Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Santa Barbara

Monday (18th) early AM we hopped on the #11 'Coast Starlight' train from Oakland headed for Santa Barbara. Although the train name promised coastal views it was not until the afternoon that we hit the really scenic parts. Again we booked roomette accommodation and happily spent the time playing Monopoly Deal and Skip Bo. In the afternoon however we took a break to do some wine and cheese tasting in the special first class parlour car where we tasted cheese and wine from Washington and California!

Tuesday (19th) although we had a bit of an on off sunny rainy day we headed out to check out Santa Barbara. In the morning we took a stroll down and around the wharf and picked out our favourites from the many yachts and cruisers parked there. Afterward we took a stroll down state st, the main drag of Santa Barbara and down to the Court House, an impressive Spanish influenced building that is both a working courthouse and tourist attraction. After a bit of culture we then headed back down State st where we stumbled upon a local farmers market with loads of fresh fruit and vegetables, and seeing as we have been lacking in both decided to grab some fruit. This was however undone in our next destination - wine tasting in the Santa Barbara tasting room/bar for the local Kalyra vineyards. As soon as we walked in we noticed a few very Australian inspired sculptures sculptures and after asking found out that the owners were Aussies! (they live 35 min away at the vineyards). Not a bad way to spend our last full day of our adventure.

Tomorrow we make our way back to reality via the #11 again down to Los Angeles. Till next time.

Down at the wharf
The courthouse tower
Inside the courthouse
Farmers market!
Tasting in the Kalyra bar/tasting room

Monday, 18 October 2010

San Francisco

Wednesday (13th) after arriving at our fantastic Hostel, we got ourselves refreshed and headed out to see k-os (a hip-hop artist) Slim (a club) - good timing! One of the support acts was a rapper called 'Astronautilus' or Andy (it has to be noted that he was a white rapper, unlike the majority in his profession). Anyway he had great banter on stage and some very cool songs. After his set he came down to sign CDs etc and Joss had a bit of a chat with him. It started out with which was his best CD to get and went on to him telling her about his travel adventures and our trip on the trans-siberian and trans-continental...which at that point he told her his father worked on Amtrak!

A crazy diner decorated for Halloween

Thursday (14th), we had a pretty leasurely day checking out some of the local sights. We walked to the Ferry building where we sampled one of the top sandwiches in San Francisco - that we found from the grubstreet San Francisco sandwich register online! Afterwards we wandered along the water and piers to Fisherman's wharf, which is actually a bit of a tourist trap. It feels like a theme park, but without the fun of rides! Instead it has lots of shops selling overpriced and mostly useless souvenirs and crap to tourists - mostly domestic we think. Even the surrounding streets had more of the same. American consumerism at it's very best. However, the wharf did provide some good view of Alcatraz and a little further away, the Golden Gate Bridge!

Indulging at the Ferry Building
That is Alcatraz in the distance

Friday (15th) we were off early for a wine tour of the Sonoma Valley. After collecting all of our participants we travelled North to cross the Golden Gate bridge. On board we had our great driver Mitch who knew Australia pretty well, a couple from Mississippi (Liz & David) who must have been Republican (no judgement), 2 young English guys (Muz & Joe), a young couple from Texas (Caitlin & Austin) and another young couple from New York (Heather & Trevor). Before going across we stopped to take in the view. Unfortunately for us, all that we could see was a wall of white fog, which was surprising considering how nice the day was. It seemed like localised fog covering just the bridge - we could not even see the top of the bridge poking out! It was so foggy that even when we crossed over you could barely see the bridge structure and it was only a few metres away! It seems that the fog is quite typical of San Francisco. Needless to say we were a bit disappointed as we were expecting it to be a great photo op, however we had more exciting things to look forward to. After crossing through the fog bridge we made a brief stop at Muir woods, a preserved red wood forest typical of what was abundant around the bay area before humans decided to cut it all down and build houses and the like. The trees were up to about 800 years old, and well they were pretty big, but we felt a little underwhelmed as it was pretty crowded and we kept comparing it to Yakushima in Japan.

