Monday, January 31, 2011

Two days to wheels up....

It's now confirmed, we are flying out on Thursday 3rd Feb on QF11 at 15:10. It is one of the new A380 double deckers, so 1st time for us on one of these big birds.

This was the temp gauge in my car on the way home from work today...

44c was just insanely hot. Max temp in Big White today was -15c. I think we may feel it a wee bit when we arrive at Big White on the

That's all for now, the previews are done, the bags are almost packed and the next post will be from Los Angeles.


Sunday, January 30, 2011

Chicago to Reno on the California Zephyr....

The final leg of the train portion of our adventure may well turn out to be one of the best, Chicago to Reno aboard the California Zephyr.

In the course of my research into all things Amtrak, I came across many articles which rated some of the scenery on this route amongst some of the finest rail scenery in the world, particularly the section from Denver, as the train makes it's climb up and thru the mighty Rockies.

This is another Superliner sleeper and we have roomette 6...

Leaving Chicago at 14:00 on Sunday 27th Feb, we make our way across the state of Illinois before entering Iowa at sunset. Sometime before midnight we cross into Nebraska where we travel thru the night before crossing the border into Colorado a few hours before sunrise. The train arrives at Denver at 07:15 for a 50 minute stopover. At 08:05 the train pulls out of Denver Station for the long slow climb up the Rockies.

I have my plan of attack all mapped out for the day. I intend getting up early and attending the dining car for the first breakfast sitting, before we pull into Denver. From the dining car, straight to the Sightseer Car and put my ample backside on a prime positioned viewing seat. And there I will stay as we head thru the Rockies, passing ski resorts as we go.

We leave Colorado and enter Utah late in the afternoon. After dinner I will keep myself amused until we pull into Salt Lake City at 23:05. I don't really know why, but for some reason I just want to be awake when we get to SLC. We leave SLC at 23:30 and head out of Utah and into Nevada, arriving at our destination in Reno at 08:36 on Tuesday 1st March.

Time: 44hrs 36min
States: 6
Kilometres: 3523

Total time: 163hrs 55mins
Total states: 31
Total Kilometres: 12845

Clive and Lorraine fly into Reno from LAX at 09:30 where we hope to meet up if all connections work out, before hopping a shuttle for the 90min trip to Harvey's Casino on the shores of South Lake Tahoe. We will then spend the next 7 days skiing Heavenly Ski Resort, with a day trip planned for Squaw Valley on the Friday.

That's all for now, I hope I haven't bored you too much, but it has been a way to help me countdown the days until we leave. At this stage we are probably leaving on Thursday 3rd Feb, but that is about the only thing I can't plan ahead for.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Boston to New Orleans to Chicago - Crescent and CONO...

After our two nights in Boston, we travel to New Orleans via New York. We catch a regional service from Boston to New York Penn Station, departing Boston at 08:15 and arriving New York at 12:16. After a late arrival into Boston on Sunday night and this early start on Tuesday, we really only have Monday to see Boston and it's also a Public Holiday. I've already emailed Fenway Park and the tour to see the 'Green Monster' should be on that day, so looking forward to doing that.

This train is the only train we take where we are not seated in our own sleeper/roomette as it is just a normal regional commuter train. There is however Business Class upgrades available and a 'Quiet Car' where mobile phones must be turned off and noise kept to a minimum. We will resist the temptation to upgrade. I refuse to fly cattle class, but a short hop on the train should be

We travel through 4 states on this leg. Leaving from Massachusetts, we enter Rhode Island before going thru Connecticut and finally New York State.

Time: 4hrs 1min
States: 4
Kilometres: 372

Total time: 69hrs 41mins
Total states: 15
Total Kilometres: 5625

After a 2hr train change at New York we board the Crescent, a Viewliner train where we have a sleeper/roomette for the 30hr trek to New Orleans. On this leg we have roomette #1...

Within the first 20 mins we leave New York State and enter New Jersey and little more than an hour later we enter Pennsylvania and the major city of Philadelphia. From Philly we head towards Washington DC but before reaching Washington just after sunset, we travel thru Wilmington, Delaware and Baltimore, Maryland.

By the time we reach Washington a little over 4 hours after leaving New York, we will have been in 6 different states!!!!

From Washington we continue our journey into the night heading toward the deep south. Overnight we travel thru the states of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina before entering Georgia just before sunrise, arriving in Atlanta at 08:13, right on breakfast time.

