MY TRAVEL BUCKET LIST; PROBLEMS AND PANACEAS

I think most people consider the idea of a ‘bucket list’ of things they would like to do, experiences that they would like to try or, most often, places they would like to see as part of some kind of ‘greatest hits’ highlights of their lives. Once achieved and ‘ticked off’, these things mark our progress through life like so many emotional lightning rods. They connect us to those moments when we raised our game, rose above the everyday, and went for the things that really mattered on some deep, undeniable level to ourselves, rather than just being blindly channelled and herded in some direction by the people and events swirling around us.

Trust me, travel writers are no different. The more I see of the world, the more I realise how little that I have actually seen. It’s like peeling an onion; once you begin, you suddenly realise that you’ve embarked on a mission that’s going to take forever. And, in terms of travel, that’s a shockingly good analogy- though not one I can take credit for.

The one thing I have come to realise about my ‘bucket list’ is that I am going to need a bigger bucket. I had naively assumed that, by this phase of my life, I would have ticked all my main boxes, lived my dreams, done my share of smiling in the sunshine. And, up to a point, I have.

But by it’s very nature, travel is not about standing or sitting still, is it?

So, I got to considering the things that I would still like to do and, purely in a spirit of fantastical conjecture, here are a couple of things that I’m flinging without either fear, shame, or the vaguest concept of when- or even if they might ever happen- into my bucket. Here we go….

SAILING DOWN TO RIO

Rio. Just say it. It rolls off your tongue like a Salsa parade, and tastes as damned fine as the most potent caipirinha. Sultry, alluring, sun kissed and stunning, Rio is one of the great, must see destinations of the world.

But flying there? Nah. Not for moi….

Such an epic destination should be the climax of an epic odyssey. And, of all the cities on the planet, the great sea-city that is Rio De Janeiro deserves to be approached in the most dramatic and apt way possible. From the sea….

Consider even the idea of sailing from Italy in late October, just as Europe begins to sag into yet another cold, melancholy, pre winter gloom. Take some big, spectacular Italian cruise ship and set out through the Mediterranean. Swing out west, through the Pillars of Hercules, and set course for the Canary Islands, the open Atlantic and, at the end of all that, landfall in South America.

Imagine the days getting longer, warmer and more welcoming as you unwind on board, surging south west over the Equator. And, at journey’s end, there is the hallowed, matchless approach to the great city itself. In, past the looming bulk of Corcovado, past Sugar Loaf Mountain, and into that stunning bay. An epic journey that cries out to be achieved in epic style. And, let’s face it- you can’t scrimp on something as sassy, sultry and downright dramatic as that.

ACROSS AMERICA BY RAIL

Now this one is arguably the daddy of them all…

I’d fly straight to Los Angeles, stay for a couple of nights on the venerable old Queen Mary, and take in a few days of the fresh, vital sunshine on Manhattan Beach, before boarding one of those fantastic, implausible, double decker Amtrak trains for the ultimate voyage; coast to coast, with a series of spectacular city stays en route.

Over a couple of weeks, I’d watch the vast, natural smorgasbord of North America unfold from my seat like a succession of spectacular drum rolls. Mountain ranges and rolling prairies, great gushing rivers and tracts of bone dry desert. Great, concrete forests of glass and steel…

We’ll roll across mighty bridges and into flaring purple and yellow sunsets. And, like fantastic exclamation marks, I’d take a couple of nights in, say, sultry, sassy New Orleans and cool, classy Chicago. Anyone detecting a bit of a jazzy vibe here?

There would be time in beautiful, patrician Philadelphia before the final arrival in the greatest city in the world- New York. And, as the train shuddered to a halt at Penn Station, there would surely be the feeling of having completed an epic adventure.

But that is not the end of it. Oh, no. My sense of wanderlust is a bit gilt edged these days. And, in one final flourish, I would take the Queen Mary 2 back to Southampton.

Think about that; seven lazy, languid, highly styled days on the last great Atlantic liner, making the most timeless and peerless of all voyages. Unburdened with ports of call or any other diversion, I would have seven full days to absorb the full, magnificent scale of the entire trip.

