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.


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!