The Joys of Winter Train Travel

Smoke stop in Hornepayne. The dome obs car Tremblant Park came back from a makeover about a month or so, and is particularly shiny and clean. Second time going across Canada in this particular park car.

The VIARail Canadian makes a short smoke stop in Hornepayne. The rearmost car on the train is a historic observation lounge dome car, which is for exclusive use of the bedroom passengers.

November is right around the corner, and it’s time to start thinking about a winter getaway. Like most college teachers I know, I get a few weeks break at the end of the year, and it turns out that this is a really good time to take a trip.

Winter travel has some important disadvantages that need to be pointed out first. Snowstorms can close airports, and trains and planes can get canceled due to bad weather. Your suitcase will contain cold weather clothing and will be bigger and heavier than a summer weekend bag. The days will be short– if you head to places north of the United States (Northern Canada or UK, for instance), the sun won’t rise until after 8 am, and it will be dark by 5. The biggest negative is the weather– all my favorite destinations tend to be cold and rainy in the winter months. Even places like Southern California and New Orleans have winter rainy periods.

On the positive side– few people are vacationing. The lines at the attractions will be short, frequently the prices will be lower (sometimes a lot lower), and you’ll have no problems finding seats on trains and plane, and rooms in your favorite country inns.

Suggestions for train fans:

Ride the VIARail Canadian across Canada.

Deep in the Rockies on the Canadian.

Going through the Canadian Rocky Mountains as seen from the dome car. Typically, the wintertime Canadian train has three sleepers, two dome cars, two coaches, a dining car and a baggage car.

The Canadian is Indisputably the poshest regularly scheduled train ride in North America. It’s a three-day, four-night trip that runs between Toronto and Vancouver and offers passengers a choice of traveling by coach, or in open section, or bedroom accommodations. The 1950s-era train set is modern and comfortable inside, and has two dome cars. Sleeper tickets include all meals, and exclusive access to the Park Car at the tail end of the train.

Buying a ticket is easy — every Tuesday, VIA releases some tickets at 40% discount: 

Getting from New York City to Toronto is pretty easy either on Amtrak, or on a convenient flight from Newark Airport into Billy Bishop Airport on Porter Airlines (Billy Bishop is at the foot of Bathurst St, and there’s a free connecting bus to the train station).

Take the Amtrak Southwest Chief to sunny Arizona or New Mexico.

Going over Raton Pass.

Going over Raton Pass in winter–the view from the lounge car aboard Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

Unfortunately, Amtrak doesn’t do seasonal sales like VIARail, but connecting airlines (particularly Southwest Airlines) offer significant discounts should you opt to fly in one direction. Arizona and New Mexico have longer winter days what we experience in the more northern cities. It will be cold in the Southwest (30-40 degrees in the daytime), but it should be mostly sunny.

Visiting the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe or Taos is great in the winter. Hotels offer discounted off-season pricing and there are is no waiting in lines to see anything. Staying inside Grand Canyon National Park at one of the historic hotels is pricey with limited availability in the summer, but there’s a lot of discounting in the winter months:

El Tovar overview.

An official photo of El Tovar Hotel at the south rim of the Grand Canyon (photo provided by Xanterra–the operator of the historic Grand Canyon hotels).

Amtrak serves the Grand Canyon from it’s Williams Junction station. You can change there to the Grand Canyon Railway, or a hotel shuttle to complete your trip to the hotels at the South Rim of the canyon. (Important note– Amtrak doesn’t stop at the old downtown Williams station where the Grand Canyon Railway is based, you will need to ride the connecting bus between the Amtrak Williams Junction station to Williams–it’s a three mile ride, see the link above for more information.) The closest airport is Flagstaff, and there’s $25 shuttle that will take you there from the South Rim American Airlines serves Flagstaff with $129 one-way trips from Newark Airport. You may find better deals flying through Phoenix, which is more than three hours away, and you’re likely to need to rent a car to get there, so it will be hardly a deal when all expenses are considered. (The Grand Canyon is remote, and surprisingly, it’s easier to get there by train than plane.)

La Fonda Lobby.

View of the lobby at the historic La Fonda Hotel, in Santa Fe New Mexico.

In Santa Fe, the historic La Fonda hotel offers attractive discounted rates (sometimes as much as 50% off) in the winter months. Built in the early 1930s by the Santa Fe Railway, La Fonda was tastefully updated a few years ago, and retains much of the early “Indian Detours” ornamentation from it’s early days as a tourist hotel. Rooms on the second floor have working fireplaces, and the large Mary Louise Colter-designed lobby has several large hearths that call out to wintertime visitors. While in Santa Fe, you’ll probably want to rent a car for a day or two (there’s a car rental office next to the hotel) to visit Taos and the Pueblos which are north of town.

Santa Fe can be reached by Amtrak from either the Lamy station (Amtrak offers a shuttle bus for the 20 minute connecting trip), or by commuter train from the Albuquerque Amtrak Station. There is frequent bus service from the Albuquerque train station to the city airport, which is well-served by Southwest Airlines.

Take Amtrak’s California Zephyr to San Francisco.