In the words of the great Al Green; simply beautiful.

So; what floats your boat, then?

QM2. Because second best is sometimes just not good enough.

QM2. Because second best is sometimes just not good enough.

AMTRAK ACROSS AMERICA- LETTING THE TRAIN TAKE THE STRAIN

Comfort with a capital 'C' is standard on Amtrak

Comfort with a capital ‘C’ is standard on Amtrak

America is possibly the most scenically diverse country in the world. From the stunning national parks of Yosemite and the still, silent, pine clad fjords of Alaska, to the forest of steel and glass that is Manhattan, the landscape is as eclectic and engaging as it is magnificent and monumental.

Trying to see it all is about as practicaL as trying to stuff a cloud into a suitcase. But if you really do want to get up close and personal with this constantly unravelling landscape, then it makes sense to do it by train.

Amtrak is America’s national rail network and, like those of many other countries, it has its share of problems. Big investment is needed in the infrastructure- the rail tracks, bridges and stations- that are it’s backbone. And no, it’s record for punctuality is not the greatest. Key to enjoying the Amtrak experience is time and some flexibility.

But that same, extensive network permits the creation and completion of some truly epic itineraries. You could combine New York with Miami, via an overnight rail journey, or take the short, three hour Surfliner run from Los Angeles to San Diego (see previous blogs). You could enjoy an overnight run from Chicago to New York, or even swagger on into sultry New Orleans. 

So what is the Amtrak experience like, then?

The overnight trains are vast, double deck leviathans several carriages long; the first impression is of a gunmetal coloured conga line of ponderous rolling stock that seems to stretch into infinity. Once on board, you have two options in terms of accommodation.

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view...

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view…

Coach class seats are wide, roomy and come complete with leg rests. If you want more privacy and comfort, small and compact roomettes sleep up to two people each. These come complete with twin reclining seats that converts into a lower bed, with a second, pullman berth that pulls down at night. Showers and toilets are located in the same carriage, and the roomette option also includes all meals in the price.

Bigger still are the bedrooms, which also sleep two people. Two of these rooms can can interconnect to accommodate families of up to four. Each comes complete with a large picture window, armchair, and has its own shower and toilet. Again, all meals are included in the cost. If you can go to the expense of one of these, this is definitely the way to go.

Food wise, the dining cars serve breakfast between 6.30 and 10.00. Lunch (reservations required) runs from 11.30 to 15.00, and dinner (again, reservations required) is served up between 17.00- 21.30.  Long distance trains also usually have a lounge car that sells drinks, snacks, and offers panoramic windows for watching the scenery unfold all around you.

All things considered, Amtrak is a very comfortable and evocative way of letting America come to you through a series of amazing vistas. The coaches are also set up for wi-fi, and that naturally increases the options available for diversions on even the longest journeys.

It’s also a unique way to meet and interact with the locals in a relaxed, casual environment that no air travel could ever replicate. And the hassles of flying and airports in general are done away with in a single stroke.

But it’s the sheer, exalted notion of ‘rolling on the rails’ that really pushes all the buttons for anyone possessed of even an ounce of nostalgia. Consider crossing the entire continent. Los Angeles to New York. From sea to shining sea.  This is America, up close and personal, as generations of travellers once discovered her. Close enough to touch, and still vast enough to awe, amaze and enchant.

Nice, eh? Well, go on- get out there!

FIVE GREAT TRAIN JOURNEYS WORTH CONSIDERING…

Scenery en route is something else....

Scenery en route is something else….

Tired of flying? If the thought of one more airport experience makes you start losing the will to live, that’s the time to start considering alternatives.

Rail journeys can be a truly epic adventure, especially so if it’s an itinerary you’ve always longed to go with. You’ll need more time to play with, as well as a willingness to see the journey itself as a huge part of the adventure, and not merely just as a means of getting from A to B.

With those thoughts in mind, here’s a few rail journeys that I hope might just fire the imagination…..

