Seattle to Vancouver by Train

A train has to be one of my favourite modes of travel. Perhaps not battling for breathing space on the tube, but relaxing in comfort on a long distance train is hard to beat in my book.

 Travelling across an international border by train takes things to a higher level. It’s quite a few years since I went inter-railing across Europe, when there were still border crossings to navigate, but I still vividly recall the mixture of excitement and apprehension at reaching a far-flung border patrol in Eastern Europe at the dead of night.

And so I booked us onto Train 510, leaving Seattle King Street Station for Vancouver, at 7.45am on a bright Tuesday morning in July.

Four tickets cost us $126, which I thought seemed pretty reasonable, especially as it meant we didn’t need to spend another few hours waiting in airports.

There was, however, a pretty strange system to board the train. Rather than being allocated seats in advance, so that you can simply walk onto the train at 7.45am, we had to arrive at the station an hour before departure to check-in our luggage and receive a seat allocation. This was straight-forward enough to do, but it meant waking the kids slightly before their natural rising time, which is always a risk before a long journey.

Our wait in Seattle station was livened up by a very talkative Kiwi, who was making his way home to Vancouver Island. We chatted about New Zealand, which we hadn’t long departed, and inevitably drifted onto the subject of Rugby, which you are almost bound to do whenever meeting a true Kiwi. I couldn’t help but feel a tad envious of somebody lucky enough to have a New Zealand passport and a Canadian visa.

We boarded the Amtrak service and left Seattle on time, camera at the ready to capture the passing scenery as we journeyed north to the Canadian border. In between taking the kids on journeys to the buffet car, I spent most of the journey trying to master taking photos while moving at high-speed.

Seattle to Vancouver train

Seattle to Vancouver train

I just about managed to get a picture of a golden eagle, perched on the shore, but you might need to look quite hard to see it.

Golden eagle on the beach

Otherwise the journey was one long masterpiece, and it was only a shame that we couldn’t have spent longer exploring this stretch of coastline.

Seattle to Vancouver train

Seattle to Vancouver trainSeattle to Vancouver train

Border control was at Vancouver station, which caused a slight delay getting off the train, but it still felt incredible to be walking onto Canadian soil at just after lunchtime, having spent the morning in America.

Summer in Seattle

I’m not sure why you’d want your dinner to be chucked through the air, but a large crowd was baying for more fish flinging. We’d arrived at Pike’s Place Market and stumbled upon the fish counter. Huge specimens of fresh fish were in the process of being hurled, from the front of stage fish monger, to some brave men working behind the counter, who were being required to receive the weighty and very slippery-looking catch.

Pike Place Fish Market

Pike’s Place is the home of Starbucks, but we didn’t feel the need to pay homage to a chain of coffee shops, so instead we stayed and watched the fish throwing. We had to battle to get out of the crowd once our time was up, and the rest of Pike’s Place was seething with people browsing stalls of fruit, vegetables, flowers and assorted homemade objects.

Pike Place Market

Fresh cherries in Seattle

The view from the back of the market was worth the trip alone, with distant snow topped mountains framing a glorious view of Puget Sound.

We’d stopped for breakfast in the welcoming sounding Crumpet Shop. The crumpets were homemade and extremely tasty, but there was an almost overwhelming array of potential toppings to navigate. The kids played it safe with raspberry jam. I couldn’t decide and was feeling adventurous, so I opted for a savoury option of green tomatoes, with a helping of maple butter for pudding. This was more food than I needed for breakfast, but I felt like throwing caution to the wind.

The Crumpet Shop, Seattle

Fully sustained for the day ahead, we spent the morning exploring the stalls of Pike Place and then headed out to Space Needle. We got way laid for several hours in the Children’s Museum, which was stacked full of opportunities for the kids to explore and pretend play.

Space Needle, Seattle

The Chihuly glass exhibition was incredible to look at, but the edge was taken off it by worrying about whether the kids were about to touch / break one of the very expensive looking sculptures.

Chihuly Glass Exhibition, Seattle

With the crumpets walked off, we headed for the best pizza in town at Serious Pie. One of the major benefits of having children is that we don’t usually need to reserve a table for dinner. Eating bang on 5pm every day tends to ensure that we beat dinner rush hour.

Serious Pie was seemingly so popular, however, that a queue was forming as they were opening up. We were seated at a shared table, which caused an initial flurry of confused looks. Any apprehension that we might need to speak with strangers over dinner was soon overcome. Surely one of the best things about coming to America is how friendly everybody seems, and we were soon swapping holiday stories and life plans with a totally unknown family from California that just happened to be sharing our dinner table.

We went back to Serious Pie for dinner on our second day in Seattle and sat next to the same family again. I don’t think they were stalking us, but the pizza was very good and our second night felt like a family reunion.

