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Cloudy, With 100% Chance Of Sheep February 5, 2012

Posted by Fritz in Yachts and other things that float.
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It’s true what they say about Ireland…it really is an enchanted land, rich in history and natural beauty. My January visit was warmed by the generous Irish spirit imbued by everyone I met. Rather than rail against the ceaseless clouds and rain (265 days per year they boast!) the Irish see their pints half full. As more than one resident joked, “without the cold and rain we’d have no excuse for drinking!”

My week-long visit started in Dublin after an amazingly short (5 hour, twenty minute) flight from Newark, NJ—thank you jet stream. Prime Tours President Dave Matthews, fellow Prime Tours Director John Coy and I arrived just past 7am local time which was 2am for us. Met by a cabbie arranged by the Irish Tourist Bureau, we loaded up and headed off into the dark, chilly, rainy morn. The purpose of my visit was to familiarize myself with the country and the venues we are selling in our tours. Both Dave and John are seasoned Ireland travelers.

By the time we arrived at our hotel the sun was making a valiant attempt to prove dawn does indeed come to Ireland. We checked in, dropped off our gear and headed back out via our private cab to the Tourist Bureau’s offices. There we met two lovely ladies who had arranged our week for us. Esther and Katarina were German nationals who, because of the European Union’s open borders, had seamlessly migrated to Ireland to help promote tourism to the Emerald Isle. I learned in subsequent conversation that Ireland had seen a tremendous influx of young eastern Europeans during the boom ‘90’s. The economic bust that followed in 2002 sent many back to their respective countries but the diligent and hardworking remained and are working hard to turn the country’s economy around.

Esther drew the short straw and would drive us through Dublin for a personal city tour. We spent the remainder of the day visiting the signature sites; Trinity College, St. Patrick’s, Christ Church, the Guinness Storehouse, Kilmeinham Gaol (jail), O’Connell Street and the General Post Office (sight of the 1916 Easter uprising) and Aviva Stadium—the newest sporting venue that replaced Landsdowne Road in 2010. Aviva will be the sight of the Navy/Notre Dame football game in September (Prime Tours, is offering a tour to Ireland around the game).

By 4pm the Americans were beginning to feel the effect of jet lag. Esther picked up on our slowed speech and lagging energy and suggested we call it a day. We jumped at the opportunity to return to our hotel for a short nap as we had dinner reservations at 7p.

Dinner would be at Taylor’s Three Rock, an iconic Irish pub and cabaret.

We were picked up by none other than the owner of the dinner theater John Keenan, a big, boisterous Irishman who kept us enthralled with over-the-top stories on our 30 minute ride to the theater. Taylor’s Three Rock is a rambling farmhouse bar with the largest thatched roof in Ireland soaring to over 50 feet. Nestled due south of the city in the rural foothills of the Dublin mountains, the theater can accommodate over 200 guests. The cabaret was dark this night as the theater takes a break during the off season. We were however feted with a sumptuous meal and regaled with more fanciful Irish stories from John. A showman at heart, he made sure we would include Taylor’s Three rock into any tour itinerary we sold.

John returned us to our hotel well after 11pm and all three of us crashed hard—barely able to recall the whirlwind of our first day in country.

The next morning started early as we were to meet the bus for a day long tour of the Wicklow Mountains National Park, 30 miles south of Dublin.

Each of our hotel stays included the famous Full Irish Breakfast each morning and we took full advantage. Irish bacon, white sausage, blood sausage, potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, broiled tomatoes, baked beans and eggs. The only way to start your day!

The bus pick-up was a fifteen minute walk away from our hotel. Being so far north and it being winter the sun had not begun to rise even at 8am. Our walk took us past St. Steven’s Green, Dublin’s largest public park. The 22-acre park used to be the outskirts of town. Until 1663 St. Stephen’s Green was a marshy common on the edge of Dublin, used for grazing. It’s hard to imagine the park once being the edge of town as it is just 8 blocks from the Liffy river and the center of today’s town.

We met the bus to Wicklow and were offered the front seats by our driver/guide Steven. The gals at the Irish Tourist office had really set us up! The bus made several more stops around the city picking up the passengers for the days tour. Steven didn’t waste any time in pointing out every sight as we drove past. Once full, we headed south with Steven narrating along the way. The hour trip seemed half that as there was so much to see and hear. The sun was now up and along with it some blue sky!

The Wicklow Mountains and surrounding valleys are some of the most scenic in Ireland. Broad expanses of highland bogs extend as far as the eye can see and the varied topography makes the area a must on any tour. The highlight of the trip is a visit to Glendalough—the Valley of the Two Lakes. It was here St. Kevin founded the monastery in the 6th century. The existing monastic ruins date from the 8th and 12th centuries. A cathedral, stone church, Celtic stone crosses and a 100 foot stone tower still stand.

After a 3 kilometer walk along a scenic path to the two lakes, we returned to the bus for a  short ride to lunch in Laragh, a tiny crossroads village of no more than a dozen buildings. Surprisingly, we had our choice of several places to eat and chose a traditional looking pub.  Once inside it didn’t disappoint. Beamed ceilings, worn wooden floor, a smoke-stained fireplace complete with a blazing peat fire all made for the perfect Irish lunch spot. The warm fire was especially welcome because I think I failed to mention the temperature was hovering around 40° F. Coupled with the wind and occasional rain/mist, it made for a brisk outing. Oh yeah, the wind. Living in Florida I know wind—we get it all year-long and sometimes we get too much. But the wind blowing along the ridge on the road above the Two Lakes was ungodly. The Two Lakes are at the bottom of a very narrow valley. The channel between the two ridges forces the wind through a natural tunnel that accelerates a mild breeze into gale force winds. One of our bus mates was literally blown off her feet while we were out of the bus at a photo-op. I was able to lean into the wind at a near 45° angle and remain upright. It was awesome.

