Saturday, May 23, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 6 - Jacksonville, Florida

Just over two hours on the train from Savannah on day six of our adventure brought us to Jacksonville, Florida where my sister’s son and his wife live. This two night stop-over was more a family reunion than a pressing desire to see the city itself. It was also a chance to slow down, from now on there would be no more one night only stays in any of the next cities on our itinerary.

After an urgent trip to Best Buy to replace my broken camera we headed to Jacksonville Beach for a late breakfast (well, okay, a huge ice cream sundae in my case, but what are vacations for?) on the terrace at Joe’s Crab Shack followed by a walk on an almost deserted pristine beach and a paddle in the Atlantic Ocean. While we had enjoyed hot weather in the earlier part of our trip, there was a noticeable increase in temperature in Florida so it wasn’t long before we craved the cool indoors.

The day passed quickly, as days tend to do when spent in the company of family members you haven’t seen for a while, but at least we did manage to do a load of laundry while we chatted, a matter of great importance when you only have a weekend case full of clothes for a five week trip!

It was only after we got there that I discovered that Jacksonville is the largest city in Florida (and also the largest city by area in the contiguous United States!) so for our first day we settled for exploring the area where we were staying.

Riverside, which is listed on the National Register Historic District, has a small town feel of its own with an attractive downtown area offering local shops and restaurants including one business we couldn’t resist - the Cozy Tea Cafe.

The stunning decoration with shelves full of gorgeous fine china, and the menu of delicious scones with cream and jam and an impressive selection of teas, made for a delightful experience. (You may have figured that at his point I'd given up thinking about healthy eating - at least for the day.)

With a lack of space in my nephew’s apartment for ladies of a certain age we had managed to find a room at St John’s House Bed andBreakfast just a few minute walk away.

 It proved to be an excellent choice. Innkeepers Joan Moore and Dan Schafer offer three guest rooms in their elegant home, each uniquely furnished with antique furniture, quilted window coverings and Sweetgrass baskets. 

With their warm welcome on arrival and the hearty (and healthy!) cooked breakfasts they provided I doubt we could have found anywhere more delightful to stay. Thank you Joan and Dan. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 5 - Savannah, Georgia

If we thought our start on day 4 was early, day 5 was even worse in that we had to be back at the train station at 4.55am to catch the train to Savannah. The journey of less than two hours passed quickly, mostly in the dark. Worried that I might fall asleep and miss the stop, I spent the time downloading the previous day's photos only to discover that my camera, which I had dropped while in Richmond, was not working properly and all my photos of Charleston were fuzzy. Thankfully, my sister had also been taking photos so all was not lost.

We couldn't check into our hotel, the B Historic Savannah, until eleven so we dropped off our bags and set out to explore the historic district of the city.

In a way it was just as I had imagined it, except perhaps even more beautiful. The streets are adorned with grand federal style houses and interspersed every few blocks with a square of greenery complete with a statue - 16 in all, including Madison Square - making a walk through the district a pleasure . 

If that is not enough greenery for one city, Forsyth Park offers a larger public space complete with an enchanting fountain.

The Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum was our next stop. The museum uses photos, videos and exhibits to portray the African-American struggle for civil rights in Georgia from slavery to the present day including a lunch counter interactive display from the 1950's showing the appalling difference in attitudes towards customers depending on their race. The museum is located in what was the Wage Earners Savings and Loan bank for Black Savannahians, the largest Black bank in the US at the time, and is named for the father of Savannah's Civil Rights Movement.  While a relatively small museum, it is well worth a visit. 

With no idea where to have lunch, a chance conversation with a shop assistant led us to the Pink House Inn.  

With an elegant dining room, an outdoor terrace and a bar the inn is a popular spot but we managed to snag a couple of seats at the bar and I had a chance to sample Fried Green Tomatoes for the first time. Who would have thought they would be so good! 

