Saturday, 23 February 2013

Train Trip 2013 - New Orleans to Lake City

One of the many effects of Hurricane Katrina was some of the train tracks between New Orleans and Jacksonville being wiped out. Although freight traffic has been restored, Amtrak's passenger service has been "suspended" and, after eight years, there's still no return in sight. Reasons cited by people we spoke to revolved mostly around politics and money.

Therefore, we became Greyhound customers. Not wanting to overnight on the bus, we broke things up into shorter segments; first day to Fort Walton Beach and the second day to Lake City. We imagined getting great views of the ocean and countryside along the way, and leisurely walking along a sunny beach in Fort Walton.

Reality was much different. Rain, rain, more rain, and fog, fog, and more fog. Getting soaked through on a mad dash to get groceries for our upcoming kayak trip and sitting in soggy clothes though supper. Luckily there was a decent restaurant between the grocery store and hotel!

People on the bus made it an "interesting" experience. One that again reminds me of how darn lucky we are. The guy who hadn't bathed for days; the bus driver who pointed out that "if y'all know you're goin' ta be traveling with a bunch of other people on da bus, then y'all should take care of your personal hygiene. Cause if I git any complaints I'm gonna hafta ask y'all ta leave da bus."

Or the young woman who went on a "short trip" about a year ago and left her kid with its daddy and now its daddy won't give it back even though her judge said she should have custody and and the baby's daddy was lyin' so his judge didn't listen to her judge and now she can't see her kid and we listened to about two hours of this being repeated to various people she talked to on her cell phone and not once did I hear her refer to "the kid" or "my kid" or "it" by the child's first name.

Or the woman who arrived at the bus station just as we were about to pull out five minutes late and was absolutely frantic and almost hyperventilating that she HAD to get on this bus and please please please give her time to buy a ticket so she could get on the bus because if she didn't it would be absolutely positively the end of the world!

Or the two Greyhound employees who were outside the station but yelling at each other so loudly it was difficult to tell what they were arguing about.

On the other hand, in Fort Walton the Greyhound employee gave us a ride to the hotel in the pouring rain so we didn't have to wait for a taxi. Nice!

And likely due to riding the bus and carrying backpacks (or our incredibly young good looks) there was the sweet old man who asked if Andrew and I were on spring break! :-)

The next few days we'll be kayaking on the Suwannee River. The weather forecast isn't ideal so hopefully we don't have too much of a struggle staying dry!

Friday, 22 February 2013

Train Trip 2013 - Alpine to New Orleans

Very sad train station in Houston
We left Alpine in the evening and arrived in Houston just before noon. An ugly white non-descript building, Houston most definitely does not have one of America’s great stations! 

Surrounded by highway overpasses with skyscrapers in the distance, we didn’t hold out much hope for finding a nearby coffee shop during the short stop here. However, a newer looking building with a section of green roof and wind fans on top caught our attention. Upon closer inspection we learned it was the City of Houston’s Green Building Resource Center and inside was a small area of displays featuring green building and other green innovations. It was an interesting way to spend our 40 minutes. 
Houston's Green Building Resource Center
We arrived in New Orleans about 9 p.m. The next day we took the Charles Street Trolley and went to the Audubon Zoo. Rather than take the shuttle from Charles Street to the zoo we walked the mile + through Audubon Park which is one of the highlights that I remember from our trip here about 12 years ago. Trees, water, flowers, old southern homes lining one side . . . gorgeous!

I didn't take many photos at the zoo because I knew Andrew was getting some really good ones! 

The next day we went to the aquarium (more of Andrew's photos) in the morning. It was a warm but windy day and with threatening rains so we spent the afternoon at a couple short Imax films (The Last Reef and Hurricane on the Bayou) and Andrew went to the Insectarium while I went to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

The Museum mostly featured the history of food and beverage in Louisiana --  sno-cones, sugar cane/sugar factory, cajun influences and MRE's (meals-ready-to-eat) a la Hurricane Katrina -- but there was also some information from other southern states. Did you know that Alma, Arkansas, is the Spinach Capital of the World, hosts a yearly Spinach Festival and their town water tanks are painted to portray large cans of spinach with a picture of Popeye on them?

Oh, and have you ever wondered how to make moonshine? How to modify your vehicle so that the weight of the moonshine doesn't give you away? How best to keep yourself from getting robbed while transporting moonshine? Well then, this is the place for you!

