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Let’s play ball

Amtrak's California Zephyr

USA and Canada trip, Summer 2023: Week 2

  • New York
  • New York to Chicago (Amtrak): 1,145km
  • Chicago
  • Chicago to Denver (Amtrak): 1,475km

We left each other last week with the Queen Mary 2 having made an unscheduled stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia, resulting in it being 10–12 hours late on its journey to New York. While a mid-afternoon arrival (rather than a daybreak one) was very inconvenient for passengers who had onward journeys, it was also a rare opportunity for the ship to make the memorable entrance to New York harbour at a civilised time of day, around 3pm.

Unfortunately the weather doesn’t play ball.

Verrazano Narrows Bridge, New York

It looks like fog to most of us, but the locals say that New York fog doesn’t look like that, and they think it’s the result of smoke from fires all the way up in Canada. Interesting.

Entering New York Harbour

To be honest, although the haze doesn’t particularly spoil the spectacular harbour arrival experience, it didn’t leave any of the passengers with much in the way of decent photographs.

The Friday afternoon New York traffic is neatly swerved by taking the fantastic NYC Ferry service from Brooklyn Cruise Terminal to midtown Manhattan, the location of my hotel for a couple of nights. When I get the chance, I’ll do a video about the ferry service as a smart way of getting to and from the terminal. (Getting ideas for a video on the spur of the moment? I’m getting to be quite the YouTuber!) (Update: here it is)

With just one full day in New York scheduled, there’s no time to waste. Let’s start by booking a food tour for the next morning: these tours are my favourite way of seeing new places and meeting new people. There’s a conveniently-timed offering by Secret Food Tours, who I’ve toured with in Greenwich Village in 2022 and Austin, Texas earlier this year.

Mobile data abroad without the contract

As an aside, I’d originally planned to do this trip just using free wi-fi, because you’re never more than a few steps from that in the USA. Combine free public wi-fi with offline Google Maps for navigation, and local mobile phone service becomes more ‘useful’ (for booking taxis etc) than ‘essential’.

However, I’ve just been introduced to the delights of the ‘e-sim’, which effectively offers local mobile data anywhere in the world, at a comparable cost to a domestic service. For the convenience alone, it seems like a no-brainer. Just go to an e-sim provider’s website, sign up and select how much data you want and for how long, anywhere. I was recommended Airalo; it was easy to set up, and it works seamlessly.

They have a referral offer if you’re travelling abroad and want to try it. Apparently you’ll get £3 off and so will I if I use them again, woo hoo.

The New York food tour starts at 11am, so there’s time to get the subway to revisit the World Trade Center (sic) area. Many tourists seem to be apprehensive about the New York subway, but they shouldn’t be, certainly not in the centre of the city. Even easier, you just ‘tap in’ with a credit card or your phone to use it now.

I’ve been to the Financial District twice in the past: once when the old towers were there, and once when there was a space where they used to be. Now the area has been rebuilt dramatically. The 9/11 Memorial Plaza seems respectful, despite being packed with tourists.

The food tour targets Chinatown and Little Italy, and I meet a great bunch of people, from places including Florida, Newfoundland and, er, Guernsey. Host Rachel is adorable, and after three hours and seven eating stops, we can barely move.

Chinatown food tour, NYC

I force myself to walk uptown in some baking heat to Fotografiska, a photography museum which currently has a Terry O’Neill exhibition. “Mention a global celebrity from the second half of the 20th century”, it advertises, “and that person probably posed for Terry O’Neill’s camera. ‘Stars’ features iconic portraits of Brigitte Bardot, Mick Jagger, Audrey Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, The Beatles, Kate Moss and many more.” It was as good as it sounded.

Terry O’Neill exhibition

Time to revisit the chaos of Times Square, and to book a Broadway show. Wanting something that was at least currently exclusive to New York, the most appealing is Beautiful Noise: the Neil Diamond musical. It’s a ‘not-at-all-guilty’ pleasure, and a cracking evening’s entertainment.

