United States Forums

Start a new topic Change Forum
Advanced search

Trip Report Take Amtrak to DC & Charleston & Drive to Wilmington, OBX, Philly & CT!

Jump to last reply

We live in Connecticut and wanted to visit my brother-in-law and his wife in Summerville, SC, but my husband hates the airlines and I didn’t want to drive both ways. So after a bit of research, I devised a plan. We’d take the train from New Haven to Washington, DC (which we hadn’t visited for 20 years), spend a few days there, and then take the train to Charleston. (We’d taken the Metro North commuter train from New Haven to NYC, about two hours, so longer trips would be an adventure.) For the return trip, we’d rent a car and visit Wilmington, NC and the Outer Banks, then see friends in Philadelphia and NJ before returning home.

I greatly enjoy planning trips, and research routes, destinations, activities, hotels and restaurants obsessively, scouring tourism sites, trip advisor, and especially Fodor’s Travel Talk for hours and hours. I experience the trip before it begins, in a way. And I always make hotel reservations many months in advance. I LOVE doing this.

I booked the trains, Washington hotel and rental car in advance, but for the trip home, we thought we’d wander from place to place and stay as long as we wished. Due to my penchant for planning, we’d never done this but my husband thought we (actually I) should loosen up a bit in retirement. We’d leave October 14 and return home 14-18 days later. That was the idea, anyway, although I almost hyper-ventilated over not having everything buttoned up well in advance.

So, of course, by mid-September, I got antsy and started looking into Wilmington and Outer Banks hotel options, figuring I’d at least have a secret, short list of good choices whenever we got around to making reservations. I was actually going to book a place on the Outer Banks before we left but was concerned about the weather because who wants their first (and maybe only) visit there to be rain-soaked?

Then I read about an international glider event that would be held around the time of our visit and wondered if all the hotels would be booked. Fortunately, I posted a note on this forum and SAnParis2 (thank you) told me that Hurricane Irene had broken up Route 12, which connects the islands. I monitored the progress of the repairs, and since the road reopened October 10, we were good to go. I decided to book something when we were in Charleston, so the weather forecast would be more accurate.

Around this time we learned that if we were going to connect with our Philadelphia friends, we’d have to pin down the date, so we did. (So much for wandering around at will, eh?) That would still allow two nights in Wilmington and three on the Outer Banks – or, if the weather was bad, somewhere else.

Before we left, I bid for a Wilmington hotel on Priceline a couple times. No luck, so I’d re-bid in Charleston.

We wanted to travel light, so I shipped a box to my brother-in-law’s containing our EZ Pass for the many tolls to come on the road portion of the trip, plus extra clothes, our GPS and kitchen supplies.

Why kitchen supplies? Well, since my husband’s triple bypass, both of us have followed the dietary rules provided by the hospital’s cardiac department. That is, low fat, low cholesterol and no more than 1500 mg. of sodium a day. We are strict about it to the extent that we bring our own salad dressings, margarine, veggie cheese topping and Mrs. Dash to restaurants. (No shame in being healthy!)

The night before we left, I brought our cat to my sister’s house – the first time he would live anywhere but with us. He’s a shy little guy so he’d have an adventure as well.

I packed healthy sandwiches and snacks for the train, finished stuffing clothes into two carryon bags and we were good to go the next morning.

Next: Amtrak’s Northeast Regional trip and our experiences in our nation’s capital.

  • Report Abuse

    Sounds like you have/had a great plan. I take my GPS with me on the train so I can track speed and exactly where we are.
    I take it that you did not have to change trains in NYP.
    Looking forward to the next section of your report.

  • Report Abuse

    We did not have to change trains, tomfuller.

    Overall, the first Amtrak trip of our vacation, a 5-hour-20-minute ride, was a very good experience.

    My sister/cat sitter drove us to the New Haven station and before long we boarded the NORTHEAST REGIONAL. We found a designated quiet car (occasional whispers and no phone calls) so it was a relaxing, pleasant trip and the time passed more quickly than we expected. The seats reclined and each had a footrest and drop-down tray. There were many brief stops at stations along the way and I enjoyed the passing scenery, even though it was the backs of buildings. There was a café car but we didn’t use it.

