Posts Tagged ‘kileen like “clean”’


Here’s a great little trip you can take, especially to see the fall foliage in the Ozark Mountains, but also good in late spring or during the summer.  The Ozark Mountains in Arkansas beckon you.  I wrote once about Mountain View, a mountain music and crafts center mecca but this area is also great to visit.

Let me tell you a little about the Hot Springs area.  Everyone knows Bill Clinton was born in Hope but about 70 miles north nestled in the mountains is Hot Springs.  He moved there as a young man and I remember hearing stories of how his mother loved playing the ponies at the Hot Springs horse track.

But there are a lot of other things to do in this area known for its thermal springs and bath houses. The water that flows from the underground springs are believed to have healing abilities and were first discovered hundreds of years ago by Native Americans.

While here you may want to consider a sunset dinner cruise aboard the Belle of Hot Springs riverboat.   A visit through Hot Springs National Park is also a must. Then onto the opulently restored Fordyce Bathhouse on Bathhouse Row is a site to behold.  (this is also where the National Park has their Visitor Center).  Finally check out the Gangster Museum where you are transported back to the 20s, 30s and 40s when gambling and bootlegging coexisted with the warm mineral waters of this awesome little valley town.

Nestled in the foothills of the Ozarks, the quaint town of Van Buren offers a chance to step back in time by strolling through the beautifully restored Victorian Main Street.  Then you can climb aboard the Arkansas-Missouri Scenic Railroad. The turn of the century passenger cars with their elegant mahogany interior which was the norm in the golden age of rail travel, is fun to ride.

Since you are a hop skip and a jump away from Branson why not continue on to this music mecca.

An evening aboard the showboat Branson Belle with dinner and entertainment is a great end to a wonderful day.  This was the best tasting food I have ever had on a riverboat and the entertainment was good, too. Since you are in Branson, what else can you do?  Take in a show, of course.  There are morning shows, afternoon shows and evening shows.  Some of the shows you can take in are The Osmonds, The Million Dollar Quartet, Down Home Country, The Brett Family Show, the Clay Cooper Country Music Express, The Haygoods Show, and #1 Hits of the 60s and the 50s.

And if you enjoy these shows come back anytime in November and December to see their special Christmas shows.

So much to see and do in magical Arkansas.


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              Each early October the skies around Albuquerque, New Mexico are painted with hundreds of balloons as they lift off from Fiesta Park.  This is the world’s largest hot-air balloon rally.  It is an early start the morning of the Opening Ceremonies when you can go see the “mass ascension” of the many different shaped balloons as they lift off at sunrise.  Plus you can wander the 80 acre launch field and even chat with some of the pilots before liftoff.  The Fiesta began in 1972 with 13 balloons and now has more than 600.
            This is a trip to do as a tour if you are able to.  You can go individually but there are so many people there (usually more than 80,000), the roads can become gridlock.  So, it’s better to be on a motor coach if you can.  Plus after the “mass ascension”, you can then participate in a city tour of Albuquerque with a local guide.
            Albuquerque is the largest city in New Mexico located against the Sandia Mountains.  The population is approximately 600.000 and it sits at 5,000 feet, just shy of a mile.  1/3rd of all New Mexicans live here.  The University has 24,000 students and is famous for its geology, anthropology and metorite museums.  Sandia National Labs employs over 7,000 and there are other research and development firms in the area.  There is a mixture of Native American, Spanish and Anglo cultures and this is reflected in the city’s architecture and art.  It is real a fun place to visit with a laid back atmosphere.
            El Camino Real (“The Royal Road”) ran from Mexico City all the way to Santa Fe about an hour north.  Because the early explorers came through this area, Old Town, the heart of the early city is located here and is a great place to spend some time.  Lots of shops and restaurants line the plaza and if you get here make sure you visit the San Felipe De Neri church built in 1706.  It is amazing to think that there was a thriving community here before we even had fought the Revolutionary War!
            Another great side trip for getting“high,” is the Sandia Peak Tram which at 2.7 miles long is known as the world’s largest tramway.  The tramway goes 10,378 feet up to the top of the Sandia Mountains.  And, oh, what a terrific panoramic view of northern New Mexico!  At the top you can hike or just enjoy a meal at the High Finance Restaurant and Tavern.
                But the evening after the “mass ascension”, get ready for a real treat….the Balloon Glow.  Just before dusk, the burners of nearly 500 balloons are ignited and the night sky is filled with a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors.  And, the evening is topped off with a wonderful fireworks display.
            Some of the other things you can do while in the area is go to Bandelier National Monument which contains displays of the daily life of the Pueblo people and their traditions.  Or a little further afield is White Sands National Monument in Alamogordo.  The snow colored dues cover 275 square miles in the Chihuahua Desert.  And some of the dunes rise up over 60 feet, and are constantly changing because of the winds blowing in the area.  You can bike through the area, but even more fun is to take a dune buggy ride.  I did this once and it was a real treat.  The only thing I couldn’t figure out was how the driver knew where he was and how he would get us back to the visitor center.
            Finally, a “must” to do while here is a trip to Santa Fe, the highest capitol (in elevation) in the US– 6,989 feet.  It is only about 50 miles between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but all uphill.  The historic central plaza is a square in the city center.  On the north side of the plaza sits the Palace of the Governors, the oldest continually occupied public building in the US, dating from 1610.  Native American artisans from 41 tribes sit outside selling local crafts like turquoise and silver jewelry, paintings, sculptures, weavings and pottery.  The architecture is the typical pueblo style you expect to see there and many rich and famous live here, which naturally pushes property values up.  Also, a stop at the Loretto Chapel which contains a staircase that is famous for no visible support as well as many old churches are also worth a visit.
            So many places to see and things to do in the Land of Enchantment, which is New Mexico.  Why not start at Albuquerque?

