After a long flight from New Zealand (with Qantas via Sydney), we arrived in San Francisco. It was the first time for me there. In fact, all our stops across the US apart from New York were new for me. We had read about crossing the US for USD213 about travelling relatively cost-effectively across the US by train and decided to give it a go. We booked three basic sleeper rooms for the five of us online, with three nights overall on trains, including three meals a day and drinks with meals (setting each of us back about USD930 each).
Before I tell you more about our Amtrak experience though, let’s go back to San Francisco, where we spent four nights before we started our train journey. We stayed in short-term rental accommodation in the Richmond District just south of the Presidio, a huge park-like area adjacent to the Golden Gate Bridge. As we arrived in the morning, we dropped off our bags, had a shower and headed straight out again, hunting for a good breakfast and coffee. It didn’t take us long… there was a great little café around the corner.
While our short-term rental accommodation had good public transport connection, it took a while to get from A to B as the city is quite wide-spread. After breakfast, Paul and I headed to the Golden Gate Bridge – we even walked to the mid-point despite the wind and my fear of heights. We then jumped back on the bus to head to Fort Mason, spending the rest of the afternoon walking along the waterfront via Fisherman’s Wharf to the Embarcadero. By the end of the day, we were tired and struggled on the bus back to keep our eyes open, but we managed to stay awake until late to get over our jet lag as quickly as possible.
To see and learn a bit more about the city, we booked a 48-hour hop-on/off tour with City Sightseeing. While the first day was fine, we waited for >2 hours on the second day to get across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, together with another 15 or so angry customers. Needless to say, we won’t ever use that company again, ANYWHERE. Sausalito though was nice. Paul and I stopped at Cibo for brunch and walked along the waterfront, discovering some amazing houseboat communities.
On our last full day, we had organised a trip to Alcatraz. The day was gorgeous, warm and sunny. Alcatraz was super interesting (we spent a good four hours there). Paul had been twice before, but even he learnt something new. Back in San Francisco, we checked out Lombard Street, rode a cable car and headed up Coit Tower for a beautiful view across the city and bay. We ended our stay watching the sunset over the Pacific while enjoying dinner at a nearby restaurant. On the way back to our short-term rental accommodation, we even encountered a wild racoon.
San Francisco to Denver
Early the next morning, we took an Uber ride across to Oakland to catch the California Zephyr. Our sleeping-car attendant Rita welcomed us with sweets (as it was the lead-up to Halloween). The ‘superliner roomette’ compartment was tiny: two seats facing each other with a window on one side and a sliding door on the other. At night, a top bunk bed folds down and the 2 seats together form the bottom bunk. Sheets, pillows and towels are provided. Toilets were shared among all sleeping car passengers, and there was one shower, also shared. Meals are served in the dining car, and there is an observation car with windows all around for 270-degree views. There was no Wi-Fi on the train, so we spent our days watching ever-changing landscapes go by, reading, talking, eating and sleeping… Every now and then, we were able to get off the train for 10 minutes or so to get some fresh air.
Denver to Chicago
Back on the train 48 hours after we arrived, our car attendant was a guy this time. I don’t even remember his name but I do remember that he didn’t provide any service at all, but let us know when he went on breaks and reminded us frequently that it was custom to give tips. Our customer service experiences in the US (vs other countries) will likely feature in another blog one day.
Anyhow, our compartment was pretty much the same we had before, the food was the same, just the landscape was different the next morning: the rolling fields and forests of Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois – as far as the eye can see. We also encountered our first group of Amish people who took the same journey… we met lots more on later train and bus rides across the US.
We arrived in Chicago mid-afternoon. As we only stayed one night, we had booked a hotel near the waterfront with easy connections to Union Station. Paul and I went for a walk to Navy Pier before sunset. It was cold and windy but despite the weather, we encountered lots of people in their (sometimes flimsy) Halloween costumes, out and about to have a good time. The next day, the weather was again on our side with temperatures in the mid-twenties and sunshine. After breakfast at LYFE Kitchen, Paul and I did a boat tour with Wendella Boats, which we really enjoyed. After the tour, we had lunch at Roti, another healthy eating place. Then we walked through Millennium Park, past the Cloud Gate and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion to the waterfront and chilled on a bench overlooking Lake Michigan where Ben, Miky and Matt joined us.
