Jerseygator's Blog

17 Months Later…

Posted in Friends,travel by jerseygator on October 18, 2016

European Vacation #2

It’s hard to believe that almost a year and a half have flown by since my last post. Much has transpired in that timeframe, both good and bad (miss ya, brother), but life goes on, eh?!

To celebrate my 55th birthday, we took family and friends on another European Vacation and Tracey said that the agenda for this trip was MINE. Since the previous visits had not included Normandy, that was FIRST on my places to visit. It is a place that is awesome and haunting at the same time and a must see for anyone who wants to actually feel what freedom costs, it’s palpable. Check out the video in the link provided, American Cemetery.

After France, we took a train to Brussels. We all fell in love with this amazingly diverse city; diversity in people, culture, architecture, history and more. The Grand Place is the central point in town and a tourist hot spot. grandplace

The centerpiece is the Town Hall, built in 1402, but it is not a church. It was built to administer the commerce of the city. There are some architectural oddities in this building that, once you see, you cannot un-see! Leave comments if you notice any.

One of the other items in my ‘bucket list’ was to visit Bruges!  If you’ve seen the 2008 movie ‘In Bruges’, you know my obsession (I LOVE this movie). If not, be forewarned, it’s a dark comedy/drama. However, the setting is the ‘Most well preserved Medieval City in all of Europe’. Bruges is referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’ for obvious reasons…



Next, it was an alone trip for me, through the famed Ardenne Forrest of Belgium with the destination of Bastogne. For those who do not recognize the name, it was the main sight of the World War II ‘Battle of the Bulge’, where elements of the 101st Airborne among other US troops were  surrounded by the German army whilst defending the city.



Meanwhile, once we were back in Brussels, my two youngest children and their Aunt Annette wanted to try an Absinthe Bar. This one, known for Delirium Beer (available in the USA) had over 400 different types of absinthe available. They didn’t particularly care for any of them!


All in all, a trip with six adults can be challenging at times but it really was a time for all to remember.


The Big Finnish (trip)!

Posted in Friends,travel by jerseygator on June 26, 2012
Tags: ,

Kenz gets up close and personal with a Norwegian troll in Epcot.

Have you ever had a moment where you ask the universe for something and it responds in a big way?  A couple of months ago I was visiting Orlando with McKenzie, my BFF Stephanie, and Steph’s niece Chelsea.  While in Epcot we rode the Norwegian ride and afterwords I mentioned how much I wanted to visit a Nordic country.  Less than two weeks later we got the opportunity!  Stephen’s best friend from his teen years was tying the knot in Finland, where he has lived for the last 5 years, and we decided to give the trip as a gift to Stephen, as long as he let us tag along.  Jake and Cecilia graciously let us crash the wedding and our trip to the top of the world was on.  Lesson here…when you ask the universe for something, be prepared for an answer and don’t say no.

We started our trip with a drive up the Jersey Turnpike to Newark airport.  Off in the distance we could see NYC and the Freedom Tower, which is already dominating the skyline.  It’s an impressive site.  We made it through security with only one hiccup…we all had carry on bags only (we travel light) but Stephen had forgotten that he had a little present for Jake in his backpack.  Stephen was pulled over by security after they scanned his bag.  The TSA gentleman joked “Whadda ya got, a beer in there?” at which point Steve realized he DID have a beer in there!  He had carefully wrapped a home-brew for his buddy as a gift and nestled it down into his clothes.  After a laugh, the TSA official told him not to toss the beer, but to check his bag (free of charge) and even walked him to the counter through a side door so he could take care of it.  Don’t believe all the horror stories you hear about TSA…this guy was seriously cool.


Those Dutch know how to run an airport.

Once Stephen’s bag was checked we were ready to get on board.  Darrol had sprung for slightly more spacious seats, as he and Steve are both six footers.  We had lots of leg room, so were pretty set up for the 7 hour flight.  The movie choice wasn’t much, but we all had books and Darrol had downloaded some movies on his iPad.  We even got a little bit of sleep, which is good, as we left at 6pm our time and 7 hours later were in Amersterdam at 8 in the morning.  Hmmm…where did our night go?  After a brief stint at the Amsterdam airport, we hopped a flight to Helsinki,


We knew we’d find some McMullens if we just started looking!