The next day it’s off to Penn Station for the first leg of my coast-to-coast train journey. I’ll definitely try to do a video of the trip, so watch this space. The sleeper car ticket offers access to the really nice ‘Metropolitan Lounge’ at the new Moynihan Train Hall, so I arrive 90 minutes before departure time to take advantage of some excellent free food and drink, and to watch the world go by from the balcony.

Penn Station, NYC

And so to my first experience of long-distance Amtrak sleeper trains. All the main routes have names, and this one is the ‘Lake Shore Limited’. The ‘roomette’ is pretty cool. I guess it’ll be much more space than I need during the day, but perhaps a little cramped at night. There’s a shower and ‘restroom’ down the corridor, and everything is clean and pleasant.

Amtrak 'roomette'

Here’s the schedule, taking us through five states on the overnight trip. Four hours into the journey, about 7.30pm, I wander down to the restaurant car, where I’m seated with a nice lady originally from Manila, for a pleasant meal.

Lake Shore Limited timetable

Around 9pm the coach attendant comes around and converts the ‘roomette’ into a bedroom, by folding down the seats and adding a previously prepared mattress and sheets. If there were two people sharing the compartment, he’d have folded down a top bunk, which would not be for the claustrophobic. It’s a much nicer arrangement for one. Like most sleeping-car passengers, now that the bed is made up, it’s time to retire for the night with a good book.

We wake up in the morning to a view of Lake Michigan. To tell the truth, I hadn’t slept much – a combination of it being a ‘compact’ (shall we say) bed, as well as no small degree of continuing excitement. I probably woke up at every station stop during the night.

Chicago is reached on time, mid-morning, after 19 hours on the train: a gentle introduction before the longer second leg of the journey to come. I could have transferred straight onto that, as the Chicago to San Francisco train leaves after lunch, but it seemed daft not to spend a couple of days in the ‘Windy City’.

First task: dump my bag at the hotel, and find a bar to plan the next two days. It’s going to be a lake and river cruise in a large powerboat after lunch, followed by an almost inevitable walking food tour in the evening. Both form a great introduction to Chicago, a city that I instantly take a liking to. Compared to Manhattan, it has a much more laid-back vibe, despite being busy. It’s possible to be both.

Chicago boat tour

The crowd on the food tour are of all ages, and once again are lovely people. We’re introduced to proper deep dish Chicago pizza, Chicago dogs, Chicago beef sandwiches, and the original Palmer House Hilton brownie. The Chicago dog has yellow mustard, chopped white onions, bright green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices or wedges, pickled sport peppers and a dash of celery salt …and absolutely no ketchup, never, ever.

The next day is 4 July, and the lakeside is heaving, as much of Chicago goes down to the beach, along with barbecues the size of industrial kitchens.

I meet up for beers with a contributor to a music website that I run, who coincidentally is passing through Chicago. Putting faces to names like this rarely lets you down, and it’s great to chew over his love for a relatively obscure English rock band. Come over and see them live, Adrian!

Featureless TV Producer Steve

On the subject of English rock bands (although of a very different type), the Adler Planetarium in Chicago is one of a handful of places worldwide hosting an official celebration of the 50th birthday of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’. The album had been originally launched at the London Planetarium in 1973. No way am I going to miss this.

The show, billed as an ‘all encompassing surround sound and visual treat that will transcend reality and take you way beyond the realms of 2D experience’, has been put together by a team including the band’s long-time creative collaborator Aubrey Powell from Hipgnosis. Listening to the album this way is an extraordinary experience, and one I could easily do several times over. Sadly, there’s only one performance a day.

So I jump on the subway and head for what the locals still refer to as Comiskey Park, but is now the cringeworthily-named Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the Chicago White Sox. I love the baseball experience, although I’ve only ever been to three or four big games. The Toronto Blue Jays are in town: they were the first team I ever went to see (in their 1992 World Series winning season), so they’ve always had a place in my heart. But always live like a local, and tonight I’m a South Sider.

