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Los Angeles to Tucson by train

Feb 18, 2017 Saturday – Los Angeles to Tucson by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited train

Rainbow over the desert as we approach Tucson train station

Rainbow over the desert as we approach Tucson train station

After a good sleep overnight from Los Angeles, I’m up early and sit down for breakfast shortly after the dining car opens at 6:30AM. My new friend Jim joins me, so we talk about our upcoming plans over coffee, scrambled eggs and croissants. Jim is having grits, and assures me they taste great providing they are seasoned with salt and pepper – but I pass on them! The train is running late, so we have plenty of time before our projected arrival around 10:15AM. Outside there is desert scrub and a few cactus, and the mountains behind. We see a vertical rainbow to the north as the Sun rises over the mountains to the south.

It’s a cloudy day here in the desert. As we approach Maricopa, Arizona (near Phoenix) it is raining lightly. There is a crew change here before we leave for Tucson, my final stop for this train trip. This morning, the conductor says our delays last night when leaving Los Angeles were caused by staying clear of freight trains and there were also some weather-related delays, whatever that means.

The train pulls into Tucson station at 10:15AM – the end of my train trip.

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Seattle to Los Angeles by train

Feb 16, 2017 Thursday – Seattle to Sacramento by train

I wake up at 6:30AM this morning, having had a good sleep at the hotel. I go down for some breakfast and the essential coffee. It is then time to leave for the train station. There are patches of blue sky and no rain, so instead of taking a taxi, I slowly walk the six blocks, pulling my big bag on wheels.

Looking into my Roomette aboard the Seattle to Sacramento Coast Starlight

Looking into my Roomette aboard the Seattle to Sacramento Coast Starlight

The King Street Union Station in Seattle is beautiful inside, with marble walls and classic high ceilings. The old-style wooden high-backed bench seats hearken back to previous eras. I go to the ticket booth to check-in and the agent explains that if I need stuff out of my big bag, then I will have to take it aboard with me instead of checking it through to LA. Next time, I will know to take a smaller bag, since there is no assistance with bag handling when boarding the train.

This is certainly slow travel, since our check-in consists of showing our tickets to the agent, and then they hand write a paper ticket with our car number and room number on it. No ticket scans and no security checks. The Homeland Security Police presence inside the station bring me back to the current reality, although they appear to be pretty bored, having little to do.

9:30AM – Leave Seattle, WA. There is a Sounder commuter train unloading passengers on the opposite track to ours as we leave. It’s so refreshing to see rail transport being actively used here in Washington State, unlike Vancouver Island, where rail transport is being neglected.

Tacoma Narrows bridge at sunset

Tacoma Narrows bridge at sunset

10:30AM – Tacoma, WA – we stop to board a few passengers before leaving for the most scenic stretch along the Puget Sound to Olympia. The Roomette on the opposite side of the isle is being used by George, our car attendant, so I scoot over there to shoot video and photos, since he said he doesn’t mind. We also briefly stop in Olympia to take on a few more passengers, and then the train goes inland through rural areas.

12:00 Noon – Centralia, WA – we stop for a few minutes to detrain some passengers, and then carry on our way. Lunch is served in the dining car in three seatings: 12:00, 12:30 and 13:00. I skip the first seating, since there is a rush of passengers. The rivers in this area are muddy and swollen with the rain and snow we recently had over the last month or so.

12:20PM – Longview-Kelso, WA – The rain starts as we travel south, crossing rivers and streams with the I-5 freeway beside us. I’m so happy to not be driving…just sitting here in my Roomette with my slippers on, fully relaxed as I watch the drivers on the freeway drive through the rain. I go to the dining car at 12:30PM and have turkey medallions – a very nice hot lunch!

1:50PM – Portland, OR – We stop in Portland for about a half hour, where passengers get on and off. It is also where passengers can get off to stretch their legs, get some fresh air, and to have a smoke (outside the terminal). I stay onboard, since it is raining quite hard.

I receive a voicemail from Amtrak stating that I should get off at Sacramento to be transferred to LA to connect with my train to Tucson, since they are expecting delays further down the track to LA. They have refunded a portion of my ticket in compensation. I check with my car attendant, and he can’t see why that is necessary since the train isn’t currently running late. He suggests I check with the next conductor before arriving in Sacramento, but I should be prepared to get off the train in Sacramento at 6:35AM.

