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Archive for April, 2012

As I said in my last article, this is the time of year people are planning vacations.  Some look for summer vacations and others look at September/October tours when the kids are back in school.  If you are looking at National Parks, one of my personal favorites is Yellowstone and Glacier.  Summer is the best time with weather becoming so unpredictable after Labor Day. Yellowstone is still good in early September but by mid September Glacier is closing and can be cold and wet. (I will tell you a little more about this tour in an upcoming article).
The end of September, however, is the perfect time to take the National Parks of the Southwest tour.  Temperatures in the desert are finally cooling down.  And, don’t forget New England in the fall.  I discussed “Rails and Sails of New England” in a previous article so be sure and check that if it interests you, as well as other New England trips, like “The Fall Colors of New England” tour that VBR (Vacations by Rail) offers.
Some people will look at a tour company’s itinerary and use it to make their own personal trip.  There is nothing wrong with that, except when you go to those areas at peak season.  Many times you will find the good hotels have no vacancies.  And, tour companies get discounted rates for hotels and attractions, which you can’t get on your own; all good reasons to choose an escorted tour. Personally, I love escorted travel (although it’s not for everyone), because everything is taken care of for you plus you learn things you would never know traveling to those areas on your own.  One time our motor coach drove across a “new”bridge on the Colorado River and as my travelers and I walked across the “old”bridge, I told everyone the history of the bridge we were walking.  A lady said to me, “we traveled over that new bridge with our grandchildren a couple of years ago and saw this old bridge, but I had no idea this older bridge had so much history.”
Many tour managers do the same tour all summer long or several times year after year and learn a lot of little things the average person would never learn.  One time I took my company’s (Mayflower Tours) Canadian Rockies trip.  I would have paid so much more on my own and I wanted someone with all their knowledge of the area to tell me about it, so I wouldn’t miss a thing. 
Another question I am constantly asked since I conduct tours all over the US is “what is my favorite tour?”  That is a tough question, because although I do have some favorites, many times it depends on the time of the year.  I love DC in May or October when the weather is pleasant. I don’t like Cherry Blossom time because of the crowds and half the time the blossoms are gone and it can still be cold. I also did that tour over the 4th of July once and I said “never again.”  It was 110 and humid in the shade!  New England in the fall– late September to early October– is a beautiful time, and you can’t beat the Pacific Northwest in July & August.
And, of course, anywhere south in the winter or early spring is a good choice.
Lately I have been doing quite a few tours in the summer/early fall for Vacations by Rail.  There are always ups and downs when traveling by Amtrak (as my previous article mentioned) but if you are aware ahead of time what might happen, it still can be a fun experience.  You can find a list of Vacations by Rail tours online.  They will set up a tour for you with tickets, etc. if you want to go on your own or they have many escorted tours all over the US and Canada for you to choose from.
This article and the next one, I would like to focus on some of my personal favorites.  If you are interested, you can check them out, since I know there is still some space available.
First up (and in no particular order) : Great Parks of the Southwest.
On Day 1 you meet your fellow travelers at Chicago’s Union Station and board the Southwest Chief that afternoon.   After breakfast the next morning, it’s time for the buttes and mesas of the desert, as well as, the imposing Raton Pass, reaching an elevation of 7,834 feet. As you cross into New Mexico, you follow the Santa Fe Trail, with a stop at Albuquerque where you can walk around and look at the jewelry the native vendors sell on tables by the tracks.  After dinner the train stops at Winslow (“Standing on the Corner in Winslow, Arizona”) where we stay at the famed La Posada Hotel (actually the train stops in the back and we walk right into the hotel.  What a fun place done up in Southwest style.  This hotel was almost lost to history but some new owners recently restored it to the way it was in its glory.  Many movie stars stayed here in the 30’s and 40’s and Howard Hughes even built an airstrip in town.  Each room is named after a famous star who visited there & I stayed in the Jane Russell room.
Then it’s on to Sedona, the second most visited tourist area in Arizona. There are three big sites for spiritualists and vortexes in the US and this is one of them.  Can you guess the others?   (Clue: one is in Colorado and the other in California).  A highlight of this day is a scenic rail excursion aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad. The 3 ½-hour round-trip excursion aboard this tourist train will take you through Arizona’s “other” Grand Canyon. And finally that evening we enjoy a chuckwagon supper and live Western stage show at the Blazin’M Ranch.
