Category Archives: Train

Denver’s New Union Station Hotel Gets Name, Identity

Loft room (one of three room types) in the Crawford Hotel. Photo: Sage Hospitality Group
Loft room (one of three room types) in the Crawford Hotel. Photo: Sage Hospitality Group

The Crawford to welcome guests next summer

When I moved to Colorado in 1988, I used to call Denver a “pretend city,” because the sidewalks were rolled up after 6 p.m. No more. Denver is alive and lively, thanks in large part to preservationist Dana Crawford, whose credentials include restoring the Oxford Hotel, Denver’s oldest, and reviving Larimer Square. The hotel to be built in what had been upstairs offices in Union Station, Denver’s landmark railroad terminal, will be called The Crawford Hotel in her honor. Fittingly, she is working on Union Station’s $50 million redevelopment to transform the historic station along with its immediate surroundings into a vibrant, contemporary center for luxury lodging, dining and intermodal transportation.

The Crawford Hotel, which is being developed and will be operated by Denver-based Sage Hospitality Group, is scheduled to open on July 11 with 112 rooms and 3,000 square feet of meeting space, plus 22,000 square feet of retail and dining space below on the main floor. Some of Denver’s top restaurateurs have already committed to the renewed Union Station, so expect the likes of the Kitchen Nextdoor, Snooze and S&G Fish, a new as-yet-unnamed venture by the Rioja/Euclid Hall/Bistro Vendôme team of Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch.
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WordPress is giving me grief, so here are the links I would have embedded into my post if it had let me:

Union Station – www.unionstationdenver.com
Dana Crawford – www.danacrawford.net/bio.html
Sage Hospitality Group – www.sagehospitality.com/

Italy: Fabulous & Frustrating

Two popular tourist destinations could use a few small considerations for visitors.

KeepCalmVisitItalyIf you are planning to visit Italy as an independent traveler, the little saying on the left is useful. I’ve been traveling since Noah got off the Ark. I am not fearful and I do prefer public transportation. However (and this is a key “however), I do nt think it unreasonable to expect a little tourist organization efficiency. After years of travel, I’m running out of patience with first-world countries that are unable or unwilling to take small measures at making life easier for visitors.

During five days in Venice (my fourth visit) and Florence (my third), arguably two of Europe’s leading destinations, here’s some stuff that made me crazy because it is so unnecessary and could be so easily remedied:

Venice/Venezia

Venice-clipartLate-night trains do not go all the way to the Santa Lucia station on the island on which touristic Venice is located but end in Mestre on the mainland. Buses run from Mestre to the island every half-hour or so through the night. Problem. What seemed like the single ticket macchina at the deserted Mestre railroad station wasn’t working when we arrived in the wee hours. It accepted neither credit cards (we tried four) nor coins nor bills.

Rather than hang around the creepy, empty station for a few more hours, we took an expensive taxi to the shuttered Santa Lucia station. Our intention was to take a vaporetto from there, because these efficient water buses operate all night. Another problem. The ticket macchina at the vaporetto stop wasn’t working either. A sign instructed passengers to pay on the boat, but its ticket machine was also not functioning. The deck guy smilingly told us that we won the jackpot because we got a free ride. I suppose it would have been a jackpot if it hadn’t been for the taxi fare. Three out of three non functioning ticket machines seems like public transport struck out that day. Suggested remedy: Fix the machines.

Hotel. Our small hotel perhaps a five-minute walk from the Rialto was hard to find to begin with. The hotel address and its actual entrance were on different streets, around the corner from each other. We wandered around a bit before spotting it — in the dark. According to its website, someone was supposed to be on duty at the hotel 24/7. No one was there. Problem: When we arrived at 4-ish in the morning, the door was locked tight, and no one came when we rang the bell. We hung around the quiet little street for a while, then wanting to sit down, we rolled our bags back to the vaporetto station, and ended up waiting for nearly two hours on a bench back at the vaporetto stop, watching young men buy beer through the security gate of an otherwise closed café. When we returned around 6 a.m., the woman was just arriving. Suggested remedy: Adjust the website so that it conforms to reality, including a note about the actual location.

Basicila San Marco. Not 15 feet apart were two signs indicating visitation hours. One says they begin at 8:30 a.m., the other at 8:45. No biggie, but has nobody looked? When I checked the website for the heck of it, the page indicated a 9:45 opening, but then, it hasn’t been updated since 2004. Suggested remedy: Get a clue.