The historic district of Savannah had seemed unusually devoid of tourists. It was only after lunch that we found out where they usually hang out: down by the river. Riverwalk is a developed area along the waterfront with shops and restaurants in converted old warehouses and homes. While pleasant enough to visit, it is both very touristy and crowded so we decided to take to the water. Ferries run from each end of the riverfront to a hotel complex across the river offering both a free ride and a chance to view Savannah from the water. 

As we made our way back to the hotel we had to stop off at Mabel's Cupcake Emporium. Having seen the New York Times quote "Don't leave town without eating a cupcake from Mabel Francis Potters Cupcake Emporuim", we needed no more excuse to check it out. I can now confirm that the cupcakes are truly delicious! 

After our late afternoon snack we didn't really want a full dinner but found that many of the restaurants in the historic district were upscale and rather pricey so we had to head back down to the river. We eventually settled for crab stuffed mushrooms and garlic fries at Barracuda Bob's  - probably not the most healthy of meals, but who cares when it tastes so good!

In all, a delightful day in an elegant city. Savannah definitely was a good choice for a one day stop-over. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 4 - Charleston, South Carolina

Day four got off to an early start- and I do mean early.  The overnight trip from Richmond, Va. To Charleston, SC, had us arriving at the North Charleston station at 4.55am. Given we had only got on the train just before ten it made for a short night’s sleep. Fortunately our hotel, The Charleston Plaza, was only a few minutes taxi ride away and we managed to get an early check-in so we did the only sensible thing and went to bed until a more reasonable time of day!

The hotel, while convenient to the Amtrak station, is twenty-five minutes from downtown Charleston but offers a shuttle service into town. We were dropped off at a modern bus terminal on King Street, one of the main thoroughfares. Low-rise buildings, an abundance of independent stores rather than the usual chains, and side streets lined with sedate 
residences all added to the relaxed atmosphere in this delightful southern city.

We meandered along the street until we saw the Sweetwater Café where I sampled biscuits with sausage gravy and my sister had “what came first”, a meal of chicken and egg. Now fully fortified, we made for Charleston City Market, one of the country’s oldest public markets.

From the outside the market looks small, but it stretches back for a considerable distance offering everything from fruit and vegetables to sea-grass baskets, t-shirts and jewelry. Half way through we found a stall selling freshly made lemonade, the perfect thirst-quencher on a sticky, sweltering day.

Deciding it was too hot to walk, a horse-drawn carriage ride seemed like the perfect solution. Dale, the horse, and Dennis, our driver and guide, took us on a journey through part of the historic district, past elegant houses in pretty colors, each one more stunning than the last. We learned how old tax rules had resulted in houses only having one room fronting the street and that what appeared to be the front door was actually a door leading to a patio which in turn had an entrance into the interior.

Charleston’s tallest buildings are its churches, four of which are linked by a Gateway walk. Or at least that’s what the guidebook told us. No matter how hard we looked we couldn’t find the beginning of the walk so we decided to try starting from the other end. We did find a small portion of the walk but that came to an abruupt end in a grave yard so I’m not sure where we went wrong.

All was not lost however as it did bring us out close to the Slave Mart Museum. At one time Charleston was one of the centers of slave trading with over 40 markets in the city. The Slave Mart Museum is the only remaining market place building. The exhibits detail what it was like for the slaves who were bought and sold there, how their fears and concerns were not only with regard to their new masters, but with the worry that husbands would be separated from wives, children from their parents. The buyers were only concerned about getting value for their money, the cost to the families was deemed irrelevant because a slave was considered to be merely a chattel. The indifference to the emotional suffering was chilling. While not a particularly big museum it’s definitely worth a visit.

With the threat of rain we had to make a decision. Either head back to the terminus and catch the shuttle back to our hotel or stay for another three hours in town and try to find somewhere to eat. It may have been fun to stay a while longer in town but with another early start in the morning (we had to get on the same time train as we had got off) eating at the hotel seemed the right thing to do. 