Day 4 it’s off to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, seen by more than five million visitors each year. After several stops, we then travel to Lake Powell for an overnight stay.  The resort is located near the Glen Canyon Dam; an impressive structure only 16 feet shorter than Hoover Dam.  The next morning we take a boat ride on the lake, the site of many movies, including several biblical movies and the Planet of the Apes franchise.
One time I had a traveler tell me they didn’t think it could get any better than what they had already seen.  However they were blown away when each of the continuing days did indeed become more and more awesome. 
Now it’s time for the National Parks and it doesn’t get much better than this.  First up, Zion (another favorite of mine) with its canyon of towering red and white sandstone cliffs.  After an overnight stay in this area, it’s on to Bryce Canyon the most colorful of the Nat’l Parks.  There are “hoodoos” of 50-60 different colors of orange and it’s hard to tell if this place is more spectacular in sunlight or on overcast days.
From there we continue through the Escalante National Monument (made a national monument by President Clinton to keep the coal and other mineral miners from destroying this area), with an overnight near Capitol Reef National Park. This park is named for the natural attraction’s appearance as the white domes and cliffs resemble the U.S. Capitol Building.
Leaving Capitol Reef it is on to Dead Horse Point State Park featuring 2,000 foot sheer cliffs and an overlook of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. If you ever saw the movie “”Thelma and Louise”the car going over the cliff was filmed at the Dead Horse State Park lookout.
The next two nights are spent in Moab home to the most famous of the Utah National Parks (at least as far as their license plates advertise) –Arches National Park.  After a picnic style lunch, we round out the next afternoon with a float trip along the Colorado river as we are surrounded by the towering red cliffs along the river bank.
It’s still not over….. on the morning of Day 10 we transfer to Grand Junction, CO and board the most scenic of the western trains—The California Zephyr.  All day long the breathtaking views of the Rockies make you wonder which side is best for sightseeing.
Is it no wonder, I love this tour?  Maybe the Great Parks of the Southwest will beckon you, too.

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This is the time of the year when people start thinking about booking summer and fall vacations. If you don’t book early, some tour companies run out of space, especially within the national parks. Many big tour companies reserve rooms a year in advance and usually when they run out of rooms, there aren’t any more until the following year.

I have also run across in my travels many train buffs.  There is definitely a romance with the rails.  When dealing with Amtrak you have to sit back and enjoy the ride and the scenery, but expect issues can happen.  I think if your expectations aren’t too high, you can much more appreciate the journey.  Amtrak is a government owned corporation with the rails primarily owned by freight companies. Passenger trains must yield to freighters.  If the passenger trains become delayed for any reason, they have to pull over and let the freight trains go by.  Sometimes this can make you even later.  So if you are in a hurry, don’t take the train.
You meet very nice people when traveling by rail.  The dining car contains booths that seat four.  If there is one or two of you, expect be seated with others.   If you can afford it, a sleeper (with bathroom) or even a roomette (bathroom down the hall) is the way to go.  You have all your meals included since this is considered 1st class.  You also have coffee, water and juice all day and ice brought to your room.  A morning newspaper is delivered after the first morning stop.
Sitting up can be a little tiresome and there is no privacy.  However, if you can’t afford a room, this type of travel is an option. You will hear the people who snore and if you need to use the bathroom, you have to go downstairs.  Small pillows are provided but no blankets.  If you know ahead of time what to expect, it isn’t quite so bad.  It’s all about the spirit of adventure and going to new, and sometimes, remote places.
The 1st class passengers get first choice of dinner times so if you are in coach expect a later dinner, especially in the summer when popular trains have several sleeping cars that have to be accommodated first.   I know many seniors tend to dislike eating late but there is a snack bar to hold you over while you wait for dinner or as a substitute for the dining room.  And, you can even have your coach attendant bring your meal to your seat if necessary. 