Florence/Firenze

Florence-clipart“Missing” Florence Tourist Office. Our hotel confirmation contained an address but no phone number. We wanted a Florence city map, but where to get one? There is a permanent-looking sign framed in bronze for a tourist office at the exit from the main station, but the storefront itself was empty and dirty — without any sign as to where it might have moved. We wandered across the street to see whether it might be somewhere there now and spotted a sign high on a building but we couldn’t tell whether it was promotional or directional. There was no street-level storefront, no visible sign on any door. I eventually bought a Lonely Planet guidebook with a map. Should I have had to do that? I don’t think so.

The following day I stumbled upon an other Tourist Office location on Via Cavour, a few blocks from the Duomo. It is supposed to open from 8:15 a.m. to roughly 7 p.m., but in mid-afternoon, it was locked tight. Again, no sign.

ATAF Public Transportation. Lots of buses coming and going from the main station, but an obvious information office? In your dreams. When wanting to buy a ticket, we were directed to a newsstand (tabacchi). They sell tickets, but is there a map? Another joke. How about on the ATAF website? No system map either there or on the “Moving Around” page of the city tourist office website. Bus stops do have linear stops of charts with times, but no system grid schematic — and did I mention that Magic Marker graffiti and promotional papers stuck to whatever little information would be conveyed  if it weren’t obscured.

The following day, the Via Cavour location of the tourist office (see above) was open,  so I went in for a bus route map. “How long are you staying?” asked the woman at the desk. “We are leaving tomorrow,” I replied. She told me they have very few bus maps left and are giving them only to visitors who just arrived. She drew the buses I need tomorrow on a route map from the World Cycling Championship, which ended yesterday. Creative repurposing, but really?

Do I enjoy Italy? Yes. Does this lack of simple considerations for visitors put me in a snit? Sure does. I might return but my husband probably never will.

Kebap Place During a Midnight Layover

Welcoming Turkish fare found in every city and many towns — including near railroad stations

Villach Hauptbahnhof. Photo: Wikimedia Sharing.
Villach Hauptbahnhof. Photo: Wikimedia Sharing.

A lifetime ago, when I started traveling by train in Europe, I was convinced that if someone blindfolded me and parachuted me down into some unknown city, steered me to the nearest restaurant and removed the blindfold, I’d know which country I was in just by the food. Not so any more. Cuisine has become multi-national, and nothing seems to have spread as widely as kebap places that have been established all over Western Europe by Turkish immigrants.

Through a total lack of advance planning,  we thought we could spend a few hours in Frankfurt, take an afternoon or evening train to Munch and simply change to an overnight train to Venice, arriving at a reasonable hour in the morning. We weren’t thinking that Munich is in the midst Oktoberfest frenzy, so we were routed and Venice via Villach, Austria, with something like 1½ middle-of-the-night hours in the quiet railroad station there. It wasn’t scary, but it was boring — unless there’s some appeal to a smoke-filled basement bar whose attraction is gambling (maybe slots) that appears in no online guides.

Order from the counter at this fast casual kebap stand at the Villach railroad station.
Order from the counter at this fast casual kebap stand at the Villach railroad station.

 

Not for us, so we wandered outside and spotted City Pizza & Kepab across the street. The lights were on, so in we went. It didn’t not seem to serve pizza, though we were just a few miles from the Italian border, but various Turkish dishes were on the menu. We hung out there for more than an hour, eating, watching the railroad workers who seemed to be regulars and grateful for any kebap joint in a storm.

Chicken schnitzel sandwich on brad that was neither pita nor any kind of recognizable roll.
Chicken schnitzel sandwich on bread that was neither pita nor any kind of recognizable roll.
Veggie option includes a slab of tasty goat or sheep cheese, plus lettuce and tomato.
Veggie option includes a slab of tasty goat or sheep cheese, plus lettuce and tomato.

Cross-posted to www.culinary-colorado.com.

Fast Train from Venice to Florence

Two private rail companies compete with state-owned Trenitalia

P1040418Many Americans think of the US as the bastion of capitalism and competition, while dismissing Europe as socialistic. I’ve got a flash for them, particularly when it comes to rail travel. Trenitalia is the government-owned railroad offering conventional and high-speed services throughout Italy, while two private upstart companies provide higher-speed services, newer railcars and more on-board amenities on limited, lucrative routes.

