Rhonda visits Canada and USA

Staff member: Rhonda // Trip date: Sep 2012

Vancouver

Finally arrived into Vancouver after 20 hours of flying, via Seoul Korea. I always enjoy flying Korean Air. I arrived on Saturday 15th September, a few hours after I left Melbourne!
After quickly clearing customs, the airport has a Skytrain link to the central city. This was Zone 2 and cost me CAD $7.50. Stayed at the Sandman Hotel on West Georgia St, which is situated next to the Sport Stadium. A football game was on, the BC Lions vs Toronto, and I ended up going to my first Gridiron game. Good fun with the locals keen to make sure, I understood what was going on. Lions won. Weather was gorgeous, fine, sunny low 20's.

Sunday 16th, another lovely day and decided to explore Vancouver on the Vancouver Trolley, which is a hop on, hop off and sold by Rail Plus. My first stop was Gastown, the old original settlement of Vancouver. Now a huge tourist area with plenty of shops, galleries and eateries, the big attraction is the old steam clock that makes a noise and spews steam on the half hour. Many shops in this area also sell Canadian Indian artefacts and crafts. The trolley comes along every 30 mins. My next stop was the beautiful Stanley Park, with most of the park being on the water. Got off in the park at the Totem poles, all originally carved, some raw food, some painted, all different carvings and meanings and stories. Next stop was the top end of Stanley Park, where you could see Grouse Mountain in the distance. Some locals were sunbaking on the small beach area. Shouted myself a beautiful lunch at The Teahouse restaurant, and sat outside under the sun shade. Glorious afternoon.

Oh my goodness, what a day. Fabulous from a sightseeing point of view. Today was my day tour to Capilano Suspension Bridge and Grouse Mountain! Again Rail Plus sells this trip, run by Gray Line. Our first stop was a salmon hatchery and we were told that all the best salmon goes to John West in Australia! It is true! At the Capilano suspension bridge, they now have a new attraction, The Cliff walk. This is a round platform suspended by cables from the cliff. There are lots of steps and viewing platforms. Also from here you have excellent views of the huge suspension bridge, which looks like something out of "Raiders of the Lost Ark". The bridge has quite a bit of movement and is fairly high up with a river under it. The other side of the bridge there are more walks and I did the Treetops walk. Seven mini suspension bridges, connecting viewing platforms up amongst the huge trees. Lovely.
Back over the bridge and then on to Grouse Mountain. The cable cars or gondolas going up are very steep and large, taking about 30 people at a time. This only takes 8 minutes up to the top. The top of the mountain is a huge complex with restaurant and bar as this mountain is a ski resort in the winter. First stop was a Lumberjack show, which was a bit cheesy but fun with audience participation. They also house 2 grizzly bears, who are behind electric fences. They put on a bit of a show, frolicking in the water and playing with pieces of wood. Coming back down the mountain, the views of the river and mountains and city of Vancouver are quite spectacular. I enjoyed Vancouver, small compact city on the water, with the mountains very close and the Pacific Ocean.


Canadian Train

Tonight I am on the Canadian Train, all the way from Vancouver to Toronto, which takes 4 days. Pacific Central station is in its original condition and this surprised me. Small station on ground level with not a lot of seating and the only restaurant is a McDonalds. The train leaves after dinner, which may catch some passengers out. The other shops are only a newsagent / souvenir shop. I queued up with my E-Tickets and my passport and had my boarding pass in no time. Passengers were trying to get their tickets without passports or ID and they were told to go back to the hotel and get them! Having the boarding pass already, will save time tonight, as all I will have to do is drop my luggage and show boarding pass. I packed an overnight bag for the 4 days on the train and later back at the station, checked in my suitcase. The train tonight has 22 cars and I am in Car 22. I was told the back of the train is the best place to be as it has the Park car. (Lounge at the back of the train, and the dome observation car). There ended up being 4 dome cars on this train. The train boards at 7.30pm for the 8.30pm departure. My car attendant, Paul was lovely. I had a cabin for 2, to myself and when I came in, there were 2 lounge seats, sink with mirror and toiletries in the cabin and a separate toilet. Then it was off to the Park car for champagne and nibbles and we all sat up in the dome car in the dark! When I returned to my cabin, my bed was made up with several pillows, a small doona etc. There are reading lights, air flow and towels etc.