After a 20 minute stop in Atlanta, we head southwest towards New Orleans. During the day we travel thru the states of Alabama and Mississippi before crossing the border into the state of Louisiana, arriving in New Orleans at 19:38 on the evening of the 23rd February.

Time: 30hrs 23min
States: 12
Kilometres: 2203

Total time: 100hrs 4mins
Total states: 26
Total Kilometres: 7828

At New Orleans we will spend another 2 nights, staying at the Sheraton New Orleans, perfectly situated on Canal Street on the edge of Downtown and the French Quarter. A short stroll up 2 blocks brings us to the vibrant Bourbon Street.

At 13:45 on the 25th, we board the City of New Orleans for our overnight trip to Chicago. The 'CONO' as it is affectionately known is a Superliner train and we have roomette #3...

The route is pretty easy to follow, due north, all the way.

We leave Louisiana and enter Mississippi, where we travel thru the afternoon and into the night. We enter Tennessee and arrive at Memphis at 22:00. We stop at the home of Elvis for 40mins, probably not enough time to do a tour

Leaving Tennessee we travel thru Kentucky before entering southern Illinois in the early hours of the morning. We travel the length of Illinois before arriving in Chicago after breakfast at 09:00 on the 26th.

Time: 19hrs 15min
States: 5
Kilometres: 1494

Total time: 119hrs 19mins
Total states: 28
Total Kilometres: 9322

We have almost a full day in Chicago this day, staying just one night at W Chicago City Center. We will attempt to checkin early before heading out for a city tour, but if not we will leave our bags and come back later.

That's all for now, I'll post about the final leg (Chicago-Reno) which is a leg I'm very much looking forward to. Many rate the trip thru the Rockies from Denver to Salt Lake City as one of the great train journeys of the world....

Friday, January 14, 2011

Southwest Chief - Lake Shore Limited

Over the next week or two before we leave, I'll briefly summarise and link the train legs of the trip.

When we leave Big White on Feb 16th, Diane, Casey and I will say our goodbyes to the rest of the group at Kelowna International as we fly to LAX via Vancouver and they fly to Vegas via Edmonton. For the Franks and Kaye-Smith's it will be 'See you back in Sydney', for Clive and Lorraine it will be 'See you in Reno on the 1st!!'

We arrive at LAX around 19:00 and check into our hotel adjacent to the airport Sheraton Gateway LAX. After dinner, Casey will probably freshen up and we will head to the airport for Casey's flight back to Sydney which will depart around 23:00.

Next morning we will catch the Flyaway Bus from LAX to Union Street Station in downtown LA. This is a very convenient and cheap option to get from LAX to the train station. We'll check our baggage and have a look around LA to kill a few hours before the start of the 12 days on the rails.

Just as a guide, here is a map of the USA and it's states...

The first train leg is the longest, 43hrs on the Southwest Chief which runs between Los Angeles and Chicago. This link is a great reference to all the trains, the routes and points of interest along the way. The Southwest Chief is a Superliner and we have roomette 4...

We depart at 18:15 and head east for the long trip. It will be dark when we leave, so I guess we will grab dinner and bunk down for the night and try and get used to our, well let's call them 'smallish', accommodations. It will be a far cry from the king bed in Big

The route travels through California and crosses the border into Arizona about 01:00. The first scheduled short stop is at Flagstaff just after 05:30. Flagstaff is a major hub for tourists to access the Grand Canyon. It's also the change point for passengers to transfer to Phoenix.

From Arizona, we cross the New Mexico border around 08:00, arriving in Albuquerque at midday where we stop for 30 minutes.

Leaving Arizona around sunset, we enter the south eastern corner of Colorado for the start of our second night on the train. A short stop at La Junta at 19:30 and we are back underway for our journey into the night. We leave Colorado and enter the state of Kansas at around 22:00.

At 07:30 we cross the border and arrive at Kansas City, Missouri. We then travel across Missouri, briefly pass thru the south eastern corner of Iowa before crossing into Illinois at midday.

At 15:15 on the 19th we arrive in Chicago, Illinois.

Time: 43hrs
States: 8
Kilometres: 3624

We have a 6 hour stopover in Chicago which will give us ample time to look around. Our bags will be checked thru to Boston, so need to worry about them. I have already had some tips on pizza places to eat at from a guy on ChipMeUp, a poker staking site and forum I moderate at. Apparently Chicago is famous for 'Deep Dish Pizzas'. I'll no doubt give them a

The next leg is on the Lake Shore Limited, a 22hr 40min trip from Chicago to Boston.