After a hearty lunch of Irish stew, we re-boarded the bus for a trip to the coast. The Irish Sea separates the UK from Ireland. It’s joined by the Atlantic to the north and the Celtic Sea to the south—it is cold water. So it would be an amazing sight to see bathers swimming in such chilly waters in January, right? Amazing it was.  As we approached the town of Wicklow, Steven teased us with stories of the hearty soles who bathe every day in the Irish Sea. At first I didn’t believe him and was sure he was full of Blarney when we saw a group of divers in full wetsuits entering the water at our first stop. Ha! Swimming in wetsuits is hardly bathing in 40° water. We were let out of the bus and urged to follow the path around the shoreline to a stone structure about 200 meters away.  The Forty Foot was a point of land that jutted out into the sea. Marked by a simple sign, it was the swimming area Steven had boasted about. As soon as we crested the hill and were able to look over the stone wall leading to the Forty Foot we saw several people swimming well out in the water. I was impressed. I stopped a chap who had just finished getting bundled back up after his swim and asked him about it. He nonchalantly admitted to swimming daily, regardless of the weather saying it was good for the heart…o.k.

We finished our visit to the Wicklow area with Steven alerting us to having just scratched the surface of this amazing area. The “Garden of Ireland” has much to offer and begs for a return visit.

We returned to Dublin in time to take in the National Archeology Museum. Steven’s talk during our trek through the bogs intrigued us to the amazing recent finds made by archeologists and he informed us of a current exhibition highlighting these finds. It seems the Vikings, who early on set upon the Emerald Isle, used the bogs as ceremonial burying grounds. The peat bogs’ chemical makeup served as a natural preservative. Clothing, wood and even bodies were preserved, mummy-like after thousands of years buried in the peat.  The exhibition highlight were four Viking bodies in a remarkable mummified state. Several had most of their hair intact and their clothing was preserved almost like the day they died in it. The high iron content in the peat that had helped preserve them turned everything a burnt umber color but otherwise it was eerie to see the amount of detail in their lifeless bodies.

Like most National Museums in Ireland, entrance is free. Time did not allow but we could have visited the National Library and the Heraldic Museum right next door.

Tonight’s dinner would once again be at a traditional Irish dinner cabaret/pub. The Merry Ploughboy Pub however did have a program scheduled and we were anxious to enjoy dinner and the show. With an hour to kill before heading to dinner we walked to Trinity College and strolled through the main quad. Trinity College, formally known as the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin, was founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I. Trinity is one of the seven ancient universities of Britain and Ireland and it is Ireland’s oldest university. It is also home to the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript, in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables. It was created by Celtic monks ca. 800 or slightly earlier. Sadly the building housing the manuscript was closed for the day. Another reason to visit again soon!

We continued our walk for a few blocks in the direction of Temple Bar, a revived part of central Dublin now hosting artists, filmmakers, galleries and a multitude of trendy pubs and cafes. It’s were the cool people hang. The restored buildings and cobblestone streets finished the effect of living 150 years ago in the heart of Dublin Town.

To make our 8pm dinner we hailed a cab and headed back out into the foothills of the Dublin Mountains south of town. It seems all the good Irish cabarets are in the outskirts of town.

The building housing the Merry Ploughboys was very similar to Taylor’s Three Rock. An old two-story Irish farmhouse refurbished to serve 200 plus for dinner and a show.

We arrived a bit late and were seated just as the band had started. Many in the crowd of over 150 this night had already begun to be served. We settled in, ordered from the fixed menu and took in the sights. Four long tables seating at least 50 each extended lengthwise from the stage. We were seated in a little cutout at our own table stage right of the four long tables.  The table nearest us was full of what turned out to be a business group from France. The table next to them was a group from Norway. The remaining patrons were presumably a microcosm of the United Nations as we had seen a multitude of nationalities represented during our short stay. As we would come to find out, the European Union and common currency made travel between EU countries easy and hassle free.

Our dinner was served and it was fabulous. I had the lamb shank and maybe it was because I was in Ireland but it was the best I had ever had. Heaping bowls of potatoes and steamed vegetables accompanied the main course which was preceded by one of the best seafood chowders I have ever had.

Of course during it all the band is playing traditional Irish songs and they too are as amazing as the meal. The four musicians were truly virtuosos, especially the gent playing the uilleann pipes and the dude on the bodhran, the Irish drum. I had never heard the drum played so well. He could make it sound unlike anything I had ever heard. Truly amazing.

As dessert was being served the musicians took a break and out came the Irish dancers. Three beautiful lasses and two sharp lads took to the stage and began a 30-minute step spectacle that would have made Michael Flatly proud.

The band reappeared for a final short set and by 11pm it was time to head home. We discovered that the pub ran a free shuttle back into Dublin, one we could have taken to get here and saved the €23 cab fare had we known. We took advantage of the ride and enjoyed our driver Willie’s humorous stories on the way home.

