Canada and USA 2016: Amtrak from Vancouver to Seattle

We had a few options open to us including driving, flying and a bus ride  for this journey but rejected them all in favour of taking the train. I love the idea of train travel and with advance booking (we booked around 10 weeks ahead) our tickets for the four and a half hour journey were a steal at around $20US each.

We took train 513 which left Vancouver at 6.30am. We arrived at the station by taxi at 5.30am which our guesthouse owner felt was far too early but being totally risk adverse we were glad we did. Not least because our driver didn’t know where the amtrak station was and we didn’t know what it was called. Luckily I’d kept an emergency map on the screen of my phone! It doesn’t say the name on the eticket but it’s Pacific Central station. That should help avoid a similar situation.

Anyway, our taxi from waterfront took about 5 minutes at that time of day so we still arrived in good time. On arrival the first thing you’ll see right in front of the main entrance is a table with US customs forms. In an unexpectedly lovely gesture pens shaped like flowers are provided for travellers to fill in the forms.

Once you’re done with that you head on to the coach (or business class if you went for that) check in desk where the conductor allocates your seats. This was the start of what continued to be amazing customer service throughout the journey. The conductors went it off their way to be friendly and welcoming and just created a really nice vibe for the ride. We asked for and were given seats on the coastal side as we’d heard it was beautiful.

Next up we went through US immigration which was fine. The only blip was being charged $6 each for “I94”. We asked what this was but the border agent wasn’t forthcoming. We remain confused as we both had our ESTA. If anyone knows please feel free to comment!

Anyway, the process was quick and easy and we then found ourselves at baggage check. You’re allowed one carry on and one 50lb checked bag each. In keeping with the great customer service they weren’t fastidious about this. I checked a 51lb bag and travelled with two small carry ons rather than one large.

That done, it was on to the train. We found our coach seats very comfortable for the duration of the trip with plenty of legroom. I didn’t take pictures but they were leather upholstered, clean and seemed fairly new. They also had working power sockets and decent free wifi (capable of trip planning and minor instagram, not netflix). The driving cab of the train itself was a shock to our British eyes. It was massive! Maybe because we’re used to boarding from a platform but here we were alongside the rails? It was cool anyway!

We set off around 20 minutes late but this wasn’t a problem as the train made it back over the journey. After a brief nap while we left Vancouver it was time to enjoy the views which were, as reported, absolutely incredible the whole way.

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The conductor informed us well ahead of time that there would be a check when we crossed the US border about an hour in. The whole process was quick and easy. You wait in your seats from the time the border agents board to when they leave, they walk by, check your passports and collect the customs card you filled in earlier. If you ticked that you have food they asked what it was but we didn’t see anything get confiscated (it seems like the only thing that’s an issue is fresh fruit which you’re asked not to take on board).

That done, the train moved on and we checked out the bistro car. I’d bought snacks with me so didn’t eat but it was reasonably priced by European standards. My tea cost  $2 and Ben has a breakfast bagel for $5. He did say it wasn’t very nice but that it was an understandable consequence of train food. They also provide free water and I was impressed that the oatmeal is fresh rather than the instant pots you’d likely find at home.

We ate in the lounge car which was really spacious and a great place to go if you were unlucky with the view from your seat or the people sitting around you.

After that it was back to our seats to watch the world go by for the last couple of hours. I am really not good a doing this kind of thing for more than an hour but on this trip it was easy. The scenery as so unbroken and spectacular the whole way. The sense of space in the US and Canada compared to the UK is just unreal. Also, one if the conductors was a bit of a comedian which added to the experience.

In arrival in Seattle the checked baggage is unloaded airport style. You get off the train, go into the station and on your right you’ll see a baggage room with a carousel. After about 10 minutes the bags arrived and you’re done! As a bonus, Seattle King Street station is gorgeous.

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A great way to finish the journey. So in conclusion this was easily the most amazing, best value train trip I’ve ever taken. Not to mention clearing US customs was so much less stressful than at the airport. I can’t wait to plan another trip, maybe San Francisco to LA this time!

Canada and USA 2016: Vancouver

We had two days in Vancouver between skiing in Whistler and taking the train on to Seattle. We booked Urban Hideaway guesthouse through hostelbookers on a whim because hotels were pretty expensive and I fancied a couple if nights somewhere with a bit of personality. It was a great decision, Patrick (the owner) listened to what we’re into and gave us recommendations on what to do without being overly intrusive. He really helped us make the best of our time.

Day one: cycling Stanley park

On Patrick’s advice we walked down Robson to Denman street and picked up a couple of bikes. You’re spoiled for choice when you get there, it’s just a case of scoping out the best rates. Don’t do what we did and forget your credit card – most places want you to leave it as a guarantee so we were limited to the place that would take our driving licenses instead. The bikes seemed a similar standard in all the shops and we paid $5/hour per person capped at $20/day. The cheapest we saw was $3.75/day and $15 cap which we couldn’t take advantage of because of the credit card situation. The bikes…… weren’t great. 3 gears on mine, 8 on Ben’s and zero suspension. Fine for a couple if hours round the park, bone shaking on anything gravelly and a nightmare up hills. They’re fine for the park though so don’t let that put you off.

We spent the next couple of hours cycling. We started off riding the perimeter of Stanley park enjoying the scenery. Expect slow cyclists on the path but don’t worry, going fast would be a total waste of the scenery.

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On Patrick’s advice we took a left off the sea wall onto Tatlow walk which took us through the forest. Due to the aforementioned limitations of the bikes this involved pushing them up a steep gravelly hill at first, however we were rewarded with a nice downhill and complete tranquility among the trees. With noone else around we could fully appreciate the beauty of the forest and the quirks of individual trees.

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We finished our route by cycling all the way up round False Creek then back to the rental shop. It was a great way to get a feel for the city and the cycle lane was unbroken the whole way. Amazing coming from the traumas I’d cycling in London!

We ended by walking up to English bay to watch the sunset which was pretty spectacular.

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Day 2: hiking Lynn canyon

After filling up in the make your own breakfast at the guesthouse we again took Patrick’s advice and took the sea bus from waterfront station just a couple if blocks away to North Vancouver. The sea bus itself was a cool thing to do, giving a great view if the city. On the other side we took a quick look around the food market by the port and picked up baked goods to eat for lunch on our hike. We then hopped on the 229 bus which took us almost all the way to the canyon (we could have taken the 228 the whole way but got impatient) and walked the last 15 minutes to the visitor centre. The canyon itself is a huge network of trails that take you around rivers and lakes with spectacular views. As we were meeting my friend for coffee mid afternoon we only had time for the relatively short (about 4km) trail to Rice Lake. It was definitely worth while, we hardly saw anyone and the surface of the lake was totally still. A lovely way to spend a couple of hours.

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After that we headed to the Vancouver branch of Purebread for the aforementioned coffee then headed back to pack ahead of our early wake up for the train to Seattle the next morning.