longer on the menu. I’ve also tried the Cheese Quesadilla with eggs but the tortillas tasted chewy, like they’d been microwaved. So nope, it’s the omelet for me. Every day. I’m reminded of that old Gary Larson comic strip called The Far Side where one of his comics showed a lady spooning out a can of dog food and the two dogs anxiously waiting while one of them thinks to the other “Oh Boy! Dog food again!!”

Oh Boy! Dog food again!

Rain clouds gathered as we rolled north through the fields and forests of southern Oregon. By the time we’d reached Chemult – the drop off point for passengers going up to Bend – we were in a steady rain. Shortly after Chemult the tracks head west and start a steady climb up into the Cascade Mountains. As we climbed, low clouds obscured our view even further. It was a good time to head back to my roomette for a bit of reading.

No reservations are required for lunch, though as I mentioned earlier when the dining car fills up they set up a wait list and call out your name over the train’s PA as table space becomes available. Having eaten a late breakfast, I wasn’t all that hungry initially, so with the wait list in effect I headed back to the diner and requested that I be the last one called or better yet, if they did a “Last Call” for lunch, I could come up then. No Problem.

And so it was that when a “Last Call for Lunch!” call rang out over the train’s PA, I headed up to the diner and ended up with a table to myself. Truth be told, I’ve always enjoyed the communal nature of dining on Amtrak, especially for a chance to meet and chat with my fellow travelers. For me at least, that really gets to the heart of what makes train travel such an enjoyable experience – the shared experience with fellow travelers. That and the fact that unlike an airplane where for the most part you’re confined to your seat during the flight, a train is like an entire place that’s going somewhere. Social interaction is a natural byproduct of time spent in the lounge or the communal seating at mealtimes and because of that I think of train travel as being a far more civilized way to travel as opposed to the impersonal nature of modern day flight where all too often we lower our window shades, throw on our Bose noise cancelling headphones and disappear into the artificially generated entertainment of music or videos.

That said, I’m not one of those needy types who wouldn’t know what to do with myself just because I’m seated alone. I’d brought my daypack along in anticipation of visiting the lounge after lunch. That daypack is kind of like a man purse. I’ve heard it said that amongst hip young professionals, day packs are considered in bad taste these days. Good thing I’m a crusty old bus driver from Alaska who could care less about such trivialities. That daypack has everything from my laptop to a camera to Kleenex to aspirin to you name it, so I pulled out a magazine and read that while enjoying lunch.

By the way, my favorite luncheon item is the Black Bean Chipotle Burger with Corn. It is considered a vegetarian entrée but I like to add cheese and a couple slices of bacon, effectively rendering it a Vegan Nightmare. Add a side salad and you’ve got a mighty fine lunch in my book.

Coast Starlight Luncheon Salad

The fabulous Black bean and Corn Burger with Bacon

By the time I’d finished lunch, we were about an hour out of Portland. Amtrak schedules are done in such a way that over some sections it’s possible to make up a fair bit of time. Where once we were running about an hour late this morning, now we were only about twenty minutes late with a chance to make up a bit more before we arrived in Portland.

Arrival into Portland by train is always worth having a seat by the window. The tracks parallel the Willamette River and include a view of an awesome manmade concrete waterfall. It’s really big, as in like twenty feet tall big. Finally, right before arriving into Portland’s distinctive red brick Union Station, the Coast Starlight crosses the 107 year old Steel Street Bridge. Its lower deck carries railroad and bicycle/pedestrian traffic, while the upper deck carries road traffic and light rail (MAX), making this bridge one of the most multimodal in the world. It is the only double-deck bridge with independent lifts in the world and the second oldest vertical-lift bridge in North America, after the nearby Hawthorne Bridge.

Crossing the Steel Street Bridge

Looking downriver from the Steel Street Bridge

As we eased to a stop at Union Station, I paused to thank Vanessa for a job well done and also say so long to my breakfast companions Jeff and Katie who were also traveling in my car. The Coast Starlight stops for about a half hour in Portland, more than enough time for passengers to wander inside and check out the 123 year old station. A small general store inside sells everything from souvenirs to newspapers to hotdogs.

Portland Union Station Interior

Just a short two block walk from Union Station is a stop serving the yellow and green lines of Portland’s TriMet light rail system. As such, you can travel from Union Station to Portland International via a single connection at the Rose Quarter stop in about 50 minutes time all-in.

From PDX, I caught the complimentary hotel shuttle back to the Howard Johnson’s where a comfortable room awaited me. Just across the parking lot from the hotel is an Indian restaurant called Namaste Indian Cuisine. It offers a full and nicely varied buffet for both lunch and dinner. Following a good meal, I showered and slept well in preparation for phase two of this adventure.

October 8, 2019
Horizon Airlines Economy Class ~ DHC-8-400 ~ Portland, OR to Seattle, WA ~ 1230p – 130p
Alaska Airlines Economy Class ~ 737-900 ~ Seattle, WA to Boston, MA ~ 350p – 1210a ~ Dinner

Despite being a lofty Million Miler with Gold 75K status in Alaska’s Mileage Plan, I was shut out of a First Class upgrade on the flight to Boston. Oh well. These things happen sometimes…

I should add that while transcons are the flights you definitely look forward to being upgraded on, the fact that I must suffer five hours in an economy seat is no great imposition. As a Gold level flyer in Alaska’s Mileage plan, I am able to confirm Premium Class seating at the time of booking so long as I’m not booking the least expensive and thus more restrictive Saver fares. For those of you not familiar with Alaska’s terminology, “Premium Class” is a group of seats – typically four or five rows – where passengers enjoy extra legroom (35” pitch), complimentary cocktails and early boarding.

Additionally, I have been upgraded on approximately 75% of all my Alaska flights this year. Alaska has always treated me as an honored guest – even before I was a Million Miler - so while I’ve heard some 75Ks grumble about not getting the upgrade they seem to feel entitled to, I have nothing but love and gratitude for Alaska Airlines and the fine service they’ve always provided me.

And so it was that I took my seat at 7D, said a quick hello to seatmate at 7F and settled in for the five hour flight across the country to Boston.

Prior to boarding, I stopped by the Bambuza Vietnamese Bistro on the north satellite where I employed my Priority Pass benefits to “purchase” the Saigon Combination rice bowl, a tasty and filling collection of nicely seasoned grilled chicken and pork accented with mixed greens, carrots, fried onions and peanuts. Since my Priority Pass benefits allow me to purchase up to $28.00 per visit, I also added a side of crispy spring rolls which I shared with an appreciative seatmate.

Our arrival into Boston was ten minutes early, but it was negated by a long taxi into the terminal that included a long hold assumedly the result of waiting for the ground crew to ready themselves for our arrival. Making my way out into the cool night air outside the terminal, I was met by a friend and fellow Denali driver who whisked me off to Cape Cod in his new Subaru sports car.

This was my first visit to the Cape. I’d always heard of Cape Cod in conjunction with the Kennedy’s or some other scions of eastern wealth, none of whom lived in mere houses or “cottages” but rather resided in “compounds”. In the case of my friend Peter, I use the term “compound” in jest as his accommodations were a bit more basic – a nice one bedroom condo on the beach complete with balcony. You could see the Kennedy Compound down the beach a ways, though. He gave me the bed while he slept on the couch out in the living room. And, as an added bonus, before bed we even polished off a 375ml bottle of Jack Daniels. What a host!
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Old Aug 8, 20, 5:09 am
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October 9th
Cape Cod Central Railroad ~ Diamond Class

Although it was fairly rainy during our drive out to the Cape last night, by morning the conditions had intensified into a full-blown Nor’easter. For those of you unfamiliar with the local vernacular, a Nor’easter is a larger than usual weather depression with lots of wind and rain. They typically blow in off the Atlantic, generally coming out of the northeast I should imagine, thus the name. This particular storm was forecasting up to 8” of rain with wind gusting to 40-50 mph. Localized flooding was also predicted.

While chatting with Peter about my travel plans last night, we decided that given our late arrival in Hyannis (we didn’t get to bed until almost 3:00am) and the inclement weather, we might be better served to sleep in, head into town for breakfast and then take a drive out to P-Town as the locals call it – Provincetown to the rest of us.

And so we did. I forfeited the $45.00 I’d paid for my Diamond Class seat under the super dome and instead enjoyed a breakfast of Eggs Benedict at the popular Keltic Kitchen (there was a 15 minute long waiting list for breakfast) before heading out to the eastern terminus of US 6 at Provincetown.

I’ve always had an interest in the old US federal highways because many of them had interesting histories before they became federal roads back in the 1920s and 30s. For example, parts of the famous Route 66 were known as the Beale Trail, a popular trade route back in the day. Parts of US 30 follow along the old Oregon Trail. By the way, for those of you unfamiliar with the difference between Federal vs Interstate, the old federal highways are denoted as US XXX as opposed to the interstates which would be I-XX.

US 6 was of particular interest to me because I grew up in Colorado and US 6 bisects the entire state east to west. In Denver it’s 6th Avenue while to the west and across the Rockies it shares much of its route with Interstate 70. It terminates these days in Bishop, California though prior to the interstates it used to go all the way to San Diego. I’ve driven all of US 6 west of Kansas and most of US 6 east of Pittsburgh except for the section east of Boston. Although I didn’t technically drive it today, it was nice to see the far eastern cape and if nothing else, today’s ride provided added impetus to drive the rest of highway east of the Colorado/Kansas border.

Here’s an incomplete map of all the roads I’ve driven just in my old 1988 Mazda B2200 pickup. I kept that truck for 21 years and went through three engines and almost 500,000 miles with it. If you were to factor in all the other roads I’ve driven in either rental cars or my own, this map would be a lot more orange, particularly back east.

Everywhere I’ve driven in my Mazda truck

After our half-day tour of the East Cape, Peter ran me over to the Hyannis/Barnstable airport where I picked up a rental car, bid adieu and thank you to Peter and then headed off through the wind and rain on down the coast to Essex, Connecticut.

October 10th
The Valley Railroad Essex Steam Train & Riverboat Ride ~ First Class

The Valley Railroad Steam Train & Riverboat excursion starts with a 12 mile ride aboard the historic Essex Steam Train from Essex Station up to Chester, CT. with scenic views of the Connecticut River along the way. The train then reverses direction back to the Deep River Station/Landing where passengers who have purchased the riverboat tickets can board the riverboat “Becky Thatcher”. The riverboat brings people on a 75-minute trip up the Connecticut River to the East Haddam Swing Bridge and then back to Deep River Landing. The train then retrieves passengers to bring them back to Essex Depot. The total time for this trip is about three hours.

Rather than provide a blow by blow account of these excursion rides, I think I’ll just give you a brief overview and provide any additional commentary as needed under the relevant photo.

Valley Railroad steam locomotive #40 at Essex Depot

All aboard at the Essex Depot

My car awaits

Interior of Pullman Parlor Car “Great Republic”

Wetlands along the Connecticut River

The Becky Thatcher awaits at Deep River Landing

Riding the Becky Thatcher

The Connecticut River
This is an aerial view of part of the section of the Connecticut River that we traveled

The steam train rolling alongside the Connecticut River
Photo courtesy of the Valley Railroad Co.

One thing worth noting here is that for most of this trip the only sign of humanity was an occasional – and I do mean very occasional – house or cottage. There was no road paralleling us and overall I thought this was a great way to see and enjoy some of the surprisingly pretty landscape of south-eastern Connecticut.

After we’d returned to the Essex Depot, I was looking at a 130 mile drive across Connecticut into the Catskill Mountains of New York. Therein lay an unexpected though hardly surprising side benefit of this multi-state train excursion through New England. The fall colors were spectacular, and some of the small towns I drove through in western Connecticut were downright idyllic. I took note because when most people think of fall colors in New England, Vermont and New Hampshire often spring immediately to mind. And deservedly so, of course, but don’t count out Connecticut! And for sure don’t count out just about anywhere in New York!

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors in my rearview

My motel outside Catskill, NY

October 11th
Delaware & Ulster Railroad ~ Rip Van Winkle Flyer ~ First Class

The Ulster and Delaware Railroad Company was originally founded in 1866. It was often advertised as “The Only All-Rail Route to the Catskill Mountains.” Back in the day it went through many popular tourist hot-spots, delivering city dwellers for a few days of tranquility amidst the stunning beauty of the Catskills. Through the early 1900s, a number of elegant hotels kept business going, some of which were sponsored or even built by the railroad. In addition to the passenger business, there were also plenty of farms and creameries as well as businesses shipping coal, stone, ice and various wood products. As with so many railroads though, the rise of the automobile spelled the end of the railroad.

After years of inactivity, the railroad is now run by the Catskill Revitalization Corporation and runs excursion trains throughout the summer and fall with special trains at various holidays and key times of the year. Today I am riding aboard the Rip Van Winkle Flyer, the name given to a special thrice weekly excursion that runs along the Delaware River and features a three course lunch.

The train consist leads off with a kitchen car of unknown origin followed by a beautifully restored dome car off the Missouri Pacific’s Colorado Eagle that once ran between St. Louis, Kansas City, Colorado Springs and Denver. Behind that was a dining car from the Atlantic Coast Line that once plied the rails between New York and Florida with a variety of named trains. A coach from the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway was third in line and had been converted to an attractive lounge. Taking up the rear of the train was a good looking teardrop end observation lounge car from the New York Central Railroad that used to serve the New York to Cleveland and Detroit route. It had been converted for dining car use.

The Rip Van Winkle Flyer awaits at the Arkville, NY station

Dining under the glass dome

The Lounge Car

The Rip Van Winkle Flyer rolling along the Delaware River
Photo courtesy of the Ulster and Delaware Railroad

My dining car at the end of the train

We were extremely fortunate to have taken this trip on a beautiful autumn day – mostly sunny with just an occasional cloud. The autumn colors were not quite peak, but were still quite pretty.

Scenery along the Delaware River

Scenery along the Delaware River

Scenery along the Delaware River

Scenery along the route

Aside from the classically beautiful autumn colors along the route, we were served a delicious lunch of Chicken Marsala with a nice quality salad. The meal was surprisingly good in both presentation and taste. Unfortunately a large tour group had booked the dome car but I did manage a picture of it prior to their arrival. As for me I was shunted off to the very last car with just three other passengers, but regardless both the scenery and the meal were first rate.

Lunchtime scenery

Luncheon place setting

Luncheon Salad

Chicken Marsala

Following our mid-afternoon return to Arkville, I drove on to Oneonta, New York where I spent the night in preparation for the next day’s visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in nearby Cooperstown, NY.

