Sleeper Train Bucket List: Empire Builder to Portland and Seattle

Marvel at the majesty of the northern United States as you travel over mountain passes, through alpine valleys and past 7,000-year-old glaciers. Glide by buttes and bluffs, along mountain streams and across the Mighty Mississippi.

Amtrak.com

Amtrak’s Empire Builder traverses the US from Chicago to Seattle and Portlane, OR. One of its biggest draws is that it runs through Glacier National Park. With two stops in in Glacier, it’s one of the most popular methods of accessing this remote destination. As with all Amtrak trains west of Chicago, the Empire Builder has a domed lounge car in addition to sleeper service.

It’s on our list because neither of us have been to the Pacific Northwest, nor have we taken a sleeper car. Plus the scenery looks great. At 45+ hours total travel time, it should let us know if we like the experience enough to attempt a week on the Trans-Siberian route.

Service / Route

The route taken by the Empire Builder begins in Chicago, IL and travels for over 2,000 miles, traversing Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington / Oregon. In Spokane, in Eastern Washington, the routes of the Seattle- and Portland-bound trains diverge and each arrives separately at its destination.

Schedule / Cost / How to Book

As of February 2021, the Empire Builder offers service 3 times per week, Westbound on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. It was a daily service prior to COVID-related service reductions and will hopefully be again in the near future.

A brief search has sleeping accommodations for the 46-hour trip starting at $527 / 18k AGR points for a single-occupancy roomette or $772 for double-occupancy. This rate includes all meals and access to the station lounge. Bedrooms, with in-suite restroom, sink, and shower, start at $2215.

Photo credit for cover image.

John Muir was right about Yosemite

Back in grad school, I was teaching assistant for a course called History of the American Environmental Movement. Each semester, I would grade perhaps 70 to 80 essays, including a section on John Muir, an advocate of preserving nature for nature’s sake, and Gifford Pinchot, who advocated responsible conservation of resources for human use.

While Pinchot was the rational business-minded one, I considered John Muir the passionate activist, one who had the writing skills to make the “tough sell” of protecting faraway lands from development.

John Muir said this about Yosemite, which was the first land in the US set aside specifically for preservation:

“It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.”

I always figured Muir was just a spiritual writer who connected in a different way with nature. This line about nature being a temple, I took that as hyperbole and as a metaphor. I was wrong. Muir was right.

After one visit to the Valley, Yosemite speaks for itself.

There is a temple in Yosemite, and it’s formed by the cliffs themselves. In the Valley, the interplay of light and shadow off three thousand-foot cliffs creates the sensation of being in a giant hall of worship.

The sun filters through a slight haze, making everything in the far distance look like a backdrop from a movie. As you wind down the mountainside into the Valley, breathtaking views in the far distance materialize in more-than-life-size miles as you realize you’ll be standing in the middle of that movie.

We are often awestruck by the magic of the “golden hour” before sunset. In Yosemite, this awe-inspiring moment lasts all day. Light shifts and transforms on the Valley walls from sunrise to sunset, as you’re surrounded on three sides by sheer granite faces too close to let sun stream through in full.

While Yosemite’s landscape is unique, the sensation of sun streaming through clouds, reflecting off the natural landscape is not. It’s what we felt in Storm King, in the Hudson Valley, which explains why the painters of the Hudson River School made their way West to capture Yosemite’s natural beauty on canvas. Their paintings, in part, encouraged thousands to move West.

Though as much as John Muir can rhapsodize in verse or as large as the Hudson River School painters may paint their larger-than-life portraits, it has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

Japan’s 21st-century toilet technology

Never have I seen so many buttons in a bathroom stall, I thought as I took a quick pit stop after our 14-hour flight from New York to Tokyo. It turns the sleek international terminal of Narita Airport would not be the last place we’d see what I’d call “toilet technology”. 

Japan is indeed a very advanced country, and is the ancestral home of Super Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, the Toyota Prius and other electronic wonders. This is a place where a simple electric rice maker comes in more varieties than Baskin Robbins’ ice cream. Still, nowhere more than the humble commode did I notice this technological obsession. Whether it’s a well-intentioned attempt to save water or a simple infatuation with the newest gadgets, we couldn’t tell.

