A big thank you!

We’re now safely back home in London but we wanted to put together one last post for our blog.

The main reason for this is that we would like to say a HUGE thank you to all our friends and family who made this trip possible. We really have had the trip of a lifetime and we couldn’t have done this without your generosity. We would also like to thank Amtrak for providing great service on all our train rides across America and for featuring us on their blog. It was great fun!

We were summarising our trip yesterday and thought it would be fun to share some of our thoughts.

Favourite city visited: 

Mike – Washington DC, Becca – San Francisco

Things we have learnt:

  1. If you order an apple cider you will be disappointed
  2. The characters in Family Guy exist in real life
  3. A decent cup of tea is very hard to find in America
  4. Public transport in America is actually very good
  5. The UK is expensive
  6. The UK is crowded

Best train ride: Empire Builder – runs from Chicago to Seattle

Best train crew: Capitol Ltd from Washington DC to Chicago

Best museum: Mike – Newseum, Washington DC; Becca – Museum of Science & Industry, Chicago

Worst museum: International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago – seriously random

Most random moment: A man standing like a statue in the middle of Market Street in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day morning

Best art gallery: Art Institute, Chicago

Best tourist attraction: Washington DC memorials and monuments

Best burger: Blue Moon burger, Seattle

Best breakfast: EJ’s Luncheonette, NYC

Best dinner: Barbette’s Bistro, Minneapolis

Best accommodation: Paschale’s Washington DC apartment

Best public transport system: San Francisco

Most confusing map: New York subway map

Thanks for following our blog!

Becca & Mike xx

 

Days 18 & 19 – San Francisco, CA

Our last two full days in the States. Very sad our trip is coming to an end. On Tuesday we spent the morning in Haight-Ashbury, the old hippy district of San Francisco. Haight Street has many vintage clothing and vinyl shops, as well as many cannabis stores. We particularly enjoyed perusing in Amoeba records – the largest independent music store in the States. We came away with a few CDs. 

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We had lunch at a 1920s style ice cream and soda bar on Cole Street. All the sodas are made from scratch here. The cola float was particularly good.

We spent the afternoon walking some of the many very steep hills, including those around the Castro area.

We met a friend in the Latino Mission district for a really good Cuban meal at Radio Habana.

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On Wednesday we finally got to ride a cable car from Market Street up to Ghiardelli square. We chose to sit on the outside but you can hang off the side if you want. The cars are pushed round manually on a small turntable at each end of the route. A really enjoyable ride but a nightmare for EU health and safety law!

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We had lunch at one of the many cafes in Chinatown. Chinatown here is much bigger than in London, as you might expect. There is also a Japan town too. Close to Chinatown is Grace cathedral on California Street. It’s a mock-Norman building with a vaulted roof. It’s a really beautiful space. They are celebrating 100 years of music this December. The Tallis Scholars are coming to sing as part of this celebration.

 

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We spent our final evening in the States at a performance of Britten’s War Requiem by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Concerts seem somewhat more exclusive here than in Washington DC – ticket prices were higher and we felt a little underdressed for the occasion. It was a great concert – we particularly enjoyed hearing the tenor, James Gilchrist.

 

We fly home to London Heathrow this evening, arriving back mid-afternoon tomorrow. We are planning to do one final post so check back here within the next couple of days!

Becca & Mike x

 

Days 16 & 17 – Coast Starlight and San Francisco, CA

We spent all of yesterday travelling on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight service from Seattle to Emeryville, CA. The journey took about 24 hours and was once again stunning scenery. We passed through Washington state, Oregon and then into California (a total distance of 900-odd miles). This train was a lot like previous ones we have taken, although as it’s Amtrak’s flagship service it had a couple of  extra benefits for sleeping car passengers. As sleeping car passengers we had access to the ‘parlour car’ – a more luxurious version of the sightseer lounge on other services – with swivelling arm chairs, bar service, additional meal service and a cinema on the lower level. We used this car for a short while to admire the view when we first joined the train. 

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This train journey was great. The views of the Cascade mountains were lovely. We watched a beautiful red sunrise as we were eating breakfast in the dining car. One passenger described train travel as ‘a drug but without the consequences’ – spot on! We really loved the scenery on this stretch of our Amtrak adventure.

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We’ve loved the relaxed pace of long-distance rail travel over here. We’re already planning to do the bits we haven’t covered on this journey at some point in the future – the Southern route via New Orleans etc.

This morning we got off the train in Emeryville and took the bus over the bridge to San Francisco. We checked into our hotel near Market Street (the main shopping area downtown) and then went on one of the historic trolley buses up to the seafront and Fisherman’s Wharf area. 

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There were loads of sea lions piled up on the jetties to bask in the sunlight. 

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We then walked all the way to Golden Gate bridge and back along the waterfront. The views of the bridge all along were beautiful and the sun was shining. I am loving the weather in California!