October 12, 2019
Cooperstown, NY ~ Baseball Hall of Fame

So the next morning I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at a nice little diner just up the road from my hotel and then set off up NY 28 to Cooperstown, an idyllic little town located smack dab in the heart of the Catskills. The first sign of trouble came when traffic slowed to become a mild traffic jam on the outskirts of town. I did notice an option to park outside of town and then get bussed in, but I decided to press on into town.

Oh. My. God! There were so many people milling about the quaint shops and restaurants in the downtown district that it looked more like an amusement park than the quiet little town I’d envisioned. Speaking of park, parking was all but non-existent with the exception of a few spots that were clearly marked limiting your time to just 15 minutes.

The star attraction was of course the Baseball Hall of Fame and judging by the sheer number if people milling about the entrance, I didn’t see a visit being anywhere near as pleasant as I’d originally envisioned it. The problem for me is – I don’t do crowds well, and today was just waay too crowded. And of course, I should have figured as much, it being a beautiful Saturday afternoon in the height of autumn colors while right in the middle of baseball’s playoffs.

I briefly considered stopping for lunch somewhere in town but there was no available parking. Sigh… Oh well. It was still a beautiful day and as I sped off out of town on yet another gorgeous tree lined roadway, I resolved to someday return to Cooperstown, perhaps in the middle of winter on a weekday afternoon!
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October 13, 2019
Green Mountain Railroad ~ Chester to Ludlow ~ Coach Class

After a nice evening spent in Queensbury, NY, I was faced with a 90 mile drive into Chester, Vermont where a two hour excursion aboard the Green Mountain Railroad awaited. The railroad is part of the Vermont Rail System, which includes five railroads in Vermont and one in New York. This afternoon’s trip would be a 24 mile roundtrip up to Ludlow, Vermont.

There was no first class offered on this train. Most all of the rail cars were 1930s era commuters that originally served between New Jersey and New York. The seats were well suited for commuter traffic, i.e. I wouldn’t want to sit in them for more than a couple of hours.

Train time in Chester, Vermont

Coaches on Vermont’s Green Mountain Railroad

Although much of the long range viewing was obscured by thick forests, the trees were gorgeous and I managed some pretty nice pictures. Check ‘em out!

Scenery along Vermont’s Green Mountain Railroad

Scenery along Vermont’s Green Mountain Railroad

Scenery along Vermont’s Green Mountain Railroad

Scenery along Vermont’s Green Mountain Railroad

Scenery along Vermont’s Green Mountain Railroad

I spent the night in nearby Brattleboro, Vermont where I enjoyed a surprisingly good dinner of barbecued chicken as well as a rare victory by my Denver Broncos over the San Diego Chargers. I celebrated with a bottle of Basil Hayden bourbon that I found two days earlier on sale in a New York liquor store for just $30.00! I limited myself to just a couple glassfuls, however. I had a big day including my longest train ride of the trip ahead of me tomorrow.

October 14, 2019
Winnipesaukee Railroad – Fall Foliage Special ~ Presidential Class

It’s a 110 mile drive from Brattleboro, VT to Meredith, New Hampshire. I expedited matters by ordering an Egg McMuffin and coffee at a nearby McDonalds. I was surprised to find that much of the drive along US 4 and NH 104 was over good quality four lane highway, so I made good time.

I was particularly excited about today’s ride for two reasons. First and foremost, at five hours in length this would be the longest ride of the trip. The autumn colors around New Hampshire were looking spectacular and so this just might be the prettiest ride of the trip as well. Additionally, I had booked myself a seat in the railroad’s “Presidential Class” car, offering much more comfortable seating with over-padded swivel chairs in a living room style ambiance. There was even a piano and a bar on board. Here’s a poster advertising the trip.

All Aboard The Fall Foliage Speciial

The main railroad here is the Plymouth & Lincoln Railroad which operates on the Concord-Lincoln rail line in central New Hampshire, The railroad consists of two distinct passenger operations: the Hobo Railroad, which offers passenger excursion trains in the White Mountains, and the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad, which operates passenger excursion trains along the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire.

My trip today was on the Winnipesaukee & Pemigewasset Railroad aboard a train billed as a “Fall Foliage Special” The railroad offers only a handful of these special trains each fall. They depart Meredith and head north towards the White Mountains for an approximately four hour rail trip. The train stops at the Common Man Inn in Plymouth where a hot buffet lunch is served to all passengers, regardless of class traveled.

Departure time was 11:00am and I pulled into the station at 10:45am. Perfect timing!

Train time in Meredith, New Hampshire

Train time in Meredith, New Hampshire

My car for today’s ride was named "Determination". It once served as a parlor car on the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad. As the railroad website put it, a seat in this car offered a chance to travel in the elegance and class once enjoyed only by the railroad barons in the past. Tickets cost just $125.00 per person inclusive of taxes.

Doorway into Presidential Class aboard the railroad car “Determination”

Looks like some kind of hippie crash pad, said one passenger

The “First Class” car – almost as nice as the “Determination” in my mind

The locomotive powered up at exactly 11:00am and we were off, rolling through the beautiful landscape of south central New Hampshire. Along the way the train passed Lake Waukewan and Lake Winona, then followed along the Pemigewasset River from Ashland to Plymouth with a short station stop in Ashland.

Rolling along the Pemigewasset River

Fall foliage along the Winnipesaukee & Pemigewasset Railroad

Scenery along the Winnipesaukee & Pemigewasset Railroad

Scenery along the Winnipesaukee & Pemigewasset Railroad

Rolling past Lake Waukewan

Lake Winona

This was perhaps the best ride of the trip. Once again we were blessed with a spectacular sunny day which highlighted autumn colors that could not have been more vivid. If you’re of a mindset to see New England’s fall colors by train, I heartily endorse a ride on this fall foliage excursion. But what the heck – I’d have to say in all fairness that I would recommend a ride on any of the railroads I’ve ridden thus far on this trip.

And if you want to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY during this time of year, might I suggest that you try to make it a midweek rather than a weekend visit.

Driving down I-93 to my hotel for the night in Londonderry, NH, I got caught up in what was described by one resident as the worst traffic jam he’d seen in his eleven years of living in New Hampshire. I finally got off the highway about 30 miles north of Londonderry, pulled into a Dunkin’ Donuts - which are conveniently located about every 2-3 miles throughout New England – and used their free Wi-Fi to google map an alternative route down to my hotel.
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October 15, 2019
Alaska Airlines First Class ~ 737-900 ~ Boston, MA to Portland, OR ~ 425p – 750p

One thing I wanted to avoid was toll charges along the way down to Logan Airport. My vehicle was equipped with an EZ Pass which would handle the non-cash tolls, but in so doing the rental car company would charge me an additional $11.00 for each day I used the EZ Pass.

Driving down to Boston Logan on the most direct route via the interstate, there are a couple of tolls right before you reach the airport. It seemed silly to pay an additional $15 or so when it was possible to avoid the tolls altogether. Google maps has a handy feature that allows you to specify non-toll routes, so a couple of days earlier I did just that for the Londonderry to Logan route and then printed out the step by step directions.

One thing I quickly learned is that while Google Maps do indeed provide accurate directions, not all of the roads have proper road signs. As such, it’s important to be take note of the distance to be traveled on each step of the directions. This was especially true in rural New England as well as the Boston suburbs where a couple of times I literally turned onto unsigned roads based solely on the partial mileage traveled on the previous road. In one case I nervously turned down what was essentially an alley after first checking with a gas station attendant who was “pretty sure” it was the “road” I was looking for. Thankfully everything worked out, but again, if you use Google Maps, reset your trip odometer after each turn.

Alaska Airlines departs out of Logan’s Terminal C. I remember when they used to depart out of the much newer and nicer Terminal A. Comparatively speaking, Terminal C is a definite downgrade, at least out of the gates Alaska uses. Thankfully, today would be the very last day that Alaska would operate out of C as tomorrow they would henceforth be operating out of Terminal B.

I gave additional thanks to the Upgrade Gods that saw fit to upgrade me to seat 2C for the nearly six hour flight to Portland. Here are some photos of the menu and the meal.

Alaska Airlines BOS-PDX Menu

Carrot Ginger Bisque with Side Salad
The soup was delicious

Braised Beef Top Blade
Served with mashed potatoes and celeriac with roasted rainbow carrots. Topped with a rosemary cider demi-sauce and garnished with micro-greens

I spent the night in Portland at the Howard Johnson’s. With this stay I retained Diamond status in the Wyndham Rewards program. Supposedly this means I’ll be eligible for suite upgrades during future visits to any of the various hotel chains operating under the Wyndham umbrella. Past experience has shown that a significant number of front desk employees are not even aware of this perk, thus relegating it to “imaginary perk” status.

October 16, 2019
Alaska Airlines First Class ~ 737-800 ~ Portland, OR to Anchorage, AK ~ 1135a – 235p
Alaska Airlines Economy Class ~ 737-800 ~ Anchorage, AK to Fairbanks, AK ~ 310p – 405p
Alaska Airlines First Class ~ 737-900 ~ Fairbanks, AK to Seattle, WA ~ 540p – 1015p
Horizon Airlines Economy Class ~ ERJ-175 ~ Seattle, WA to Portland, OR ~ 1030p – 1120p

October 17, 2019
Alaska Airlines First Class ~ 737-900 ~ Boston, MA to Portland, OR ~ 825a – 435p

Some of you may recall that the original impetus for this trip was an Alaska Airlines Club 49 deal offering travel between Fairbanks and Boston for $199.00 each way. That was back in early June. While this trip started out as a mileage run with the purchase of two round trips between Fairbanks and Boston, by late June it had morphed into the full blown rail extravaganza that you’ve been reading about over the past 10000 words.

In any event, we’re on the return portion of the first roundtrip ticket. In true mileage run fashion (at least for me) I booked myself back to Fairbanks with an immediate turn around back to Portland and on to Boston the next day. As such, I was left with an hour and thirty minute layover in Fairbanks, during which some friends of mine came out to the airport to bring me some new books and a sports jacket which I thought might be a good idea to have along for the two cruises coming up.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d have arranged for a couple of days layover in Fairbanks, if only because it’s always good to be home. I mean, if you lived in a place this idyllic, wouldn’t you want to spend a bit of time here whenever you could?

Home Sweet Home

What was I thinking? Oh well – the tickets had been purchased and at this point in the trip it was too late to effect any changes. I had places to be and more trains to ride!

As such, I started the day in Portland by using my Priority Pass privileges to have an excellent omelet at Caper’s Café – the attractive eatery located just past the A/B/C gate security checkpoint at PDX. I’d been upgraded for the three and a half hour flight up to Anchorage but not the much shorter flight to Fairbanks. From Fairbanks back to Portland, I’d been upgraded for the longer flight down to Seattle but because I was standing by for the 10:30pm departure to PDX, I had to settle for a seat behind the curtain. Actually, there was no curtain as the little Embraer 175 as operated by Horizon had no curtain dividing the forward and main cabins. For my part, I was just happy to be on the flight.

Here are a couple pictures of some inflight meal highlights:

Alaska Airlines PDX-ANC Butternut Squash Enchilada Casserole

Alaska Airlines PDX-BOS Greek Yogurt and Granola Starter

Alaska Airlines PDX-BOS Spinach & Kabocha Pumpkin Frittata with Chicken Sausage & Potatoes

Upon arrival in Boston – this time at the much nicer Terminal B - I made my way to the Rental Car Center and picked up an almost new Kia Sorrento. Then it was off to Newport, Rhode Island for the next rail adventure.
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October 18, 2019
Newport & Narragansett Bay Railroad Co. ~ First Class

Today’s ride is aboard the Newport & Narragansett Bay Railroad Company’s Autumn Harvest Luncheon train. This is the shortest train ride of any of the seven excursion trips I’ve booked, but what the heck – I’m always up for a good meal on a train.

Newport & Narragansett Bay Railroad Engine and cars
Photo courtesy of the Newport & Narragansett Bay Railroad Co.

Alas, this train was a disappointment right from the get-go. The dining car I was assigned to was configured with all 2x2 seating, with passengers sitting two people side by side facing the backs of the two people sat ahead of them.

Odd seating arrangement in our dining car

Our car appeared to be almost entirely filled with a large tour group whose two busses were parked just outside. Perhaps because I was a single traveler, I was shunted off to the very last table at the rear of the car. Thereafter I was pretty much ignored while the couples seated in front of and across from me appeared to enjoy much more attentive service. I’m not a guy who expects to be fawned over, but the disparity in service was quite egregious. Perhaps service was based upon the perception of gratuities after the meal.

Eventually I got the attention of a server who brought me a bottle of the local Narragansett Lager. The beer was priced at $6.00 a bottle while the cocktails ran from $10 to $12 each.

Still life with Narragansett Lager

As part of the booking process, you pre-order your entrée or main meal selection. This train offered a choice of a New England Pot Roast, a Turkey Dinner or some kind of vegetarian offering. I’d opted for the New England Pot Roast. When our meals were delivered – mine the very last – my portion was quite small relative to the impressive turkey dinner served to the folks across from me. Worse, both the meat and most notably the potatoes were on the cool side of tepid.

Not so good pot roast

The ride itself rolled from Portsmouth Junction up the shoreline of Aquidneck Island to the Hummocks township, located at the very tip of the island. Total one way distance was 5.5 miles for a total round trip distance of 11 miles. Train speed averaged about 5-7 mph and the scenery was comprised of mostly dark green bushes and trees. There was not much in the way of fall colors. The highlight of the trip for me was a nice view of the impressive Mt. Hope suspension bridge, which opened 90 years ago in 1929.

The Mt. Hope Suspension Bridge

Oh well – not every trip can be perfect. And, for what it’s worth, I never would have known about the Newport & Narragansett Bay Railroad if I hadn’t ridden it. Now that I have, well, once is enough for me.

Right! My next train ride will be on the famous Mt. Washington Cog Railway, located way up in the northern part of New Hampshire. I took a couple of days to get there, driving at a leisurely pace through Massachusetts and Maine. Arriving in the nearby community of Jackson, NH, I checked into The Lodge at Jackson – as nice a small property as I have ever stayed. The location, the room, the staff and the service were all top notch.

After dropping off my gear, I hopped back in the Sorrento and drove another 35 miles up the road to the railroad station at the base of Mount Washington.

Mt. Washington (6,288’) as seen from US 302

October 20, 2019
Mount Washington Cog Railway ~ Coach Class

The Mount Washington Cog Railway is the world's first mountain-climbing cog railway. It is the second steepest rack railway in the world (after the Pilatus Railway in Switzerland) with an average grade of over 25% and a maximum grade of just over 37%. The railway is approximately 3 miles long and ascends Mount Washington's western slope, beginning at an elevation of about 2,700 feet and ending just short of the mountain's summit of 6,288 feet.

A variety of departures are available throughout the day. Most are operated by biodiesel engines, but two departures are operated by the railroad’s older steam locomotives. I booked a seat on the 3:30pm steam train.

