Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Vancouver Island – Stopping for Little Berries and Big Birds

It was near midnight by the time our ferry finally docked at Port Hardy near the northern end of Vancouver Island. We had ordered a taxi for the 20-minute ride to our hotel, but it was scooped by one of the other passengers, so we ended up taking “the shuttle”, which was, in fact, a vintage yellow school bus. (Is a stick shift “vintage” enough for you?)

The next morning, we collected our rental can and headed south, stopping the first night at Courtnay, roughly halfway down the length of the island. The second day would bring is to Victoria, near the southern end of the island. But there were some very worthwhile stops along the way.

 Just after a lunch stop, we swung off the road and followed some hand-lettered signs to a farm with five acres of blueberries in the process of being harvested.

 We bought a pound of the most delicious berries you can imagine … not nearly enough, because we had gobbled more than half of them before we had reached Victoria.

A bit farther on, attracted once again by signs announcing a chance to see raptors up close, we turned off and found our way to a wildlife preserve in which numerous birds of prey were kept in cages and pens.

 The highlight was a flying demonstration, with a number of birds gliding effortlessly between two of the handlers. There was a Harris Hawk (above), a barn owl, a bald eagle and a Peregrine falcon, a bird that routinely flies at more than 100 mph.

Several of the larger birds are kept tethered in individual open-air pens -- this magnificent bald eagle is one of the "residents" -- but all are allowed to fly free at night and all return to the facility of their own free will.

Then it was on to Victoria, the provincial capital and the last stop in our tour of Western Canada.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Prince Rupert to Port Hardy on the Inside Passage

Early yesterday morning – very early! – we boarded the MV Northern Expedition, the newest addition to the fleet of ferries operated by BC Ferries. I was unable to get my own photo of the ship because it was too dark when we boarded in Prince Rupert at 6:00 a.m. and pitch black when we arrived at Port Hardy on Vancouver Island at 11:30 that night. But, courtesy of BC Ferries, here’s one of their photos.

 This vessel can accommodate 130 vehicles and as many as 600 people. There is a cafe serving a variety of simple fare and a sit-down restaurant serving breakfast and dinner. There are even several dozen cabins, each accommodating two persons ... perfect in our case because we arrived so late at Port Hardy. It was great to be able to lie down and nap under clean sheets in privacy until our arrival.

Our route from Prince Rupert took us south, threading our way through countless islands, most appearing to be uninhabited. The trip was smooth and quiet from start to finish.

Along the way, we overtook and passed several dozen smaller vessels. Most were clearly fishing boats of one kind or another -- small, plain and utilitarian. There was this one excption, however ... a luxury yacht described by our captain as a "50-meter motor vessel". It's name: Legacy. Wow!

It was midnight by the time we reached our hotel in Port Hardy. This morning, we stepped out onto the small balcony overlooking the harbor to see more than a dozen bald eagles ... some perched in the tops of nearby pine trees, others fluttering around on the rocks looking for food during low tide, and others soaring around effortlessly.

This beauty -- a young bird yet to blossom out with white feathers around the head and neck -- came sailing by just seconds after I had snapped my long lens into place. Spectacular!

From Port Hardy, we're driving some 300 miles south to Victoria. We'll be there tomorrow night. More to come.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Journey Continues: Banff to Jasper and Beyond

The Rocky Mountaineer stopped in Kamloops for our first night and, since there are no sleeping cars on the train, we were all bussed to one of the local hotels for the evening.

The next day, it was back aboard for a full day of magnificent scenery and fabulous food, concluding with our arrival in the resort town of Banff well after dark. I had decided to splurge on the hotel for the one night we would be here and booked a room at the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel. Was it worth some $300-plus for that one night? You tell me ...

This was the view that greeted us when I opened the bedroom curtains the following morning.

After breakfast, we piled into our rental car and headed off to see more of this part of Canada. First stop was the town of Rocky Mountain House ... and, yes, that's the name of the town. It's well out onto the Alberta plains in horse-and-cattle coutry, and we had dinner that night at a Boston Pizza restaurant with country-western music blaring. Only a third of the tables were set up due to a "server shortage", although it sure appeared as though a full complement of servers were taking care of the fellas in an adjacent room featuring a juke box and several pool tables.