Italo and NTV (Nuovo Transporto Viaggiatore) are private companies that seem somehow related, but I’m not sure how. “Italo is the product of various elements which make up a new and modern transport service, brought together by NTV.  NTV combines the know-how of a group of highly experienced professionals from the railway and services industry with the most advanced technology,” explains the website of .italo (as it is sometimes written).

When we tried to find our train at the Venice railroad station, we were told buy several people in different ticket offices that, “It is the other company.” We eventually found the right office and the right track, and eventually zipped from Venice to Florence

P1040423

That’s 186 miles per hour, friends.

South Boulder Creek Trail Hike

A walk toward the Divide with train viewing at each endP1040061

The South Boulder Creek Trail begins at the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel, an engineering feat that bores under the Continental Divide for about six miles. The Moffat Tunnel story is fascinating but ancillary to the trail that parallels South Boulder Creek. As we got out of the car, we heard the whistle of a train coming up the valley. Of course, we waited, and were rewarded with a trio of Union Pacific locomotives hauling a very long chain of empty cars, heading to reload at the coal fields of northwestern Colorado.

Union Pacific locomotives soon to enter the Moffat Tunnel.
Union Pacific locomotives soon to enter the Moffat Tunnel.

We started out on a blue-bird day with not a cloud in the clear blue sky. The trail, which enters the James Peak Wilderness almost immediately, was once upon a time a wagon road along the creek. It starts out wide and open mostly through a healthy-looking coniferous forest, with the creek audible below. The first mile of so of the trail features occsional creek crossings on sturdy bridges, a few old cabins or ruins and several meadows, and some raspberry bushes. Soon after the junction with the Forest Lake Trail, it re-enters the trees and winds up toward Rogers Pass. Wildflowers include several species of clover, lots of asters and plenty of goldeneye, which at this time of year cover the banks along roads. There were also lots of mushrooms. I’ve posted many plant pix this summer, so here are a few images of different subjects:

After the junction with the Forest Lake Trail, the South Boulder Creek narrows and crosses a lovely open meadow before re-entering the trees.
After the junction with the Forest Lake Trail, the South Boulder Creek narrows and crosses a lovely open meadow before re-entering the trees.
I can never remember what this plant is, and I can't find it in my flower book. It is a low bush with willow-like leaves and these bright red berries hanging down from them. Anyone know?
I can never remember what this plant is, and I can’t find it in my flower book. It is a low bush with willow-like leaves and these bright red berries hanging down from them. Anyone know?
I couldn't resist taking this mushroom photo, because three large 'shrooms were crowded together next to a decomposing log.
I couldn’t resist taking this mushroom photo, because three large ‘shrooms were crowded together next to a decomposing log.

 

We passed the junction with the Crater Lake Trail but continued toward Rogers Pass. The trail is steep and parts with protruding rocks and exposed tree roots most of the way, which makes for slow going. The clouds rolled in after a time, and though we had more than 2 miles to go before we reached Rogers Pass Lake, we turned back.

We don't like to keep ascending when the sky darkens, but several groups of backpackers were still heading up when we turned back.
We don’t like to keep ascending when the sky darkens, but several groups of backpackers were still heading up when we turned back. We heard the first distant  thunder clap as we got near the trailhead and the car.
Just as the coal train had welcomed us to East Portal, Amtrak came by at the end of the day's hike.
The coal train had welcomed us to East Portal, and Amtrak came by at the end of the day’s hike.

 

Grand Central’s Centennial

Months of special events highlight the grand old terminal’s 100th year

GrandCentral100years-logoI  spent a lot of my younger years on the New Haven Railroad between my home in southern Connecticut to New York and also to Boston, where I went to college. New York was closer and so I traveled through Grand Central Terminal countless times. I took the Grand Concourse for granted. It was grand, but the grandeur was hidden. What pulled the eye in those days was not the soaring ceiling painted with the constellations, the famous clock-topped information booth or the grand proportions. It was the huge advertising presence.

