Holiday trip? Consider rail travel

Unlike Europe and Japan, the United States isn’t known for its high-tech, efficient rail travel. Which is a shame because, as I recently discovered, taking Amtrak is sometimes a better way to travel this big country of ours, and generally speaking, it has a lower carbon footprint per passenger than driving or flying.

You definitely need to have time to spare for long distance trips, although with the epic waits at some airport security checks, you may well come out ahead on shorter routes. Amtrak offers a lot of promotions and deals on its website, and children two to 15 ride half-price. The train can also be more fun for kids, and help save the sanity of parents who dread the airport schlep and subsequent whine-fest.

When I lived in the Bay Area, I’d sometimes take the train from Berkeley to my brother’s place in Truckee, in North Lake Tahoe. Given that it’s a three-and-a-half hour drive in perfect weather, assuming you leave at the crack of dawn to avoid traffic, the five-hour rail journey isn’t a bad idea for a winter trip. Note: Depending upon route, make sure your trip doesn’t have a connection by bus, which can considerably lengthen your trip and detract from your comfort. That said, I’ve ridden Amtrak’s motorcoaches in the past and found them pretty nice. They’re a far cry from the filthy, stinking, hell-on-wheels that is Greyhound, and at least there are increasingly excellent options on the East Coast for short-distance bus travel.

Still, I’d never done an overnight on Amtrak, mainly because I hate to take 17 hours to travel somewhere that’s a two-hour flight away. But on a recent trip from Chicago to Washington DC, the train was running $85/o/w for a coach seat. At the time, even with the additional cost of a sleeper, it was cheaper than airfare, so I went for it.

The only part of the Midwest I’d visited prior to Chicago was Wisconsin, so the train also provided a great way for me to see a new part of the country. And it would be relaxing…a mini-vacation, if you will, where I could escape traffic and the electronic leashes of Blackberry and computer (Amtrak’s AcelaExpress commuter trains are currently the only ones equipped with Wifi).

The Capitol Limited route took me from Chicago’s bustling downtown Union Station, through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. Getting a ticket is as simple as booking online, which I recommend doing in advance if possible, although you can also purchase them at the station from an agent or kiosk, and over the phone or your mobile device. Long distance routes have various sleeping options, ranging from one-to-two person roomettes to bedroom suites that accomodate four adults. For future reference, I suggest you book at least a month ahead on the more popular routes, to ensure you get a sleeper. I selected a 3’x6″ x 6’x6″ “Superliner Roomette ($128 additional fee, including meals).” The Superliner is a double-decker; the roomette a private cabin with sliding doors and curtains, windows spanning the length of the compartment, climate control, a garment rack, fold-down table, and two very comfortable reclining seats that fold into upper and lower berths. Unlike the single-level Viewliner car roomettes, there is no sink or toilet.

Compared to the airport, the train is a stress-free snap. Arrive at station, print out ticket, go to private waiting room, check bag, read, eat free snacks. When it’s time to board, you’re led to the correct platform, and you climb aboard. Tip: If you’ve got a lot of luggage or a really heavy bag, get some assistance. Trains are a lot longer than you’d think, and my back was giving me the metaphorical finger by the time I staggered to my car, lugging my corpse-size duffel.

The friendly conductor showed me to my cozy roomette on the second floor. There was a clean bathroom just steps away, as well as a coffee/water/juice station (included with fare). The shower was downstairs; I was expecting the worst, but it was clean, the water hot and plentiful.

The sightseer lounge cars have huge windows and tables, so I spent the first couple of hours watching the sun set over Indiana. FYI, some routes, like the West’s Coast’s Pacific Surfliner, Coast Starlight, and Amtrak Cascades, and the California Zephyr in the Rockies, are justly famous for their scenery. Amtrak also provides a stop-by-stop guide for its routes, so you can learn the historical and cultural significance of each.

As for dinner, I’m pretty sure I harbor a repressed childhood trauma from an airline chicken breast, because while I think nothing of eating dog, goat testicles, or witchetty grubs (or, probably, human flesh), I can’t deal with meals produced for mass transit. So I bypassed the dining car, because it just smelled unappetizing, and the plates of food didn’t look much better. Instead, I brought my own travel picnic with me. To do otherwise in a city with dining and grocery options as fantastic as Chicago’s would be a shame..