The next day we headed off to Jasper where we were to connect with the Skeena, a VIA Rail train that would take us to Prince Rupert, British Columbia ... all the way back on the West Coast.

To get there, we had to drive much of the way via the Ice Fields Parkway. As you can see, there were some pretty spectacular sights along the way. In all, the drive to Jasper took almost four hours.

The following morning, we reported to the VIA Rail station and no sooner had our bags been checked and we settled into our seats in the waiting room than the Skeena was brought into the station. There, at he end of the consist, was the classic bullet-ended lounge car that brings up the rear on VIA Rail's signature trains and features that wonderful sight-seeing dome on the second level.

We boarded at 12:30, were underway spot on time at 12:45, and by 1:00 were being served lunch in our seats in the coach car reserved for passengers traveling in "touring class". In all, there were just 10 of us.

As soon as our meal was finished, I headed back one car to the lounge car, climbed up the narrow stairway into the dome, and settled into a seat in the very front row. 

Can you imagine how someone addicted to rail travel feels spending the better part of two days traveling through the Canadian Rockies with this as my vantage point?

Adding to the sheer pleasure of the experience, our car attendant, Jill, would appear from time to time to ask if we would care for some refreshment: "A glass of chilled white wine, perhaps?"

Ya think??

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

First Comes Amtrak, then the Rocky Mountaineer.

The first few days of this journey feature long hours and early wake-up calls. The Hawaiian Airlines flight from Maui didn't arrive until 11:15 p.m. and by the time were got to our hotel in Seattle, grabbed a bite to eat and got to bed it was 2:00 a.m.

 The next morning we caught one of Amtrak's Cascade trains for the four-hour ride up to Vancouver. The service has become very successful and there are now two round-trips a day. Paula and I relaxed in he lounge car as the train skirted several miles of the Puget Sound shoreline.

The following morning bright and early we arrived at the Rocky Mountaineer's station and boarded one of heir bi-level coaches. Seating is on the upper level and there is a dining area and kitchen on the lower level. The kitchen crew turns out fabulous meals, by the way ...

 ... as we were to find out shortly after our departure from Vancouver. Behold! My very favorite meal, whether for breakfast, lunch or dinner: Eggs Benedict.

For the first several hours of this journey, the Rocky Mountaineer passes through the Fraser River Valley with mountains of the Cascade Range providing a stunning backdrop for lush fields and tidy farms.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

And ... They're Off!

Leaving Maui in a couple of hours and, after a quick visit to Vancouver, will be traveling by train through the Canadian Rockies: Vancouver-Banff-Jasper-Prince Rupert ... and from there back to Victoria by ferry. Laptop is coming along and I will do some posting here as time permits. Plus, of course, a full recap with photos upon our return.  Aloha!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Sad Tale of an Irresistible Rock and an Immovable Hard Place.

We’re leaving in a couple of days for a two-week trip that will take us deep into the Canadian Rockies.

The first segment will be aboard a train that’s been on my bucket list for years, the Rocky Mountaineer. We’ll depart from Vancouver on Monday morning, arriving in Banff the following evening in time for dinner.

I’m looking forward to almost everything about this vacation. Except the part about crossing the picket line.

The problems began over a year ago as the Rocky Mountaineer was gearing up for the 2011 tourist season. Back then, the railroad’s employees had voted to switch their union representation … to the Teamsters. Within a few weeks, a list of employee demands was presented to the Rocky Mountaineer management.

The merits of the demands were essentially irrelevant because any discussion would necessarily involve a toxic combination of philosophies and personalities. On one side there was a take-no-prisoners labor union under pressure to produce on promises made to the employees during the representation election. On the other side, you had the owner of the Rocky Mountaineer, Peter Armstrong, clearly a man of wealth with a forceful, independent make-up ... not to mention a well-known and influential mover-and-shaker in Canadian politics.

What happened was 100-percent predictable: there was no agreement. Then the company locked out its employees and hired replacement workers. The union cried foul and set up picket lines. That was well over a year ago and, as I understand it, there have been no meaningful discussions since.

Both sides would do well to consider the Congress Plaza Hotel in Chicago. There was a similar labor dispute there and, as we speak, pickets are marching back and forth with their “UNFAIR” signs in front of the hotel’s main entrance on Michigan Avenue. But here's the thing: They’ve been marching for more than ten years.

