Saturday, September 18, 2010

Traveling the Old-Fashioned Way

As John Houseman would say, I earned it.

Literally. I used Amtrak points to book a sleeper on the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco. This is one of America's greatest scenic train rides, with hours of spectacular vistas in daylight through the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. If I had paid for the trip it would have cost nearly $1500. My bedroom featured a sofa that turns into a bed at night, a comfortable chair and a private toilet/shower combo stall. Also included with my ticket were all meals, so my only expenses for the two-days-plus ride were tips and alcohol. And the steak at dinner was surprisingly good.

The bedroom, on the upper level, had fine views out the window, but I spent much of the day in the Vistadome panoramic lounge car, admiring the scenery and talking with other travelers. For the first day and a half there was a group of Amish folk from Goshen, Indiana. The Amish may eschew modernity, but they love to laugh. They were off to a resort in Colorado.

I spent a lot of time talking to Cliff, a San Franciscan returning home from a family visit. He's working on a midlife career change, studying Chinese medicine, and at one point, after he had gotten to know me and felt comfortable enough, I guess, he asked if he could take my pulse. With his fingers on my wrist he proclaimed, "Your appetite is healthy!"

"All of my appetites are healthy," I replied.

Whether he really gauged this from my pulse or whether it had something to do with the fact that I'd been talking about food for two days, I'll never know.

The biggest surprise of all was that the train, which is perennially late, arrived at the terminus in Emeryville, California five minutes early.

A serendipitous addition to the old-fashioned travel theme was the deal I found on For $60 a night I scored a room at the Hotel Majestic, San Francisco's oldest continuously operating hotel. It has that distinction by virtue of its location at the corner of Sutter and Gough. Gough is two blocks west of Van Ness, which was the line of demarcation for the seismic and fire devastation of the 1906 earthquake.

Sometimes a grand hotel of the past can be a fleabag of the present, so I wondered whether I'd be in for an unpleasant surprise. Happily, I got the most pleasant of surprises: a charming hotel in a non-touristy but still convenient neighborhood with a clean, cozy room furnished in Victoriana.

The bathroom even had a clawfoot tub, which for some reason I keep thinking of as a clubfoot tub.

My hotel in Chicago, the Club Quarters, at 75 East Wacker, is not a historic hotel, but it is in a historic building, the Mather Tower, a designated landmark.

The leisurely cross-country train trip and the historic hotel stay inspired me to do much of my dining on a theme, seeking out the most historic restaurants in Chicago and San Francisco. Reports on those will follow shortly.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this NYT story from last year on Amtrak travel, including a great interview with an Amish butcher on vacation:

11:23 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Thanks for the links!

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Pete. Glad to see your blog back after summer. Rooms at the Club Quarters in Chicago are glorified closets. Hope you made it to Lou Mitchell's for breakfast.

8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for evoking such fond memories. Back in the early/mid 50's, I rode the "real" CZ between Oakland and Salt Lake City every summer/winter school vacation to/from my (divorced)parents. The route included the breathtaking Feather River Canyon which I always viewed from a Vista Dome car.

My daughter recently bought me two HO scale model CZ's: "Silver Bronco" Vista Dome and "Silver Palisade" 6 Bedrooms Sleeper. I keep many toys here for the grandchildren but every child that walks into this house knows that those train cars are off limits.

Neither today's route nor Amtrak cars bear any resemblance to their respective originals. So, "thanks for the memories"!

As for dining in the Majestic Hotel, we had many fine meals there back in the '70's. I still have a recipe for artichoke soup that they so graciously provided.

2:54 PM  

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