TRAVELLING TO THE SOUTH OF FRANCE

This is an absolute beauty. Start at London’s ornate St. Pancras station with a glass of champagne, before boarding one of the sleek, highly styled Eurostar expresses for a two hour journey through the Channel Tunnel, and straight into the heart of Paris.

If time allows, grab another glass of bubbly and some fine food at Le Train Bleu; it’s an atmospheric, belle epoque restaurant in the Gare du Lyon station that definitely enhances the experience. From here, you can board the TGV that will whisk you through the heart of France, before rolling slowly towards the coast, and eventual landfall in cosmopolitan Marseilles or beautiful, balmy Nice. Altogether a great way to arrive in a quite magical setting.

TORONTO TO NEW YORK

A thirteen hour transit starts at Toronto’s Union Station. Stock up with food and goodies for your journey before you go; the catering on the cross border trains is pretty rudimentary.

The route runs via the border crossing at Niagara, where everyone has to do customs and immigration, down on through the rural heartlands of New York State; Albany and Buffalo are just a couple of the famous names en route.

The scenery is highlighted by huge swathes of lush, rolling greenery, dotted with white clapboard villages that fly past in a dreamy blur. You rumble over vast, winding rivers and through long abandoned industrial heartlands, before a final, magical early evening arrival among the gleaming spires of midtown Manhattan.  Tip; pay a little extra and spring for one of the huge business class seats for extra comfort and personal space. It’s worth it.

Barcelona awaits at journey's end

Barcelona awaits at journey’s end

OVERNIGHT TRAIN TO BARCELONA

You can do this one from London, again taking the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel to Paris Gare du Nord. Here, you’ll connect with the special sleeper trains that run overnight through to the Catalan gem of Barcelona.

The trains have couchette berths in a number of configurations, and these also include the cost of an evening meal with wine, as well as breakfast the following day. The journey routes through the heart of France, and then through the Pyrenees into Spain proper, before eventually making the grand entry into one of Europe’s most beautiful and swaggering cities. Quite a way to go, and quite a city to savour at journey’s end as well.

AMERICA COAST TO COAST

Either east or west, try rolling across an entire, unforgettable continent. From L.A. to New York, or vice versa. Take one of the spectacular Amtrak double decker trains, complete with dining cars and separate sleeping cabins, and savour the spectacular hinterlands of mainland America.

Pit stops en route could include a few days in sassy, bohemian New Orleans, cloud scraping Denver, and even Al Capone’s old stamping grounds in classy, cosmopolitan Chicago. Roll into proud, patrician Philadelphia before ending your adventure in the forest of glass, steel and sheer excitement that is New York. Or make up your own route, and just go with the flow.

Your American coast to coast journey can start- or finish- in iconic Los Angeles

Your American coast to coast journey can start- or finish- in iconic Los Angeles

NORTH YORKSHIRE MOORS RAILWAY, UNITED KINGDOM

Short by comparison with the other options here, but sweet in its own right. Eighteen miles of beautifully meandering scenery between the villages of Grosmont and Pickering, in North Yorkshire. A scenic smorgasbord par excellence, and all savoured from the nostalgic cocoon of a real steam hauled train, to boot.

You’ll see chocolate box pretty stations and bubbling, splashing streams that meander through lush, flower carpeted meadows dotted with idly grazing cows and sheep. Some of the runs even feature evocative old Pullman carriages, and offer some seriously indulgent at seat dining options. A lovely option for a celebration on a warm summer evening.

So; there you go. Five of the best. Or just make up your own railroad adventure, and get out there. Whatever- wherever- enjoy.

THINGS FROM MY BUCKET LIST….

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view...

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view…

Most people who know me would say that I’m well travelled. My general response to that is that I travel well. And, for sure, I do.

But looked at in either context, a simple fact remains the same; the more we experience of the world, the more we become painfully aware of how little we actually have seen. Travel is like peeling an onion; just when you think you’ve got down to the heart of it, you find another hundred layers, lying in wait to be unravelled.

And that is exactly as it should be, too.