My train awaits at the Mt. Washington station

One of the steam engines used to push us up the mountain

Situated just ahead of us were two separate biodiesel trains, each towing just a single railroad car. Each car was manned by a guide/brakeman. Our guide was a colorful character named Eli. He did a great job regaling us with stories about the railway, its history and the train’s operation.

Colorful cars of the Mt. Washington Cog Railway

All Aboard! Let’s head up the mountain!

At 3:30pm the whistles blew and all three trains commenced the journey up the mountain. We were informed that the steam locomotive climbs the mountain at about 3 miles per hour and descends at a little over 4 mph. It takes it about an hour to make the journey up the mountain and only about 40 minutes to descend. By contrast, the biodiesel engines can make the uphill journey in as little as 36 minutes. So that’s why they were ahead of us. Here are some pictures from the ascent.

And we’re off!

Climbing up Mt. Washington
You can see the tracks above the water tower

Climbing up Mt. Washington
As we climbed higher, snow and ice began to accumulate alongside the tracks

Climbing up Mt. Washington
Near the top, it became so icy that we were unable to go all the way to the terminus

Because of the snow and ice, we were unable to make it to the traditional turnaround point where a large visitor center complete with restrooms and a café is located. Instead we stopped about 700’ short, so we were close enough, given the circumstances. We spent about 15 minutes up there and boarded four climbers who didn’t feel like hiking back down the mountain. The outside air temperature was in the high twenties and our car was not heated, so most of us were pretty happy when we finally commenced the journey back down the mountain.

Descending Mt. Washington
Note the angle of the window relative to the scenery

The view from inside our car

Descending Mt. Washington ~ Whoa, Nellie!

Bidding adieu to Eli, I left him a nice tip and then sped back down the road to Jackson. Just a stone’s throw from my hotel was a wonderful Irish pub called The Shannon Door. I was immediately taken with the old wooden interior and even more so by the excellent food, music and company. Tourist season was over for the most part and the crowd in the pub was a great mix of young, old and in between. I spent a pleasant couple of hours there before heading back to the lodge and calling it a night.
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October 21, 2019
Conway Scenic Railroad – Notch Excursion Dome ~ First Class

It sure was nice to wake up and not have to check out of my fine hotel. After availing myself of the lodge’s complimentary hot breakfast including eggs and sausage, I drove 10 miles down the road to North Conway from whence my seventh and final New England rail excursion would commence. The station was easy to find as it was located right in the middle of downtown North Conway. A plaque indicated that the station complex had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979.

Today’s ride would be aboard the Conway Scenic Railroad on a 60 mile roundtrip from North Conway through Crawford Notch on a line that was once part of the Mountain Division of the Maine Central Railroad. The train was parked at the station as I arrived and I took a moment to admire my car, an ex-Great Northern dome coach that also served on the Alaska Railroad in the 1980s. As often as I’ve ridden aboard the Alaska Railroad since the mid-1970s, the possibility existed that I’d ridden aboard this car before. The car was resplendent in the attractive green, red and gold colors of the Conway Scenic Railroad so I fired off a couple of shots of her before heading inside the station to collect my tickets.

Ex-Great Northern dome car “Dorthea Mae”
”Dorthea Mae” is named after the wife of one of the railroad’s owners

The Notch Train offers a wide variety of accommodations ranging from simple coach seats in an ex-commuter railroad car to “First Class” seats configured 2x2 much like you’d find in a normal Amtrak coach to deluxe “Screening Room” overstuffed swivel chairs on the lower level of the “Dorthea Mae” to the best of the best – a dining room table with a four course lunch served under the glass dome on the “Rhonda Lee”. All seats were available when I first discovered this railroad back in June but by the time I got around to booking, the best I could get was a swivel seat in the screening room.

The “Screening Room” aboard the Dorthea Mae

The view from the dome upstairs on the Dorthea Mae
These seats were more expensive and unavailable when I booked

The route out to Crawford Notch is classic New Hampshire scenery. As we left the hustle and bustle of North Conway behind, we rolled through gorgeous forests interspersed with shimmering rivers, sheer bluffs, steep ravines, cascading streams and panoramic mountain vistas. Check out the views!

Autumn colors aboard the Conway Scenic Railroad

Autumn colors aboard the Conway Scenic Railroad

More autumn colors aboard the Conway Scenic Railroad

At various times the tracks took us along rivers where we were treated to beautiful combinations of water and colors…

River view aboard the Conway Scenic Railroad


Hardly a cloud in the sky

The Rhonda Lee at Crawford’s Notch Station

We spent about a half hour at Crawford’s Notch. The old station housed an ever present gift shop and a small café. I purchased a can of Coke and enjoyed it with the Subway sandwich I’d purchased on the way into town this morning. Picnic tables were located under an awning outside the station.

When the all aboard call sounded, I re-boarded the train and enjoyed trading travel stories with my fellow travelers during the two hour ride back down to North Conway.

Heading back down to North Conway

Driving back up to Jackson after our arrival, I’d planned to run a load of laundry at the lodge before I headed off to Florida tomorrow. Imagine my surprise then when the front desk clerk said he’d be happy to wash everything for me and then drop it off in my room later. Grrrreat!

I so enjoyed my visit to The Shannon Door the night before that I returned there again tonight, specifically to try out their $17 12 ounce strip steak au poivre as well as enjoy another glass of the tasty local pale ale. There was no band this night, but Monday Night Football was on and the Patriots were taking it to the Jets, so the assembled patrons were lively and happy.

I returned to the lodge to find my laundry neatly folded at the foot of my bed and I went to sleep knowing that the little town of Jackson, New Hampshire is one place I’ll definitely be visiting again.

October 22, 2019
JetBlue ~ Economy Class ~ A320-200 ~ Boston, MA to Ft. Lauderdale ~ 431p – 802p

It’s been six years since I last flew on JetBlue – so long ago in fact that the airline has changed its entire service model. Where once the entire airplane offered a 34” pitch throughout, it has now switched to the “Economy Plus” model so popular within the industry. It even offers a First Class style service called “Mint” on many of its A321 operated transcon flights. The forward cabin of these flights features individual suites with full length beds.

Its new Economy product is called “Even More Space” and while it does indeed provide a generous seat pitch of 35”, it does come at significant cost. My ticket down to Ft. Lauderdale, booked in regular discounted Economy, cost $97.00. An upgrade to the more spacious forward cabin – or to an exit row – would have cost me $65 or about 70% more. No thanks.

That said, based upon past and current experiences, I think JetBlue’s quite a nice little airline. Its operation out of Logan’s Terminal C is much nicer than the perspective I got from my recent Alaska flight from the same terminal. Where Alaska was shunted off to some seemingly leftover gates in a narrow little arm of the terminal, Jet Blue’s operation looks much nicer. The wider corridors provide a variety of upscale eateries along with the usual airport shops along the way.

While I awaited boarding, I admired an Aer Lingus A330-300 parked next door. Aer Lingus is a partner in Alaska’s Mileage Plan loyalty program, and I’d love to someday be sitting at this gate with a Business Class boarding pass in hand while looking forward to a trip back to the Emerald Isle.

As for my JetBlue flight, it was as good as advertised. The seat was reasonably comfortable, the flight attendants were attentive, and the food I purchased was tasty and reasonably filling. We landed in Ft. Lauderdale about ten minutes early and within an hour I was relaxing in air-conditioned ecstasy at the Hotel Morrison in nearby Dania Beach.

October 23, 2019
Virgin Trains Brightline Service ~ Select Class ~ Ft. Lauderdale to West Palm Beach ~ 1215p – 1255p
Virgin Trains Brightline Service ~ Select Class ~ West Palm Beach to Ft. Lauderdale ~ 130p – 215p

The day started with long lines and frustration while waiting for the rental car shuttle van to pick up about twenty of us assembled outside the Rental Car Center at Ft. Lauderdale International. While other car rental company’s vans came and went with comparative regularity, we waited and waited for waited for a ride to Fox Rental Car’s off-airport location.

I’ve rented with Fox before. While I’ve been pleased with their cars and particularly with their low daily and weekly rates, those low rates often come at a price. That price is occasionally unusually long lines and wait times. Honestly, I shouldn’t complain. It’s a classic case of you get what you pay for. In my case, it was a pretty good deal in the form of a three day rental of a mid-sized SUV for just $89.00 all in.

As we waited ever longer, the crowd grew as ever more Fox renters showed up. When it became evident that there were more people than a single van would have room for, I began to consider switching to a more expensive but considerably more expeditious rental with one of the established tenants inside the Rental Car Center. After all, if there were long lines here, there were undoubtedly long, slow moving lines at Fox’s rental facility. Yep. Let’s do it.

As I gathered my gear and headed inside the RCC, not one but two Fox vans arrived. Sorry. Too late. I rent about 15-20 cars a year and have elite status with two rental car companies. With an internet connection I could set up a rental and then head straight to either my car or the express lane at the counter. And so it was that I booked a full size Grand Cherokee with Budget and used my Fast Break status to skip the line and expedite my rental. Total cost: $149.50. Yes, it was $60 more but it was money well paid. Had I stuck with Fox, in all likelihood I would have missed my next train, Virgin Trains Brightline Service from Ft. Lauderdale to West Palm Beach.

Once again, Google Maps saved the day. I don’t have a Smart Phone – nor do I want one – and so I printed out the instructions prior to departing Alaska. Those original instructions were from the Fox lot but hey – the main thing was to get on I-595W regardless of location. After that, finding the Brightline station was simple.

But enough of rental cars and driving. The plan for this morning was to check out Virgin Train’s new Brightline service, which just happens to be the only privately owned, operated and maintained commercial passenger rail system in the United States.

For many years, the South Florida communities of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach have been well served by Tri-Rail commuter trains. These trains provide commuter train style seating and make multiple stops along the way. Virgin Trains offers an improved model highlighted by express rail service connecting the above mentioned cities while augmenting that service with hospitality both at the station and onboard the train. No annoying freight trains travel on Brightline’s tracks.

Unlike a commuter train, Brightline’s trains offer two classes of service – Smart and Select – akin to Coach and Business. Smart offers 2x2 seating while Select offers 2x1 seating. All seats are upholstered in pale grey leather. Between Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, the enhanced Select Service cost just $10.00 more than Smart, so that’s what I ordered.

Each of the three Brightline stations is purpose built and includes lounge facilities for Select passengers. Brightline’s Ft. Lauderdale station is located off a side street in a neighborhood populated with shops and small warehouses. Without directions, you’d hardly know it was there. The station offers a dedicated parking garage with full day parking going for $8.00 but complimentary if you’re a Select passenger.

Brightline Select service begins from the moment you arrive. Upon entering the attractive two story glass walled station, I immediately noticed was the clean slightly lemony scent. I’d read that Brightline had created this fresh, clean scent for all of its stations. The lemon-zest like smell is one of the first things you notice when you enter. Very nice.

Brightline stations also include a security check-point, similar to what our US airports were like prior to the terrorist bombings in September of 2001. You can keep your shoes on and don’t have to remove your laptop, cell phone or keys.

An escalator delivered me upstairs to the second level where the lounge, restrooms and a small grab & go café is located. Entry to the Select lounge is through a turnstile which allows access via an automated scan of the barcode on your ticket. With 20 minutes to go before departure time, I had plenty of time for a quick visit to the lounge.

Brightline’s Select Lounge at Ft. Lauderdale

Brightline’s Select Lounge at Ft. Lauderdale

Each of the lounges offers complimentary food and beverage items throughout the day. From opening until 11:00am a continental breakfast spread featuring freshly baked goods by Zak the Baker, fresh whole fruits, yogurt parfaits, fruit cups and daily freshly squeezed orange juice. After 11, the offerings become a lot more basic. I noticed a variety of potato chips, nutrition bars and a bowl of fresh fruit. A small display fridge offered three different beers, while champagne and wine were on ice on a large metal tub. Freshly brewed Illy coffee, assorted teas and an assortment of sodas and bottled water are also available.

Food and beverage station at Brightline’s Select Lounge

The wine offerings

Around the back side of the food station was a small business area equipped with a complimentary wireless printer and stationary supplies.

Announcements of impending departures are made five minutes out and uniformed Brightline attendants are available to provide direction and assistance onto the trains. The northbound train to West Palm Beach was departing from track 1 downstairs on level one.

As our train pulled into the station, I noted that the bright white, yellow and black locomotives are quite sleek and modern looking, much like the types you see in Europe. Each Brightline train has two locomotives (one on each end of the train) and four passenger cars - three Smart coach cars and one Select Class car. Boarding areas on the platform are identified by your car number, so as I stood under the sign designating car number 4, sure enough car number 4 came to a stop right in front of me.

Brightline Locomotive arrives at Ft. Lauderdale

Brightline Locomotive awaits departure at Ft. Lauderdale

Stepping inside, I took immediate notice of the wonderfully air-conditioned interior. I had chosen seat 2A , but since nobody was sat at the table across the way, I later relocated over there. USB jacks and electrical outlets were located at each seat as well as at the tables.

Brightline’s Select Class seating

Tables are available at the front and back of each car

As we eased out of the station, car attendant Crystal stopped by to introduce herself, greet me by name and offer a nicely chilled moist towel. Ahh… it felt so good to throw that chilled towel on my face. I know, I know… they’re designed to be hand towels but as nicely chilled as that towel was, it felt much better as a facial wrap.

Shortly thereafter a basket of snacks and candies was presented. I selected a Kind Bar. The drink cart arrived next, offering three kinds of beer. Complimentary cocktails and wines were also available. I selected a Havana Lager from Miami’s Concrete Beach Brewing Company. Finally, complimentary bento boxes with a choice of salami, cheese and pretzels or crackers, olives and hummus were offered. Salami and cheese, please.

Complimentary Select Class offerings on Brightline’s FLL-PBI train

Service was attentive throughout the 35 minute ride to West Palm. Along the way I paid a visit to the restroom at the front of the car. Wow! It was huge and clearly ADA compliant. A fold down changing area for infants was also available.

Upon arrival in West Palm, I headed upstairs to the Select Lounge and then back down to the tracks where the 130pm train delivered me back down to Ft. Lauderdale in similarly fine fashion.

All in all, this was a great way to travel on a short commuter style market such as experienced on Florida’s southeast coast. I hope Brightline enjoys much success and is able to expand its quality service to other markets around the U.S. I’d like to see Pueblo – Colorado Springs – Denver – Longmont– Ft. Collins – Cheyenne, although word is that Brightline is in the final stages of making Victorville, VA to Las Vegas a reality within a couple of years.

I spent the next couple of days down in Homestead, Florida visiting with friends who used to be Denali drivers back in the 1980s and now work with NPS at Everglades National Park. We took a drive down to Key Largo, ate Cuban and Mexican food, drank a bunch of beer and generally had a good time.