Got up and had shower quite early. Each carriage has one shower at the end of the corridor. It is surprisingly spacious with a separate area to change in. Shower was normal size, nice and hot and toiletries and towels are supplied in your cabin. Breakfast was in 2 sittings, and everyone sits at tables of 4 and you get to chat to different people at each meal. Breakfast was a huge omelette, toast, juice, coffee. Couldn't wait to get up to the dome car to see it in the daylight. Scenery was beautiful, as we were getting into the Rocky Mountains, more and more beautiful terrain, only the very tallest peaks had a tiny bit of snow on top. Cameras going crazy in the panoramic dome cars.
The best scenery is before and after Jasper. We stopped in Jasper for 1 hour and we were able to have a quick stroll around the town. It was surprisingly warm, and the town is gorgeous, surrounded by mountains. It was smaller than I thought. The mountains now are just bare rock and very scenic. Haven't seen any wildlife, but apparently I missed an elk. Back in the dome car and all the seats were full and lots of cameras, videos and tablets all busy. Most of the passengers spent the afternoon in the lounges as this is the most scenic of the entire trip. Dinner was excellent onion soup, duck breast with a maple syrup glaze, with potatoes and carrots. Don't forget the wine selections are very good too. Slept much better 2nd night. The next day there was no breakfast, only brunch between 8-1pm. Great to sleep in. The scenery is now totally different, prairies. Flat sandy coloured grass, with no greenery at all. Little to see today, so many passengers were in their cabins, changed time zone for the third time. Train stopped for 2 hours in Winnipeg, between 8.30 - 10.30pm, lots of people coming and going and new staff on the train. Last breakfast in the morning is 8.30am as then the time zone changes yet again and the clocks are put forward one hour.

Last day on the train, had nice hot shower early and breakfast about 8am. Much cooler this morning and scenery has changed again, now lots of pine trees and lakes as we travel into north Ontario. Lots of yellow trees and a few oranges. It was not very warm in the dome car, so moved downstairs to the warmer park car. Dessert at lunch was sensational, homemade black cherry icecream with real cherry bits. Due to the number of pax on the train tonight, there were 3 dinner sittings. Usually there are 2. I ate at sitting 3, which was at 8pm. At least we were not rushed. The last supper was spent at a table with a lovely couple in their 80's who live near Niagara Falls and an old Scottish man who sounded like Billy Connolly. The morning coming into Toronto, the scenery was now very green with lots of pine trees. We were just over an hour late, as we got stuck behind a freight train. Last couple of hours in the Dome car, it was full. We saw some gorgeous houses and many lakes coming into Toronto.


Toronto

As we came into Toronto there were plenty of very modern glass buildings. Toronto Union Station is right in the middle of the city, with the rest of the city built around the station. The station is huge and multi-level. Had to wait awhile for the luggage. My first stop this morning, was the CN Tower. It was quite busy, being Saturday. This is a lot like the Sydney Tower and offers a Skywalk, simulated ride and 3D movie, but opted for the basic option without all the extras. (Also has revolving restaurant). Weather was nice and sunny but very cool and windy on the outside viewing platforms. The city is very much like Melbourne, fairly flat on the water (Lake Ontario) wide streets in grids and trams. Wandered down to the main square of the city called Dundas Square, which is on Younge St, the main street. Dinner at Hard Rock.

Today I am doing the Toronto Hop On, Hop Off, Double decker bus. Chilly day, only 13c, but had coat etc. Got off at Old Distillery which I was told had art and craft market and lots of stalls, but there were only a few, so a bit disappointing. Next did half the loop and ended up on the other side of the city and went to the Bata Shoe Museum. Fascinating place, very modern building that looks like a shoe box. The first 2 floors have the history of shoes and all the shoes are authentic, not replicas, one pair is approx 5,000 years old. Huge section on Native American Indians and all the different tribes. There was a huge 1920's collection and then shoes donated by celebrities ie. Platforms that belonged to Elton John, Shoes worn by Judy Garland, John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, and even Queen Victoria's white silk wedding slippers. Loved it. My next stop was Chinatown followed by Kensington Market, which is an alternative, hippy, Latino market. After this I stayed on board the bus, down to the Quay area, and I had done the whole loop.