Muir woods
Cafe in Sonoma where Paul had a fantastic smoked duck sandwich - awesome

After Muir woods and some lunch in Sonoma, we got down to the business end of things, the wine tasting. Unlike nearby Napa, Sonoma is closer to the coast and a little cooler so has a more diverse selection of wines. It is known for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, as well as the big Cabernets like Napa. We visited three wineries, the first Larson estate, a family owned estate with a freindly boutique feel and some terrific wine. The second was Robledo family estate, owned by a Mexican migrant who started out working in the vineyards in Napa and moved up to own his own winery! This place was a bit bigger, and although it had nice wine did not have the same feel as Larson. Last but not least was Clarbec winery. We arrived at the vineyards to find Beckie (the wine maker) set up for tasting with a table in a clear area between the vines. She showed us the vines and the difference between the grapes that were ready for harvest and those not quite there. Of course we also got to taste her wines (in very generous quantities), and afterwards we drove to her nearby farmhouse so we could purchase some! It was by far the best wine tasting of the day, and perhaps one of the best we have done! After this winery we started to notice some of the first round wine tasters were getting quite tipsy (probably due to the generous helpings at the final winery), and afterwards Mitch told us that we were able to drink on the bus it made for a very enjoyable trip back to San Fran. After returning we all decided to carry on our own and head out to some dinner!

Outside and inside Robledo family estate
Tasting the Clarbec wines among the vines

Saturday (16th), again another bit of lucky timing found us in San Fran at the same time that the Treasure Island music festival was on! We went along to see one of Paul's favourite groups Kruder & Dorfmeister, but the other highlight was Mike Snow. The festival itself was quite good, however it would have been much better had it not been so cold! Treasure island is a man made island in the middle of the bay, so it is low and flat and gets the breeze coming off the water all the time! Luckily though we had packed warm clothes so were pretty comfortable.

Paul and K&D on stage

Sunday (17th) we did some shopping and had a generally leisurely day wandering around some of the San Fran suburbs, including the historical Alamo area. We had fun in San Fran but could not help but notice the very large number of homeless people begging in the streets, not just the main drag but everywhere. Perhaps it is the effects of the recession but we were quite surprised to see so many of them around, and considering the U.S is the richest country per capita, you can't help but judge them on how they treat their poor in a city like this.

Alamo park and the famous painted ladies

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The #5 'California Zephyr'

Monday (11th) after leaving Chicago we made our way to Union station for the longest train leg of our U.S.A trans-continental trip to Emeryville California (the stop for San Francisco). For this trip we had booked a room which was upstairs in the massive double decker Amtrak 'superliner' trains. The room was about double the size of the roomette we had on the previous trip and even had a shower and toilet, easily the most luxurious train accommodation we had our whole trip! Once aboard and on our way we were greeted by many announcements letting us know about our trip, however our favourite was from the conductor who told us 'we will be passing through the bread basket of America, the greatest country on earth!' It was absolutely golden! During the afternoon we made our way from Illinois state and a lot of corn fields, to Iowa state with even more cornfields! We crossed over the Mississippi river which was also the border on a rotating bridge built in 1892!

Our room, day and night configuration
A draw bridge being built next to current older rotating one over the Mississippi.
The sun sets over the Iowa cornfields

Tuesday (12th) morning, we rose to find the train meandering through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado... we had crossed another border overnight! At first we saw small amounts of snow on the branches of the pine trees. Before long however this became quite a thick blanket on the ground and tracks, and it was falling! We also passed through the longest tunnel on the route; the 9.3 miile Moffat tunnel which takes about 11 minutes! Once through Moffat we made a stop at Fraser Colorado where we were able to get out and see the snow. It is worth a mention that we had only packed shorts and t-shirts for the train as we had not expected to be getting off anywhere!

The Rockies!
Fraser Colorado

After leaving Fraser the snow started to thin, and into the afternoon we continued to watch the scenery change before us, from the Rockies of Colorado to the canyons and desert of Utah! An amazing contrast in only a few hours. One we enjoyed all from the comfort of our room and dining car whilst enjoying some coffee, lunch, snacks and a game of cards or 20 (Monopoly Deal and Skip-Bo of course).

After crossing the peak of the Rockies
Over the Rockies
And into Utah

Wednesday (13th) morning we wake earlier (so we could get in line for breakfast in the dining car) to the sun rising over Nevada. It was not as stunning as Utah, but still a pretty impressive view. After breakfast we stopped in Reno where a volunteer from the California Railway Museum Sacremento got on and provided some commentary on the original Central Pacific railroad (the Western part of the trans-continental railroad) and the route it now takes. We travelled along the Truckee river into California and higher into the Sierra Nevada mountains where the most difficult and expensive section of the original railroad was built. With the advancement of tunneling the original route is no longer followed, although sections can be seen from the train as it makes its way through the mountains.