Our brief stay in Seattle coincided with some beautiful summer weather, and on the basis of our experience, Seattle looked like a great place to live. The downtown area was vibrant, with buildings that were old enough to provide some character. The football and baseball stadiums were walkable from downtown, which is surely how it should be.

Steep streets of Seattle

Back To Reality

Around four months into our new life of not working, we’ve made the decision to come back to reality after six months of travelling. This is shorter than the full year we’d originally planned.

Before embarking on a year away, the kids were worried about missing school, missing their friends, and not having enough toys to play with. So far, they have loved most of the places we have visited, and have coped well with the constant changes of scenery and lack of routine.

But having never travelled for such a long period of time, choosing to go away for a year was always a slightly arbitrary aim. Six months now feels right.

This does mean, however, that our original itinerary goes out the window. After Australia, the plan was to spend a couple of months exploring the USA and Canada, followed by some time in Central America and back home via South East Asia.

We already had flights booked from Sydney to Los Angeles, via Hawaii, so we still intend to spend some time on the West Coast, but we’ll then skip back and finish our trip in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka was near the top of my wish list for this journey and I can’t wait to take the kids to see some real life elephants and enjoy curry for breakfast.

A Family Retreat In Huon Valley, Tasmania

I had carelessly booked us onto a Jet Star flight out of Melbourne. This meant we had plenty of time to kill in Melbourne airport. Jet Star’s published timetable of flight departures is a work of pure fiction. Tonight they were only running an hour late, which felt like a mini success.

We landed in Hobart at 11pm, after a perilously low approach over some water that almost had me reaching for my life jacket. As we are instructed at the start of each flight, I was fully ready to save myself first, with the kids entirely oblivious to our impending doom, absorbed on their iPads.

The pilot somehow found tarmac and I dashed out of the bijou terminal building to call our car hire company, convinced that we’d probably missed the last courtesy bus. I got straight through to a lovely lady, who told us to wait inside the terminal building and she’d swing round to pick us up in ten minutes.

Not only did this save us a walk to the bus stop, but it also suggested that we would be able to pick-up our car and I could break some good news to the family. We wouldn’t, after all, need to sleep in the terminal building like proper travellers.

I was warming to Tasmania already.

After a bus journey of five minutes we were dropped off in a barely lit gravel car park and given the keys to our 4×4 (Apex car rentals had a special offer, so I decided to upgrade!).

It was already a late night and the kids were starting to doze off in the car as we drove to our new Airbnb house, around an hour south of Hobart, in the Huon Valley. There was plenty of road kill as we headed out of town, and a couple of live wallabies were grazing in the middle of the road, attempting to become the next victims.

Our new home was around ten minutes outside the logging town of Geevston. It had an almost Japanese feel, with sliding doors and neat storage making the most of what was, essentially, a converted shipping container.

In the pitch black of our arrival, our only concern was locating the keys so that we could all get some sleep. After some searching through my emails, I eventually located the lock box code and we were in. Anja stopped searching for nearby hotels and congratulated me on my excellent planning.

The morning revealed a glorious sunrise over the surrounding hills and a sneaking view of the Huon river valley below us. I was extremely pleased with our little of slice of Tasmanian soil and was starting to google house prices in the area.

Family gap year

Compared to the rest of Australia, Tasmania is relatively poor and land is relatively inexpensive. You can pick up an acre plot with coastal views for less than $100k. The same plot in Perth or Sydney would cost millions.

When my writing career takes off and I can live off the royalties, then a little spot in Tasmania could look very appealing. In the meantime I’m not sure we’d be able to survive off the land alone, so we’ll have to settle for visiting.

Tahune Forest

After spending the previous day travelling, we were ready for some fresh air on our first full day in Tasmania.

Family travel blog

A 30-minute drive along a mud road from Geevston brought us to the Tahune Forest, and the prospect of enjoying some fresh air from a wobbly walkway constructed at dizzying heights off the forest floor.

The Tahune Airwalk loops 600m around the forest, at heights of up to 50m off the ground. This may not sound much, but it looks pretty high when all you’re standing on is some metal mesh with a clear drop below.

Family career break

As usual, the kids ran around the walkway and attempted to give me a heart attack by leaning precariously over low sections of handrail.

The views from up high were magnificent, but I was glad to return to solid ground and tackle one of the loop walks that crossed over a couple of swing bridges on a meandering forest pathway. An information board suggested this walk was an hour long, but the kids were keen to have a good laugh at me on the swing bridges, so off we set.

Family gap year

With various stops to inspect insects and prod mushrooms with sticks, daylight was beginning to recede when we eventually returned to the car park.

Family gap year

There’s something hugely satisfying about spending an afternoon with the kids, just walking and talking and being outdoors.

I’m not convinced the kids entirely agree…

Family gap year

Mt Wellington

Hobart sits in a gorgeous setting, with Mt Wellington on one side and a natural harbour on the other.