Red barn and green field at sunset near Tangent, Oreon

Red barn and green field at sunset near Tangent, Oregon

3:50PM – Salem, OR – Quick stop. Willamette University Bearcats female football players practicing. Lots of farming is going on in the Willamette Valley between Salem and Albany.

4:35PM – Albany, OR – Quick stop. Big rail yard.

The conductor comes by to find out what I was told about getting off in Sacramento. He confirms there is flooding near Chico, California, which will slow the train down, and there is also track work being done on the California coast section, so the train will likely be quite late. He confirms I should get off in Sacramento, and tells me I will be on a bus from Sacramento to Stockton, then a fast train from Stockton to Bakersfield, and finally another bus from Bakersfield to LA, driving down the Central Valley. I will arrive in LA at 4:15PM, and my train to Tucson leaves at 10PM.

6:10PM I go for dinner at the second seating, I am seated with a couple who boarded in Tacoma. They are heading to LA and then getting on a cruise ship in San Pedro, the Port of Los Angeles, for a short 6 day cruise down the coast of Mexico.

8:00PM – It’s pitch black outside, but I see quite a bit of snow flashing by and snowflakes falling outside the window. We haven’t had cellular reception for quite awhile, which is to be expected in this area, according to the conductor. The train has slowed down to perhaps 10-15 mph and now it has stopped. Our conductor announces that the train will stop because an outside sensor is detecting that something is dragging below the train. He goes outside to investigate – in the dark and snow, and with a serious drop in slope beside the roadbed. After 10 minutes the train starts moving again after he reports nothing found.

8:33PM – I thought the train has stopped again, but it’s just become very quiet riding through the snow.

9:05PM – Chemult, OR – more passengers board the train.

10PM – Time for bed…my first night aboard a train in my own Roomette.

Feb 17, 2017 Friday – Sacramento to Los Angeles by bus and train

Sacramento Valley Station in the rain

Sacramento Valley Station in the rain

My day starts early at 5AM when I wake up in my Roomette and look outside at the dark. The dining car doesn’t open before our arrival in Sacramento, so no breakfast for those of us de-traing here. I say goodbye to my cabin attendant and shlep my bags into the terminal. I check into the ticket booth, and am issued new Amtrak tickets for both today’s bus-train-bus segments, this evening’s train to Tucson, and my return trip back to Seattle. I sit with one of my fellow passengers, who tells me by his calculations our train averaged 43 mph from Seattle to Sacramento.

The Amtrak bus leaves the station an hour after our arrival and takes about an hour \to transfer us to the Stockton station. We wait an hour before boarding the San Joaquin commuter train to Bakersfield. The train leaves at 9:25AM and arrives in Bakersfield at 1:49PM. Along the way, we pass huge fields of almond trees in bloom, and even some orange bushes. The fields are either flooded or are so wet that there is no way they can be worked. The train slows because of high winds in the valley. I go to the snack bar on board and have a hot panini for lunch.

We then take another Amtrak bus from Bakersfield to Union Station in Los Angeles. This proves to be a real endurance contest, since it is raining so hard. The US Weather Service is sending out warnings to stay away from the areas we are driving through! This was supposed to be a 2 hour and 20 minute trip according to the ticket, but ends up taking over four hours. I find it to be very stressful, not only because of the extremely hazardous driving conditions. We are stopped at least twice from entering LA because of mud slides, washouts, or MVAs causing roads to be closed. Apparently, the major interstate freeway I-5 was closed in both directions today!

Traxx restaurant in LA's Union Station

Traxx restaurant in LA’s Union Station

I find the Metropolitan Lounge in Union Station; sit down to relax and have a coffee and snacks. I need some time to unwind a bit, and to recover from the stress of the last segment of our journey today. I leave my big bag in the lounge and have a nice dinner with a new friend I met on the train at the Traxx restaurant in the station.

I then return to the lounge, retrieve my bags, and get a red cap to take me to the train. They are ready to board passengers, so I quickly get settled into my Roomette. I have a shower before we depart the station, since it’s so much easier than when the train is rocking and rolling. Our cabin attendant tells me this train has no Wi-fi aboard, and the route the train takes means the cellular coverage cuts out as soon as the train clears the LA area.

10:00PM – The train leaves the station on time and slowly proceeds eastward through Los Angeles, but by 11:00PM it comes to a complete stop for about 15 minutes before proceeding slowly again. I have a feeling the operating staff are watching out for debris on the tracks, since this rainstorm has washed out many roads and gullies are full of mud and rocks. No doubt they are being careful to avoid derailment, because it is still raining, but just not as hard as this afternoon. The train starts and stops several times before I go to bed around 11:30PM.