To truly travel, the mind should always be constantly exploring new horizons and, at the very least, contemplating new stuff. Many of us have what we call a ‘bucket list’; a set of trophy things we want to do, sights we yet want to see,

Trust me, I’m no different in that regard. So, without further ado, here’s some of the adventures I still want to experience at least once in my lifetime. Hang on- this could get messy….

TRAVEL BY RAIL ACROSS THE USA

From sea to shining sea. West to East. Starting in Los Angeles with a stay on the dear old Queen Mary, and then making my way on those fabulous Amtrak double decker trains, all the way to New York.

I’d make a two night stop in certain cities along the way; New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia come first to mind. There would be a final couple of nights in New York and then- as a truly grand finale- I’d sail back across the Atlantic to England on the Queen Mary 2. 

That’s living, all right.

THREE WEEKS IN THE GREEK ISLANDS

This would be the complete opposite to my normal, organised routine. Just an open return flight ticket to Athens, as little luggage as possible, and then just island hopping for three weeks, using the local ferries like buses.

Where to? Wherever the mood and the music takes me. A day here. Three days there. Two days anywhere. Repeat as necessary until you become so chilled out that you’re almost liquid.

So many choices, and all dependant on a mood, a whim, People watching and drinking wine in the sun. Repeat as necessary. Jacket and tie? I don’t think so. Not for this one, Colonel.

Rio bound??

Rio bound??

SAILING DOWN TO RIO

Anyone with even a hint of romance in their soul has a sacred duty to sail down to Rio; the most sultry and sensuous city south of the Equator. Why sail? Because tourists fly. And you are not a tourist; you’re a child that has to follow the sun. We don’t ‘do’ mundane, chico. That’s not what we’re about, is it? That’s not how we roll.

And, if you are going to arrive in Rio, you want to make that spectacular, dramatic entry from the sea. Sailing in past Corcovado and the statue of Christ the Redeemer. And do it in style; arrive on the biggest, most swaggering and spectacular ship you can find. You owe it to Rio. And you owe it to yourself. Don’t let me down.

PADDLE WHEELER ON THE MISSISSIPPI

In the immortal words of Churchill, D; Oh, yes…

I want to sit on a rocking chair on some huge, hulking great wedding cake of  a paddle steamer, and pretend I’m Huckleberry Finn while I sip on a mint julep. I want to swagger down one of those impossibly over fussed, Gone With The Wind style grand staircases. To roll on out of New Orleans, with the paddle wheel thrashing up the river behind us, and a dixieland jazz soundtrack ringing in my ears. I still want to be able to hear that music until my dying day. Yes sir, I’ll take some of that Mississippi mud pie, with a big slice of old style steamboating.

Is there more? Oh Lord, yes. Lots. But these are the brightest stars I’ll be aiming to reach for. Bucket list? The only thing that I’m sure of with any real certainty is that I’m going to be needing a bigger bucket.

How about you?

RIDING THE RAILS: TORONTO TO NEW YORK BY TRAIN

Scenery en route is something else....

Scenery en route is something else….

Over rivers burnished by the setting sun...

Over rivers burnished by the setting sun…

Sixteen coaches of gleaming gunmetal shimmering in the summer Toronto sun, the Maple Leaf Explorer shuddered into life, and began to slowly roll out of the city’s Union Station. Sprawled out in a huge, business class seat, I watched idly as downtown Toronto’s glittering, glass and steel skyline rolled slowly past my window. It was 8.30 in the morning, and some hot coffee went part of the way to reviving me after what had been a late night out.

Having always been a fan of long distance train travel, I leapt at the chance to do this thirteen hour rail journey; a sampler that will, hopefully anticipate a much bigger, coast to coast adventure in a year or so. I was curious to try and get a handle on the pros and cons of travelling on the much maligned Amtrak network. And the price- even for a huge, spacious business class seat with a spectacular amount of legroom- beat out the cost of flying by a good way. So, not being in a hurry, this seemed as good a chance as any to try the Amtrak experience.

