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Al-Andalus: Whirlwind Tour Through Southern Spain, Part II

3 Jul

Editor’s note: To read Part I of Ms. Walker’s adventures, please click here.

The staff on the Al-Andalus is gracious and attentive, including the manager, Marcelino, who was careful to note the occasional kink in the trip for future improvements (we were traveling on the first consumer departure since the train’s refurbishment, so kinks were not unexpected!). Announcements are made in Spanish, English, and French. All staff members could speak basic English (and most spoke excellent English), which was a relief to the monolingual on board.

Dinner on board the Al-Andalus

A main dinner course on the Al-Andalus: tuna with small pieces of crispy Iberian ham and vegetables.

Our on-train meals –breakfast daily and four other multi-course dinners – were delicious, though not for the health conscious. Some travelers may wish to request half portions or other dietary needs before departure. Off-train meals in top-notch restaurants gave us a taste of the local Spanish cuisine, where aromatic pork and delicious fish dishes abound.

The musical acts that performed in the Al-Andalus lounge car – an excellent singer on the second night and a lively trio of traditional singers and flamenco dancers on the last night – were extremely entertaining and a real highlight for most passengers. The musicians did not begin playing until close to midnight, which proved too late for some early-to-bed passengers. But late nights and long, leisurely meals are part of experiencing the “Spanish way.”

Al-Andalus staff

Staff members of the Al-Andalus line up to say goodbye to passengers.

The weather in late April was consistently warm and occasionally downright hot. I’d recommend traveling on the Al-Andalus no later than early May and no earlier than September to avoid both the heat and the crowds. Off-train tours will sometimes run a bit long for some passengers, and a good deal of walking is involved, but almost all sites we visited were well worth the exercise.

In short, the Al-Andalus is a great choice if you want to take in a wide sweep of southern Spain and are prepared for the occasional long day of touring in order to do so.

You will be well tended in the process – both onboard and off.

Editor’s note: To read Part I of Ms. Walker’s adventures, please click here.

For more information and for reservations on the Al-Andalus, visit The Society of International Railway Travelers’ website or call us at (800) 478-4881.

Thailand’s “Death Railway”: Adventures on the Eastern & Oriental Express, Part II

25 Jun

Third Class local passenger train at Nam Tok station. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Editor’s note: To read Part I of Mr. Anderson’s adventures, please click here.

After deciding to book the Epic Thailand trip on the Eastern & Oriental Express (persuaded by Eleanor Hardy’s Track 25 blog), I opted to add the short Singapore-Bangkok route to the beginning of my adventure so that I could experience and see even more of this fascinating South Asian region. But unexpected hiccups while en-route to Bangkok left me wondering whether I’d make my primary Epic Thailand departure…

Eastern & Oriental Express at sunset. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Our Singapore-Bangkok itinerary was thrown off course first by a stalled local train in Malaysia and then by an engine failure just across the Thai border (the E&O is contracted by law to use only Malaysian and Thai Railway locomotives), putting us significantly behind schedule, so much so that the side trip to the Kwai River Bridge was abandoned so that we could make a more timely arrival into Bangkok. So although I’d be able to join the IRT group departing on the Epic Thailand tour the next morning (Phew!), I was disappointed that I’d missed seeing the famous Kwai River Bridge.

E & O observation car with bartenders Sopa & Andrek. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

My disappointment, however, was short-lived. The Eastern & Oriental Express staff arranged a complementary private car and guide to drive me out to Nam Tok upon my return to Bangkok, following my week-long Epic Thailand adventure. This was just one more shining example of the E&O’s outstanding commitment to customer service and satisfaction.

Despite Bangkok’s horrendous traffic, the trip to the Kwai Bridge was worth every exertion. Once across the bridge, I saw the two plinthed steam locomotives on site and had time for a brief visit to the cemetery before our return trip to the capital.

For more information and for reservations on the Eastern & Oriental Express, visit the Society of International Railway Traveler’s website or call us at (800) 478-4881.

Thailand’s “Death Railway”: Adventures on the Eastern & Oriental Express, Part I

4 Jun

The Kwai River Bridge. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Since its inception, The Eastern & Oriental Express has been on my bucket list of trains to ride. But it was IRT President Eleanor Hardy’s Track 25 blog that finally made me book the trip. And as long as I was going halfway around the world, I decided to add the standard E&O four-day Singapore-Bangkok route to the beginning of my trip.

Unlike their semi-annual one-week tours (ours was Epic Thailand), this route runs regularly during high season and continues on a less frequent schedule throughout the year. In fact, the journey is more like a scheduled train than a tour, as stops are made to entrain passengers at the Malaysian cities of Kuala Lampur and Butterworth.

The train is much more than “general transportation,” however, and is every bit as impressive as outlined in Ms. Hardy’s blog. The staff is top-notch – attentive but not overbearing. What I didn’t expect was to be greeted by name by bartender Andrek asking if I was ready for my iced tea! How did he know? Of course, preferences were indicated on the booking form, but those are often a formality soon forgotten.

The War Cemetary at Kanachanaburi. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Conductor on local train. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Off-train tours are offered in the colonial Malaysian city of Georgetown and to Kanchanaburi, site of the Kwai River bridge. I, however, had planned to venture out on my own, leaving the E&O at the Kwai River Station and continuing by local train to the end of the line, 45 miles north at Nam Tok.

