2021: The travel year that almost took off

0525 am, an unearthly hour by any standard. Even more so if its a flight one has to catch. And that’s precisely how it went down for me on my first flight in 17-months. A journey that lasted less than an hour, from Burlington, Vermont to JFK. Fleeting as it was, being cocooned with a bunch of strangers – in varying states of mask compliance – within the cramped environs of a regional jet, felt entirely unnatural. Some six flights and a half year later, it still does.

In early August, I finally made strides beyond the Tri-State area, reaching as far north as Montpelier, the Capital of Vermont (and the tiniest State Capital in the country), to visit a dear friend. It took a combination of Amtrak plus rental car to get up there, and an overpriced Delta flight to return. In-between, Creemees were had by the Lake Champlain waterfront. All things maple and apple were consumed – as one does in Vermont. The Von Trapp Family Lodge – whimsical on the outside, worn to bits on the interior – was visited briefly. And a drive up to the winter sports destination of Stowe – looking decidedly tropical on this occasion – ended with a longer than planned pit stop at Stowe Cider. The rest of our weekend was spent ambling through Montpelier’s charming downtown, followed by some late afternoon intoxication at Barr Hill distillery, makers of exceptionally good Gin. To cap it all off, sundown had me entering a pool for the very first time since the start of the pandemic.

Over a decade ago, I rode the Amtrak Cascades from Seattle to Vancouver. Enough to inspire me to someday travel the rest of the US west coast by rail. It would be a chance to see more of the coast outside of the big cities I was already familiar with, and at those very cities, stop off to meet friends and family along the way. Early October had me doing just that, and no more fitting a place to embark on that journey than Seattle.

Being as far north as it is, Seattle has a head start to the Fall compared with cities on the east coast, and having never visited there outside of the summer months, the peak foliage all around was a pleasant surprise. This time I ventured off the beaten track somewhat, countering damp weather on my arrival day with succulent salt n pepper wings from Hue Ky Mi Gia in Little Saigon, followed by Vietnamese coffee at Phin. Many more bespoke coffee houses – and a correspondingly high tab – were sought out during my stay in Seattle, and old haunts like Olympic Sculpture Park were revisited. A run along the Elliot Bay trail one morning took me right past the city’s imposing grain terminal and culminated with the sun finally breaking through. And a big one from my bucket list – I got to see up close the city’s historic Ballard Locks, actually getting to traverse them.

The Cascades service, suspended north towards Vancouver at the time of my visit, runs as far south as Eugene, Oregon, providing greater frequency, and therefore more convenience than the Coast Starlight, the train I would eventually utilize to make my way down to California. A little over 3-hours is all it takes to cover the 187-mile (300-km) distance to Portland, and Seattle’s majestic King Street Station, with its beautifully restored departure hall, was as appropriate a place to embark on my series of journeys as any. Boeing Field, still home to an assembly facility for the aircraft manufacture, as well as the must-see Museum of Flight, was the first landmark of note to be crossed. Tacoma showed up not long after, with its busy harbor along the Tacoma Narrows strait, and a pair of imposing suspension bridges that span the waterway. From there on, the Cascades route practically hugs the east shore of Puget Sound, one thats dotted with remote islands and the occasional spotting of an island ferry. Centralia brought up the half way mark. The Sound disappeared and farmland took over, dominating views on both sides. Past Vancouver (in Washington state), we crossed the Columbia and Willamette Rivers back to back, and the Oregon state line somewhere in between, to make our way into Portland during a particularly dramatic magic hour.

Portland’s homeless crisis, as well as that of Seattle, has no doubt been exacerbated by the pandemic, but since I was here last it definitely felt a lot worse and hit a lot harder. Encampments occupy whole city squares, open air drug abuse is rampant, and sidewalks are quite often impassable. On the plus side, both cities have done a remarkable job with respect to the pandemic, taking it a lot more seriously than anything I’d seen, or heard of, elsewhere in the country. Portland going the extra step with outdoor dining, which was at par with the likes of NYC. On my first night itself I was whisked away to one such outdoor set up by my friends. In a city teeming with some of the best Thai food in the country, Eem lived up to all the hype, and not long after my return, made it to NYTs 50 best for 2021. Thanks to my recently transplanted friends living in the area, I got to experience Portland’s “east of the river” neighborhoods, overflowing with hip eating and drinking establishments. Breweries. Dives. Southern comfort. Spiced ginger coffee, anyone? A lot was ordered and everything was consumed. Some of it was even worked off on a run along the Willamette, on what turned out to be a stunning morning, with a foot crossing of the iconic Steel Bridge definitely a highlight. Was surprised not to see other runners and bikers out though. Had everyone just fled the city center?