Once in Helsinki we picked up our rental car and headed out of town.  The wedding was being held on the island of Pollinge on the crinkly bits of Finland. (Although not Norway, I think Slartibartfast would have approved.)  We got to the ferry and started wondering how we would ever find the B&B or the wedding venue.  Stephen suggested we just start “looking for McMullens” and within 30 seconds we saw the groom’s Mom and brother in a neighboring car.  Jane, Josh and Tracy rode the ferry over with us and we followed them to the wedding site.

Finland is beautiful.  Five times the size of NJ with just over half the people, with the lush summer foliage of an area that knows it’s got to get green while the greenin’ is good.  There were times when it reminded me of Tennessee or Virginia, with it’s slightly rolling hills and green pastures.  It was cool enough for a sweater some days, but sunny and clear while we were there.  Our little B&B was set up like a hostel…2 twin beds and a small powder room in a little room with a big attached balcony that looked over the water.  There was a huge shower room downstairs with a tricked out sauna that we never had the chance to use (next time!) as well as a communal dining area.  Stephen bunked in the room next to us, and we got to meet “Uncle Coop” and Kim, Jake’s uncle and aunt from the states who stayed on the other side of us.  Sitting on the porch well into the night (as the sun never really sets) drinking Karhu beer with Coop, Kim and Steve was a good beginning to our adventure.


The amazing, soon-to-be-famous fish stew. Seriously, it tasted even better than it looks.

Wedding traditions vary in other countries of course.  There was no rehearsal, but they did hold a rehearsal dinner for family and friends.  We had the soon-to-be-famous amazingly delicious fish stew (which recipe we did NOT get but will, I swear it!), as well as slabs of thick bread and the most scrumptious butter ever.  I literally went back for seconds on soup and butter.  The soup was salmon with potato and dill, delicately flavored with just the right amount of spice.  We met new folks, gave toasts, laughed over traveling mishaps and generally just had a great time.  The bride’s father, Kennut, gave a moving speech about how having Jake in their lives had made the world a smaller place by bringing them new friends and family, a sentiment shared by us and our new friends in Finland.

The wedding was held in a community hall that had been built by the members of the community (of which Cecilia’s family belonged.)  It’s deep, warm wood tones felt very close and comforting, and the homey touches that decorated the tables and ceiling were so sweet.  Have you noticed that, once reaching a certain age (ahem), you’ve been to so many weddings that you can tell right off which ones are going to be fun?  This had that vibe right from the get-go.  We came into the hall the first day we arrived to find the groom’s friends stringing paper hearts from the ceiling, and a laid-back party feel already established.  Red checked napkins and thought out guest placement cards mixed and matched cultures, ages and genders.  I sneaked a peek at my place setting and saw I didn’t know anyone around me but Darrol.  WooHoo!  Time to get to know people!  The day of the wedding was beautiful…someone ordered up some great weather.  It was warm and sunny (I didn’t even need a sweater and that, my friends, is just weird).  The bride and groom walked down the dirt path that led to the community hall and up the front steps while the guests congregated in the grass.  The ceremony was short and very heartfelt.  Jake was so moved by his new bride’s written vows that he was unable to give his own for a bit, as he was overcome by emotion.  Honestly, it was about the sweetest thing I have ever witnessed.

Ultimately, weddings become parties and Finland knows how to party!  Darrol learned very quickly that tapping on the glass does not prompt the couple to kiss, but quiets everyone down so that the tapper can give a speech (*snicker*–he was warned before he actually tapped very long, but I would have liked to have seen his face!).  There are no speeches given, but as a concession one of the groomsmen allowed that “if anyone wants to make a speech, come see me.”  Still not sure if that was to check for content and to lock them in a closet.  The highlight was the Finnish tradition of drinking songs.  There were sheets of lyrics on the tables and someone in the room would start stomping or banging a beat then everyone would burst into song, punctuated by shots of homemade schnapps and ending with everyone belting out “skol!” and downing the drink.  Seriously awesome.  Followed by more awesomeness as Jake’s band (with a fill in drummer) rocked the house down and everyone danced the night away.