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Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Sunday, December 18, 2011 – Day 28 – Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

I go on the horse riding excursion today – a nice way to get away from the commercialization of Puerto Vallarta. A bus takes us inland to an arid area behind Puerto Vallarta, where the real Mexicans live. There are no Walmarts, Home Depots or upscale shopping centres here…just little cafes beside the road with a few tables and dirt floors, and vendors barbecuing chicken beside the road, selling to the local families for their Sunday dinners.

We arrive at the hacienda and are assigned our horses based on our weight and skill level. I get a horse called “Grandpa” (“Abuelito” in Spanish). There are about thirty riders from the ship, so it is a good-sized group as we leave the corral single file and try to get used to our steeds (and them to us, no doubt). Grandpa seems to be very good at following the horse in front of him, and that suits me fine. We travel slowly across country similar to the dry and scrubby land landscape I remember from La Enscenada Lodge ranch on the Gulf of Nicoya in Costa Rica. We cross the river twice, once where it is less than a foot deep, and another point where it is probably about a metre deep. “Grandpa” is one of the bigger horses, so I don’t get my feet wet, while other riders do.

We have a rest stop after an hour, where they have a little cantina setup with beer, pop and water for sale, and of course there are also bathrooms available. Some people have a dip in the nearby hot springs, while others ride one of the horses which likes to swim in the deeper part of the river. I just take it easy, take some photos, and then climb back on “Grandpa” for the return trip back to the hacienda.

The cruise ship harbour is located in a very central spot with spectacular towers on both sides of the harbour entrance, stretched along the sandy beachfront. A huge marina adjoins the harbour, which is chock full of speedboats and other pleasure craft owned by the gringos in the waterfront towers.

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Huatulco to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico – at sea

Saturday, December 17, 2011 – Day 27 – At sea

Today we are enroute from Huatulco to Puerto Vallarta, sailing up the Mexican Pacific coast. I go for breakfast in La Fontaine dining room this morning, and am seated with a table of veteran cruisers. They are all talking about their various experiences on ships. I am a two star Mariner in Holland America’s loyalty program, and most everyone else has either two stars or three stars. Nobody has achieved Four Star status yet, which is the top level for Holland America cruisers.

I am invited to the 11AM sitting of the Mariners Luncheon, where I see the captain for the first time in this voyage. He greets me as I enter La Fontaine dining room. They pour us some champagne, the captain welcomes us, and then Thom the Cruise Director makes a few remarks about Holland America’s ships and loyalty program. The lunch is nice, and I meet some interesting people at the table. One couple from Michigan has visited Hawaii 16 times. She was on an African safari to South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, and really liked it. I share that I also did a safari in the same area a few years ago.

JoeTourist: Rotterdam, the ship &emdash; Christmas gifts around the Atrium antique clockThe ship is decorated for Christmas, with some impressive displays around the giant clock in the atrium, as well as a huge gingerbread house, and a sequencing Christmas sign stretched between the twin stacks outside. I understand there will be over 100 children boarding the ship when it departs San Diego in a few days, so their families’ Christmas aboard ship will be assured to be special, particularly when Santa shows up in person.

My friends and I go up to the Lido for dinner, and decide to sit on the semi-open deck around the pool, where we can watch the beautiful sunset over the ocean. We had hoped there might be a Green Flash visible tonight, but no joy since there is quite a bit of sea fog near the horizon.

Later, I go up to Deck 10 forward and do a bit of astronomical observing. Visually and with my Canon IS binoculars I see: Jupiter (2+2 moons) directly overhead, Venus near the horizon, Orion Nebula and constellation, M45 the Pleiades, M31 Andromeda Galaxy, Cassiopeia constellation, and Cygnus constellation. As my eyes adapt to the dark, I can also see the Milky Way.

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Peru to Ecuador – at sea

Days 17 & 18 – At sea – Peru to Ecuador

Dec 7, 2011 – Wednesday – Day 17 – At sea

Cruise ships are a study in contrasts. This morning as I walk through the casino where the bells are ringing and the smokers are puffing; I hear hymns being sung in the next room; people are quietly reading or playing board games in the library; and finally the jewellery store is having a 40% off sale and draw, so crowds are gathering for that event in the retail area. I see a single dolphin jumping in the ocean this morning as I walk the Lower Promenade Deck for exercise.