What I really love about Amtrak is the fact that it lets me enjoy transit for transit’s sake, which is something I don’t often experience domestically (probably because I’m always flying or driving). Like riding the bus in foreign countries (my favorite way to travel, and inevitably a fascinating cultural immersion), the train allowed me to just zone out. I had the time and privacy to read, doze, think, daydream, and watch the world go by. At 9pm, the conductor came to turn down my bed. I slid between the sheets, and watched the starry Midwestern night slip by. The rhythm of the rails lulled me to sleep.

In the morning, I sipped my coffee and marveled at the brilliant fall foliage in Maryland and West Virginia. I arrived at DC’s centrally-located Union Station feeling far more relaxed (and free of neck-kinks) than any flight has ever left me. Thanks, Amtrak. rriving

A weekend of Mammoth proportions

I glance at my watch; it’s roughly 11am and I’m halfway into the flight from San Jose to Mammoth Lakes, California. The turboprops on Horizon Air’s Bombardier Q400 churn less than 27,000 ft above the immense snow-covered Sierras. The view is remarkable, and the gradual transition from green rolling hills to sharp white ridges is memorable.

Over the drone of the propellers, a husky voice belonging to our bleached blonde flight attendant moves down the aisle with a strange choice of words: “Can I get you to drink?”. A quick survey in the cabin reveals a mixture of young, savvy professionals with shirts and bags that show the markings of Google, Sun, and Adobe. Further down, there’s a smattering of couples with small children and a father-son pair. 11am does seem a little early for drinks, but the mood is festive and a few passengers oblige to the attendant’s propositions in an attempt to usher in the weekend on the right note.

The flight is quick and easy, and just two hours after touching down at Mammoth Lake’s quaint airport, I’m in full snow gear and comfortably admiring the fresh powder from Mammoth Mountain’s Panorama Gondola. Board in hand, I unload at the top of the 11,053ft peak; a height that qualifies Mammoth as the highest ski resort in the state of California and lends itself to an average of 400″ inches of annual snowfall.

The views from the top of the peak are nothing less than picture perfect. The mountain is nestled 3 hours south of Yosemite National Park, 2 hours north of the highest mountain in the 48 states, and is officially part of the Ansel Adams Wilderness area; named in the famous photographer’s honor due to his involvement in inspiring the federal protection and preservation of the land.

By the time night falls on my first day, I’m whisked to the quaint lakeside Tamarack Lodge for dinner with the rest of the journalists that have been assembled by the mountain for the weekend. The dining room glows with soft light; there are a limited number of tables, no more than 12, which adds to the restaurant’s charm and cozy atmosphere. The wine is only trumped by the tender bluefin tuna and delicious blueberry pie, and the meal ends with a farewell from the enthusiastic French Chef. He’s a man that obviously loves his work and takes pride in catering to such an intimate set of diners.


The next day proves to be even more eventful than the first. The morning is spent hopping around the mountain, looking for the best untouched patches of last week’s snowfall. For lunch, a private snowcat tour has been arranged to take us to a vista that overlooks Mammoth’s postcard-friendly peaks known as the Minarets. It’s stormy and gusts of snow threaten to spoil our lunch, but a few brave souls embrace the cold and eat a spread of marinated chicken and salad at the scenic area’s picnic tables. Through the breaks in the low clouds, we catch glimpses of the peaks and imagine what the scene would be like in all its glory on a clear day.

In the afternoon, we’re led on a guided snowmobile tour that weaves through cleanly carved trails to an open snowfield where the group is encouraged to let the throttle rip, bouncing through crisscrossed tracks in six foot deep snow. After drinks and snacks at the Yodler, a local favorite for aprés ski, I force myself to shake off the burn in my legs and bundle up for the evening’s full moon snowshoe hike.

As tired as I was, I really wasn’t expecting too much out of the hike, but it turned out to be the pinnacle of the entire trip. An older couple that run the cross-country skiing center were our guides for the night; Uli (from Switzerland) and Robin were extremely charming and knowledgeable about the Sierra region and had facts at the ready around every corner.

