Category Archives: Trains
Take the Moonshine Express run of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, and I promise you will not be disappointed.
After booking our tickets online, we picked them up at 9:30 the morning of the trip and boarded the Carolina Shine car around 10 AM. Before we even started rolling, we were served three of the seven moonshine flavors we tasted. Starting with the basic White Lightening, we moved quickly on to Apple Pie and Cherry. Our second flight featured Peach, Blueberry, Pina Colada, and Salted Caramel. Peach and Apple Pie were my favs . . . and I did try them all. Heartier souls can order all sorts of shots and/or moonshine-laced cocktails in addition to wine or beer from the well-stocked bar. It was a happy train car.
We rolled out of the Bryson City, NC trainyard under diesel power about half an hour into our five-hour experience, on a route along the beautiful Nantahala Gorge. Our energetic, funny host, Steve, kept us entertained with all sorts of historic facts and trivia as we chugged along about 20 miles per hour through forests, around lakes, and over rivers.
A tasty BBQ lunch was served before our hour-long stop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. At the Center, you see some beautiful (and scary-looking) class-5 rapids, as well as a kayak training course used by Olympic athletes. There are ample restrooms, a restaurant/bar, and a shopping area focused on active outdoor clothes and accessories (think wetsuits and paddles).
What a great way to travel from Vancouver BC to Portland Oregon. The only downside is it does leave at 6:30 AM, but it gets you into Portland at about 3 PM, rested, fed and entertained. It’s an absolutely beautiful route through Washington, the water views are so pretty it’s not even hard to stay awake.
Business Class seats are worth the extra fee, and taking two single seats (one behind the other) on the right side of the train car is really the best for maximizing your viewing pleasure. It’s comfortable and on par with any first-class European train. This train did not have a dining car, but the Bistro service and quality was not bad once the train got underway. Prior to departure, there was quite a line.
It was hard to get an answer about what time we needed to be at the station (since we would also be going through customs). At one point, we were told by an Amtrak representative the station did not even open til 6 AM; that is not true, staff is there from about 5 AM. Business Class and Global Entry have a separate line for check-in with no wait. Customs officers board the train at the border, but it a quick walk-through and a quick glance at passenger passports.
Flåm’s name literally translates into “little place with steep mountains” and it is a fitting description. It’s on Aurlandsfjord, the innermost arm of Songefjord, Norway’s biggest and deepest fjord. The area is still reeling from massive flooding last year that destroyed homes and caused major damage to buildings, bridges, road and the railway. Their latest misfortune was a fire in the tunnel on their main road last week, closing the road to traffic for the immediate future. In spite of the flooding and the chilly, wet weather, Flåm proved a delightful place to visit.
Flåm has a famous train, the Flåmsbana, whose slogan is “one of the world’s most beautiful train rides”, and I chose this cruise itinerary because Flåm was included. So once again we found ourselves back on a train ride – albeit a short ride this time. About 45 minutes up to Vatnahalsen (just under 2,500’), where we stopped for a break and a snack of homemade waffles, sour cream and jam (small, thin waffles and the taste reminded me of a blintz). Then back down the same route.
More significantly, was our stop at the thundering Kjosfossen Falls, with a free fall of 305 feet. While off the train, some eerily haunting music seemed to come from the mountains around the falls and a “water spirit” appeared and begin to dance and leap. Odd as it sounds, with the light rain and mist from the falls, it was really a nice effect.
There were many other impressive falls along the way, as well as beautiful mountains, tiny villages and snow-covered peaks all around. No one would’ve been surprised to see one of Norway’s famous trolls around the next bend.
We started the day exploring the lovely Altstadt (Old Town) of Chur. They were setting up for what looked like a very impressive city-wide festival, too bad we can’t stay.
Then back on the train for a short, hour and a half, trip to Zürich. The scenery was exactly what you would expect to see in the Swiss countryside, pastoral green hills, cows, small quaint villages, clear lakes and the occasional castle. In fact, this is Heidi territory.