There is a beautiful sunset this evening, however sea fog obscures any possibility of seeing the green flash. It is Formal Night, so we have a late dinner in La Fontaine main dining room. My friends and I enjoy some Robert Mondavi white wine, and I have a rack of lamb done to perfection. The service is impeccable. As we finish our desserts, the captain announces that we are diverting to Salaverry/Trujillo for a medical emergency for someone needing shore-based treatment. We will dock at 11PM this evening, and then resume our course to Ecuador. He does not foresee any problems arriving in Guayaquil on time the day after tomorrow.

Dec 8, 2011 – Thursday – Day 18 – At sea

I go to breakfast in La Fontaine the main dining room and am seated with a couple from San Diego, who have taken many cruises with Holland America. Their last cruise was 65 days around the Pacific Rim on the Amsterdam, which is a ship they prefer over the other Holland America ships – “better run” is their comment. There are many people aboard who prefer the longer cruises.

After breakfast, I go for a walk around the Lower Promenade Deck, but the air temperature is cool so I duck back inside. The cold Humboldt Current (aka the Peru Current) off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador keeps the air temperature cool, despite being located so close to the Equator. I find a good seat in the Show Lounge, since there are two back-to-back presentations I want to listen to this morning highlighting Nicaragua and Manta, Ecuador, our next ports-of-call.

I work on my photos in the Explorers Lounge, adding a caption and location to each photo. While I am working, the fire alarm sounds and the crew is dispatched to investigate. As it turns out, someone was doing some welding in a work area below decks, and the fumes got into the crew quarters, setting off multiple alarms. The captain comes on the PA system shortly after explaining what happened and assures us it was a false alarm (thank goodness).

Mark Donoghue

Mark Donoghue

We go to the show lounge this evening to see Mark Donoghue, a performer who plays the violin, guitar, piano, harmonica, and he also sings. He is very good, playing favourites from the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. My favourites are the TV themes he performs. Riverboat and Bonanza both bring back childhood memories of watching these shows on our black and white Philco TV.

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Bahamas to Colombia – at sea

Wednesday, November 23, 2011 – Day 3 – At sea

I have a very nice breakfast this morning in La Fontaine, the main dining room. I am seated at a table for four, and meet a couple from Chemainus who used to do the mapping for BC Parks interpretive signs, and a young woman from California who is debarking in Callao/Lima to realize her dream to see Machu Picchu. The couple relate how they traveled to Ft. Lauderdale by train using Amtrack from Seattle to Chicago, then to Washington, DC, and finally to Ft. Lauderdale. Apparently their arrangements cost about the same as flying, and it took 3-4 days. This strikes me as a great way to avoid the hassle of the airlines and airports if you have the time to spare.

I attend a presentation by Martin, the Shore Excursions manager this morning, where he reviews all the excursions for the first half of the voyage. He mentions that all Holland America excursions to Machu Picchu depart the day after our scheduled arrival in Callao/Lima because the ship is often late arriving if the seas are rough off the South American coast. This is a concern of mine, since we leave on a flight from Lima airport around 2PM on the first day of arrival, so I hope the seas cooperate and the ship arrives on time. I’m resolved to not worry about it, since there is absolutely nothing I can do about weather in the Pacific or when our ship arrives in port some two weeks from now.

JoeTourist: Days at Sea &emdash; Eastern end of CubaAt noon today I spot the eastern end of Cuba from the right side of the ship. The captain announces we are passing within 6 nautical miles from the tip of Cuba at 2PM. The island of Hispanola is visible from the other side of the ship, but it is really just a smudge on the western horizon as we sail between these two large islands. I take some photos of both, but because it is midday the results are washed out despite using a polarizing filter.

The green flash captured at sunset from the Deck of the Rotterdam Cruise ship

The green flash captured at sunset from the Deck of the Rotterdam Cruise ship

It is formal night this evening and my friends and I go to Canaletto, the Italian-themed restaurant. The food is wonderful, and the serving staff is very friendly. After dinner on the Lido deck, I see the Green flash of the setting Sun from the poolside table in the Lido as the ship sails up the coast. My friend takes some good photos of the green flash from the deck above, however I’m pleased to visually observe this apparition. This is a personal first for me after many years of trying! Afterwards, we we go to the deck above the bridge to observe the night sky. It is nice and dark up there – Jupiter is directly overhead, Orion is laying on his side in the East, the Pleiades (M45), Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the M35 open cluster, and the red star in Taurus are all easily observed with both my image-stabilized Canon binoculars and unaided eyes since it is so dark.