In Japan, the simple toilet has been replaced by the “heat-let”, a heated toilet seat, and the “wash-let”, a kind of remote-controlled three-dimensional bidet. The wash-let has impressively precise streams for both ends. It even includes a privacy feature: the “music” button, which plays soothing (and muffling) water sounds during your restroom activities.

Still, there are corners of the country that make do with the ultra-traditional “hole in ground” commode, what I would call “the squatter”. I am not a toilet historian and thus do not know when the rapid evolution from “squatter” to robotic “wash-let” began. What I can report, however, is that the robots have nearly triumphed. These robotic toilets are ubiquitous.

Japan was a charming mix of old and new, traditional and technological. Though besides its arcades, its technology was most on show in its bullet trains (shinkansen) and its restroom facilities. If I were a sociologist, I would say this tells us something about national priorities, but I think it reflects something about humanity as a whole, because what else can you ask for besides a little entertainment, a quick ride, and a relaxing place to poop?

In Japan, it’s always time for coffee

There is a well-founded stereotype of Japan as a place where people take their job seriously. One sip told me they take their coffee seriously here as well. For a country associated with green tea, this was a big surprise.

There is no watery diner coffee here. If even grandparents make this strong a drink, you know Japan must really love its coffee.

Beginnings

Our first morning in Tokyo, fresh off the plane and jet-lagged, we stopped for a simple breakfast. Next to the Senso-ji shrine in Asakusa, a mostly low-slung neighborhood of covered shopping arcades and quiet alleyways near the center of Tokyo, we found a small cafe run by an elderly couple. It main features appeared from the outside to be warmth and tiny cuteness, two ubiquitous attributes in Japan.

We were served a hard boiled egg, buttered toast sticks, and coffee. It was 400 yen or around $4, and was just what we needed to get the motor running at 9am. That is roughly 9pm New York time. This simple cafe meal served as our introduction to both the simple Japanese breakfast and Japanese coffee.

Note: Japan doesn’t seem to be big on breakfasts, many establishments, even those that serve coffee or pancakes, don’t open until lunchtime. Those that do serve simple plates like the one we had.

Coffee Everywhere

Brewed on what looked like an hourglass with water in the bottom and thick black liquid in the top, our first coffee was strong. Later I found that this scientific-looking device is called a siphon and is similar to the Italian Bialetti or moka pot.

Further exploration found little coffee shops around nearly every corner. Strong coffee would prove to be a trend. Some offered fresh-roasted beans and pour-over coffee. Most memorably, the elderly owner of a tiny nameless coffee roastery we stumbled upon on a corner in Osaka took time away from his equally aged machinery to fix us a fresh cup in the corner.

Others, such as Enseigne d’angle, offered jet-black French-press at a wood-paneled bar with white-suited waiters and a vibe straight out of the 1930s. Sitting down in a quiet corner with plastered walls and dim light-shaded illumination, we took a break from the hustle-and-bustle of Tokyo.

The most “mod”, such as Rokumei in Nara, offered airy seating, third-wave coffee cred, and a meal of fresh salad, yogurt, and a card with tasting notes and bean origin. Awards from coffee championships hung on the wall above brewed samples of the different origin beans for sale.

Still others, like the top-notch Vie de France offered fresh French pastries and the aforementioned siphon. The most humble offered toast, a machine espresso, and little pods of concentrated creamer.

When in Japan

Yet when you’re in the process of adjusting to jet lag, those rules about coffee in the mornings and none after dinner go out the window. Who remembers what time it is anyway? Any hour is potentially a good time to sit down with a warm cup, and any coffee shop has a great pour waiting for you.

The Whole Enchilada, for Breakfast

Until an embarrassingly advanced age, I could not have told you what an enchilada was exactly. Thanks to the wildly popular local hippie-Tex Mex take-out place down the street from my childhood home, I knew it as a shifty pile of meat and various Mexican ingredients, possibly including rice and vegetables, all covered in gooey melted cheese, emphasis on the cheese. It came in a rounded metal tin and despite appearing to be leftovers covered in cheese, or perhaps because of it, was very tasty.

