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Episode 20: Prague to Seattle

all seasons in one day 13 °C

Episode 20: Prague to Seattle
24 October - 2 November

Loving New York, dreary Toronto, snowy Jasper, foggy Vancouver

I {heart} NY: one of the most cheesy, ubiquitous and imitated logos that is found throughout the world. Yet for me, despite seeing it on kitchy touristy do-dads throughout my travels, it really seems quite appropriate for New York.

My mother, father and I emigrated from Norway in the early 1950s first taking a vessel from Bergen to Southhampton in the UK, and then the Queen Elizabeth from Southhampton to New York. I was only three years old at the time so I remember nothing. I have been told that we did not have to go through customs and immigration on Ellis Island which, although still operational when we arrived in the United States, was passing more of its immigration and inspection duties to US consulates. So we landed at Pier 91 on Long Island and were processed while on the vessel. We had to make our way to Chicago as soon as we got off the boat and my mother tells me she remembers that we got off the Queen Elizabeth and hopped into a taxi to take us to the Greyhound bus depot which, to the amusement of the taxi driver and unbeknownst to my parents, was on the other side of the block to the pier. So the 10 minute drive from Pier 91 to the bus station was all we ever saw of New York.

My mother decided that visiting New York, actually seeing the city and taking the train back to Vancouver was a very adventurous idea so she flew in from Seattle and joined me the day after I arrived in NY after a very non-descript flight from Prague. We had a hey day for two days visiting all the sights that you hear in songs and see in movies: Broadway, Times Squares, Cagney Theatre, the Empire State Building, Central Park – and so the list goes on. I even finally figured out what the words “uptown girl, living in a downtown world” from the Billy Joel song meant.

We stayed in a hotel in Brooklyn so we used the underground to get to Manhattan each day. We managed the underground pretty well, only going the wrong direction a couple of times and, amazingly, we found people really helpful despite the occasional lurking figure in a dark corner. Mum had two knee replacements 10 years ago so we discovered somewhat to our dismay that there are a lot of stairs and not enough elevators or escalators to access the underground from the street. However, she managed stoically.

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Our first day was spent taking the ferry over to the Statue of Liberty and visiting Ellis Island. Getting an advance ticket on the internet is just about mandatory give the line queuing up for tickets on the day for the statue cruises. We gleened ample history doing the self-tour, reading all the exhibit panels around the Statue of Liberty and on Ellis Island. From the photos of Ellis Island and looking down into the great hall, you can imagine the noise, the crowd, the nervousness and uncertainty of millions of people coming to a new and unknown land. Few, like my parents and I, probably spoke or understood any English.

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We later visited the 9/11 Memorial, located at the site of the former World Trade Center complex honouring the nearly 3,000 men, women and children who perished as a result of the terrorist attacks of 26 February 1993 and 11 September 2001. I salute Michael Arad and Peter Walker, the architects who designed the memorial and surrounding grounds, and the American government for approving it. Nothing will ever take away from the terror and sadness of that day, but the memorial gave me a sense of peace, respect for the victims and recognition that you can’t forget, but you need to heal and move forward.

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At the time of our visit, only the north and south memorial pools and surrounding grounds were open. The One World Trade Centre was under construction. The memorial plaza consisted of two recessed pools set into the footprints of the Twin Towers. The perimeter of each pool was surrounded by a bronze parapet on which the names of all the people who died were inscribed and water continuously cascades over the 30 foot sides of the pools. The pools are surrounded by deciduous trees which were in their gold and red autumn colour. I confess that I was quite taken aback at how small the original footprint of each of the Twin Towers seemed to be in relation to their heights, each which towered over 1,300 feet.

The next day was spent wandering up 7th Avenue to Central Park and back down Broadway to Times Square. I never thought I would enjoy New York simply because of its size and masses of people, but the place certainly hops and I could have easily spent months exploring the city. There is certainly no shortage of things to see and do, or places to eat. Wow. Too much choice and even bagels came in 17 varieties. We finally got to Times Square in early evening and both my mother and I were in awe of the sheer quantum and brightness of the lights.