I was taken aback by the stillness of Mammoth’s forests at night; the intensity of the brightest full moon of the year; the view overlooking Mammoth Lakes and the village far below. All of it came together to be a completely relaxing but genuinely memorable outing.

I thought I could get away with ending the day there, but was mistaken by the fact that we still had a round of nightlife hotspots to see. One of the great things about the nightlife in Mammoth is that most of the popular gathering spots are all in walking distance from one another and from the Village; the residential / commercial development that the Mountain has established in the last few years as the pseudo-hub for mountain activity and social activity.

By the end of the weekend, I exhausted and impressed that Mammoth could offer so much activity in to one weekend. The town has still managed to retain the feel and personality of a small mountain community, while readily establishing itself as a major destination for outdoor action. If you haven’t given Mammoth a second thought due to its location, then check out Horizon Air’s flights out of Los Angeles and San Jose.

You may come away sore, but you won’t leave disappointed.

Stephen Greenwood ventured out to Mammoth Lakes on a trip sponsored by the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. No editorial content was guaranteed and Stephen was free to openly report on his experiences (pending his survival of the outdoor winter activities that demand motor skills he generally lacks).

The best of the best in Mammoth, CA

Hours in between Yosemite National Park and the highest mountain in the 48 contiguous states lies an action-packed town called Mammoth Lakes.

Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it; Mammoth Mountain has remained a secret for many on the West Coast due to its remote location in the Eastern Sierras. Though it has always been popular for skiers and boarders from Los Angeles and SoCal, seasonal flights have started to trickle into Mammoth in recent years, quickly making it California’s next premier destination for winter sports. I went out to Mammoth to experience everything that the mountain has to offer and brought back the best of the best for you right here.

Best time to go. If your schedule permits, the best time to plan a trip to Mammoth is during a full moon. Aside from the obvious romance of snowcapped Sierras lit up by the moonlight, the Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center offers seasonal full moon snowshoe tours guided by a bona fide Swiss Alpinist. The tour will take you through the woods to a seldom visited ridge where you can take in views of the entire Mammoth Lakes area; a genuinely memorable experience. The only thing that tops it is the cozy finish of a hot cup of cider by the fire in the Tamarack lodge.

Biggest non-boarding thrill. Sign up for a snowmobile tour from Mammoth Snowmobile Adventures and take a guided thrill-ride through Mammoth’s 300 miles of snowmobile trails. The highlight is an unbounded excursion through powdery snow fields and an oval snowmobile track. The guided tours last 90 minutes, which is just about as much time as you’ll want to spend on the machines before returning to the Yodler for the end of the day activities.

Best way to get there. Without a doubt, Horizon Air’s seasonal services from Los Angeles and Seattle / San Jose are the best ways to get to Mammoth. With one-way fares as low as $39 on slow days, there’s nothing that beats a 55-minute flight over the snowcapped Sierras. The best and most under-promoted feature of the service is the fact that Mammoth Mountain will give you a free lift ticket on the same day as your flight from San Jose or Portland if you present your boarding pass at the lift ticket window. You can be trapped in Southern California smog in the morning and on top of California’s tallest ski resort in the afternoon; need I say more?

Best off-mountain adventure. Since Mammoth Lakes is a geologically active region on the edge of the Long Valley Caldera, there are dozens of natural hot springs to discover and take a wintertime dip in. The best advice? Ask a local where to go and you’ll get pointed in the right direction for hot springs that are near (and safe) for taking a dip.

Best chair on the mountain. Want the best untracked powder and tree runs while staying away from the busy weekend lift lines? Cut to the south side of the mountain for the Cloud Nine Express. For years, this corner of the mountain was serviced by a painfully slow double-chair lift that was replaced in 2007 with a high-speed six-person chair. Because of its location on the mountain, the chair rarely accumulates large lift lines despite its choice terrain and remains one of Mammoth’s best kept secrets.

Best Aprés Ski. One of the great aspects of Mammoth is that there are plenty of options in close proximity for skiers to unwind and cozy up after a long day on the mountain. The best seat in the house? The Yodler Bar & Pub’s fireside lounge. This historic building across from the Main Lodge has tasty aprés ski beverages and snacks, a lively crowd, and a cozy atmosphere. Catch a 6pm shuttle outside the Yodler for an easy ride back to the village before the nightlife gets started.

