Trains from Northeast to Austin TX

Old Jan 7th, 2015, 07:17 AM
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Trains from Northeast to Austin TX

Thank you if you clicked on this report.

For many years over the last dozen or so years I've planned some trip southbound around Christmastime from my parents' place in the Washington DC area with multiple goals in mind such as:
#1. To see somewhere I'd never seen before.
#2. To indulge in my favorite form of travel besides the Queen Mary 2, the sleeper train, while simultaneously avoiding winter airport troubles.
#3. To briefly escape Montreal's lengthy winter.
#4. Visit somewhere that piques my curiosity where I can manage without needing to rent a car; so it has to be somewhere either very compact or with decent public transit.

In past years, during such trips, I've grown in my depth of understanding of the southern US visiting Savannah, Charleston, Jacksonville/St. Augustine, Miami/Key West, and New Orleans (loved all these trips), even occasionally stepping outside the US with such trips, such as one to Fort Lauderdale/Grand Bahama and even long-ago trips south into Monterrey and Mexico City (loved these trips too). This year, I wanted to feel like I was going as far as I could go using trains given my 2-1/2 week vacation and decided upon Austin, Texas, since it's piqued my curiosity since so many people say they love it there and I wondered what the oft-described "most liberal city in Texas" would feel like.

*So, how did this trip work?*

#1. Bus Montreal-Albany. Amtrak Albany-NYC-DC (coach). 4 days with family in DC.
#2. Crescent Train DC-New Orleans (sleeper). Overnight New Orleans.
#3. Sunset Limited Train New Orleans- San Antonio (sleeper, my first time on this train ever). Overnight and most of the day in San Antonio.
#4. Greyhound San Antonio-Austin. 3 days in Austin.
#5. Greyhound Austin -Houston (saw cousin)-New Orleans. Overnight New Orleans.
#6 Crescent Train New Orleans- NYC. Afternoon, overnight in NYC (saw family there).
#7. Amtrak NYC- Montreal

Well, I loved this trip too and highlights will be mentioned in the continuation of this trip report, coming shortly! For anyone reading this, happy new year to you!

Daniel
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Old Jan 7th, 2015, 07:58 AM
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Looking forward to your detailed report. Happy New Year Daniel.
It's been a lot of years since I rode on the Crescent (pre Katrina). It's been a lot of years since I rode buses from San Angelo TX to New Orleans. The bus station is in the other half of the New Orleans Amtrak station. The station is right next to the Super Dome.
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Old Jan 7th, 2015, 08:07 AM
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I am really looking forward to this trip report. I am quite a fan of your approach, although I don't have the time at the moment to do it that way.
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Old Jan 7th, 2015, 08:25 AM
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*Trains to New Orleans*

I'll mostly skip mentioning the trains between Montreal and DC as I've taken these numerous times, but I must say I do still love each time the vista out the window of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River with the Catskill Mountains adjacent, as well as the Chesapeake Bay estuaries and Susquehanna River in Maryland, not to mention the quick glimpses of Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Funny enough, while I don't think of the Crescent train between New York and New Orleans as one of Amtrak's prettiest rides, there really are moments that are quite lovely. This includes the Native American earthwork burial mounds near Moundville, Alabama, the Tombigbee River (with its white cliffs) and other rivers passing alongside the train and, for those going northbound, the eerily choppy waters of the mighty Lake Pontchartrain (looks like an ocean almost) that looms menacingly, yet picturesquely, to the side of and under the train.

*New Orleans*

Both eastbound and westbound, I regretted only spending an overnight in New Orleans (with morning trains to catch, so not much time to linger), such is the seductive energy of the City That Care Forgot. Here I was thankful for the 24-hour St. Charles Tavern, since I arrived relatively late into New Orleans in both westbound and eastbound directions. Returning from Texas, the waitress at the tavern upon my surprise that she remembered me from my visit going westward commented "how could I forget you, cutie?". She made my evening equally as much as the sinful Shrimp Po' Boy I was indulging myself with. How I do love the architecture, vegetation and overall vibe of the Crescent City! I also loved that I just rolled my luggage from the train station to my hotel, avoiding taxi fare! It's been 8 years since my last visit to New Orleans; I thought how could I have let this much time slip away without coming back!