Once at the Hauptbahnhof in Zürich, we made a quick transfer to an airport train and checked into our hotel to drop off our bags. We are leaving for England at dawn tomorrow so we wanted to be on-site to make things as easy as possible at that inhuman time of the day. Then back into central Zürich.
There was no real agenda today, just walking around and taking it easy after the last few hectic days. We enjoy the Old Towns in European cities, and this one was no exception. Larger than many such districts, we found its sister cobbled-street neighborhood of Niederdorf across the River Limmat even more charming and definitely more upscale. Being ever-minded of equal opportunity, we visited cafes on both sides.
The Rhine River in Chur, Switzerland’s oldest city, was inhabited since the Neolithic era in 2500 BC and settled by the Romans in the 1st century BC.
It’s no secret my husband loves trains; while I may not share his passion for Lionel trains, model train displays, or being in the engineer’s cab, I do love riding trains; especially in Europe.
So, riding the Swiss Glacier Express was naturally at the top of our list. This morning we left Zermatt before 7AM and headed east to St. Moritz. We went back along the route from the day prior, to Visp, bypassing it for a quick stop in Brig. Other scheduled stops included Andermatt, Disentis, Chur and Filisur.
At times, I felt like I had been miniaturized and dropped into the magnificent Swiss model train display at Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland; I expected at any minute to see a naked couple in a field of sunflowers, or a team of detectives investigating a body in a river.
The “slowest express train in the world” (at an average 22 mph), covers 291 kilometers (181 miles) in about eight hours and every minute is riveting.
The scenery is nothing less than spectacular and I will try to let the few pictures here tell the story. Unlike the Rocky Mountaineer, these cars have no option to stand at an open window for photos, so you cope with windows getting progressively dustier, awful reflection, lots of electrical wires and the fact you are in a moving train, to try to get any shots at all. Mostly, you just have to sit back and enjoy the experience.
From snow-covered peaks, glaciers, bright green pastures, cows collared with giant bells, expansive evergreen forests, workers building new spiral tunnels, a helicopter flying buckets of cement to a mountain top, sheer limestone cliffs, deep gorges, raging rivers and towering waterfalls, we crossed 291 bridges and viaducts and travelled through 91 tunnels. At our highest point, at the Oberalppass near Andermatt, we were 6,670’ high. The segment between Chur and St. Moritz is also part of the Bernina Express; one area, known as the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes, has been a World Heritage Site since 2008.
Once in St. Moritz, we jumped right back on another train and headed back to Chur, Switzerland’s oldest city, for the night. My lesson for the day – you pronounce Chur, “Kor”.
Tips for anyone thinking of going:
There are 3 trains a day, just before 8, 9 and 10 am, from each direction. Reservations are required (there is first and second class) and all food and beverages are additional, and served at your seat (the dining car was discontinued years ago). Commentary is skimpy and by headphone, and the guy reading the English script could put sheep to sleep. Thankfully, we read a good description in a book prior to going. Most of the souvenirs available on the train are not much to brag about and better off skipped. If you have room in your suitcase, the angle-bottom wine glass they formerly used in the dining car (to keep liquid even), is a conversation piece.
The Swiss Rail/Travel Pass, www.sbb.ch, is a good way to go, but keep in mind, you still need to pay a bit more for a reservation on any Swiss scenic route like the Glacier Express. www.glacierexpress.ch
The route from Geneva took us through the Swiss towns of Nyon, Morges, Lausanne, Vevey, Montreux, Aigle, Bex, St.Maurice, Martigny, Sion, Sierre and Leuk before arrival in Visp.
Zermatt is the most popular vacation spot within Switzerland for the Swiss. It’s a huge ski resort and a perfect spot for summer hiking.
We had a really nice train ride to get here. Two and half hours to Visp, much of the ride around the Swiss boundary of Lake Geneva, a brief change and then another hour along an incredibly beautiful mountain route into Zermatt. We saw beautiful, green pastoral views with vineyard after vineyard during the first leg of the trip. It seems like homes here have vineyards in their yards along with their flowers.