Chicago White Sox – Guaranteed Rate Field

The match isn’t a classic, although it’s still a great evening’s entertainment, as you’d expect. The action is punctuated by distant fireworks going off all over the city, before the evening ends with a display of its own. Almost all of the 32,000 crowd stay in their seats for this, unlike the previous three hours. I will never get the hang of the way Americans watch sport, where the play is firmly in the background while the fans eat, drink and make the event all about themselves. Just a different way of doing things.

Chicago White Sox – Guaranteed Rate Field fireworks

Waiting in the long queue for the subway afterwards, it’s 82 degrees at 10.30pm. And it’ll probably be hotter still on the west coast!

The California Zephyr

The next morning offers an hour or two to do some washing. I’d deliberately picked a hotel with a laundry room, as ‘one-bag travelling’ for six weeks or more does require some pre-planned practicalities. Then it’s off to Union Station for the second (and longest) leg of my rail journey, all the way from Chicago to the west coast.

Here’s the schedule, taking us through seven states over three days and two nights.

California Zephyr timetable

As we leave Chicago, after 48 hours of blazing sunshine it begins to rain …exactly as we experienced when leaving New York! I mention this because it puts on a speed restriction, which quickly puts us an hour behind schedule. Then as we approach the Mississippi crossing at Burlington, Ohio Iowa, the train has to wait for the bridge to let two ships through, and before you know it, we’re two hours late. Still, what tourist is going to complain about the rail journey being longer?

California Zephyr train

This train is a bigger one – a double-decker – and I accept the offer of an upstairs ‘roomette’. It’s similarly sized to the previous train, although a different design without a foldaway washbasin. On the first train, you had to go down the corridor to take a shower, but on this one you also have to pop down to the end of the train carriage for somewhere to clean your teeth.

Amtrak roomette

Rolling across Iowa and Nebraska is unremarkable, but gives the best impression yet of the vast size of North America’s interior, if your imagination can expand what you see into all four directions. It’s even flatter still when we wake in the morning, but it’s not long after breakfast that we reach Denver, where the scenery will start to change dramatically.

Rolling across Iowa and Nebraska is unremarkable

The atmosphere in the sleeping car half of the train is very friendly (I’m sure it is in coach class too), and there are new acquaintances of all ages to be made. It’s another really enjoyable aspect of a train journey that you don’t get any other way. Strike lucky with your mealtime buddies and you can have a great time. I know I did. The food is also pretty good, with masses of choice (especially to have your selection “done your way”), but then again, Americans just seem to take this for granted.

Now, in the words of the train captain: “Let’s go see some mountains!”

Note: I deliberately haven’t listed the specific sights of the rail journey, but if you’re interested, there’s a writeup of the same trip, with all that information, on perhaps the world’s best travel website, The Man in Seat 61.

Your comments

  1. Thanks for another great instalment. I am still insanely jealous of your theatre trip in New York! Sounds as though you are having a great time. I love the idea of the food tours. They don’t sound very vegan though!! So glad you were able to make use of the laundry room at the hotel 🤣🤣
    Enjoy the mountains. Looking forward to the next report.
    Lots of love J & R xxxx

  2. Love these blogs Chris – your trip sounds absolutely perfect to me, I’m jealous of every part of it. I’m going to try and find the Pink Floyd planetarium DSOM show over here (I read that it’s on in Winchester and Scotland). It sounds like you are having a great time – please keep the blogs coming!

  3. Great update! Just a correction that you crossed the Mississippi at Burlington, Iowa. Also, if you want to experience a true American spectator sport, you need to catch a college football game. Lots of cheering and yelling and fan participation. Baseball is great and is my first love but it’s essentially a summertime distraction that doesn’t get great until October. Enjoy!!

    Thanks for the correction – Chris

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