The viewing car
Donner Lake in the Sierra Nevada

A big part of all of our train travel was the meals (of course), and on the Amtrak trains these were surprisingly good. But the other interesting part of meal time is the conversations you have in the dining car with the people you share the table with. There are only 4 person booths in the dining car, so couples share with other couples to make the service run quicker for all. Because of this we had some very memorable conversations with fellow travellers! In particular there were a couple of sisters who had been catching the train home to Omaha from Chicago, where they had been to a TV show convention (Supernatural), a couple from Kansas who were also heading home from a holiday in Canadia, and Beth and Max, who were from Chicago going over to San Fran for a short break. Of course, we also had some more awkward meals but they were more than made up for by the good ones.

We both think that it is safe to say that the California Zephyr was easily the most scenic of the trains we have caught so far. Crossing the U.S.A by train certainly gives you a pretty impressive glimpse into 'the greatest country on earth', which can be appreciated so much on the train. Combining this with the food, drink, and people we met, it is safe to say that overall our trip across the States was a very memorable one.

In the dining car

* Please note Joss did not wear the same shirt for 3 days in a row as the photos indicate! Rather the photos are all from the same day but they made sense in this order for the blog.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Chicago & The #49 'Lakeshore Limited'

Friday (8th) after saying our goodbyes to NY we boarded the #49 train from Penn Station to Chicago. For our first trip on Amtrak we had a roomette, which is bascically a small room that has 2 seats facing each other by day, at night a bed folds down from the wall and the 2 seats go together to form another. We immediately set ourselves up with music via our ipods and portable speakers, and newly purchased card games, Monopoly Deal and Skip-Bo (introduced to us by Emma) ready for our trip along the Hudson and New York state through to Chicago, a relatively short one at 19 hours.

Our roomette and travelling past the Hudson up New York State

Saturday (9th) after a very enjoyable trip we checked into our centrally located hotel and wandered around Chicago. We stumbled upon a great Cafe nearby where we went for lunch, Grand Cafe Lux. Judging by the lines it seemed to be a bit of a Chicago institution. After some more wandering we went out to dinner to the also close by House of Blues, a blues restaurant, bar and venue started by Blues Brothers star Dan Akroyd. It was fantastic, we feasted on southern delights of Gumbo, Jambalaya and Red Beans and rice, to the great sound of a blues duo on stage.

Grand Cafe Lux
Outside the House of Blues - no photos allowed inside unfortunately

Sunday (10th), keeping with our previous marine tradition, we headed out to the Shedd Aquarium, considered one of the best in the world (and yes for those interested Sydney Aquarium is also considered on that list). Afterwards we walked along the lake and through Chicago before heading out to dinner for some of the deep pan pizza at Pizza Uno for which Chicago is famous for. Pizza Uno also seemed to be a bit of an institution judging by the lines. The pizza was nice, but not really to our tastes, and very filling! Unfortunately that wrapped up our time in Chicago, a place we were immediately impressed with and wished we had more time to spend there. However we were also very excited to be getting ready for the next part of our journey, the train all the way from Chicago to Emeryville, running a similar line to the first trans continental railroad in the world.

The Chicago skyline
The impressive show inside the aquarium - in true American style (in a good way)!

Downtown Chicago

Deep pan pizza

Thursday, 7 October 2010

New York

Wednesday (29th) after taking our first flight of the trip (and reminded why we are only taking 2) we touched down in NY and made our way to Tri's place in Williamsburg, a suburb of Brooklyn about 10 minutes from Manhattan on the subway. After meeting up we had a quick dinner close by with Tri and Andrea, who was also staying. Now, unfortunately Tri had recently broken his leg and so was on crutches, which meant he was not able to join us on some of our planned outings.

Thursday (30th) we headed to Manhattan for our first taste of NYC and wandered around Soho and Chinatown, where we found the shopping a little irresistible...surprising considering neither of us could be described as shopaholics!

Friday (1st) another day exploring Manhattan, this time around the very touristy mid town, including Times Square, Broadway, Rockefeller and the Waldorf.
Lunch was also worth a mention - we had a fantastic sandwich from Num Pang. Joss had a veal meatball and Paul a pork belly and they were, in a word, impressive! The pork belly was listed in the grubstreet top 101 sandwiches in NY. Now we have to clarify here, a sandwich in NY is not the same as a sandwich in Australia. The ones we tried were served on sub-style rolls with fantastic warm toppings like pork belly, beef brisket, meatballs, marinated prawns, crab.. the list goes on. On Friday night we had more gastronomical delights in store. Tri had booked us into a great restaurant called Blue Hill for an early birthday celebration for Paul. The meal was great, with a lot of the ingredients coming from their own farm and others close by.