The train leaves Chicago at 21:30. Because it is after dinner time, the sleeping class passengers have a wine and cheese tasting on board before the train pulls out. Hopefully that should prove a nice nightcap and we can settle into our beds and get a good nights sleep. This section is on a Viewliner sleeper and we have roomette 6...

Just after we depart from Chicago, we follow Lake Michigan around and cross the state border into Indiana within the first hour of our journey. At midnight we are due thru South Bend, home of Notre Dame University which holds special significance to my fellow Swans fans with 'Cheer, Cheer the Red and the White' being sung to the famous Notre Dame Victory March.

About 01:30 we leave Indiana and enter the state of Ohio. Not long before breakfast at 05:30 we arrive in Cleveland on the southern shores of Lake Erie. Leaving Cleveland we follow the shores of Lake Erie heading north-east towards New York State.

We leave Ohio and briefly cross the far north west corner of the state of Pennsylvania before heading into New York State and stopping briefly at Buffalo at 09:00. Diane and I have vivid memories of Buffalo en route to Niagara Falls in 2008. Walking out of the terminal in Buffalo to grab a taxi to take us the 50 miles to Niagara, we were hit by the absolute coldest wind and weather I have ever experienced. That 'coldest ever' tag was beaten 12hrs later at Niagara whilst walking to the casino, but I've already told that story in the 2008

We leave the lake and head east towards Albany in the middle of New York State. Albany is a major train hub, where travellers to New York City change trains to head south east. Leaving Albany at 15:30 we soon cross the state border into Massachusetts and head east towards Boston.

We finally arrive in Boston at 21:10 and head to our hotel for the joy of a king

Time: 22hrs 40mins
States: 6
Kilometres: 1629

Total time: 65hrs 40mins
Total states: 13
Total Kilometres: 5253

We arrive in Boston on the evening of the 20th Feb, which is on the Sunday of the long weekend for Presidents Day on Monday 21st. I was a bit worried about getting my usual great accommodation deal on Priceline, but as usual, by playing the system and using my rebid zones to advantage, we secured 2 nights at the Boston Park Plaza for $99 a night + tax.

Next I'll detail the leg from Boston to New Orleans via New York and the leg from New Orleans to Chicago.

Until then....

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Big White Luxury - Raven Penthouse....

Just to try and keep things in some sort of chronological order, this is the place we will call home for 10 nights at the start of our trip at Big White Ski Resort.

The luxurious Raven Penthouse

It certainly is one of the best properties on the mountain, halfway down the hill between the Village and the Happy Valley area.

Village Map

I doubt very much we will be making the slog up the hill to get to the village very often, but a shuttle stops at the front door every 15 minutes and it is a leisurely few minutes walk DOWN the hill to the Gondola which will take you right into the middle of the village action.

This is the short gondola ride which will be our main form of transport to and from the village...

The following pics of the Raven penthouse are courtesy of the website (linked above)

Living areas...

Clive and Bob's apres ski tank...

The girl's playground...

There are 4 main bedrooms in the downstairs area for the adults...

Two bunkrooms in the upstairs loft area for the kids...

...and the kid's retreat upstairs with pool table, Wii and Playstation3.

You can click on all the above pictures to open them in a new window.

At capacity, the penthouse sleeps 18, so the 12 of us should be comfortable enough. The complex also has a gym and salt water indoor heated swimming pool for the sole use of guests. All you need to know can be found on the link to 'Raven Penthouse' at the top.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Why the train - AMTRAK....?

For Diane and I, this will be our 4th trip to the USA together, although Diane has done a quite a few other trips to the USA, Vegas with her sister Lorraine and niece Karmen, as well as a trip to Kansas City, Missouri in the mid 80's with her late father Alan, to attend the Jim Beam Bourbon Convention.

In August 2002, along with an about to turn 10yo Casey, we spent 2 days in Los Angeles before flying to Miami for a 4-day Caribbean cruise. This was followed by 12 nights in Disneyworld Orlando, Florida, back up to New York for 5 days and back home. With the AU$ at 48c, it almost sent us bankrupt!!

In May 2004 Diane and I travelled to Vegas for 4 days, before flying to Seattle to board a 7 day Alaskan cruise.