Day three would see John part ways with Dave and I. He was remaining in Dublin for further exploration of the city before meeting up with a group he would escort to Belfast and Northern Ireland a week from now. We were headed to Belfast and parts north and west via rental car

Another hearty full Irish breakfast consumed, we picked up the rental Ka and headed north. Yes, I said Ka. It’s a European Ford product about the size of a walnut.

Our Ka

The steering wheel is on the right, so you shift with your left hand and pray with the other. I have to tip my hat to Dave. He drove most of the time and I was darn thankful for that. He had some experience as he had rented and driven his family around the Island a year ago. My first time staring at traffic on the wrong side of the bloody road was nerve-wracking and taking a right turn, easy as pie in America, was taking your life in your own hands here in Ireland. Oh and let me tell you about traffic circles….they are everywhere! These ’round-a-bouts’ are a technically  superior idea to lights and intersections. The traffic flows, without the start-stop method we employ here. But that is not without its own issues. Like when you don’t know where the heck you are going and you’re suddenly in the circle with 10 other cars and now it’s your turn to exit but there’s a car there…yikes! I admit it got easier the more I did it but trying to reverse engineer my brain for left is good, right is bad took some time.

The trip to Belfast would have many stops in between as we needed to check out several hotels for future tours and see the many stops we would include in those tours. The ride out of town was via the M1, a modern 4-lane super highway very much like what we have here in the USA. The real fun didn’t start until we ventured off the beaten path.

Our first stop was Trim Castle located interestingly enough in Trim, Ireland. The town had grown up around the large structure but it was still an imposing edifice and looked just what a medieval castle should look like.  Time didn’t permit us to stop and tour most of the sights we were visiting. This was a whirl-wind familiarization tour meant to give me the overview. We were now off the beaten path. The roads were narrow, winding, two-lane, shoulder-less strips of macadam bordered by 4-foot high stone walls that framed the edge of the road. No room for error. Add in the wacky signs and weird pavement markings and it was truly an automotive adventure. Thank goodness we were in a Ford walnut and not an Explorer.

We passed through the beautiful Boyne Valley and stopped briefly at the Hill of Tara, the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland. One last stop at Monasterboice provided the kind of photo-op I had imagined getting in Ireland. Surrounded by an old graveyard, the remains of two 5th century churches were magically set among lush green fields.

After checking out all the sights out in the country we headed back onto the M1 and made our way towards Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The past history of the strife or as the locals call it “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland has taken its toll tourism wise. Even though there haven’t been any confrontations between Catholics and Protestants in many years, the images of bombings and terror still prejudice many travelers. The North has suffered but now they are working hard to woo the tourist and the tourist dollar. Beginning in April 2012, a new museum dedicated to the Titanic will open on the spot where the doomed ship was built in 1912. Not coincidentally it will open 100 years to the day, if the  museum opens on time, of the anniversary of the sinking on April 15. 1912.

Titanic Museum in Belfast

We stopped by the construction site and tried to weasel ourselves inside for a look. A worker, with the heaviest Irish accent I had ever heard, informed us the interior was still a complete work site and no access was allowed. Judging by the work going on outside, I hope they make their mid-April opening.

As we headed further north to the coast where the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea meet the clouds seemed to dissolve into the beautiful blue sky. The ever verdant land was even more brilliant under the bright sun and the magical colors of the Emerald Isle were on full display.

Bushmill Distillery

After a forty minute drive we arrived in Bushmill, home to that famed triple-distilled whiskey that bears the town’s name.  The distillery offers tours that I would highly recommend.  Whether you are a whiskey drinker or not, the tradition, craftsmanship and old-world charm is a must see.  A sample is offered at the end of your tour but sadly no photos are allowed inside the distilling facility.

From Bushmill we continued six kilometers north to literally the end of the road. There, at the top of the cliff is the Giant’s Causeway Hotel and visitor’s center.

The Giant’s Causeway is a natural geologic wonder entwined in folklore that gives this spectacular rock formation its extra charm.

Legend has it the two giants, Finn McCool from Ireland and his Scottish counterpart Benandonner built the causeway so they could meet and fight. One version of the legend tells that Finn fell asleep before he got to Scotland. When he did not arrive, the much larger Benandonner crossed the bridge looking for him. To protect Finn, his wife Oonagh laid a blanket over him so he could pretend that he was actually their baby son. In a variation, Finn fled after seeing Benandonner’s great bulk, and asked his wife to disguise him as the baby. In both versions, when Benandonner saw the size of the ‘infant’, he assumed the alleged father, Finn, must be gigantic indeed. Therefore, Benandonner fled home in terror, ripping up the Causeway in case he was followed by Finn.

The causeway is a unique deposit of volcanic basalt that cooled in just the right way as to form hexagonal stones. These stones extend out into the sea from the cliffs thus creating the illusion of a once built causeway across the Irish Sea to Scotland.

Our time at the Giant’s Causeway was done and as we headed back south as quickly as the clouds departed they returned; along with a biting wind and colder temperatures.

Today was a lot of driving as we would spend the night in Westport, almost 400 kilometers away. I was glad most of it would be spent inside our warm walnut.

The trip took us through Coleraine, Londonderry, Letterkenny, Donegal, Sligo and County Mayo.  Simply beautiful even in the gray mist and broken clouds.

It was now I got my shot at driving in a world where left was right and right was wrong. Up to this point, Dave had done a swell job of driving only getting me to invoke the Lord’s name twice.