This track is what’s left of the Thai-Burma “Death Railway,” constructed by allied prisoners of World War II and made famous by the movie “Bridge Over the River Kwai.” The Allied War Cemetery at Kanchanaburi, with over 6,000 graves, lies in silent testament to the horror of what transpired there.

But all was not going according to plan. Would I make it to Bangkok in time, I wondered, to join the 19 other IRT travelers leaving on the Epic Thailand tour?

For part II of Bruce Anderson’s adventures in Thailand, please click here.

South Africa’s New Speedster: Gautrain

11 Aug

South Africa’s new “Gautrain” is fast, clean, comfortable and on time.

That’s what I learned following my test run of the service a few weeks ago, just prior to joining IRT’s Cape Town – Dar es Salaam Rovos Rail tour.

My trip was from Johannesburg O.R. Tambo Airport to shopping and tourist mecca Sandton City.

It’s easy to buy a Gautrain ticket. And once aboard, I found Gautrain staff to be friendly and helpful.  Security – always a concern in South Africa – was reassuringly visible, both inside the trains and at the stations.

Gautrain opened its doors in June 2010, just in time for the South Africa-hosted FIFA World Cup. The Gautrain’s 12.5-mile route is largely underground and on viaducts. It reaches speeds of up to 100 mph. The Bombardier-designed passenger cars are sleek and comfortable.

The project has not been without controversy, however. The system cost a whopping $4 billion to build; my one-way ticket, at about $18, is far out of the price range of most locals.

Also, the train was built to the North American standard gauge – 4’8 ½”, which is incompatible with South Africa’s 3’6” Cape Gauge. That restricts the possibilities for expansion, although Cape Gauge service from the airport to Pretoria just opened.

For me, however, the Gautrain was ideal. The service was a welcome alternative for air travelers who wish to avoid pricey and time-consuming taxi rides to Sandton City.

And any rail fan would enjoy the ride.

Thriving on a Corner in Winslow, AZ: La Posada

16 Jun
La Posada Hotel

La Posada Hotel was built in 1929 by the Santa Fe Railroad. Bruce Anderson

If you ever find yourself on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, consider a stop in Winslow, Ariz. – and not just because it’s a line in the famous Eagles song (“standin’ on the corner in Winslow, Arizona”).

It’s also the home of La Posada, a former Santa Fe Railroad hotel, and one of architect Mary Colter’s grandest creations.

During the heyday of passenger rail travel in the United States, the Santa Fe built numerous “Harvey Houses” in the major western cities on its route. Many of these southwestern-themed buildings were designed by Colter, who also was responsible for hotels at several of the western national parks.

Grand Canyon Railroad

Steam charter on the Grand Canyon Railroad. Bruce Anderson

I recently had the pleasure of staying at this wonderfully restored hotel en route to a steam photo charter trip on the Grand Canyon Railroad.

La Posada’s career as a hotel ended in 1957, when rail travel also began to decline. But 40 years later, things changed, when artists Allan and Tina Affeldt bought the building and restored it to its former glory. Allan and Tina moved in and never looked back. They still live there today, and their restoration continues.

Southwest Chief

Amtrak's Southwest Chief stops daily at La Posada. B. Anderson

The inn has 22 guest rooms, the full-service “Turquoise Room” restaurant, a formal sunken garden, and best of all, an adjacent Amtrak station, which is served daily by the Chief.

The hotel is indeed a masterpiece of architecture and art.  It was voted one of the top 10 affordable hotels in the United States by TripAdvisor.com and one of the “World’s Best Places to Stay” by Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List. Room rates range from $109 for a standard to $169 for larger accommodations. All are filled with historic photos, fine art, murals, full baths and views of the gardens. There are also plans to house a Route 66 museum in the Amtrak station.

I highly recommend this hotel for anyone interested in southwestern architecture and railroad history.  A true gem.

To reserve, call (928) 289-4366. Or reserve here on the hotel’s website. (Editor’s note: La Posada is not on the itinerary of the IRT Society’s “Grand Canyon Discovery by Amtrak” independent tour. But the tour could be customized to add La Posada.)

Happy Birthday London Underground

10 Jan

On January 10, 1863 the London Underground became the first underground rail system in the world. In 1890 the world’s first electric trains began operating there as well. The original track ran between London Paddington station and Farringdon station. Today, the Underground, or “Tube”, has 270 active stations and 250 miles of track, making it the longest metro system in the Western hemisphere and the second longest in the world after the Shanghai Metro.

You, too, can celebrate by visiting London and checking out how it works.

For the home page for the London Transport system, visit http://www.tfl.gov.uk/ There is lots of good information about the transport cards, and the advice to check ahead on the web site to see if the line you are thinking of using is closed for renovation. The 10-year project for updating the lines and the stations is disrupting travel, but we give London Transport kudos for trying to advise travelers in advance for the disruptions.

Here is a great link for travelers: http://www.tfl.gov.uk/gettingaround/15101.aspx

For a nice map of the system: http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/travel/downloads/tube_map.html

Personally, next time I visit London, I am heading straight to the London Museum of Transport. They  have an amazing poster collection. Here are details: http://www.ltmcollection.org/posters/index.html.

Do you have a favorite line on the London tube? Or a favorite memory? Love to hear from you.

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