    We arrived in the city around 4:15 p.m., a little stiff after sitting so long, so we took a cab to the EMBASSY SUITES-WASHINGTON DC rather than lugging our bags through the unfamiliar subway system during rush hour. We had forgotten how stunning the city is with so many grand white buildings and statues everywhere.

    I chose this hotel for our four-night stay because the chain offers a lot of space for the money, includes a breakfast that would accommodate our diet, a newspaper, and rooms have a mini fridge (for our sandwich ingredients and salad dressings!). The hotel is between the Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom Metro stops and was $256/night plus tax. Several Internet kiosks were available in the main area; in-room wifi was $12.95/day, I believe. (The much cheaper places we stayed later all had free wi-fi.)

    We had visited the Capitol, some of the Smithsonians, Arlington, many memorials, the Holocaust Museum and the Bureau of Engraving before, so we had a short list for this trip.

    First up was a tour of the Jefferson Building, one of three that comprise THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. It opened in 1897. After watching a very good introductory video about the library’s work, some of which surprised me, we divided into smaller groups for the one-hour tour itself.

    Our docent was great, and I would highly recommend a tour to completely appreciate what you are seeing. (The tour is not offered on Sundays.) The spectacular Grand Hall alone, with marble carvings, colorful mosaics, paintings and massive columns is worth the trip. I felt like we were in Europe, and the docent told us Mikhail Gorbachev said he was surprised by its grandeur considering we don’t have a czar!

    They have one of three intact Gutenberg Bibles in the world, and it’s on display. (The others are in London and Paris.) There are also exhibits to see on your own.

    The only disappointment was not being allowed into the iconic Main Reading Room, although we had a nice view of it from an overlook.

    An underground tunnel connects the building with the CAPITOL VISITOR'S CENTER, our next stop, but the guards said we could not use it because – get this -- I had our homemade sandwiches in my purse!

    The Jefferson Building doesn’t have a cafeteria, but we enjoyed our sandwiches at a table on the terrace out front, with a great view of the U.S. Capitol, and crossed the street to the Capitol Visitor’s Center. We did not want to tour the Capitol again, but this is where you’d begin that tour.

    Even if you just want to tour the Capitol building, I’d recommend exploring the Visitor’s Center itself, where you can learn how bills are made and how Congress works, or is supposed to work! I really liked the models showing the construction of the Capitol building and the development of our capitol city. They have a cafeteria. The Center is closed Sundays.

    The weather – clear blue skies, with temperatures in the 60s – was spectacular, and remained so until we reached Philadelphia 12 days later!

    I was a reporter for a few years and my husband worked in newsrooms his whole career, so the next morning we headed for the place we were the most excited about visiting: the NEWSEUM. It significantly exceeded our high expectations. In fact, we arrived at 10 a.m. and left when it closed at 5 p.m.!

    Our now-favorite museum is stuffed with things of interest to anyone interested in news or history. There are the day’s front pages from every state, a section of the Berlin Wall, the Unabomber’s shack, front pages reporting major historic events going back hundreds of years, Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, the Lindbergh kidnapping, Edward R. Murrow’s uniform, touching displays related to September 11, Tim Russert’s office, information about the First Amendment, the role of the Internet in news and much more.

    We usually get “museum” feet after two hours or so and leave, but here, you can sit down to watch any number of films. On our visit, they were about bias in the media, confidential sources, the President’s photographer, and the gross under-reporting of the Holocaust in the U.S. There’s a 4-D movie as well about Nellie Bly and other journalists. And there’s a great view of the U.S. Capitol and Pennsylvania Avenue from the 6th floor terrace.

    The museum cafeteria, The Food Section, offers a good variety of choices, including vegetable and fruit salad bars, sandwiches, fried chicken and the usual, plus Wolfgang Puck desserts. Of course we had homemade sandwiches, but we bought fruit and sodas and had our lunch here.

    I bought tickets online for $19.75 ($21.95 at the door), which was good for two consecutive days within a year of purchase. The best twenty bucks we ever spent!

    By the way, does anyone know how to boldface text from Preview mode? I want to make it easier for readers to find topics of interest but had to resort to all caps. Thanks for any advice.