I guess my best advice for both the Teamsters and the Rocky Mountaineer ownership would be to suck up a little pride, sit down together in private, and keep talking until a reasonable agreement is reached. Anything else is just being stubborn. And stupid.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Opponents of Honolulu's Rail Transit Project Have No Shame.

Back in the early 1970s, officials from the federal agency then known as the Urban Mass Transportation Administration came to Honolulu and pleaded with government officials to get their act together and approve the city's proposed transit project. Furthermore, they were ready to provide 90 percent of the funding.

The UMTA people understood what most of us already knew: Geographically, Honolulu is made for a rail transit system. They felt that the proposed system couldn't fail and Honolulu would serve as a success model for other transit projects throughout the rest of the country.

They were right, too. Honolulu is a long, narrow city strung out between the mountains and the sea. The basic plan has been the same for 40 years: Run a rail line right through the middle of that urban area and use the existing city buses to bring people from their neighborhoods to the transit line.

Sadly – no, tragically – that initial project was defeated by the Honolulu City Council. The vote was 5-4. A revised proposal was resurrected several years later, but met the same fate. Different members on the Council, but it was another 5-4 vote.

Meantime, Honolulu kept growing: more people, more urban sprawl, more environmental degradation and, of course, more traffic congestion. In fact, Honolulu was recently recognized as having the worst commuter traffic in the whole damn country! It now takes an hour or more to cover the 14-15 miles into downtown Honolulu from the Leeward Plain. And that’s on a good day.

So a few years back, Honolulu city officials tried a third bite at the transit apple. And this time they went all out, even getting the electorate to vote for a one-half percent increase to our local sales tax to generate money for the project.

The feds committed their support and things got rolling. Believe it or not, construction was actually started a few months back.

But the opposition had been rolling, too. And, typical of anti-rail forces anywhere, most of their arguments were purely emotional and there was, of course, a great deal of misinformation.
The fact is, most of people actively working against the project are doing so because of their own personal ideology. They are libertarians who hate any government backed project because it requires – shudder – tax dollars. And, finally, there are the selfless folks who oppose the transit system because they personally will never ride it.

But here’s the latest outrage: A new anti-rail group has popped up and joined the fray. It’s called the Hawaii Environmental Coalition and they are opposing a project the rest of us passionately support in large part because of its environmental benefits. That was weird enough for a local on-line news organization to take a look at this new organization’s membership. Guess what? It’s the same bunch of conservative and libertarian politicians and ideologues that has been opposing the Honolulu transit projects for forty years! It’s hard to imaging anything more cynical … or more dishonest.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Asking for a Fair Shake from the Conservative Press.

The Wall Street Journal recently carried an opinion column bemoaning the fact that a number of improvements to passenger rail systems in the Mid-west would require some subsidy from the federal government.

Of course knee-jerk conservatives, both in and out of the media, go bonkers at the very utterance of the word “subsidy”, and that was the tone of the Mark Peters story in the WSJ.

The column prompted an indignant response to Peters from one of our active and more articulate  members of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a portion of which is quoted herewith:

"No form of general transportation is now or has ever been truly profitable, and few modes – from Roman roads to U.S. railroads -- have ever been developed or maintained without significant government “subsidy” – i.e., tax revenues beyond direct user fees.

"Yet, in America, car travel – perhaps the most heavily subsidized form of transportation in the history of mankind – remains the standard means of mobility, while trains are forced to prove their legitimacy in a world that is stacked against them.

"Part of this 'stack' is the common practice of otherwise conscientious reporters such as yourself to report that these Midwest trains will require subsidies, but not to point out that our highways and civil-aviation infrastructure require substantial federal subsidies and have been receiving them for much longer—highways since 1916 and airways since 1926.

"Should you question that auto user subsidies exceed other mobility subsidies, please examine the most recent edition of USDOT’s transportation funding data. Then check the budgets of a variety of states, cities and towns to see how much each spends on streets and highways and how much of the needed revenue for those expenditures is generated from non-auto user sources such as sales taxes, property taxes, and bond issues paid off from general fund revenues."

So how about it, Mr. Peters? Any chance you might give passenger rail a fair shake in the future?