Over the past through years, though, other places called: Chicago, the East Coast and even Europe. But this year, I decided that it was time for another PNW trip. (The Oregon/Amtrak train between Portland and Astoria was another deciding factor).
Of course, things would be different: the new Portland MAX Airport line and the streetcar; Sounder trains and Sound Transit buses in Seattle, and something called "Translink" running transit in Vancouver.
How well did these systems work? Let's find out....
After landing at PDX, I made my way to the MAX train station at the airport. I bought a day pass ($4) and boarded the train, which was about half-full. We rode through mostly undeveloped land (future business parks?) before meeting with the main line at Gateway station. From that point, the train became standing-room only all the way to Downtown.
I continued to the Transit Mall, where I got off and transferred to a bus going south to my hotel.
Later that afternoon, I walked over to Pioneer Square. After visiting the Tri-Met customer service center, and having a quick lunch, I boarded the Portland Streetcar (a separate transit system operated by the City of Portland, not Tri-Met. However, it does honor all Tri-Met fare instruments). The Streetcar operates from Portland State University, through Downtown, then north through a (formerly industrial) "loft" district", before finally terminating in Northwest Portland, near the Good Samaritan Hospital. This is a pretty exciting area full of shops and restaurants, and lots of people walking around. After about thirty minutes or so, I rode the streetcar back to Downtown, stopping at the famous Powell's Books and a nearby record store.
I had read in one of the local "entertainment" papers about a concert to be held at the Portland Zoo. Since the MAX now served the Zoo, why not go? But first I wanted to ride the MAX all the way to its western end, Hillsboro. (On my last trip to Portland in 1995, I had ridden to Gresham and back....)
Around 4 p.m. I boarded a very crowded westbound MAX train at Pioneer Square. Leaving Downtown was rather slow as there were several curves in the line. But after we passed the baseball stadium (PGE Park, with a game in full swing!) we started to pick up speed. The Washington Park station was popular, as it served the Zoo. Then came several other stations along the line, a few with rather dense mixed use developments, some more that were mostly parking lot, and one or two that seemed to be out in the middle of nowhere. The station serving the Fair Complex was mildly popular (it was Fair time), but the train mostly emptied out after Beaverton. The end of the line was at Hatfield Government Center in Hillsboro. Things were pretty quiet there on this Sunday afternoon, although I did see a freight train lope on through....
I got back on the train and rode toward Portland, this time getting off at Washington Park. This is the deepest subway station in North America (the world record is held by a system in Russia) and Tri-Met doesn't mind telling us so (decorative displays of geological core samples, elevators with digital displays of distance below the surface, etc). From there it was an easy walk to and from the Zoo.
After the concert (Zap Mama, and Les Nubiennes), I walked back to the station, caught MAX to Pioneer Square, and then a bus back to the hotel.
I was looking for a bus that would take me from near my hotel (slightly south of Downtown) to Union Station (in the northern part of Downtown). But those are few and far between; I ended up having to take two buses, transferring near Pioneer Square. I thought for sure I'd miss my connection, but I made it with about two minutes to spare.
The Lewis and Clark trains don't actually originate in Portland, but in Linnton (a suburb about eight miles northeast). Two Tri-Met buses took us through a rather industrialized landscape to the train yard in Linnton, where our train was waiting.
The train consisted of three or four ex-BC Rail Budd self powered cars, which filled up quickly with passengers from the two Tri-Met buses and one tour bus. We were delayed about 45 minutes due to a mechanical problem, but, as it ended up, we made up most of that time along the way.
The "Lewis and Clark Explorers" (which are supported by the State of Oregon and only run Friday through Monday) provide an excellent view of the Columbia River and its surrounding greenery. On the four hour trip, we passed through (but did not stop in) small towns such as St. Helens, Clatskanie, and Westport.
On nearing Astoria, Amtrak crews took dinner reservations for the return trip (catering would be done in Astoria and loaded aboard) and also sold $5 day passes, valid for a special tour to Ft. Clatsop as well as any other transit in Clatsop County, including the Astoria Trolley.
The Trolley bounces back and forth along a single track 30-40 minutes, but schedules can be rather variable. It is an old San Antonio trolley, powered by a generator trailer (so as not to have to string up wires) and runs back and forth along the Astoria Waterfront.
Seniors beware, that top step is mighty high....
