Friday, 20 April 2012

Crossing a Continent – Sandwiches, San Francisco, and Sacramento

The transfer from the Desoto to Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport is delightfully quick and easy, as is the hand-back of the rental car to National. One zap with the scanner and I am 'good to go'. Brilliant.
Security is really busy and one of the TSA staff is being really pernicketty with my little man-bag. She scans it three times, searching it twice, before giving me the green light. I ask her what the issue was. My iPad, apparently, masking the other contents. I DID ask them if they wanted the offending item taking out. (I later discover a little note in both of my checked-in bags telling me that they've searched them as well. But no apology for the zip broken in the process).

Not being confident that United Airlines will give me any sustenance en route, I have prepared marmalade sandwiches for my journey. But a jolly fine breakfast is served between Florida and Houston, followed by lunch on the second leg to San Francisco.

Both flights are packed, with the airline looking for voluntary offloads; there are 27 standby passengers on the second leg, not one of whom will get a seat.
Just before landing at San Francisco, my attention is drawn to the extraordinary colours of the salt flats.

Jeff Smisek, the Chairman and CEO of United, waxes lyrically on the on-board video screens about how connected the airline is since the acquisition of Continental. But the reality is that the Continental staff on both the legs are still on the former airline's payroll and clearly don't feel part of the overall team. One Captain took great delight in telling us that it was 'A United flight, crewed by Continental Airlines personnel'.
If only Mr. Smisek got rid of his sour-faced cabin crew and kept the bright, cheery Continental staff, he'd be some way to improving things.
But at least he's managed to transport me across the continental US without losing either of my bags.
It's a marathon walk to collect aforementioned luggage at San Francisco, but an easy transfer to the Train to reach the BART.

I'm supposed to have a pass to travel on this excellent, reliable and frequent rapid transport system round San Francisco Bay, but their admin. is rather more sluggish than their trains, so I am without.
It's an hour on the yellow line to my stop at Orinda, so I tuck into one of my marmalade sandwiches. It is pointed out to me that eating and drinking on BART is forbidden and I am liable for a fine of up to $250 or up to 48 hours community service. Paddington Bear never had this problem!
At Orinda, I am met by Doug Crawford, my host, who has just become the proud owner of an iPhone. In the evening, we are joined at their Moraga home by his wife, Barb, both of whom have recently visited me in Norwich.
Next morning, Doug and I purchase $16.20 worth of tickets and set off on the BART for San Francisco. An email then bings into my iPad with my BART pass duly attached. Better late than never, I suppose.
Barb has suggested a visit to the Golden Gate Park, which turns out to be as splendid – and extensive – as she had suggested. 

I have a City Pass ( which not only gives me unlimited travel for 7 days on the Muni (the local buses and trams), but gets me into the California Academy of Sciences and four more attractions. Just as well I have a pass or I would be joining Doug in taking a deep breath when he discovers that his own ticket is an eye-watering $29.95.
We agree that the rainforests of the world and the aquarium are the best bits. 

I am disappointed with the planetarium show, which is computer-generated and, to my mind, over complex, even for children. The observation deck on the 'Living Roof' is interesting, if only to hear about the high-tech nature of it all.
We are meeting the Crawford's younger daughter, Leah, for lunch, but only after we have visited the Golden Gate Park's Shakespeare Gardens, where Doug and Barb were married.
Lunch is taken at Park Chow in nearby Ninth Avenue, which turns out to be excellent, with a wide choice of tasty food and some great local ales.
Leah's an Arsenal fan, so I tease her about a recent defeat by one of the relegation-threatened teams. But she takes it all in good part, confessing later that she would have had better reposts if she had known which team I support!
I enjoy the 71 bus back downtown, before catching the BART home. I resisted telling the bearded, tattooed, pierced man munching on a Subway sandwich opposite of the perils that such misbehaviour could bring.

I am booked onto the California Zephyr, which takes three days to go all the way from the San Francisco Bay area to Chicago. At Orinda, I use my BART pass, which takes the form of a long letter giving me permission to travel. But the staff are uncertain what to do with it until a supervisor can be called. The same thing happens when I exit at MacArthur.

I have to catch a little shuttle bus, the 'Emery Go Round', to reach the Amtrak station at Emeryville. the closest the California Zephyr actually gets to downtown. Most passengers arrive on a fleet of Amtrak California buses.

The Zephyr is not yet in, so I watch a huge freight train being prepared for its journey. It's so enormous that an engineer on a buggy is checking the couplings, while three locomotives get themselves connected.
My ticket on the California Zephyr doesn't have any seat reservations, which are handled by the on-board staff, depending on where you are getting off. They're expecting a full train, which is nice to hear, but this early in the trip, there's plenty of space. I head straight for the observation car, the Sightseer Coach, which has great views and really comfortable seating with electric points at each. 

A cheerful staff member in the cafe below tells me that the train crew will stay on board for six days, then get a week off.
There's a very useful route guide which, among many other points of interest, draws my attention to the 70 ships of the US Navy's Reserve fleet in Suisun Bay.