    Next: The Museum of Crime & Punishment, the Metro, restaurants and Amtrak’s Palmetto route

  • Report Abuse

    I, too, wish I knew how to boldface in these postings.

    But I do know that this is a very good report, and that I am still longing to get to the Newseum!
    Probably worth a trip to DC

  • Report Abuse

    After reading your report on the Newseum, my DW and I really want to visit when we are in DC next Memorial Day Weekend.
    Anyone else want to post about bolding? Maybe start a new thread in the Fodorite Lounge.
    Looking forward to your continuation south of DC.

  • Report Abuse

    Tom, definitely go to the Newseum. Best museum I have ever been to. Was there for a full day and didnt finish as you need a lot of time for it.

    to the OP, sounds like a great trip so far. Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Report Abuse

    Well, I can’t seem to get the bold type right, so I’ll continue to use all caps.

    The seven hours we spent at the Newseum the day before left us hungry for more, so we returned for another two-and-a-half the next day! We left after lunch but still hadn’t seen everything.

    We walked from the Newseum to the NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CRIME & PUNISHMENT. As big fans of CSI and police procedurals, we were excited about going, but it was our least favorite activity. I don’t know if we were tired or it was the contrast with the fabulous Newseum, but this place seemed almost amateurish. There were biographies about all sorts of criminals, information about various forms of punishment, a few interactive activities (some of which didn’t work), replicas of weapons, information about crime labs and more. We gave it a couple hours anyway before leaving for dinner. Tickets were $16.95 for seniors (60+), but we had $3 off coupons from a magazine at the hotel.

    In between the library, capitol and museums we did a lot of walking, although I couldn’t tell you exactly where we went. The architecture in this city, the parks and statues, are just fantastic.

    For the most part, we used the METRO to get from place to place and after we got our bearings at the kiosks where you get your card (the amount of information there seemed overwhelming), found it pretty easy to navigate. It was easy to see how much money was left on the card and to add more if needed.

    The lighting in some of the stations is almost romantic (!), much dimmer than in the NYC subways, which we are most familiar with, but it felt safe and the waiting areas and cars were clean.

    The only negative was the unreliability of the escalators. Dupont Circle in particular is extremely deep so when those escalators are out, it’s annoying.

    One day we used the CIRCULATOR bus which was easy and allowed us to see more of the city.

    We ate out every night but were limited to restaurants that offered grilled or broiled seafood or chicken and respected our dietary restrictions. We ate at GRILLFISH twice, because it was good and was near the hotel. We also ate at TRATTU and a place I can’t remember. For two orders of fish or chicken, salad and sodas, the tabs were around $75 with tax and a 20 percent tip.

    The morning we left, we took a cab to Union Station because we didn’t trust the Dupont Circle escalators to be running. The cabbie’s route, probably longer than need be, gave us a glimpse of memorials, including the one to Martin Luther King that had been dedicated during our visit.

    AMTRAK’S PALMETTO train was different than the one we’d taken earlier. The seating areas, which were assigned, were roomier and had leg rests, all of which made for a comfortable 9 hour and 20-minute trip. As before, I enjoyed the passing scenery, which this time included the countryside, storefronts and front yards. The train stopped in many small towns along the way. There weren’t any designated “quiet cars,” but the passengers were quiet.

    We had homemade sandwiches for lunch and used the café car for dinner. The only thing we could have was a microwaved veggie burger, which came with chips (no thanks!) and soda for $5. We were impressed that Amtrak didn’t inflate the prices.

    Based on our two Amtrak trips, I’d take another. They were comfortable and much easier than driving.

    The real shock of the trip came at the end. Now, with Charleston being one of the country’s prettiest old cities, wouldn’t you expect to it to have a beautiful train station? Not so! We couldn’t get a good look in the dark, but it seemed much like the stations in the small towns we’d seen from the train.

    My brother-in-law and his wife picked us up and drove home to Summerville, where we settled in for the next four nights.

    Next: Charleston area activities, Hertz and Wilmington, NC

  • Report Abuse

    Glad u enjoyed your time in DC. Ah, yes, the escalators at the metro stations r constantly in need of repair. There are elevators at many of the stops that u can use when the escalators aren't running.