I rode the trolley to the end of the line, got off and checked into my hotel (should have stayed downtown....) The hotel was understaffed and it took forever to check in, so I missed the trolley returning to the center of the city. Not wanting to miss the Ft. Clatsop tour leaving in about an hour, I walked downtown via Marine Bl. (US 30). The walk was pleasant enough and people seemed friendly, although this is a high speed road and there are not many good places to cross the street (e.g. traffic lights). There is a local bus system ("Sunset Empire Transit") but it ran infrequently and stops are poorly marked outside of Downtown. But anyway, the walk took about 20 minutes and soon I was at in front of the Liberty Theater, where a fake "trolley" bus was waiting to take us on our tour.
On the bus, I recognized a few people from the train; there were plenty of cruise ship passengers as well (a big cruise ship had docked in Astoria today). We left Downtown Astoria and headed out U.S. 30 and the Youngs Bay Bridge to the Ft. Clatsop National Memorial, where we had about three hours to poke around the replica fort, the extensive trail system surrounding it, and the visitors center.
On the way back to town we spent about a half hour at the Astoria Column. This distant relative of San Francisco's Coit Tower is 125 feet high and has 164 steps in a spiral staircase. I'm glad to say that I made it all the way to the top, although it wasn't easy....
The fake trolley took us back to the Astoria train station, in time for the return trip back to Portland, for those who were taking it. As for me, the balance of the afternoon was spent poking around Downtown Astoria and the waterfront, before taking the trolley back to my hotel.
But this didn't happen because the Pacific Transit driver didn't honor the flag stop at Marine and Hume (across from the Visitors Center) as indicated in the schedule. He just zoomed by, shaking his head. Nothing for me to do but watch the bus sail over the bridge, without me on it....
(An aside: I didn't see any Pacific Transit bus stop signs anywhere along the route, even at the terminal stop in Downtown Astoria).
OK, now how to get out of Dodge? Back to the Visitors Center, where I started asking about buses. There was an Amtrak bus back to Portland, but that had already left at 8 a.m. That was obviously out. There weren't too many other choices, but there was an outfit called Cowlitz Coach that would take me to Kelso, WA, where I could catch a Greyhound to Seattle.
The Cowlitz Coach would leave at around 3:35 p.m, so that gave me most of the day to spend in Astoria. I spent most of it in the city library, occasionally coming out to walk along the waterfront, and have lunch in this really neat Internet Cafe type place.
Around 2:30 I started walking back to the Cowlitz Coach stop (a gas station near the Visitors Center). There I bought my ticket ($11) and watched the local people drive up in their pickup trucks and buy lottery tickets and beer. At around 3:30 p.m. the ticket agent came out and announced that the bus would be running about 20 minutes late due to traffic conditions near the beginning of the route in Cannon Beach.
The Coach showed up around 4 p.m., and I, along with about 10 other people, boarded the 20-passenger cutaway van. Although the air conditioner unit on the vehicle created a mini-rainstorm inside the bus, the trip was scenic as we passed the small town flag-stops of Svenson, Knappa, Westport and Clatskanie (no one got on at any of these places). After about an hour and a half, we crossed the mighty Columbia River into Longview, WA.
The trip ended at the Amtrak/Greyhound station in Kelso (just north of Longview). It was a nice building, but there just wasn't that much there, just some vending machines, a Greyhound agent, and a Quik-Trak machine for Amtrak tickets. After checking the schedules, I decided that Greyhound would get me to Seattle faster, and so I bought a ticket ($22.50) and waited.....
About an hour later (around 6 p.m. or so), the Greyhound pulled up. Its sign read "Portland", but it was definitely going to Seattle, so I boarded. We passed through Downtown Kelso (not much to see except boarded-up buildings. Even the thrift store had a "For Lease" sign on it!) and made stops at Castle Rock (gas station, no-one got on), Centralia (snack stop), Olympia (about a 30-minute layover), Fort Lewis (military base--a soldier got on the bus to make sure that anyone who tried to deboard had the proper I.D.) and Tacoma (at the new "Tacoma Dome" station).
While waiting at Tacoma, the driver saw my notes and thought I was a "shopper" (a fake customer that is hired by the company for quality control purposes), but I was able to convince him that I was not.
After more I-5 driving, we hit Seattle and the downtown Greyhound station around 9 p.m. By then it was getting dark, and I was less than sure of the Seattle Metro bus stops and schedules then. One of the Greyhound baggage handlers offered me a ride to my hotel, but I respectfully declined and opted for a cab instead ($11).