Verdict: Charleston is a beautiful city, well worth a visit. If we'd had more time I would have like to visit some of the old plantations such as Boone Hall Plantation or nearby Sullivan's Island. I'd definitely like to return one day. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 3 - Richmond, Virginia

Our third day of the trip started with a two hour train journey from Washington DC to Richmond, Virginia. Union Station in Washington is akin to an airport terminal with departure gates, shops and restaurants so it was somewhat of a surprise to step off the train in Richmond onto the ground and have to walk across the second track to get to a station building which offered only a waiting area, a ticket office and a small food counter.

Given we were leaving Richmond on the overnight train we needed to store our bags for the day but could see no sign of a left-luggage facility, potentially a huge problem – we only had weekend cases but who wants to cart any case around all day?  Fortunately, a friendly ticket clerk came to our rescue, taking our bags into a locked office space and reassuring us that he would still be around that evening when we needed to get them back.   

According to Google maps a bus from a terminus close to the station would take us downtown.  It turned out that the terminus was a park and ride lot and given it was Sunday looked suspiciously deserted! We had no alternative but to return to the station and take a taxi which given the distance (Amtrak stations are rarely near downtown in smaller cities) was an unexpected expense.  Ironically Richmond does have a downtown Amtrak Station but the trains from New York don’t stop there and there doesn’t seem to be any connecting trains between the two!

The Main station is an impressive building:

 but unfortunately someone decided it was a good idea to build a freeway right in front of it:

Just along from the station stands the ReconciliationStatue. Identical statues are located in Liverpool, England and Benin, West Africa to memorialize the triangular trade route used in the slave trade.


It turned out that Sunday was not the best day to visit Richmond. The city was extremely quiet, the streets all but deserted and many shops and cafes closed. We eventually found an Irish pub Siné (doesn’t matter what day it is, you can guarantee an Irish pub will be open!) with a terrace, offering wonderful relief from the blistering heat.

A stroll along the canal proved to be a lot shorter than suggested in the guide books as a mesh fence blocked off the route so we worked our way up to the street where we found this rather attractive statue.

At this point we were beginning to wonder what we were going to do to fill in the time until our 9.40 pm train when we happened to glimpse what looked like a park. On investigation it turned out to be the grounds of the State Capitol Building. If the building which was designed by Thomas Jefferson looks familiar it’s because it was the model for the White House in DC, hence its nickname “The Original White House”. 

The park-like grounds contain a beautiful fountain:

and, of course, numerous statues and monuments. The most impressive was a four-sided monument, dedicated to a young girl who started the campaign against school segregation.

 We managed to while away some time sitting and strolling in the grounds before heading towards the more built up side of town in search of somewhere to have dinner. 

Graffiato on Broad Street is an Italian restaurant offering a small plate menu. As I have a small appetite one pasta dish turned out to be just right for me, despite the waitress’ suggestion that we order two or more each. The Tortellini with bolognaise, carrots and hazelnuts was absolutely delicious and left just enough room for chocolate cake!

As darkness fell we headed back to the station to wait for our train. True to his word, the ticket clerk was there to help us retrieve our bags. Unfortunately the train was running late, not exactly welcome news at that time of night and it was with relief that we eventually heard the now familiar whistle of the arriving train.

Overall my impression of Richmond was not that great, but perhaps that is unfair given it was Sunday. I’m not sorry that we included it in our itinerary, but was certainly glad that we had only allotted a half day for our visit. 



Sunday, May 17, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 2 - Washington DC

In my initial trip plan Washington DC was a one night stop-over before we continued on to Richmond, Virginia, but due to ridiculous hotel prices in the latter city (there was a sporting event happening that day) I decided to extend the stay in DC instead. I’m glad I did. It meant we were able to spend a whole day exploring the Mall area.

We started at the Washington Monument, arriving just in time to grab one of the last available tickets to go up to the top later on that day. The short walk from our hotel had taken us past one grand building after another: The Carnegie Library, The National Archives, The Department of Justice and (even) the Internal Revenue Service. What surprised me was that despite the buildings looking as if they had been there for centuries, some of them were only completed in the early 20th century.  

We spent the morning exploring the Mall to the west of the monument. First stop was the National WWII Memorial. The stone pillars representing each state surrounding a plaza with a fountain truly creates a reflective mood.

