"If you are tempted by the awakening of your own long-dormant wanderlust, Going Gypsy can serve as a primer. . . . The questions [Veronica] poses about 'what next' are relatable ones for all empty nesters." —PBS's Next Avenue
With only a couple days for our explorations, we took a pass on the skiing in Whitefish and opted for a drive into Glacier National Park. Amtrak’s Empire Builder travels along the southern edge of the park and is an amazing way to see it in the winter, but we wanted to venture in a little deeper… CONTINUE READING >>
With only a couple days for our explorations, we took a pass on the skiing in Whitefish and opted for a drive into Glacier National Park.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder travels along the southern edge of the park and is an amazing way to see it in the winter, but we wanted to venture in a little deeper.
So we rented a car and drove through Hungry Horse to the western entrance to the park and the famous Going To The Sun Road.
During the summer months the road traverses the park, climbing over Logan Pass, but once the snow flies only the first eleven miles are open.
While this seriously limited the amount of the park we could see, the upside was that there were no crowds.
Other than a handful of hardy souls we saw strapping on cross country skis to head off into the back country, we were all alone.
We gingerly managed our way up the snowy road, skirting along Lake McDonald all the way to the iconic Lake McDonald Lodge.
The hotel, designated as a National Historic Landmark, has been housing guests since 1914 when it was built as the Lewis Glacier Hotel.
However, it is only open in the summer, so we had the whole place to ourselves, at least the outside of it.
We trudged through the snow examining the entire grounds and then down to the lakeshore, where we found a view that was well worth the trip… and slips, slides, and falls.
The panorama includes the whole lake and surrounding peaks, but our eyes, and cameras, were automatically drawn to the north end of the lake where Stanton Mountain, Mount Brown, and Gunsight Mountain loom over the water.
On the way out of the park we stopped at the Apgar Visitor Center and then got some great pictures from the boat ramp by the campground. Nearly ten miles of lake spread out before us from this vantage point.
Join your GypsyNesters aboard Amtrak’s iconic Empire Builder as we head through a winter wonderland in luxury!
See Glacier National Park out the huge windows of the Sightseer Lounge, celebrate Veronica’s visit to her 48th state over crab cakes (for breakfast!) in the dining car, share a fun-filled wine and cheese tasting, and enjoy tours of our sleeper car and all the fabulous amenities that you never knew Amtrak provided! … CONTINUE READING >>
As a bit of a nut about trains since childhood — train nuts actually prefer the term railfan — David was pretty fired up when Amtrak invited us to take a trip aboard the legendary Empire Builder.
There was no way we were turning down two round-trip tickets to the ultimate “winter wonderland” experience — riding in style from Chicago to Whitefish, Montana through the breathtaking and frozen Glacier National Park.
The Empire Builder is the best way to see Glacier National Park once the snow gets deep enough to be measured in feet. Veronica was pretty jazzed too, since The Builder has long been known for premier service and is considered by train nuts, oops, railfans as the ultimate in rail travel.
In Chicago’s Union Station, we discovered the well-appointed waiting lounge reserved for sleeping car passengers and enjoyed the complementary great service, coffee and wifi, before boarding our westbound train for a journey across the Great Plains, and over a century of history.
The route to the Pacific Northwest still follows the original path laid out in the 1890s by James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railway and namesake of the train.
Hill’s tenacity toward finishing a railroad to the Pacific earned him the title “Empire Builder.”
Although he didn’t live to see the train that was named in his honor, it was an immediate success and soon became the Great Northern’s premier train.
Working our way north along the shore of Lake Michigan, we stopped in Milwaukee before turning inland and racing across the snow-covered dairy farms of central Wisconsin.
We staked out a couple seats in the Sightseer Lounge, reminiscent of the original “Great Domes” that debuted on The Empire Builder back in 1955, to watch the scenery, The Dells, and the setting sun roll by.
The Sightseer, like its predecessors, features panoramic dome windows running the entire length of the car. We knew this was going to be THE place to be to watch Glacier National Park pass by.
Having scouted the entire train for the optimal spots, we headed up front to our roomette in the sleeper car.
The ingenious design makes for both riding and sleeping comfort.
Equally as cool is the access to showers when staying in the sleeper car. Really, really nice.
Nightfall brought us into Minnesota where we crossed The Mississippi River and into a serious arctic chill.
Waking briefly near Fargo, North Dakota, we checked our weather app and it was 17 degrees below zero… wind chill of 31 below.
Luckily we were all safe and warm nestled in aboard our Superliner. We simply pulled up the covers and let the train rock us back to sleep.
Nearing the Montana state line we began to see dozens of drilling rigs and oil wells through the swirling snow as we blazed across the prairie. It meant we were getting close to the oil boom town of Williston, North Dakota.
A remarkable story akin to the old gold rush days, the town has more than doubled in size in the past few years due to new technology for extracting oil.
