Aug 26, 2010

On Travel

MrsZ and I have just returned from our Great Upper American Tour.

It was a heck of a trip.

We left early Saturday a week ago (the 14th) and drove to her folk's place. Left my truck with them and they dropped us off at the Rochester (NY) airport, where we flew NW/Delta to NYC-JFK, then on to Minneapolis/St. Paul, and thence to Fargo, ND, arriving late in the evening.

We spent the next couple days with MrsZ's brother and his fiancee and their two kids (a newborn, his, and a 4-year-old of hers from a previous relationship). We left on Monday mid-day and flew from Fargo to Salt Lake, and then on to Portland, OR.

Spent the next couple days in Portland with my sister and her husband and their newborn daughter, enjoying a very swank guest house they had available and generally relaxing. We visited their small farm (garden, a few pigs, chickens, and turkeys), enjoyed dinner at the Bridgeport Brewery (their "Ropewalk" amber ale was excellent, the others I tried were too hoppy for my preferences), and visited the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, which has the USS Blueback, SS-581, (the last diesel-electric sub purchased by the US Navy) tied up and open for tours. Very cool and worth the trip. (As seen in "Hunt for Red October" - they used the Blueback's torpedo room for the Red October.)

Thursday afternoon we grabbed the train (Amtrak's "Cascades" line) from Portland up to Seattle, where we walked the fifteen-ish blocks to the Moore Hotel and dropped our bags and cleaned up a little bit, then ventured out to see Seattle.

We decided to visit the Seattle Art Museum which had a special display on Andy Warhol, another of Kurt Cobain, and overall, a very strange mish-mash of works. Not a bad museum, but it felt somewhat disjointed.

Back to the hotel (past the rapidly-appearing evening panhandlers) and we decided to eat (and drink) at the NiteLite Lounge, which is part of the Moore. Our bartender (Marcia) was great, friendly, the food was very good (especially the fries), and the drinks were good. I tried a local hefeweizen that was mediocre, had a Fat Tire, and then switched to their house special: Long Islands.

They'll only sell you one. There's a reason for that. The drink comes in a pint glass, with plenty of ice, and none of the alcohol is half-measures - except for the float of Bacardi 151 they put on at the very end. Six shots of hard liquor, a splash of sour mix, a splash of cola, and off you go. As she set them in front of us, Marcia confided, "There's no shame in asking for more ice or cola. Just so you know."

She was right. We sipped slowly, and I went back and forth between the tea and a glass of water, and when I was about half-done with the tea, I asked for more cola and ice.

We finished our drinks, played a couple (very sloppy) games of darts, and headed up to our room.

The Moore is an old hotel - it was built in 1907, and to a certain extent, still shows it. The elevator is tiny and slow. There is no air conditioning. Rooms are available either "with bath" or "European": go down the hall. Each floor is decorated differently; ours was tiger-striped carpeting with maroon walls and a few draperies in the hall. Others had tile, stained glass, sculpture, etc. It's not fancy, but it's clean, in the heart of an artsy/young area, and it's inexpensive - we paid about $85 for the night. I'd gladly stay there again.

Friday morning we got up, cleaned up and packed, and headed back out into Seattle. We moseyed through the Pike Place Market for a while, had some wonderful pastries, chuckled about the Starbucks on every block (truly), bought a few trinkets, and just watched the crowds. Eventually we made our way towards the Amtrak station, but had enough time to poke through the Seattle Police Museum - it's a small storefront museum with displays of a bit of everything from their history. Badges, uniforms, documents, watch logs, call boxes, "portable" radios, firearms, and so forth. I was most intrigued by the Ithaca "Auto and Burglar" shotgun and the (sadly de-mil'ed) Thompson SMG. Couldn't see if the Ithaca was de-mil'ed, but I hope not.


Once at the train station we only had to wait about twenty minutes until boarding, and found our compartment (a "Roomette", more on this later) and got settled in. Our car attendant came by and introduced himself before giving us the one-minute rundown on amenities (bathroom and shower *here*, complimentary juice, water, and coffee *there*) and where things were. The dining attendant came by and took our dinner reservation, and before too long, we were chugging out of the station.