 The memorial remembers not only those who served in the military but also the civilians whose lives were impacted by the war.

Wreaths had been laid to commemorate the recent 70th anniversary of VE day and the presence of many veterans, most in wheelchairs accompanied by younger members of the armed forces, made the visit more poignant. 

A Reflecting Pool separates the Washington Monument and the WWII Memorial from the Lincoln Memorial. Despite having seen many photos of the latter I was impressed by the sheer size of the statue. It really is a sight to behold and probably my favorite of all the memorial statues. 
 There are certainly plenty to choose from:

The Korean War Memorial 

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial


The FDR Memorial features not only 
statues of both Franklin and Eleanor but also some of the president's more famous quotes. 

and finally the Jefferson Memorial which is yet another awe-inspiring sized statue. 

The lay-out of the memorials around the Tidal Basin, an inlet of the Potomac River, makes for  a pleasant walk and conveniently brings you back to the Washington Monument without having to retrace your steps. By the time we got around it was time for our ride up to the top. Damaged by the 2011 Virginia earthquake and Hurricane Irene, the monument was closed for 32 months for repairs, but luckily for us re-opened in May 2014. It is the tallest obelisk in the world and the views from the observation level are amazing. 
The Capitol

The White House

Back down to earth and it was time to head to the Capitol Building itself. Unfortunately the Mall is undergoing turf renovations which means that the whole middle section of the Mall is closed off to the public and looks rather unattractive (especially from the top of the monument):

And the dome of the Capitol building is currently encased in scaffolding:

but the rest of the building almost makes up for it. And I'm sure it will look nice when the work is finished.

Having just about had enough of monuments and statues for one day, we headed off to explore the nearby Eastern Market. On the way we came across the Library of Congress. I had to take a picture of that - somewhere in there are two print copies of each of my four books!

Overall, we had a fabulous if exhausting day. I was almost sad that we didn't have even more time to spend in the city there was still so much else to see and do, but our next destination beckoned.  I would definitely come back to visit again.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day One - Washington DC

After months of planning and anticipation, the day of departure seemed surreal – was I really going to spend the next five weeks traveling around America by Amtrak, my long held dream finally coming to fruition? Was I crazy for wanting to spend so much time on a train, in total the equivalent of seven days and nights, just to get a glimpse of this enormous country? Well, it was too late for doubts now.

First stop, Washington DC, a mere three and a half hours on the train from New York City, a quick hop when compared to some of our future journeys of over twenty-four hours. Fortunately, the train was on schedule and by lunch time we were ensconced in our hotel, The Henley Park Hotel, and ready to explore our first city.

Walking in downtown Washington is a pleasant experience with its wide avenues and grand buildings at every turn. Our hotel was just a few minutes stroll from a very familiar building:

The White House
But it was the building next door that attracted my attention. Stretching for at least one huge city block the Executive Building is a magnificent sight.


And how cute is this? Just across the block from the real one, it’s known as The Little White House as President McKinley used to visit here often.

Next we headed to Georgetown via Q Street which is lined with embassy after embassy. Many have statues outside of native-born dignitaries. My favorite was this one outside of the Indian embassy:

As we turned off onto 27th Street and walked through the residential part of Georgetown with its narrower streets, low rise buildings and pretty residential homes, we had to remind ourselves we were still in DC. 

A short walk further on and we were at Washington Harbor, a huge waterfront development, fortunately relatively tastefully done, offering riverside walkways, cafes and bars and the chance to take river cruises on the Potomac River. 

Our river cruise boat

The forty minute cruise on the Nightingale II offered glimpses of many of Washington's famous landmarks from a different perspective including the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, all of which were on the agenda for the next day.  

The Kennedy Center


Given the name, I probably should have guessed, but I had no idea that Watergate was on the riverside. Nor did I realise how huge the complex was.  

The cruise provided a relaxing end to an exhausting but fun afternoon and our first impressions of Washington left us looking forward to another day of sightseeing in the city.