The following morning was going to be an outing on the amazing hand built boat captained by Cecilia’s uncle, but the day dawned the opposite of the wedding weather…cold and wet.  Guess we’re going to have to wait until next visit to sail the beautiful Alexandra.  Stephen, Darrol and I said our goodbyes and heading back to Helsinki for the next part of our journey.  Amsterdam!

30th Wedding Anniversary – Saint Kitts (part 1)

Posted in restaurants,travel by jerseygator on February 22, 2011

Instead of the usual dinner & a night out on the town, Tracey and I opted for something a little more memorable this time around; A trip to St. Kitts.  Where and what is St. Kitts you may be saying.  It is one of two islands in the West Indies that make up what is known as the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis.  Several things attracted us to visit St. Kitts in February.  First of all, it’s warm & sunny, something we truly needed after another long winter in South Jersey.  Secondly, it’s one of the few Caribbean islands which have both rainforests and a volcano you can hike up.

Aerial view of Mt. Liamuiga on St. Kitts

While Mt Liamuiga is currently dormant (last eruption is said to be in the late 17th century), there are still active sulfur vents in the caldera. Added to this is the fact that St Kitts only gets around 50,000 visitors per year, not a lot by Disney standards (in the tens of millions).  The population of 35,000 is English speaking and have a 98% literacy rate; However, due to their British heritage they drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road (sorry Sarah!).

Darrol w/our scooter from 'Ride St. Kitts' - Thanks Tim!

This did not stop us from renting a scooter to tour the island on our own.  BTW, Tracey loves the freedom of having me drive while she is free to sit on the back and take lots of pictures and direct me on where she wants us to go.  Tracey and I liken ourselves to travelers and not tourists.  This means we try to find out where the locals eat and the places they go and we try to avoid the standard ‘tourist traps’.  Renting a scooter allowed us to go where we wanted and spend as much or as little time at a particular place as we chose. Note:  Getting off the beaten path in St. Kitts on occasion meant following trails & roads that were less than ideal for a scooter (and I use that term ‘roads’ loosely as at one time I’m almost sure it was a paved road but the potholes/canyons on the south part of the island rival anything we have in Jersey).  However, this afforded us access to places that the typical tourist just doesn’t get to see.  There are several former sugar-cane plantations on St. Kitts that have been restored and now serve as inns/restaurants.  The lush vegetation on these plantations and the entire island in general was breathtaking.

Brimstone Hill Fortress - St. Kitts

Speaking of which, the Brimestone Hill Fortress is a must see, to tourist and traveler alike. Started about 1690 and sitting about 1000 feet above the sea, overlooking Sandy Point Town, the fortress is the largest such structure in the eastern Caribbean and is listed on the UNESCO site of historic places.  While we were there, the clouds started rolling in from the east over the mountain.  Not only was it amazingly beautiful but a full rainbow formed, an auspicious sign of things to come (see additional pictures on Facebook).

Let me backtrack just a little here and tell you about the scooter rental.  ‘Ride St. Kitts’ has two flags flying outside, the flag of St. Kitts & Nevis and the Canadian Maple-leaf.  Turns out the owner is a Canadian who transplanted to St. Kitts about 10 years ago.  Tim and the gang were not only knowledgeable but very friendly.  Tracey & I hit it off with them from the get-go!  Tim gave us a detailed run-down on all the places to visit, as well as the best beach-bar on the island, the Shipwreck!  And when he discovered what foodies we were and my love of goat meat, he told me to order the ‘Goat Water’, a caribbean stew that wasn’t on the menu, but just ask for it.  Needless to say, less than 24 hours after returning from St. Kitts, I pulled a leg of goat out from our freezer  (yes, among other delicacies we have goat in our house) and tried my hand at making ‘Goat Water’!

Shipwrecks beach bar - home of Verdant Monkeys & Mongooses

Shipwrecks was a classic locals bar that didn’t seem to mind the occasional traveler.  The menu was not large, there was no electricity (just a generator out back to power the kitchen) and the floor was sand.  Everything you could want in a beach bar!  The food was great, the island -brewed beer cold and the sea-breeze enticing!  Tracey absolutely loved the fish tacos and I had my first, but definitely not last, Guinness Foreign Extra, a nice stout beer (ABV 7.3%) brewed right on St. Kitts by Carib brewers.  All in all, an incredible start to what would be a wonderful but all too short vacation.

