They say leave the traffic behind and take the train.
On a recent visit to explore the scenic northwestern Washington towns of Bellingham and Lynden, my friend and I did just that. Eager to avoid the trucks and traffic snarls on the six-hour drive from Vancouver (Washington) to Bellingham, we took the train instead. And in experiencing the Amtrak Cascades train route first-hand, I took a little journey back to my childhood.
Amtrak Cascades is owned and managed by the states of Washington and Oregon and operated by Amtrak. The route parallels the Cascade mountain range on its journey from Eugene, Oregon, through Portland and Seattle, then across the border to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Every train has coach and business class cars, lounge cars and a bistro car. While some passengers use the train for commuting or to head to Seattle for a Mariner’s game, it’s the scenery that is the draw for the leisure traveler.
And the best way to enjoy the scenery and relax is to travel business class.
Amtrak Cascades convenience starts at the station
We arrived at the historic Vancouver station early. We’d packed a mid-morning snack and lunch since our train wasn’t to arrive in Bellingham until 2:30 p.m. We also brought things to do for the trip – reading materials, iPad and iPhone (there’s WiFi on the train). But most of all, we looked forward to leaving the driving to our train engineer. No back seat driving for me, and no harrowing interactions with huge eighteen-wheelers for my friend who usually drives (she has a Prius).
If you get to the station at least a half hour in advance, you can check two bags and avoid the struggle of getting them on the train. We did that and breathed a sigh of relief as they were loaded onto the baggage wagon. No lifting for us!
It didn’t go unnoticed that there was no TSA line, no standing in line to board and no need to arrive hours in advance.
And, at your destination, you don’t get your bags back unless the tags match your receipt. Train travel definitely has something over air travel!
As announced, and only a little bit late, the sleek green and white train came across the bridge and slowed to a stop right where we were standing. The uniformed woman conductor motioned to us to head up to one of the last cars, a business class car, and we were shown to our seats. We had ample leg room, and there were footrests, fold-down tables and plugs for our electronics.
One of our fellow travelers commented this was a Talgo train set (group of cars), apparently a plus for our journey. (All Amtrak Cascades train sets are manufactured by Talgo – uniquely constructed European cars engineered for a smooth ride.)
Amtrak Cascades journey
We settled into our plus-sized seats and the train pulled out of the station. The conductor came by to check our tickets and place reserved seating tags above us.
We were on our way, soon to be passing along the mighty Columbia River, farmland and logging operations.
As we sped along, we could see the train’s speed on the monitor in front. Very quickly, we were mesmerized by a constant stream of river, forest, fields and small towns.
Gazing out the window, I remembered traveling by train as a young girl from San Francisco to Spokane to visit my grandmother.
The annual journey involved an early morning ferry sailing across the San Francisco Bay to the train station in Oakland, California, then boarding the Shasta Daylight with its bright orange engines. It offered amazing views of the Pacific coastline, northern California’s forests and the Cascades mountain range to Portland.
I used to look out those train windows and keep track of the journey on a fold-out map. I checked off mountains, rivers and towns as we watched the world go by. We would arrive in Portland in the late afternoon. If it was a winter trip, it would already be dark. My memory of Portland is confined to the lackluster brick buildings and small hotel rooms where we rested and prepared for the morning journey east on the Empire Builder.
As I reminisced, we pulled into several towns. Centralia, with its colorful murals, looked like a place I would like to return to. And Olympia, Washington’s state capital, surprised me with a completely renovated “Centennial Station.”
There wasn’t time to disembark on these quick stops, so we stayed in our seats, and I continued to reminisce.
Oh yes, the Empire Builder of my childhood… That was a train ride across the mountains and then the plains of central Washington. The end of the line for us, Spokane, was always a thrill as we slowed while crossing trestles with a view of Spokane Falls and the lighted power plant. Train travel in those days was exciting.
And now on this train trip, I found the views even more beautiful than I remembered.
Puget Sound views like none other
It was the area between Tacoma and Bellingham that truly wowed me. The train took us close to the edge of the water for views you could never get from the highway. Passing under the green Tacoma Narrows bridge was a highlight!
We could see the historic Union Station in Tacoma near the Chihuly Glass Bridge as we stopped at the new station to pick up passengers. (Dale Chihuly is a master glass sculptor whose fabulous Chihuly Exhibit is on at the New York Botanical Garden until October 29, 2017.) City views gave way to the natural beauty of the Puget Sound as we made our way to Seattle’s King Street Station. I made a mental note to take the train to Seattle sometime and explore the beauty of this early 1900’s station.
The views out of the expansive train windows went by like a film of Puget Sound… ferries, birds, people walking the beaches. All this kept us riveted to the windows. In the distance, the snow-capped mountains provided a picturesque backdrop.
As we rode along, we nibbled on our lunches. Simple fare is available in the bistro car including beer and wine, and the lounge car has table seating, but we didn’t want to leave our seats for fear of missing yet another postcard view. We craned our necks in hopes of seeing a bald eagle or a pod of Orcas.
Arriving in Bellingham
All too soon our journey was over. We pulled into the small train station in the Fairhaven section of Bellingham and retrieved our luggage. We were met by our hosts, but the walk to the historic district of lovely Fairhaven would be a short one if you weren’t lugging too much. That station is also convenient if you’re connecting to the Alaska Ferry, which docks close-by.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- Traveling on the Amtrak Cascades is less stressful than driving – and it’s very scenic too (windows are unusually large, giving you great views).
- In business class, there’s plenty of legroom, and there’s a restroom. There aren’t many passengers in the car, so you can easily get up and walk around. You’ll have lots of room to store your carry-ons in the rack.
- You can bring your own picnic meal aboard as well as your personal choice of beverages.
- Checked luggage is free, and WiFi is available.
- You won’t be disappointed if you reminisce a bit about how train travel used to be.
- Check the schedules carefully. On some days, an Amtrak bus may be substituted for a leg of the train journey. My suggestion… avoid that.
- On the day of departure, check the train status on the website. We all know that unforeseen circumstances such as winter landslides and track issues can delay a train.
- Amtrak Cascades passengers can bring small pets on board, at least as far as the Canadian border. See the pet policy for details.
- Have a bike? Make a reservation to bring your bike along.
- Zipcar and Amtrak Cascades have partnered to make car sharing and train travel easy along the I-5 corridor. Zipcars are parked at selected train stations.
Get onboard! (see this video)
Video credit: Laura Kingman, WSDOT
IF YOU GO
- For schedules, pricing and more information about Amtrak Cascades, see their website.
As is common in the travel industry, the author’s fare was subsidized for the purpose of review.
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