Toronto to Niagara Falls - Regional Train in Business

My train is later this afternoon, so this morning in Toronto decided to go check out the PATH system. This runs for over 20kms underground, and this is how pedestrians get around the city during winter. I finally found all the crowds of people and the shops! The PATH is like a Southland or Chadstone shopping centre under every block. Every block has shops and food courts and it is all connected to the subway and the lobbies of all the main buildings and hotels. Nobody has to go up in to the street in the middle of winter, when everything is frozen. I just kept walking and was not sure where I was going to surface. Came up near the Eaton Centre, Toronto's best known above ground shopping centre. Finally collected luggage and went down to Union Station. It is huge, 3 levels. Via Rail at ground level and metro and shops in lower level. Via Rail has 25 platforms and you have to form a queue at your platform number in the waiting area. Only 2 hours to Niagara Falls. Train was very comfortable, large luggage racks at end of carriage, overhead lockers, spacious seats that reclined right back and free Wi-Fi and large loos at end of carriage. There were no seat reservations, so sit anywhere. Conductor comes around and scans barcode on ticket or on e-tix print out. Food / drink cart comes around and food and drinks were really cheap. Station at Niagara Falls, Canadian side is tiny. You come off the train, walk around the platform and go straight to the taxis. Taxi trip is about 10 mins from the main falls area. Got upgraded to huge corner suite, overlooking the Horsehoe Falls, never want to leave! I could see the falls lit up with different colours, but being dark, I would not get the full impact until the morning.


Niagara Falls

I woke up before my alarm went off, and woke just as the sunning was coming up. Grabbed the camera, stood in front of my floor to ceiling windows and took the most stunning photos of the sun coming up over the falls. My room completely overlooks the Horseshoe falls, just beautiful. The morning was clear and sunny. "Maid of the Mist" boat trip is sold by Rail Plus and is a real fun experience. Boats leave all day and every passenger gets to put on a blue plastic raincoat. We looked like Smurfs. Got a great position on the bow of the boat. Cameras ready, and off we went. Just stunning! The mist get very heavy the closer you get to the horseshoe falls, and everyone gets a soaking, but the wetter we got, the more everyone just laughs. The power of that water is just fierce. 16 people have gone over the falls and not all have survived. After the boat, the bus dropped us off at the footpath where the water goes over the falls. Again more beautiful photos and plenty of time to walk around. Next stop on the day tour was the town of Niagara on the Lake. Gorgeous little tourist town, quaint shops and lots of different eateries and galleries and shopping. Back to hotel about 5pm. There are plenty of places to eat in Niagara Falls, and the Casino is a big attraction.


Niagara Falls to New York - Maple Leaf train

Niagara Falls on Canadian side, will take both Canadian dollars and US dollars. Niagara USA side will only take USD. The station at Niagara is tiny, only a handful of seats, one staff member etc. Train is very nice in business class. Only one carriage is business, the rest are economy. Business class is the last carriage and next to the cafe car. This carriage had luggage racks, leather seats (sit anywhere), good reclining seats, plenty of room, footstools, overhead storage, free Wi-Fi and menus in the seat pockets. Configuration was same as 1st class in Europe, 2 seats, aisle, single seats. Business class also get priority service in the cafe car. Train stopped just over the US border. Border and Customs officers get on the train with the sniffer dogs and walk through the train checking passports and tickets. If you have not flown into the USA already, (like me) you are taken off the train and then processed in the tiny station room. This is the same as flying in, which involves fingerprint scanning, passport checks, return airline tickets etc. I then gave the Amtrak man my e-voucher and he printed all my boarding passes in one go! Once this is all done, the train is then on it's way and is very comfortable. Pax get on and off along the way, lots of pax on their laptops. Arrived into New York Penn station on a warm, clear night.


New York

This was my 2nd trip to New York City, and did some tourist things I did not get to do last time.
Including. Dinner cruise with friends around Manhattan, again warm clear night and beautiful sailing under the Brooklyn Bridge, around the lit up Statue of Liberty and all the buildings lit up. Went up to Top of the Rock, brilliant views over the city and Central Park, matinee show on Broadway, walk through the Diamond District, Cinatown, Little Italy, and Lower East Side. Lunch at Katz's deli is an experience, shopping at Century 21, visit to Ground Zero again etc. This time I got around on the subway without getting lost, unlike 7 years ago. Found everyone on the subway very polite, you do not hear swearing or blaring music, and everyone offers older pax seats etc. Wow, real eye opener to how people should behave on city trains.