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Train Trip 2013 -- Tucson to Alpine

Built in the early 1900's, even some of the smaller train stations like Tucson and Alpine have an interesting history and look to them as they were built in Spanish Revival style.

We travelled between the two cities during the day and the desert terrain is certainly much different than  we're used to seeing. El Paso was probably the most noteworthy location as the tracks run right along the border with Mexico and there is a stark contrast between the slums of Juarez on one side of the chain-link fence with wire at the top and the city of El Paso on the other side. It's extreme to say the least.

Although we didn't get a chance to go inside the train station at El Paso, it's definitely another grand old place. As we approached, I thought it was a church due to the chapel-like tower on it.

In Alpine we stayed at the historic Holland Hotel. It was built in 1928, almost fell to the wrecking ball but was repurchased and renovated in the 1970's. They did a great job of it! I love the huge wood ceiling pillars, the comfy big antique chairs and chesterfields, the iron lighting fixtures, and the old historical photos on the wall showing life and ranching in years gone by.

Historical marker on the front of the hotel. 
Lobby of Holland Hotel 
Fireplace and large antique, comfy couches and chairs
The business center just off the lobby
Outdoor courtyard at Holland Hotel
Front entrance area and large lobby of Holland Hotel
After getting ourselves and our clothes cleaned up after our hike, (the hotel has a washer/dryer for guest use!) we had a nice meal in the hotel restaurant and spent a very enjoyable evening sitting in the lobby with a glass of wine and listening to Chris Jamison, a very talented singer and guitar player from Austin.

There are several art galleries and historic buildings in Alpine as well as the Museum of Big Bend. Unfortunately with this being a holiday Monday the museum and historic buildings were mostly closed.  but we did get to some nice galleries and spent quite a while browsing a good book store.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Train Trip 2013 -- Big Bend National Park

Following dry stream beds, scrambling over boulders and crawling under fallen logs, bush whacking, many encounters with pant ripping and skin snagging branches, a leg-impaling, blood-drawing thorny cactus, a deer, lots of birds, warm days and very cold nights. This pretty much sums up our first couple days at Big Bend National Park.

Andrew and I had gotten a back country permit to go cross country and camp where ever. Midway through the second day I wondered out loud why we couldn't walk on established trails and stay at one of the many established camp sites like most normal people would. After all, it was my new Patagonia pants that now had a rip in them and my leg that had blood running down it after being stabbed by a homicidal cactus -- I felt I was due a bit of whining. Andrew quipped that if I was looking for normal I'd hooked up with the wrong guy! How true!
Finding water in the desert.
Our "where ever" camp
Sunset from "where ever" camp
Although it was interesting terrain, it was a tough couple of days. Despite his comment above, Andrew was still struggling with a bad cold and cough. Our cross country trek took us from Panther Junction, over a couple high passes, to Chosis Basin.

We camped there for the night and then got another back country pass for one of the established sites about a 40 minute hike up Pinnacle Trail. From there we did day hikes. The South Rim trail, according to the guidebook, is the trail to do in Texas. Despite a somewhat overcast day, the views were incredible. Red rock, grassy and cactus-covered hills and, several miles away, the Rio Grande River with Mexico on the other side. As we sat and ate our lunch from one of the view points a yellow tailed hawk (we think) put on a great show as he glided back and forth on the wind currents.
 South Rim Trail 
From the South Rim Trail
A curious Mexican Jay landed right above me as we stopped for a break.
A shorter but also really nice hike was out to "the window". A downhill and gradual narrowing of a canyon leads to a opening about 10 feet across and a very long drop off. The rock on either side forms the sides of the window out to another amazing view in the distance.
The Window
Shadows at sunset
To get out to Big Bend we'd made arrangements with Tipsy Taxi to drive us out there. The owner, Shannon, was born and raised in the area so he was able to tell us a lot about what we were seeing and provide some history on the drive from Alpine. Not having a car is certainly an oddity as the staff at both Ranger Stations asked us at least two or three times where we'd parked our vehicle!