I made a couple of basic, elementary mistakes. Firstly, the Maple Leaf Explorer is a single decker train, unlike much of the coast to coast rolling stock. There would be no dinner in the diner, or anything remotely finer for that matter. In retrospect, I should have stocked up with edible goodies while in Toronto. Ah well, too late now. You’re off…

Once we arrived at Niagara, everybody had to dismount the train for customs and immigration formalities at the U.S. border. This was less tedious than a One Direction megamix playing on a loop, but not by enough to make you want to keep on living, It took a full three quarters of an hour. Back in my seat, I was ridiculously relieved to feel the Maple Leaf Explorer resume it’s rhythmic progress towards New York.

By now, my finely honed, Clouseau-like sense of intuition had perceived that there would be no at seat food and drink service; something unthinkable on any long distance train in Europe. So, like any intrepid explorer with a hunger for more than just adventure, I set forth in search of food.

Comfort with a capital 'C'

Comfort with a capital ‘C’

The buffet car was not hard to find. My first clue was a conga line of waiting people that was slightly longer than a Bosnian refugee column. It seemed to stretch back to infinity, and it moved forward with all the speed and enthusiasm of the condemned line at the foot of an overworked guillotine.

My impatience turned to pity when I eventually got my turn. There was one poor guy behind the counter- one- serving up micro waved food, plus hot and cold drinks, for the literally hundreds of people on this run.  He moved behind that counter like a whirling dervish; serving up slices of anorexic, piping hot, cardboard pizza and things that looked like they might once have been sausage rolls. Choices were thin on the ground, and even thinner when they emerged from being microwaved. I managed to grab some cold snacks, and the last two small miniatures of Sutter Creek Zinfandel on the train. Major sustenance would have to await my arrival in New York, several hours hence.

Fortunately, a feast of a far more satisfying kind was being served up, just outside my window.  The Maple Leaf Explorer shuddered, rattled and moaned its way through the heartlands of upstate New York,  speeding through a lush, green spread of slow, gently rolling hills and meadows, where small villages peeped almost shyly into sight, before disappearing in a smeary blur behind us.

The train rolled past small trailer parks, where children played on swings and in makeshift paddling pools. We thundered past one horse towns so quiet that even the horse was taking the day off.  Rivers came and went like drum rolls; some of them tinted an amazing rust brown by the slowly setting sun up above.

There were short, abrupt stops. Familiar names came and went. Albany. Buffalo. Names familiar from American folklore. Then on, into the clamouring embrace of the rolling emerald carpet that framed the views from my window.

The views en route were real, old world Americana

The views en route were real, old world Americana

There were old, abandoned industrial buildings, with brickwork still bearing the ghostly outlines of their trade in the form of weathered paintwork, scarred by decades of neglect and apathy. Sadness and pride seemed to be etched into every brick.

The Zinfandel had combined with the splendid, surreal scenery to lull me into a kind of languid, mellow stupor. And that train seat was wickedly comfortable; easily the most commodious and accommodating I had ever sat in. It really did put most airline business class seats to shame. The hours rolled by steadily, easily. And suddenly….

Out of the window, a jagged series of unmistakable buildings clawed abruptly at a flaring, purple twilight, their lights like the glow of a swarm of fireflies. Manhattan. Proud, beautiful, and never more alluring than at that special, magical hour of dusk. The Maple Leaf Explorer slowed to a crawl, grinding almost painfully forward, before it finally slid almost reluctantly into the floodlit, artificially lit embrace of Penn Station, and shuddered to a final halt.

Off the train, and the exhilaration of being in New York blew away the cobwebs and ennui as completely as if they had never existed. Within an hour, I had checked in to my hotel, found a nearby diner, and initiated a full frontal assault on a steak about the size of Saipan. Nothing- and I mean nothing- ever tasted so good. New York. Summer in the city. Now a new phase in the adventure could unravel.

Hey, Manhattan....

Hey, Manhattan….

It was a while before I could reflect objectively on that rail journey. I’m glad I did it, and it was a definite appetiser for the coast to coast trip I mentioned at the start. The trains making that run are huge, double decker juggernauts, with couchettes, sleeping cabins, scenic cars, and a full bar and diner service.  It’s the taste of another adventure; one yet to be savoured, from sea to shining sea.