My next trip was Metro #74 to Seattle Center, where I took a quick lunch break. Then it was the Monorail to Westlake station, where I picked up a few more schedules and maps before walking south along Fourth St, past the new Seattle Library (still under construction) towards the train station.
The area near the train station had been extensively renovated, with a pedestrian overpass leading to the Amtrak station, the Sounder platform, and the International District bus tunnel station. The Japanese store Uwajimaya had been expanded and made part of a mixed-use "village" with apartments. In all, the whole area looked a lot nicer than the last time I had seen it.
I still had time before the Sounder train's departure, so I rode the Waterfront Streetcar (named after George Benson--the city councilman, not the singer) up to Pier 54 and back.
Sounder trains run on a J-shaped route between Seattle and Tacoma (extensions north to Everett and south to Lakewood are currently under development). The equipment is identical to that used on Metrolink, Coaster, GO Transit, and just about every "newer" commuter rail service.
I departed on the 4:55 p.m. train from Seattle, with the car that I was riding in about 3/4ths full. The ride was rather slow getting out of Seattle, and the scenery was the usual alongside-the-tracks-industrial. After a few minutes of this I drifted off to sleep....to be awakened by the conductor asking to see my ticket. (Of course I had one!)
More people boarded at Tukwila station (near the Boeing plant). The train emptied out at Kent and (particularly) Auburn, leaving comparatively few passengers for the increasingly rural portion of the ride through Sumner and Puyallup. At the end of the line in Tacoma, the train stopped at a temporary platform in the railroad yard, and it was a longish walk to the street and the "Tacoma Dome Station" where the buses and parking lot were.
I had about an hour's wait for the return bus to Seattle, so I walked over to the Tacoma LINK light rail station, on the other side of the parking lot. They were supposed to be testing the light rail line (opening date: September 2003), but I didn't see any light rail vehicles within a 20-minute period, so I just walked back to the bus plaza.
After about another 30 minutes, Sound Transit #594 to Seattle pulled up, and several people, including me, boarded. (Many were headed to a baseball game at Safeco Field). The bus was an artic, and it had a bit of a wavy vibration on the freeway. But we made it to Downtown Seattle in one piece, and on Third Street (for the bus tunnel had closed by this time) I transferred to a #71 back to the U-District.
First I tried the #43 bus from the U-District. It travelled through a neighborhood full of older houses and crumbling sidewalks, and across a few interesting neighborhoods (coffeeshops, etc) on its way to Downtown. I got off at the Convention Center bus tunnel station and walked around. I tried to locate the bookstore, but didn't walk far enough up the hill (as I would find out later). I did locate the temporary location of the Seattle Library though. After a little while, I rode the #71 back to the U-District.
Next I caught a #7. This travelled through slightly better areas, and along the length of Broadway. I got off and walked around. It was a pretty....uh....interesting place with lots of restaurants, record stores, etc....and quite a few street folks walking around. I walked over to the transfer point and waited for the #43 while the Blue Angels made their practice moves in the sky. After about 30-minutes, the #43 arrived. This bus stopped about a block away from the bookstore (which was an amazing place, but required more time than I had to explore)
I caught a tunnel bus to the University St. Station, then walked to the Waterfront for lunch. I killed a little more time by drinking an expensive blueberry shake ($4) from one of the local coffee shops while relaxing on the University St. plaza.
I walked back up to Second Street to catch the #118 bus to Vashon. (This is one of the few buses that actually rolls on and off the ferry; most require a transfer at the ferry docks). On boarding, I had to pay both the bus fare ($1.25) and the ferry fare ($3.50). The driver keeps track of how many people are going to take the ferry on a special form, which (I guess) is turned in to the ferry toll-takers at the dock.
Due to another sporting event at the stadiums, we took an alternate route just south of Downtown. The trip to Fauntleroy (where the ferry dock is located) passed through some quiet suburban-type neighborhoods. (#118 is a limited stop bus, only making stops Downtown and in a few parts of West Seattle).
As advertised, the bus travelled right onto the ferry. Although a few people (and the driver) stayed with the bus on the vehicle deck, most of us went upstairs to the passenger lounge for the 15-minute crossing. As we approached Vashon, we returned to the bus in preparation to leave
Vashon is mostly expensive houses and open space (and most likely locals who'd like to keep it that way). It's not touristed-up like, say, Catalina. Most commercial activity centers around the intersection of Vashon Hwy and Bank Rd, where there is a small shopping center, supermarket, record store, city park, bank, etc. The county Library is a few blocks north. Again, all tailored to local, rather than tourist needs.