I did pretty well on the open road. But then we came to town traffic and those insidious traffic circles. “Stay left you moron,” was my constant mantra. “Don’t worry about your left, death will come from the right. Watch the right!” I managed to cheat our insurance deductible but only barely. I almost clipped a mirror in Sligo. It was close enough to get a rise out of the normal stoic Dave. I wasn’t worried though as it was the left mirror and in Ireland death comes from the right…

We stopped for gas and after fueling the walnut with 43 liters of €1.54/ltr petrol Dave retook the reins. He said he was refreshed. I think he was scared of my driving.

We continued towards Westport. We are now in county Mayo. The west of Ireland is much like the American west. More spread out, more wild, more sheep.  I haven’t talked much about the sheep but they are everywhere. White, brown, black, muddy.  All have some sort of spray paint marking on them denoting ownership. Yes it’s weird seeing a phosphorescent pink ‘x’ sprayed on a sheep’s side. Even though every field is enclosed with a rock wall I imagine these buggers get mixed up all the time. Thank goodness for Krylon.

Our long day of driving ends when we arrive at the Wyatt Hotel in Westport. Our hotel is literally in the center of town on the octagon that makes up the town center.  After checking in we head out looking for a restaurant following one of the spokes that emanate from the octagon. The sun has long since set and the street lamps of this port town give the wet cobblestones that movie set look. We find an Italian restaurant and proceed to have the best pizza I have ever eaten. Dave, who lived in Italy for 4 years, concurred.

The next morning was wet, gray and cold. The weather was going south and as luck would have it, so were we.

There is a must see for any tourist in Ireland and especially the faithful Catholic. The shrine at Knock is the place in 1879 where the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and St. John appeared to more than a dozen residents. The apparition lasted several hours and included a lamb and three angels appearing at the south gable of the Knock Parish church.

 Pope John Paul visited the site in 1979 as did Mother Theresa in 1993.

From Knock we continued south to our ultimate destination of Claregalway. We arrived again after sunset and after checking in to our hotel headed the 6 kilometers into Galway.

Galway is the musical center of Ireland. It is also one of the most youthful cities in the country. Home to a university, the city has a college town feel. Outside of Dublin, it had by far the most vibrant night life. Quay St. is where it’s at. Teeming with shops, pubs and ‘take aways’ this main drag and the streets surrounding it is a must see. We had dinner in a Fish and Chips ‘Take Away”. That’s Ireland’s version of fast food. It was delicious.  After dinner we found two musicians playing an impromptu jam session in one of the many pubs on Quay street.  Tucked in a quiet corner, one played the acoustic guitar and the other the banjo. Both were excellent just playing for the crowd’s applause.

Our last full day in country included the most rural driving of the trip. We departed Claregalway and headed to the coast through an area known as the Burren. A magnificent barren landscape that has been likened to the moon. Vast expanses of sedimentary limestone and shell cover the countryside. Its starkness is its beauty.

Past the Burren the landscape changes dramatically once again as we approached the Cliffs of Moher. Mother Nature was not going to cooperate with a nice, clear day. She had decided to be extra wet and cloudy and cold. On a clear day the Cliffs of Moher are said to be one of the most spectacular sights in all of Ireland. Standing 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean and stretching more than five miles, the cliffs are a near straightdown sheer to the shore below. On a clear day you can see the Aran Islands 15 kilometers away. Unfortunately, we saw none of that. Satisfying myself with the beautiful Tourist Bureau photo from the brochure we pressed on.

More ancient ruins, castles, sheep and death-defying roads were enjoyed before we arrived in Bunratty; home to the Bunratty castle and the famous woolen mills. It was time to buy some souvenirs. My daughter had asked for an authentic Claddagh ring before I left. As luck would have it there were Claddagh rings of every size, shape and price. The gold ones were not going to be purchased because she specifically said she wanted a sterling ring. For that I was thankful as the gold ones were 20 times the price of the silver.

The wife got lucky too as I spied a necklace I thought she would like; also in silver.

We finished with the shopping and decided we had had enough of the weather for the day. It was turning colder and we were ready to start our preparations for coming home.

Prior to leaving for Ireland Dave had made a connection with a local Irish tour guide. He wanted to meet us so he could pitch himself as a local source. We had a loose meeting scheduled at our hotel for 5pm but didn’t really think he would show. We arrived right at 5pm and Peter Clarke was waiting for us.

Peter turned out to be a really nice guy and will probably be of great value to us in future tours. Like everyone we met, the Irish welcome was always warm and sincere.

There is a long list of other sites we visited I didn’t mention. They include: Croagh Patrick—the mountain St. Patrick climbed and meditated on for 40 nights; Cabra Castle—an actual castle we stay a night in; and many other Abby’s, churches and historical sites that dot the landscape.

A nightmare trip back to Florida was the only obstacle before me. The domestic leg from Newark to West Palm was delayed 5 hours. That coupled with the 7.5 hour flight from Shannon and the 5 hour layover in Newark before the delay plus the 5 hour time change made for a very long day. 24 hours in Irish time. But don’t let the thought of a long flight deter you from touring Ireland. It’s worth every minute it takes to get there and back.

I can’t wait to visit again. Sláinte!

A Full Schedule April 14, 2010

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Irish Castle

Recent changes (good) in my personal life have filled my daily schedule with an odd experience-a busy workday. Having recently returned to the yacht brokerage world and continuing with a growing tour business, my days are quite full. Throw in the activities as a Board member of my homeowners association and the ongoing wrangling of a high schooler who lives 20 miles from her school and doesn’t own a car (thank god), my days are rather full. My postings have suffered due to all this so I apologize to the small (but growing) legion of readers who read my blog.

