In August 2015, we embarked on a trip of a lifetime. We travelled 3000 miles from New York City to San Fransisco, over 3 weeks on the American Amtrak trains with the help of Great Rail Journeys, and our Tour Manager, John Levick. We, along with the other 35 passengers of varying ages, ranging from families with teenage children to lone travellers in their 70s, were greeted by John at Heathrow Airport, where, for the first of many times of the duration of the trip, he made sure we got checked in without hitch, and gave us some info about arrangements when we arrived at JFK and our stay in New York.
Our flight with Virgin Atlantic was smooth and enjoyable, and before we knew it, we were checking into our very nice hotel in the heart of Times Square. We arrived in time to be able to enjoy the excitement of New York at night. The following morning we enjoyed what ended up being a pattern at each new place we visited - a guided coach tour with a knowledgeable local guide showing us many of the sights, followed by time at our leisure for the remainder of the afternoon and following day. Our time here was jam-packed, and we managed to take in Central Park, Greenwich Village, The High Line, Ground Zero and the new Freedom Tower.
The next day came, and it was time for our first Amtrak train experience, as we travelled to Washington DC. John organised for our luggage to be picked up from our rooms, something he did before every onward journey, and we didn't see it again until we arrived at our next hotel. Washington was a fantastic place to explore. With the White House only 15 minutes from our hotel, and the numerous free and incredibly interesting museums right on our doorstep, we loved it there.
We travelled to Chicago next, on our first of three overnight journeys on the train. What an experience this was! The cabins were tiny, but had all you needed for a relaxing journey. The observation lounges were amazing - floor-to-ceiling glass windows - and we spent hours sat before them, watching the miles upon miles whizz by. John took care of all the tickets, luggage arrangements, cabin and hotel room allocations; we really could sit back and relax.
Chicago was a great city with some wonderful architecture, which we got to enjoy on an additional excursion, organised by John just for those who fancied it. We took a trip down the river on an architectural boat trip, enjoying the commentary from our local guide, who was full of wisdom. Another trip highlight followed, in the bar at the John Hancock tower for the best drink/view combination of the trip!
After another overnight journey, our next stop was Denver. Travelling by Amtrak trains was very sociable, and a good opportunity if, like us, you wished to get to know your fellow travel companions, not only from the Great Rail group but also American passengers. In Denver we enjoyed an optional extra full day excursion to The Rocky Mountain National Park, accompanied by John, along with a local tour guide and the coach driver, who was an ex sheriff and current Indian Chief! We really got to meet some fascinating people on this trip - and that, along with the views, the herds of Elk that we saw, and the John Denver soundtrack, of course, made the day one which we will remember forever.
One of our favourite days on the whole trip was the day we travelled from Grand Junction to Durango via Silverton and its spectacular narrow-gauge railway. Silverton is an authentic Wild West town full of saloon bars and traditional shops. The railway journey from there to Durango was breathtaking. The following days were a whirlwind of wonderful experiences- travelling through Navajo Nation, Monument Valley and, of course, the Grand Canyon. At Flagstaff, John had arranged a group meal at a local restaurant, which the whole group enjoyed. We opted for the additional flight excursion at the Grand Canyon - something that we would highly recommend (despite the fact I normally hate flying). Seeing the Grand Canyon from above, in a tiny 19-seater plane, was incredible.
Our night on The Queen Mary was quite the experience. We stayed in the First Class cabins, which are still decked out in their original décor, complete with walnut panelling. The optional tour around the ship was fascinating; it oozed luxury, and I for one was happy to indulge.
The final leg of our journey took us up the Pacific coast to San Fransisco, another gem of a city. John had organised an optional farewell dinner on the last evening, which most of the group participated in.
We were sad that our adventure was over, but in awe of the places that we had travelled to. It had been our first experience on an organised tour, and we absolutely loved it. Having a Tour Manager with us throughout was a luxury; he took the stress and the thinking out of every aspect, meaning we could relax and just enjoy our holiday. Before embarking, we wondered whether we would enjoy the "group travel" aspect of the holiday - we were on our honeymoon and wanted to have time to ourselves. However, the pace of the trip meant that we could spend as much or as little time as we wanted with the other members of the group, and ended up making some good friends.
By Lydia O'Gorman