*Sunset Limited Train New Orleans to San Antonio*

I'd never taken this three-times-weekly Los Angeles-bound train before, in part, since it used to have a terrible reputation of arriving routinely sometimes as much as 18 hours late to its destination. I always considered it to be the "black sheep" of the cross-country long-distance Amtrak trains, due to this unpredictable lateness as well as what I perceived to be a less attractive journey than the more northerly routes. However, I'd noticed that its on-time record had been improving considerably in recent years; this year, it suited my purposes though so I decided I was willing to give it a go, especially since it originates in New Orleans.

I indulged myself in a sleeper car since it was relatively inexpensive ($185) and also since we were scheduled to arrive in San Antonio at midnight after a day-long journey, so I thought I might enjoy the private space to take a nap. I felt kind of silly about the sleeper until I discovered that some people got sleepers who were only going as far as Houston!

I must say, I think I had misjudged the Sunset Limited, a train equally as pleasant as other Amtrak routes, which had its scenic moments too. There was the almost vertigo-inducing elevation experienced as one was on very-high track prior to crossing the impressive Huey Long Bridge over the Mississippi River, there were the bayous with the submerged palmettos near New Iberia, LA, there was the passing through towns with a store advertising "boudin & cracklin'" (a reminder, that indeed, Dorothy, we were not in Kansas) and there was the gleaming Houston skyline with a view of the attractively blue-and-green li-up ferris wheel by the Aquarium. I suspect also that had I continued on the train, I might have been in for some even lovelier scenery as I discovered that the train continued into Big Bend National Park; I'll have to find out whether my suspicion is correct at one point.

Anyway, the Sunset Limited is a lovely trip, with the sleeper as comfortable as the other cross-country routes and pleasant conversations in the dining car as always. I was also quite content that we arrived an hour early into San Antonio, where the Sunset Limited train hooks up with the Texas Eagle train from Chicago prior to continuing on to LA. From there, I rolled my luggage from the centrally-located train station to the La Quinta Inn & Suites, again saving myself taxi fare.

*San Antonio and Austin coming up in the next post*
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Old Jan 7th, 2015, 09:21 AM
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Looking forward to the rest of the report.

I used to live in Austin. "Most liberal city in TX" could still qualify as far to the right of Ronald Reagan...
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Old Jan 7th, 2015, 01:45 PM
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*San Antonio*

Arriving in San Antonio by train at 11pm at night, even though I only had a few hundred yards to walk, I was a little concerned with my plan of walking from the train station station under a highway to my hotel. Would it feel safe at that late hour?

My concern was unwarranted. Plenty of working folks and tourists were still walking the streets along with me. The train station is, while small, a handsome tan/beige southwestern-style building and lights were attractively strung around a locomotive in the shape of a locomotive. The Tower of the Americas is beautiful lit up in a multicoloured fashion at night. (Author's note: I don't know why I had forgotten about the tower, which is as iconically San Antonio as the Space Needle is iconically Seattle or the CN Tower is iconically Toronto!) Wheeling my luggage, some charming balconied homes/businesses in Spanish colonial-style with gas lamps sat adjacent my route; even the underpass was well lit in festive colours and there were plenty of crosswalks.

What is it about the city? The Spanish colonial architectural remnants, the Old World charm of the Riverwalk nearby the picturesque but impressively modern Tower of the Americas, the predominance of Tejano culture that reminds me of the region's history as part of Mexico, or the friendly, cheery optimism in both Spanish & English of those I met? Whatever it is, San Antonio seduces me. Of what I've seen, it is my favorite city in Texas and possibly would make my Top 10 list in the United States. I don't know why I tend to short-change the city; last time I was there was on the way to Mexico and I arrived at night and left early in the morning. This time, I did only a little better, arriving late at night and planning to leave late the next afternoon for Austin.

*The Alamo and the Riverwalk*

I remember that I had seen, but never gone inside the Alamo. The inside has mostly exhibits of the different types of guns used in the battle; guns are a topic that don't interest me at all, so I move on. In an adjacent building, plaques detailing the history leading up to and following the famous battle and this I find fascinating. I realized here what a pivotal point in US history the time around the Alamo battle was. It got me wondering: had Santa Ana not been a power-hungry autocrat and given the Texans the autonomy they had desired within a Mexican federation, who knows, maybe Texas would still be a part of Mexico and maybe given the oil that was to be discovered in Texas, Mexico would now be the world's most powerful nation? Santa Ana clearly must not have had a very effective crystal ball. The Alamo grounds are beautifully planned and tended with ferns, palms, cacti and stoned archways.