The Great Western Train Trek: Days 8-11 Cross Country USA

Posted in travel by jerseygator on November 18, 2010

Well, without pictures it will be hard to describe the incredible beauty we experienced on this leg of our train trek.  Starting in Sacramento, CA, we traveled through the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada mountains, seeing incredible vistas.  I was actually glad that I didn’t have my camera, as I didn’t want to look away from the window.  At one point we went through a tunnel at the Continental Divide (you don’t go over it, you go under it) and, although the beginning of the tunnel had grey overcast skies, we came out the other end into a full blown snowstorm!  We were like kids, pressing our noses up to the window and marveling at the beauty of it all.

We followed the Colorado River for over 200 miles, seeing rapids (and white water rapid boaters, as well), eagles and deer.  From Sacramento to Denver we had a docent from the Railroad Museum on board, who would discuss the sites on the overhead, allow us to learn about the places we were passing.  This really made the trip interesting and fun.

Stopping in Denver, Kenzie and I walked around a bit looking for a bookstore, to no avail.  However, if we had wanted a beer or a steak we would have been in luck, as we must have passed 4 brewery/pub/steakhouses on our 1 block walk.  We also stopped for a few minutes in Grand Junction, CO where we found an entrepreneur selling huge, hot cinnamon rolls.  After the train started rolling, we wished we had bought two!

When we rolled into Chicago we fulfilled the other requirement of foodies in the Windy City…Chicago style hot dogs!  Fully loaded, peppers, pickles and all.  So good, and just not the same anywhere else.  Not sure what Mom and Kenzie thought of it, but I could eat one daily.  Probably a good thing I don’t live anywhere near Chicago, come to think of it.

Next stop Washington, DC, where we said goodbye to Mom.  She boarded a train for Florida, and we boarded our train to Philly.  It was nice to be home and see family.  I can’t wait for my next train trip and am already planning to get Darrol on a trek!  He went to Florida via plane just a couple weeks after we got home and, albeit fast, the discomfort and personal intrusion has just taken all the fun out of flying.  Hopefully, Congress will continue supporting Amtrak and America will figure out the high speed rail is the way to go for the future.

The Great Western Train Trek: Day 7 The California Coast

Posted in travel by jerseygator on November 18, 2010

We got up early to take a taxi to the train, but first we decided to go to a little Ukranian bakery for breakfast.  We had the most amazing pasty!  There were both

Salmon pasty

savory and sweet fillings, and we tried some of both.  I forgot to write down the name of the bakery, and the owner called them something else, but they were pasties. (BTW, googling this gives you a mix of pictures…these are the flakey pastries not the nipple covers.)  They were so good we decided to take some on the train for lunch.  The owner asked when we were leaving and, upon finding it would be an hour later, she offered to make us a fresh batch of our favorites.  Gives you hope, doesn’t it?

Pasty bag in hand, we went back to the train station, where we boarded and headed down the California coast to Sacramento.  It was amazing to see the green fields and growing vegetables, after the brown fields of the east and midwest.  We passed beautiful scenery: mountains, rivers, fields of fruit trees, even a wedding party!  At one point I felt something at my feet and looked down to find a dog…the lady behind me had her service dog with her and he claimed under my seat as his private bed.  Whatever, he was a cutie.

We did sleep in coach that night, but it was fine as there were no crying babies.  Not as nice as a sleeper, but ok for one night.  We spent most of the day in the observation car just enjoying the beautiful sites.

The next morning we got into Sacramento early…really early.  5am.  The Sacramento train station was very WPA.  I could practically see the depression era workers putting it together.  There was a Starbucks down the street (of course), but not much else.  We read and knitted and chatted but it was pretty boring.

Sacramento Train Station

Once the sun came up Kenzie and I decided to take a walk and discoverd “Old Sacramento.”  Why didn’t they have signs or something at the train station?  Old Sacramento was a wild west type village (read tourist trap) but it was pretty cool. We found a nice diner and had breakfast and perused what shops were open.  Going back to the station, I convinced Mom to walk back with me and get a cup of coffee and look around.

Old Sacramento...last picture before camera disaster struck

Here is where disaster struck…I dropped my camera!  This faithful camera has been with me to Europe (twice) and all over the US.  And I dropped it, irrevocably breaking it.  Even worse, we had no way to get any replacement as the train would be leaving soon.  Needless to say, the rest of the blog posts for the trip will be a bit blander.  Oh well.