As the rigs rolled by our dining car window, we shared breakfast and conversation with one of the oil field workers and learned that these reserves, in what is known as The Bakken Formation, may possibly hold several billion barrels of oil.
That would make it the largest in the United States and this has propelled North Dakota past Alaska to become the second largest oil producing state in the union behind Texas.
This was also the portion of our journey where Veronica marked the milestone of visiting her 48th state.
By stepping off the train in North Dakota she has set foot in all of the contiguous lower 48.
Since Amtrak has no current plans for a bridge to Hawaii, looks like we’ll need some alternate form of transportation for her to finish the task of seeing all 50.
Later in the day, as an added entertainment bonus for sleeper passengers, the dining car is transformed into a tasting room. Amtrak hosts a wine and cheese event on the second afternoon of every Empire Builder run.
We settled in for an array of tasty cheeses from Wisconsin, spirited wines from Washington State and some laughter and great conversation with our fellow travelers.
In addition to introducing each selection, our crew entertained with trivia challenges, with bottles of the wines as prizes, that ranged from real brain teasers to hilarious farces… and nearly everybody won something. Perfect, a nice Columbia Valley Gewurztraminer to go with dinner.
Speaking of dinner, Amtrak serves full, cooked-to-order meals aboard all long-haul routes, often featuring regional specialties.
No airplane food zapped in a microwave in their dining cars.
This is possible because there is a full kitchen below the dining room on the double-decker superliners. Elevators are used to send the entrees up so every dish is fresh and piping hot.
Highlights of the culinary offerings were cage-free eggs cooked to order for breakfast, the Amtrak Signature Steak or Spice-rubbed Salmon for dinner, decadent desserts, as well as gluten free, vegetarian (the Chipotle Black Bean and Corn Veggie Burger is amazing – get it) and lite fare.
Our passage through Glacier National Park westbound from Chicago was in the dark, so we spent a few nights in spectacular Whitefish, Montana, where we took in the offerings of the wonderfully quirky little mountain town, and even zipped through Stillwater State Forest in a dogsled.
Catching back up with the Empire Builder at the picturesque Whitefish Depot, our snowy early morning return trip had us glued to the windows of The Sightseer Lounge as we snaked our way through the The Lewis Range along The Middle Fork Flathead River.
Other than snowshoes or cross-country skis, this really is the optimal method of Glacier Park winter exploration.
Not surprisingly we, not being big on the idea of walking the icy wilderness with tennis rackets or two-by-fours strapped to our feet, or icicles hanging from our noses, chose the comfort and luxury option of Amtrak.
Glacier was designated a National Park on May 11, 1910, after lobbying efforts by The Great Northern Railway. Most all of the park’s early development was directly related to the railroad, in fact The Great Northern built several lodges to increase their tourist traffic.
The train skirts along the southern border of the park, and we wore the shutters out on our cameras while climbing up to 5,213 feet to cross the Continental Divide at Marias Pass. From there one could truthfully say, “it’s all downhill from here.”
Where: Mountain View, Arkansas
Highlights: Bean cook-off (attendees eat for free!), costumed booths, outhouse races, the best mountain music you will ever hear! More info
Eight decades of tulips. EIGHTY years. This is no amateur operation; this is serious stuff. Its Tulip Time in Holland (Michigan), and when it comes to festivals, these people dont mess around.
Where: Holland, Michigan
Highlights: A ridiculous amount of tulips, amazing authentic Dutch Dancing, fatballs, traditional costumes, the Wooden Shoe-Be-Do, street scrubbing, international music acts, three parades. More info
The Broom Corn Festival
We never expected to find a fest dedicated to something that we had never heard of… so there was no way we could pass up The Broom Corn Festival.
Where: Arcola, Illinois
Highlights: The Lawn Rangers precision lawn mowing team, The National Broom Sweeping Contest, broom making exhibit, Broom Corn Festival Parade, bacon dipped in chocolate. More info
The Courir de Mardi Gras
Courir de Mardi Gras, translates to Fat Tuesday Run and traces its origins back to medieval France and the feast of begging.
When: Fat Tuesday
Where: Church Point, Louisiana
Highlights: Dancing on horseback, early morning drinking, chicken chasing, tree climbing, drinking, great Cajun music, parade, drinking. More info
Oysterfest is an oyster-eatin’, beer-drinkin’, music-listenin’-to and two-steppin’ raucous good time.
Where: Fulton, Texas
Highlights: Raw oyster eating contest, live music, dancing, midway and rides, parade, booths. More info
A quirk in flight schedules stuck us an extra day in the Peruvian capital, but as fate would have it, what seemed likely to be a let down instead found us soaring through the sky.
On our final day with our fellow Road Scholars, just before most of the group would catch their planes back to The States, the tour had planned a whirlwind visit to the downtown area and a farewell supper.
After a ride through the city we got off the bus at the main square, Plaza Mayor, for a walk around and a brief history lesson.
The plaza is flanked on one side by The Government Palace, and on another the Cathedral.