After a tasty (if maybe not the healthiest) meal of beef enchilada, pork tamale, refried beans and salad at recommended Casa Rio (est. 1946), I walked along the beautiful canal-like River Walk and then joined a narrated river tour barge (company: Rio Antonio). The guide did an excellent job of elucidating the history and landmarks as we passed by handsome bridges, archways, openings with 5 bells representing each of the region's missions, waterfalls, and a statue of San Antonio, patron saint of Children. The Riverwalk was quite beautiful, still decked out for Christmas. I learned that Casa Rio used to offer gondola rides along the water; sorry that's not around any more!

*Coming up: My First Ever Visit to Austin*
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Old Jan 7th, 2015, 03:09 PM
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TomFuller-- Happy New Year to you too with hopefully some train travel, which I know you enjoy also!
CharlotteK-- I know what you mean about time; even with my relatively generous vacation, it was tight for me, as it's 2 days minimum to get from the Northeast to south Texas by train.
J62-- Thanks for reading and looking forward .
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Old Jan 8th, 2015, 07:47 AM
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*General Thoughts on Austin*

My first time to Austin, it seemed somewhat amazing to me that only 80 miles separates Austin and San Antonio and yet the two cities have really quite remarkably different central cores and personalities. The Spanish Colonial architecture disappeared and the overwhelming Tejano influence of San Antonio dissipated, yielding to what I might describe as a hipster-rich, yuppie-full, socially-liberal-leaning seeming city with a lower-key Tejano presence.

I liked Austin. I think if I lived elsewhere in Texas, I would likely be a regular visitor (from what Austinites tell me, possibly to find some kindred world-views close-by?). For those who don't mind doing lots of walking, the downtown core is reasonably pedestrian-friendly, like San Antonio, which sets them apart from some other Texas cities. There are interesting and innovative restaurants and pubs, as well as friendly folk. Town Lake has some lovely scenic hike-or-bike trails and there are several museums worth a look-see. The Clarksville neighborhood has some lovely wooden homes that exude charm and character and seemed like a nice place to live.

As a visitor, however, San Antonio was more appealing to me, due to its uniqueness in character-- the Spanish colonial architecture combined with modern, gleaming towers, mixed with the pre-dominant Tejano/Mexican population, combined with Texan pride and the charm of the Riverwalk, give that city a feel like no other I've been to. And it is uniqueness that tends to draw me back to a destination. Austin was pleasant and with enough offerings that I would recommend a detour there for those who are visiting the San Antonio area for several days, but it felt like a generic socially-liberal-leaning (Portland-(Oregon)-light-but-more-spread-out-and-in-the-Texan-hills?) US city rather than a unique American destination with a flavor and vibe you can only get in that destination that makes you want to come back for more. It makes sense in a way; Austin was tiny in the days of Spanish and Mexican times, so much of its growth has been during modern times, as a capital and also with the success of Dell and the dot.com booms.

*The Joys of Greyhound to Austin*

In this Information Age, San Antonio's Greyhound bus station seemed to have remarkably little informing going on. There was a schedule board which said when the buses leave, but nowhere did it say which door the bus to Austin was leaving from. Since the ticket agents were harried with long lines, I ended up asking the woman sitting next to me and realized quickly that I had to pull out my somewhat rusty Spanish "De donde sale el autobus para Austin?"; "Ustedes van a decir algo cuando el bus sale?". She luckily was in the know, which was a good thing because there was no announcement; the driver just wordlessly came out and helpfully tilted his head in the direction of the door when it was time to go.

Arriving in Austin was interesting because on the highway, you could see the city skyline and then there goes the city skyline. I was beginning to worry the driver had forgotten that there were passengers going to Austin and was continuing on to Dallas, when perhaps 10-15 minutes after the downtown skyline had disappeared from view, we finally got on an exit. It just turned out that the bus station was WAAAAAY north of the city, more than I had realized from my cursory look at a map. I found it ironic that my taxi fare to get back into downtown Austin ending up costing over twice the bus fare from San Antonio. I think Greyhound needs to up its game here, with better instructions and a more centrally-located Austin station (and clearer directions at the San Antonio station), otherwise Megabus, etc... is going to get the bulk of their potential clientele.