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“Galveston, oh Galveston.  I can hear your sea winds blowing…” as the words of Glen Campbell’s song goes… “on the beach where we used to roam.”
And the beach has been tied totally to Galveston’s history.  You may not know this but Galveston is an island, actually a barrier island, about 45 miles southeast of Houston, TX. 
Galveston is part Southern, park Texas blooming with towering oleanders of every color and has more history and stories than cities 20 times its size. Part of the charm of Galveston is that it is so much a town in its own right, and it always has been. Even today, many residents refer to the city as “The Republic of Galveston Island” because it is so unlike the rest of Texas.
In 1528, the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked on the Island and lived among the Indians for several years as a medicine man and slave. In the late 1600’s, the French explorer Robert Cavelier La Salle claimed this area for King Louis.  However, the island was named for Bernardo de Gálvez, a Spanish colonial governor and general.  Gálvez sent Jose de Evia to chart the Gulf of Mexico from the Texas coast to New Orleans, and on July 23, 1786, de Evia named the waters Galveston Bay. Later, the island and city took the same name.  Bernardo de Gálvez died the same year, never setting foot on his namesake island.
How can you resist the charm of this 32 mile island (only 2 miles wide at its widest) whose first known European settler was a pirate? The cultured and debonair pirate Jean Lafitte established the colony of Campeche on Galveston Island in 1817, numbering about 1,000 people at its peak. Lafitte was eventually forced to leave by the US Navy who didn’t appreciate his pirateering.  As he was forced off the island, Lafitte burned his town behind him and literally sailed into history. No one knows what happened to him and if interested in learning more look into joining the Lafitte society. Many theories abound, including settling in Alton, IL and continuing his dynasty.  Personally I think a storm overtook him and sank his ship somewhere off the Yucutan Peninsula.
However, Galveston, as we know it, was officially founded by Michel Menard and Samuel May Williams, among others in the 1830’s. The homes of these early island pioneers are still standing and tours are offered.
Everything is bigger in Texas and in the nineteenth century, everything in Texas was done first in Galveston. Incorporated in 1839, Galveston quickly became the most active port west of New Orleans and the largest city in the state. This exciting and sophisticated city built the state’s first post office, first opera house, first hospital, first golf course, first country club…the list goes on and on.
But everything changed on September 8, 1900.  Back then hurricanes had no names but this one was so bad it was dubbed “The Great Storm.” Most estimates put the deaths at 6,000 and some say there were another 6,000 people who went missing.  Over 1/3rdof the city’s population was wiped out by that tragedy.  The problem was the next spring, 1901 the first gusher came in at Spindletop, not far from the island.  But since the city was so devastated from the hurricane, the money went to Houston, since people deemed that area safer in hurricanes.  Consequently, Galveston never again attained the glory it had before the hurricane.
Although devastated, the citizens were strong and rallied.  They built a 16 foot seawall.  It took 60 years to complete all 10.4 miles of it.  Then the remaining structures were jacked up and sand pumped in raising the island 6-8 feet.  But it was definitely worth the effort.  In 1915 another hurricane with the same intensity as the Great Storm hit.  90% of the structures outside the seawall were destroyed but only 8 people died (and another 300 not behind the seawall).