Chicago to New York
Later that night, we caught the Lakeshore Limited to New York. This time the toilets were not shared (only the one shower), instead there was a toilet and washbasin in each viewliner roomette compartment next to one of the seats, which made that seat quite a bit smaller. It was weird having to sleep next to a toilet (albeit our feet faced that side) and using it at night while the other was sleeping. Needless to say, during the day, we would vacate the room (when needed) to give each other some privacy.
After sunrise, we got a glimpse of Lake Erie before arriving in Buffalo. We would be very close again only a few weeks later when visiting Niagara Falls from Toronto. After Buffalo, the train turns southwards and eventually, we travelled along the Hudson River with beautiful little towns along its banks.
Just after sunset, we arrived at New York’s Penn Station where we were greeted by my brother, Tobi. From the station, it was only a few blocks walk to our pre-marathon hotel, Residence Inn by Marriott, close to Times Square and Bryant Park.
Paul, Tobi and I had dinner at a Cuban Restaurant that night and then went to Bryant Park which had a Christmas Market and ice rink. It felt a bit odd as it was actually quite balmy, considering it was early November. The next day, Paul, Ben, Miky, Matt and I went to the TCS NYC Marathon Expo at the Javits Center to pick up our race numbers (Paul/Ben for the Marathon, Miky/Matt/I for the 5km Dash to the Finish line) and check out the stalls. Paul bought a massage ball and KT tape, and I bought a GoPro battery. Had we not been minimalists or travelling with carry-on only we could have left a lot of money there.
Highline and checking out the venues
After the Expo, we wandered along the Highline, elevated rail tracks that had been converted into a park, all the way to Chelsea Market, a great market hall with lots of food and other stores, where we had lunch (German Curry Wurst for Paul and me). Later that afternoon, we checked out the finish line area in Central Park and attended the 2016 NYC Marathon Hall of Fame induction ceremony, with Paul’s friend and fellow Kiwi athlete Rod Dixon (who won the marathon in 1983) among the inductees. Matt, Paul and I had dinner that night at Kobeyaki around the corner from the hotel.
The next morning was an early one for all of us, with the 5km Dash to the Finish line starting around the corner from the UN Headquarters at 0830hours. While sunny it was freezing cold… Miky ran the race in under 25min, Matt and I walked it in under 55min. I had challenged Matt to aim for a finish in under an hour but he wasn’t sure how he would feel. While he had some niggles along the way, he sped up as we walked through Central Park, realising that we could make it within the hour after all. Later that afternoon, we were back in Central Park, attending the Marathon Eve Dinner (some call it pasta party).
Fun run for the supporters
Another early one was the morning of the marathon itself. Ben, Tobi and Paul got up at 0430h to make their way to the start line at Staten Island (Paul will write about the marathon experience in a separate blog). Miky, Matt and I took the subway to Brooklyn, near Prospect Ave to cheer them on as they hit the 10km mark. After Paul and Ben ran past, I stayed for Tobi (who had a later start time) while Miky and Matt headed back to Manhattan. Our other cheer points were 1st Ave/E 110th St (me), E 125th St (Miky/Matt), 5th Ave/E 110th St (me) and W 59th St/close to the finish line (Miky/Matt). Paul/Ben finished the marathon in 3h:55min and Tobi in 4h:31min. It took about 45 minutes until Paul and Ben in their blue ponchos arrived in the family reunion area, so I just walked them as close to the Columbus Circle subway station as possible and then turned around to wait for Tobi. We all had dinner that night at Mexicue around the corner from our hotel.
We had to leave the hotel the next morning, with each party staying another one to three-night at short-term rental accommodation across town (Ben/Miky and Tobi in Brooklyn, Matt in Manhattan and Paul/I in Queens). Before we went our separate ways though we all took the ferry to/from Staten Island (the kids wanted to see the Statue of Liberty without attending a tour). For the rest of our stay in New York, Paul and I explored Queens, heading out to Flushing Meadows for a beautiful autumn afternoon stroll, and caught up with Vinnie, one of my former work colleagues who had recently moved to the Big Apple. And before taking the Greyhound up to Canada, we had a final, farewell dinner with the kids.