Back on the train and settled into our sleeper cars we relaxed and got ready for yet another cross country journey to Chicago.  We met our steward and some of our car mates and found the diner and observation cars.  We’d become old hats at train travel by this time!

The Great Western Train Trek: Day 6 Seattle

Posted in restaurants,travel by jerseygator on November 18, 2010

Ready to catch the ferry back to Seattle!

We left for Seattle early the next morning, catching the early ferry.  We were excited to experience the city as we’ve seen it portrayed in movies, tv shows and literature.  The morning was crisp and we relaxed on the ride back.  Once we hit the city I dropped Mom and Kenz off at our hotel and returned the rental car, walking back to where we were staying.  We opted for the Doubletree Arctic Club Hotel; once a meeting place for Arctic explorers (really!) it was all old wood and thick carpets.  Felt very boys club, but the room was beautiful and comfortable.  So comfortable, in fact, that Mom decided that, rather than explore Seattle, she wanted to take a hot shower and relax, catching up on CNN.

Kenz and I took our GPS and started walking.  We knew we wanted to see two things: Pike’s Place Pier and the Space Needle.  We walked first to the Pier, expected, you know, a farmer’s market.  But WOW, were we surprised!  This place is HUGE and so diverse!  Fresh flowers, fresh vegies, fresh fish and every kind of craft, book, or collectable you can imagine.  It was beautiful and exciting.  Honestly, I wanted to move to Seattle just so I could go to Pike’s Place every weekend.  And yes, we did see the fish being thrown.

On the way in we stopped at the gum wall.  Yep, just what it sounds like. Walking up, we thought the wall was covered with colorful graffiti of some sort but, no, it was gum.  Used gum.  Can something be nasty and pretty at the same time?  Evidently the answer would be yes.

We tore ourselves away from the market and walked through the city to the Space Needle.  Yes, it’s a touristy thing, but come on.  Can you go to NYC without seeing the Empire State Building?  Chicago without the Sears Tower (or whatever it’s called now).  There’s something about seeing a city laid out below you that grounds you, as odd as that seems.  We used the telescopes to check out Mt. Ranier, looked over Puget Sound, found our hotel (well, the area anyway), had a Starbucks (of course!) and just chilled.  After leaving we wandered over to the SciFi museum (made for us, obviously) but we knew we really didn’t have time to explore it.  Now we know we’re coming back!  Kenzie bought a Dr. Who t-shirt and we reluctantly left.

We meandered through the city, finding ourselves back at the market.  We stopped at the first Starbucks (as I have friends who work for them and thought they’d enjoy seeing it) without getting anything (proud of us) and then back to the market, where we picked up a few souvenirs. Oh, and found a cool store with a cardboard cutout of David Tenant and a Dalek (score!).  Then back to the hotel to pick up Mom for dinner.

Mt. Ranier

I knew we had to have seafood, so I asked the concierge for a recommendation.  However, Mom really wanted a cheeseburger (!) so the concierge called around to a number of restaurants, finally finding one that would cook a lunch menu item at dinner.  So we went to Ivars on the water and had a wonderful meal.  I swear my salmon’s tail was still twitching.  Soooooo goooooood. (And Mom loved her burger).

On the way to the restaurant we were trying to figure out how many blocks and a local overhead us discussing it.  She politely interrupted by saying “Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Pressure.” Um, thanks lady.  She must have seen the looks on our faces so went on to explain the the streets names are Jefferson, James, Cherry, Columbia, Marion, Madison, Spring, Seneca, University, Union, Pike and Pine.  Lightbulb!  Navigating just became so much easier.

I can’t wait to come back and spend more time in Seattle, especially with Darrol.  This is a foodie’s delight of a city.  It’s also beautiful and clean and you never have to look far to find a Starbucks.

The Great Western Train Trek: Day 5 Victoria BC

Posted in restaurants,travel by jerseygator on November 18, 2010

A quick trip to Port Angeles near Sequim the next morning allowed us to board the ferry to Victoria, British Columbia.  Passports ready, we boarded and settled in for the 90 minute ride.  The ferry was comfortable and equipped with wifi.  Both Kenz and I had been on a computer diet (by necessity) as trains don’t come equipped.  Note to Amtrak:  if they can put a wifi receiver on a bus, I’m sure that a train can accommodate one as well.  Oh, well, it would probably have kept us looking down instead of at the sites so let it go.