In February 2008, Diane and I travelled to New York again for 4 days (not enough time for that wonderful city) and 2 days at Niagara Falls, before meeting up with Clive and Lorraine at LAX, flying on for a few days in Vegas, a few days in San Francisco then on to Big White for 10 glorious nights (which prompted this return trip). We then flew to Vancouver before driving to Whistler for another week on snow. Finally a few days retail therapy for the girls in LA and we were on our way back home. For those who haven't seen the blog for that trip, you can catch it here USA and Canada 2008

So as you can see, we have seen a fair bit of the USA and a little bit of Canada....but have we????

We've certainly been to a few places, but have we actually seen a lot? How much can you see from 30,000 feet??

This was a question we asked ourselves when we were planning on what to do for the 12 days between our ski trip to Big White and a quiet week on snow again with Clive and Lorraine after the kids wave goodbye and head back to Oz. At one stage we contemplated flying across to London and driving around the UK. It just became too cost prohibitive and we decided to leave it for our next big trip. Diane is keen to visit Europe again after travelling for 3 months thru Europe with Karmen in the mid 90's gave her the taste. Even though Diane doesn't have nearly the same passion for skiing as I have, she has let me organise nearly all our holidays over the past 5 or 6 years around the snow. The next choice will be hers. That said, it is peak tourist season in May thru September in Europe, so if we structure our European vacation earlier to save some pennies, I may sneak a late season European slide towards the end of March. Shhhh, please keep that one

We also thought about hiring a car in LA and heading off along the highway and see where it takes us. At least that way we get to see a bit of the countryside, something we haven't seen on any of our previous trips. As I said, you don't see a hell of a lot from 30,000 feet.

That's what got me thinking about the train. I love driving and enjoyed the novelty of driving on the other side of the road on previous trips, but in truth as the driver you still don't see much except the car or open highway in front of you.

I researched the net, as I do, coming up with a plan and than working out how best to put it into place. Found some great info on Amtrak (USA long distance rail network) at various forums and websites. Asked a few questions and we decided that we will go with it.

Research led me to the 'USA Railpass' which gives us 8 sectors of travel in 15 days for US$389, about $48 per sector if you use them all. A sector is more or less when you have to get off the train and change trains. For example, our trip from LAX to Chicago is about 4000kms and 45 hrs, but just 1 sector because we travel the entire journey on the 'Southwest Chief'. Our trip from Boston to New Orleans involves a change of trains in New York which is a short 4 hrs from Boston, but that makes it a 2 sector trip. Get it?

The 'USA Railpass' is good for a coach seat. If you are happy to sit for 3 days in a reclining seat, that is all u need, but if you want a sleeper, you purchase the sleeper separately.

The whole booking system was surprisingly efficient and painless. I paid for 2 x Railpasses online and received a confirmation number. I then emailed Amtrak with our confirmation numbers and our itinerary, asking for upgrades to sleepers on all the overnight sectors. Within 3 hours, they emailed me back with booking numbers, our actual sleeper room numbers and all the info we need to pickup our tickets on the day we leave Los Angeles for Boston on the 17th February.

The cost of the sleepers for the 7 nights we are on the tracks (we spend the other 5 nights in hotels) was US$1104. This is for 1 roomette sleeper, which is for 2 people, so it is just the one payment for 2.

The real beauty of the sleepers is it includes ALL meals whilst on board. Over the course of our trip, we will be on the train for a total of 20 meal times, be that breakfast, lunch or dinner. The menu looks surprisingly good and by reading the comments in the forums, whose members are traditionally hard to please, it is generally conceded that the food is of a pretty good standard, well beyond airline food for instance. Here is a link to the menus Amtrak Menus At $20 a meal, that is 40 meals between the two of us = $800. Also supplied is complimentary bottled water, tea/coffee in the sleeping car 24/7 and each sleeping car has a dedicated attendant to make up your room whenever you decide you want it converted from day to night mode. On top of all that, at major stations they have special first class/sleeper lounges that let you arrive early and enjoy free snacks and beverages in comfort before boarding the train. Fortunately, all the station we depart from are considered major stations and have a lounge attached. Who needs Qantas Club???

This link Virtual Tour gives a look at the double deck Superliner train that Amtrak use on all their long distance trains except for those down the East Coast which use single deck Viewliners. This is due to many low tunnels built in New York and on the run down to Washington DC.

Over the next week or two, I will explain each sector and link to the various web pages which give some great information on all aspects of the trip.

All for now and if you are still reading,