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After the buzz of New York, it was time to relax on the train and the first leg of our train trip to Vancouver consisted of travelling the 875 km from New York to Toronto on the Maple Leaf train departing from Pennsylvania Station. It took us about 12 hours to get to Toronto, travelling along the banks of the Hudson River passing through Albany, Buffalo and Syracuse and just edging past Niagara Falls. It was gorgeous, again because the autumn colours and the placid river.

We spent three days in Toronto and the weather was fine for the first three hours and twenty minutes and then it went ballistic: freezing cold, rain, howling winds. What we did not realise until we got to Seattle was that we were two days in front of Cyclone Sandy, which explained the abrupt and severe change in the weather. We managed to do a boat cruise in the Toronto Harbour and around the Toronto Islands which was quite pleasant until the end when the bad weather started to set in. The next day, as the weather was so wet and blustery, we decided that the most practical thing for us to do was take the Toronto Double Decker City Tour bus and do the city tour circuit a few times. Not a bad way to see the city really: you sit and view and get a running commentary (after about the third circuit, we were tempted to blurt out the jokes before the tour guide) and you can hop on and hop off at any stop along the route. We did make one pit stop between rain squalls at the Distillery District complex but after a quick hot chocolate, we returned right smart to the bus and back to the hotel as we got soaked in three seconds. The highlight of the nattering tour guide was that in one café a cappuccino made from civet coffee costs $55. Pretty exorbitant given you are drinking coffee from seeds eaten and pooped out by a furry creature that is prone to abuse by humans.

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It was then time to get to Union Station to start the first part of the train trip from Toronto to Vancouver on “The Canadian”.

The trip from Toronto to Vancouver covers 4,466 km (2,775 miles) and usually takes four days going west (it takes a wee bit longer going east as you are going up hill), passing through forest, prairie and mountains. I had organised a three day stopover in Jasper as the weather was a mild 66oF at the time of the booking and I thought it would be good to have a break and stretch our legs. Also, hiring a car and taking a little tour through the Rocky Mountains sounded like just the thing to do.

In a couple of words, the train trip was rather pampered and luxurious. Mum and I had our own cabin with two bunks and an ensuite bathroom. Each morning we would tell our porter what “sitting” we preferred for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We would leave our unmade bunks, go to breakfast and return to a cabin where the bunks were put away and two very comfy lounge type chairs and clean towels were set out. We spent most of our time in the dome car as we both found the cabin a bit confining after a few hours and it helped put some interest during the stretch through the rather flat, monotonous prairie countryside. And besides, they always had tea, coffee, fruit and croissants available. Dinner was silver service: white tablecloth, an a’ la carte three course menu, wine and a carnation in a vase. The challenge with this arrangement was that you had to share a table with two strangers and sometimes it was most difficult to carry out even a semblance of a conversation. After dinner, we would return to our cabin and to immaculately turned down bunk beds. In truth, despite the comfort, I preferred the smells, noises, hub bub and sheets in a plastic bag provided by the Russian trains.

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To our dismay, by the time we got to Jasper, the town was no longer a balmy 66oF but a freezing 27oF and under one foot of snow. A two hour train stop in freezing Winnipeg should have gotten us acclimatized, but it didn't. We didn’t hire the car because of the icy road conditions, so we had to settle on comparing pancake breakfasts at various cafés, visiting shops and buying hats and scarves with maple leaves on them and, in my case, spending heaps of time in the indoor and outdoor spa pools at the hotel.

The stretch of railway between Jasper and Kamloops is the highlight of the train trip because of it passing through the Rocky Mountains. It was a bit overcast, but we still managed to see most of Mt Robson (the highest peak in the Rockies) and the surrounding mountains. As it had been snowing quite heavily, I rather enjoyed the snow covered landscape and the train shoosing up the snow along both sides of the train track. We had spent a lot of time in the dome car up to Jasper, but people queued to get a seat after Jasper, so we were very happy to sit in the more austere lounge car and watch the scenery go by.

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We arrived at the Pacific Central Station in Vancouver two days after we departed Jasper and were met by my brother, sister-in law and nephew. Vancouver was also in rain, so we only stayed overnight and drove to Seattle the next day, which is what I thought was the ultimate end of this trip.

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Next stop: Perth, Australia via the train…and a little bit of bus, just because.

Posted by IvaS 03:49 Archived in Canada

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