Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Ridin' The Rails: Bellingham-Vancouver on Amtrak

The yard requires fall cleaning, the house is still a minor disaster area after our four-month kitchen renovation, and it's time to pack for our Caribbean cruise next week. What better time to escape from it all for a train ride? We also kick start our new memberships in Amtrak Rewards, in anticipation of a couple of longer rail trips in the future.

Kathy finds a senior rate allowing us to ride from Bellingham to Vancouver for about $11 each way. Our first step is to drive about a half hour south (the exact opposite direction of driving about an hour north of our house to Vancouver) to the Fairhaven Station to board the Amtrak Cascades as it stopped at Bellingham.

After parking the car across the street ($6 - bills and coins required for the drop slots),

we offer up our enhanced drivers' licenses to the clerk and hang around the modern but retro-designed station until the train rolls in and a friendly young conductor welcomes us aboard.

From then on we sit back and enjoyed the scenery as our train rolls north, past the railroad crossing we traverse every time we drive to and from Birch Bay, across the Canadian border, and then a jog east through New Westminster and Burnaby before arriving at Vancouver's Via Rail station sitting in a fairly dismal neighborhood just off Main Street.

The seats put the average airline's business class to shame.

Bellingham Bay, Mud Bay, White Rock... Lots to see, including bald eagles, as we ride by the sea.

Before long we see the Patullo Bridge and the more-modern adjacent Skytrain Skybridge, both crossing the Fraser River to connect Surrey and New Westminster, and then we cross the river ourselves, after waiting for awhile to give a freight train priority.

Before long (or at least by about noon), we pull into the station, present our enhanced drivers' licenses to Canadian Immigration inspectors, and find ourselves in Vancouver.

We have to be back at the station by 4:30 p.m. to check in and go through US Immigration pre-clearance (our mildly grumpy inspector tells us he would "prefer" passports over our enhanced drivers' licenses, and we hand them over so he can stamp another page, probably the most exercise he gets, to judge from his appearance), but in the meantime we can enjoy a lingering lunch and wander nearby Chinatown.

Returning to the station, and peering out the window at the Via rail train on the next track, we decide that a train ride can be a pleasant way to spend a day. A stop next to the Peace Arch where US Customs Inspectors climb aboard and zip through the train collecting customs forms, and we're climbing off the train and into our car for the drive back home.

Driving a half hour south of home to catch a train to take us to a destination about an hour north of home, and then doing it in reverse, makes perfect sense to us.

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