Best dinner table. There are plenty of diverse spots in and around Mammoth to grab a solid meal, but if you’re looking for something above and beyond, the table to have is a cozy spot next to the fireplace at Petra’s, just across from Mammoth’s village complex. The wine bar is highly recommended, the service is great, and the food is enough to impress the packs of highly discerning LA socialites that frequent Mammoth’s slopes.

If Petra’s is full, or you’re looking to commemorate a special occasion, then consider making the journey out to the Lakefront Restaurant at the Tamarack Lodge. The dining room is delightfully tiny and the food is meticulously prepared by Chef de Cuisine Frederic Pierrel. The atmosphere alone is definitely worth the 10 minute drive from the center of town; even if it’s only to have a warm drink in the lounge with some tasteful jazz buzzing in the background.

Best nightlife. Perhaps it’s the LA blood that trickles through the mountain, but Mammoth loves to party. If you still have enough energy to venture out after dark, there are a few fun options for socializing and finding a new ski partner to pair up with – and the best news is that they’re all in walking distance to the Village. The brand-new Hyde Restaurant & Bar has a great-looking crowd and LA-priced (read: expensive) bottle service to match. It seems a little out of place in a mountain town like Mammoth, but naturally attracts a very specific clientele.

If you prefer a more local & low-key vibe, then head down to the Clocktower Cellar Pub where pool tables, jukeboxes and cheap draft beer will help loosen your sore hamstring muscles. There’s plenty of dancing to be had at Lakanuki, but if you’re over 30 it’s likely that you’ll be feeling out of place among the throngs of college kids and Hawaiian decor.

Best way to stay connected. Anything but AT&T. Everything from 3G to basic cell reception with AT&T is appalling in and around most places in Mammoth – except on the actual slopes. Verizon and T-Mobile seem fine, but iPhone customers should be running to download the “Mark the Spot” application to file complaints with the provider. While this is solely AT&T’s problem, it’s a sign that Mammoth is still transitioning into being a major resort/destination. But it’s also a convenient excuse for why you “couldn’t be reached” all weekend.

Stephen Greenwood ventured out to Mammoth Lakes on a trip sponsored by the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. No editorial content was guaranteed and Stephen was free to openly report on his experiences (pending his survival of the outdoor winter activities that demand motor skills he generally lacks).

Drive across the USA in four minutes

Haven’t we all dreamed of taking that cross-country road trip? That amazing opportunity to just jump in a car and blast across the United States from coast-to-coast? The trouble is that not many of us have actually had a chance to do it. There’s any number of reasons why, ranging from the oft-cited lack of American vacation time to the hassle of logistics planning such a trip. Well my friends, the days of your road trip excuses are numbered. Because before your next coffee break this Friday, we guarantee you will get to travel across the entire United States by car. And you’re going to do it in just about four and a half minutes.

Did Gadling somehow discover how to bend the laws of physics? Well, not quite – but we did find this sweet time lapse road trip video by YouTube user physiciandirectory. During their recent cross country road trip from San Francisco to Washington, these traveling filmmakers set their camera to take a photo once every 10 seconds. The result is a tour of our vast country taken at breakneck speed. It’s fun to watch the scenery rapidly change from desert to grassland to town as the pair motors along, accompanied by the fast paced soundtrack. If you’re still looking for reasons to make that cross country trip a reality, consider this as your inspiration.

[Via Metafilter]


Band on the Run: The SkyTrain View of Vancouver, BC

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

Last week, I had the pleasure of an extra day in Vancouver. The festival we performed at in Grand Forks, BC didn’t program events on the Sunday. As a result, we headed back to Vancouver on Sunday rather than on our flight day, which was Monday. This gave me a chance to catch up with a friend in Vancouver and take in a very Vancouver-specific experience:

The SkyTrain.

I was staying out in Surrey, an outlying suburb of Vancouver. My friend lives on the opposite side of the city and so we agreed to meet up downtown. I headed to King George SkyTrain station and felt like a tourist all over again, even though this is definitely not my first time in this city.

I love wandering cities alone, even the occasionally seedy ones.