Zermatt is a pedestrian village, with the exception of the hotel trolleys (and horse-drawn carriages) that transport visitors and their baggage to and from hotels.
We were lucky the forecast changed and the 90% rain predicted did not happen. Our first mission was to take the Gornergrat Bahn, known as the Matterhorn Railway, straight up to see the peaks of the Swiss Alps. We took the train to the highest open-air station in Europe, and got to experience sleet and snow during our visit. Unfortunately, dense fog settled over the peaks, obliterating any long-range views.
The station is 10,134’ high, and I was light-headed immediately upon arrival. Because of this, we had to report directly to the restaurant on top for lunch consisting entirely of a dark chocolate torte covered in powdered sugar. I figured stimulants could only help . . .
They say the best views of the Matterhorn are from the center of Zermatt, so we have one more chance to see it tomorrow.
The village of Zermatt is charming and very walkable, with temps in the high 50s. We spent a few hours wandering around and exploring. Lots of shops, but nothing I wanted to buy. Loads of restaurants, one of which we returned to for dinner, during which I enjoyed traditional cheese fondue.
Tomorrow we set off early for the Glacier Express scenic train from here to St. Moritz. Fingers crossed, we see the Matterhorn.
What do you give the guy who pretty much has everything? An experience of a lifetime.
My husband is a train-fanatic and for Father’s Day our daughter and I gave him a chance to be “At the Throttle” of the powerful, iconic 611 steam engine.
The massive engine is visiting the North Carolina Transportation Museum, on loan for a couple of weeks from the Virginia Museum of Transportation. The Norfolk and Western, Class J 611 historic engine was originally manufactured in Roanoke, VA in 1950, and was in regular service until ’59. Only 14 were ever built and this is the only engine still intact. $3.5 million was raised to restore the storied engine, and much of the work, including tests, repairs and refurbishing, was completed in Spencer at the NC Transportation Museum.
Although he didn’t get a chance to get it up to its full potential of 110 miles per hour, my husband loved feeling the power of the huge coal-guzzling machine as he chugged up and down the tracks, spewing clouds of black steam and soot, ringing the bells and blowing the deep, incredibly loud whistle.
The museum regularly offers train rides and $1 rides of the turntable at the Roundhouse, as well as many special events throughout the year. The well-preserved campus houses an impressive array of engines, cabooses and special trains as well as exhibits explaining all other forms of transportation, model trains and more.
You can see everything from a hot air balloon basket to a life-size replica of the Wright Brothers Kitty Hawk plane in the section exploring air travel. Other areas are dedicated to all manner of road vehicles from early milk wagons, vintage fire trucks, tractors, antique trucks and cars, including a well-preserved Model A, T and R and Edsel. Two-wheeled vehicles are not forgotten and fans can see all sorts of bicycles and motor cycles.
NC Transportation Museum is in Spencer, in the central, Piedmont area. Museum days vary depending on the time of year. During summer months (March- October) the museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. Adults $6; Seniors & Military $5; Children 3-12 $4 and under 3, free. Admission plus Train Ride $12 for Adults; $10 Seniors & Military; $8 for Kids 3-12. Check the website for train ride times and special event details. www.nctrains.org 704.636.2889
Spencer has a district of historic shops across the street from the museum and the really cute, historic town of Salisbury is less than five minutes away.
First a Sidebar: Studying the map on our approach to Wichita, I realized we were within about 30 miles from the 1888 birthplace of my paternal Grandfather. And so, we began our day by heading southeast of Wichita to the once thriving settlement of Rosalia, Kansas.
There isn’t much left of this unincorporated town, mostly a few dirt streets and ramshackle and/or closed-up buildings. But there was a school and a post office. I decided to try my luck in the post office to see what I might learn. And I did have luck. The post office is only open two hours each morning, the woman working was also named Karen, and the single customer was very helpful. In the end, I had learned about the town’s oil boom days, and how it became a mecca for two physicians competing for male patients with their revolutionary goat “gland” treatment (an early “Viagra”, some things never change). The woman I met took me to her sister’s home across the street and they rounded-up, and presented me with, an extra copy of a book about the town’s history! Amazing.