The Oakland, CA Waterfront Hotel

Close to the Amtrak Oakland station, the Oakland BART station, and the Transbay ferry, the Waterfront Plaza Hotel makes for a convenient home base when visiting the San Francisco Bay Area.

January is San Francisco’s rainiest month, but it seldom gets below 50 degrees. San Francisco tends to be a good city for low-priced winter fares, and off-season hotel prices. One suggestion– stay in Oakland, and take the BART train or the ferry into town to do your sightseeing. Amtrak’s station for the city is at Jack London Square in Oakland–there’s a few excellent hotels close to the station, and frequent ferry service to downtown. The Waterfront Hotel is always a good bet, and they offer off-season deals.

Oakland’s airport is nearby, and is competitively served by Virgin America, Southwest and United–$150 one-way flights from Newark Airport on some days.



Staying over at Haunted Places— (or: If the place was really haunted, they probably wouldn’t tell you.)

Living room at the Haunted Chamber--the guest quarters at the House of Trembling Madness, in York (UK). Yes, the taxidermy is real.

Living room at the Haunted Chamber–the guest quarters at the House of Trembling Madness, in York (UK). Yes, the taxidermy is real.

A recent stay-over at a purportedly haunted house in York, UK was a disappointment—it was wonderful, cozy and very nice. The place was beautiful in the Morticia Addams-kind of way: taxidermed small animals were everywhere, the floors were creaky and pitched, the bed was huge, and the woodwork was obviously hundreds of years old. But no ghosts– just three wonderful, restful nights in a delightfully quiet spot in the center of bustling York during high tourist season. (York is to the UK what Colonial Williamsburg is to the USA—an intersection of overblown quaintness and precise historical reenactment, topped with a large dollop of swarmy high-kitsch tourism.)

The Haunted Chambers, at the House of the Trembling Madness-- York (UK).

The Haunted Chambers, at the House of the Trembling Madness– York (UK).

That’s okay. It’s better to be sold on ghosts and not run into them, than to actually stay at a place with a serious otherworldly presence. Likely if that AirBnB, or HomeAway rental property had real poltergeists dwelling within, the owners would flat out deny it, and they’d badger the guests to please remove any ghosty comments from their online reviews.

If you *must* stay over at a haunted place, you should check out 18XX Magazine St, in New Orleans. (Sorry about blocking part of the address out. This house is often on the real estate market, and they have enough trouble— but if you want to know where it is, I’ll send you the information by email.) This place was so haunted, that after spending over $100,000 on kitchen and bathroom renovations, the owners couldn’t stay there— instead they ran it as a vacation rental for a couple of years, where it regularly appeared in HomeAway and VRBO. Less than five years after purchasing it and doing some extravagant improvements, the place was put up for sale again. It listed for $800,000, but wound up selling for less than $600,000 several months later.

The Haunted Livingroom, where the curtains kept moving.

The Haunted Livingroom, where the curtains kept moving.

Our little family group (me, wife Meg, Mom and Dad and their little Schnauzer Annie, Mom’s sister Bee, my brother Rob and his girlfriend Carolyn, and Mom’s friends Cyrille, Allie and Annie) spent an unforgettable week there. Was it really haunted or not? You decide.

First off— we all got very sick, likely a Norovirus case that that my dad acquired prior to arrival. I spent two days flat out in bed in the middle of the trip, and Meg was feeling pretty ill on the last day when we got on the Amtrak train home. Being we were to sick to sight-see, it would have been nice to watch television there, but the TV set stop working about an hour after we arrived. Secondly— in a strange freak accident, my brother Rob’s girlfriend Carolyn appeared at the breakfast table one morning looking like a boxer after loosing a prizefight—her eyes and nose were swollen and bruised. She explained that, in the middle of the night she had fallen out of bed, but it looked more like she had been shot out of a cannon and landed face-first on the floor.

The bed that Carolyn was possibly, purportedly thrown from.

The bed that Carolyn was possibly, purportedly thrown from.

“Ghosts? Do you think that Carolyn tripped by herself? She was pushed!” my brother Rob recalled. Rob and Carolyn stayed in the master bedroom at the back of the house, and neither of them got much sleep over the days that they were there. “We had to go into the bathroom four times and turn off the faucet for the bathroom. It kept turning on on its own.” Carolyn also complained that she heard loud tapping many times while trying to sleep. If there was a ghost in the house, it was intent on making sure the two of them would do no sleeping.

My Mom’s friend Allie (a professional trainer of guide dogs for the disabled, a very sensitive person–and also a believer in ghosts) had a lot to say about the events of that week. “Even with the AC off, there were many breezes downstairs. The curtains in the downstairs rooms would start swinging on their own,” she recalled. “At one point I was I was in the living room talking with Cyrille, and this breeze blew between us. I said to Cyrille, ‘did you feel that?’” Cyrille agreed with her, but insisted that they not say anything as they didn’t want to upset my mom by telling ghost stories.