Monday, 11 February 2013

Train Trip 2013 - Los Angeles to Tucson

We spent only five hours in Los Angeles and it was all at the train station. Andrew has a bad cold and not feeling well so, while waiting to catch the train to Tucson, we hung out in big comfy chairs that fill the cavernous space of the station. But if you have to hang out somewhere, Los Angeles' Union Station is not a bad place to be. Although it was a bit cold with the big doors open and a breeze going through, it definitely has the most "wow" factor of the train stations we've been in thus far. Not as old as some, it opened in 1939. The decorative high ceilings, iron chandeliers, marble and flooring and walls, and two beautiful outdoor courtyards are a fabulous "combination of Spanish Colonial, Mission Revival and Art Deco designs".
Looking straight up at ceiling in Union Station, Los Angeles

Outside of Union Station


Dad & Elaine drove down from Apache Junction to meet us in Tucson and we went to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. "Museum" is a bit of a misnomer as there are many live animal displays, a small aquarium, hummingbird aviary and nature trails.
This old piece of mining equipment was filled with rocks.
It brought back childhood memories and I thought Dad was going to make me pick rock!
Dad & Elaine on a turtle statue.
Andrew, of course, got more great photos!

Next, we're off to Alpine, Texas. Really looking forward to hiking for a few days in Big Bend National Park!

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Train Trip 2013 - Salinas to Los Angeles

From Salinas, our next stop was Santa Barbara. We really wanted to avoid the more crowded and hectic pace of Los Angeles and this was a good choice.

We stayed at Hotel Indigo which is right beside the train station and only a few blocks from the ocean. The "theme" of the hotel is contemporary art -- it has a small art library in one area, several artistic displays and prints used throughout the hotel as wall murals and room signs.

Anchor Woodfire Kitchen & Bar (within the hotel) opened only 6 weeks ago and we ended up eating there two nights in a row, partly due to convenience and partly because of how good it was!

Door number plaque to our room.
Mural on wall in our room.

In making some comparisons to Saskatoon, it was interesting to see an article in the local weekly newspaper about a homeless count that had just been done and the efforts being made to house the homeless. Homelessness and panhandling was VERY obvious -- much more so than in Saskatoon but some of the underlying issues are certainly the same. Santa Barbara is making progress with their Housing Placement Working Group. Although the final numbers of this count weren't in yet, a count in 2011 showed there were 932 homeless. Since then, 117 have been moved into housing; only 3 of those did not keep housing; 4 passed away after receiving housing; and 16 died while waiting for housing.

The Santa Barbara Zoo is known as "one the best small zoos in America".  It was great to see the zoo staff doing feedings and to be able to talk with them without big crowds of people around. Lucky the Penguin was my favourite -- he was born with a defect in his foot and the footwear company Teva worked with the zoo to develop a shoe that allows Lucky to walk & swim just like any other penguin. Teva has committed to providing Lucky with free shoes for his lifetime. It's a heartwarming story!

Seeing the young kids enjoy the animals really made me think of Karsten (my great nephew, 18 months old) and I really hope to get to the Saskatoon Forestry Farm with him this spring/summer. Andrew got some very humorous photos of the giraffes!

The Sea Center, the Old Mission and lovely photographic display of owls and woodpeckers by Paul Bannick at the Natural History Museum were also very worthwhile stops.
Old Mission Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara Train Station

The Amtrak Station in Santa Barbara was built in 1902 in Spanish architectural style. Latest renovations took place in 2000 and it is a really nice looking building. A huge old fig tree sits about 50 meters away.

The train ride to Los Angeles was very scenic and had a bit of everything -- ocean, backyard views of magnificent houses along the ocean, agricultural land, and mountains off in the distance.

Huge fig tree near train station

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Train Trip 2013 -- Seattle to Salinas & Monterey

The Amtrak Station in Seattle is nearing the end of a very, very long (10+ years) renovation project! It was built in 1906 but in the 1960's "The ornate plaster ceiling of the waiting room was covered for the next three decades by a fabricated, lowered false ceiling. Handsome metal chandeliers were replaced by florescent lighting and marble and mosaics on the wall were covered with plastic laminate."

False ceiling and plastic laminate covering marble?!?!? Seriously, someone should have been shot for doing this!
Seattle Train Station
The train south from Seattle seems just a little bit more upscale than the one from Minot to Seattle. There's a separate "parlour" car (with movie theatre) for sleeper class only. There were cloth table cloths and real cups and glasses at lunch and "greenware" eco-friendlier, made from vegetables, glasses for our welcome glass of champagne!