Portland’s late 19th-century Union Station building with its endearing “Go by Train” sign was a welcome respite after dragging my roller bag some 20-minutes through the mostly sketchy bits of downtown. For inexplicable reasons, the Coast Starlight departed an hour late, despite showing up from Seattle ahead of schedule. At Oregon City, past the suburbs of Portland, we caught up with the Willamette once more, shrouded in dramatic mist as it came into view, courtesy of its namesake waterfall; the largest in the Northwestern US and the source of energy to a nearby and historic hydroelectric plant. From that point on, flanked by the Cascade range off to the east and the Oregon Coast range to our west, we rode through an endless carpet of green – the absolutely lush Willamette Valley. Making stops at the cities of Salem and Albany along the way, our first proper smoke stop was at Eugene, timed around sundown. Twilight had us riding high alongside Lookout Point Lake, a large reservoir that came to be following the construction of its namesake dam. Over 30-miles in length, we traced its course well into darkness.

A Roomette would have been my go to for this overnight leg but pricing was prohibitive, so I settled for Business Class instead. In hindsight that wasn’t a bad shout at all. It didn’t cost a great deal more than Coach, it was sparsely patronized – a blessing in these times – and also offered plenty of legroom and recline. The attendant was a friendly bloke, and onboard mask compliance was as good as anything I’d seen in Seattle and Portland, even on the Sightseer Lounge where people typically congregate to eat and drink. I awoke to Sacramento, the Capital of California, at the crack of dawn, and the Starlight had made up a good chunk of time by then. Past Davis, ominous clouds hung low over Napa Valley, its hillsides bathed in the early morning light, and over to the east, merchant vessels appeared ghost-like along Grizzly Bay, as the sun broke through overcast skies in ethereal fashion. The Carquinez Strait was crossed just shy of Martinez, a once laborious crossing undertaken by ferry. Rounding one of the final curves along San Pablo Bay, I caught a very brief glimpse of the San Francisco skyline sparkling in the distance, before the giant cranes of Oakland harbor obscured those views, announcing our impending arrival into Jack London Square Station.

So far I’d managed, rather successfully, to be within walking distance of my point of departure in each city. In Oakland, I did one better than that, staying with friends who lived literally a block away from Jack London Square Station, so much so that you could hear the trains come and go from the comfort of their living room. Much to their annoyance and to my delight, I should add. And other than a trip across the bay to visit an old friend, and ride – for old times sake – some of my favorite modes of public transit in the country, I ended up spending all of my time in the East Bay for a change. Thanks to my incredible host, I visited Alameda for the first time, chancing upon another aircraft carrier museum while there (there are five in the US, who knew?), sipping to sundown at one of a handful of breweries on the island, and driving through the second oldest underwater tunnel in the country. Boichik Bagels were sampled (sorry Tejal Rao, I still think New York’s are better), outstanding barbecue was consumed, and some fabulous views were had of San Francisco and its iconic bridges – over two crystal clear days, from three distinct vantage points. As a bonus, the occasional Blue Angels formation would fly right over us, headed towards San Francisco to partake in maneuvers over the bay, part of the city’s 40th annual Fleet Week.

