Saturday, January 10, 2009

What I'm doing on my vacation

Combat report from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, by a happy tourist who is probably on his last vacation for the duration of Great Depression II:

Friday the Lady Friend and I departed via our favorite train, the California Zephyr, for Glenwood Springs, Colorado. It was my 22nd or 23rd trip -- I've lost count -- on that train.

The journey began in Chicago Union Station, where Amtrak's Metropolitan Lounge for sleeper passengers had been refurbished with new carpeting and furniture since I had last been there a year ago -- and Amtrak has at last laid on Internet wireless. A year ago the shabbiness was almost embarrassing.

The customer service reps at the desk (who got a national public drubbing a couple of weeks ago when another train was delayed almost 24 hours without respite for the passengers) were pleasant and polite, but I have never known them to be otherwise.

The Zephyr departed bang on time at 2 p.m. Our sleeper, one of the original double-decker Superliners of the late 1970s, had been completely rebuilt, and by the look of the appointments quite recently. I didn't need to use the roll of duct tape every smart Amtrak traveler brings along to snub down wayward and misfitting curtains and rattling panels. I'd give the car 4 stars, and I'd also give Donald, its attendant, 4 stars. He was quiet, polite and attentive, though hardly colorful.

The diner and lounge car also rated 4 stars, looking as if they'd been through recent refurbishment at Beech Grove, Amtrak's Indiana maintenance facility. Not the coaches -- they were as shabby-rattly as any I've seen in a decade. One star for those.

At dinner, the Lady Friend and I both gave the flatiron steak 3 stars (it was tasty, albeit slightly tough and rubbery); the boiled veggies 4 stars (to my surprise, they were moist and tender); the baked potato 4 stars, and the creme-de-brulee cheesecake 4 stars and the Haagen-Dazs ice cream 5 stars.

Our waiter, E.B., was an interesting case. Clearly a veteran, he was both jovial and efficient, but he was also officious, sternly rebuking the Lady Friend and several other diners for handing him their empty plates instead of allowing him to pick them up from the table. Three stars for him, but four for the over-all dining experience.

The sleeping experience: Three stars. Donald arrived not five minutes after we put in the call to make up our room for the night, and I got in a solid six hours of slumber, but sharp jolts somewhere in Nebraska awakened me at 3 a.m. and I couldn't get back to sleep. The beds are comfortable enough, but I'd swear Amtrak's minuscule pillows grow smaller with each passing year. And those heavy coal trains seem to be beating Burlington Northern Santa Fe's Chicago-Denver main line into rough-riding spaghetti. Not Amtrak's fault.

Breakfast: Four stars. E. B. helpfully suggested that we not sample the scrambled eggs but was upbeat about the rest of the menu. My three-egg cheese omelette deserved 4 stars, as did the hash browns, biscuit and coffee -- but the bacon was a tad dry, rating just 3. My wife gave the hot oatmeal 5 stars and called it the best she'd ever had -- I'll have to try that on the return trip.

Jolly-officious waiter would have rated 4 stars this time, but we heard him put down another diner for handing him her plate. If he'd explained why, perhaps in a pleasant fashion, that would have saved her a little embarrassment. There's probably a good reason to allow the waiters to do the picking-up -- I suspect it's to avoid spills -- but this fellow could use a bit of a personality adjustment. He might even earn a fifth star.

He was much improved at lunch, 4 stars' worth. The steakburger with cheese and bacon rated a full 5 stars, even though it wasn't good for my arteries. Amtrak's burgers have always been top-drawer, and I just cannot resist them.

Likewise, the Colorado Rockies scenery, the Front Range and the canyons -- Byers, Gore, Little Gore and Glenwood -- has always been a 5-star show.

And we arrived in Glenwood Springs right on the advertised, at 1:53 p.m. An hour later we were in the Hot Springs pools, soaking up the dissolved chemical bennies.

So far, a 4-star trip, maybe 4 1/2.

More in the next couple of days.

LATER: We had dinner at Juicy Lucy's Steak House across from the Amtrak station. Superb pork chop, superb salmon fillet, both 5 stars. Slightly pricey, but we still escaped with a bill-plus-tip well south of a C-note, and that included a half bottle of an excellent Napa Valley merlot and a shared slab of creme de brulee cheesecake. This bistro was recommended by someone on and I enthusiastically pass it along.


  1. Are the meals on Amtrak all that important? I hear they're OK, but nothing to write home about. Aren't they just fuel, like most road food?

  2. The dining car experience is one of the most important aspects of train travel. If you are happy with a nice meal shared with congenial seatmates, that can make up for a lot of aggravations, such as a late train or lack of attendant service owing to Amtrak spreading things way too thin in order to cut costs.

    Of course, the dining car always has been a loss leader for railroads, even during the heyday of train travel. Amtrak has been forced to cut costs as much as possible in food service, and I think it has done a commendable job with its frozen meals. While they may not taste as if they'd just been prepared by a Culinary Institute graduate, they are not bad at all -- they're usually comparable to the reasonably decent road food you'd find at a good highway chain restaurant.