As a young college student exploring the South Philadelphia neighborhood known as the Italian Market, now heavily populated by Mexican establishments, I happened upon the culinary discovery my adolescent self might have called “soft taco tubes in salsa”, also known as authentic Mexican enchiladas.

Enchiladas, made the right way, are soft corn tortillas wrapped around a key ingredient, often braised chicken, pork or beef, and topped with homemade tomatillo or tomato salsa. If made with flour tortillas, tomato salsa, and gooey cheese, they’re called enchiladas suizas, Swiss enchiladas. When made with the smoky, chocolate and chili mole sauce, they’re known as enmoladas, my personal favorite.

All enchiladas are then topped off with Mexican cream and a dusting of crumbled cotija cheese. In a pinch, American sour cream and parmesan or feta can be substituted.

If you imagine the enchilada as an ice cream sundae, the crumbled cheese is the cherry on top. It’s a light dusting, a garnish. On the other hand, if the Tex-Mex enchilada were a sundae, it would be half cherries.

All this talk of dessert is distracting from eureka moment I had during my first visit to that place that people from New Mexico must call “Old Mexico”, the enchilada’s native home:

In Mexico City I learned that while tacos are the de facto late-night delivery device for meat, cilantro, and onions, the enchilada is a 24-hour phenomenon! That’s right, enchiladas are a full-on breakfast food. They can be stuffed not only with meat, but also with beans, cheese, or even scrambled eggs!

Eggs in an enchilada. This is not the Taco Bell breakfast menu. It’s not a breakfast burrito, another American invention. This is a legitimate round-the-clock Mexican dish, a plate you can order three times in the same day and not feel out of place.

Thank you for breakfast, England

Loaded with fried and fatty deliciousness, the Full English Breakfast is most definitely the father of the American diner breakfast.


Both are widely available, often around the clock, and full of staples more filling than nutritious. In fact, the British seem to have a complex about their love of a good fry-up that equals the stereotype of Americans as McDonald’s-loving slobs. Fatty food is universally loved and shamed.

The McDonald’s stereotype comes from the same place as the Coca-Cola stereotype: both are well-loved American brands that have had great success overseas. Europeans love McDonald’s and then feel as bad about it as we do.

History shows us with the fry-up that the classic artery-buster lives on in unbranded form with no need for the Golden Arches’ marketing savvy. Fat is its own marketing.

Compare the core ingredients:

Full English

  • Two fried eggs
  • Back bacon
  • Rashers (sausages)
  • Deep-fried Hash browns
  • Toast
  • Grilled tomato
  • Stewed mushrooms
  • Coffee

American

  • Two fried eggs
  • Bacon, sausage or ham
  • Pancakes with syrup or
  • Hash browns and Toast
  • Coffee
  • Orange juice
  • Fresh fruit if you’re lucky

Note the similarities: eggs, fatty meat, fried potatoes, coffee. We can thank Peru for the spuds and Ethiopia for the beans, I guess. Four centuries are enough to make them both a staple of half the countries on the globe.

Interestingly, instead of fresh fruit, the English variety has tomatoes. Hey, tomato is a fruit, right?

Perhaps the idea of the bottomless “super-size” started with US diner coffee, strong European roast being substituted for the watery American free-refill variety.

The stateside version is not all lacking in quality, however. The American breakfast plate incorporates syrup, real maple ideally, from Vermont, New York, or Quebec, and orange juice, fresh-squeezed California or Florida if you’re lucky.

Drawing its inspiration from around the globe, this classic American meal is uniting in its ubiquity, not only a working man’s meal like its progenitors in the Old World, and it is here to stay, at least for add long as we’re around to eat it.

Our Personal Best-of-Europe

How was Europe? I don’t know, how was your childhood?

I’ve never had such trouble answering a question in the span of a few sentences. Possibly because I’ve never visited five very distinct countries in two weeks. Either way, now that we’re back from our grand tour, I feel like I need to sum it up since everyone keeps asking.

I can’t pick a favorite because they’re all so unique, I can’t even play the “where would I most like to live” game because we had such a great time in each place and stayed with such welcoming families, both my own and strangers-turned-friends (thanks to CouchSurfing).