    We were just in Charleston the end of last month and I look forward to reading your TR on your stay there.

  • Report Abuse

    I'm also enjoying your report.

    I lived at Dupont Circle for years. When the escalator was out we just walked up. But some people would go to the other end of the track.

    And you are right: the train station in Charleston is not in Charleston, but in North Charleston. Big diff. Glad you had someone there to pick you up. It's not pretty.

  • Report Abuse

    We had seen much of Charleston’s downtown area on our last visit, so this time our hosts helped explored the outskirts.

    BOONE HALL PLANTATION is the most photographed plantation in the country, and it’s easy to see why as you drive through a natural corridor formed by live oak trees, now draped in moss, that were planted more than 260 years ago. The current home was built in 1936 and, in 1956, new homeowners furnished it with antiques and opened the first floor of the house to visitors. A costumed guide leads a 30-minute tour. The property maintains several of the original slave cabins and each presents a theme, such as daily life of the slaves, their crafts, and emancipation and freedom. Admission includes a motorized 40-minute tour of the property, but we didn’t have time. Boone Hall has been a working farm for 320+ years. Adult admission is $19.50 ($17 AAA, military and age 65+).

    We visited another plantation, DRAYTON HALL, that is quite different from Boone Hall. It’s the original house, a National Trust Historic Site in near-original condition, and a fine example of Georgian-Palladian architecture. Construction began in 1738 so it has survived several wars and many hurricanes. It was a rice-growing plantation. The visit begins with an overview presentation outside the gift shop, where we learned about life on the plantation, the slave trade and more. Another guide took us through the unfurnished house, pointed out the architectural details and talked about the plantation families, both owners and slaves. The landscape is engaging as well. On the lawn between the house and the Ashley River (a lovely view from the house), there is an 18th century “ha-ha,” a ditch that provided a nearly invisible barrier that kept large animals in grazing areas without disrupting the sweeping view. Adult admission is $18 ($17 AAA).

    For a change of pace, we went to beautiful CYPRESS GARDENS in Moncks Corner, 25 miles north of Charleston. The neatest thing there is the Swamp Boat Adventure, where a guide steers a rowboat through a swamp that is full of tall bald cypress and tupelo trees that are reflected in the dark black water. It was another clear, sunny day and it was just spectacular on the water. Quiet and picturesque, with a touch of anxiety about what creatures hid below. We saw two alligators from a safe distance, along with lily pads. You can also get a boat and take yourself out. Cypress Gardens also has a butterfly house, large colorful birds and a fish and reptile center. (I skipped that one, but my husband and in-laws said it contained a lot of active snakes.) There are also miles of walking trails and it must all look especially gorgeous when the azaleas are in bloom. Admission was $10.

    My sister-in-law is a fine cook who enjoyed the challenge our diet offered so we ate out just once, at CALIFORNIA DREAMING, on Ashley Point Drive. The food was very reasonably priced, tasted great and worked for us, and my brother-in-law and his wife loved their croissants with honey butter. The restaurant is in a spectacular setting with views of Charleston Harbor and the Ashley River.

    When pricing rental cars, I found the best rate also happened to be the most convenient place for pick-up, the HERTZ office in Summerville. It was hundreds of dollars less than the airport. I’ll remember that the next time we rent a car.

    With our shiny red Nissan Sentra packed, our AAA maps (obtained at the office in Summerville) in hand and our GPS plugged in, we began our trip home by heading for the South Carolina coast.

    As lunchtime approached, we wanted a picturesque setting for our picnic lunch, so we picked GEORGETOWN at random and followed the signs to its historic district. What a find! It’s a beautiful riverfront town with a great Harborwalk, an attractive downtown and antebellum mansions! Homemade sandwiches never tasted so good.

    This post is getting a bit long so I will break for now.

    Next: Wilmington, NC

  • Report Abuse

    I’d long been curious about MYRTLE BEACH. What we found were many fireworks and tobacco stores, discount beach shops and dollar stores. And it must be the miniature golf capital of the country.