On the long distance trains, the food is prepared on board.  Although when they are busy in the summer, sometimes the food can be overcooked, as if it was prepared quite a bit ahead of time.  On the shorter trains, like the City of New Orleans, “airplane”/microwave food is served.
I know this article is sounding a little negative.  I actually enjoy riding on the trains.  However, some of the things I am talking about are issues that come up with my travelers.   
The trains that run along the West or East coasts, as well as some smaller train runs like the Empire Service between New York and Buffalo and the Hiawatha between Chicago and Milwaukee, will make several trips a day back and forth to their destinations and so they are very profitable for Amtrak.  Trains from Chicago to New York or Washington, DC like the Lake Shore Limited or Capitol Limited, are shorter distance trains since the distance between Chicago and the East Coast isn’t as long as West coast trains.  These trains leave Chicago in the evening and the next day, you are at your destination.
The older trains and ones with the most issues, especially during the busy summer months, are the long distance Western trains.  The scenery is more spectacular on these trains, but the one I have found with the most inconsistent service and extremely overworked staff is the California Zephyr.  While a very few employees are not up to par, most are just extremely overworked.  But the many good employees Amtrak has (and there are lots of them), have one thing in common: they love their work.  I have seen some dining car staff get little more than 4-5 hours sleep in the summer when there are so many sleeper cars, but they still treat their passengers with care.  Many of my travelers constantly ask, why don’t they put on an extra dining car? That is a very good question, but it all probably boils down to cost effectiveness.
It is odd that the train with the most issues is also my favorite.  For scenery, hands down, you can’t beat the Zephyr.  After leaving Chicago, the next morning you are in Denver & as you depart that city, everything gets vertical all day in the Rocky Mountains.  Later that evening you get to Salt Lake and then ride through the desert as you sleep your second night on the train.  The next morning, it’s Reno, NV.  Then another beautiful mountain chain, the Sierra Nevada and all the wonderful tunnels and hills of ponderosa pines as you travel to the Oakland/San Francisco area.
The scenery on the Empire Builder is also really stunning.  While the Mississippi River and the Badlands of North Dakota have their own beauty, the run between Glacier National Park and Seattle in the Cascade Mountains is truly awesome.  This track was not built until the late 1800’s.  Then in the early 1900s, the great Western lodges were constructed to bring the wealthy Easterners to the remote National Parks.  The Empire builder is billed as a 1st class train.  Service is consistently good and they even have wine tasting for 1st class passengers.
Another favorite train is the Southwest Chief.  There is something special about watching the buttes, mesas and the Southwest desert that has a beauty all its own.  The crew on this train comes out of LA and I have always found the service to be very good on this train, also.
I haven’t been on the Texas Eagle for quite a few years.  It goes from Chicago to St Louis, Dallas and finally San Antonio.  There it meets up with the Sunset Limited coming from New Orleans and going to LA.  One time on the Sunset Limited, I woke up in the middle of the night and looked out. It was a night with a full moon and the huge sand dunes in the Sonora desert looked like we were taveling on a distant planet. The Sunset Limited used to be the only cross country train.  However after hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans to Florida section was not resumed.
Amtrak has a USA Railpass for 15, 30 or 45 days so you can experience all these trains at one time (with stopovers where you choose).  However it is not as easy to use as the Railpass in Europe and sometimes it is not the cheapest way to travel.  You also need to make advanced reservations and sleeping accommodations are extra. This is an option, though, if you want to see the USA by rail in a short period of time.  Just make sure you plan your route ahead, especially if it’s summer and you want a sleeper.
I know this article sounds a little negative, but it isn’t meant to.  I actually love riding the rails.  However, some of the things I am talking about are issues that come up with my travelers.   And, I have always found if your expectations aren’t too high, you won’t be disappointed.  Most of the time if you know some of these things might happen, it doesn’t seem quite as bad if it does.
You really do meet some of the nicest people on trains, and there are many who travel all over the US by Amtrak.  I think sometimes we can get spoiled by our fast paced world.  At one time, train travel was a luxurious way to travel.  It still can be lots of fun, if taken in the spirit of adventure it is. Always remember, “it is the journey and not the destination.”
Coming up next: some favorite train tours with Vacations by Rail 

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