In the 1920’s, Galveston found a new source of income.  There had always been prostitution and gambling due to all the sailors stationed there, but with Prohibition, bootlegging was added to the list. Eventually 2 brothers, the Maceo’s, took controlIn the swinging 40’s & 50’s, the Balinese Room was legendary along the Gulf Coast.  Some of the famous performers were Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Sophie Tucker, the Marx Brothers, Guy Lombardo, Harry James, Mel Torme and so many others. Frank Sinatra sang there in 1950 (he was in decline at the time & didn’t get back on top until his role in From here To Eternity got him an Oscar nod) and he asked for his meals to be included as part of his pay.
The Texas Rangers tried to raid the place several times, but a call was always placed to Maceo and by the time they walked the long pier, the gaming tables had been converted to backgammon and the slot machines folded into the walls. The chips were stashed in the kitchen and one suitcase full was inadvertently roasted in the oven once. One time the sheriff was asked why he didn’t close the place down.  He replied, “Shucks, I am not a member so I can’t get in.” In the late 1950’s, after the brothers died, someone in a boat under the pier saw the machines folded into the walls and after reporting this to the law, the Texas Rangers were able to close gambling down then.   
There are two historic hotels in Galveston.  The Tremont House is down on the Strand.  The owner, George Mitchell, brought Mardi Gras to the island in the 1980’s and it continues as a big 10 day celebration to this day.  The other hotel is the Hotel Galvez across from the seawall.    Phil Harris married Alice Faye in 1940 and spent his honeymoon in the penthouse.  And, Dan Rather gained national fame sitting in the Galvez reporting as Hurricane Carla came to Galveston in 1960.  From this recognition he got a news job reporting in the Kennedy White House and the rest they say is history. 
The Galvez was known as the “Queen of the Gulf” on the day she opened in 1911. For nearly a century, this charming hotel built in a Spanish Mission style, has been the choice for guests as  diverse as Franklin Roosevelt and Howard Hughes, as well as the famous stars mentioned above.  Palm trees line a stretch of grass in front of the property’s double doors.  Mahogany beams cross the ceiling of the expansive lobby and down a long hallway known as the Loggia, the veranda (where Dan Rather reported from), overlooks the formal gardens and the hotel’s outdoor tropical pool.  And, of course, the famed Balinese Room used to be right across the street.
Currently more than 2,000 buildings in town are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The Strand, once known as the Wall Street of the Southwest, has dozens of Victorian Office Buildings with antique stores, art galleries and gift shops.  It’s a fun place to roam around and the cruise ship terminal is only a block away.  Several ships now call Galveston home which has definitely stimulated the economy.
There are so many things to do on the island.  There are several Victorian homes and churches you can tour.  Climb aboard the tall sailing ship The Elissa, check out the Railroad Museum,or take in the movie, The Great Storm, at the Seaport Museum.  The downtown area (which many people don’t realize is there because they only go to the beaches and seawall area) is known as the Strand.  It was once called “the Wall Street of the South” and has many wonderful Victorian buildings that have been converted into shops and restaurants and is a fun place to explore.  This area is the heart of Mardi Gras in the spring as well as the Christmas festival, “Dickens on the Strand.”
Naturally the biggest attraction is the sandy beaches but besides that you can gorge yourself on freshly caught seafood, especially shrimp, at a number of restaurants all over the island.
Tragedy struck once again September 13, 2008, as Hurricane Ike made landfall on the east end of Galveston Island, leaving behind the damage of 100 mph winds and a storm surge estimated between 17 and 20 feet. Today the Island continues its journey of recovery and rediscovery since the hurricane. 
I am not sure what it is about this island but it constantly calls to me.  I try and visit at least once a year.  I used to live there awhile back and maybe I will be able to again sometime. Hopefully the sea breeze will call you to this wonderful romantic Victorian Island.

