Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Our ride on the Ocean

. . . is now up on my rail travel blog, for those of you who are lovers of steel wheel on flanged rail.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Tour surprise

We are back from our Caravan bus tour of three of Canada's Maritime provinces, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

We'd been independent travelers all our lives, but at our advanced ages (I'm 72, she's ageless) it just seemed easier for us to let someone else do the planning and driving. All-inclusive guided package tours save money not only on motor fuel but also meals, lodging and attraction fees. Of course, this means one has to travel with a lot of other people, and if one is not particularly sociable . . .

We chose Caravan for its excellent reputation as a budget tour packager (its ads say the costs are "from $995" but those are for extreme off-season dates). The reports on TripAdvisor are particularly enthusiastic.

I'm not going to get into a detailed travelogue here, but can tell you that riding with a group of 47 tourists on one bus (in the previous blogpost I had stupidly envisioned half that number) can be remarkably rewarding.

We were almost all retirees. A few were in cliquish peer groups from flyover blue states, but some were globetrotting Australians and many were professionals and academics. Two were retired Foreign Service diplomats. Two were National Park Service rangers who had spent the first fifteen years of their retirement living out of a motorhome. One octogenarian couple (he a retired biology professor and former Peace Corpsman with a wide knowledge of birds) shamed us all with their energy and eagerness. These were interesting and congenial people.

Even the inevitable chatterbox of the group had engrossing things to say, and they were never about herself.

Every one of these people had the courtesy to be right on time for everything. We had to wait for no stragglers. There was no pushing or shoving to get on or off the bus, and everyone was fine with the technique of sitting in alternate seats and debarking in alternate rows the efficient tour director imposed upon us. Many of our fellow travelers were on their second or third Caravan tour, and every one of them who had taken the Costa Rica and Guatemala trips recommended them highly.

The downside: Riding on the bus for hours every day. The seat pitch on a 48-passenger tour bus is as short as that in a cattle-car 737. But the cushions are sufficently comfortable, and one can while away the hours with a Kindle. There are plenty of pit stops, a necessity for short-ranged elderly men.

One more thing: Every one of the hotels was among the best upscale lodgings their communities could offer. The meals (not all of them included in the price) were first-rate.

Would we do it again? Absolutely.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Fleeing to Canada, 3rd try

I'm off to Canada again tomorrow—my third visit there this summer. This time the trip has nothing to do with research into a prospective Steve Martinez novel, but it does have a bit to do with rail travel.

The first leg is Chicago-Montreal by air, a mode of travel I dislike intensely for all the usual reasons, but getting there by train would require two days on undistinguished Amtrak single-level trains and an overnight in scenic Albany, N.Y.  So unappetizing is this trip that Amtrak won't let you book it as a single ticket online; you have to book two separate tickets.)

The second leg, however, is by train—Montreal-Halifax aboard VIA Rail's historic Ocean. I decided to splurge and book a deluxe bedroom in the Park car, the first-class stainless steel dome-observation carriage named for a national park that brings up the markers on all of VIA's storied name trains. (Returning will be in an ordinary sleeper room.) There will, of course, be a full report on my TrainWeb blog.

The Ocean has been running six days a week, but with the conservative Canadian government's stark economies, is being cut back to three days starting in October. This despite increasing ridership each year, particularly from European tourists. Is the reduction in service a false economy or not? Time will tell, but the sad fact about train travel is that once a service disappears or is cut back, it never returns.

Another aspect of this trip is that between Ocean rides I'll be spending ten days on an inexpensive Caravan Tours guided tour of Nova Scotia. This will be the first ever such tour I've ever taken (if one doesn't count travel industry junkets) and it will be interesting to see if I, a profoundly deaf traveler, can get along with the other tourists on the bus (as many as 28 of them, Caravan says). I have hopes, for Caravan tours usually score well on TripAdvisor.

Onward . . .