Fifteen or twenty minutes out of Seattle, the car attendant came by and offered us champagne - apparently standard procedure for a sleeper car. It wasn't anything particularly special, but two chilled single-serve bottles of bubbly was definitely a nice touch.

Dinner was a couple hours later, and seating was in groups of four: if you didn't have four in your party, the staff matched you up with someone(s) else to make a full table. It actually works quite well, and we enjoyed our dining partners for every meal. Meals are included with your sleeper compartment - salad, entree, soft drink, and dessert - and the menu was very complete. Dinner options ranged from a vegetarian lasagna to salmon steak or beef steak, and the quality was excellent. Steaks were perfectly cooked, veggies were tender but not mushy, etc. Desserts were actually the boring part of the meal!

After dinner, we went back to our compartment and played some Scrabble over a few drinks (you can bring your own booze onto a train, but can only drink it in your compartment - if you want to drink elsewhere it has to be purchased on the train) and then had our compartment made up for the night.

This is where I complain about the "Roomette".

I knew it was small when I reserved it, but I wasn't willing to pay nearly triple the price for a "family" bedroom. A roomette is about 3'6" by 6'6", and has wide seats facing each other and a table that folds down between. For two people to ride, play games, even stretch out a little, and watch the world go by, it's great. When it's bedtime, the two seats slide down flat and become a narrow bed, and an even narrower top bunk folds down out of the ceiling.

I got the bottom bunk, MrsZ had the top, and that was tolerable. I could just-barely lay lengthwise in the bed. It was hard but not too bad. MrsZ said her top bunk was VERY hard.

The noise level was tolerable, the motion wasn't too distracting, temperature was fine (compartments have individual thermostats)... but I found out that I could not stand up and turn while the top bunk was down. I could stand up and either have my face smooshed into the door, or my back smooshed into the door. My shoulders are too wide to go sideways between the top bunk and the door. I managed to change for bed while lying on my bunk instead.

Breakfast started serving at 6:30, and was first-come first-serve. We made it down there around 7:30 and were seated immediately with a couple of retired ladies. Again, good food and cooked to order. I had corned beef hash and eggs, both VERY good.

After breakfast, we checked out the observation car, which had been attached to the train sometime after midnight in Spokane, WA. It was relatively crowded with people from coach trying to get out of their seats and get a better view, so we didn't stay long.

Lunch was also first-come first-serve, with a waiting list if you didn't make the first seating; MrsZ signed us up around 11:30 and we had about an hour wait for our meal. This may come as a surprise, but lunch ... was very good. Not exceptional; but tasty all the same.

The afternoon was spent much like the morning - reading, playing cards and Scrabble, a bit of a nap, and watching the flat lands of Montana pass us by. Mid-afternoon there was a complimentary wine tasting for those with sleeper tickets... no real fancy wines, but a chance to do something besides watching the world pass by.

We both had steak for dinner (again) and headed back to our compartment for a couple more drinks and games. Later in the evening, MrsZ folded down her own bunk for a nap (and said it was much more comfortable with two mattresses - she used the one from the bottom bunk as well) while I laid awake to read.

The conductor came to make sure we were awake about 20 minutes before our stop, so we got our stuff together and were waiting when we hit the train station. Off we went into the North Dakota night... about thirty-five hours after we left Seattle.

It was absolutely the nicest long-distance trip I've ever taken. The train staff was friendly and professional, but willing to chat and joke with folks. As MrsZ said, "You don't feel like just a number in the system." The food was plentiful and excellent (and relatively reasonably priced if you weren't in a sleeper car; our steak entree was on the menu at $22), there's room to walk around, a great view of anything going by, people to chat with, and no security theater to tolerate.

We spent a couple more days in North Dakota, visiting family, and then headed home yesterday. Fargo-Chicago/O'Hare-NYC/LaGuardia-Rochester.