Life changed. I moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, taking the bus into Manhattan’s Port Authority bus terminal. And then, I moved to Colorado. My main connection with Grand Central was during American Society of Journalists & Authors board meetings and annual meeting — always at a hotel near the station. The long distance trains that once departed from the westernmost tracks with its own waiting room were history. The sturdy wooden benches had long since been removed from the 42nd Street side waiting room, which had been turned in exhibition and event space. Many ticket windows closed as ticket sales became ever more automated. The Lower Concourse now holds a food court.  Here are a couple of then and now photos:

Grand Central's Main Concourse, with the east-side windows and balcony obscured by a ginormous Kodak transparency and the arched doorway to the main waiting room featured a large Bulova clock.
Then: Grand Central’s Main Concourse, with the east-side windows and balcony obscured by a ginormous Kodak transparency and the arched doorway to the main waiting room featured a large Bulova clock (not visible in this image, but on the right).
The Kodak mural is gone (then again, so is Kodak), revealing the original tall arched windows, staircase and balcony. Travelers from a century ago would recognize the terminal.
Now: The Kodak mural is gone (then again, so is Kodak), revealing the original tall arched windows, staircase and balcony. Travelers from a century ago would recognize the terminal.

Grand Central Terminal has seen the best of times and worst of times, but unlike historic Penn Station across town, it was not demolished but has survived to celebrate its centennial. It was saved from the wrecking ball largely through the efforts of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

 

Historic Pigeon Key Gets Modern Solar Array

Little island loaded with history and powered by the sun

I’d never heard of Pigeon Key until I learned that this 5-acre island has gone green by bringing an a new solar power system on line to satisfy some 90 to 95 percent of the historic island’s electrical needs. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since the island’s electrical needs are relatively modest and Florida is, after all, called the Sunshine State. More than 100 years ago, the islet beneath the old Seven Mile Bridge, housed workers who built Henry Flagler’s Over-Sea Railroad. Later it was the base for the final section of Henry M. Flagler’s Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast (FEC) Railway, which made the formerly remote chain of islands known as the Florida Keys accessible from mainland  The original Seven-Mile Bridge was considered an engineering feat. That bridge is, like Pigeon Key, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Pigeon Key and its new and old Seven Mile Bridges. (Photo courtesy Andy Newman, The Florida Keys & Key West)
Pigeon Key and its new and old Seven Mile Bridges. (Photo courtesy Andy Newman, The Florida Keys & Key West)

With the opening of a more modern Seven-Mile Bridge, the old bridge became a recreation path path and fishing pier. Pigeon Key, which is nestled beneath the trestle at the edge of Marathon, is known for modest wood frame structures largely colored in Flagler’s trademark yellow. These old workers’ cottages are maintained by the not-for-profit Pigeon Key Foundation, which manages the island and works to preserve its rich heritage. It has transformed one Pigeon Key structure into a railroad museum featuring historic artifacts from the FEC Railway, including concrete “bones” that served to test the strength of mixtures used in erecting the Old Seven-Mile Bridge. Photographs show the trains, the construction of the original bridge, the buildings of Pigeon Key and the island’s former inhabitants.

The tiny island of Pigeon Key now boasts a solar array that supplies up to 95% of its electricity. (Photo courtesy Andy Newman, The Florida Keys & Key West)
The tiny island of Pigeon Key now boasts a solar array that supplies up to 95% of its electricity. (Photo courtesy Andy Newman, The Florida Keys & Key West)

It strikes me that little Pigeon Key is a worthwhile stop between Miami and Key West. It is reached either by foot or by ferry. The Pigeon Key Visitor Center and Gift Shop is located on Knight’s Key, mile marker 47 oceanside. Admission to the island costs $11 per adult and $8.50 for students 14 and under (children 4 and under are admitted free). Proceeds benefit the Pigeon Key Foundation and its preservation and restoration efforts. If you visit, be sure to page homage to the new solar array that catapults this historic site into the most environmentally sane part of the 21st century. Henry Flagler, who embraced the technology of his time, would surely approve. For more information, call 305-289-0025.

Ride in a Royal Gorge Route Railroad Cab

Colorado tourist train has room for two passengers up front with the engineer

RoyalGorgeRoute-logoAnyone who ever dreamed of being a railroad engineer can make the dream come true on the Royal Gorge Route, whose new, more powerful turbo-charged GP40-2 locomotive has a bodystyle unlikeany other locomotive in the nation,  and because it offers more space in the cab, it also allows the engineer to comfortably accommodate up to two guests in the enclosed cab.