I will be traveling to Ireland on Saturday for a week—business and pleasure mixed as I seek to familiarize myself with the Emerald Isle so to better sell travel to that fine country. I probably won’t post while I’m there as I have a very full itinerary but I promise to return with fanciful stories and photos. Sláinte!

Diary of an Escort – The End January 15, 2010

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I was really dreading having to spend more time in my coach seat and I decided I would stay up in the Lounge car as long as humanly possible. I had fully charged my phone which served as my Ipod so I knew I had plenty of music. Besides I also needed to start thinking about my duties when we arrived in L.A. I was after all escorting this tour and needed to get my charges and their baggage off the train and onto a bus when we arrived.

2010 Rose Bowl Champs

Knowing we were at least three and a half hours delayed, I was worried about our bus rendezvous at Union Station. The nice thing about working a tour in a major city is most everything works 24 hours. The bus company we had contracted with had 24-hour dispatch so I was able to call and give them the heads up we would be later than our scheduled arrival. My biggest problem was finding cell service. At this point we were crossing no mans land west of Phoenix and I hadn’t seen a bar of service on my phone for over two hours. It was somewhere between Kingman and Needles I found service and was able to make my call.

The terrain had now flattened out and I could see on the map that we were heading for a long stretch of straight. I figured we would make up some time through the night since the run looked fast and the track was smooth. I settled back in a booth in the Lounge car and dozed off to some Lucinda Williams crooning in my ears.  I ended up sleeping a couple of hours sitting mostly upright in the booth seat, wedged against the table and the window. It was just after 1am Pacific time when I finally relented and headed back for my seat next to Pat. We had been scheduled to arrive at 8:15 but I knew we wouldn’t see L.A. until at least 10:30.

Pat was awake and talking on the phone when I arrived. What a surprise. I had thought by now someone would have muzzled her late night talking. My annoyance was short lived when I discovered her son was not doing well and was in the emergency room in intensive care. His fever and convulsions were serious. It was hard to be mad at someone who was enduring such stress.

I ended up sleeping for almost 4 hours. I had to make a return call to the bus dispatch at 5am to give them an update and Greg had announced he would be opening the snack bar early so coffee would be available by then. I had brought along a Garmin GPS courtesy of my boss and had been playing with it off and on through out the trip. I was able to track our journey and it did give me a rough ETA based on traveling the nearest roads. Once up, I headed to the Lounge car and got a hot cup of Greg’s joe. I fired up the GPS to get the latest estimates on our arrival and made my update call to dispatch.

The GPS guessed we would arrive at 9:30. I knew that was awfully ambitious seeing we were over three hours behind at one point and it was not factoring in our scheduled stops. In addition it had us cruising along the highway we were roughly following to L.A. One of the cool features the GPS has is maximum speed attained during a trip. It seems during our overnight run through the desert we topped out at 92.1mph!

I did some math and guessed our arrival would be more like 10:30. I would have to wait for the formal announcement from the Conductor, later in the morning, for an official time.

Even with a cup of coffee in me I managed to slip back into unconsciousness while in the Lounge car. I guess I had become accustomed to the art of sleeping while sitting. When I awoke the car had started to fill with other early risers. I wondered if they too had issues with their coach seats or maybe their seat mates. Persephone now joined me. Still wearing his Navy Pea coat, buttoned to the neck. His hair a bit more disheveled than usual but then we all were ready for showers. We talked and played cards and stared out the windows watching the sun coming up. We both knew our journey’s were nearing their end.

The Conductor had waited till almost 8am to make his announcement. We were now scheduled to arrive L.A. at 10:45. We still had several stops to make including Fullerton which would be the stop where Pat would get off. During one of her hundreds of calls, she had talked to one of her sisters who lived there and asked her to pick her up. Her plan was to then drive to see her son in the hospital in L.A. She assured me she would be in L.A. long before we were.

The final 2 and a half hours went by quickly. I packed up my little world in and around seat 19 and made sure my people were ready to depart. I wished Pat and her son well as she departed at Fullerton. Persephone and his mom had packed up their stuff too but they were only switching trains in L.A. They lived in Alameda, outside San Fran, and wouldn’t get home till after 6pm. I stopped at their seats and offered a formal goodbye. I sincerely enjoyed their company and made a point to tell Mom what a good kid she had. I could tell Persephone was a bit embarrassed but also a bit proud.

Our journey finally ended at almost exactly 10:45 on track 11. Our bus was waiting for us in an uncharacteristically cold, Southern California drizzle. We arrived at our hotel, greeted by the rest of the Prime staff and my bunch of Buckeye’s now melded together with the other 140 that had arrived in California by other means.

The rest of the tour came off flawlessly including an Ohio State win over Oregon for their first Rose Bowl victory in 13 years.

A truly memorable exploit made better by the experience of meeting such wonderful people. I thank you all for the cool adventure and wish you all a wonderful life.

If you have a group that likes to travel by train or any other method, call Prime Tours today and let us put together a trip you’ll never forget.


Diary of an Escort – Part V in a series January 14, 2010

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2010 Rose Bowl Champs

I was sitting in the Lounge car enjoying the mountainous scenery as we climbed up through the pass that would take us to the other side of the Continental Divide. I had just finished remarking that I thought we literally crossed over the top when the power went out again. I lightheartedly said it was a good thing we had made the summit before the one engine died and several of my Lounge-mates jokingly agreed we could coast the rest of the way.