Back on the Coast Starlight once more, the countless salt evaporation ponds of San Francisco Bay provided a welcome interlude between the built-up environs of Oakland and Silicon Valley. Gilroy marked the southern tip of Santa Clara County, as also the end of Caltrain territory, and from there on it was all farming country. To Steinbeck lovers, the Salinas Valley is the setting for some of his best known work. It’s also, undoubtedly, the most agriculturally productive region in all of California. Framed by the Santa Lucia range on the west and the Gabilan Mountains on the east, the valley stretches almost a hundred miles from Monterrey Bay in the north to the oilfields of San Ardo in the south. For passengers on the Coast Starlight though, the real magic began just past the town of Paso Robles. Using a series of cuttings and tunnels, the former Southern Pacific route climbs from 740-feet to a height of 1380-feet, only to descend down to 240-feet at San Luis Obispo. All of that in less than 40-miles, the final stretch marked by a dramatic horseshoe curve that eases the train down and over the 117-year old Stenner Creek trestle. A first sighting of the Pacific was had at Pismo Beach, not too far south of San Luis Obispo. Coastal dunes preceded pristine beaches, as the Coast Starlight gradually crested the spectacularly rugged California coastline, revealing expansive vistas with each turn. Magic hour had us pulling in to Santa Barbara’s beautiful Mission-style depot, for the last smoke stop of the journey.

I alighted from the Coast Starlight at Burbank, a few miles shy of its final destination. It was closer to where I was staying, and more importantly, I wanted to pay my respects to LA Union Station by daylight. Glendale’s very own Spanish Colonial masterpiece of a railroad depot was a fine place to catch a Metrolink commuter train into LA Union the next morning. Once there, I spent close to an hour wandering about its grand waiting hall, its high-ceilinged ticket lobby (most recently a venue for the Oscars), and the beautiful garden patios the station encloses on either side. Considered to be the last of the Great Railway Stations to be built in the United States, it’s also an Art Deco gem, in a city and county that abounds in that genre.

Having completed the bulk of my west coast route by now, all that remained were the last 131-miles (211-km) south to San Diego. I had planned this as a day trip from LA, with another one scheduled north to Santa Barbara a couple of days later. My timing, it turns out, couldn’t have been better. Only a week or so prior, the Pacific Surfliner service had been restored south of LA. The route had been closed earlier to allow host railway BNSF to stabilize the rail alignment by dropping additional boulders along the shore. And as I was about to board my train that morning, the PA system at LA Union announced the curtailment of Coast Starlight service. The reason – wildfires burning northwest of Santa Barbara. It wouldn’t operate south of Emeryville until further notice. I had really lucked out.

Just north of San Clemente, where the ocean first comes into view, the brute force of coastal erosion was amply evident as our train slowed to go past the recently restored section of track. Menacing waves crashed against the riprap kicking up quite a spray, and I wondered what it’d be like with the windows open. With a strip of sand separating rail and sea, things got a lot calmer as we approached San Clemente station, its historic pier located alongside, stretching endlessly towards the horizon. Running along the coast for most part and paralleling Interstate 5 as it did so, the Surfliner made stops at Oceanside and Solana, passing several other towns along the way, including a nuclear plant in the process of being decommissioned. It was a revelation to me just how built up that stretch of Southern California is. San Diego may as well be a distant southerly suburb of Los Angeles.

Back in the City of Angels, I stayed with family who were in the midst of a transition from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains to sunny Santa Monica. Caught up with friends across the length and breadth of LA County. Ate a ridiculous amount of delicious Mexican food. Devoured Dumplings at a one-time Jonathan Gold haunt. Complained endlessly about how dry it was in “the Valley”. And somehow got tricked into a strenuous hike that started at the crack of dawn and took an eternity to complete.

Of all the cities I called at on this west coast trip, Santa Barbara was a first for me. And traveling to it from LA also allowed me to experience by day the very end of my Coast Starlight journey that was completed in darkness. Even though it stops at Glendale, I chose to board the Pacific Surfliner from LA Union Station once again. Past Glandale and the airports of Hollywood Burbank and Van Nuys, we made our way north through the San Fernando Valley, quickly losing sight of cityscape as we darted into a tunnel – the first of a handful that allowed the Southern Pacific to find a way into the Simi Valley, and onwards to the Pacific, by boring through the Santa Susana Pass. Acres upon acres of farmland, set to the backdrop of the Santa Monica mountains, made up much of Ventura County, and only at its namesake city did we reunite with the Pacific. An endless procession of RVs and trailers lined the shore, with rail and highway taking turns in providing ringside seats to all the coastal action, such that the last 30-miles into Santa Barbara passed in a snap.

