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Cheap 'n' Cheerful East Coast Quickie


Stateside With Rosalea

Cheap 'n' cheerful East Coast quickie

October is the height of the fall foliage on the East Coast, so on Columbus Day weekend I flew JetBlue to Washington DC, took an Amtrak train up to New York, a local train north along the Hudson River, spent Columbus Day in New York and then flew back to Oakland from JFK Airport - again on JetBlue. Total cost of travel $500 and for accommodation $120. (You would not do this trip from Down Under, of course, because you'd want to spend a lot more time in New York and/or Washington, and your ongoing flights with a major airline would be comparable, if not cheaper, as part of the package.)

JetBlue is a small airline that has pretty much captured the market going east, with its leather-upholstered seats and a small TV screen showing 24 channels of DirectTV in the back of every headrest. You're welcome to take your own food on board, because they don't serve any, but the flight is only 4 1/2 hours going east and about an hour longer coming back. They do give you a packaged snack (eg nuts or crackers) and bottled water or soda, and you can buy alcohol if you want.

It was the first airline after 911 to say it was strengthening the door into the cockpit and making it so that it could only be opened from the inside. The aircraft are Airbus A320s, and the flight attendants are good-humoured, helpful, and efficient. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have dimmed the lights to enhance the appearance of the in-flight crew," said the senior attendant as we taxied from the Oakland terminal, setting the tone for the relaxed and friendly service.

Oakland was one of the first airports to have the new federal screeners in place and there seemed to be swarms of them in their new Federal Transportation Authority uniforms. Similarly at JFK in New York. I was pulled aside and searched at both places after handing in my boarding pass when the flight was called, presumably because I had a one-way ticket and carry-on baggage only. Being searched is simply a fact of life when you travel nowadays, so you might as well expect it and accept it with good grace. It's one way of getting a pat on the back, I suppose!

Because of the three-hour time difference, the overnight flight gets you into Washington's Dulles airport, which is in Virginia, at around 8 in the morning. The Washington Flyer coach service takes you the 25-minute ride from there to West Falls Church Metro station for $8. It was a pretty trip, along a freeway lined on both sides with trees, some of them in their first blush of autumn. You might have seen some news footage of the area recently, because Falls Church is where the sniper shot a woman at the shopping centre.

Two bucks forty, and one train change later, the Metro disgorged me at Union Station, which is but a short walk from the Capitol, the Mall, and the White House. The Library of Congress was having its annual book fair in the Mall that day, which I intended to go to, but first I went to the hotel to drop off my bags.

In the US you can expect to pay about $US100 a night for the standard of even the most basic motels or hotels in New Zealand, so I've become used to 'tourist hotels' instead. They are often hotels that had their glory days back in the 1930s and the fixtures and fittings haven't been updated since then. However, they also usually have clean linen, comfortable beds, an urn of free coffee out in the foyer, and free donuts in the morning (often called a 'free breakfast').

The $50-a-night Braxton is on the border of a part of Washington you'd best not wander around after dark and the upscale embassy area, about six blocks from the White House and within the $5 taxi-fare zone. After leaving my bags there I started walking to the nearest Metro station, but was diverted by the sound of music and ended up at the First Baptist Church Fall Fair, where a local I shared the Memphis-style barbecue with set me off in quite a different direction - to the Spanish quarter of town.

In short, the closest I got to the Capitol was the postcard I'd sent from Union Station, but I loved what I saw of DC. It really is a world apart from the West Coast, largely because of being settled much earlier and because the climate demands a different style of architecture. My lunch companion, who has lived in DC all her life, said that there used to be two or three blizzards every winter, with six-foot drifts of snow, but that in recent years a couple of inches of snow now and then is all you get. In summer, DC has very hot humid weather.

The next morning I took a cab back to Union Station and caught an early train to New York. This line is the only profitable one that Amtrak has, serving as it does the huge population centres between DC and Boston. A variety of people use the train - some in suits, some in sweats - and during the week I imagine the carriages are crowded, but this was Sunday. The seats recline and there is a cafe car. The fare is about $70 from DC-NY's Penn Station, and you travel through mainly built-up areas of Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the journey taking about 3 hours.

Because I was transferring immediately to a train going up north, which leaves from Grand Central Station, I took a subway shuttle there from Penn Station. Different railroad lines use different stations, and so do the subway trains, and the stations are really big and rarely have escalators, so you should be prepared to do a lot of walking underground when you're travelling in New York. Savvy locals know exactly which carriage of the train or subway car to get into so they minimise their walk time!

So now it's Sunday morning and I'm on my way up the Hudson River on the Metro North Railroad, a commuter train that follows the east bank of the river, while freight trains use the west. Geologically this area is a granite mountain range, 15 miles wide, and the river widens and narrows alternately as it negotiates the path carved by ancient glaciers. The Hudson ices up in winter, sometimes trapping the shipping that uses it as a transport route. Recently a Russian navy ship got stuck in the ice for three days just north of West Point - which is on the west bank at the narrowest part of the river about two hours out of New York city.

I've paid a $9 fare to get me to Cold Spring, so named because Washington's troops stopped there for water and found it in a cold spring. The little town reminds me very much of Coromandel, with its craft and antique shops - in fact there's an antiques fair here today and a lot of people have come from the City for it. All around here is Revolutionary War country, with historic sites signposted, but you need a car to explore them. I walk from Cold Spring station to a little cove that looks over to Constitution Island, a view preserved by the Warner sisters, who wrote "Jesus Loves Me."

But the big attraction at Cold Spring is really big. From the landing that goes out onto the river you have a fabulous view of the Storm King, a famous promontory that attracts lightning and deflects often furious winds. Besides its significance to the local Native American tribes, it was the centre of a controversy in 1960s that marked the birth of environmental law in the USA. Con Edison was prevented from pumping the waters of the Hudson up the mountain, where it would be stored then released back down again in order to create electricity for New York. The facility would have killed the fisheries as far away as Long Island.

Sadly, I was two weeks too soon for the fall foliage, though a few trees here and there were changing colour! Next week I'll tell you about my Columbus Day in New York.

For more about the Hudson see: http://www.riverkeeper.org/campaign.php/fishkills/we_are_doing/190 for a photo of the Storm King: http://www.speakeasy.org/~docschlk/hudson.htm and for Cold Spring: http://www.hvgateway.com/CS00.HTM

Travel information: JetBlue: http://www.jetblue.com/ Amtrak's East Coast routes: http://www.amtrak.com/destinations/northeast.html Braxton Hotel, Washington DC: http://www.braxtonhotel.com/

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