After our farewells to our new friends in Rosalia, we headed northwest through Kansas to North Platte, Nebraska. The drive was straight and uncrowded, the scenery rural with green low-rising hills dotted with oil rigs, cattle ranches and wind farms. For hours it was just us and the farm equipment on the road. We saw trucks ferrying the incredibly long blades for the wind turbines, and others with huge replacement wheels for trains.
The occasional road kill (armadillos won the count) was no hunger deterrent, and we made a quick stop for lunch in Bob Dole’s hometown of Russell. After Stockton, KS when you came over a rise you could see ahead for miles and miles and the rusty soil color gave way to a sandy-color.
Although you couldn’t tell, altitude was slightly increasing all along, and North Platte was at 2800’. We went directly to the Golden Spike Tower for a view of the world’s largest railroad yard which primarily services the Union Pacific railroad. The TV show “Hell on Wheels” was based on the construction of this site in the 1860’s as the center of the railroad world. All trains heading east/west and north/south went through North Platte. The eight story Tower has two observation decks, one inside and one open-air, as well as displays and videos about rail history. Check it out at: www.GoldenSpikeTower.com
Union Pacific Railroad’s massive Bailey Yard covers 2,850 acres and is eight miles long and over one mile wide. The yard operates 24 hours a day and handles 10,000 railroad cars and about 150 trains every day with an average length of 137 cars. Locomotives are also overhauled and maintained.
Retired railroad workers are on hand to answer questions and fill in details. My husband was in heaven, as he learned about what it was like to work for the railroad, details of the yard’s operations and even facts behind the hobos who still travel the rails.
Last trivia answers:
Which capitol building is taller, the US or Texas? TEXAS
How high is the star at the center of the rotunda in the Texas capitol building? 218’
Of course, at the center of it all, is the trains. They are running everywhere around you – but you never seem to see the same train twice.
The Miniatur Wunderland is a lot more than model trains, anything you imagine can probably be found within this massive display – but more on that in a moment.
My husband is crazy about model trains. He has meticulously restored and maintained, vintage Lionel trains running around our study and on display. Even though he favors the larger O gauge, popular when he was a kid in the 50’s, he loves any well-done train exhibit.
Since opening in 2001, the Miniatur Wunderland attraction has constantly grown. Current displays (in HO scale), are inspired by scenes from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia and the USA. The newest feature is a working model airport; Italy can be seen under construction.
To get an idea of the massive scope of this attraction, let’s review a few facts we learned on our “Behind the Scenes” tour with Marius, our knowledgeable guide:
Miniatur Wunderland Fun Facts
- 950 trains
- 14,450 train cars (wagons as they say in Europe)
- More than 8 miles of track
- 3,050 switches
- 335,000 lights
- 3728 miles of cable
- Longest train is a 47’ coal train in the USA section, with 66 cars and 5 engines
Four times every hour, each display changes to dusk for about a minute, then night for about three, and sunrise for another minute. Interactive buttons trigger all kinds of surprise actions (just in case you don’t have enough to watch). Along with all the kids, my favorite had to be the Swiss chocolate factory that wraps a small Lindt chocolate and drops it into the hand of each chocoholic visitor.
One of the big crowd-pleasers is the airport, where 40 different planes pull up to terminals, take-off and land. Video monitors, just like those in a real airport, display flight schedules and video of planes. Planes are all types and sizes and include occasional appearances of an emergency landing of the Space Shuttle and a comical flying bee.
In Scandinavia they use real water to maneuver large shipping vessels and passenger lines and even feature a beach with a rising and falling tide. Throughout the displays visitors will find countless surprises and hidden visual treats. Every employee of the attraction is encouraged to submit creative ideas for inclusion. You can tell they have fun – you find yourself constantly smiling when you spot things like a couple of nuns sitting on a bridge, an office worker zipping around the office in their rolling chair, torch-lit skiers coming down a slope, the Coke polar bear, or a couple having “fun”.