Kenz getting a wifi fix on the ferry

For a measly $2.50 we had an hour of wifi to share.  Quick checks of email and facebook for me, and catching up on web comics for Kenz.  Aaahhh.

Upon arriving in Victoria we checked in at the border and requested our passport stamped (you have to ask…guess Canada is not too concerned about us extending our stay).  And just in case you think this is funny, we heard an elderly man in front of us exclaim to his wife “I got to use my passport!”  Yeah, world travelers, that’s us.

Victoria was lovely, although very tourist oriented.  It was an overcast day so we stopped into a coffee shop for a chai and oriented ourselves to the city.  We decided to walk through the city to the castle.  Craigdarroch Castle is a 19th century castle built by a coal baron to show how rich he was.  It’s beautiful…all oak and mahogany and maple, and restored to reflect the style of the time of it’s inhabitance.  We spent a couple hours just roaming through the place on a self guided tour, enjoying the quiet reflection of a different time.

On our walk back to Victoria we stopped at a local booksellers who specialized only in children’s and teen’s books.  The shop was owned by a husband and wife who simply love kid lit.  We love supporting small bookstores and bought a Christmas present for “little Nebby” our grandson due in December.  We also got some good recommendations for new books and Kenzie debated adding to her Harry Potter collection (she has the books in English and Latin, plus British editions).  She regretfully opted out this time, deciding to save her spending cash.

We found a local cafe, The Blue Fox, and stopped for lunch.

Amazing Green Apple Chicken Chipotle Soup, vegie burger and sandwhich at the Blue Fox

We knew it was good as it was filled with locals (funny, you could tell the Canadians by the clothes.  Geez, we Americans need to step it up) and it had a line.  And, hello! it was worth the wait!  I had a green apple chicken chipotle soup (amazing) with the best vegie burger I’ve ever had, while Kenzie went for the turkey club.  The Blue Fox was a fun, funky little place that is worth a trip to Victoria!

We ended our day stopping at a great yarn shop and picking up some new knitting supplies then back on to the ferry for the ride home.  Coming back, the border guard was much stricter.  “Why were you in Canada?”  Just for fun, sir.  “Where are you from?”  New Jersey, sir.  “Why did you come all the way to Washington?”  Taking my Mom on a cross country train ride, sir.  (All suspicious now) “SO, where’s your Mom????”  Um, she’s hanging out with a friend and didn’t want to go to Canada.  Sir.  (narrows eyes) “Well, ok, I guess we’ll let you back in.”  WHEW.


The Great Western Train Trek: Day 4 Sequim, WA

Posted in travel by jerseygator on November 18, 2010


Because of our car v. train accident yesterday, we are running about four hours late.  Evidently, it is not unusual for the trains to run late, albeit not this much.  We were told never to take the train to get to weddings, graduations or funerals!  We’re now on Pacific time, so I was up around 3:30, but dozed off and on until 5:00, when I got up and wrote a little.  The towns just outside our windows are waking up, too, and it’s fun to watch the folks stopping in cafes and coffee shops for their morning jolt.

Coming into the Seattle area and seeing snow topped mountains!

We finally reach Seattle 5 hours later than expected.  As we’d been told by experienced train travelers…Never take the train to weddings, funerals or graduations!  Now we know why.  However, we weren’t on a time table so didn’t mind.  A fellow on the platform mentioned to my Mom that we were the only ones who got off the train with smiles on our faces. 🙂

Smiles, indeed!  We were on the other coast!  After parking Mom and the suitcases at a Starbucks (yep, they’re all over Seattle, of course), Kenzie and I walked up to get our rental car.  Yes…up!  I had no idea Seattle was so hilly.  On our drive to Sequim we noticed that Seattle looked a lot like San Francisco, just not as colorful.