    A few days earlier, I had “won” the COUNTRY INN & SUITES in WILMINGTON, NC through Priceline with a $68 bid. (Having seen recent successful bids on biddingfortravel, I think I could have paid less but wanted the hotel issue to be settled.) It worked out well for us. The room had a mini-fridge and free wi-fi, and the included breakfast fit the bill. It’s in a heavily-developed commercial area.

    On our first morning in town, we toured BATTLESHIP NORTH CAROLINA, which served in the Pacific during WW II and was home to 2,300 men. It had been destined for scrap in 1958 but the state launched a Save Our Ship (SOS) campaign and brought her home three years later. We saw the kitchen and dining areas, infirmary, post office, crew and officer quarters, control rooms, cannons and movie theater and other areas, getting a good idea of what life might have been like. I didn’t realize there were planes on battleships. They were called Kingfishers. If you go, be aware that the visit requires a lot of stair climbing.

    I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been for the largely very young crew packed into a metal ship, firing at the enemy and being attacked. Admission was $12.

    Downtown Wilmington is quite beautiful. Almost every block has a sign explaining its historic significance, and there are statues, fountains and lovely homes. Many huge, live oak trees border the streets.

    The RIVERWALK is inviting, as it sits between the river and shops and restaurants. It’s about a mile long and a good place to spend a relaxing few hours.

    The RIVERBOAT was a perfect way to wind up our visit. Admission was $15.

    One night we went to BONEFISH GRILL, which was near the hotel, and offered very good grilled seafood. We also ate at REEL CAFÉ in town, and it was just OK, or what you would expect from a bar. (We’d hoped for music on the patio that never materialized.)

    Next: The Outer Banks, the Philadelphia area -- and an abrupt ending to the trip

  • Report Abuse

    Before the trip, I’d ordered tourist information from OuterBanks.org and received a booklet with a Getaway Card good for off-season deals at hotels and restaurants. While we were in Charleston, I booked the NAGS HEAD INN for three nights. It was 15 percent off rack rates for two or more consecutive nights, so we paid just $80/night (plus tax). It was just perfect – fourth floor oceanfront with a small balcony, a small dining table and chairs, a microwave, free wi-fi and an over-sized mini fridge. They have a small breakfast but it didn’t work for us.

  • Report Abuse

    Before the trip, I’d ordered tourist information from OuterBanks.org and received a booklet with a Getaway Card good for off-season deals at hotels and restaurants. While we were in Charleston, I booked the NAGS HEAD INN for three nights. It was 15 percent off rack rates for two or more consecutive nights, so we paid just $80/night (plus tax). It was just perfect – fourth floor oceanfront with a small balcony, a small dining table and chairs, a microwave, free wi-fi and an over-sized mini fridge. They have a small breakfast but it didn’t work for us.

    We had two full days on the Outer Banks and divided activities to the north and south of Nags Head.

    We visited the WRIGHT BROTHERS NATIONAL MEMORIAL in Kitty Hawk, where you can visit an information center, see markers indicated where the first flights were made, and a 60-foot stone sculpture on Kill Devil Hill that memorializes their achievement. It’s mind-boggling to realize that it took a couple thousand years for Man to realize his dream of flight, but merely 66 years after their flight, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon! Don’t miss the neat life-sized sculptures on the ring road. Admission is $4 but it’s free with a National Parks Senior Pass.

    I was especially excited to see the famous Outer Banks wild horses so we signed up for a guided WILD HORSE ADVENTURE TOUR. I had imagined them running along the beach, frolicking in the ocean waves, but had to be satisfied with seeing them among sand dunes, in bushes or in people’s yards. We saw about 15 of the 144 horses that live on the northern beaches. We were very surprised there are so many homes in the area. The tour lasted about two hours, and the driver said during the summer a lot of that time can be spent in street traffic. The off-season price for adults is $44.

    On our last day, we drove south to the PEA ISLAND NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, where we had an enjoyable walk despite the pesky mosquitoes and saw large herons, gray pelicans and birds we could not identify.