Santa Barbara turned out to be an absolute delight. Even more so since it was a weekday and blissfully devoid of visitors. State Street, with its downtown core closed to traffic, was a pleasure to amble through. There were eating and drinking establishments galore but the only pit stops I ever made were to admire the Mission-style architecture, the overarching aesthetic of bougainvillea-lined entrances, red tiled roofs and stucco walls, and the incredible upkeep all around. My walk ended with a visit to the late 18th-century Santa Barbara Mission, one of 21 to be set up by the Spanish in what is now the State of California. At a bike share station right outside, the purist in me actually succumbed to the temptation of an e bike, quietly making my way back towards the city center. I was suitably impressed. A late lunch was had at La Super-Rica Taqueria – a little off the touristy circuit, but with a Julia Child stamp of approval, I was assured. Those tacos were pretty sabroso, I have to say. Following a leisurely stroll along West Beach and Stearns Wharf – where you truly get to appreciate the beautiful setting of the city – I found my way back to Santa Barbara station to complete the very last of my series of train journeys.

Late November and after a gap of a year I was headed back to Puerto Rico. It would be my third Thanksgiving there and my fourth visit overall, my love affair with the islands only getting stronger. This time around I’d also be playing guide, as I had my sister visiting. Even before we got there though, we were saddled with declaration forms, PCR tests and the like. It seemed the island territory was taking things very seriously. Not surprising, as their transmission rates at the time were amongst the lowest in the world, second only to New Zealand’s. On the ground, things were no different, and it felt good being prepared on arrival at SJU, while practically every gringo was struggling to scan QR codes, fill out forms last minute and submit to rapid tests. Move over Washington and Oregon – Puerto Rico was on top of their game, as any Far East Asian country could claim to be through the pandemic.

Walking the streets of Old San Juan was a joy, all over again. It helped that I knew practically every street and corner by now, as I showed my sister around with the confidence of a local. Time and again I thought to myself, I could hardly tire of this. New eateries were tried and tested, and some of my old favorites revisited, with an ample assortment of daiquiris and mojitos imbibed in-between. All without having to deal with the cruise ship hordes. But those ocean-going behemoths had already started trickling in, so without much ado, we jetted out. Or rather, puddle-jumped across. A colorful hand-painted sign greeted us outside Vieques’s little airport, reminding everyone that there was no hospital on the island and everyone must look out for one another. It was a lesson in humility for anyone visiting from the US mainland.

El Blok. Esperanza. The Malecon. Everything was pretty much the same as I had left it in 2019, and I couldn’t be happier. This time though, with a few extra days on hand, I was determined to explore more of the island, and my travel companion was not difficult to convince. We pretty much made it to a new beach everyday, at one point reaching the very western tip of the island. En route to one such beach, I stumbled upon the rusting carcasses of narrow gauge steam locomotives – relics of the islands sugarcane era. Don’t ask how I could possibly have missed them on two previous visits. To keep my sister company, I did a bio bay tour all over again, which was as magical as the first time, only now we had glass bottom kayaks as a bonus. And I snorkeled after ages by one the cayos or keys that have sat tantalizingly across the bay from El Blok, the hotel I’ve stayed at on every visit.

Given how small the island and its corresponding offerings are, I was certain it wouldn’t be smooth sailing during our pandemic visit, but turns out only breakfast was a bit of a challenge. There was really nothing to complain about. Just incredibly pleasant memories, and a new list of things to accomplish on my next visit – horseback riding tours of the island, amongst them. By the time we were headed back to the Puerto Rican mainland, the word Omicron had found its way into the news cycle. In a matter of weeks, Puerto Rico would, sadly, be one of the worst hit in the Americas.

Travel in these times is a true privilege – a lot more than it ever has been in the past. And while acknowledging that fully, it’s also been a giant leap of faith for me. One that was necessitated – rather ironically – by soon-to-expire travel credits from trips cancelled in 2020.

Photos from my journey along the US West Coast can be viewed here.

One thought on “2021: The travel year that almost took off

  1. You didn’t set a foot outside the borders of the US in these words, yet the wanderings you’ve described here as evocatively as ever makes it seem like you went to a dozen exotic ‘foreign’ places and had experiences that the vast majority of the population would not even be aware of the possibility of, let alone actually seen heard and felt in person! Agar tu zindagi mein aur kuch bhi nahin achieve kare, que fucking mágico ya, many (many) times over!

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