October 26, 2019
Air Transat Economy Class ~ A321-200 ~ Ft. Lauderdale, FL to Toronto, ON ~ 1150a – 245p

After having flown 201 airlines, the opportunities to add new ones here in North America are few and far between, especially given my preference for flying on jets. Unlike the 1980s and 1990s, there are few if any start-ups as their chances of success against the big six (AA, DL, UA, WN, AS, JB) are slim to none. The same holds true in Canada and Mexico as well.

Imagine then my surprise and delight to discover that Canada’s Air Transat was operating scheduled flights between Ft. Lauderdale and Toronto. Long a charter operator, Air Transat began operating scheduled flights a few years ago between Canada and the US, but mostly on a seasonal basis during the winter months. While late October seems a bit early for Canadian snowbirds to head south, what do I know? Maybe they’re ready to go already! In any event, I’m happy to add Air Transat to my list of 202 airlines flown.

Air Transat departs out of FLL’s Terminal 4. I’d never been in this terminal before and I must say it looked both newer and nicer than the other terminals at FLL. Right next to my gate was a Mexican café, so I ordered a burrito to go and awaited the call to board.

It’s always feels strange to enter a larger aircraft such as an A321 that’s configured in an all economy configuration. Somehow, a larger airplane without a proper First Class cabin just doesn’t feel right. On a positive note, I’d managed to book a seat on the aisle in row 2. Air Transat does offer more spacious seating for a surcharge, but as this airplane is configured it’s limited to the row 1 bulkhead and the exit row seats. On side note, this airplane originally flew for Aeroflot, which does have a 2x2 First/Business Class cabin. When my seatmate in the middle seat attempted to adjust his air vent, he discovered he had none as each row up front was outfitted with just 2 air vents per side.

Air Transat claims to have been voted by Skytrax as the World’s Best Leisure Airline. I don’t have a lot of leisure airline experience to compare to, but compared to the British and European leisure carriers that I have flown with, Air Transat’s seating offers 2-3” more pitch per row. That alone will score major points in my book, but the flight attendants and meal options were also very good. Meals ranged from your typical airline snacks to full on hot meals that sold for up $25.00 Canadian. Judging by the pictures in the meal guide, I’d say they were on par with average coach meals from the 70s. That’s saying something these days.

Flight time was a quick two hours and thirty-five minutes. We landed on a rainy afternoon at Toronto Pearson, apparently parking out in some distant Toronto suburb based upon the length of the walk to customs. An hour later I was relaxing at the Courtyard by Marriott in anticipation of tomorrow’s journey by train across Canada.
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October 27, 2019
ViaRail Sleeper Plus Class ~ Lower Berth ~ The Canadian
Toronto, ON to Vancouver, BC ~ 945a – 800a

I took my first ride aboard ViaRail’s famous streamliner “The Canadian” back in 2004, between Edmonton and Vancouver. I’ve been looking forward to riding this train over its entire route from Toronto to Vancouver ever since. That opportunity presented itself earlier this summer when I discovered attractively priced sale fares for Sleeper Plus accommodations that were being offered on a variety of ViaRail routes including the Toronto to Vancouver corridor. While pausing to consider the possibility, I missed my chance to book a private single room by just a few hours. It was of little consequence however as there were plenty of comfortable lower berths available for about $300.00 USD less than the cost of a single bedroom. We’ll talk about the difference in accommodations later. For now, let’s preface this part of the report with a bit of history about The Canadian itself.

* * * _  _ * * *

After World War II had ended, most American railroads chose to invest heavily in new, lightweight streamlined railroad cars. One of the nation’s foremost builders of railroad cars, the Budd Company out of Philadelphia, was offering all-stainless steel train sets, some of which featured domed observation cars. The inspiration for the dome car came to an ALCO railroad executive while riding through the colorful strata of Colorado’s famous Glenwood Canyon. The high rock walls could not be thoroughly appreciated through normal railroad car windows, but if there were the ability to see up above the seats * ding! * an idea was formed.

Dome Car Seating

The newly designed cars featured an upstairs dome with seating for 24 people under the glass. With glass above and all around, the viewing of landscapes such as canyons or mountain valleys was spectacularly improved. Needless to say, dome car equipped trains were an instant hit with passengers and before long, nearly every railroad operating long distance passenger trains from the Midwest to the west coast offered dome cars on some if not all of their named trains.

Perhaps the most famous train ever to be outfitted with dome cars was the California Zephyr. From its inception in 1949, it was a train as beautiful and storied as the land it traveled through. One of the California Zephyr’s most notable features was the five dome cars that made up its consist. Four were dome coaches and one was a beautiful rounded end or “teardrop” observation car that brought up the rear of the train.

The California Zephyr

Up north in Canada, another railroad was taking notice.

In 1953, the Canadian Pacific Railroad placed an order for 155 stainless steel cars with the Budd Company that included 18 rounded end dome observation cars, 18 mid-train dome lounge cars, 30 coaches, 18 dining cars and 71 sleeping cars. A subsequent order for 18 baggage-crew dormitory cars brought the final tally to 173 cars, sufficient for establishing an entirely new daily transcontinental service. The cars ordered were virtually identical to the 1949 consists ordered for the ( California Zephyr, but with slightly different interior modifications.

The Canadian Pacific christened its new flagship train The Canadian and commenced operations between Montreal and Vancouver in April of 1955. Matching its streamlined appearance, The Canadian's 71-hour westbound schedule was 16 hours faster than that of the premier train it supplanted, The Dominion.

Although initially successful, passenger train ridership began to decline in Canada during the 1960s. Facing competition from airlines and increased automobile usage following construction of the Trans-Canada Highway, the Canadian Pacific cancelled The Dominion in 1966, and petitioned the government to discontinue The Canadian in 1970. Although this petition was denied, during the 1970s the Canadian Pacific attempted to diminish the passenger service market by operating The Canadian at reduced levels, with the government subsidizing 80 percent of its losses.

In response to ever mounting losses by the country’s two main railroads (Canadian Pacific and Canadian National), Via Rail, a federal crown corporation, was formed in October of 1978 to handle the passenger services of the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National. Following the takeover by Via, The Canadian became the company's premier transcontinental train, and initially operated over its old CP route. It was supplemented by the Canadian National’s former Super Continental, which operated over the parallel, but more northerly, CN route.

The Super Continental was discontinued in 1981 and in early 1990, The Canadian was moved from CP tracks onto the CN route plied by the Super Continental for its first quarter-century. Additionally, service to Montreal was dropped. The new longer route bypassed Regina and Calgary in favor of Saskatoon and Edmonton. Here’s a view of the 2770 mile long route:

Route of ViaRail’s Canadian
The Canadian’s route is in red
I have ridden almost all of these routes except the dark blue ones back east

In 2018 the schedule was lengthened to four days and four nights in each direction due to continuing schedule reliability problems on the host railway. That’s a nice way of saying that since freight is where the money’s at, freight trains take preference over passenger trains, so passenger trains need to get out of the way, schedule notwithstanding.

As of this year, The Canadian operates twice per week, departing Toronto on Wednesdays and Sundays and Vancouver on Mondays and Fridays. The total journey takes about four days. An additional train operates once-weekly between Vancouver and Edmonton in the summer months.

With its refurbished 1955 built consist, The Canadian remains the only North American streamliner to survive essentially intact into the twenty-first century. So then, that about covers the history. Let’s find out what a ride on The Canadian is all about and head on down to Toronto’s Union Station!

* * * _  _ * * *

My alarm went off at 6:30am and by 7:30 I was showered, shaved and ready to go. The hotel shuttle dropped me off at Toronto Pearson International’s Terminal One where I simply followed the signs and made my way to the UP Express train into the city. This train’s terminus is Toronto’s Union Station where I alit and followed more signs over to the Great Hall from whence ViaRail operates its long distance passenger trains.

Great Hall of Toronto’s Union Station

Since I’d already printed out my ticket in advance, it was time for a bit of pre-trip lounging. Sleeper Plus passengers have access to ViaRail’s Business Class Lounges, which are available in most major train stations such as Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Winnipeg. While lounge access is a seemingly nice perk, the lounge in Toronto is nothing to write home about. It provides comfy couches and chairs, coffee and a small selection of juices and water. No food was available, nor were any newspapers.

Business Class Lounge at Toronto’s Union Station

More information on ViaRail’s Business Class lounges can be found HERE

After checking in at the reception desk, I was directed to a table at the back of the room where the Dining Car Manager was taking reservations for tonight and tomorrow night’s dinner. Although I arrived in the lounge about 45 minutes before departure time, the only time slot left for tonight’s dinner was the last seating at 8:45pm. However, the manager went on to explain that since I got the last seating tonight, I’d be eligible for first choice on tomorrow night’s dinner. Fair enough. I couldn’t help but wonder however if and how those who’d checked in earlier were thusly given possibly the last choice for tomorrow night’s dinner. Were they called back to make their choice later on? Some things aren’t worth pondering for long though, so I poured myself a coffee, pulled out my copy of The Week magazine and awaited the call to board.

When that call came, we were escorted down to Track 17, following obediently behind our ViaRail rep like ducklings off to the pond. As we descended down the long ramp to the trackside platform, our train came into view – fifteen stainless steel Budd-built coaches, sleepers, dome lounges and a dining car, all gleaming beautifully in the bright lights of the station underground. I was assigned Lower Berth 3 in car 113, named Fraser Manor. Car attendant Cal was waiting at the stairway into the train and provided a friendly welcome aboard along with an assist for my roll-a-bord.

All Aboard


Once onboard, VIA Rail has a number of different accommodation options to suit varied budgets. Those range from economy seats to a variety of Sleeper Plus accommodations which include berths as well as cabins for 1, 2 or 3 people. The top of the line option is called Prestige Class with includes a much larger cabin with wood paneled walls, a large plush sofa, an ensuite bathroom with bath, a television and free drinks – including alcohol - for the duration of the journey. Prestige Class cabins were on sale for just $6500 CAD one way whereas my lower berth went for $833.00 CAD one way. Let’s take a closer look at some of the accommodations…

Economy Class

I once rode in ViaRail’s Economy Class for the 38 hour ride from Winnipeg up to Churchill. I thought the seats were quite comfortable and spacious with plenty of legroom. The seats came with a blanket and pillow set including a polar fleece cover while electrical outlets were available at every seat. Neck pillows, eyeshades and earplugs were also available for purchase. As long distance Economy Class travel goes, it really doesn’t get any better.

On the down side, Economy Class passengers on The Canadian do not have access to the dining car. They do have access to their own Skyline dome lounge where light meals, hot drinks, refreshments and alcoholic drinks are offered at “reasonable prices”. Additionally, there is no access to showers and there are no showers in the stations, so you’d probably want to pack a washcloth along for sponge bathing along the way.

Sleeper Plus Class

Unless you’re traveling on a short day trip, Sleeper Plus is definitely worth the added cost. This is especially true on ViaRail given the restrictions imposed upon those traveling in coach (no dining car, only a basic dome lounge onboard). The 1955 Budd built sleeper cars on ViaRail’s overnight trains are designated either “Manor” or Chateau” series cars. They’re fairly similar, so I won’t split hairs over the differences. Each car offers three sections (or berths as they’re more commonly known), four roomettes (or single cabins in ViaRail parlance) and six bedrooms (or double cabins). Below is a picture of a Manor car layout. It shows three of the bedrooms with beds down but in their daytime configuration all of the bedrooms are furnished with two free standing chairs.

ViaRail Manor Car Layout 174
Photo courtesy Seat61.com

The most affordable of the Sleeper Plus accommodations are the berths. At $833.00 CAD my lower berth was $300 less expensive than the cheapest private cabin. As mentioned above, it included all meals as well as access to showers, the Skyline Dome Lounge and the domed Prestige Park Car. During the day the berths offer bench style seating (two couchettes facing each other) while at night they convert to comfortable beds that are about three feet wide. Heavy curtains are draped over both the upper and lower berths at night and when closed and buttoned up, the berths are quite cozy and private. Showers and toilets are located at the end of each car.

It should be noted that lower berths come with a large window at your bedside while the upper berths have no windows at all. Some feel it can seem quite dark and claustrophobic up there (there is a reading light) so perhaps for that reason upper berths sell for a couple hundred dollars less than lower berths.

My lower berth by day

My lower berth in nighttime configuration

Essentially, berths offer all the benefits of First Class service without the privacy of a cabin or an ensuite toilet. I think they’re the best travel deal on this train.

The next level up would be a single cabin, or what most railroads call a roomette. These single “cabins” are little more than a tiny compartment with the same kind of seat you get in a berth during the day. The cabin does come with an ensuite toilet with the toilet lid serving as an ottoman during the day should you wish. The bed folds down from the wall and ends up covering the toilet, so if you need to go in the middle of the night, you’ll have to go down the hall where the shower is also located.

Single Cabin
Photo courtesy Seat61.com

Cabins for two provide two chairs during the day, in addition to an ensuite toilet. An upper and lower bunk fold out from the wall for nighttime use. A couple of these cabins have a connecting door between them, so a larger group or family could book them both as a suite.

A sink with drinking water is available in both the single and double cabin and all accommodations including berths receive a personal shower kit (towels and toiletries) as well as a turndown service each night if desired.

Double Cabin
Photo courtesy Seat61.com

When it comes to daytime seating in any of the accommodations described above, I don’t think any of them are particularly good. None of the seats recline and the two chairs that are found in the double cabins are just that – chairs. They are nowhere near as comfortable as a reclining coach seat for sitting and reading. Honestly, if you want to spend a bit of private time each day sitting and reading or just taking in the passing scenery, the best seats are up in Economy Class. Not only do they recline, but they also have an electrical outlet, something unavailable to those traveling in berths. As I discovered on my very first day however, Sleeper Plus passengers are not allowed in the Economy section of the train, so if I wanted to put in a bit of work on this report, I had to go find a table in one of the lounges.

Finally, I should note that as a point of comparison for those of you who’ve ridden Amtrak, Amtrak’s accommodations are in my mind much nicer. This is especially true of Amtrak’s roomettes compared to ViaRail’s Single Cabins. Amtrak’s roomettes are larger, much more nicely decorated and have better storage options. The seats recline and they all have electricity. Amtrak does not however offer berths. Below are some photos of Amtrak’s accommodations for purposes of comparison.

