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

 

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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

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

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

 

 

Day 7 – DC & the Capitol Ltd

Firstly an apology that this post is almost 24 hours late – lack of wifi on the overnight train is to blame although I did actually write this on the train last night.

Quotes of the day:

‘It’s a bad sign that I’ve started singing the Star-Spangled Banner’ – Becca

‘I need some insulin’ – Mike

‘Good evening gentlemen’ – the welcome from our waitress in the dining car

‘Dining is communal. You will make a friend’ – Amtrak dining car announcement

 

So, another sunny day in Washington DC and unfortunately our last. We both feel like we could spend another week here. We’ve really loved it!

After another American breakfast (this time at Kramer Books in the Dupont Circle area – another of Afshin’s recommendations) we went to the Phillips Art Collection on 12th Street. This was a great little gallery with art from the impressionists onwards, including many works by Picasso, Cezanne, Klee, Kandinsky etc.

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We returned to our apartment to get ourselves prepared for our first overnight train from Washington DC to Chicago. We had one last binge on milkshakes for lunch from Good Stuff Eatery near the Capitol building before rolling to Union Station.

Union Station is a really impressive building. When it was opened in 1908 it was the biggest railway station in the world.

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Taking a long-distance Amtrak train is a lot like taking a plane (obviously without the flying) and quite different from the many European trains we’ve taken in the past. You have the option of checking your baggage into a baggage car so you don’t need to worry about it on the journey. Also you wait in a lounge before going through a boarding gate.

The train itself is huge. It consists of around 10-12 carriages and all, except the baggage car, are double-deckers. Our ‘superliner roomette’ is on the top floor of one of the sleeper carriages. The train has a dining car, a café car with a sightseeing lounge on the top (it has huge windows from floor to ceiling), and a cinema. Unfortunately it doesn’t have wifi, hence why this blog post is late going up. There were a lot of staff on the train. Each sleeping car has an attendant. Ours was called Larry – he was very friendly and we had many conversations during our journey about London, the American civil war etc. The lady running the café kiosk was particularly humorous – enticing us with various chocolate bars, confectionary and pizza types via the tannoy or singing ‘choo choo’ as she walks up and down the train.

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Larry came round to welcome us after we had settled into our compartment. A dining car attendant then came round to make our dinner reservation – meals and refreshments are included in the price of a sleeper car ticket. Dinner was a starter of salad and a roll, a choice of six main courses and a choice of four desserts. Meals are quite basic and clearly just reheated in a microwave, but sitting in the dining car is fun as everyone is seated with strangers. Conversation seemed to flow quite easily, although we weren’t allocated any friends this time around.

The other travellers were interesting – there were several Amish families and we probably brought the average age down by a good 20 years or so. The sleeper compartments were really small and you slept long-wise to the train (the opposite way to European sleepers). There were two seats facing one another which slid down to form the lower bunk. The upper bunk was pulled down from the wall.

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The route from DC to Chicago passes through the Civil War territory, including Harper’s Ferry and Martinsburg. The total journey takes 18 hours, covers 780 miles, enters another time zone (putting us another hour behind), and crosses 6 states – Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

See you at the other end!

Bec x

Day 6 – DC

Quotes of the day – 

“News is what somebody, somewhere, wants to suppress.” Lord Northcliffe, British newspaper publisher, Newseum, DC 

“We’re 72% sure that you’ll love it 100% of the time.” Anchorman exhibit, Newseum, DC

“I asked you to take off your bag – what did you think I meant?” Security guard, Smithsonian Institute

“Some reporters said I don’t have vision – I don’t see that.” George H W Bush

So another day in a very friendly DC – our time here has passed so quickly. First a visit to the Newseum, dedicated to the history of news reporting and the principle of freedom of press. Highlights include the JFK exhibit, daily front page news headlines from around the world and a memorial to journalists killed in action.There is also a balcony at the top, with a great view of Capitol Hill. 

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One of the film pieces at the Newseum was about error in journalism – and the effect it has on individuals and organisations. On this theme I would like to apologise for an erratum on my previous post. Ben’s Chili Bowl produces outstanding food. My misspelling of bowl as bowel was a genuine error – and not sarcasm, a medical condition or a Freudian slip. Interestingly spices do have a peripheral neurological effect – there are unique receptors within the bowel which respond to spiced food… nuff said.

Our tour of American cuisine continued today, with a visit to Ollie’s Trolley on 12th and E street. The counter is like the set on Happy Days – the only missing ingredients are the guy in the leather jacket on the motorbike, and the canned laughter when the ketchup self combusts in the corner. Great food, and reasonable prices. 

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A visit to DC would not be complete without a walk past the White House and the memorials, which are very well kept and important symbols of past struggles. However like the Brits, the Americans are very good at snatching victory from the jaws of defeat – taking a highly dubious military campaign and turning it into a Princess Zelda adventure. On the journey around the national memorials it is difficult not to get swept along by the patriotism and moral gluttony. By the time we reached the Jefferson memorial I was ready to buy a ranch in Texas, join the Navy SEALS, invade Cuba and buy something from the gift shop. 

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After an afternoon outdoors, time to see the greatest memorial of them all – the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This magnificent building includes a concert hall and an opera house. The panoramic view from the terrace at night is quite something. We saw the NSO play Kodaly, Liszt and Prokofiev.

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And so our time at DC is drawing to a close – this city has welcomed us with open arms. The first President, Washington, took the oath in Manhattan, just off Wall Street – but it soon became clear that the Confederates would not tolerate New York as the Capital of the Union. A deal was struck to make Philadelphia the capital temporarily, whilst DC was made ready for government. From my limited experience of both –  New York feels like the capital but isn’t, whilst DC does not feel like the capital but is.

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Tomorrow we travel to Chicago.

Much love,

Mike x

Day 4 – NYC and DC

Quotes of the day –

“There is all sorts of stuff which shouldn’t be there – it’s really gross” (Dr Manny, health expert on Fox 5 news, discussing bacterial colonisation of toothbrushes)

“Not everyone is convinced that pets should wear perfume” (Exclusive News Report, Fox 5 news)

“We’re all in this together. Literally.” (Amtrak Advertisement Poster)

“Great news folks, we’re 10 minutes early!” (Martin the train guard as we pull out of Baltimore…. with an empty train)

So the time has come to begin the train journey west. But first the NY Museum of Natural History 3 blocks up from our apartment.

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(This skeleton turns out to be a T Rex…I had misidentified it as the remains of Dick Cheney)

Before leaving from Penn Station, a quick look at the High Line – a botanical garden project using an abandoned subway line in mid town Manhattan.

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Contrary to popular belief back home, Americans do travel by rail – and they travel in style. The regional service from NY to DC takes three and a half hours. The equivalent journey in the UK would cost at least twice as much, with a significantly lower standard of service – mainly as a result of piecemeal privatisation in the mid 1990s. Many thanks to Martin, the conductor and the train crew…the journey to DC was superb.

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DC has a very different feel to Manhattan – first impressions are of laid back friendliness. After negotiating the accessible bus network, time to follow in the footsteps of Barak Obama – and purchase a chili half smoke, from Ben’s chili bowl opposite U street metro station – awesome!

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Love to all,

Mike x