Allie said that she felt that were were actually several ghosts in the house (“at least five,” she recalled) with each one having their own room. The one upstairs in Rob and Carolyn’s room had a mischievous streak—she believed that Carolyn was tripped by the ghost while getting out of bed, but didn’t think it was done out of meanness. The downstairs area was haunted by two separate ghosts— the living room spirit that liked to cause breezes, move things around. (Allie recalled that pair of shoes Cyrille left on the floor moved to two different locations over a period of a few days). The living room ghost had the ability to prevent the television set from working.

The kitchen had a friendly ghost that according to Allie, was fond of us.

The kitchen had a friendly ghost that according to Allie, was fond of us.

“The ghost in the kitchen was friendly and sociable, for a couple of nights, she sat there and happily listened to our stories,” she observed. According to Allie, Annie the dog could see her, and would sit staring at her with her ears cocked up.

My wife Meg and I slept in the bedroom next to Rob and Carolyn in the middle of the second floor. Neither of us saw any direct evidence of ghostly activity, but strangely, after a day or so, Meg gave up using our bathroom. There was something with it that she found creepy–she felt strange being in there alone. The downstairs bathroom a much more peaceful place to take a shower. Meg also noticed that Annie the dog did not want to go upstairs at all. This was unusual–she slept with my parents in their bedroom at home; she spent her nights sleeping alone downstairs. For two days there, I ran a 102 fever, and slept a lot, but I had no problems sleeping in the old four-poster bed in the middle bedroom.

Mom and Dad's front room overlooked Magazine Street.

Mom and Dad’s front room overlooked Magazine Street.

My mom and dad didn’t report anything unusual either. Dad was sick too for a couple of days, and Mom spent her days at home with him—they spent a lot of time in the front bedroom which overlooked Magazine Street, and a well-kept row the Antebellum houses directly across the street from us.

Aunt Bee didn’t see anything either. Recalling the visit in an email, she wrote: “I honestly did not think for a moment that the house in New Orleans was haunted nor did I experience or observe anything that would lead me to that conclusion. I do remember a few mishaps which included Rob acquiring a tummy bug, and Carolyn falling out of bed, but I don’t feel or think the place was haunted.”

My Aunt Bee was haunted by the visit in a different way. Ghosts didn’t keep her up at night, but spending a few days in New Orleans did–the sense of the awful destruction visited on the residents on the night that Hurricane Katrina struck her hard. “I could imagine and picture the dreadful reality of that night when the storm hit. The French Quarter was fascinating and beautiful, it evoked all that my childhood day dreaming had longed to see in reality; the old Parisian style shops, the Afro-American jazz players, and the blended culture–all a showcase of the American dream. My sadness struck as I walked on and realized the very beautiful, and sometimes very young women in the doorways were prostitutes. Perhaps I could say in a figurative way that that sight did haunt me for a long time.”

A Sixpack of Irish Craft Beer

Ireland’s craft beer industry has been developing quickly (over eighty commercial beer-making sites in a country with a little more than 4 million people). The past three years have witnessed: significant development of the domestic malt industry, which now offers a variety of high-quality pale malts; improved supplies of hops; and improvements in both capacity and quality control at contract packaging facilities. Happily, much of the investment and ownership comes from local brewers–Ireland’s beer industry is small and locally-minded compared to other European countries, and expanding US craft brewers have found greener pastures in Germany and Scandinavia leaving this market to develop on it’s own.

The ties between Ireland’s craft brewers and Ireland’s slow food movement are very close. People are usually surprised to learn that the slow food movement started in Ireland (tip of the hat to Myrtle Allen’s Ballymaloe Inn in Cork, and Cork’s English Market, where chefs and provisioners have been analyzing and developing the local terrior, traditional crops, and historic production methods for the past fifty years). Ireland is in the midst of a revival of their seafood industry, so if you’re out for a pint at some craft beer pub and notice steamed mussels are on the snack menu—order yourself a dish to enjoy with your stout or hoppy ale. The local oysters are delightful, and very reasonably priced.

Very little Irish craft beer makes it to the USA, so you’ll have to go there if you want some.

N17 founder Sarah Roarty pours a pint at a craft beer exhibit in Dublin.

N17 founder Sarah Roarty pours a pint at a craft beer exhibit in Dublin.

N17 Brewery, (Tuam, Co. Galway–brewery). N17 takes it’s name from the road that connects Galway City to Sligo along Ireland’s west coast, which runs runs through Tuam. N17’s brewery is located in a historic building—currently, not open for visitors, but there are plans to build a tasting room in the near future. My pick from them—Oatmeal Stout; light and digestible, with a perfect balance between roastyness and sweetness.

Simon Lambert & Sons, Wexford

Simon Lambert & Sons, Wexford.

Yellowbelly Brewing, in the basement of Simon Lambert & Sons.

Yellowbelly Brewing, in the basement of Simon Lambert & Sons.

Simon Lambert & Sons, and Yellowbelly Ales (Wexford Town—brewpub) Simon Lambert opened his pub in the late 1960s—currently it’s run by the founder’s two sons who last year installed a brewpub system in the cellar. Head brewer Declan Nixon is one of the unofficial beer ambassadors of Ireland. He’s worked at several craft brew startups and has consulted on a few commercial projects before joining Simon Lambert. He also makes delightful aged beers. Wexford is on the sea in Ireland’s “Sunny Southeast”, and a gateway to Waterford and Cork, the birthplace of slow food, and the center of Ireland’s dairy and meat production industry. When you make it there—try one of their aged sour beers at the bar, go along a burger. You’re likely to find Yellowbelly beer on tap or in bottles at a craft beer bar in Dublin too.

8 Degrees Brewing (Mitchelstown, Cork—brewery). Founded by an ex-pat Australian and an ex-pat New Zealander, the brewery tends to work along the same pathway as Scotland’s Brewdog (clean-fermented ales with new world hops and old world malts). Amber Ella (American Red Ale with Irish base malt, Ella, Galaxy and Simcoe hops, 5.8% 54 IBUs) is one of their most successful offerings to date, and despite it’s name, is a portmanteau of the traditional Irish and American Red Ale styles.

McGargles (Celbridge, Kildare—brewery). As Irish craft brewers go, McGargles is one of the larger ones. Besides handling their own beer, they do contract work for other Irish brewers, and in addition, they distribute imported Innis & Gunn and San Miguel beers. Their house beers tend to be heavily influenced by USA West Coast products. A good intro beer from this brewery is Francis’ Big Banging’ IPA–US-style IPA with Columbus, Simcoe and Mosaic hops. Amazingly, they’re sometimes available in the Chicago area in Binny’s stores.

The Sunflower Pub, Belfast.

The Sunflower Pub, Belfast.

Boundary Brewing (Belfast, NI—brewery). Belfast is one of the brighter stars in Ireland’s food and beverage constellation—home to such institutions as the Crown Bar (a historic watering hole, owned by the national trust, and managed by Nicholson’s Pubs), The Sunflower Pub (great music venue and local hangout) and Mourne’s Seafood Bar, likely Ireland’s best seafood restaurant. Best city on the Emerald Isle for public transportation, too. Founded by US ex-pat Matthew Dick who learned to brew while working in West Coast breweries, Boundary Brewing’s co-operative ownership arrangement is unusual for a small brewery, and it provides the brewery with regular sales and an energetic marketing team. Boundary’s Export Stout and American-style IPA are both excellent examples of their styles.

The Beer Dock, one of Galway Bay Brewing's five Dublin-based tied houses.

The Brew Dock, one of Galway Bay Brewing’s five Dublin-based tied houses.

Galway Bay Brewing (Galway, City—brewery, small pub chain)— Based at the Oslo Pub in Galway City with the brewery nearby, Galway Bay is as famous for their beer as their small chain of 11 tied houses which feature extensive menus of craft beer offerings and contemporary gastropub food. My Galway Bay recommendation: 200 Fathoms Imperial Stout, especially if you can find a release that was aged in a whisky barrel. If you’re in Dublin’s Northside, be sure to have your pint at either of Galway Bay’s local pubs: The Black Sheep or the Brew Dock. Great places to go to sample the entire range of Irish craft beer.

Private car destination guide– Niagara Falls, NY

nflmvstationWhy Go: Niagara Falls’ main attraction is the falls, and there’s a really beautiful historic public park (NY’s oldest state park) that affords views of three of the falls, the cave of the winds, and Goat Island. Perfect for a stroll in early evening, when the falls’ lighting system comes on. Rent a car and visit the Canada for a day– There’s the wine education center, teaching brewery and student-run fine restaurant at Niagara College. Also on the Canada side: Niagara-on-the-Lake– a historic Edwardian village, that’s home to the Shaw Festival (professional theater on three stages, six nights a week, all summer). Area attractions in the immediate area include historic towns along the Niagara River, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House complex.

Private car parking in NFL: Private cars are parked at the end of one of the station tracks. Power, water, sewage service, ice and taxis are readily available. Passengers are welcome to stay aboard, and can park their rental cars next to the car. Station is not close to downtown, but less than an hour walk. No rental cars available at the station, but they’re nearby.

Niagara Falls highlights for private car folks: NFL’s station crew and train service team is famous among PV operators for their expertise, cooperation, and thoughtfulness. There are few places among the Amtrak system were private car people feel so welcome. There’s a Topps and Wegman’s supermarket a few miles away.

Other transportation: The best rental car provider tends to be the Enterprise agent on Niagara Falls Blvd, who will pick you up at the station, and permit you to drop of the car at their office when they are closed.

Anything else?: Passing between the U.S. and Canada can take an hour or more on busy holiday weekends due to heavy cross-border traffic. You will need your passport or a Nexus card to enter Canada, and speed limits are aggressively enforced on the Canadian side of the border. People who travel frequently between the U.S. and Canada can save time by applying for a Nexus card–which will let you use the automated express lanes at the international bridges. As an added bonus, Nexus is also accepted at US Custom’s Global Entry kiosks in many airports, and gives you membership in the TSA’s PreCheck program (expedited security check at many airports). More info:

The Traveler’s Rest– eight unusual pubs you can take the train to.

Nothing makes a train trip more enjoyable than a nice beer along the way–and here’s a personal list of all-time favorites:


Upright Brewing, Portland OR
240 N Broadway #2, Portland, OR 97227 (in the basement of the Left Bank Building)
Limited hours– various times Thursday to Sunday only
From the Portland Amtrak Station: walk north from the station over the Broadway Bridge–takes about 15 minutes.

It’s easy to find this brewery that specializes in making sour beers–just follow your nose, which will lead you into the ponderous dungeon of an otherwise nondescript office building. There is no food service here, so pick up some carry-out on your way over. The ambiance is cave-like, and the visitors drink slowly with quiet reverence.  They have a self-service turntable and boxes of LPs to choose on, and on certain days, local musicians perform.


The Map Room Bar, Chicago
1949 North Hoyne Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647
From the Chicago Amtrak Station: take the blue line to Western-O’Hare. Walk north on Western, and make a right on Armitage.

If you come by in the afternoon, the first thing you’ll notice is that very few of the patrons are women. This is one of the most intensely beer-geeky bars in US, and it can be eerily quiet, even when it’s full of people–that grinding noise you hear is 20 patrons chewing on pretzel sticks. The bottle list is a mile long. There’s limited food, but you’ll pass places as you walk.


Brewpub Bruhaha, Montreal
5860 De Lorimier, Montreal, PQ
From Gare Centrale: Ride the metro Rosemont, then take the 197 eastbound bus to De Lorimier

This is a neighborhood brewpub (though the brew system is off-premises), with more than a dozen carefully-chosen taps featuring other Montreal micro- and nano-brews. Montreal is a city of particularly soft water, which under skillful hands, turns into exquisite beer and bread–and this is a great spot to check out the small-time brewers and their ambitious batches. The place has some of the most astounding pub-grub you’ll find anywhere, including fried duck-legs and Alsatian pizza. Unless you speak Quebecois, you might want to pass on comedy night, but you haven’t really visited Canada until you’ve sat in a crowded bar watching the Habs on Hockey Night. English is the second language here, but they treat all beer lovers like family. More info here:


The Brewers Art, Baltimore
1106 N Charles St, Baltimore
From the Baltimore Amtrak Station: walk south four blocks on Charles St.–takes about 3 minutes.

It’s only a few blocks away from the Baltimore train station, and it tends to be a favorite pit stop when I take the train to Washington, DC. Situated in Georgian row-house in a neighborhood that was fashionable a hundred years ago, this place features a crypt-like basement bar, an elegant though small front bar that overlooks the street, great house-made Belgian-style beers, and a top-flight menu. A few Belgian quads later, you’ll be happy you didn’t drive.


Radegast Hall, Brooklyn
113 North 3rd Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
From Amtrak Penn Station, NY: Take the C subway to 14th st. then the L train to Bedford Ave. Walk West on Bedford Ave then left on Berry St, it’s four blocks down.

NYC has way too many crappy beer bars (poor food, high prices, small servings, bad atmosphere and excessive pretense will earn you a spot on my bad list pretty quickly), but this place is a shining exception. Everyone I’ve ever taken here has become a fan. It’s a big place, and it gets crowded at night, but is very peaceful in the afternoon when the sun pours in the skylights in the beer hall. Featuring mostly lagers from Eastern Europe and Germany, they have an inexpensive brats and worst plates which makes for a surprisingly thrifty lunch date.


The Harbour Bar, Bray (Dublin)
1 Strand Road, Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland
From Connolly Station, Dublin: take the Dart (rapid transit line) south to Bray, Walk two blocks north on The Strand.

Eclectic hippy-joint of a pub, with various rooms decorated in 1960s and 1970s living room decor and stuffed to the gills with eccentric chachkies. Vending machines are filled with 30-year-old packs of cigarettes, and team of pub cats will entertain you. James Joyce wrote about this place–it was a hippy-joint even back then. Kitchen is outside of the pub building in a converted shipping container. They have bands at night, but with multiple rooms, you can always get away from it if it’s not your speed. Beer selection features local micros and not-so micros.


DBA, New Orleans
618 Frenchmen Street (Marigny District)
From Amtrak, New Orleans: walk out the front of the Amtrak station–keep going to you get to Camp street. Left on Camp, and then on to Chartres St. Left on Frenchmen Street–its a half-block in. (This is a 40 minute walk. You get to walk through the central business district and the French Quarter on your way, which is great–it’s fun to visit, but you wouldn’t want to have a beer there.)

DBA is probably the first bar in New Orleans to serve craft beer, and is noteworthy for it’s lack of televisions (there’s only one small one in the corner, and it’s usually turned off) and being smoke-free. The Marigny District is kind of the Brooklyn of New Orleans, with a lot of chill, transplanted young’uns living nearby. They have bands at night, and a rousing swing-dancing session on Sunday nights, however the pub has two rooms, so you can duck away from it for a more quiet time. Two snugs situated at either side of the front door provide great opportunities for chatting with your beer buds, and are an exquisite aerie for checking out the fascinating nightlife.