SLOW ROLLING DOWN TO SAN DIEGO

ImageThe huge, silver sheathed, double decker Surfliner train lurched out of LA’s Union Station with a deceptively gentle shudder. Sprawled in a huge, business class seat on the upper deck, I savoured the space and comfort, and pondered the advantages of paying a little extra for the upgrade.

The scenery wasn’t one of them. At least not for the first hour. The train rumbled ominously through a vast hinterland of scrub, burnt out cars, ragged, random graffiti and urban decay. Huge chimneys reared against the sky, blighting the sunny January day with belching clouds of smoke that clawed at the heavens like poisonous, grubby fingers.

ImageAnd then, it changed. As completely and dramatically as if someone had switched channels without me seeing it. Suddenly, there were long, rolling swathes of sand drummed by the steely blue rollers of the Pacific. Spanish style towns; villages and haciendas wreathed in swathes of gorgeous, vibrant hibiscus. Date palms and small knots of tiny people, draped across the promenades and walkways as the Surfliner rolled south.

ImageThere was no finer time or place to enjoy the complimentary mini bottle of Sutter Creek Zinfandel that comes with being in business class. It somehow never tastes better than in California. There was also free coffee, tea and pastries laid out at the end of the coach.

Three hours on a train have never passed so pleasurably, or seemingly so quickly. But journey’s end found me breaking into an unstoppable grin, as the Surfliner shuddered to a halt at Santa Fe station, in downtown San Diego.

ImageSan Diego flaunts around seventy miles of sun kissed beaches, all of them garnished with the best, year round temperatures anywhere on the mainland USA. Situated just eight miles from the Mexican border at infamous Tijuana, it is also the southernmost city on the continent. Yet these are just a few of San Diego’s prime bragging points.

ImageThe city is very Spanish accented, open and lush. Balboa Park alone can occupy you for a full day. Here you’ll find a dazzling, ornately sculpted array of incredible, colonial style buildings, churches and museums. There are vast, lush botanical gardens almost awash with flora, fauna and cacti or every kind, colour and texture imaginable. Birds of every species, size and colour screech and caw in the mid day sun.The whole place is a magnificent, sublimely mellow, audio visual assault on the senses.

ImageGiant Koi carp cruise impassively through deep, dimly lit, lily draped pools and lakes. In fact, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that it is worth visiting San Diego simply to see Balboa alone..

ImageBut the city is far more than just it’s gorgeous green lung. The Gaslight District has a whole series of restored blocks of Victorian style architecture, gentrified and converted into shops, restaurants and some fabulous sidewalk bars and cafes, in an area easily reached on foot from both the railway station and Balboa Park. It’s a cool, mellow place to chill out and make the fun, dreamy transition from late afternoon to early evening. I cannot think of anything similar anywhere in the continental USA. It has a magical, unique vibe all it’s own.

ImageBut sunset is a magical, almost mystical time in this jewel on the Pacific coast. I had been advised to check out the show from a bar called Lahaina, located on the dusky sprawl of Pacific Beach.

ImageI fell in love with ‘PB’ at first sight. It seems to go on forever, curving north and south in what could be called a kind of slow, dreamy smile. Surfers breasted the surging, gunmetal tinted rollers, their outlines black against a slowly reddening sky. The sand itself, brushed by the same gently falling sun, had a kind of sharp caramel hue. Lovers walked their dogs along it as the greedy sea lunged towards their feet. From somewhere behind me, a busker was rasping out old Creedence Clearwater Revival stuff for all he was worth.

ImageI made my way to Lahaina, grabbed a Longboard beer (another recommendation from a friendly local), and drank in a fabulous, slowly fading sunset as if it were the finest wine. It unfolded like a series of stunning drum rolls before finally giving up the ghost, and sagging into the waiting arms of the Pacific.

These are just a few snapshots of a city that I have come to love very much. San Diego is hugely under rated, yet it has wonderful people, fabulous architecture and a simple, friendly feel good factor that elevates it way above many far more pretentious places.

ImageBut don’t take my word for it. Go see for yourself. Happy travelling!