In no time at all, and well under the two-hour schedule, we are in the Californian State Capitol, Sacramento. ( As I pass along the train before making the short walk into Old Town, the friendly crew show me a couple of the very comfortable-looking sleeping compartments.

I am staying on board the Delta King (, a Glasgow-built stern-wheeler, that was completed in California in 1927. (The brass maker's plaque at the reception desk saying she was built in Newcastle is an Ebay purchase!) During the prohibition years, she and her sister ship had a successful and profitable career sailing between Sacramento and San Francisco.

In 1984, the Coyne family discovered her rotting away, saw the potential and five years (and $9 million) later, had her 88 cabins converted into 44 larger hotel rooms, with associated bars and restaurants.
My cabin is lovely, although rather lacking in power points by today's standards.
The location is perfect. Old Sacramento's plethora of bars, shops and restaurants, housed in beautifully restored buildings, are just a few steps away.
Lunch is taken under the splendid glass-domed roof of the Fat City bar and cafe before I set off on the tourist trail.
My principal reason for being in Sacramento is to visit the California State Railroad Museum (, which doesn't disappoint. I time my visit at the end of the day, when almost all the school parties have headed home. It's a great tactic, because I have the splendid museum almost to myself; the audience for the introductory film consists of just three of us!

It is undoubtedly the best railway museum I have ever visited. There are some great exhibits, including a sleeper train that, very effectively, gives the appearance of travelling through the night. I particularly enjoy the displays of china from some of the most famous pioneering railways of the great railroad age.
The museum has a tremendous section on model railways, outdoor displays too and can even offer a little trip on one of those hand-propelled vehicles you see in old films. It's absolutely splendid.

I take a walk along the river to see up close the rather gaudily gold-painted 'Tower Bridge' before adjourning for Happy Hour at Joe's Crab Shack where a pint of excellent Lagunitas beer is under three dollars.
After a recharge of batteries on the Delta King, I wander the board-walks of Old Town, finding a lot of the restaurants rather over-priced for an evening snack. But at the Old Sacramento General Store, I strike gold. Local entrepreneur, Iranian-born Hoss Entezari, has spotted a gap in the market and is offering pizza by the slice. Hoss, who went to school in the English south-coast resort of Brighton, persuades me to have a $9.99 Pepperoni Pizza, which is so large is does me not only for dinner, but for lunch on the next two days! Very tasty too.
It's been a tiring day and I retire early into my comfortable bed on the Delta King. After a couple of hours deep sleep, I have a rude awakening from an enormously long freight train clattering across the nearby bridge. I drift back off to sleep only to have the same thing half an hour later, a pattern that continues until I give up trying at 0430am.

Thus I am among the first to report for 7am breakfast, which is fine, with the exception of the potatoes which give the appearance and taste of having been prepared some days before.

After a quick visit to the Wells Fargo and Pony Express museum, where I actually withdraw some cash from their ATM, I buy a $6 day ticket, an absolute bargain, for the local Light Rail.

My first stop is the State Capitol, where my plan is to arrive at 9am opening to avoid the inevitable yellow school buses crammed full of ankle-biters. The plan works well. I get straight into the Assembly Chamber where a rather tedious tribute to Armenia is under way. There's even a contingent of Armenian Boy Scouts of America, which seems to me to be rather divisive to the idea of a Brotherhood of Scouting.

The Capitol, which was completed in 1874 is absolutely splendid and I feel privileged to have so easily been able to see State Government at work. Although, it has to be said, most of the members seemed to be more intent on fiddling with their Blackberries than paying rapt attention to the problems of Armenia.
I have planned to take the Light Rail all the way to Folsom, where one of 27 museums listed in the Sacramento guide is housed. But time doesn't allow, so I opt instead for the Leland Stanford Mansion.
Lawyer Stanford made his fortune after becoming President of the Central Pacific Railroad and subsequently became Governor of California.

I'm surprised to discover that I am in a tour group of just me and volunteer guide Michele gives me a great tour of this splendid house. Having been opened after a major restoration by California State parks in 2005 after time as an orphanage, the house now faces closure as a result of a big hole in State funding.
California's leading place of learning, correctly named Leland Stanford Junior University, was wholly funded by the family in memory of their son, who died in Florence aged nearly 16 after contracting Typhoid in Turkey.
I've run out of time to explore this splendid city because I am booked to return south on Amtrak's Capitol Corridor train which runs regular services between Sacramento, the Bay Area and San Jose.
The double-decker trains are really comfortable, with free wi-fi throughout, power supplies at your seat and a bar car.

The friendly conductor suggests that I should alight at Richmond, which is an easier transfer to BART than at Emeryville. I show my official pass letter to the gate agent, who peers at it for several minutes before looking at me and saying 'What's that?!

Tonight, after a splendid few days in California, I head to Auckland to connect to Norfolk Island. It's Friday and because I will cross the International Date Line during the night, Saturday, for me, just won't ever happen.

How weird is that?

San Francisco Information at:
Amtrak information is at:

Sacramento information:
Delta King:

All the photos from the first half of 'Around the World in 60 Days – Backwards' can be viewed at: