Five Winter rail travel ideas

Meg and I are hardcore off season train travel enthusiasts–we hate crowds and love deals. Listed here in no particular order, are some of the places where we had an astoundingly great time in places that are a little off the beaten path, or not well known. I liked these places so much I wrestled with keeping them secret, so they don’t get trampled by tourists. I want to go back to all of them. But no, you should enjoy. I insist.

The Hop Randal at Bruhaha

Herbs, spices, tea, hops–a lot of interesting stuff winds up in Brewhaha’s beer randal.

Dinner and Beer at Brew Pub Brouhaha in Montreal.
Montreal is one of North America’s most eclectic and culturally distinct cities, and the pub and beer scene here is robust. What makes Makes Montreal a worthy beer pilgrimage destination though is that you can reliably find really fine food being served along with your beverage. Brewpub Brouhaha is my favorite beer stop in Montreal–they’re are passionate about presenting local beers (both from their brew house, and from around the city), and they make a thin crust pizza worthy of a trip. Get There: Montreal is a picturesque day train ride up from New York City Amtrak’s Adirondack. Stay There: Lots of fancy hotels downtown offering $125 a night off-season rates. $75 to $100 per night double rates are easily found in the downtown Bed and Breakfasts. Check the rates and ratings at Tripadvisor or

The Laxey Wheel in Mann

The Laxey Wheel in Mann

Ride the steam trains on the Isle of Mann,  and visit  Liverpool and Northern Ireland.
Wintertime is low fare time to England or Ireland–the days are short, but the nights are long and lively. Irish Americans such as myself may see Mann as an alternate reality where the economic distress of the 1950s and 1960s never took place, and the pre-1950 romantic era never went away.  The steam trains and interurban trolleys still run in Mann, it’s a little like a Disney movie set–it doesn’t seem real, but people live there, retire there and run farms, breweries and hotels. Get there: Prices tend to bottom out on winter flights from New York to London or Dublin (two cities where hotel rates tend to always be high). From Dublin, a short ride on the Enterprise Train will take you to Belfast (cheap hotel city, and fun, to boot) and the Stena Ferry to Liverpool. From Liverpool, it’s a short ferry ride to the Island of Mann on the Steam Packet Ferry. From London, there’s quick, frequent service to Liverpool, where you can connect to the ferry. Stay there: There are many old hotels and a few new ones in Douglas, Mann’s largest city. Off-season rates are amazing.

A Podge tour

One of Podge’s tour group visits De Dolle Brewery.

Travel to Belgium with Podge
Based in Chelmsford, England Chris Pollard (AKA “Podge”) has been running beer pilgrimages to Belgium for at least 10 years. He’s got a group of regular customers–English and Irish mostly, they’re nice folks, and they’re fun to travel with. There are an increasing number of beer tour operations running out of the US, but choosing to go with an English group will put you on a bus with people who go there a lot more often, and are a lot more in-tune with what’s going on in the breweries. Yes it’s more complex joining the tour at the destination. You’ll probably find their trips to be lower cost, and much more efficiently run. Europe is a good travel deal these days–travel like a European (take the train, stay in non-chain hotels, talk to strangers). Get there: Hop a discount flight to London, or meet the group in Belgium. Podge will work with you to make sure you meet up with the group. Stay there: Podge trips always include hotel, transportation, tours and meals–all you have to do is eat and drink. You may wind up needing to spend a night in London or Chelmsford–beer travelers might enjoy staying at a historic inn owned by a brewery, and Young’s Brewery has small inns in both cities.

A park car

A Park Car (first class sleeper, lounge, observation tail car), rearmost on the Canadian.

Taking a winter “Express Deal” Cross country trip on Via Rail’s flagship train, The Canadian.
Imagine you and your favorite traveling buddy enjoying four nights in the dome car, eating the most wonderful food ever served in a railroad dining car, and enjoying elegant, well kept 1950s classic sleeping cars and lounges. Now image that you could do this for less than $250 a day (including meals and travel). In the winter, VIA runs some very deep deals, and its pretty easy to find $550 per-person fairs for for two people traveling together (food and scenery included). Also–winter is a great time for low fares on the cross country airlines. A modest 10-day cross country (fly one-way, and ride the train one-way) with stopover days in Vancouver, Portland or Seattle, and Toronto for around $1,100 per person. Canadian cities are chilly, and the nights are cold and long, but the camaraderie on the train is great, and it’s alway more fun to travel off-season. Get there: Look for cheap one-way cross country flights from Alaska Airlines and Southwest. Porter Airlines offers up to seven flights a day between Newark and Toronto at prices sometimes as low as $90 one-way. Stay there: The Madison Manor Bed and Breakfast is my favorite cheapskate hotel in otherwise overpriced Toronto–usually around $100-$120 this time of year. Clean, wonderful bed, and a great location. In Vancouver–The St. Regis is wonderful, small and always running deals.

A Mardi Gras float being prepared for use

A Mardi Gras float being prepared for use

Warm up in New Orleans in January.
New Orleans is back–Mardi Gras last year was the biggest event the city has ever had. Generally speaking, the city is cleaner and safer now than it has ever been. I feel like it’s becoming too scrubbed and whitewashed, but folks who live there are likely to disagree. Mardi Gras actually goes on for a couple of weeks, ending on Ash Wednesday with parades going on every weekend. Once Mardi Gras starts however, the hotel prices go up, so the trick is to do some research and get there right before the festivities start in earnest. Get there: Amtrak’s Crescent offers overnight sleeping car service from New York or Washington. If you’re impatient, Jet Blue offers direct flights from NYC. Stay there: The city has thousands of hotel rooms, and in January most of them are empty. Shop around and look for great amenities and deals.

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