Both owe their existence to the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who founded Lima in 1535 as Ciudad de los Reyes (City of the Kings). That same year he laid the first stone of the church and began work on the palace, where he lived until his assassination in 1541.
He was laid to rest in the Cathedral, and the palace, aka House of Pizarro, is still the official residence of the President of the Republic.
As interesting as all of this may have been, we had to admit that we were more excited about the meal.
Learning to Cook like a Peruvian
Not only were we going to sample several of Peru’s most famous dishes, we were going to learn how to make them. Lima is sometimes called the Gastronomical Capital of the Americas, due to the wide variety of influences from Europe and Asia, so we were more than ready for our instruction and ingestion.
From the plaza we made our way to Señorio de Sulco Restaurant for a lesson in Peruvian cuisine. First up, Ceviche Pescado. It is commonly held that ceviche originated in Peru and it is somewhat of the national dish.
Our chef and teacher, Ricardo, marinated filet of sole in lime juice, onion, chili peppers, salt & pepper, cilantro and leche de trigre, or tiger’s milk, which is made from fish sauce and more citrus juice. Served with boiled sweet potatoes (camote) and toasted corn known as cancha, we were off to an amazing start.
The next dish was Causa Limeña, delicious mashed potatoes prepared with lime, onion, chili and a little oil, layered with avocado and chicken salad, then formed in a round mold. Ricardo constructed this like an artist working on a masterpiece, after which we destructed it like hungry children.
WATCH: Chef Ricardo makes Causa Limeña – Oh. Yum.
For the main event chef Ricardo broke out a wok and fired up some Lomo Saltado. This is a marinated, sliced beef stir fried very fast at high temperature with onions, garlic, tomato and soy sauce, then served with rice and french fries. Simple and crazy delicious.
Because we couldn’t fly out until the next evening, we found a hotel in the area called Miraflores and explored some ideas for our extra day.
Originally founded as San Miguel de Miraflores, the district is known for shopping, not really a way either of us wanted to spend a day, and beaches, but mostly for flowers, as in flores.
Gee, that must be how it got its name.
Even though the weather was wonderful, it wasn’t warm enough for the beach, so we asked at the desk about the flower parks and got the scoop along with a map.
There are about a dozen of the gardens that line the coastal cliffs in Miraflores, but one in particular caught our attention when we heard about it, the one with miniature versions of the Nazca Lines drawn out in flowers.
We knew where we were headed in the morning.
We walked about a half an hour from our hotel to Parque Maria Reiche, which is named for the German archaeologist who dedicated her life to studying the mysterious pre-Columbian geoglyphs carved into the desert south of Lima.
As a tribute, several of the famous figures have been recreated using flowers and plants.
The view from ground level as we wandered through the park made the garden look like random large flower beds, but when we climbed up to the walkway above, the figures were revealed.
The whole scene was stunning, perched high on a cliff overlooking The Pacific.
Getting our Heads in the Clouds
Following the seacliff walkway south along the coast, we visited park after fabulous park.
Many were named for famous local and world leaders like the renowned Peruvian naval officer Miguel Grau, and the Nobel Prize Winning Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabbin.
Then, as we approached Parque El Faro — the lighthouse park — we saw something that changed our day completely.
We had noticed the paragliders soaring overhead all morning and now we had stumbled upon the launching area.
Veronica was unstoppable, breaking into a run to find out if it was possible to try it.
I would have been perfectly happy to watch, but as soon as Veronica found out that passengers could be strapped on with an experienced glider, our fate was sealed.
We were both going over that cliff. Mostly because I would never live it down if I chickened out.
She could hardly be contained and volunteered to go first, but somehow my pilot got me lashed onto the contraption quicker, so Veronica got to watch as the wind dragged me along the ground and over the edge.
Granted, I was pretty busy trying to scramble to my feet each time the wind slammed me to, or lifted me off the ground, and all I could hear was my pilot yelling “run, run!” even though my feet were seldom touching anything, but I was reasonably certain it was not a textbook takeoff.
All of the people I watched before me were lifted gracefully into the sky. I went careening over the cliff dropping like a rock.
Then, just as I was visualizing multiple fractures, a current grabbed us and hurled us high into the sky. With the impending disaster averted the situation became incredibly cool, unbelievable even.
I don’t think her feet had made it back to the ground yet as we walked on to the next park, Parque del Amor, The Love Park. We entered the park through a wall that features some of Peru’s most famous poet’s love verses written in mosaic.
The sight of a giant sculpture depicting a couple in full make-out mode seemed to bring her back to the present. This center piece of the park is called El Beso, The Kiss, by Victor Delfín, and has become a favorite meeting place for Lima’s lovers.
It was dedicated on February 14, 1993, and on every Valentine’s Day lovers gather around it for a longest kiss competition.
Seemed like the perfect place to plant a big one on my lover. Might not have thrilled her quite like flying through the sky, but hey, a guy’s got to try.