RoyalGorgeRoute-locomotive

The cab accommodates up to two guests who ride up front from Cañon City to Parkdale, where the train turns around to re-enter the gorge. They get a view of the Gorge that is normally reserved for the engineer,who shares fascinating facts about and history of the Royal Gorge Route.  On the return leg, these passengers move to reserved seating in the Vista Dome car or join others in their party aboard the train for the return trip to the Santa Fe Depot.

The ride costs $150 for the first passenger and $100 for the second. Reserve online or call 724-5748 or 719-276-4000.

Yucatan Train Project on ‘Mexico Time’

Transpeninsular train construction delayed

Proecjtected tain across Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
Projected rail route across Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

First came euphoria that a train across the northern Yucatan Peninsula was to be constructed in the foreeseeable future in the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan, initially between the colonial capital city of Merida to the famous Maya site of Chichen Itza, and later  as far as Campeche on the west side of the peninsula and Playa del Carmen on the east side. Now it turns out out that cosntruction has been delayed and will not even start until  2015.  The current government contends that some 70 percent of the project’s feasibility studies submitted by the previous administration must redone.

The sticking point seems to be the updates are necessary for the fast train, which is supposed  travel at speeds up to 160 to 180 kilometers per hour, can operate on the 277-kilometer route both by day for passengers and by night for freight, with stops in Izamal, Chichen Itza and Valladolid. Yucatan boosters are selling it on the basis of tourism benefits and also to increase real estate development values. Some people believe that the Yucatan in general and Cancun in particular are already sufficiently developed, gracias.

Tricks, Treats and Trains in Colorado

Weekend fun for kids, railroadiana for grown-up railfans and photo opps galore

When it comes to real everyday train travel, Colorado has only one east-bound and one west-bound Amtrak train a day. But the Centennial State is second to none when it comes to tourist trains. For those that have not already ended for the year, Halloween is often the last hurrah before trains either shut down or curtail their services in winter — except for Christmas excrusions. Costumes are encouraged at all of these Halloween events. Go to the individual websites for details on departure times and costs.

The Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden sets up Railroad Halloween Town along the tracks. Catch a ride behind their historic locomotive in vintage passenger cars hosted by conductors and engineers in full costume. Visit all of the Town’s special stops, where children can fill their treat bags (good stuff, because Enstrom’s of Grand Junction is sponsoring), visit the not-so-spooky haunted railcar and the Olde Railroaders silly graveyard, and pause for a photo in the Pumpkin Patch. FoMoInfo: 303-279-4591 or 800-365-6263.

Children are also encouraged to wear their Halloween costumes as they board the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad at the Durango depot for The Great Pumpkin Patch. This two-and-a-half-hour round-trip adventure on October 20 and 21 features Charlie Brown, Lucy and Snoopy who greet guests to as they arrive at the pumpkin patch. There are hayrides, live musical entertainment, a hay bale maze, games, temporary tattoos, bounce houses and trick or treating. Each child may select the perfect pumpkin to take home. FoMoInfo: 970-247-2733 or 888-872-4607.

The Royal Gorge Route, a standard (rather than narrow) gauge train departing Cañon City, runs a family Halloween train and an adult murder mystery train for grown-ups.  On October 27 and 28, costumed guests and staff take a spooky two-hour mid-day excursion complete with special treats and a pumpkin patch ending where children are free to pick their favorite. Guests may even catch a glimpse of the ghost of the Santa Fe Depot, believed to be an old railroader from the 1870s railroad war of the Royal Gorge. On the evening of the 27th, is the final murder mystery dinner train of the season. A professional acting troupe leaves guests wondering “whodunnit”! Was it the gunfighter? The widow? Or maybe the sheriff? There’s no mystery to the fine dinner with or without tastings of Colorado and California wines. FoMoInfo: 888-724-5748.

The Rio Grande Railroad’s Pumpkin Patch Express train, departing Alamosa, on October 27, is a short family trip from the city’s station to to a specially designed autumn-theme setting just outside Alamosa. Hay bale mazes andother  fun fall activities await the kids during the layover with plenty of photo opps as they search for their perfect pumpkin to take home and decorate. Kids are invited to Trick or Treat on the train. FoMoInfo:  719- 587-0509 or 877-726-7245.