Seattle...better late then never

After picking up the car we drove to Target to get a new GPS unit as ours had given up the ghost.  Then on to Sequim, WA, “The Lavender Capital of North America.”  We were off season, of course, so didn’t go to any lavender farms, but they are everywhere.  Sequim is also in the rainshadow of the Olympic Mountains so has beautiful weather year round and is on the Dungeness River (think crabs!).  We didn’t have time to explore, but this will definitely be a destination on our next trip.

The ferry ride to Sequim offered beautiful scenery

After taking the ferry to Sequim we settled in at my Mom’s friends home, where we were treated as honored guests.  Lyle and her family had dinner waiting and a list of all the sites.  She and Mom caught up after having not seen each other for years and we relaxed and made plans for the next few days.

Before leaving for our trip, Kenzie had received her passport and was dying to get a stamp, so we decided to take the ferry to Victoria, BC the next morning.  We settled into beds that didn’t shake and big fluffy pillows and dreamed of Canada.

The Great Western Train Trek: Day 3

Posted in travel,Uncategorized by jerseygator on October 21, 2010

The Great Plains

I woke up this morning just before sunset and lay in the bunk looking at the stars.  Suddenly the train jerked a few times before coming to a stop.  I didn’t think much of it, as the train made numerous stops for any variety of reasons.  I got up as the sun was coming up and quietly dressed before checking on my Mom.  As she was awake, we had an early breakfast and let Kenzie sleep in.

At breakfast I commented that we had been stopped for a quite a while, and we weren’t at a station.  Turns out the train had hit a pick up truck crossing the tracks!  Two people in the truck were hurt and the delay was to check the engine and tracks for damage and debris.  I’m glad Kenz had been strapped in!  Ultimately, the train took off, but we were now three hours behind schedule.  When I later went onto the internet to find out what happened, the two men had been heading out on a hunting trip and the driver said he “didn’t see the train.”  Hmmm, wonder how he manages to hunt with that perception problem.

Mom and I sat with an older Canadian couple at breakfast.  They had already had an eventful trip, as, on the way down the man had had a heart attack on the train!  He, obviously was ok and they were on their way home to Vancouver after touring the southern US, visiting Kansas City, Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville.  I didn’t say anything about his ordering sausage and hash browns at breakfast.  What’s the point?  I was also excited to see that they had grits on the menu and, upon ordering, that they were pretty good.  It’s the little things…

The small sleeper car seen from the hallway

After breakfast I went back to the car and read a little until Kenz woke up an hour later.  I caught her up on the excitement of the morning (we were still stalled at that time) then joined her at breakfast to keep her company.  Mom wasn’t in her car, but I saw her still sitting and chatting with the Canadian couple when we went through the dining car.  I really envy her ability to make instant friends.  At breakfast a young Canadian woman names Lauren joined us.  Lauren had traveled down to Kentucky to support some friends in an equestrian competition.  She had traveled pretty extensively for someone who was 22 and regaled us with interesting stories from Thailand, Italy and Australia and her preparations to go to Egypt next month.  We talked of trying regional foods and how it really helped you to understand a culture.  Then we discovered she had never tried grits!  Needless to say, when Kenz received our breakfast she immediately added some butter and crumbled bacon to her grits and offered a spoonful to Lauren.  After a moments hesitation Lauren took a taste and found she really liked them.  Her mother walked by a few moments later and Lauren informed her that tomorrow morning she would be ordering grits and showing her family and friends how good they were.  Another southern conquest!

I think the thing I’m really enjoying about the train travel is the people you meet.  I’m not gregarious, but when you’re sitting at a meal with folks you just can’t help but talk.  At lunch today we met an older couple that had met 14 years ago because they were pen pals—the old fashion, snail mail kind!  They were self-professed “bookaphiles” and we spent lunch comparing favorite authors and stories, writing down some suggestions from each other about new authors to try.  Turns out the woman and McKenzie had very similar taste in books, so we’re going to go online with our Nooks to check out some of these ideas.