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We had pre-booked tickets for Alcatraz prison night tour. The rock was previously used as a fort to defend the bay. The prison on Alcatraz was built in 1909 and closed as a prison in 1963. You can view the cell blocks, hospital wing, exercise yard and control rooms.

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A famous escape occurred in 1962 – the three men who escaped have never been found.This picture shows how they used spoons to widen the vents in their rooms. The tour was really interesting and we would recommend this to anyone visiting San Francisco.

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Love to all,

Bec x

Day 15 – Seattle, WA

Quotes of the day – 

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, …… because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win ….” (J F Kennedy, 1962)

“This is what I wanted to do since I was a little kid. If you apply yourself, work hard to be persistent, and don’t give up, you can achieve anything you want to achieve.” (Michael Anderson, NASA Astronaut, 1959-2003)

“A city without a past, has no future” (Ben Speidel, Local Historian, Seattle)

“This is the least worst place” (Arthur A Denny, Founder of Seattle)

 

Our first full day in Seattle, which is already up there with DC on our list of favourites. On the south side of the city is the airport, the headquarters of the company Boeing, and the Museum of flight – which has several historic aircraft:

The supersonic concorde which could cross the Atlantic in the same time it takes to get from London to Newcastle by train.

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The Air Force One plane which served Eisenhower and Kennedy – and in which Lyndon Johnson traveled to Dallas, following Kennedy’s assassination. 

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There is also an Apollo capsule and a prototype lunar buggy.

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Back downtown and the origins of Seattle, Pioneer Square. When the first settlers searched for land on which to build, they chose an area with a bay on one side, and abundant woodland on another. The area was also uninhabited. The local indiginous tribes had decided not to use it over an 11,000 year period – something the foreign novices should have taken into account. It turns out the reason the land was uninhabited is the sea tide, which has a large reach. This and the hill behind the new settlement together created a public health nightmare – to be crude – loads of sh*t everywhere.

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A fire in 1887 gave the city a chance to renew…

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However the business district started to build again before the city authorities raised up the streets, and added a sewerage system. Ben Speidel’s Underground Tour is a chance to see some of the original buildings underground, before the roads were raised. Highly entertaining and very interesting…

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And so another city visit draws to a close. Tomorrow we take the Coastal Starlight train to Emeryville, and a bus to San Francisco. Our next post will be in two days.

Love to all,

Mike x

 

Days 11-14 – where to start…

We’re finally back on the radar after an epic train journey right across the USA from East to West. We’ve travelled a huge distance since we last posted – more than 2200 miles from Chicago, IL to Seattle, WA.

Day 11 – Chicago, IL morning and Empire Builder part 1

Our last half day in Chicago was spent going up the Willis tower to the skydeck (a glass box which sticks out of the 103rd floor). We finally had reasonable weather that day after the storms we had a couple of days earlier. It was a great view up there and we got some great pics of the skyscrapers in the downtown area.

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We had lunch at Lou Mitchell’s diner where route 66 officially starts. The diner was great, portions were HUGE, and it was very much a classic American diner experience. I ordered a salad assuming it would be a lighter option. I was wrong. 

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We decided to break the epic train journey from the East to West coast by stopping off in Minneapolis, Minnesota for a night. We travelled coach class on this stretch – an 8 hour train ride, arriving late at night at St Paul/Minn station. You get much more room compared to on a European train and the seats recline quite a long way. Again there were a lot of Amish families travelling.

Day 12 – Minneapolis and back onto Empire Builder

We had our first night in a hotel in downtown Minneapolis and spent the rest of the following day shopping at the Mall of America. This is apparently the biggest shopping mall in America with an aquarium, indoor theme park, cinema and loads of eating places. We made a really good start on our Christmas shopping there – clothes are so much cheaper over here, especially brands like Hollister and Abercrombie. 

We nipped around on the trams and buses in Minneapolis easily, We have come to the conclusion on this trip that the Americans do do public transport and they do it very well indeed. It’s a shame it is so underused in a lot of places. Fares are cheap and services run frequently. We’ve been really impressed!

We had dinner at Barbette’s Bistro, which was great, classic French food. We headed back to the station to pick up the Empire Builder train again from St Paul/Minneapolis right across to Seattle. This time we booked into a sleeper compartment as we were going to spend 2 days on the train.

Day 13 – Empire Builder part 2

Another great experience of long-distance train journeys in America! We met some really interesting people on the train – a lady going to visit her daughter away at university in Seattle, a few Canadians from Vancouver and people visiting family on the West coast. All meals and drinks were included in our train fare and we ate communally again. We experienced our first ‘hospitality hour’ in the dining car which was a cheese and wine event. I tasted wines from Washington state and even won a bottle on the trivia quiz which I shared with others at dinner. We spent most of the daylight hours travelling through plains, plains and more plains in North Dakota.

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Unfortunately we got to Glacier National Park after dark – one of the bits of the journey we most wanted to see. We laid on the bed in our compartment with the lights off looking at the forests, mountains and stars.