Either way, here are the highlights:

Best Food Culture: Taste and value-wise, we had our best meals in Paris and Versailles. First dinner was duck, cooked medium-rare, and then we had the same the next night because it was so good the first time around. Those that think the French are thinner because of their food have definitely not had a nice red duck filet or any of the half-dozen ways they fry their potatoes. It’s hearty food from the countryside, we were both very impressed and also very full.

Best Breakfast Tradition: The Full English breakfast is a plate of fried things and vegetables that would be good for any meal: a huge plateful of deep-fried hash browns, eggs, grilled tomatoes, stewed mushrooms, baked beans, sausage, and back bacon. Oh, and four buttered half-slices of toast in case you weren’t full yet. Plus coffee, and good Italian non-watery coffee, I might add. I salute this British dish as the progenitor of the modern American diner breakfast, which happens to be my favorite meal when at home.

Eating the Animal: There is a trend, which I believe is unique to our generation, of being afraid of food that is still shaped like the animal it came from. Case-in-point: boneless chicken breast, the ubiquitous protein object. In life, and especially in travel, I aim to get to the source and eat the animal-shaped animals.

Eisbein, known in English as ham hock, is the fat-encased salted joint and foreleg of the pig. Germans love their pork in bulk, together with sauerkraut, mustard, potatoes, beets, and cabbage. I realize that the staple globalized ethnic foods like ramen, sushi, gyros, pizza, etc. are probably more common for dinner for the average German of our age, but we wanted some authentic grandma’s home cooking. We did not go hungry.

Most Like Home: Paris reminded us both of Mexico City: old boulevards and claustrophobic little streets, cobblestones, the tall interconnecting 19th-century style of architecture and the Haussmann layout of the city, including the subway. Also the noise, traffic, and general mess on the street. Not that we don’t both love Mexico City, but I think we were looking for something more out-of-the-ordinary and for Paola, something “cute”.

Best Tourist Sight or Museum: Versailles was monumental and well-worth the hour trip outside the city. This palace built to escape the heat of Paris in the summer has its own mini-palace to escape its heat, which then has its own mini-mini-palace. It’s like a nautilus shell of opulence.

Cutest: Rings of canals and row houses, canal boats, flowers, dozens of bridges, cobblestones, trams, bicycles, plus tiny little trucks the size of motorcycles. Amsterdam was the prettiest of the cities we visited. It was walkable and full of little shops, restaurants, and beautiful little homes. It felt human-sized and also easy to get around. There were bicycles parked literally everywhere to the point where they became part of the cluttered background, like trash on the curb in the East Village or scaffolding in Midtown.

Cinematic Deja Vu: We stayed outside of central London in a suburb called Walthamstow. Rows and rows of identical row homes and apartments and a Tube-to-red-double-decker-bus trip from the city center. Imagine visiting Manhattan but realizing that most families can only afford to live in one of the outer boroughs. It felt like we were in an episode of Skins, accents included, innit?

Most Unconventional Accommodations: Was it the boat in London or the train in Amsterdam? These were both former modes of transportation, if you’re asking. We did wake up both times in the same place we went to sleep the previous night.

Best Beer: Belgium. There’s a reason why both Dutch and French bars serve Belgian or Belgian-inspired beers. Their local stuff is serviceable, but not great, LOL.*

* LOL = Lots of lager. Germany too.

Of all the endless lagers, I’d cast my vote for one of the pours from the Carlsberg brewery tour or Bintang which went great with our Dutch Indonesian chicken satay dinner.

Most Hipster: Paola would say it was Amsterdam, which is one giant Instagram feed of a city. I would say it’s Berlin, with its inexpensive pre-war apartments, gritty charm, Cold War nostalgia, graffiti, and the lowest prices of the trip.

Smallest Big City: Ever get the sense when you visit a place that everyone knows one another? It was hard to escape that feeling in Copenhagen, which must have been a function of the wonderful host family we had and the human-sized architecture, which made you feel enclosed, not dwarfed by the city around you.

The center of the city was reminiscent of soldiers’ barracks: tall apartment buildings built efficiently close together with courtyards in between.  At the Carlsberg Brewery tour, we learned that the city of Copenhagen was originally a garrison and the gates were locked at night. Counter-intuitively, this gives the city a feeling of unity and togetherness, not the drab Soviet vibe you might expect.