Amtrak Roomette
Comparable to a single cabin on ViaRail

Amtrak Roomette in nighttime configuration

Amtrak Deluxe Bedroom
Comparable to a double cabin or bedroom on ViaRail

Amtrak Deluxe Bedroom

Each sleeper car has a dedicated attendant who will convert the berths from their daytime to nighttime configurations each day. However, if like me you want to leave your lower bunk down all day, you can if no upper berth-mate is booked to be boarding that day. I took advantage of this option for the entire trip as nobody was ever booked above me. It was nice to be able to come back to my car at any time of day and lie down to read a book or just enjoy the landscape passing by while comfortably stretched out. On those occasions where I desired a regular seat or an electrical outlet, I just headed back to one of the two lounges available to Sleeper Plus passengers.


Once we were all onboard, car attendant Cal stopped by to introduce himself and explain the workings and locations of things on the train. Cal had spent 27 years working on the railroad and it showed. In a good way. He was very genial and forthcoming throughout the trip and could not have done a better job of insuring that our car was clean and tidy throughout the journey.

Departure time out of Toronto was 9:45am and, much like the proverbial Swiss train, that’s exactly what time we pulled out of the station. Toronto is a city of about 2.8 million people, and as such has a sizeable suburb to be cleared before breaking out into the vast Ontario countryside.

Leaving the station in downtown Toronto, we passed through the usual urban landscape of buildings, warehouses, graffiti covered freight cars and wrong-side-of-the-tracks neighborhoods. After about forty-five minutes we transitioned from urban to rural – the concrete and brick having been replaced by fields, forests, rivers, ponds, lakes and rocks of the Canadian Shield. This would be our landscape for the next two days. It was certainly not the dramatic scenery of the western provinces but still, in its way every bit as pretty in a calming kind of way.

* * * _  _ * * *

So then, with another ninety-six hours to go until Vancouver - what to do?

For many people, this is the single biggest issue facing them during extended length journeys - be it a five hour flight or a four day train journey. To be sure, train travel is not for everyone. Beautiful scenery is all well and good but for some, it gets old after about an hour or so. No problem – just grab a book, right? For some of us – yes. Still, I’ve known of a lot of people who don’t read. We’re talking adults here. It’s really quite amazing – at least to me. That’s not to say these people don’t know how to read but rather that outside of stuff on their smart phone or laptop, reading books is not part of their daily regimen. It astonishes me how many people are seemingly lost without their phones or an internet connection. Wi-Fi is not available aboard The Canadian, so for those who fall into this category, they would be better suited to fly.

When I was growing up we didn’t have any of the gadgetry that kids have available to them today. I remember when we got our first radio. We used to spend hours sitting around that radio every night. Later, after we finally got electricity and plugged it in, it was even better!!

Having grown up in the sixties and seventies when there was no Wi-Fi, digital entertainment systems or mp3 players on board planes, trains and buses, we just did what came naturally. That usually meant meeting and talking with our seatmate or reading a book or magazine. On long distance trains it often meant heading up to the lounge car. This in particular is where train travel really differentiates from air travel in that you’re not limited to just your seat. A train is like an entire place that’s going somewhere. Aside from your seat or sleeping accommodation, there is usually a lounge and either a dining car or café. These are areas that naturally encourage socializing and this is especially true in the dining car where on most trains, because of space limitations, seating is communal. The lounges and domes are equally sociable. For most of us, a simple comment on the scenery or a question such as “Where are you headed to?” is enough to kindle the flame of conversation after which shared experiences, travel stories, laughter and good times naturally follow. Meeting and conversing with fellow travelers has always been one of the best parts of travel, regardless of mode.

That said, it’s also nice to have a bit of quiet time to oneself now and then. Maybe that’s as simple as sitting in the dome and enjoying the scenery passing by. Other times a good book is my best friend. Regardless, I can always find ways to entertain myself. Give me a pen and paper and I’ll never be bored - be it writing, art, solving or creating puzzles, whatever. And of course I’ve got my laptop which has Office and Excel installed, not to mention thousands of songs worth of great music. So then, no Wi-Fi? No problem. And thanks to Microsoft Word, I can always put in a bit of work on say, a trip report.

I spent the first 45 minutes or so seated in my berth – which again should be noted is by day two couchettes facing each other. Had someone booked the upper berth (which is less expensive), that person would have been occupying the couchette opposite me. Today however, that was not the case and so I had both couchettes to myself. Unfortunately, neither the berth couchettes nor the seats in the roomettes or bedrooms recline. In the old days the porter could have set up a table in these facilities, but so far as I know that is no longer the case. In terms of seating comfort you’re better off in Economy Class where the seats have a nice recline along with a decent sized fold down table (off the seat in front of you) and an electrical outlet conveniently located at each seat. On a positive note, I do believe the roomettes and bedrooms are equipped with electrical outlets.

For many people the dining car is a great way to address the ennui of long distance train travel. I was sorely tempted but I was also faced with a bit of a problem. Some of you may recall that back when I checked into the Via Rail Lounge in Toronto, I was assigned the very last seating for dinner – at 8:45 this evening. Unfortunately, ViaRail no longer offers a separate breakfast and lunch anymore. In its place they now offer a continental breakfast (Pastries, yogurt, granola and fruit) from 6:30to 8:30 and then a brunch from 9:30 to 1:30. The problem is that most of the brunch entrees are actually better suited to breakfast, so as a result we lose out on a proper lunch. Here’s the brunch menu from my first day:

Brunch Menu

See what I mean? Four out of five mains are breakfast items. Breakfast is less expensive to prepare than lunch, so this is clearly a cost cutting measure by ViaRail being presented with nice sounding adjectives like new “streamlined” dining. Pffft! Yeah, right.

Anyway, since I wouldn’t be eating dinner until 8:45 tonight, I decided to put off brunch until the last possible moment. As such, I figured now might be a good time to put in some work on this trip report, but with no electrical outlet or table available in the berths and a battery that’s only good for about an hour and a half these days, I decided to wander up to the Skyline Dome Lounge, three cars up in the Economy Class section. There I figured a cup of coffee, a sweet roll and an electrical outlet would tide me over until about 1:00pm.

The first sign of trouble was evidenced by a sign on the door to the lounge car expressly stating that only Economy Class passengers were allowed beyond this point. Whoa, Nellie! I’ve seen a lot of signs restricting entry to the higher or more expensive classes, but never one restricting entrance into the less expensive classes. Imagine sitting in First Class on a Cathay Pacific 777 and not being allowed to stroll to the back of the airplane. Oh what the heck, I figured. Let’s give it a try anyway.

Well, it didn’t go well. For starters I got a rather frosty reception from the woman working the lounge car. Her “Can I help you, Sir?” was more of a challenge than a warm welcome.

“Uh, yeah,” I replied. “I was just looking to get a cup of coffee and use a plug at one of these tables”
“Well, you’ll have to go back to the other lounge for that, Sir”
“Really? We’re not allowed to use this lounge at all?”
“Did you see the sign on the door?
“I did.” I replied. “Well, can I buy a cup of coffee to take back with me?
“You’re in the sleepers” she said. “We’ll give you a cup of coffee.”
“But we’re not supposed to” she added in a hushed tone.

And so ended my visit to the Economy Class section of The Canadian With coffee in hand, I trudged back through three cars and six doors to my berth where I finished off my coffee while putting in some time on this trip report.

As I’m sure any of you know who’ve taken the time to put together a fairly comprehensive trip report, it’s a real commitment. First and foremost, it’s important to go out and enjoy yourself during your travels. If you’re going to commit to a written trip report of the length and style of mine however, it’s equally important to take some time – indeed, make some time if you have to – to keep at it – if only to take notes now and then. Once you start getting too far behind, it’s waaaay more difficult to get back into it at a later date. Witness my First Class to and around Australia report from two years ago. Some people are still waiting for it. Ah well. Life goes on. Autumn comes. Kids go back to school. A frog is dissected. Pinkerton does not return… And that trip report still remains unfinished.

As mentioned earlier, there are no electrical outlets in the berths. Nor are there any tables. It’s not a good place to tap out a report. As my battery ran ever lower, I eventually shut down and took a stroll up to the Skyline Dome Lounge – this time the one designated for Sleeper Plus passengers.

Well let me tell you, it’s a long walk from my car up to the Skyline Lounge. Four cars doesn’t sound like much, but with my ever eroding back, butt and leg and feet muscles it felt like a long trek. By the end of the first day I had all the car names along my transit memorized. Fraser Manor, Hearne Manor, Christie Manor and Stuart Manor.

The Sleeper Plus Skyline Dome Lounge was very nicely laid out with booth and buffet style seating on one side and tables and chair seating on the other side. Underneath the dome – located up above in the middle of the car – was a service area with a small kitchen, refrigerator and storage cabinets for food, alcohol and souvenirs. Complimentary coffee, tea, cookies and crackers were available throughout the day. Breakfast pastries and fresh fruit were set out in the morning and canapés were offered in the afternoon. A variety of beer, wine and spirits were available for a fee – and a fairly expensive one at that. The two less expensive beers – priced at $7.50 CAD – were Molson Canadian and Coors Light. Coors Light?! Coors Light??!!! What an abomination – imagine water with beer powder added. And, it’s an American beer at that. I know Molson and Coors are now one, but Canada has a fine selection of its own lower end lagers. If ViaRail must offer an American beer, at least make it something better than Coors Light! I should note here that better beers such as Guinness and a couple of tasty Winnipeg brewed craft ales were also available for $9.00 CAD.

ViaRail’s Skyline Lounge – Side A

ViaRail’s Skyline Lounge – Side B

Let’s check out the dome!

ViaRail’s Skyline Lounge Dome
This was probably the most popular spot on the train

The Skyline Lounge was very capably attended to by the lovely and charming Claire. Ever a pretty smile and a cheerful word, Claire was the perfect host for a car that was not only a gathering point for passengers but also the activity center for the train. A dry erase bulletin board listed the occasional movies and talks that would be offered there each day. Additionally, a roving guitarist would stop by each day for an hour or so of music. Sometimes he played in the afternoon, other times he played in the evening. I can’t remember his name but he was pretty good and was even about to release his first CD. Puzzles and games were available in the tables and chairs side of the lounge, while electrical outlets were available on both ends of the car. Three different 500 piece jigsaw puzzles were solved over the four day journey, and I watched with amusement one afternoon as a couple of Canadian ladies played scrabble with very loose rules as to the “words” used.

A point of contention for some might be that no Wi-Fi is available at any point during the four day journey. Then again, through much of our journey we were a long way from anywhere. Short of an expensive satellite option, I don’t see how it could’ve been offered. I didn’t mind the lack of internet though. In terms of mental stimulation, the scenery and my fellow passengers provided plenty. This was especially true of each other as after four days most of us were on a first name basis.

Not surprisingly, most of the passengers on this train were Canadians, but I also met a few Americans and even the odd Brit or two. The lounges were always great places for social interaction, but perhaps the best was the dining car. Speaking of which, they’re only serving brunch until 1:30 and here it is almost 1:00pm already. All I’d had to eat thus far was a breakfast bar and a package of cookies from the lounge. It was well past time to head up to the dining car for a proper meal.

The dining car was located just one car back from the Skyline Lounge. A host was on hand to greet arriving diners and direct them to open tables. At sixty-five years old, these cars are old fashioned but still very impressive. I loved the soft lighting and the tall glass panels accenting each end of the car. Upon each panel was etched a bird species common to Canada – or at least the route of The Canadian. The examples in our diner were a Kingfisher and a Magpie.

Dining Car Kingfisher

Dining Car Magpie

The tables are draped in white linens for all meals. Fresh cut flowers adorned each table and unlike Amtrak, nice looking porcelain plates, bowls and cups were used. The silverware was also of good quality, heavyweight and sparkling clean.

ViaRail’s Dining Car
Photo courtesy of Seat61.com

Dining is a communal affair if only because there are not enough tables to allow for separate seating. On a positive note however, this mixed seating represents an excellent opportunity to meet and get to know your fellow travelers.

One major difference between Amtrak and ViaRail’s Canadian is that Amtrak’s dining car is open to all passengers, regardless of class traveled. On ViaRail’s Canadian, only Sleeper Plus passengers have access to the diner, perhaps because all meals are included as part of the considerably more expensive Sleeper Plus fare. Economy Class travelers aboard The Canadian must make do with light meals and sandwiches available for purchase in their dedicated Skyline Lounge.

The mixing of classes on Amtrak means that you’ll sometimes end up with a diverse and occasionally colorful collection of tablemates. Social elites who’d strolled up from the sleepers could very easily be sat across from some occasionally rough customers who’d lurched up from Coach. Most of the time it made for an entertaining mix of people and conversation. Very rarely was it ever awkward.

For today’s brunch I was joined by two ladies from Ladysmith, a suburb of Victoria on Vancouver Island. They’d known each other since school days and although both were married, they were doing this trip without their husbands. I got the sense this was kind of a “girl’s only trip” for them. Tammy ran the payroll office for her company while Val was a nurse. They were a lively, outgoing pair and I had occasion to enjoy their company throughout the trip.

As for brunch, as I mention a bit earlier, the menu offers primarily breakfast selections. The only non-breakfast item was lobster ravioli. I’m more of a lasagna fan than a ravioli fan, so I played it safe and went for the chef’s omelet. Today’s offering was a Western Omelet featuring ham, green peppers, onions and cheese. Hash browns with that omelet? Yes, please!

First meal on The Canadian – a Western Omelet

The dining car staff was friendly and energetic, taking orders and delivering food with smiles and aplomb. With the exception of the dining car manager, everyone appeared to be in their twenties. I contrast this with Amtrak where a job as a server in the diner is a much cherished position with the result being that most people don’t acquire enough seniority to attain such a position until they’re in their mid to late thirties.

By now we were well past any urban sprawl related to the Toronto area. Out our window passed the forests, bogs, lakes and large rock masses of the Canadian Shield. For those of you unfamiliar with the geological terminology, the Canadian Shield is a large area of exposed Precambrian igneous and metamorphic rock that forms the ancient geological core of the North American continent. It stretches north from the Great Lakes to the Arctic Ocean, covering over half of Canada; it also extends south into the northern reaches of the United States. It has over 150 ancient volcanic belts (now long extinct and eroded down to nearly flat plains) whose bedrock ranges from 600 million to 1.2 billion years old. While I find the geological details fascinating, I suspect most of us were simply happy to sit back and take in the splendor of the varied landscape.

Although it was a cloudy day, the beauty of the land still shone through. I was particularly impressed by the many lakes and streams we passed. If Minnesota is the “Land of 10000 Lakes”, I wonder how many Ontario must have? Many, many more, no doubt. Fishing camps and cabins dotted the lake shores and it was ever so easy to picture myself enjoying a nice afternoon and a cold beer on the porch of any of those cabins.

Brunch views on Day One

After lunch, I took a stroll four cars back to The Canadian’s famous Park Car. This is the beautiful rounded end dome observation lounge that graces the rear of the train. It harkens back to a time when railroads took great pride in the beauty of their trains both outside as well the quality of their service inside. The rounded end is a stylish and beautiful finale to the fifteen car streamliner that is The Canadian.