*Austin accommodations*

In Austin, I stayed at Brava House, a handsome B&B in the Clarksville neighborhood just west of the downtown core with gracious hostesses who offered many recommendations for visiting guests. About a 20-25 minute walk from downtown sights and the paths of Town Lake and a 5-10 minute walk from amenities such as gym, restaurants, cafe and a Whole Food, this was an excellent location for exploration of Austin.

*What did I do in Austin*

Unfortunately, I ended up with unusually low temperatures for south Texas, highs in the upper 30s or low 40s and misty, overcast or raining, which meant I ended up doing more indoor things than was my initial intention for this trip. I knew cold weather was a possibility but given the average highs for Dec. & Jan. was 62/63 and was hoping given the law of averages that I would get at least one warmer or sunnier day, but alas, it was not meant to be.

*Highlights of Austin*

The handsome State Capitol and the Bob Bullock Museum of Texas State History, combined with the hiking trails of Town (Lady Bird) Lake, I think are the city's most unique and appealing offerings.

The tour of the State Capitol was excellent, with handsome painting-filled House and Senate chambers and a beautiful atrium with the portraits of all the Texas governors since Texas' inception, as well as beautifully-chiseled statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin (handsome fellows, these two were!).

I spent hours in the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, which I felt gave a balanced view of the tumultuous yet fascinating history of Texas, looking at various Native American, Tejano, Anglo-American, French and African-American perspectives. The wreckage and contents of the 17th century French ship La Belle from the failed La Salle-led Texan colony at Matagorda Bay were displayed prominently, opening my eyes to everyday items of French society from that period but also to a chapter in Texan history I had no inkling existed.

The history of Texas is really much more fascinating than I thought. It seems amazing to think that not so long ago (less than 200 years), Mexico invited Anglo-Americans to settle this seemingly-no-man's-land in the Estado de Coahuila y Tejas to populate that sparsely-peopled, wild frontier land and protect against Comanche incursions, to make the state more economically viable (who knew of the oil to come?). Then General Mier y Teran writes a report that Tejas is now 10:1 Anglo-Americans: Tejanos and the immigration policy is reversed. From his perspective, Mier y Teran's worries ended up being justified as Mexico lost Texas (that'll teach Mexico for inviting guests into their country) but I can't help but think that if general Santa Ana had only been more reasonable and allowed Texas statehood and autonomy, Mexico might have kept Texas. I found it fascinating that many Texans at the Alamo were waving the 1824 Mexican constitution, not say a US flag, since that constitution declared that Mexico would be a federation of states and not the centralized government that the autocrat Santa Ana wanted. So, it seems many anglo-Americans including Stephen F. Austin (prior to being jailed in Mexico City) were willing to give Mexico a go, just not the Mexico that Santa Ana wanted.

Instead, acrimony ensured, there was bloodshed and after the Battle of San Jacinto, Texas became a nation for 10 years prior to joining the US for financial reasons. I enjoyed looking at the Republic of Texas' money, the Redbacks; the specimens I saw were quite artful and well-preserved.

The Blanton Museum of Art was a pleasant morning stop. Highlights here were a collection of beautiful, remarkably well-preserved Grecian urns and a number of pieces from some 17th-19th century European masters. I'm not often a fan of modern art, but one "painting in black" I thought presented an interesting night scene in a bedroom, a dark style of using different shades of black that I'd not seen before. A "beach umbrella"-like structure with Communion wafers for a pole, pennies for "sand" and cattle bones for a "roof" was a unique idea, I'll give it that. There was also work by a Santa Fe-based sculptor who had a shiny ceramic (?) "cowboy on horse" roping a ceramic (?) bull that I'm amazed gravity did not pull down, so off-kilter did it look. Wish I wrote down the sculptor's name as I can't seem to find it on Google.

The LBJ Museum was my last stop, devoted to the legacy of this US president, with an exhibition on the major players of the 1960s. That such a huge homage to one man exists is fascinating (I can't imagine, say, a Brian Mulroney or Jean Chretien museum here in Canada) and the museum certainly presents him as having changed the face of America. Many things did change indeed during LBJ's Great Society and the museum indeed left me pondering.