Unfortunately my first thought was back to the heads. No power, no flush. They were already pretty ripe and this would only make things much worse. In addition, I was planning on taking dinner tonight in the Dining car and without power, my epicurean adventure would be dashed.

Lounge car view

We continued to roll on under one engine and after about 20 minutes we almost forgot we had no power—even in the late afternoon there was still enough sunlight that we didn’t need lights and the car was plenty warm. As in any crisis, people tend to congregate so to deal with the crisis collectively. Human nature I guess. It must be the strength in numbers axiom proving itself. As such, the Lounge car had filled to capacity. The car has large windows and arching skylights so there’s plenty of light. Even as the light began its fade to dusk, the extra large window area made the Lounge feel less claustrophobic than the Coach cars.

Several times over the last hour the Conductor had come over the PA system to inform us that the engineer was working on the problem and hoped to have it solved soon. The announcements elicited snide comments from the riders each time and we all shared a laugh at the expense of Amtrak.

Lounge car

Ever the optimist, our Dining car steward also came over the PA announcing he would be making his way through the train taking dinner reservations for tonight. A welcome bit of news.

Almost as if the train Gods had decided we passengers had endured long enough, the return of power was announced by the whir of the air handling system cranking back up. A brief cheer erupted and the exodus to the heads ensued.

The return of power coincided nicely with the setting sun and all seemed right again.

When the steward passed through the Lounge, I asked for and received a 7:30 seating. I was eager to experience dinner on the train. An earlier conversation with another passenger had informed me of the fare I could expect. He was returning home to L.A. after spending Christmas in New York and raved about the steak he had ordered each night on the first leg of his trip. It was so good he said that he couldn’t wait to order it again during this, his return trip. Unfortunately he reported the steak he had eaten last night was in no way in the same league as the previous ones. He cautioned me to order at my own risk. I thanked him thinking I probably wouldn’t order the steak anyway because there were some other interesting items offered as well.

My 7:30 reservation was looking more like 7:45 and I chalked it up to the power outage. I surmised the hour and a half malfunction had put a serious crimp in the Galley’s prep for dinner. When our seating was finally called I queued up outside the Dining car excited to finally get my experience. My exposure to dining on the rails had been limited to watching the classic movies when America traveled by rail and white glove service was standard. This would be something a bit less formal.

The Dining car seated approximately 60 at a time. The tables were all 4-top booths. The room was separated by a prep/serving station and the stairwell that accessed the galley downstairs. I announced myself as a single and was seated with a group of three strangers who I had not seen before. It would become evident why, in short order.

After brief introductions I settled in to examining the menu and eagerly planning my meal. Before I had a chance to decide, the steward passed by announcing to all the tables that the kitchen was out of the Chef special, the fish entrée and the chicken dish. The available entrees now included a vegetarian medley, a shrimp dish and the steak.

My dinner companions were obviously miffed at the abbreviated menu and really started in on Amtrak. I quickly surmised that these three were seasoned rail travelers and I assumed they were traveling together due to their familiarity with each other. What a surprise it was to discover that they were in fact not traveling together but instead reuniting, two for the third time, by happen-chance on the Southwest Chief. The two women and one guy (I’ll call him ‘New York’) were regular riders who eschewed air travel. What I found interesting was none of them were older than me with the guy probably in his late 20’s. He admitted to one horrifying turbulence experience that swore him off airplanes for good. He said he took the train each year to visit his family back in Long Island.  This was his seventh or eighth L.A. to New York run. The gals didn’t share any other reason than they preferred not to fly and enjoyed the train.

Our waitress arrived to take our orders. She was young, looking like any college age waitress working at The Olive Garden. The guy ordered a glass of Merlot and was visibly upset when told the only wine by the glass was a Shiraz. He protested saying he saw several bottles of Merlot lined up at the prep station. She explained that they could only sell the Merlot by the bottle. The gal seated next to him offered that she’d prefer the Merlot too. They ended up buying the bottle.

I was feeling a bit uneasy at the way my dining companions were acting, their attitude was a bit superior and they had treated the sweet waitress with too much disdain. Then it dawned on me. During our initial introductions I learned the three were all in first class sleepers—thus the reason I had not seen them before. Included with their accommodations are meals. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all included in the hefty price they paid for private rooms. I now understood why they were miffed by the missing menu items.

When it looked like I had the chance to enjoy a sleeper for a part of this trip I checked out the price. The roomette price, which is half of the full sleeping car price, was $700 in addition to the coach seat fare of $256.

Our waitress returned with the wine and we guys ordered the steak while the gals tried the veggie plate and shrimp dish. I ordered my steak medium rare while New York ordered his medium well. We were served right after we had finished our salads. My sides were baked potato and a small vegetable medley. The meal was acceptably hot. The potato was of the steamed variety; I prefer a crusty skin and the vegetables were angelic—they had had the hell cooked out of them. My steak was actually cooked to order, warm red center and seasoned nicely. New York immediately started bitching about his and at one point actually accused the waitress of giving him my order. I quickly sliced off a nice red hunk and held it up for inspection stating I think I got the right one. The steak was ok, certainly nothing to rave about and at $21, I do much better at Longhorn.

By the third glass of Merlot, New York had settled down a bit and we finished the meal without further drama. I have to say the Key Lime cake, yes cake, was by far the best thing I ate that night. I’m sure it wasn’t baked on board but it was excellent nonetheless.