As a job creation scheme in the 1930’s, a winding road was built all the way to the peak of Mt Wellington. At over 1,200 metres above sea level, the top of the mountain is a good 10 degrees cooler than Hobart. I can imagine the summit provides a lovely sanctuary from the summertime heat, but we were there in winter, so it was bloody freezing.

RTW family

The view across Hobart was spectacular, for a few brief moments, before the clouds descended and we were cut-off from civilisation.

RTW family

Anja retreated to the warmth of the car, while the kids decided to do some rock climbing to the tip of the summit. I was put in charge of supervising the rock climbing, which meant I could have a go too while asking the kids to wait for me at the top.

RTW family

Salamanca Market

Salamanca market in Hobart runs every Saturday and we spent several happy hours wandering up and down the rows of stalls.

The surrounding area is a hub for apple growers, so there was a fair proportion of apple stalls, as you might expect. Otherwise, the market contained a fairly standard looking selection of food stalls and crafty objects, with the odd whiff of homemade soap mixed in with the coffee and hot dog aromas.

At one end of the market, a British guy, Jamie Maslin, had set-up stall selling signed copies of his book “The Long Hitch Home”. This was based on his journey from Hobart to London, which he accomplished over several months via hitch hiking. I eagerly snapped up a copy and spent the rest of the week feeling like an inferior traveller every time I jumped in our hire car.

While I was browsing books, the kids were sat enraptured by a street performer, who for some unknown reason was trying to squeeze himself through a tennis racket. Having finished contorting his body in ways that I couldn’t even bring myself to look at, he finished by inserting a sword down his throat. After nearly an hour of extreme busking, the guy did at least collect a decent amount of cash from the surrounding crowd. Whether it was enough cash to warrant a potentially life-threatening injury, I doubt.

RTW family

Port Arthur

Port Arthur is a world heritage site, originally home to thousands of convicts that had re-offended following their original transportation from the UK. It is also the site of the world’s first dedicated boys prison.

I was expecting to find a desolate place, surrounded by shark infested waters and inescapable depths of forest. Natural fortifications to contain hardened career criminals from the rest of humanity.

Instead, Port Arthur was both beautifully tranquil and picturesque in its late Autumn colours. It was hard to picture this scene as a place of imprisonment. It looked the perfect setting for a holiday camp.

Family travel blog

Plus, of course, most of the criminals did not appear to be hardened villains, but desperately poor people who had been transported from the UK for stealing food or poaching.

We spent all day wandering around the various buildings that formed the village of Port Arthur, which wasn’t just a prison, but also a thriving industrial centre and army barracks.

RTW family

The main prison is now in a semi-ruined condition following several bush fires in the late 1800’s, but it was possible to get a sense of the conditions in a separate block that was built to isolate particularly difficult customers. Modelled on London’s Pentonville jail, the new prison kept inmates in perpetual silence, with the guards even going so far as to wear soft slippers to avoid the sound of footsteps on the hard stone floors. Unsurprisingly, the new prison was next door to the insane asylum.

Whale Spotting

A brief aside, but on the road home from Port Arthur we parked the car at a crazy angle on the side of the road. This was a reflex response on my part to seeing a small crowd of people standing at the roadside, peering out into the surrounding water.

A few of the locals tutted at us as they had to pull around to pass our car on a blind bend. No doubt cursing us inconsiderate tourists.

But we didn’t care, because after a few possibilities of seeing whales previously on our travels, we got a sighting of a mother whale with her calf, sheltering in the shallow inlet waters. They were very close to the surface and came up for air a few times. They were several hundred metres from the roadside, but we could see and hear them clearly, even if my pictures don’t quite prove this.

Family career break

 Cockle Creek

Having studied a map of our new surroundings, I was excited to learn that we were within striking distance of the most southerly point in Australia. Or, at least, the most southerly point that you can reach in a car.

After Cockle Creek, the next stop is Antarctica.

Before Cockle Creek, there is miles of bumpy dirt roads.

I was confident that we’d be fine with a touch of off-roading, on the basis that I had the foresight to book a 4×4 and hadn’t bothered to study the hire agreement small print in too much detail.

There wasn’t anything much at Cockle Creek. An empty camper van in the car park was evidence of the last known visitors, but otherwise we had the place to ourselves.

Family gap year

Despite the less than optimal bathing temperatures, we headed to the beach to enjoy the solitude and eat our hastily arranged picnic. French bread and cheese.

The kids managed a brief dip in the icy waters, and then we decided to retreat to the promised warmth of Hastings Thermal Pools. We’d passed a sign for Hastings on the way down and the kids needed de-frosting.

The thermal pool turned out to look very much like a normal outdoors swimming pool, albeit in a nice woodland setting and surrounded by several potential walking trails. The water was not very warm, at 28 degrees Celsius, but it was warm enough for us.