*Closing thoughts to come*
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Old Jan 8th, 2015, 08:42 AM
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Always glad to see train reports! Thanks, will have to reconsider the Sunset Limited.
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Old Jan 8th, 2015, 10:16 AM
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Nice write up. Thanks. I still have to try the Crescent and eastern Sunset Limited. I had considered doing the same route you took (but returning via Chicago on the City of New Orleans and Capitol Limited) for my 2015 summer ride, but opted for some Midwest travels instead. I may have to bump it up on the potentials for 2016 though. You're making it look really good.

Just curious, but why the bus instead of the Texas Eagle for the San Antonio to Austin leg? The Austin train station is nothing to write home about in terms of architecture, but it is, at least, in downtown.
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Old Jan 8th, 2015, 10:23 AM
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Another terrific report, Daniel. Can't wait to read the rest.

What always amazes me at the Alamo is how incredibly varied those who died were. They came not just from the American South but from England, Ireland, Scotland and much of continental Europe. As at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, I can't help myself from getting a bit choked up at what they were willing to risk in the name of Independence.

CharlotteK is being modest. She has taken Amtrak from Boston to New Orleans and return.
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Old Jan 8th, 2015, 10:30 AM
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thursdaysd-- Me too, I love it when people do train reports!

usroadman-- Thanks for your kind comments. The Texas Eagle leaves San Antonio at 7:00 am in the morning for Austin. I liked the idea of sleeping in and having booked only one night in San Antonio, the 4:30 pm Greyhound departure I felt would give me enough time for an Alamo tour, a meal at a Mexican (or Tex-Mex) establishment on the Riverwalk and possibly a boat tour in San Antonio... all of which I indeed managed to squeeze in. Plus, check-in at my B&B in Austin was after 4 pm.

Happy 2015 travels to you both! Daniel
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Old Jan 9th, 2015, 07:50 AM
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ackislander-- I also found it fascinating who was present at the Alamo. For some reason, I had forgotten that folk hero Davy Crockett was at the battle and had died there. I also enjoyed learning the stories of the Czech and German immigrants who settled in that region, a part of Texas history that I think is unknown to some.

It was the Tejano Juan Seguin's story that choked me up. Here this man was chosen captain by Stephen F. Austin, was present during the 13-day siege of the Alamo (bilingual, he was sent out to carry the message that Texans would "not surrender or retreat", so was not killed at the famed battled), met up with Sam Houston during the Runaway Scrape, fought valiantly alongside his fellow Texans in many battles, only later to be assumed to be treasonous because of anglo-American distrust of the Tejano population. He had to flee to Mexico; although to give Texas credit, he was allowed back in and some of his ashes were brought back to Texas.

*Meals and Outings in Austin*

I thank everyone who offered suggestions of restaurants during my stay in Austin. Unfortunately, due to the cold, I tended to try to stick close to my hotel or my museum destination, so I didn't make it to many suggestions. Consequently, I ate more often than not at the Whole Foods flagship store near my B&B and for example the attached restaurant at the Bullock Museum. However, I did make it to recommended Easy Tiger (on 6th), where I enjoyed their in-house pretzels, beer cheese and pastrami sandwich. Cipollina's on West Lynn near my B&B was popular with the yuppie crowd... they had an unusual pasta sauce with its spaghetti & meatballs which I left feeling undecided as to whether I liked it or not.

The nightlife scene on the area closed off to cars on 6th seemed a little more raucous and testosterone-filled than is my taste on New Year's Eve. This was fine with me (I was in bed by 11pm on New Year's Eve), since I had to meet up with friends on New Year's Day. Ginger Man (near Lavaca & 3rd) was more my style, a not-too-crowded spot lacking screaming 20-somethings and electric-guitar-blaring where one could talk, with a charming library area and dartboard, which my beer-crafting-friend appreciated for its variety of local beers--he got smaller samplers. I enjoyed a local white beer, the 512 Wit.