ViaRail’s Park Car “Kootenay Park”

According to one of the wait staff in the diner, our load out of Toronto was slightly over 50%. During the summer months The Canadian has a much higher rate of occupancy, and with it more cars. I was thankful that I had only a four car journey back to the Park Car. It would have been a much more arduous trek for a gimpy old goat like me just a month or two earlier.

Perhaps because of the light load, the Park Car was not particularly busy when I arrived. From a photography standpoint, that’s a good thing as I’m able to give you all a clearer sense of what the interior and furnishings are like, not to mention inadvertently including people in pictures who may not want to be included.

As you enter the Park Car, you pass by three Prestige Class compartments. These represent the very finest accommodations available on this train and include a modular leather L-shaped couch by day and a Murphy bed for two by night. Of course the compartments come with a private washroom complete with shower; a flat-screen TV with video selection (No network or satellite television); and a minibar stocked with a selection of beverages, including complimentary alcohol throughout the trip. Also, the windows are larger than those in other room categories. Although there are much finer accommodations to be had on other famous trains around the world, these Prestige Class compartments represent the best you’ll find on a scheduled train trip in North America.

ViaRail Prestige Cabin
Photo courtesy of ViaRail

I should note here that The Canadian has a couple other flattop cars with dedicated Prestige Class compartments, but the ones located in the Park Car, by virtue of location alone, are far and away the most desirable.

Continuing on into the car, I came upon the bar/café located beneath the upstairs dome. In attendance at the bar was a lovely young lady named Amanda. Happy, vivacious, eager to serve and knowledgeable about the train, the route and some of the scenery enroute, she was the perfect host for ViaRail’s most prestigious car. I ordered a tasty IPA from a Winnipeg based brewery and we chatted for a bit until a big group of passengers arrived, all of them excited and thirsty. Thankfully I’d managed a shot of the bar before things got crazy!

ViaRail’s Park Car Bar

I have ridden aboard ViaRail’s Park Cars a number of times previously. In years past ViaRail had maintained their original 1950s style interior which, while exciting to the purists, was really quite drab and dated by today’s standards. With the addition of the stylish new Prestige Class compartments, the Park Cars were totally refurbished and given a smart and stylish new interior.

Bullet Lounge in ViaRail’s Park Car

Bullet Lounge in ViaRail’s Park Car

Passing Scenery from the Bullet Lounge in ViaRail’s Park Car

As the afternoon wore on, more people began to make their way into the Park Car. I met a lot of interesting folks, most of them Canadian but with a few Americans, a couple Australians and some Brits also in the mix. Once again, herein lies one of the most enjoyable aspects of rail travel – meeting and engaging with your fellow passengers. That you’re doing so while ensconced in a stylish lounge sipping overpriced beer and cocktails made it all that much more compelling.
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Old Aug 8, 20, 5:21 am
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One of the most common themes I overheard amongst my fellow travelers was that a trip on The Canadian had long been a “bucket list” item. This was especially true amongst our Canadian brethren who were rightfully proud of their famous train. I mean, Canada is the second-biggest country in the world. What better way to experience just how big and diverse your home country is than to enjoy watching it go by at “see-level” while crossing five provinces, 670 bridges and dozens of tunnels and mountain passes along the way? As for the rest of us heathen, we were equally enchanted.

It was about 5:00pm when Amanda brought out a tray of hors d'oeuvre that included smoked oysters, cheese and mushroom rolls in flaky pastry. If I were a halfway decent trip reporter I would have remembered to photograph the offerings. Alas, I’m slipping in my old age. Please accept my apologies. Many of us refreshed our drinks and conversation continued to flow as the woodlands of western Ontario rolled past our windows in the diminishing late autumn light. I spent a good amount of time chatting with Chuck and Judy, a couple from eastern Tennessee who’d booked an eight day vacation around their ride on The Canadian. Neither of them were rail fans in the classic sense of the genre, but Chuck in particular remembered a train trip he’d taken from Atlanta to New Orleans as a kid while Judy was just excited to enjoy the scenery and highly regarded service along the way – not to mention their time to be spent after the ride on Vancouver Island. She also mentioned having fond memories of an old Gordon Lightfoot song about Canadian railroads. I remember that song, too. I just can’t remember the title.

I can’t state enough how nice it is to be “unplugged” on this journey. With no Wi-Fi other than the occasional phone signals that would come through at major stops along the way such as Winnipeg or Edmonton, there were few artificial distractions. (There was a movie played in the Skyline Lounge each afternoon) Unlike airplanes where most people lower their shades and sit in the dark while glued to their video screens surfing the internet, checking out the IFE or whatever, now we had no choice but to entertain ourselves the old fashioned way by enjoying the passing scenery or engaging in direct social interaction with our fellow passengers. I met a lot of interesting people and heard some great travel stories. Few if any people sat in their rooms or berths over the entire journey. I mean, we’re talking four days here, not a four hour flight. If only out of boredom, it’s only natural to pay a visit to the lounge now and then and definitely make two or three daily visits to the dining car, especially since meals were included in the fare and the food was of such good quality and preparation.

Speaking of meals, as we rolled across the now dark landscape of western Ontario, an announcement was issued over the train’s PA system requesting all of those with 8:45pm dinner reservation to make their way to the dining car. Right! Chuck, Judy and I were all on the 8:45 seating along with about half the rest of the lounge patrons. As such, we three ended up sharing a table together with a pleasant gal from Nelson, BC named Willow.

Each table was nicely set with crisp white linens providing a palette atop which were placed not three but six pieces of silverware, a bread plate, a cup and saucer and a menu housed in a black leather binder. Water was delivered along with butter and a bread basket.

ViaRail Place Setting

Unfortunately, both my pictures of the menu came out a bit blurrier than I consider acceptable for inclusion in this trip report, so I will have to go from memory. All dinners started with a choice of soup or salad – or both if you like. Tonight’s choices were a bowl of New England Clam Chowder or a Mixed Green Salad accented with feta cheese. I requested both, along with an ice cold Fort Garry Pale Ale.

Clam Chowder

Dinner Salad with Feta Cheese

Entrée choices included prime rib, chicken champignon, poached lake trout or a stuffed Portobello mushroom cap. Oooo… tough choices. Finally I opted for the chicken, as did Chuck. Judy chose the prime rib while Willow, a vegetarian, requested the stuffed Portobello mushroom cap.

Now then, what kind of weirdo would bring his camera to dinner in order to photograph each course? I do! I do! (That’s me back there vigorously raising my hand and knocking over my water glass) While some might snicker in derision at such crass behavior, I’ve got a trip report to deliver here. If I’m going to effectively convey a sense of ViaRail’s meals in both the quality of the food served and its presentation, I believe visual evidence through photographs is the most effective means of doing so. And, let’s be honest here – it’s only a quick couple of photos of each course. As dinner table actions go, it’s about as non-intrusive as you can get.

Additionally, it’s not necessary for me to photograph every meal on this trip. Nor is it necessary – per my standards at least – to get multiple close ups of each course from different angles. A simple overview of a couple different meal types is all that’s required. So - to anyone feeling squeamish or dismissive over such behavior, you’ll get neither support nor commiseration from me. Besides, as you eagerly look over the pictures I’ve submitted here, you’ve got to admit one thing: You know you love it!

Now then, let’s check out that chicken!

Chicken aux Champignons

Oh yeah! Check out that presentation! Look at that delicious sauce! You can practically taste those buttery mushrooms and moist chicken. G’wan! Have another bite. Rail borne meals could hardly be any finer.

Across from me, Judy was equally impressed with her prime rib but knew immediately that given the extreme size of her portion (almost 1” thick!), she’d only be able to eat about half of it. Chuck and I each relieved her of a couple ounces worth each.

Throughout our meal, the service was friendly and efficient. One thing I noticed was that no single server was responsible for any given table. It was a team effort shared equally amongst the four servers. As a result, each course was cleared off efficiently and new courses were delivered in a timely manner.

Dessert was a choice between a lemon raspberry cream cake or a chocolate torte. I’ll have the lemon raspberry cake please.

Lemon Raspberry Cream Cake

By the time the last of our plates had been cleared off, the time was approaching 9:45pm. Never again would the third dinner seating ever be so late. This morning, while arranging meal time preferences in the ViaRail lounge, I’d been informed that since all that was left was the last seating at 8:45, tomorrow night I’d get first choice. As such, I opted for the middle seating at 6:30pm. Indeed, I stayed with the middle seating throughout the remainder of the trip.

After dinner Chuck and Judy retired to their cabin while Willow and I headed back one car to the Skyline Lounge. Willow worked as a home care nurse in Nelson and was on her way home after visiting her sister in Hamilton, Ontario. Like most of her fellow Canadians, this was her first time riding the train across the country.

I get the sense that the biggest factor inhibiting most people from riding The Canadian regularly is that traditionally a Sleeper Plus ticket on The Canadian has been very expensive. It still is. However, thanks to ViaRail’s ongoing sale of Sleeper Plus accommodations - apparently initiated over the past year or so - it’s become a lot more affordable. Mind you, the sale fares we paid for travel on this date in late October were significantly lower than usual because we’d just entered the off season when travel drops off considerably. Had we been traveling during the more popular spring and summer months, even the sale fares would have been substantially higher, enough so that in the interests of personal fiscal responsibility some of us might have chosen not to ride on this train.

It was about 11:00pm when I called it a night and made my way three cars forward to my berth in Fraser Manor. Car attendant Cal had not only made up my berth but even turned the sheets and duvet back. For my part, I found the duvet a bit large and unwieldy and so used my personal wool blanket which suited my needs much better. The rhythm of the rails and the gentle rocking of the train allowed sleep to come easily. I slept well until about 7 the next morning.

Lower Berth made up for bedtime

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I awoke to the sun breaking over wetlands rolling past my window. OMG! Where’s my camera! Ah, there it was sitting in the depths of my daypack perched on a shelf at the end of my bed. I quickly retrieved it, raised the window shade all the way up and positioned myself at the end of the bed so I could focus on the view looking backwards toward the rising sun over the eastern horizon.

Sunrise on Ontario’s western frontier

The shower was occupied with one guy already waiting in line for it, so I slid back under my blanket and read for a while until it became available later on. The shower in my car had pretty decent pressure – as railroad car showers go. I understood that wasn’t the case with showers in a couple of other sleepers. That said, just because your accommodations were in one car didn’t mean you couldn’t go shower in another. I found this out on the third morning of the trip when the pipes to our shower froze up.

I should mention here that our second and third days – while crossing Saskatchewan, Manitoba and eastern Alberta – were bitterly cold. We’re talking still air temperatures in the single digits on the Fahrenheit scale, with wind chills who knows how much colder. With the exception of Winnipeg and Jasper, I never got off the train at any of the many “fresh air” breaks – essentially stops that were just long enough for the smokers amongst us to hop off and attend to their addictions. Announcements were always made well in advance of these stops and I got a kick out of how quickly the smokers got themselves prepared to go, primed and ready in the vestibules like runner in the blocks prior to a sprint.

In any event, they bore the full brunt of the arctic chill as they huddled just outside the railroad cars puffing away while exhaling large clouds of smoke and hot moist air. I felt bad for them – but only a bit. Mostly, I’m glad I quit back when a pack of cigarettes cost only a couple of dollars. Back then, you could still smoke onboard trains, too.

Although a Continental breakfast (yogurt, granola, breakfast pastries & fruit) was available in the diner from 700 to 830, coffee and breakfast pastries along with a limited assortment of fruit was also available in the Skyline Lounge throughout most of the morning. Had there been a proper breakfast offered in the morning followed by lunch at the usual hours, I would have taken advantage of both; but since there were essentially only two full meals served each day (Brunch from 930 to 130 and Dinner in three evening sittings starting at 530) I decided to do coffee and pastries in the Skyline Lounge for breakfast, then head back to the diner for Brunch at about 1:00pm. I always opted for the second dinner sitting, which usually happened at around 6:30pm.

Because the Skyline Lounge also had electrical outlets, I found it a great place to plug in and put in a bit of work on this trip report.

My makeshift office

Hard at work on this trip report

Now it’s hardly surprising that the flat, golden plains of Saskatchewan and Manitoba do not elicit much in the way of positive commentary amongst most rail riders. Trees, crop fields, huge grain elevators and various small farm towns flew by along the way. According to the schedule, every so often we’d roll through towns with names like McKee’s Camp, Gogama, Foleyet, and Mud River but as often as not you’d never know it. Some of these “towns” were not much more than what looked to be a nearby farm and some out buildings. I found it very relaxing to enjoy the variety of passing countryside, and quite conducive to trip reporting or just kicking back with a good book.

Regardless of the scenery, the lounges were always busy with people socializing, playing some of the board games available or working at solving one of the three 500 piece jigsaw puzzles.

Alright, enough trip reporting for now. Let’s pack it up and head back to the diner for lunch, shall we?

Lunchtime across the plains of Saskatchewan

Dining car ambiance across the plains of Saskatchewan

Brunch menu on Day 2

So far my brunches had all consisted of omelets mainly because the single luncheon style option available each day hadn’t really appealed to me. Today’s selection – a quinoa salad – wasn’t really doing it either. I want a hot lunch! Imagine then my surprise and delight when my server Rachel informed me that although it wasn’t on the menu, a hamburger was also available. Oh yeah! Sign me up!

A pretty good hamburger, too

Dessert is also not listed on the luncheon menu, which was no big deal because I usually don’t eat dessert anyway. Still, when I saw a delectable looking combination of fruit, pastry and ice cream being delivered to the couple across from me, a dessert described as a raspberry apple crumble, I couldn’t resist - especially with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Raspberry Apple Crumble with Ice Cream

* * * _  _ * * *
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Old Aug 8, 20, 5:23 am
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This is a long train ride – per the schedule it clocks out at 97 hours (4 days and 1 hour), making it amongst the longest single train rail journeys in the world. Certainly, it is far and away the longest in North America. By comparison, Amtrak’s longest single train ride is on the westbound California Zephyr between Chicago and Emeryville, CA. It times out at about 52 hours.

In terms of distance traveled, The Canadian covers 4490km or 2770 miles. Interestingly, the distance between Chicago and Emeryville is 2440 miles, only 330 miles shorter than The Canadian and yet the Zephyr covers that similar distance almost 40 hours faster. In fact, if you were to travel from Washington, DC across the country to Emeryville, CA using Amtrak’s Capitol Limited and the California Zephyr, you could cover the total distance of 3120 miles in just 75 ½ hours – 20 hours faster the ViaRail’s Canadian takes to cover the 350 mile shorter distance between Toronto and Vancouver.

So what gives? Why is The Canadian so much slower?