New York to Boston - Acela Train in Business

Advice to everyone, do not go to Penn Station on a Sunday afternoon! Total chaos! Penn Station is huge and had to tell cab driver to go to Amtrak section. The whole complex has many levels of shops and eateries. There were big signs up announcing that the Acela Express now had free Wi-Fi. So many people come in and out of New York for the weekend, that Sunday afternoon is very busy. The platform numbers of each train, only come up on the board 10 minutes before boarding, so there are huge crowds waiting for the board to put up the platform number. When this happens, there is suddenly a huge surge of people and luggage all converging on one platform! This train has business class and first class. Again only one carriage of first class, at back of train. I was in Business. The train again, had good recline of the seats, free Wi-Fi, only one person serving in the cafe car, so there was a quite a queue, which could have been handled better. Many pax got on and off along the way, with the main stops being Stamford Connecticut and Providence, Rhode Island. Some of the trees were beautiful shades of yellow and orange. The main station in Boston is Boston South but I got off at Boston Back Bay. This station is small, dark, old and there is no tourist information at all. However, Boston South is large, lots of staff and tourist information with shops and eateries. Boston Bay area is a very popular area to stay in, due to main shopping areas and historical buildings etc. Drinks and dinner tonight was fun, as I met up with one of my regular agent callers from Perth. I met Wendy in the lobby of the Boston Plaza, only a 10 minute walk from my hotel. Beautiful large old world hotel. We had drinks at a very well known Italian restaurant and as Wendy is a tour guide, 10 of her senior group joined us for dinner. We had one huge round table for 12 people, the meals were massive and cheap, and spent the evening happily answering many train questions.


Boston

Sightseeing in Boston is fascinating, especially if you enjoy history and anything to do with the Boston Tea Party. The subway is small and got myself down to the Boston Harbour. There is a brand new updated, interactive Boston Tea Party museum. There are actors and holograms and the audience all take on the role of one of the rebel citizens who were involved in pouring the tea over the side of the ships into the harbour. Tea was heavily taxed at the time and was the final straw for so many of the citizens against the British rule of the time. The museum also has the two ship replicas in the harbour, where a lot of the interactive fun takes place. While in Boston, also did the Freedom Trail walk. This takes you through the oldest parts of the city and follows Paul Revere's midnight ride, where he and two other riders, raced through the settlement at midnight warning citizens that the British were coming with guns to control the rebels. The walk included Boston Common, the oldest man made park in the world, old churches, pubs, and the cemetery where many of the Boston Tea Party members are buried. One of the biggest attractions, is the "Cheers" Bar in Boston. The real pub and exterior are opposite Boston Common. There are 2 pubs here. The original English pub is in the basement and is dark, small and very old world. At ground level is the "set" bar. A replica of the set from the TV show, that was filmed in LA. Most tourists sit up at the Set Bar and I sat up there, and had a beer. There are many beers on tap, including some specialised boutique beers. Naturally there is a huge variety of merchandise available as well.


Denver

I flew from Boston to Denver to pick up the California Zephyr from Denver to San Francisco. I was staying at a moderately priced hotel, just outside the actual city centre. Got a huge shock when I arrived at the hotel. Tonight in Denver is the 1st Presidential debate between President Obama and Senator Mitt Romney. The President and all his huge staff were staying at my hotel. I was here for one night only and booked months ago. It was an experience just getting in the front door. First you had to show your hotel confirmation and your passport and luggage was x-rayed and opened and you had to walk through a metal detector. So many men! Tons of Secret Service men and police. I am surrounded by Men in Black! I certainly don't mind. I did not get to see Obama or Michelle but joined in the crowd to wave the cavalcade off to the debate.

I also enjoyed visiting the house of Titanic survivor, Molly Brown. She came from a wealthy family and the original house was built in the late 19th century and is now a museum. Many of the streets are wide, tree lined with big old houses. The main shopping street in Denver is a mall with free buses that go from one end of the long street to the other, every few minutes all day. I enjoyed the small city and tiny crowds, after being in Boston and New York. Denver is located one mile above sea level.


California Zephyr

Denver Union Station is currently being upgraded, so they have a small temporary Amtrak station. Suitcase was checked through to San Francisco. I had one overnight bag and my backpack. Train pulled in arriving from Chicago. It was double decker and I was in the last carriage, with the sleepers being upstairs.