A brief history of Amtrak:  A question we discussed on the train was why, if all the trains we were rode were representative of the company, was the business always on the brink of bankruptcy?  I asked our car steward and he explained that Amtrak is a government-subsidized company; some of their support comes from the same tax pool that pays for roads and other transportation infrastructure.  However, Congress often looks at cutting Amtrak when budget time comes around because there is a perception that the taxpayers are funding “tourists.”  There doesn’t seem to be much concern around the local Amtrak runs, but the long distance runs rile people up.  Of course Amtrak does provide economic dollars, as does most tourism driven business, but most drive those dollars without tax help.  The steward felt that, even if Warren Buffet were to buy the company, there’s no way a private company could keep it afloat.  Here is a link to the Congressional Budget Office which explains this to some degree:

This afternoon the stewards hosted a Wine & Cheese Tasting Party for the sleeper cars.  They had set up in the dining car and Mom and I sat down to a platter of Minnesota cheeses (swiss, white cheddar and blue) and little plastic cups.  The steward gave us a little talk about each of the wines before we tried them; all four were from the west coast-Oregon, Washington state or California.  While trying the wines they had a little trivia contest to give away a bottle of each type and I won a Cabernet!  I’m not a red wine drinker, so I’m sure Darrol will enjoy this one.  At lunch we met two women from Seattle and got a lot of great tips about where to go and what to do in Seattle.

Dinner that night was a repeat menu from the night before.  We shared our meal with a retired English teacher from Portland who was a fan of classic movies.  He and Mom put my old movie knowledge to shame discussing movies from the black-and-white era.  Then we discussed literature from William Shakespeare to  Robert Heinlen.  I must say, I’m enjoying the mix and meet mealtimes!

The Great Western Train Trek: Day 2

Posted in restaurants,travel by jerseygator on October 21, 2010


On our journey from Washington we met an experienced train traveler.  She told us about the “Metropolitan” lounge in Chicago’s Union Station, where sleeper car ticket holders could relax in more comfortable chairs with complimentary coffee/sodas/juice and bag check facilities.  We were happy to learn of this and quickly found the lounge once arriving in Chicago.  After checking our bags we hit the streets for our 3 hours layover.

I’ve been to Chicago many times, but neither my Mom nor McKenzie had seen the city before.  Union Station is downtown, right off Canal Street, so was convenient for a quick tour.  Mid-October I was expecting it to be windy and chilly, but we walked out of the station into mid-80’s temperatures and blue skies.  I asked a local where we could find some good Chicago-style pizza and he directed us to…a mall food court.  After looking around at the Taco-Bell and Subway type stores we walked back out and started walking along the canal.  Another local directed us toward a Pizzaria Uno; a third directed us across the canal where we finally found Lou Malnatis, self-proclaimed “home of the best Chicago-style pizza.”  We ordered a pizza “well done” as opposed to “gooey.”  I’m not a fan of Chicago-style pizza; In the past, I’ve described it as “pizza casserole” because of it’s copious amounts of sauce and stuffing.  However, this pizza was delicious.  It had a bread dough crust cooked to crispiness, a tomato sauce that wasn’t too sweet or too acidic and lots of good mozzarella cheese.  Because each pizza is made to order, the waitress warned us that we’d have a forty minute wait, so we ordered a salad to share.  The salad was also wonderful, with a light, sweet vinagrette and topped with black olives, chopped tomatoes and gorganzola cheese.

After our fantastic Chicago meal we walked back to Union Station where our conductor took our tickets in preparation for boarding.  When we entered the sleeper car we were pleased to find our sleeping accommodations compact but comfortable.  We had booked two sleeper cars, which were across the hall from each other, so we were able to talk back and forth.  The main attraction was privacy and quiet!  As we hadn’t slept the night before I folded out my bed, sent Kenz over to chat with her Memaw and promptly took a 2-hour nap.

Sleeper car reservations include meals.  We made our dinner reservations upon arrival and went in around 7:15.  As there were three in our party we had a fourth addition, Edie from the Chicago area.  She was visiting a friend in Minnesota and would be detraining around 4a.m.  We shared stories about family, friends and experiences and had a fun time while enjoying our dinner.

The dinner itself was quite good.  I had a NY Strip steak, cooked perfectly; McKenzie and Mom both had the chef’s special, BBQ Pork Ribs, and Edie had the oven-baked chicken.  The dinners came with a rather anemic salad (but, hey, we had just had that incredible salad in Chicago!) and rolls.  Everything was pretty tasty and, honestly, much better than I had anticipated.

After dinner we made up our beds and hit the hay.  Kenzie had to “strap in” her top bunk to prevent accidental roll-outs during the night.  As it turned out, this was a good call.

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