House of Trembling Madness, York, UK
48 Stonegate York YO1 8AS
From the York station: make a left turn as you leave the station, walk across the Lendal Bridge and the road continues as Museum St. Go Right on Blake St, and then left on Stonegate. Place is in the middle of the block on the left.

York is to England what Williamsburg, Virginia is to the US– a historically significant, though somewhat adaptively and anachronistically re-interpreted vacation destination, meant to be enjoyed and not taken too seriously. (Not to mention–York is home to the national train museum, one of the best in the world.) Renowned for their devotion to serving Belgian beer, the 500-year-old main bar is upstairs, and many people miss it. Deal-prone visitors can purchase a bottle of wine in the carry-out shop and walk it upstairs. You’ll find private and community tables, and taxidermy trophy heads stare down at you as you sip. In addition, they also have two guest rooms that can be rented for those who need one more day of trains and museums. York has an astounding number of places to have a pint, and is a frequent destination for English pub crawlers.

Riding trains, and sampling craft beers in Ireland.

IMG_2557   A very brief compendium of interesting trains, and refreshing stopovers (March 2015).

Trains around Ireland:

Touring Ireland by train presents a transportation dilemma–trains serve the main cities and towns, but much of what makes a trip there interesting (scenery, ancient ruins, craggy coastlines) is way off the train network. On the other hand, driving around Ireland is hardly a vacation–the roads are narrow and winding, and the speed limits are low.

After substantial service cutbacks in the 1960s and 1970s, and lesser ones in the 1990s, Irish Rail has been on a pretty stable keel for the last ten or so years. Dublin is the center point of the rail system–from there, there’s frequent service to Cork, Galway and several other smaller cities. The high-speed Enterprise train connects Dublin and Belfast, and from Belfast, Translink (Northern Irish Railways) operate frequent service to Londonderry, as well as suburban trains. Service on the lines is primarily operated with modern diesel multiple unit equipment, though you’ll see push-pull sets on the Enterprise train, and on many Dublin-Cork trains. For Irish Rail tickets,  the cheapest way to purchase them is to buy them on the web a few days ahead. Pay using a credit card, and pick up your ticket from vending machines located in most stations before you depart. Translink recently introduced the MLink iPhone app– which makes it possible to purchase point-to-point tickets good for the entire day in advance of your trip, at a substantial discount using PayPal.

For wayside scenery and architecture, the Enterprise Line tops the list, followed by the Belfast-Londonderry line. Both lines feature sweeping views of the coastline, craggy hills, old fishing villages–and some interesting pints along the way if you have the time to make a stopover.  Giant’s Causeway (a volcanically-formed seacoast vista featuring black hexagon-shaped basalt stones that resemble paving stones) is an easy side trip from the Colerain train station on the Londonderry line, which can be visited using connecting Translink buses. Pay attention to the bus schedules, as missed connections may leave you cooling your heels for couple of hours.

Belfast eats: The farm-to-table restaurant Made in Belfast offers amazing food in a funky, eclectic decor (they have two locations which are pretty similar). Like many restaurants in Ireland, they have few draft taps but mostly serve beers in bottles from the fridge. Mourne Seafood is often rated as Belfast’s top restaurant, and deservedly so. Strangely, until recently, seafood was just not trendy in Ireland—it was view as something eaten for lent, or food for the poor. With the ascendancy of the slow food movement (Cork chef Myrtle Allen is often celebrated as the godmother of the movement), culinary interest in the Irish fishing and shellfish industry is on the rise. Belfast oysters are big and ugly, but tender and slightly briny, and also a good deal when you can find them.

IMG_2529 A couple of Pubs in Belfast really stand out: The Woodworkers, a new craft beer oriented pub in the vicinity of the Botanic train station is attached to a beer bottle shop, and offers an amazing selection of bottle beers along with rotating draft taps. The Sunflower Pub, a small, cozy pub hiding behind the library with a surprising assortment of local beers in bottles along with a handpump and a few taps. Most evenings, there’s frequently musical performance (folk, or trad sessions depending on the night).


  IMG_2530Belfast Beers: Belfast has two co-op owned breweries of note: Farmageddon – who gets a special mention for their slightly sour and liquorice-noted India Export Porter. Also the soon-to-open Boundary Brewing, under the supervision of brewer and former West Coast US resident Matthew Dick, they’re IMG_2558planning both IPA and American Pale Ale style beers. Hilden Brewing in Lisburn makes some great beer, and has a restaurant and brewery tour that can easily be accessed by train. Everything they make is good.

Dublin Pubs: The Harbour Bar, Lonely Planet’s “Best Pub on the Planet” is a short train ride from downtown Dublin on the DART commuter rail system, very close to the Bray station. It’s pretty indescribable— rooms decorated with 1960s furniture, nautical chachkies, and pub furniture that goes way back. The locals are equally eclectic, and the team of trained housecats will entertain you. Beer selection is excellent. L. Mulligan, Grocer, on Stoneybatter St., is Northside Dublin’s premier craft beer pub, and features an excellent menu of farm-to-table fare. Honorable mentions to W.J. Kavanaugh’s, The Beerhouse, and The Back Page who are emerging as reliable places for craft beer in Northside Dublin.