Next Time

Just a short hop across to Melbourne, for a few days whizzing around on free trams.

Why Can’t We Fly To Melbourne?

After a wonderful week in Adelaide staying with my family, we decided to go on a road trip to Melbourne so that we could drive the Great Ocean Road. I was looking forward to the dramatic scenery, getting out into small town south Australia, stopping frequently for coffee and a wander about. The kids were wondering why we couldn’t just fly to Melbourne.

We set aside four days to drive 1,000km from Adelaide to Melbourne and made our first overnight stop in Mt Gambier, the second largest town in South Australia. This got us 400km along the way to Melbourne, leaving us plenty of time to explore the more scenic sections ahead.

Mt Gambier sits on the slopes of a volcanic hill, with a cobalt blue lake at its peak. The Blue Lake wasn’t living up to its name when we visited, but it was still interesting to see the flooded remnants of a volcanic explosion less than 5,000 years old. The brilliant blue colour is only visible in summertime, and under the cloudier June skies it was closer to grey.

Blue Lake Mt Gambier

Our second night was spent in Port Fairy, which we reached shortly after crossing the state line into Victoria. I was pleased to have driven across an international time zone (+30 minutes between Victoria and South Adelaide). Nobody else seemed too fussed about this achievement, but I stopped the car at the side of the road to mark the occasion.

Family road trip

Port Fairy was well worth a stop. With a whole afternoon to spare we set about wandering up and down the high street to see what food might be on offer. Rebecca’s café served us up a nice bowl of seafood chowder for lunch and by the time we were hungry for dinner Sally Coffin’s had lit the pizza oven. We even managed to squeeze in some crepes for breakfast at the Belfast Man’s place and two trips to the old-fashioned sweet shop.

We could happily have stayed in Port Fairy for much longer, but we’d eaten too much and had a date with the official start of the Great Ocean Road.

From Adelaide, the B100 begins just beyond the town of Warrnambool, marking the start of ocean hugging roads and spectacular scenery.

There is a whale nursery in Warnambool and we’d read about some recent sightings of Great Southern whales with young calves just off the coast. We made our way to the purpose built viewing platform, where a few locals were camped out for the day with their thermos flasks and long lens cameras at the ready.

The sea was choppy and the white waves made it very difficult to tell whether there were any whales breaking the surface or not. We stared out to sea for nearly an hour, entranced by the view but entirely unable to say that we’d seen any whales.

The Grotto made a lovely stop off, just before Port Campbell. The eroded rocks provided a perfect picture frame to the crashing waves.

The Grotto, Victoria

Family road trip along the Great Ocean Road

The Twelve Apostles is a must see on the Great Ocean Road. Unfortunately, everybody else on the road thought so too. Hordes of tour buses lined a large car park on the side of the road, with even greater masses of people lining the pathway to the best vantage points.

Helicopters buzzed overhead, carrying more extravagant tourists on an airborne tour of the coastal sights. I felt like a member of the paparazzi, ducking and diving in a sea of cameras to get a few snaps of the eroded limestone stacks. The view was good, but next time I’d arrive much earlier in the day to glimpse the scenery in a more relaxed atmosphere.

The Twelve Apostles

Family road trip

RTW Family

We spent the next couple of days in the small seaside town of Anglesea, giving the kids some time to recuperate from a couple of days of winding roads. Off season, we managed to land a stay in the Great Ocean Road resort for a very reasonable price. It had an indoor swimming pool, so the kids made sure we got plenty of value for money.

After Anglesea the road passes through the larger resort of Torquay, before starting to emerge into the outer suburbs of Melbourne.

We stopped at the Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre, just before reaching Geelong. We hadn’t seen too many other opportunities to experience Aboriginal culture on our trip so far, and the kids enjoyed learning about the painting symbols that were dotted around the animal enclosure.

Kiera also got another chance to overcome her fear of emus. This didn’t exactly pan out as hoped, as an initially calm emu started to rampage around chasing a group of wallabies. It was interesting to see how fast the emus can shift, but Kiera didn’t agree, convinced that she was about to be mown over. We beat a hasty retreat the café for some lunch, where Lexi found an opportunity to experiment with her own symbols on a chalkboard in the café.

Family travel blog

We’d reached the end of the Great Ocean Road and were now battling through Melbourne traffic to catch our next flight. Four days seemed a reasonable amount of time for us to explore this stretch of coastline, although with hindsight I would have put another overnight stop in between Port Fairy and Anglesea. This area contained most of the main sights and it would have been nice to spend more time around Cape Otway and Apollo Bay.

Next Time

We’ve just booked a flight to Tasmania, to spend a week in the Huon Valley, just south of Hobart. One of my early bosses at work was a guy from Tasmania. Not only was he a good boss and taught me loads, but he was very enthusiastic about his home state. Cheers Mike.

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