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Have you ever heard of the New River Train?  This special train only runs 4 days–Sat & Sun of 2 fall weekends in October.  This is a great trip either to take as an escorted tour or on your own.

You board the train in Huntington, WV.  You may remember Huntington from the tragic plane crash that killed most of their football team on November 14, 1970.  It was the only chartered flight that year since most of the schools they played were in easy driving distance.  Seventy-five people died in the crash.  Many boosters and prominent citizens were on that plane as well as thirty-seven team members & eight coaches.  Seventy children lost one parent in that crash and eighteen were left orphaned.  Today as you drive through the campus, there is such a peaceful look, you would never know the tragedy that struck the town .  Perhaps you even saw the movie with Matthew McConaughey that came out in 2006 called “We Are Marshall.”
Huntington is a pretty little town, near the Ohio and Kentucky borders on the Ohio River with a population just under 50,000.  Eleven miles of floodwalls protect the city.  The town was founded in 1871 by the president of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railiroad and is a busy industrial area with the railroad contributing greatly to its growth.
Since 1968, the New River Train has been taking travelers on an annual fall excursion through the scenic New River Gorge in West Virginia to view the beautiful autumn foliage. The round-trip train runs from Huntington, WV to Hinton, WV and back with a 65 mile long stretch through the New River Gorge.  The New River Gorge folows the Kanawha River and is one of our newest National Parks, often referred to as “The Grand Canyon of the East.”  Much of this stretch of the New River Gorge is inaccessible by car, making the trip an excellent opportunity to view ghost towns and old coal mining sites tucked deep into the Gorge. Guides onboard each car point out the various sites still visible along the route of the railroad.  If you are on an escorted tour, we only take the train one way to Hinton and the motorcoach catches up with us there.  But whether you go one way or roundtrip there is a stop in Hinton (3 hours if you are going back on the train) where Railroad Day festivities include food, arts and crafts, and entertainment.  The festival is small–only 2 blocks long– but lots of food booths pack both sides of the street.  The train borrows old railroad cars from many midwest train towns, so you are riding in vintage cars on this journey and it’s a leisurely way to see some beautiful sites in the Mountain State.
Next up on tour is the town of Beckley, W.V.; a town of less than 20,000 in the heart of West Virginia’s coal mining region.  You can tour a coal mine which is really quite fascinating.  But a must stop is definitely Tamarack.     You can see artisans at work making quilts, pottery, glass and woodworks and crafts native to West Virginia.  I like to stop here for a dinner stop, too.  The restaurant is set up cafeteria style and is very reasonable.  They train the chefs here for one of my favorite places, The Greenbriar and so the food is always exceptional.
The Greenbriar Resort,  A National Historic landmark in White Sulphur Springs, is a definite favorite of mine.  I think I like it better than the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.  Dorothy Draper decorated the place in the 1920s and you find room after room to marvel at as you walk throught the place.  Even the public bathrooms are awesome!  For most of its history, the hotel was owned by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway and the Duke of Windsor with Wallis Simpson, members of the Kennedy family, Bing Crosby, several presidents and vice presidents and foreign dignitaries such as Nehru, Gandhi, & Prince Rainier & Princess Grace of Monaco have all stayed there.  There are wonderful restaurants and a championship golf club, Sam Snead was connected to.  But, one of the most fun things about the resort is the Bunker.  The Bunker was built under one of the hotel’s wings in secret.  It was built during the Cold War & was designed to house members of Congress in case of nuclear attack.  It was never used, although it was stocked with supplies for thirty years.  In the 1990’s a reporter from the Washington Post broke the story, thus compromising the place.  Today you can do the Bunker Tour, which is fascinating.  It makes me wonder where the new Top Secret place for Congress is now located after touring here.