*Final Thoughts on Austin and Trip*

I might have seemed to come down hard on Austin due to a certain generic and spread-out quality, but really it's a nice place to spend a few days. The Town (Lady Bird) Lake was a really beautiful green-blue color, attractive with the vapor rising from it given the cold and surrounded by branches that bend over the river's shores. (Why Austinites call it a lake is beyond me, since it's really just a dammed portion of the Colorado River of Texas.) The State Capitol, UT Tower and the Frost Bank Building make for a handsome cityscape from numerous angles. I never once felt like I'd stumbled across a neighborhood I shouldn't be walking in due to, say, gangs. Those who love trying restaurants and brewpubs have enough options to keep them busy for awhile in Austin.

Despite a certain sense that I short-changed New Orleans, San Antonio and family members with too short a visit, all in all, what with getting to spoil myself with sleeper train rides, see family members in NYC, DC suburbs and Houston, take in the vibe briefly of two favorite and distant cities (New Orleans and San Antonio) as well as explore a new city (Austin), I can't think of a better way of having spent my 2 1/2 week break!

May 2015 be a year of enjoyable and eye-opening travels to each of you!
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Old Jan 9th, 2015, 08:40 AM
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Thanks for this terrific report. I enjoyed hearing about your transportation choices as well as your insights into the various cities you visited. Very well done!
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Old Jan 9th, 2015, 10:08 AM
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Another interesting report on your travels. Thank you Daniel.
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 05:54 AM
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Thank you Fra_Diavolo & emalloy! Happy New Year to you both!

usroadman-- Your comment about the Austin train station being nothing special (I actually saw the station walking down to Lady Bird Lake & I concur) and reminded me of a question a friend just asked me, "You've now been to a lot of train stations in North America; which did you find the prettiest?"

I pondered this for awhile and have come up with my decision.
And the Daniel Williams Prize for prettiest train station goes to.... *drum roll please*...
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 09:14 AM
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...Washington DC. There are others that I like too, but Union Station is really quite special with all the statues above the entrance-way that greet you, reminding me of caryatids. Since this year I was traveling around Christmastime, I enjoyed the large wreaths that bedecked the front entrance, the Christmas tree from Norway and the glass-enclosed model train sets that pass through some idyllic winter scene. Even though I've passed through the station many times, this year, I made sure to take pictures to remember some of its handsome features.
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 01:45 PM
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Thanks, Daniel, for the great trip report. You attest to some of the reasons this Damn Yankee calls San Antonio home. Sorry that your SA meal was the lamentably touristic Casa Rio but guess if you don't know any better it's passable. Next time we'll point you in the direction of something more suitable.

Also find your estimation of Austin spot on. Despite the bumper sticker campaign, efforts to keep Austin weird have pretty much failed.
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 03:34 PM
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I'm guessing that Washington Union Station was looking better than the last time I was there with all the scaffolding for the earthquake repairs. The first time I was there (October 2001) I saw mice eating french fries on the floor of the McDonald's.
I'm glad none of the old statues fell.
My nominee for most beautiful now is the newly remodeled Seattle
station. I sat about an hour in a great old station yesterday in Eugene Oregon Go Ducks!
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 06:44 PM
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Nice one Daniel. I really enjoyed this. I didnt realise there was a train all the way across TX and to LA. Something to think about; I too am a train fan.

In San Antonio after seeing The Alamo, there is a string of missions to the south, built in the 1720s and in various states of repair. These are really only accessible by car or taxi but are oases of peace and quiet, set in the green outside the city. The one called San Juan still has Sunday services which are well attended by local people as well as visitors. You can really see the original South Texas faces when you look around. I think the others are San Jose and Espada. Map and how to get there are available from the Tourist Office opposite the Alamo. Each time I have been there have been very few people there, especially at Espada which is in the middle of nowhere.

Austin is great, I go there frequently from Houston just for a taste of, well, alternativeness. I usually hang out on South Congress where there are all kinds of bars, music venues and a street market at weekends. Plus good pizza places and some quite posh restaurants. This is on the other side of the river from 6th street and all that.

Houston these days is much better than its reputation. There are some good art galleries, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, some great music, all kinds of classical stuff and jazz places. Lots of international restaurants. Plus Montrose is still quirky though is gentrifying fast!


And yes, Texas is horribly cold this year. As I write it is 2 degrees C which is not what I came to Texas for! And no end in sight.
Thanks for a great report.
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