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

 

 

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