    Next was the famous HATTERAS LIGHTHOUSE, which does indeed look like a gigantic barber pole. The tallest lighthouse in the United States, it was built with more than one million bricks. It had just closed for the season so we could not climb to the top. On the drive to the lighthouse there was a small picnic area, where we had lunch and watched a young deer in the woods. There’s also a small cemetery where a few British sailors are buried. I didn’t realize the British guarded our shores during WW II.

    Of course there’s plenty of seafood to be eaten on the Outer Banks and it’s affordable. For grilled seafood, salads and sodas, the tabs came to around $45, plus tax and tip.

    We liked BASNIGHT’S LONE CEDAR on the Manteo Causeway. The waiter understood our dietary concerns and even grabbed some rolls for us before the chef brushed them with butter. Their specials’ menu included the names of the fishermen and farmers who were responsible for the food. Nice touch. Very good waterfront location, too.

    SUGAR CREEK in Nags Head has an even better ocean view, and the food was good. We also ate at DUNES in Nags Head, which was fine.

    We enjoyed our first visit to the Outer Banks. You can’t beat the amount of waterfront, and it really is a unique place. Mid- to late-October is a wonderful time to visit. The weather was amazing.

    At checkout, the hotel clerk gave me a present “for the road”: kettle corn, packaged in a small box bearing the Nags Head logo! What a classy idea.

    As we neared the Wilmington, Delaware area it began to rain, and that continued to our friends’ house in Swarthmore, PA. Our perfect weather was history! They took us to IRON HILL BEWERY in West Chester, which was just right. Great atmosphere and food.

    The next morning I got an email from my sister warning that Connecticut was expecting 9” of snow the next day. Heck, it was October 28! We’d planned to stay with our New Jersey friends and weren’t sure if the freak storm would really amount to anything, but decided to head home right away.

    With an unexpected detour in Bayonne, NJ and traffic, so we got home in the late afternoon. We delivered the car to Bradley Airport (Hertz wasn’t concerned about a few scrapes I’d left on the bumper), fetched the cat (I am positive he smiled at me) and had a late dinner. We’d been away two weeks, so the next morning, I restocked the refrigerator. Big, big mistake.

    The Hartford area got nearly a foot of wet, cement-like snow, which snapped trees that still had leaves on them, and they took down power lines across most of the state. More than 830,000 lost their power, some for 12 days. Ours was out three days, long enough to spoil the food I’d just bought. And we lost some major branches and trees.

    Our vacation had officially ended!

  • Report Abuse

    Glad you made it home safely. We returned home on Sunday to no power too, who knew?? Happily the frig was mostly empty and we got power back before everything in the freezer unfroze.

    Thanks for the report !

19 Replies |Back to top

| Add a Reply

Sign in to comment.

Recent Activity

View all United States activity »
  1. 1 let's do a new Hawaii countdown
  2. 2 Road trips - CHI-ATL and MEM-NOLA - April/May 2014
  3. 3 NYC becoming a battleground for Air BnB apartment rentals
  4. 4 Wilderness Lodge at Disney World questions
  5. 5 Trip Report I am "The Prince of Tides"
  6. 6 "HUMORLESS" response to Kauai comment silliness
  7. 7 Trip Report Kanab and Page with Kids Trip Report
  8. 8 How to dress in Vegas
  9. 9 Trip Report Antelope Canyon, Best Friends, Bryce, Zion trip report
  10. 10 Packer game hotel on the bus line.
  11. 11 bus tour for Grand canyon(South Rim), Horse shoe in 1-day?
  12. 12 Drinking a beer in all 50 states for cancer reseach. Need bar suggestions!
  13. 13 Trip Report Trip Report to Pacific Northwest: August 2014
  14. 14 Quick advice needed for 1st visit to HNL & Kauai
  15. 15 USA trip
  16. 16 Things to do in and around Westbrook, CT in November 2014
  17. 17 Chicago Questions
  18. 18 Air Connections on Maui
  19. 19 camaro hire in waikiki
  20. 20 Pet Friendly places in Myrtle Beach
  21. 21 Timeshare Nightmares
  22. 22 Booking Lodging at the Grand Canyon
  23. 23 Breckenridge in October
  24. 24 New Orleans in November - too cool?
  25. 25 Orlando for Work
View next 25 » Back to the top