LaGuardia is the worst-designed airport EVER. We had to change airlines (from American to USAir) which meant changing terminals. LaGuardia has no provisions for doing this without leaving security, and no signs indicating how to do it in the first place. I grabbed a TSA weenie and asked. "Take the B-Route bus downstairs, it'll go to USAir." We waited downstairs for about ten minutes before a B-bus went by; it took another ten minutes to get to the USAir terminal.

We lucked out going through security - no line, they opened a second x-ray as we got there, and neither of us got special treatment. We cleared security about three minutes AFTER our flight was supposed to depart, and we RAN to the gate where they were announcing final boarding. We made it on to the plane, used the facilities (ick), and sat down ... and sat ... and sat ... It ended up being about a thirty-five minute delay while we waited in line to take off.

Pro tip: NEVER EVER fly through LGA if you can avoid it. It was a dump when I flew there in a previous job and didn't have to change terminals, it's still a dump now, and changing terminals means you really need a two-hour-plus layover built in to your itinerary.

I expect that from now on, for any trip I can't drive in one day, I will make every effort to take the train. It's slower than flying, but it's MUCH more relaxing.

God, it's good to be home.


Anonymous said...

Wow - what a great trip report/review! I've been looking at an Amtrak trip with the wife and toddlers and this definitely was helpful.

From what you saw, would the Amtrak trip have been kid friendly (2 and 4 year olds) or would it have been too confining?

ZerCool said...


Hmm. I think to a certain extent it depends on how long the trip is, and obviously you are the best judge of your children.

There were several children on the train, although I don't think there were any toddlers in the sleepers - most looked to be in the 6-10 age range, and they did alright keeping themselves entertained.

A "family" compartment would be helpful, as there is sort-of enough room to spread them out with toys and such, and there's a private bath/shower in the room.

The dining menu did have children's items on it, but I don't recall what they were - it should be on the Amtrak site, though.

My gut feel: go for it. Bring along LOTS of small toys/games, and if you have a portable DVD player, it'd be worth its weight in gold. (There's a single 120V outlet in each compartment for such things.) The minimal baggage restrictions (and no extra fees for baggage) and lack of security theater makes the trip FAR more pleasant.

DaddyBear said...

Glad you had a good trip. I used to enjoy taking trips with my father when he worked Amtrak in the '70's. Train travel is the best way to travel if you've got the money and the time.

Anonymous said...

Denise's ex Dave spoke glowingly of his Amtrak experience coming out here for the summer, and returning to Colorado last weekend to pick up his car from his parents' house and drive the rest of the way to California. Being a private pilot, he's especially ticked off at the security theater and other annoyances of commercial air travel, and has said he'll do his best never to fly commercially again. He'll fly himself, or he'll take the train.

I love the idea, and it sounds great when it's part of the vacation plan, but too many of my trips are of the long-weekend variety for it to make sense most of the time. I don't have three extra days on each end of Comic-Con, for example. One of my colleagues is afraid to fly, and has taken the train to California for a couple of conferences, but the extra week that entails annoys his wife.

However, LaGuardia has irritated me a number of times, so I do my best to avoid it. I can't even imagine if I were changing airlines and had to leave the secure area. That would piss me off! Bad enough to take the shuttle bus between US Airways terminals at Philadelphia. You can walk, but then you're leaving the secure area.

LaGuardia in the morning did have the advantages of a) cheap but good breakfasts at the food court, thanks to the Manhattan deli/bodega cheap-breakfast habit, b) amazing views of the City, and c) free OJ and coffee and newspapers and magazines, plus comfortable seating and power outlets, if you wandered down to the US Airways Shuttle terminal (for the LGA-BOS and LGA-DCA flights) and acted like you belonged there. The comfy seating is still there, if a bit more worn, but the freebies have all dried up.

I've gotten used to PHL enough that I'm happy flying through there, especially since I know where to get good food and drink and know how the airport works, but I admit I still miss Pittsburgh.

Recent trips through Newark and Detroit have been fine, but I'm by no means an expert at them yet. I look forward to hitting the Grand Central Oyster Bar at EWR again; nothing was that impressive at DTW.