There's not much bus service, but the #118 will run to both the ferry docks at both the north and south end of the island, making an interesting "loop" trip, as I did in 1996, possible. (If you bring your own car, gas it up elsewhere...gasoline prices are about $.75 higher than on the mainland!)
After an hour or two, I caught the #118 going back to the ferry dock. This time, I would have to walk aboard the ferry myself. On the other hand, no fare is charged for ferry rides going back to Seattle.
I watched as the incoming ferry unloaded. First a cloud of pedestrians and a few bicyclists burst forth. Then came the motorcycles, about 10 or 12 of them, buzzing down the road like a biker's convention. Finally the cars and trucks left the ferry. We boarded after that.
Back at Fauntleroy, we had a choice of either the Metro #54 or the Sound Transit #570 back to Seattle. The #54 came first, and I rode through West Seattle and then via the newly-reopened double decker freeways (viaducts) to Downtown. (Unlike the #118, the #54 made local stops along most of its route).
After another short trip to Uwajimaya, I caught the tunnel bus back to the U-District. While waiting in the tunnel I noticed at least two buses sneaking through on diesel instead of electric power (heck, one of them wasn't even an electric tunnel bus to begin with). You could hear them reverberating through the whole tunnel!
(When I got back to the hotel, I found out that Al-Queda was also interested in ferries too. Oh, joy)
The Amtrak staff checked our identification (especially if we were going to Canada), took our tickets and gave us boarding passes before we were actually allowed onboard.
The ride itself was uneventful, at least in the States. The train was quite full leaving Seattle (two cars were reserved for passengers boarding at Everett and Edmonds). However, once across the border, we were beset with all kinds of train delays: freight trains blocking the track, bridges being open, etc. We ended up getting to Pacific Central Station (Downtown Vancouver) about an hour late. We also had to wait for Customs/Immigration to inspect us, car by car (although some people making tight connections were let off early).
Finally, we were allowed to deboard the train. Customs/Immigration was a breeze, compared to my last couple of trips across the border. In fact, I was anticipating a big interview, luggage inspection, when I suddenly found myself in the main part of the station, free to go!
I walked over to the nearby Skytrain station and bought a day pass (CAN$8, about US$6). No real problem except for one scruffy guy hanging around the ticket machine, being all too eager to "help" people buy their tickets. No thanks.
After the short ride to Granville Station, I got out and walked up and down Granville, noting things that had changed over the past six years....hmm....BC Transit is now Translink now, although some of the buses are still in their old red paint jobs....a few new buildings here and there....south of Davie is just a little less sleazy than before....but not much....
After getting settled at the hotel, I walked back to Granville and caught a #10 bus to UBC. After walking around campus for an hour or so, I hopped on a #4 going back to Downtown. On the way I stopped off at a thrift store to look for old records, but found nothing particularly noteworthy. By that time rush hour had started, and it took a while for another #4 to come; when it did show up, it was standing room only.
Later that evening, around 8:30 p.m, I walked over to the Seabus terminal and rode the ferry to Lonsdale Quay, North Vancouver. Most of the shops there had started to shut down for the night, but I found a bite to eat (McDonalds!) and watched as the sun set over the Vancouver skyline.
I finished the night off with a walk down Robson St, that trendy shopping/nightclub/hotel/etc. area.
I wanted to take a ride on Translink's new Millennium Line, opened in 2000. The "M-Line" mostly follows the route of the existing "Expo Line" to New Westminster, then, instead of crossing the Fraser River, folds back on itself, serving a group of new stations before meeting the Expo Line again at Broadway Station. The land use was about the same as the rest of Skytrain: suburban/business park with a scattering of really tall condo towers....
At Broadway, I transferred to a westbound B-Line #99 (limited stop service along Broadway to UBC). I got off somewhere along the route to visit a few stores, then boarded a #9 local bus to Granville, then transferred to an #8 going north into Downtown.
Around 1 p.m., I caught the #5 to Robson St and did a little shopping. I overheard some talk about the "Festival of Light" fireworks show and decided that I would try to go see it.
But first, I wanted to visit Granville Island, never having been there before. So it was back on the #8 (#50 would have probably been a better choice), and a convoluted walk under the bridge and past a motorcycle shop, and then I was walking on the Island.
As it turned out, Granville Island didn't seem all that different from Lonsdale Quay, maybe a bit more touristy (like the Seattle waterfront area).