The Flatiron
The wall of m&ms in the m&ms 'world'

Tri and Joss in Blue Hill

Saturday (2nd) morning, all 4 of us went to the growers market in Union Square in Manhattan. As well as an abundance of fresh food they also had some art and general wares stores. After that we headed up through more market stalls which occupied closed off streets (in Manhattan!) up to the original Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, a very popular place for burgers and shakes. (Incidentally the shakes were $5, although that doesn't seem as big a deal these days as it was to John Travolta a while back in Pulp Fiction!) We waited in line for about 45 minutes for our burgers and shakes, which really were quite impressive. In the afternoon we headed back to Brooklyn, where Joss, Paul and Andrea headed out to the Brooklyn Brewery (Tri does not drink beer, and his injury made it difficult to have a whole day of walking). However we quickly abandoned the overcrowded and not terribly nice brewery for a quieter bar, where we had a few drinks then moved on to meet Tri for some more drinks and dinner.

The Shake Shack in Madison Square Park
Hanging in Brooklyn

Sunday (3rd) we were greeted with a nice sunny day so decided to walk across Brookyn Bridge and then up to China town for lunch and another sandwich/sub! After getting a taste for them we had to try another from the the top 101 list, this time from Banh Mi, a Vietnamese spicy chicken sandwich, and a worthy nominee! After lunch we made a quicker than intended visit to the Highline, a park that has been built on what was an old, raised railway track. Unfortunately we were running on a tight schedule so had to leave before we had enough time to explore it all. We then headed to Broadway to meet Andrea to see a show; Avenue Q, which is a musical with actors using muppets, a little confusing at first but quite funny.

The Brooklyn Bridge

Great Jazzy buskers at the Highline

Monday (4th) Paul's Birthday! Although an overcast and drizzly day, we decided to go ahead with our plans anyway and go up to the viewing deck of the Empire State building. Although visibility was low, the lines were short, and still seeing the city under cloud cover was very impressive! For a late lunch we headed over to Chelsea (where we had been the previous day for the Highline) to a 1 Michelin star bar/restaurant called The Spotted Pig. We had nice leisurely late lunch. By the time we finished it was already getting late so we headed back to Brooklyn, but not before grabbing a couple of cup cakes from the nearby Magnolia's bakery (PM: Sarah we felt we had to make a trip on your behalf to give them a taste). Back in Brooklyn we headed out to Brooklyn Bowl with Tri and Andrea for some dinner, drinks and a game of Ten Pin!

Empire State building - this shot was taken on a different day to when we went to the top
From the top
The Spotted Pig
Proof we went to Magnolia
Happy Birthday to me!

Tuesday (5th) on a similar line to the sandwiches we headed to Soho to have a proper street cart burrito New York style from Calexico, which is regarded as the best street vendor in NY. They have even expanded and opened a restaurant! With very satisfied and full bellies (and a taste for more burritos) we headed south to take the Staten Island Ferry for a view of the famous Statue. Although to be honest, it wasn't as impressive as we thought, perhaps because the waters surrounding NY are busy with docks and freight ships. Afterwards we took another trip to Midtown to hang around, and much to our surprise a little more shopping (we are worried and seeking medical attention fo the sudden onset of this condition). For dinner we got Pizza from Fornino in Brooklyn which had previously been voted best pizza in NY, and it was pretty good. Not like the horror stories of USA pizzza we had heard!

The statue and on the ferry

Around Times Square

Wednesday (6th) morning Joss went to the Guggenheim museum whilst Paul hung about in Brooklyn in the morning. We met in midtown and had a diner lunch, which felt very authentic. During the evening all four of us went out to see a band called !!! (pron. chk chk chk) at a venue nearby in Brooklyn. Afterwards we both discovered that the local deli also made great sandwiches (although sadly none made the top 101)!

Thursday (7th) our last full day, and a fantastically sunny one, Paul was unfortunately sick, so had to stay home! Joss and Andrea took advantage of the great weather and went to Central Park, 5th Avenue and the Strand, a massive second hand bookshop. For out last night we all headed out (Paul had recovered) for dinner at a local tapas place for once again some great food.

The Guggenheim museum
Central Park
Andrea and Joss at Tapas

Friday (8th) morning before saying goodbye to NY we went to a local cafe called Egg for breakfast, where Paul was able to try another of the sandwiches from the top 101 list (PM: however I had reservations about his one, it was a biscuit with ham and fig jam and a side of grits.... and was disappoiting, perhaps an aquired taste)