Hopping cheaply across Europe by air and rail

Here’s some good news about your dream trip across Europe. With a little advanced planning, and carry-on luggage, you can get there and get around fairly affordably. After months of planning and procrastination, our full Europe itinerary is now booked. Here are the details of our grand tour with some super secret discount tips at the end.

Conveyance

With the recent boom in discount airlines, flights in Europe are often as cheap or cheaper than a train or bus. These companies make their money by charging extra for everything from seat assignments, to checked baggage, to food, so check the fine print before you book. Norwegian follows the same principles but covers to and from the US.

While they may give you flexibility, Eurail passes were prohibitively expensive for our itinerary, so instead we’ve booked two one-way flights and a bunch of intra-Europe travel. We got the cheapest non-flexible tickets, booking everything outright, so we better not miss any connections!

Trains are great, but this was really about getting the most reliable, efficient, and inexpensive trip from A to B, regardless of mode. For the cheapest tickets, find the carrier’s direct website for the ticket in question (e.g. DeutscheBahn, Eurostar, Thalys, etc.), and book early. Most bookings open 3 months in advance, though the Eurostar can be booked 180 days early.

Itinerary

I’d say we did a great job at choosing our stops. The only ticket that I wished we had bought much earlier was the Thalys, which started around $50 per person and went up to $90 by the time we bought it. Oops.

Everything else we purchased recently, 4-6 weeks prior to travel. Here is our itinerary:

  1. New York (JFK) to Copenhagen on Norwegian 4098 NOK ($249 per person)*
  2. Copenhagen to Berlin on EasyJet 25 EUR
  3. Berlin to Hameln by DeutscheBahn 24 EUR
  4. Driving to Leer, Germany
  5. Driving to Groningen, Netherlands
  6. Groningen to Amsterdam by train 25.50 EUR
  7. Amsterdam to Paris by Thalys 80 EUR
  8. Paris to London on the Eurostar 41.50 GBP*
  9. London to New York on Norwegian 4828 NOK ($294)*

TOTAL: $769

That’s $543 pp for US-Europe flights, $226 per person for intra-Europe travel

* These tickets can be purchased in the native currency for a significant discount over the dollar-denominated amount on their site.

Super Secret Discount Tips

In the case of Norwegian, on their norwegian.no site we saved almost $100 per ticket, if memory serves. The layout is the same as the US page, but everything is in Norwegian, so you have to use Google Translate or keep a page open in both languages simultaneously to know where to click. For an extra 30 minutes of annoyance, we saved $200.

For the above flight and for any train tickets, get yourself a credit card like Chase Sapphire that doesn’t charge foreign currency fees, which can be as high as 3%. It really adds up when you’re buying tickets and booking hotels or hostels.

The Eurostar tickets were $65 if purchased in dollars or 41.50 GBP ($54) if purchased from eurostar.co.uk. If you sign up for an account and give a US address, you won’t be able to get this discount. They also charge extra for using a credit card, so use a foreign fee-free debit card like the one from Charles Schwab.

I’ll have more updates in the coming weeks as we try to complete this itinerary with no hiccups. Safe travels!

Featured image: View from Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Paris, by Ed Webster [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Bucket List: Chicago to New Orleans by Pullman Sleeper

Photo: Pontchartrain Club and Dome cars, Pullman Rail Journeys

Imagine coasting your way down from the Great Lakes to the Gulf coast on a day-long train voyage in your own private cabin with four-star service. Seventy years ago this hotel-like choice of conveyance was commonplace, though it was soon to be replaced by air travel. Luckily, this more leisurely paced and gravity-bound first-class experience has been resurrected. (more…)

Bucket List: EuroStar from Paris to London

Featured image: Fraselpantz at en.wikipedia [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The high-speed EuroStar train crosses the English channel en-route between the French and British capitals. It is blindingly fast, direct, and happens to link the last two destinations of our planned summer’s trip to Europe.

If there is a single simple two-hour train ride that I’m looking forward to without reservations, it is this one: it’s iconic. (more…)