Now, I’m not slagging Vancouver. This is a beautiful place. On my many occasions here I have walked the Sea Wall, seen Stanley Park, spent copious hours on Commercial Drive and generally loved the Vancouver vibe. I am definitely a west coast convert and probably wouldn’t turn down much opportunity to get out there because it is just that beautiful. The fact that it’s guarded by the Rocky Mountains doesn’t hurt either, as though they supervise the town with their stony majesty.

Well, hey, this summer is a fine example of that respect I feel for the west coast, not to mention the magnet I feel to get there; we have flown out there as a band three times since early July and that makes British Columbia our number one destination for summer festivals in 2007.

That’s something.

I would, however, be remiss if I didn’t also point out that Vancouver has a rough side. Seedy, rough, sketchy – call it what you will. This town has its full-spectrum attributes and I’d say that King George station reminded me of this truth.

I read here that Vancouver has been noted as having “the worst skid row in North America.” Hard to believe when you tour the beautiful neighbourhoods of North Vancouver or the hip arts district of the East End.

But, I think this reality adds to the beauty of the city, too. There is a seedy underbelly here that clashes suddenly with such intensely beautiful scenery, for sure, but, even more interesting is that this underbelly is not being hidden; it is regularly visible, sort of like a dog that is willing to roll over and show its vulnerability without losing its ability to dominate or its charm.

Yeah, Vancouver is a mix, for sure, and that’s what I love about it.

Nothing happened at that SkyTrain station to be alarmed about, of course. There was just the exchange of general acknowledgment between those hanging around the station and me, the visitor, passing through the station. I bought my ticket (from the kiosks that work on an honour system – you just buy the ticket and they occasionally check but there’s no turnstile or attendant!) and headed upstairs to the platform. The only indicator that this is the right direction is the banner above the stairway that indicates that this is “Fare Paid Zone.”

I love how trusting Vancouver is.

This is the end of the line, so the train was paused here for a few moments before heading back downtown. It gave me just the time I wanted to snap a picture of its perch, pre take-off, and of the way the tracks look, as though they’re about ready to mount the mountains themselves and then race down into a twist and turn and upside-down roller coaster run. I half expected to hear that motorized-pulley sound of roller coaster cars being tugged uphill.

The SkyTrain is a subway above ground (not unlike Line 13 in Beijing or the L in Chicago) and it offers an amazing view of such a diverse city. When I sat down in the front car, I was soon surrounded by everyday commuters and some noisy teens heading out for the evening. Everything seemed normal and urban, as though I could be anywhere, as we weaved into the city suspended on stilts across the water and skimming roof lines of various neighbourhoods. No hills and no death-defying speeds, but it was cool all the same.

I got off at Granville Station and was met with the steepest escalator I have ever seen. In fact, I actually backed away from it when I saw it with the intent to take a picture and stranger said to me, mockingly, “Ah, don’t worry. It won’t hurt cha!” while pointing upwards and smirking.

I just nodded and took my picture, feeling all the more like a tourist (and this sometimes can be equated with “geeky,”) and then I also felt an overwhelming drive to put my camera safely in my bag, out of sight. This isn’t a common feeling for me so I rode the escalator up, took a couple more photos and then safely stashed it in my bag before getting to the top. The urge to conceal anything valuable was palpable and I just listened to myself. I wouldn’t call that paranoia, just instinct.

When I got out of the station at Granville, there was a lot of street action and I was grateful for this decision. I walked through it unnoticed, but sometimes looking like a tourist even when there’s only twenty bucks in your pocket and a cheap knock off camera in your possession is just not worth the hassle. I hurried past and then called my friend and we found each other just a few blocks later. Now, hey, I’m not saying there was any actual threat on that street there; I’m just saying that I wasn’t about to invite any, either. Not in Vancouver.

And then, I had a great catch up with my friend who I haven’t seen since I was in Beijing in June. I got a lift home from Dave’s sister, Liz, but I would have happily taken The SkyTrain again. I’ll have to do that sometime when night has fallen so that I can watch the lights of the city bounce off the water and the tall buildings. I’m sure it just adds to the beauty.

Until then, stay safe and open minded in the great wild, Wild West.

I miss that coast already.