Running behind schedule and with one more seating left, the Steward and wait staff wasted no time in clearing our table as soon as the last forkfuls of dessert disappeared down our gullets. I said my adieus as we departed in opposite directions and I couldn’t help chuckle at that metaphor.

I was feeling very satiated and glad I experienced the Dining car. The jury was still out on whether I would pay the serious premium to travel in a sleeper and enjoy the free meals that came with that ticket. However, I did still have another night of sleeping in coach, wedged in my ¾ seat that also served as a phone booth to help me decide.

To Be Continued…

NEXT: Union Station LAX

Diary of an Escort – Part IV in a series January 13, 2010

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2010 Rose Bowl Champs

Between the excitement of the arrest and the new drama developing in Pat’s life, I ended up spending only another hour in the seat before I escaped to the Lounge car with a few magazines and my phone/Ipod. I figured the sun would be up in 3 hours and Greg announced the night before he would be selling coffee in the snack bar by 5:30.

I wasn’t the only one who found the Lounge a more hospitable sanctuary. There were at least a half dozen other souls in various stages of consciousness scattered about. I settled into a booth and actually dozed. When I awoke I could see the beginning cracks of light rising above the silhouetted mountains behind us. On this morning I would be treated to a beautiful Colorado sunrise.

Colorado Sunrise

After two cups of Greg’s coffee I was feeling fairly spry and was really enjoying the scenery. The sun was now up and Persephone had joined me in the Lounge. We shared some conversation and delved a bit deeper into our personal lives. I shared with him I had a sixteen year-old daughter and thought she would like him. I discovered he was an only child and his Dad had left when he was three. His mom, 35, who I had yet to meet, was traveling with him. When, at last we finally met, I would have been able to make her as Persephone’s mom in any line-up.

Ally Sheedy

She was an Ally Sheedy look-alike straight from the character in The Breakfast Club. Complete with wooly ski hat pulled down over her ears, floppy long sleeve sweatshirt—two sizes too big and a beautiful smile that lit up her face. She joined us briefly that morning and I discovered she was a vegetarian (no surprise) and very proud of her son.

Another hour of conversation passed when the Conductors voice announced our stop in La Junta, Colorado. This would be a ‘smoke break’ stop or one long enough for passengers to get off, stretch their legs and get some fresh air. Little did we know this was going to be a bit longer than usual.  I was eager to get off the train and get some air so I was back at my seat donning my fleece and jacket when the lights in the car suddenly went out.  I didn’t think much of it assuming they turned off everything since the engines had stopped too.

Station La Junta, CO

This was anything but standard operating procedure.

Once outside I started to overhear rumblings that something was amiss. They had originally announced our stop to be no longer than 20 minutes. I was back aboard by the prescribed time only to hear that the train was officially broken down. The second engine, the one that supplied electricity to the train, had died. Without it we had no power, lights or heat. Not to mention the fact we needed it to get us through the continental divide later in the day.

Early on I figured out most of the older folk liked to use the heads when the train wasn’t moving. There was always a rush when the train came to a stop. This stop was no different and there was a steady line heading for the john during our La Junta stop. The heads on the train were similar to the vacu-flush heads on a plane. An electric motor used a strong vacuum to evacuate the bowl while water was pumped to rinse. The key word here being…electric. With no power we had no flush. For the first people to use the heads during the power outage it wasn’t an issue. They left their issue for the next and they in turn left theirs to the next. Things got quickly out of hand and soon the heads were unusable. I decided to use the bathroom in the station figuring it would be a far better alternative, Ha! La Junta Colorado is a very small town, tiny actually. The station was barely big enough to be manned yet alone handle 400 passengers seeking toilet privileges. To top it off, when I got to the bathroom one of the two urinals was inop and there wasn’t any toilet paper in the two stalls. Luckily a station employee wandered in with a single roll of what was surely to become a roll of gold before the day was over.

We ended up stuck in La Junta for 3 1/2 hours before they were able to get the second engine fired off. At one point things were looking so bleak they started moving another engine into place off a siding to hook onto us and push us to L.A.

The Conductor came over the PA and informed us we would try to make up the lost time by increased speed and shorter stops at the stations with built in stop time. I was just happy to be moving again. Unfortunately, even after some attention, the heads were disgusting the rest of the trip. The power outage had really made a mess.

The rest of the afternoon was the climb towards the Continental Divide.

Crazy rocks

The trip passed through beautiful Arizona high desert complete with elk, buffalo, antelope and lots of cattle and sheep. The approach to the actual Divide was a bit anticlimactic. The grade is not as steep as I had imagined. Obviously the railroad chose the easiest approach for obvious reasons. It was however steep enough to realize when we had reached the summit and started our decent down the other side and it was at that very moment we lost power again.

Too be continued…

Next: Dining aboard the Southwest Chief

Diary of an Escort – Part III in a series January 12, 2010

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I knew our train was sold out and while not every seat departing from Chicago was occupied, I was sure we would fill to capacity as the train moved westward and made it’s stops through the night. Being my first long haul train trip I was excited to see how everything worked. I quickly determined that the seat, while larger than a first class airline seat and equipped with more comfort features, (an extendable leg rest and foot rest and a decent recline angle) was no match for having a 350 pound seat mate.

2010 Rose Bowl Champs

We exchanged greetings and names, I’ll call her Pat, and quickly settled in to making the best of our home for the next 43 hours. There is simply no PC way of describing how unfortunate it was that I got seated next to an extra large person.

