The rising sun gradually illuminates Biscayne Bay, the Port of Miami, and eventually, our hotel room. Hushed conversations, and the stirrings of the morning are difficult to ignore, and there’s far too much daylight by now, to continue snoozing through. South Beach lies, but 4-miles away. I coerce myself out of bed, lace up, and head out across the Venetian Causeway…
It’s quite the light show on the distant horizon when I reach South Beach, and this early in the morning, the sands are completely devoid of sun-seekers. I dip my feet in the ocean, walk along the beach for a bit, and then call for an Uber.
La Casita comes highly recommended by my chatty Cuban driver, who, having incorrectly assumed that my Spanish is as good as his, continues to rattle off more culinary destinations of note, in his recently adopted hometown. If only he knew what the rest of my day looked like.
Breakfast at the hotel would have to do for now, and its a hearty one at that. A quick shower, followed by some last-minute packing, and then we’re off, shortly past 11 am. The four of us are headed to North Miami, a part of the city unlikely to feature on anyone’s agenda. Not surprisingly, we have a train to catch.
Less than 12-hours after arriving here, in what is only my second visit to Miami, I’m already headed back, on Amtrak 92, the Silver Star to NYC…Stretching 65-miles north from downtown, the Miami metro area is an endless swath of little towns sprinkled along Interstate-95. Hollywood first, with its namesake beach not far away, then Fort Lauderdale, with its airport clearly visible across I-95, and so on. The ocean, sadly, out of sight. But plenty of little inlets, chock full of boats, to liven things up from time to time.
Our 1522-mile (2449-km) journey north will take us through a good chunk of Florida today, calling at practically every city and town of note in the Sunshine State. Tri Rail provides commuter rail service in the region, and we follow its route till West Palm Beach, pausing ever so often at its attractive, palm-fringed stations.Two daily trains connect Miami with NYC, the Silver Meteor being the quicker of the lot. At Winterhaven, we turn inland, breaking off from the Silver Meteor’s shorter route. Continuing northwest towards Tampa, we pass our opposite number, the Miami-bound Silver Star. Then, its a slow crawl past the attractive little hamlet of Plant City, best known for being the winter strawberry capital of the world.We call on Lakeland next, an affluent retirement community, where we make the first of two stops, dropping off passengers en route to Tampa. We’ll pick up a fresh lot on our way out.
The Silver Star now makes its way through Ybor City, Tampa’s historic quarter, which was once home to thousands of immigrants from Cuba, Spain and Italy, and the many cigar factories they worked at. Tampa’s Union Station lies just west of Ybor City, and not long ago, was served by three pairs of daily trains. With only the Silver Star calling at the station these days, there’s a sizable crowd waiting to board, most of them seeking shelter under the elegant, early 20th-century train shed.Its a little past 5:30 in the evening, and we’ve begun retracing our steps towards Winterhaven. Orange orchards make an appearance as we get closer to town, increasing in number north of it, and flanking both sides of the rail alignment. In the state of Florida, second only to Brazil in global OJ production, its a matter of time till one of us eventually spots a Tropicana train.
Before Legoland built a resort here, Winterhaven was renowned for its canal-linked Chain of Lakes, and within the town’s boundaries alone lie fifty of them. The gaps in between made up of Live Oak with Spanish Moss, akin to what one would find in Georgia. All of that, coupled with the late evening light, making for a perfect sundowner in the Silver Star‘s cafe car…Lunch, earlier in the day, was a pre-packaged sandwich from the cafe car. Not our first choice, but we had to make do, since the Silver Star, sadly, does not carry a dining car any more. For dinner though, we’ve decided to be more adventurous. First, voting on a cuisine; then, selecting a restaurant in the vicinity of our next station stop, and finally, placing an order, hoping that it all lines up somehow.
We pull into Orlando some 20-minutes late, with barely enough light to admire the Spanish Mission-style depot, built for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1926. As the conductors begin to board new passengers, two of us rush out to the station concourse, where our Uber Eats delivery is already waiting for us. We tip the driver handsomely. A fairly palatable Mexican dinner follows, as we make our way through downtown Orlando. Sanford, the southern terminus of Amtrak’s Auto Train, is next, but the Silver Star does not stop here. We do make a quick stop at DeLand though, the railhead for Daytona Beach and the famed NASCAR speedway, where the main street appears festive for a Saturday night. Jacksonville, the state’s largest city by population, is our last smoke stop for the day; its desolate platform easily betraying that distinction. And finally, we make it through a whole bottle of Glen, eventually turning in a little past 11 pm.