IMG_2610Dublin Beers: There is so much craft beer in Dublin these days, there now exist a few pubs that do not serve Guinness. Irish-made beers from breweries such as N17, 8 Degrees, Wicklow Wolf, Brown Paper Bag Project, White Gypsy, and Franciscan Well continue to make marketing headway, and deservedly so. The craft beer scene is similar to where things were in the US in the 1990s (some beers truly great, and brewers having to work around supply problems with hops). Spending your night looking for a “perfect pint of Guinness”—that’s about as meaningful as spending a night in a supermarket produce section looking for a perfect mushroom. Be sure to ask about bottled beer—much of Ireland’s craft beer production gets bottled, which is easier for the retailers and the supply chains to handle. Also, there’s a lot beer made as a limited run—given the small breweries and the difficulties getting hops, brewers tend to rotate their production, just a farm-to-table restaurants adjust their menus to take advantage of what’s available at the market on a given day.

Private car destination guide– Boston

725276737442 copyWhy go: Full of history and culture, Boston is in many ways our country’s first city– home to The USS Constitution, Fanueil Hall, The Old State House, and Harvard University. Also home to the oldest subway system in North America, which also happens to be America’s oldest light rail system.

Private Car parking in BOS: While rail cars often need to get parked in the coachyard on weeknights, it is possible at the option of the station master to have a private car parked in the station at a bumper post on weekend nights. Station parking is really enjoyable–you are less than 50 feet from the main waiting room, and a three minute walk from there to the station’s subway station.

Boston highlights for private car folks: If you’re working the trip, and doing a little provisioning, you can get to food stores on the Green Line, but may wind up calling a cab to get back to the station: Traveling West on the Beacon St. Green Line, there’s a Whole Foods Market near St. Mary Street. Ride a few more blocks and there’s a Trader Joe’s at Harvard Street. The nearest Grainger Supply is on Arsenal St in Watertown (take the #70 bus from the Subway Red Line Central Square station). If you’re sightseeing, public transit is great–a one day pass is $12 (seven-day pass is $19) and can be purchased at any subway station. Despite being the most northeastern terminus of the Amtrak’s Northeast corridor, due to the high speeds used on the NEC, there’s only two Amtrak trains that will move private cars in and out of Boston: Amtrak’s 448/449 (Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited) which connects via Albany, NY, or Amtrak’s 66/67 (Overnight NEC train), which will accept private cars in Washington, DC, but not New York. Amtrak’s car services includes water, dumping, and a car wash. Station crews are easy to work with, and very professional.

Other transportation: At the north end of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, there’s frequent service to New York, Washington and points south by train. Airport is accessible by the subway Blue Line, and also via the Silver Line (bus rapid transit) from an underground bus platform alongside South Station.

Anything else: In the last ten years, Boston has become chock-full of gentrified neighborhoods and wonderful restaurants. My favorite neighborhood strolls are long walks through Brookline and Cambridge, and I’ve spent some happy rainy days at the Gardner Museum, and at the Co-Op book store in Cambridge. Oh, and the beer: Boston is the home of Harpoon Brewing, which has great tours. Favorite local spots include Redbones in Somerville (Davis Square) and Deep Ellum, in Allston.

Private car destination guide– Chicago

Downtown Chicago, as viewed from the coach yard.

Downtown Chicago, as viewed from the coach yard.

Why go: Chicago is one of North America’s great cities–birthplace of the skyscraper, home to some major museums, and beautiful, walkable neighborhoods. Very easy to get around without a car thanks to a comprehensive subway and bus system. Millennium Park, built on the site of the old, downtown Illinois Central trainyard feature “the bean’ (a two-story-tall, irregularly shaped gazing ball), fountains and gardens. Walk the Magnificent Mile and check out the shops in the Loop downtown.Out in Oak Park, you can tour Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings. It takes about three days to see all the visitor hotspots.

Private Car parking in CHI: Cars are parked in the coachyard, south of the station. You and your car are in a safe place, and you’re close to the Roosevelt Road entrance ramp, which is a 3-4 block walk to the nearest El station. This is a active railroad yard–you need to be sober, wearing shoes, alert for moving trains, and aware of your surroundings at all times. Cars can get switched at any time, and it’s not unusual to leave a car for a few hours and not be able to find it when you return. Guests and owners are generally welcome (tolerated is probably a better word here), it’s not the safest or most convenient spot for staying on the car.

Chicago highlights for private car folks: If you’re working the trip, there’s a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s on Roosevelt that you can walk to, but the nearest Grainger Supply is a short cab ride away on the Lower West Side. If you’re sightseeing, public transit is great–a one day pass is $10 and can be purchased at any subway station. Provisioning highlights–Blommer Chocolates (a large chocolate factory very close to Union Station); and Paulina Market which sells wursts and premium butcher and deli items.

Other transportation: Easy trip to Midway Airport for Southwest and Porter flights. Station is a central Amtrak hub with trains leaving for both coasts every day, and there’s a Hertz car rental counter there.