A number of small ferries connect Granville Island to various points on the mainland, by way of False Creek. I rode one (the "Aquabus", fare $5) from the Granville Island dock to the glittery dome of Science World, near the Main St. Skytrain station. These little boats rock unnervingly when they're tied to the dock, but are very smooth underway.
It was too late for a Science World visit, but I did enjoy the kinetic sculpture near the front door. ( It was also too late to ride the Downtown Historic Railway (a.k.a. False Creek Trolley) back to Granville Island. So I just took Skytrain back to Downtown Vancouver.
Later that night, the annual Festival of Lights fireworks show would take place near English Bay. Although buses get close to the beach for these shows, most of the streets near the West End are blocked off, for pedestrians only. So I walked down Robson and Denman Streets to the beach. It was a veritable sea of people as everyone jockeyed for a good spot.
The fireworks were amazing, a little more artfully done than the average "Fourth of July" type display. After it was all over, we all jammed the streets for the walk home. It wasn't too bad, except for a few amped-up kids trying to start fights, and occasionally succeeding....
The ferry ride itself (CAN$10 each way) was smooth and uneventful, as usual. I inquired about Pacific Coach Lines bus transportation back to Vancouver (in case I missed the last Translink bus). It would cost CAN$10.50. Something to think about....
At Victoria, waiting for the walk-on passengers, was a huge, Dennis Trident double decker bus, on the BC Transit #70 route between Swartz Bay (the ferry terminal location) and downtown Victoria. This bus had 84 seats, and we left the ferry terminal with a full standing load on both decks and we still had to leave behind about seven passengers (all with big backpacks or luggage, though).
Again, if you want speed, go pay PCL 10 bucks. #70 will take a little over an hour, depending on traffic. (On the other hand, non-ferry ridership on this particular trip probably warranted a small van, rather than a double decker bus). Once we hit the outskirts of Victoria, the bus started to empty out. But most people rode all the way to Downtown Victoria.
I spent most of my time in Victoria just visiting the various shops, buying a few gifts, and just enjoying the beautiful day.
After about three hours just walking around a bit, I boarded the #70 (another double decker) for the ride back to Swartz Bay. This one wasn't nearly as heavily loaded. As we wended our way through the communities of Sidney and Swartz Bay, I was reminded a little of the English countryside I had seen on my trip between London and Oxford back in late 2001.
Another butter-smooth BC Ferry ride back to Tsawwassen, and the usual #640/601 musical chairs, and it was back to Downtown Vancouver!
After checking out of the hotel, I walked over to Burrard (could have gone to the Waterfront instead though) and caught a #98-B Line bus to the airport. This bus filled up fast, in fact it was standing room only by the time we got to the Granville Bridge. (and this was a 60' articulated bus!)
The bus stops just outside of the airport, LA-style, at a transit center called "Airport Station". There, you have to transfer to another bus, the #424, that actually takes you into the airport. Fortunately, #424 runs every 10 minutes or so. This bus also filled up fast with travelers and their luggage. (A luggage rack, like they have on the LAX shuttle buses, would have been handy).
#424 only stops at one terminal, the domestic terminal. From there it's a short walk to the international terminal (serving everywhere except the United States) and then another short walk to the United States terminal. In this terminal, U.S. Immigration and Customs officers pre-clear travellers before boarding flights.
Other than several long lines, it wasn't so bad. They sorted us into four lines by flight time, letting the people with the earliest flights brave the system first. After one long line after another, most of us breezed through Immigration and Customs. (If anyone was subject to further questioning or examination, I did not see it).
Oh, did I also tell you about the "Airport Improvement Fee" that everyone must pay? (CAN$5 for flights within British Columbia, CAN$10 or US$8 for flights to the rest of North America, and CAN$15 for flights to the rest of the world). The AIF is best taken care of at one of the pay stations scattered around the airport. These machines take credit cards and dispense tickets, which will be collected by airport staff.
After all that, then came the usual airline security. No big problems there, although the security staff seemed to have a particular interest in my portable radio (later on, I found out why).
The plane used between YVR and PDX was a Bombardier Q200 -- a 37 seater prop job. Never having been on such a small plane before, I was a little nervous about it, but everything went just fine. (Taking off, it felt like we were going straight up!) During the final decent, however, I felt a bumpiness that I probably wouldn't have noticed in a larger airplane.
At PDX, we boarded a musty smelling MD-80 for the trip to ONT. Nothing particularly noteworthy, except that on approach to ONT, we traveled over Lancaster/Palmdale, Victorville, and San Bernardino (easily recognizable by both natural and man-made features)