Through the night we would’ve snuck through Savannah, Georgia and a sliver of South Carolina. I awake to gloomy skies over North Carolina, and forests full of spindly evergreens, revealing rural backroads from time to time, and occasionally, a smattering of houses. By 8 am, as the sun begins to make an appearance, we approach the town of Sanford, not to be confused with the one in Florida. No stoppage here either, but its a pretty little settlement, named after the railroad civil engineer credited with building most of the lines that run through this region.Cary is our first daylight stop in North Carolina, sporting a well kept station, for what is, essentially, a well heeled suburb of Raleigh. Palatial homes and mansions line much of the route leading up to Raleigh, with the downtown skyline signaling our arrival into the state capital. By now, we’re almost 30-minutes late, but the halt here is long enough to get in a quick morning stroll. Returning to the cafe car, we find ourselves at the very end of a long queue – its breakfast rush hour on the Silver Star.For anyone looking to do this route, the Silver Meteor does still carry a dining car, with all meals included in the roomette fare. On its quicker journey north, the Silver Meteor not only skips Tampa, but also takes a different route through the Carolinas, staying closer to the coast, while the Silver Star remains inland. At Selma, we rejoin the route of the Silver Meteor for the rest of our journey to New York.
We’re riding through mostly forested areas now, with almost no pockets of population, till Rocky Mount, our final stop in the Carolinas, is reached. Here, an old railroad depot is followed by a historic main street, full of handsome, late 19th-century buildings, but devoid of any life. Like a handful of others we’ve passed through already, its another old industrial town that time forgot.
Virginia is next, and heralding its arrival is a notable increase in farmland, a lot of it picture postcard perfect. The line from Norfolk joins us closer to Petersburg, our first scheduled halt in Virginia. Just shy of the station, we ride a high viaduct to cross the Appomattox River, and a CSX freight line originating in the James River Basin. The hard to pronounce Appomattox, itself a tributary of the James River, was named after an Indian tribe who lived along its lower banks in the 17th-century.
Pulling out of Petersburg, the conductor announces the chance of a further delay, on account of a freight train derailment at Richmond. But even though its visible to our right as we enter the yard, the derailment has little impact on our schedule. Or on the Savannah-bound Palmetto for that matter, which pulls out of Richmond, just as we’re coming to a halt.
Its almost lunch time when we depart Richmond, but we really haven’t left the cafe car since breakfast, so we simply get back in line for another round of re-heated food, and a cold bevy.
The Carolinian, headed to Charlotte, crosses us next. Its sandwiched between a pair of freights, who’s presence has increased substantially ever since we were joined by the port line from Norfolk. We’re now on a double-tracked section, with a third under construction, ostensibly for Virginia Rail Express or VRE, the state’s commuter rail service.
Continuing further north through Virginia, its a constantly changing tree line, with evergreens gradually giving way to trees sans foliage. Next up, the attractive town of Fredericksburg, well known for its civil war and colonial history. The Silver Star, however, doesn’t give as much as a toot, gliding right past it…The Rappahannock River is crossed soon after, with the town line ending rather abruptly as a result of it. A scenic forested area follows, just north of Fredericksburg, with the railroad running through it at a considerable elevation. We level out soon enough, and the Potomac River comes into view on our right, appearing like a large bay at this point.
The Potomac separates Virginia from Maryland in these parts and we parallel it for quite a while. With the river to our east, our west-facing windows frequently reveal wide creeks and scenic marshes, the Marine Corps air base at Quantico providing the only real distraction on our right.Amtrak’s Lorton facility, the northern terminus of its Auto Train, doesn’t warrant a stop either, but at Alexandria, we make the last of three station stops in Virginia. The Potomac, now significantly reduced in width, is crossed minutes after leaving Alexandria, with a sliver of Jefferson Memorial, and the distinctive lines of Washington Monument visible in the distance.
Before being swallowed by the dark caverns of Union Station, there’s one last glimpse remaining of the city’s many landmarks – the dome of the US Capitol, peeking out from behind the US House of Representatives building.We’re 20-minutes late pulling into DC, but we’re going to be here for a bit regardless. Its the last scheduled smoke stop for the Silver Star, and we will be swapping locomotives here; a somewhat dated GE diesel making way for a shiny new Siemens electric.
The last time we stepped off the train it was shorts weather. Its now in the low 50s (~11C). Up ahead: the Northeast Corridor, and a chance of rain…The states of Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey are dispatched in quick succession. Baltimore first, with its distinctive city tunnel, followed by the crossing of the Susquehanna River. An increase in rain. Then, a brief halt in Wilmington, running along the mighty Delaware River thereafter, at times within touching distance of it.
At Philadelphia, we bid farewell to two of our friends. Pulling out of 30th Street Station, we cross the Schuylkill River, with trees along its north bank in full bloom. Heavier rain now, and higher speeds, and everything around is quite literally a blur. The iconic Trenton Makes The World Takes sign is barely discernible, as we cross the Delaware River into New Jersey. Darkness descends as we pull out of Newark, eventually pulling into a very gloomy and dank NY Penn Station, some 15-minutes late… From sunny Miami to rain-soaked NYC, we watched as the landscape changed; as one state morphed into another, as the weather took a slow turn for the worse. All from the comfort of a train window. Some would argue this was the most absurdly rushed trip. In my book, this was a weekend done right 🙂
A full set of photos from the trip can be seen on my Flickr.