Anything else: In the last ten years, Chicago has become chock-full of gentrified neighborhoods, wonderful restaurants, and beautiful public spaces– my favorite neighborhood strolls are Paulina and Andersonville, and I’ve spent a few rewarding rainy days at the Newberry Library, and Art Institute. Oh, and the beer: Chicago pioneered craft brewing in the 1990s with Goose Island– local favorite craft beer bars include the Hopleaf, and the Map Room.

Our summer of some very late trains

The Mount Vernon’s July 20-27 trip from New York Penn to Minneapolis was particularly noteworthy for very late trains. The Late Shore Limited left NYC more than six hours late, at 9:30 pm due to a rockslide on the tracks in Peekskill, NY. Arriving in Albany after Midnight, the train was held some additional time due to passengers missing the train in New York City. (Amtrak’s mistake, the train left without any announcements, and passengers had wandered away.)

We've been waiting for about six hours when this picture was taken.

We’ve been waiting for about six hours when this picture was taken.

Toledo used to be fully staffed a few years ago during the Roadrailer era at Amtrak. These days, there's just a couple of water stands and lots of desolation.

Toledo used to be fully staffed a few years ago during the Roadrailer era at Amtrak. These days, there’s just a couple of water stands and lots of desolation.

Then things got weird–the six passengers aboard the Mount Vernon went to bed, and when we woke up, the train was still east of Rochester, NY. We enjoyed our breakfast while riding through Buffalo, and got to see Cleveland in sunlight. Before long, Amtrak made the decision to turn the Lake Shore Limited in Toledo, and send the train set back to New York. Had they continued westward with that train set, there would have been an equipment shortage. The regular Amtrak passengers were put on four busses to Chicago, and another group of passengers heading east came in by bus from Chicago to take their place.

As for the Mount Vernon–the car was cut off here, and parked overnight. Early the next morning, the Capitol Limited arrived and picked us up. So far, so good. We’ve only lost one day. We arrived in Chicago pretty much on time that morning, and Amtrak gave us an unusual same day interchange and attached us to the rear of the Empire Builder, which left Chicago on time.

The Late Train Gremlin attacked again–this time it happened a few hundred yards short of the Milwaukee station, where we sat for hours. After a long wait, the train was pulled into the station, where we sat some more. It was dark when we left, when we finally we arrived in St. Paul in time for sunrise–about eight hours late.

Due to the delays, the locomotive engineer and conductor went over their hours of service, and could no longer operate the train. No replacement crew was immediately available.

Due to the delays, the locomotive engineer and conductor when over their hours of service, and could no longer operate the train. No replacement crew was immediately available.

The Minnesota Commercial Railway switches the Mount Vernon off of the Empire Builder, and on to the St. Paul parking track.

The Minnesota Commercial Railway ALCO locomotive switches the Mount Vernon off of the Empire Builder, and on to the St. Paul parking track.

What’s there to say about catastrophically late trains– train travel is not for people in a hurry to get someplace. Late trains can be ghastly (very overused bathrooms, empty water tanks, running out of food, crews that need to stop working due to hours-of-service rules.) If you’re an Amtrak passenger, Amtrak will usually do their best to make it up to you, and sometimes the make-goods are interesting travel treats. Meg and I once got to spend a night at the Allerton Hotel in Chicago on Amtrak’s tab, due to a missed connection, and they fed us, gave us an allowance for cabs and incidentals. A few years ago, we were very late arriving in Washington, DC and had to ride the overnight Amtrak train (train 66) back home to NJ. Amtrak arranged to have the train make an unscheduled special stop at our nearest train station so we would not need to call a cab.

Of course, if you’re lucky enough to travel on a private car, you’re likely to get extra meals and have a chance to spend some more time sitting in the lounge.

Two nights under Montreal

The train ride from New York Penn to Montreal on Amtrak’s Adirondack is a perfect private car trip: eleven hours of beautiful New York scenery followed by two nights of subterranean intrigue while parked at a station track at Gare Centrale–literally in the center of a vast underground city that sprawls out for blocks in all directions.

Here’s some photos from last weekend:

From Montreal Weekend on the Mount Vernon, posted by Tom Coughlin on 11/13/2013 (5 items)

Generated by Facebook Photo Fetcher 2

Here’s a few reasons to come out of the tunnel:
Atwater Market— The smaller of the two city markets, it’s the better one to go to for deals on cheeses and prepared, ready-to-cook meats.
Broue Pub Bruhaha— It’s a neighborhood spot, the kind of place you’d go for hockey night. They usually have six in-house beers on tap, along with around 20 “invited” locally brewed beers. Order the fried duck legs or the Pizza Alsacienne (lardons, caramelized onions, creme fraiche, and local cheeses).
Blackstrap BBQ— located in Verdun (up until the 2000s, Verdun was a separate city to the immediate south of Montreal, and prior to the merger, a dry town) the restaurant scene is growing rapidly there. An unusual quirk of Verdun is that most restaurants have liquor licenses that restrict them to serving locally-produced beer.