The excitement on this train was the drunken, drugged up couple (throwing f-bombs, yelling at each other and pretty much everyone else) who eventually got kicked off at Eugene, Oregon. A long way from their intended stop!

From Salinas we took the bus out to Monterey as we wanted to go to the aquarium -- one of the best anywhere! And I would have to agree with that assessment. We spent the entire day there from 10 a.m. when it opened to 4 p.m. with only a short break for lunch. It was great to see how much they emphasize protecting the ocean environment, all the things that live in the ocean, best fishing practices, and what fish and seafood are sustainable to eat. It is also one of the most kid friendly aquariums we've been to. Lots of very interactive displays -- which these two adults liked as well!
5 Eels and 3 Shrimp
See Andrew's excellent photos from the aquarium and other Monterey locales.

We stayed at the very lovely old Green Gables Inn (B&B), right beside the ocean and a running/walking/biking path with fabulous views in all directions. Very nice breakfast; wine & cheese served each afternoon.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Train Trip 2013 - Seattle

Highlights of our time in Seattle . . . walking, walking, walking! Along the waterfront; visiting the Sculpture Park and the Experience Music Project; wine & cheese tasting at DeLaurenti; Patagonia, Mountain Hardware and North Face stores!

Eye sculptures at the Sculpture Park (bench seating on the opposite side of each eye)
Any guesses why we didn't go up the Space Needle?
One of the most interesting things about the Experience Music Project (EMP) Museum is the building itself. Designed by the famous architect Frank O. Gehry, "EMP's exterior conveys all the energy and fluidity of music. Three-thousand panels, made up of 21 thousand individually cut and shaped stainless steel and painted aluminum shingles, encase the outside of the building. Their individual finishes respond to different light conditions and appear to change when viewed from different angles, reminding audiences that music and culture is constantly evolving."
A close-up shot of the exterior of the EMP building.
Here's some better photos of the building from Andrew.

While in Seattle we stayed at the Inn at the Market. Finally! A hotel that got it right with the reading-in-bed lights!

This bag is from one of the fruit stands at Pike Place Market. Funny!

Friday, 1 February 2013

Train Trip 2013 - Minot to Seattle

It was -33 C leaving Saskatoon for the Great Train Adventure of 2013.  Given the very icy road conditions within the city I was a bit concerned about heading out but highways were excellent despite a bit of wind and drifting snow enroute to Minot.

The Amtrak station in Minot is undergoing a re-renovation. Built in 1905 and "modernized" in the 1970's, it took from 2003 - 2010 to get the funding and do the work to bring it back to its former glory.  Unfortunately, major flooding of the Souris River in spring 2011 caused significant damage to the basement and main floor. It will be very nice when finished again as you can still see the decorative copper ceiling tiles, ornate woodwork and iron bar ticket booths.

It’s difficult not to make comparisons between Amtrak and Via Rail. As someone (an American) on the train quickly pointed out, Amtrak is the Chevy and Via Rail is the Cadillac. We would have to agree.

Amtrak meal service: paper tablecloths, plastic dishes, disposable glasses and cups, okay food. It bothers Andrew and I to see such waste!

Via Rail meal service: cloth tablecloths, fancy dishes, real plates, cups, glasses and wine glasses, superb food and professional wait staff.
Andrew in our "roomette" on the train.
The sleeping accommodations on each have advantages and disadvantages. We’ve only used the “roomettes” or bunk type beds so can’t compare the actual rooms. Via’s are wider and a lot more head room on the top bunk. When not in “sleeping mode” the seats are wide open and you can see out either side of the train. On Amtrak there’s a sliding door and curtains that encloses into a little room. This is  better for security of belongings and not having to listen to other conversations or noise from movies being watched on laptops. I'm not totally sure which I prefer. 

The other Amtrak advantage is price. Even with rising costs in the past few years, it’s still significantly (!!!!) cheaper than Via.

It started to get light this morning around Wenatchee so we got some great mountain views heading into Seattle. Weather forecast looks warm and dry for the next few days! One of our first stops was to the Waterfall Garden which is only a couple blocks from the train station. The wonderful smell of flowers was in sharp contrast to the cold winter air we'd come from!

Colourful flowers at the Waterfall Garden
Lots of walking, a visit to the aquarium, a happy hour glass of wine and a great evening meal rounded out the day. 
View from the 5th floor deck of our hotel, Inn at the Market