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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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It’s almost Cherry Blossom time, although with all this warm weather, it is sure to be early this year.  I thought a look at Washington, DC might be in order.

Some people go on vacation to relax and others want to see as much as possible that an area has to offer.  No vacation destination would be complete without discussing Washington DC, the seat of our government and historic heritage.
Depending on how long you visit, prepare not to sleep much.  There is so much to see and do in the city and almost everything is free.  If you are not on a tour bus then take the hop on & off trolley.  It is too far to walk to the different sites and parking and driving in the city can be a nightmare.  You can hop on & off the trolley all day or evening or get a 2 or 3 day pass.  The trolley even takes you over to Arlington National Cemetary.  And, you can drive to Mount Vernon to see “George and Martha’s” place or take a boat that you can catch right downtown on the Potomoc.
First up the Monuments…Air Force & Iwo Jima are in Arlington, VA, as well as the Arlington National Cemetery.  Arlington is just a ride across the bridge from DC.  I wouldn’t bother with a car in DC.  Parking is hard to find and streets are a little complicated since all the roads go around the Capitol like spokes in a wheel.  There is a great subway system, very easy to use, that can take you everywhere you need to go.
On the DC side you want to visit WWII, FDR, Lincoln, Korean, Viet Nam, Jefferson & the new Martin Luther King.  Each one is awesome in its own right and you have to walk in to see them for the most part–you can not see them from the streets.  If you start at WWII, you can proceed to MLK and FDR (one of my favorites with four different sections for each term of his presidency).  Jefferson is right after you come over the bridge from Arlington.
Then it’s on to Lincoln where 3 are grouped together.  First check out the Korean ( & definitely put this on your evening list because it’s awesome and different looking both night and day), then Lincoln and finally Viet Nam.  If you are on the trolley, you can drop off at Lincoln and then pick it up over on the Viet Nam side when you finish that monument or viceaversa.
What is the National Mall?  It has nothing to do with shopping.  It is a 2 mile grassy piece of land.  If you start at the US Capitol ( & don’t forget the new VC –visitor center-which includes a tour of the Capitol)) and continue to the Washington Monument (Note: the Monument has been closed temporarily due to the 2011 earthquake) there is a big grassy park with buildings on both sides of the grass.
These buildings are part of the Smithsonian.  You definitely want to go in the Native American building and next door is Air & Space Museum.  On the other side of the grassy park is the National Art Gallery (the National Portrait Gallery is a few blocks away but definitely worth the trip), Natural History (including the gem collection) and finally American History.  There is so much to see in the American History building but two highlights are the Betsy Ross flag and the First Ladies’ gowns.  On the opposite side of the Natural History (on Constitution Street) is the National Archives.  There you will find the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta–this building figured prominently in the movie “National Treasure” with Nicholas Cage.
Continuing on the Mall, after the American History building, you will cross the street and be at the Washington Monument.   The Monument sits on a hill and behind it is the reflecting pool which continues to the Lincoln Memorial.  So the 2 mile National Mall begins and ends between the US Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial with the Washington Monument in the middle.
If you are not totally worn out and still have time left, there are still sites to see.  The Kennedy Art Center is beautiful and Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot has recently been renovated.  A drive through Embassy Row over to Georgetown is also nice.  Close to Embassy Row is the National Cathedral (which also was recently renovated) and the Catholic Basilica dedicated to the Blessed Virgin is excellent, no matter what your religion.  The Basilica is a work of art with separate chapels dedicated to the Blessed Virgin in many different forms from around the world and each one is done in mosaic tile that is incredible.  There is an upper and lower church and Bob Hope sponsored one of the chapels in the lower part of the church.
Whew…did you get all that?  After your trip to DC you will need a vacation from your vacation!

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