A great place to visit if you like trains, or any type of models; the kids and their adults, were all having so much fun. It truly is an incredible engineering, electrical and technological wonder. My only criticism is the gift shop – a very odd collection of not-so-great “stuff”, they are surly missing a huge opportunity. In the past couple of years, we had viewed a number of You Tube videos about the attraction and, I am happy to report, the actual experience exceeded all my husband’s expectations.
Tips: Go early or late to miss the big crowds, if you travel as far as we did, take the Behind the Scenes Tour – it was well worth the $15 fee. If you want the tour, book it in advance, unless you speak German, or it may not be available. They do have senior discounts and you can buy your admission tickets (regular 12 Euros), ahead of time, on-line. www.miniatur-wunderland.de
There is More to Hamburg than Toy Trains
Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city and is filled with tree-lined streets and green spaces. It is biker-friendly, runner and walker-friendly and a very pleasant place to visit. Anchored by the centrally located lake (Alster) and the Elbe River, Hamburg is a port city whose residents seem to be embracing their waterfronts. We are staying by the lake and it seems to be busy every minute, and this is during the week. We’ve watched sailboats, crew teams, kayakers and paddle boarders everywhere.
The Hop-On bus tour is a great option and can get you around key areas. There seems to be a good public transport system – but it is also a great city for walking. If time, you can get out on the lake and/or river for a water tour.
Small bistros, cafes and bars dot the lake-front. We had a lovely dinner at the charming Kajute. No English version of the menu, but we figured it out. In fact, you won’t find as much in English here, but everyone is eager to please and help. We also find this city refreshingly less formal that some other German cities we have visited in the past.
There are dozens of hidden surprises tucked into the detailed displays at Miniatur Wunderland. I’d like to know exactly how many adventuresome couples there actually are . . . but here is one, up high on a roof-top. Others were, under trees, along riverbanks, seen through apartment and office windows, and cavorting in a field of sunflowers. We even saw a threesome, and I don’t mean golfing. I’ve rated this couple PG to show here. Not all the hidden treasures are sexual. We also spotted a giraffe being loaded on a plane, a penguin family, a corpse in a river, and more. But we missed the crocodile and dinosaur . . .
I was in Skagway many years ago and I could see right away it has changed. The commercial district has expanded, but has still kept to its original, historical architecture; the number of shops has grown considerably and been significantly improved in terms of the quality and price of the merchandise. There were many shops featuring beautiful Alaskan mammoth ivory pieces and local art, all lovely and quite pricey. The National Park Service has a greatly expanded presence with more facilities and museums along the main street of Broadway.
We took a bus ride out-of-town to Fraser Canada and enjoyed some historical commentary and beautiful scenery along the way. Once there, we boarded the famous White Pass & Yukon Route historic train for the 20-mile trip back to Skagway. The rail line was built 113 years ago, against all odds, to facilitate the Klondike gold rush. This narrow-gauge train cuts through dramatic scenery and winds through treacherous passages, reaching 2,865′ at its summit.
Our ship is now officially considered a charmed group, and once again we enjoyed blue skies and crystal clear weather. I took this train before but didn’t have this incredible weather, so today’s scenery was especially glorious. Unfortunately, they only run the vintage steam engine on Monday and Friday’s, so we were pulled by a couple of regular diesel engines. I didn’t even see the steam engine on this trip. Glad I got a decent picture of it years ago.
Obviously, the cruise ships have generated a more recent type of gold rush, bringing thousands of people (and their money) into this economy. Skagway has handled the transition well.
When we got off the train, we spent some time walking on the quaint, retro-style main street, visiting the old-fashioned train station, and shopping. We enjoyed a halibut chowder and seafood pastry lunch at Olivia’s Bistro located in the Historic Skagway Inn.