The problem is that throughout its journey across country, The Canadian is continually being shunted off onto side tracks in order to yield to freight trains. Some of these stops can last 30-40 minutes. Or longer. Mixed into the schedule are stops as long as three hours in major population centers such as Jasper or Edmonton. The train rarely ever spends the full amount of allotted time at these stops. Mostly, they are built in to allow The Canadian to get back on schedule. As such, our scheduled three hour stop Edmonton was reduced to just an hour and twenty minutes.

Having ridden almost 300,000 miles on trains all over the world, I’ve learned that one positive note to these lengthier stops – be they station stops or sidings - is that they represent a great time to hit the showers. Believe me, the shower is a lot more enjoyable when the train is not moving. Given the limited number of showers available (one per car), I did not share this bit of wisdom with my fellow travelers.

As you might imagine, the dome cars were particularly popular during the four day ride. This was understandable through the mountainous landscapes of the west, but even through the lakes and forests of Ontario and the broad vast plains of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, free seats were few and far between. We had two domes to choose from (The Skyline Lounge and the Park Car) offering a total of 48 seats, and as a single traveler I was usually able to find a seat – albeit on the aisle more often than not.

I didn’t take many pictures from under the domes because the glass is curved and reflective. However, at the front and back of each dome was a small window that allowed you to look ahead or behind you. Looking back in particular was pretty cool because the glass stayed fairly clean. My best shots from under the dome were looking back but I also include one I took when we rolled past Pyramid Falls. Unfortunately, you can see the reflection marring an otherwise nice view.

Pyramid Falls

Looking Back #1

Looking Back #2

In Jasper we stopped for almost three hours allowing those who so desired a chance to get off and take a stroll throughout the picturesque town which is part of Jasper National Park, the largest park in the Canadian Rockies. The station was located right in the heart of town, so we didn’t have far to wander.

It was a cold, crisp morning and I headed straight to a nearby bakery for coffee and a delicious scone. Were it a bit warmer I would have taken time to stroll down the street with its charming shops and boutiques. Unfortunately a slight breeze had brought the wind chill down into what felt like the single digits, so I headed straight back to the train. It was a nice break to get off and have coffee, but just as nice to step back aboard my nice warm car and get ready for a shower.

Jasper station stop

Walking back to my car I noticed the car attendants in the different sleeper cars making up the berths, cleaning the rooms, changing linens and towels, answering questions, always ready with a friendly hello. They work very hard at their jobs and it shows. They start at 6:30 am and most days the beds were made and the rooms tidied and ready for the day by the time we’d returned from breakfast. These folks truly went out of their way to make the trip as pleasant and comfortable as possible.

Over the following day and a half, we rolled apace through the Canadian Rockies. Although the original route of The Canadian took it past beautiful Lake Louise and down through Banff, in 1990 the train was assigned a more northerly routing along the old Canadian National Railway line through Jasper and Kamloops. Though nowhere near as spectacular as the Lake Louise routing, the current journey still offers plenty of pretty views with lakes and streams, forests of pine and spruce, and of course, mountains. Mountains everywhere! The views were stunning. The weather along the way ranged from blustery to clear and sunny, so I think from here I’ll let my pictures cover the rest of the journey.

Pretty lake side scenery

Distant Canadian Rockies

Pretty afternoon in British Columbia

Pretty afternoon in British Columbia

Pretty Little Church

The Canadian powers west through the Rockies
Photo courtesy of ViaRail

On the last night of the journey I joined a few of my fellow travelers in the Park Car. By now atmosphere in the car was easy and comfortable; everyone seemed to know everyone else. It was the kind of familiarity that would be impossible on an airplane. I joined Chuck and Judy (who I’d dined with on the first night of the trip) and we talked about their upcoming travels to Vancouver Island and mine to LA and beyod. About 9:00pm a musician who’d been hired by the railroad to make the trip stopped by to play a set on his guitar. He had a folksy Jimmy Buffett style and played a nice set. Though it pains me to pay almost $8 USD for a single bottle of beer, I bought a couple and enjoyed the company, the conversation and the music.

Our arrival in Vancouver was scheduled for 8:00am the next morning but when I awoke at 6:30 it was clear we were well into the Vancouver suburbs and arrival was imminent. Sure enough, it was 7:05 when we pulled into Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station. Thankfully, despite the train being in the station, ViaRail allowed us to sleep in if we so desired and – if you were up for it – to head up to the dining car for a continental breakfast. We had to be making our way off the train by 8:15am. I had said my good byes the night before and so slept in until 7:30 before packing up and commencing the long walk into the cavernous main hall.

Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

All told, I had a great time crossing Canada by train. To be sure, four days on a train is not everybody’s cup of tea – especially here at an air travel oriented site like FlyerTalk. Still, if you’re wired for this type of travel as I certainly am – it’s a great way to see the country while enjoying the magic and bonhomie of the experience of actually travelling somewhere (not being there but actually traveling there). Once we get past this pandemic, I would hope my reporting and pictures might have inspired some of you to consider experiencing a long overnight train trip and enjoying all of its many amenities and benefits – not least of which is a chance to enjoy the lands you travel through at “see level”.

A local fast food restaurant inside the station provided a table, hot coffee, a pretty decent breakfast sandwich and a Wi-Fi connection which allowed to me to figure out how to make get out to the Vancouver International Airport where I could pick up a shuttle to my hotel for the night. Thankfully Vancouver’s Sky Train light rail system had a stop just a couple of blocks from the railroad station. Following a 30 minute ride out to the airport, I was soon checked into my comfortable room at the Accent Inn and preparing for the next day’s adventure of a completely different sort.
Seat 2A is offline  
Old Aug 8, 20, 5:26 am
Original Poster
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Airlines Million Miler, United Airlines Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond Level
Posts: 9,946
November 1, 2019
Princess Cruise Lines ~ Club Class Mini-Suite ~ Star Princess
Vancouver, BC to Los Angeles, CA ~ 330p – 800a

Back in the early 1980s, I won a 2-night cruise between Miami and Nassau aboard a 500’ long ship called the S.S. Dolphin. In most respects it was similar to a cruise on today’s bigger ships but given the smaller size of the Dolphin and the brevity of the cruise itself, everything was a bit scaled down. Add to that the fact that I’d won rather than paid for this cruise, the result being that I was assigned what appeared to be a refurbished broom closet for a room. It was located way down in the bowels of the boat, directly underneath the dance floor on the level above. Of course those weekend cruises to Nassau were party cruises and so until about 2:00am or so it sounded like a musical cattle stampede directly above me. But hey - I was 20 something and excited about it all, so overall I had a good time. I even won the ping pong tournament while we were in port at Nassau.

Well that was almost 40 years ago and the main difference these days is that after nearly 7 million miles of traveling by whatever means I’ve come to appreciate not just the travel experience but a quality travel experience to boot. We’re not talking about “being there” so much as “getting there”. Whereas 40 years ago that inside broom closet of a room was perfectly acceptable to me, these days I’d want a balcony equipped room at the minimum. To be honest, the idea of all those fancy restaurants, onboard activities and shows offered on today’s modern day cruise ships didn’t really appeal to me all that much. Mainly, I pictured myself with a nice large room with plenty of natural light from the double doors leading out to the balcony where I could settle down on the chaise lounge with a good book and a cold bottle of beer. Or two.

As you may recall from my opening preamble, I had booked myself a Club Class Mini-Suite which was not just a larger, balcony equipped mini-suite but also included special dining options such as anytime dining with an enhanced menu that included items not available to non-Club Class passengers. Also included were perks such as priority boarding and disembarkation as well as nightly canapés and wine splits delivered to your cabin upon request. No doubt about it – on this cruise I’d be traveling in style!

Following a nicely cooked and presented Greek Omelet in the hotel restaurant, I gathered my gear and caught the hotel shuttle back over to the airport. Princess had instructed us to meet between 10:30am and 1:00pm at the baggage claim in either the International or Domestic terminal. A small kiosk had been set up down at the far end of baggage claim in the Domestic terminal and about six people had gathered there by the time I arrived. Shortly thereafter we were instructed to follow a Princess rep outside where a chartered bus was waiting to drive us down to the Canada Place Cruise Terminal.

Canada Place is the home of the Vancouver Convention Centre, the Pan Pacific Vancouver Hotel and Vancouver's World Trade Centre. It also serves as the main cruise ship passenger terminal for the region. The five 90 foot high white sails atop Canada Place are made of Teflon coated fiberglass and make Canada Place one of Canada’s most recognizable landmarks.

It wasn’t like you’d recognize it from the perspective of our arrival though. Our bus was driven into a large subterranean parking area underneath the building. It was all concrete and artificial lighting. As we disembarked, we collected our bags and were directed into a large central waiting area that had been divided into alphabetized seating areas of about 100 people each. I was directed to section G where I sat and waited for about 10 minutes before we were instructed to head into another large room for customs inspection. As a Global Entry member, I was disappointed to see that there were no kiosks available to expedite our passage through customs. Despite the long lines though, we moved along fairly smoothly and from the time I stepped off the bus to the time I cleared customs was only about 25 minutes.

One of the perks I most recognized and valued from my 5.6 million miles of flying was priority boarding. Unfortunately, it didn’t kick in until the final TSA style security checkpoint. I had been led to believe that our onboard baggage would be searched for alcohol (We were allowed one bottle of wine – no spirits allowed) and perhaps that was done surreptitiously via the x-ray machine at the checkpoint. Regardless, my bag was never nicked for further inspection and shortly thereafter I stopped at an airline style check-in counter where I was officially checked-in for the cruise and was presented with my room key and an information packet containing everything from information about the ship to a listing of that day’s planned activities. Then, I was free to board.

The Star Princess carries 2600 passengers and, given the discounted nature of this repositioning cruise – not to mention the weekend schedule down to LA – I’d like to think we were sold out – or very close to it. Throughout the boarding process the directions given were clear as was the signage on where we needed to go. The lines flowed smoothly and although I wish my Club Class pre-boarding benefits had commenced upon arrival starting with customs, overall I was impressed with the process.

* * * _  _ * * *

Boarding a ship the size of the Star Princess is a very impressive experience. A double deck Airbus A380 is 238 feet long and 80 feet tall. The Star Princess is 951 feet long, has 17 decks and is listed at 201 feet tall. If you subtract a draft of 26’, we’re talking 175’ tall above the waterline. The gangway hugs the ship so as you zig-zag your way up the walkway to the entrance, you get an excellent perspective on the sheer size of this behemoth. A link to a fact sheet about the ship can be found HERE. I paused to take a picture…

Boarding the Star Princess

The entrance was on level 7 – the Promenade Deck. Do any of you remember what it was like to walk aboard a widebody jet for the first time? In my case, after years of stepping aboard narrow tubes with 3-3 seating, the impact of stepping aboard a 747 was awe inspiring – like walking into a house. The effect was very similar when stepping aboard the Star Princess. The ship is 133’ wide and if you didn’t know better you could just a easily be stepping into a large and grand hotel lobby. Even more impressive was the view down into the ship’s atrium into an area known as the Piazza. My little Canon SX-160 didn’t offer a wide enough angle to fully appreciate the grandeur of this area, so I am employing a couple of photos from other sources.

Star Princess Piazza
Photo credit to Robert W. Bone

Star Princess Piazza
Photo credit to Princess Cruises

Elevators were everywhere – there were 14 of them on the Promenade Deck - and thank goodness for that! I mean, at any given time we’re talking hundreds of people desiring to move about the various levels of this gigantic ship. In fact, in the interests of familiarizing you with the sheer size of my home for the next three days, now would be a good time to present some pictures of the ship and its deck plans.

Star Princess
Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises

Star Princess Deck Layout
Photo credit to Princess Cruises

Star Princess Deck Plan
Photo credit to Princess Cruises

This is far and away the largest ship I have ever been on. But hey – get a load of this: As large as this ship is, consider for a moment that in terms of crew and passengers carried, it is less than half the size of the world’s largest cruise ship – Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas which measures 1,184 in length and is able to accommodate 5,518 passengers at double occupancy up to a maximum capacity of 6,680 passengers, as well as a 2,200-person crew. Most of the towns I’ve lived in are smaller than that – including length!

Right! On to the accommodations! My mini-suite was located two levels up on the Dolphin Deck. I headed for a nearby bank of elevators where about twenty people were waiting. One elevator opened to my right and quickly filled to capacity – about a dozen people. No worries – the next one became available seconds later and swiftly transported me to Level 9.

If you look at the ship’s schematic pictured above, you’ll note that the Dolphin Deck is longitudinally speaking right in the middle of the ship. My suite – D501 – was located almost exactly right in the middle of the ship. This was intentional and you’ll notice on the schematic that all of the pink shaded mini-suites are clustered in this area. The reason for this is that much like a fulcrum point on a see-saw there’s a lot less up and down movement in the center of the ship. For other room types such as balcony equipped rooms located all along the length of the ship, you’ll pay a premium to have a room situated in the middle of the ship. Rooms closer to the bow or stern will cost considerably less. In terms of location, I feel like I got about as good a room and location as I could have gotten.

My room key was in the form of a credit card that served multiple purposes. Not only did it grant me access to my room but it was also my primary form of identification onboard the ship. Scanning it allowed me access to the special dining area for Club Class Mini-Suite guests and it also served as my billing card for any non-included extras such as alcoholic drinks. Sorry to any detail freaks out there, but I just couldn’t bring myself to provide you with a picture of the room key. I practically convulse at the mere thought of even doing so. You’ll just have to envision a pale blue credit card in your minds!

So then, I’d had a good impression of what to expect of my suite based upon online pictures on the Princess website, but there’s nothing like seeing the real thing right there in front of you. Any of you who’ve had the pleasure of flying in a First Class suite aboard Singapore or an apartment aboard Etihad’s A380s know of what I speak. The initial visual impact is stunning.

As I opened the door to my suite and stepped inside, in my mind I heard a harp glissando and a chorus from the heavens. Awesome! Listen in!

Star Princess – Mini-Suite

Star Princess – Mini-Suite

Oh yeah! This’ll definitely do. This suite is far and away the most spacious accommodation I’ve ever had on any form of transport conveyance. On that note, it’s worth noting that space is hugely important to me. The standard argument for booking smaller windowless money-saving inside staterooms on cruise ships is that what with all the restaurants and activities aboard, you’ll not be spending much time in your room anyway. I’m sure that’s true for some. For me however, you’ve got to go back to what was originally most important to me when booking this cruise – I wanted a balcony. While I think it’s great to have all the restaurants, shows and other activities available onboard, I’m more interested in a relaxing three day cruise down the west coast; sitting on that balcony with a good book and an even better beer while watching the coast go by. Accordingly, I booked this cruise more as a luxurious conveyance rather than a cruise experience.