Pat was a 40ish Latino grandmother returning home to L.A. from visiting her mother for Christmas. When I first sat down she was on her cell phone. A cell phone that I would come to loathe. Through out the entire trip, Pat would take or make a call to one of her three children or their spouses, or a multitude of cousins, or a grandchild, or her mother and God knows who else. In short order I overheard how her sisters were jealous of her and how she was her mother’s favorite, that one daughter-in-law was a bitch and one was an angel. But most of the conversations were trivial chatter that filled her time. Unfortunately they filled mine too. I soon realized I wouldn’t be sitting in this seat for much of the trip.

I am sure, even as big as the seats were, Pat must have been very uncomfortable and I felt sorry for her. But I also felt sorry for me since she was sitting in about a quarter of my seat. Finding another coach seat was not an option. Time to explore the lounge car.

Our group was in the middle car of the three coach cars. To get to the lounge car you needed to go forward, through the third coach car. The stainless doors between the cars were pneumatically controlled. With the push of a button they slid open giving access to the next car’s door. It was almost Star Trekky how they worked. For much of the first 24 hours the ride was bumpier than I had expected, I would come to learn that the tracks east of Albuquerque were not in as good of shape as the ones west. This was explained by the amount of traffic and the correspondent upkeep they received. Traversing between cars was a bit of an adventure if you happened to be crossing during a particular rough patch of rail.

The Lounge car became my new favorite place on the train. The back half of the car was made up of somewhat randomly spaced seats, on angles, that afforded conversation and broader views through the big windows and curved skylights. The front half had booth seating, perfect for playing cards with a group, eating or using your laptop. This was where our group, or at least the rowdies in our group, hung out. In the middle of the car was a stairwell down to another lounge area and the snack bar, our source for lite viddles and beverages. The snack bar was manned by Greg; an affable guy in his early 50’s. During one of my many visits I gleaned he was based in L.A, a relative newbie to Amtrak and loved his job. He also had been a singer in the entertainment biz.

One of the benefits of traveling by train is the opportunity to meet interesting people and having the time to enjoy their company if you choose. I was able to do just that when I met a very unique young man in the Lounge car on the first morning. I was in a conversation with one of our group that involved lamenting the current state of youth in America. I noticed the young man squirming, looking our way and obviously wanting to engage in the dialogue. Finally he could stand it no more and got up from his seat two tables over and plopped down across from me in my booth. He proceeded to nervously make a fairly eloquent speech rebuking my only half-serious attack on his generation.

When I asked him his name his response floored me. He said his friends called him Persephone. I asked him why and he said he didn’t like his given name and asked them to give him another.

‘Persephone’ was obviously very smart and way beyond his years, which turned out to be 15. He immediately reminded me of Harold, the character played by Bud Cort in the 1971 film Harold & Maude directed by Hal Ashby. The film, featuring slapstick, dark humor and existentialist drama, revolves around the exploits of a morbid young man who drifts away from the life that his detached mother prescribes for him and the ensuing relationship with septuagenarian Maude played by Ruth Gordon.

Not only did this young man act like the character but he was a dead ringer for the younger Bud Cort.

I could tell the poor kid was bored to tears with obviously no other teens aboard. Not that he would have much in common with anyone his age anyway. We would spend quite a bit of time together during the trip playing cards (with a deck of Russian Army issued cards—his), discussing politics and sharing stories. This was my perfect excuse for not having to sit back with Pat.

Oh, I almost forgot the drama we experienced late that first night.

Dinner is served formally in the Dining car each evening beginning around five with multiple seatings until about eight. Since I still had half of my Giordano’s pizza left I didn’t plan on partaking that night. (I would on the second night)  The Dining car is forward of the lounge car which is forward of the coach cars. There is no other way to traverse the train except for walking through each car. The last dinner seating was wrapping up and since I was in the Lounge car reading I could see everyone from coach making there way back after dinner. It was almost 9pm when I heard a slight commotion as several people were exiting the Dining car and coming into the Lounge. I noticed a few people hurriedly heading aft. About 15 minutes later I saw two car attendants and the Conductor make their way in to the Dining car. They reemerged several minutes later heading aft with a purpose. I didn’t think much about it until I overheard another passenger say someone caused a problem during dinner.

I hung out in the Lounge until just before Midnight. I dreaded having to cram myself back into my coach seat but that was really the only place to actually get any sleep. I was barely settled in when the train started to slow for a quick stop in the middle of Kansas. As the train passed into the lights around the station I could see it was snowing. I had no idea where we were. Stops at these remote stations had been very short—barely enough time to hop off and board. As the train came to a stop the Conductor and two attendants came into our car from the car ahead. The car’s lights were dimmed for sleeping but I could see the Conductor had a small flashlight. All three passed by me and congregated near the stairwell in the middle of the car leading downstairs and to the exits. I heard additional voices now and turned to see two uniformed policemen speaking with the Conductor.

Flashlights now arced through the car. They were definitely looking for someone. Even though the train was stopped I couldn’t hear any of the conversations talking place but I could determine someone was in trouble. After a few more minutes the cops had a guy in handcuffs and were escorting him off the train.

The next morning the Lounge car was all abuzz over the scofflaw who thought he could get away with skipping out on paying for dinner.  What was this idiot thinking?  He’s on a train for God’s sake. There’s no place to hide.

Too be continued…

Next: Broken down