The Roomette is quite small compared to the Canadian sleepers. The same size sleeper on Amtrak is a Bedroom and much more expensive. There was only one domed lounge car and this is next to the dining car. The seats are fixed and face outwards facing the windows. Great design and there was a mad dash to get seats and there are not enough lounge seats for everyone. I did manage to get one. Outside of Denver the train starts it's higher decent through the Rockies. Denver is one mile above sea level. This part of the Rockies is very different to the Canadian section. Steeper, far more vegetation, plenty of trees, many are a bright yellow colour. Lost count of the number of tunnels, and one tunnel took about 15 minutes to travel through. Also there was a dam and obviously a river. First stop at Winter Park, the mountains have snow on the peaks.

The café car is tiny with only one person serving and there were 8 people lined up all wanting coffee and hot snacks. The noise in the lounge car got too much, so I decided to go sit in my Roomette. It is quiet and private, with large windows. During the day this is perfect for one person and there is nowhere for luggage. The scenery kept changing and all before lunch. We were still high up but the land is now flatter and we are passing by lakes again. Have seen cows, lamas or alpacas and one bald eagle sitting on a tree. The Colorado River starts high up in the mountains and carves its way around rocks, mountains, valleys etc. It is only a few feet wide in some places and the scenery is beautiful. We saw several small row boats with men fishing for trout.

The dining car is quite roomy and it is first come, first served. Once full, you put your name down on waiting list and then you are called to join a table. I had chowder soup and garden salad. Very nice, food is good and several choices. Next stop was a ski resort in Aspen called Glenwood Resort. From here a freeway runs alongside the river. It is elevated through the mountains. The river continues through the mountains which are now mainly rock and stunning with centuries of erosion. Lots of passengers got off at Grand Junction, so now the observation car is not so full and it is easy to get a seat. The scenery changes again and now there are salt plains and we head into Utah. My dinner was at 7.10pm and I sat with 2 Canadian ladies in their late 50's and a local lady in her 70's. Had the herbed roasted chicken with baked potatoes and sour cream with veges and side salad. Glass of red and rasberry sorbet for dessert. My bed had been pulled down, when I got to my roomette. You can just close the door and pull across the curtains. The lower bed is bigger than the upper.

The roomette consists of:

  • 2 seats facing opposite each other (day configuration)
  • Bunks with safety net
  • Reading lights
  • Mirror
  • Individual controlled air temperature
  • Closet only fits 2 items
  • Private curtains
  • Lockable door
  • Attendant call button
  • Pull out table (day configuration)


I woke up about 6.30am and the scenery this morning is desolate, and we are now in Nevada. During breakfast we come into Rena which has big casinos etc and then we cross into California and Truckee CA, which is on Lake Tahoe. From here the scenery changes back to mountains with lots of vegetation and more tunnels. Lunch was a huge vege burger and a delicious chocolate and peanut torte. You can make tea and coffee whenever you want at the end of your carriage or in the lounge cars. Weather is warm and sunny.

Finally went and had a look at a Bedroom and the "coach" economy seats.

The Bedroom is much bigger. Roomettes are on each side of the carriage but bedrooms on just one side of the carriage as they take up much more room. In the bedroom, 3 people can sit across the car and 1 person on a separate lounge chair, which is opposite. There is a full ensuite in this room. It is far more comfortable than a Roomette but more than double the cost depending on availability.
The economy carriage has a configuration of 2 seats each side of the aisle. There is plenty of room and the seats recline back on a very good angle. All passengers here have access to the café car and dining car. These passengers then pay for their meals in the dining car.

Arriving into Emeryville, it takes a while for the luggage to come off the train and then be reloaded onto the Thruway bus. The bus is very comfortable and eventually we are on our way into San Francisco. It is a Sunday afternoon, it is warm the sun is shining, there are plenty of people around and you can see the sails of the yachts on the bay. San Francisco Ferry Building is old, big and white and there is a market in the building as well as Amtrak. The market is mainly food and fresh produce with bars and little eateries. San Francisco is a fun compact city and as soon as I check in to my hotel I am straight back out and onto a cable car!


In summary

What a trip. From the Pacific Ocean in Canada to the East Coast through Canada and northern USA, and back across to the Pacific in San Francisco. Have seen a huge amount of the land and natural wonders, visited several cities and experienced all types of trains. The Canadian and Niagara Falls were definitely highlights, and a fun, relaxing way to travel.
I highly recommend doing this type of trip if you have the time to enjoy it all and just take it all in.

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