I go to the late show at 10PM, which highlights Broadway song-and-dance. This is the first time I have seen the ship’s singers and dancers. The numbers they perform are really well done and it is fun to watch.

Thursday, November 24, 2011 – Day 4 – At sea

I decide to go to La Fontaine, the main dining room again this morning for breakfast. I am seated at a table for six with a couple from Calgary and a couple from Houston, Texas. The woman from Houston is originally from South Africa and spots my JoeTourist Africa t-shirt I’m wearing, so she and I talk for quite awhile about South Africa. She was pleased to hear I drove from Johannesburg all the way down the Wild and Garden coasts to Cape Town. She related some interesting stories about the gold mines when she was living in South Africa many years ago. As many South Africans did, she decided to emigrate when she was a young adult because of the personal security issues plaguing the country.

JoeTourist: Rotterdam, the ship &emdash; Promenade Deck in the tropical sunshineI attend another presentation by Martin, the Shore Excursions manager this morning, where he reviews all the excursions for the second half of the voyage from Ecuador up the Pacific Coast to Mexico. I might decide to book a tour in Guayaquil, but otherwise I think the shore excursions I have pre-booked will work fine for me. After lunch, I sit out on the Lower Promenade Deck in a deck chair and read The Black Echo – a book on my iPad. It has taken me awhile to get into this book, but now I’m actively reading it. This is classic cruise ship stuff – reading a book in a deck chair, and I’m not alone. There are dozens of passengers doing exactly the same thing.

It is American Thanksgiving today, so roasted turkey is on the menu in La Fontaine the main dining room this evening, however I have the grilled salmon instead. I also order a bottle of California white wine, since my friends and I feel like some wine with dinner this evening. Most times we don’t bother drinking with our meals since it is pretty expensive. We have some nice desserts and cappuccino to finish.

We manage to find some of the last seats available in the first show in main showroom to see Lance Ringnald, a two-time Olympic gymnast gold medal winner who does a great acrobatic show using silks hanging from the stage ceiling. I saw his act on the Volendam on last year’s cruise, and was eager to see a repeat performance. He didn’t disappoint. This is not typical of the featured entertainment you expect to find on a cruise ship, but Lance has perfected a nice combination of gymnastics, acrobatics, and funny banter with the audience that works well and is entertaining.

I go to bed after the show, since we are in port tomorrow in Santa Marta, Columbia, and I have a half-day shore excursion to catch at 8:35AM.

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Departing Vancouver aboard Volendam

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 – the start of the South Pacific Cruise

Leaving Lions Gate Bridge behind as we depart Vancouver

Leaving Lions Gate Bridge behind as we depart Vancouver

Pacific Coach Lines (now the BC Ferries Connector) takes us from Victoria across the water to the mainland on BC Ferries to the Canada Place Cruise Terminal in Vancouver without a hitch. They drop us off right inside the terminal, and our bags are delivered to our cabin aboard ship…what terrific service!

Boarding the Volendam is pretty easy, despite having to go through three stages before actually stepping aboard: security screening (like airports), US Customs and Immigration, then Holland America’s own check-in.

Somehow I manage to leave my dress jacket at home, so once I’m settled in my cabin, I leave the ship and make a quick dash to Dunn’s Tailors on lower Georgia Street where I buy a new dress jacket. So now I will be ready for the seven formal nights we have scheduled while on board this cruise. I arrive back on board in time for the compulsory lifejacket drill just before our departure.

The Volendam slips away from the dock at 5PM, and we are on our way! There are some folks who boarded today in Vancouver and who will leave the ship tomorrow in Seattle – a one day overnight cruise! No doubt they will party hard tonight to take advantage of all the fun stuff aboard.

Sailing under Lions Gate Bridge is spectacular this evening, with great views of the North Shore Mountains, the harbour, and Stanley Park. It brings back memories of when I sailed under the same bridge in 1981 aboard the Cunard Princess bound for the Caribbean. Everyone is very excited as we pass under the bridge, but then it is time for dinner. We opt for a BBQ dinner served alfresco on the (covered) Lido deck beside the pool. We watch the sun set over Georgia Strait and Vancouver Island as the ship slowly makes its way overnight to Seattle.

Vancouver Departure of the Volendam 2010 from JoeTourist InfoSystems on Vimeo.

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