Day 14 – Seattle, WA

We woke up to some of the most stunning scenery yet – the snow-capped mountains, forests and rivers of Washington state. It was really beautiful.

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At breakfast we were seated with a young guy from Lowestoft! He had been working on a farm in North Dakota since April and was travelling for a few days before flying back to London.The train arrived just over an hour late into Seattle’s King Street station – not bad considering the distance it had travelled.

After dumping our luggage at our hotel we explored Pike Place Market. This market is great – lots of craft and food stalls.

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Also the very first Starbucks store is right across the road. Seattle seems to be quite a foodie destination. We had seafood for lunch, sitting out looking across the Puget Sound (the expanse of water along the coast of Seattle). We spent some time exploring the really interesting little shops around the market area and then wandered up to the Seattle Center – the location of the 1962 World Fair where the touch-tone telephone and microwave were first revealed. The monorail still exists to transport people from the downtown area. We went up to the observation deck on the Space Needle just before sunset. The views were incredible! You could see right across the Canada, across to the Olympic mountains and to Mount Rainier in the south. 

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We really like the feel of Seattle so far and it is one of our favourite cities so far. We are looking forward to exploring more tomorrow and are already wishing that we are staying here for longer!

Becca x

Day 10 – Chicago

We’re now halfway through our trip and still most of the travelling is yet to be done!

It was our last full day in Chicago today and we really did a lot! We had a HUGE breakfast at Yolk on South Michigan Avenue before heading to the Museum of Chicago and Industry. This was an excellent, very interactive museum. Exhibits included anatomy (including dissecting a cow’s eyeball!), trains, planes, and a German U-505. For some reason there were about 50 decorated Christmas trees in the foyer and Christmas music was blaring out. We think it had something to do with a Walt Disney exhibition that was on in the museum.

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We then jumped on the bus up to the Art Institute of Chicago which is really close to where we are staying on N Michigan Avenue. The gallery has a great collection of impressionist paintings.

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In the evening we went to see a Chicago Bulls basketball game at the United Center. They were playing the Charlotte Bobcats and won with a low score of 86-81. The game started with singing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and a moments silence for the tornado victims. There was more padding that actual game play with time-outs, half-time shows, competitions etc. It was all very surreal and very American, but it was great fun! 

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We are heading off on an 8 hour train journey tomorrow afternoon to Minneapolis. We are unlikely to post again on our blog for a few days – after spending a night in Minneapolis we get on the epic Empire Builder train from Minneapolis to Seattle which takes 3 days and there is no wifi on the train as it spends most of its time in the middle of nowhere. I’m sure we’ll have lots of tales to tell after that journey!

Much love, Becca x

Days 8 and 9, Chicago IL

Quotes of the day – 

“A shout out to Mr and Mrs East on their honeymoon, taking our trains across America. Thanks for travelling with us today” – Amtrak Announcer, Capitol Ltd

“Please do not approach or pet the police dogs” – Station announcer, Chicago Union

“You might want to take a couple of slices home with you” – Waitress, Pizzeria Uno, Chicago

6am on the morning of day eight, and a completely different scene – Toledo, Ohio in the Mid-West. A haven for those seeking a quiet life with hectares of space, and a nightmare for the political elites from DC.This State is the career graveyard for many Harvard educated, sharp-suited congressmen. In the last 10 presidential elections (since 1976), Ohio has picked the ultimate winner of the contest every time (5 Democrat, 5 Republican), and the margin in this State is normally within 5 percentage points. Travelling across this vast expanse, it is easier to appreciate the day-to-day issues facing local people. Foreign concerns seem a long way off. At breakfast we met a lady on her way back to Milwaukee from DC. Her son and daughter now live in North Carolina and London. She does not like flying and cannot be on a plane for more than two hours at a time. The train to Chicago felt like a time capsule, harking back to the golden age of rail travel in the US – a brief glimpse of a way of life quickly disappearing. An Amish family, also at breakfast, got off in Indiana. On the outskirts of Chicago is the town of Gary, known for its huge steelworks and the birthplace of Michael Jackson, and the Astronaut Frank Borman. Chicago Union station is a mixture of modern functionality and historical grandeur – as well as being the scene for tearful goodbyes on the 90s television series ER. 

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South of the city centre is Museum campus, the site of the 1893 Chicago World Fair and now home to the Field museum, aquarium and planetarium. They can be reached easily by the L, the metro which runs above ground. ImageImage

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On to Day 9, and the weather has taken a nasty turn, with sporadic storms and tornadoes – which interrupted the NFL match in Chicago today (enough on its own to make headline news). Several deaths have been reported elsewhere in the State. Before getting drenched we managed to reach the Museum of Surgical Science. 

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Chicago is known for taking a normal pizza and making it 3 times as big. Having tried one at Pizzeria Uno on East Ohio Street, it turns out the base is quite thin apart from the crust – the “pizza pie” is basically an excuse to put three times as much cheese on. 

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Forgive me whilst a fall into a diabetic coma….

Love to all,

Mike x