Setting down my roll-a-board bag and daypack, I took a few moments to inspect my new surroundings. Let’s start with that balcony! But wait – first we’ve got to pass through a small sitting room furnished with a sofa-bed, chair and table. Pleasant artwork adorned the walls. Two 42” flat screen televisions were mounted in the suite – one facing the bed and one facing the sofa in the sitting room. On the table in the sitting room were two welcome bottles of wine – complements of my Club Class reservation.

Star Princess – Mini-Suite Sitting Room

Club Class Welcome Wine Bottles

A double sliding door opened onto a small 6’ x 10’ balcony. The size seemed acceptable when I read about it in advance of the trip, but the reality of this balcony was that of a somewhat bland cubicle walled off with molded white plastic and metal partitions on both sides. To the right and left of me were another 30-40 nearly identical balconies. Above me was another deck of balconied rooms and full suites. On the balcony directly above me, an excited family from India with four kids was making a lot f noise. While I commiserated with their excitement, I prayed they wouldn’t be carrying on late into the evening. Also on the balcony were two chairs capable of reclining into chaise lounges with the addition of a separate footrest. A small table was also available for books and beer.

My Balcony

Back inside my suite, I completed my tour with an inspection of the walk-in closet and the impressive bathroom which included a tub and shower combo and a sink with a large counter and mirror. I kid you not when I say this bathroom was only slightly smaller than the inside room I had been assigned on my first cruise 37 years earlier. Picture a single bed where the tub is with a bedside table and a narrow credenza along the left hand side wall. The bathroom consisted of a tiny walk-in shower, a sink and toilet. I also took this time to check out the toiletries, all-inclusive as part of the Club Class experience. The products provided were from Princess Cruises’ Lotus Spa line and included the usual things like lotion, shampoo/conditioner and a eucalyptus body wash. Other nice touches included a plush terry cloth robe and slippers, the two aforementioned bottles of wine and two large bottles of Aquafina water. These I placed in the in-room fridge. I’ve often spoken of my fondness for good beer but ice cold water just might be my favorite drink of all!

The Bathroom

Still, those humble accommodations were waaay better than the roughest accommodations I have ever had on a boat. That honor goes to the cargo ship I rode back in 1994 on a four day trip down the Chilean coast from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. I and about 20 others were assigned beds on triple tiered bunks located in a poorly lit hold way down in the bowels of the boat. Still, I had no complaints. Back then I was so excited to just be going somewhere by whatever conveyance that I just rolled with it. In fact, sshhh – don’t tell anyone! but back then I also flew more often in Economy Class on international flights!

A knock on the door turned out to be my room steward Fernando, who stopped by to introduce himself and explain some of the things he’d be available for to make the cruise more enjoyable. Before he left I handed him my form filled out to request the complimentary hors d’oeuvres plate, to be delivered to my suite at 5:00pm.

* * * _  _ * * *

Departure time for this cruise was scheduled for 3:00pm. Boarding was available from noon onward and because I had gotten off to an early start this morning, by the time I’d gotten settled in my suite it was 1:00pm. Luncheon was being served in the Horizon Court Restaurant, located on the Lido Deck – four levels above me. None of the other restaurants would open until we’d set sail.

Right – let’s go check out some lunch! It was a short walk down a narrow hallway from my suite to what was essentially an elevator lobby. Six elevators were located there, but only four of them ascended to the Lido Deck. Had I wanted to go up to the Sun or Sports Deck, I would have had to have walked down to the far end of the ship where a different bank of elevators accessed the highest levels of the ship.

The Lido Deck is mostly an entertainment deck. Although there are a few rooms located up towards the stern, the Lido Deck’s most prominent features are the Neptune’s Reef and Calypso Reef pools, the Horizon Court restaurant, the Trident Grill, the Prego Pizzeria and the Mermaid’s Tail Bar. Being as the Horizon Court was the only restaurant open, as you might imagine it was packed. The restaurant is essentially a giant buffet. It normally opens at 5:00am and over the next 19 hours offers a continental breakfast, a full breakfast, lunch, light snacks and dinner followed by more light meals and snacks until closing at midnight. There are numerous service islands that at this time of day offered a wide variety of hot dishes – some of them ethnically inspired – to an impressive salad bar, a cold-cut sandwich station and a dessert table. There was even an omelet station for those so inclined.

The Horizon Court Restaurant
Photo courtesy of CruiseDeckPlans.com

The photo above shows only a small portion of this huge restaurant. I mentioned earlier that the restaurant was packed and on that note, I should acknowledge that because this was a discounted repositioning cruise sailing from Friday to Monday, it was extremely popular with families. Kids were everywhere – their parents evidently having taken them out of school for a long weekend. Additionally, because Vancouver has a very large Asian population, Asians were also very well represented on board.

As I made my way through the tables to the food islands, I saw very few open tables and those that I did see were quickly taken with hungry diners bearing trays of food. Continuing on to the food service area, I put together a plate of something hot – I can’t recall what it was – along with a salad and waited until a table became available. There was no point in waiting for the table to be bussed. The staff were doing their best to keep up but given the inordinately large number of diners, tasks like bussing tables and refreshing beverages could simply not be done in a timely manner.

I grabbed a recently vacated two-topper and pushed the used plates and silverware as far off to one side as I could. At a larger table beside me sat a family of five who stood out because of the horrendous dining manners of the kids, who appeared to range in age from about 4-8 years old . They ate like wolves, chewing with their mouths open and using their hands on food better eaten with utensils. When they did resort to a knife or fork, they clearly had never been taught how to properly hold them. Their parents were only marginally better in this regard and seemed not the least put out by their children’s poor etiquette in such a public setting. It was really amazing if only by virtue of how extremely bad their manners were.

Still, it’s a different world these days. In recent years I have seen quite a few people in their twenties and thirties who don’t know how to hold silverware – in polite company at least. Granted, some foods such as messy barbecue you can’t help but get a little scrappy with but seeing someone sawing away at their prime rib with a ham fisted grip on their knife does tend to raise eyebrows a bit. I don’t have kids, but I’d like to think that by the time they were 8 years old they’d be well schooled in dining etiquette. Either way - I’ve got bigger things to be bothered by, so these messy kids at the table beside me were not so much annoying as they were mildly entertaining in an off-kilter kind of way.

After lunch, I took a stroll around the Lido Deck, checking out the location of the Trident Grill and the Pizzeria, both of which were currently closed as we were still in port. The Mermaid’s Tail Bar was open and so I stopped briefly to check out the prices. I seem to recall once hearing that because many cruises pass through international waters, the prices for wine and spirits are based up duty-free pricing. That certainly wasn’t the case at the Mermaid’s Tail. Mixed drinks ran $8-12 dollars and beers $6-9. Anybody planning an alcohol fueled party cruise had better come with money to burn.

The Mermaid’s Tail Bar

Overview of the Neptune Pool on the Lido Deck as seen from the Sports Deck
Photo credited to Robert W. Bone

Returning to my suite, I noticed that I had a phone message waiting via the flashing light on the in-room telephone. It was from fellow FlyerTalker fti who was also on this cruise. John is someone I’ve known for about ten years now – first as a visitor to Denali National Park and more recently as a fellow employee. He loves Alaska and Denali in particular and although he lives in Minnesota, he used to come up to Alaska at least once a summer, often times more than once. A few years ago he decided to get a job in the park. To my company’s great discredit, our HR department never got back to John in a timely manner and he ended up taking a front desk position with a local hotel. These days he’s a tour conductor/expediter with a large Alaska tour operator which has him traveling around the state with busloads of America’s most tenacious travelers. It’s a real shame we didn’t snag him for the job the really wanted – working in sales at the Denali Bus Depot. John has not only walked the entire 92 mile park road, but he’s also hiked and camped extensively through the park and of course has spent a lot of time riding our buses. He would have been perfect for it and probably would have been running the place by now.

Anyway, earlier in the summer when John heard that I was looking into booking this cruise, he checked his own schedule and saw that he could take advantage of the low prices and join me for the ride. He’d booked a balcony room not far from mine and so I made arrangements to meet up with him prior to dinner. I’d have joined him for dinner but since he wasn’t booked as a Club Class reservation he’d have to eat in a different dining room. Prior to the trip, we did make reservations to eat at the Crown Grill, one of three premium dining rooms available on board for which we had to pay an additional $29.00. More on that later.

Prior to departure, all passengers were required to attend a drill providing information about how to deal with emergencies onboard the ship. This was mandatory and attendance was verified via our room key cards. Those who did not attend would be searched out later and made to attend a make-up session. My section was scheduled to meet in the Explorer’s Lounge. We were instructed on where our life preservers were located, what the emergency bells would sound like and where our muster or gathering points were located. These were determined by your location on the ship. Aside from that Costa Cruises ship that ran aground a few years ago in the Mediterranean, I haven’t heard of many evacuations of large cruise ships. Still, with over 3500 passengers and crew aboard, understanding of the process and cooperation from the passengers would go a long way toward a successful evacuation. I thought they did a good job with the presentation.

Returning back to my room, I was greeted by the sound of loud pounding and what sounded like a power drill coming from somewhere above me. Ah well – better to repair problems while we’re in port than later at sea. I decided that now might be a good time to check out one of those bottles of wine. I had put the white wine in the refrigerator when I’d first arrived and by now it had cooled off nicely.

Welcome Aboard

A couple of blasts from the ship’s horn indicated that departure was imminent. I headed out to my balcony to watch the action. Looking to my left and right, I noticed a fair number of my fellow shipmates had also come out to capture the moment. This is really one of the most exciting parts of the journey with the sound of the horn and the slight shudder of the ship as the captain powered up the engines and we slowly pulled away from Canada Place.

So Long, Vancouver

I decided to take advantage of my balcony with a copy of Jennifer Ackerman’s superb book “The Genius of Birds”. I heard her speak on an Australian radio documentary while down in Tasmania a couple of years ago. I purchased her book shortly after returning home but only now have I gotten around to reading it. I’m always buying books and at any given time have no shortage of good reading material.

It was a nice afternoon – sunny with temperatures in the low sixties – warm for Vancouver in November. As things would turn out, this would be the nicest afternoon on the ship with regard to weather. The next two days at sea were nice enough in terms of sunshine but the temperatures were significantly cooler with highs most days getting no warmer than the upper 40s.

Meanwhile, a glass of wine was all well and good but I don’t usually drink much white wine and this time of day I’m usually more in the mood for a beer. Surveying the room service menu, I took advantage of a special deal entitling me to five beers for the price of four. With three days ahead of me, that sounded like a good start. A call to Room Service was made and 20 minutes later I was in possession of five nicely chilled Dos Equis. My account was billed $29. That’s an expensive five-pack especially given that I can buy a sixer of Dos Equis back home for about $8.99. Still, we’re talking restaurant pricing here, so I suppose $5.80 a beer isn’t too bad.

It was about 5:00pm when the hors d’oeuvres were delivered. It was a pretty small plate – there were only four tiny tidbits – but one of them contained pate de fois gras so I was pleased. I made a note to myself to try and find a tin of that when I got home. John arrived at 5:30 and we spent some time catching up before heading off to dinner. John had to eat at a pre-assigned time whereas my Club Class entitled me to anytime dining. It would have been nice to join John for dinner but I was excited to check out my Club Class benefits, one of which was an expanded menu with more selections.

At 7:30pm I made my way down to the Portofino Dining Room on level 6. Club Class passengers enter the dining room through a separate entrance. The service is advertised as featuring expedited seating with no wait time and, after showing my card at the door, that is exactly what happened. Dining is advertised as being in “an exclusive area of the main dining room” and that too is for the most part true, although roping off our area with a felt rope from the “hoi polloi” in the rest of the dining room didn’t feel especially exclusive to me.

Portofino Dining Room

Dining room staff quickly presented a menu and took beverage orders. I’ll have a beer please. Yes, Dos Equis will be fine, thanks. My server appeared shortly thereafter, introduced herself and launched into a description of tonight’s special. While listening to her, I couldn’t help but get the sense that this was very much a scripted performance that she’d performed waaay too many times. I thought she sounded almost robotic. Throughout the meal she said all the right things but I couldn’t help but question her sincerity when on a couple of occasions she had turned away and was off to her next task while finishing whatever it was she was saying to me as she was walking away.

Well alright then, let’s have a look at that menu, eh?

Still Life with Menu

Club Class Menu – Princess Favorites

Club Class Menu – Starters, Soups & Salad

Club Class Menu – Main Courses

This looked very nice, however I later found out from John that the “enhanced dining” essentially translated into the inclusion of the Hawaiian themed choices, marked with the red globe logo. Still, I was pleased with the overall number and variety of choices as well as the quality of the table settings. The glasses were spotless, the silverware was nicely weighty and the silver service such as the bread plate and butter dish positively gleamed. Oh – and the rolls were very good as well.

I started with a shrimp cocktail, served in a silver bowl on crushed ice with a deliciously tangy sauce. I followed that up with a Caesar Salad and then a prime rib with extra horseradish. The prime rib was not cut very thick – I’d estimate perhaps 3/8ths of an inch at best – but it was otherwise moist and reasonably flavorful.

Caesar Salad

Prime Rib

After dinner, I took a stroll around the ship and checked out some of the lounges and activity areas. Up on the Lido Deck I discovered an ice cream shop, so an ice cream cone became my dessert for the night. I thought about walking a lap around the top of the ship on the smaller Sport Deck at the very top of the ship but the night time temperatures had plummeted and with the breeze resulting from our movement if not the overall conditions, the ambient temperature was unpleasantly cold. I ended up retreating to the Piazza where three violinists were making beautiful music for a small but appreciative crowd.

It was about 10:00pm by the time I returned to my suite. This is a really nice room and indeed a pleasure to hang out in. To be honest, I’m really not all that interested in getting involved in all the many activities available on board the cruise. I think it’s great that they’re offered and to that end I give a tip of the hat to Princess Cruises and its staff for doing a fantastic job in this regard. That said, I’m really just looking for a nice comfortable and relaxing three day cruise down the coast to LA. To that end, this suite is perfect. It’s comfortable, spacious and quiet. As for the balcony – given the cold November temperatures while out at sea, I hardly spent any time at all out there. It was a bit of a shame really, but being as I am a big fan of natural light I was appreciative of the large sliding glass doors and the amount of good clean daylight they allowed in throughout the day.

The one downside to my suite was the bed. It was bowed in the middle as if a steady succession of 300lb people had slept many nights on it. You could clearly see the sag in the mattress and as might be expected, I did not sleep very well on it. On my last night aboard I took the table from the sitting area and used it to extend the bed a bit from a sideways perspective. Then I put my pillow on the table and, positioning myself sideways on the mattress, thus eliminated the dip in the middle and as a result got a better sleep.
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