Friday, August 18, 2017
   
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Making Amtraks through the heart of rail Virginia

The romance of rail travel is alive and well in the Old Dominion state as ANDREA McVEIGH found out when she boarded the train for Richmond...

BEFORE was the motor car, there was the railroad. “Take your seats ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve got a full train today,” said our conductor over the Tannoy, with all the flair and showmanship of PT Barnum, as I boarded the Amtrak train to Virginia's state capital, Richmond. “Make yourselves comfortable, we’re on our way.”

The romance, adventure and thrill of rail travel is alive and well in America. The USA has long been associated with the railroad, from hobos riding rail cars the length and breadth of the country to the train carriage’s starring role on the silver screen - just think of the iconic train scenes in classic American cinema, from Some Like It Hot to Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train.

“The café car is now open for coffee, beverages, snacks and sandwiches, even for a nice glass of wine for those enjoying the long weekend. Alexandria, Virginia, coming up in 15 minutes. Top of the morning to you on this Friday morning.”

For convenience and excitement, the great American road trip by gas-guzzling motor vehicle is easily trounced by the great American train journey.

Sitting back and enjoying the ride on a sunny, blue-sky early October day, looking out of my window at the verdant sight of the country’s capital, we picked up speed over the Potomac river and left Washington DC behind after just a few miles of track, passing rural scenery and pretty towns with Colonial homes and rocking chairs on porches.

My first stop was the city of Fredericksburg, which draws tourists for three main reasons; its Civil War history, its Colonial architecture and its reputation as George Washington’s birthplace. This year America marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, so 2011 is a great time to visit as there'll be special events and exhibitions laid on to commemorate the 1861-1865 'War Between the States'.

A fourth reason to visit Fredericksburg should be the Bavarian Chef restaurant, housed in the historical train station, where I, perhaps incongruously in this traditionally American small town, tucked into German sausage and a weiss bier.

The thing you’ll find about many Amtrak stations is that they’re right in the middle of town, so you can step off, store your luggage if need be and explore the city, or wheel your suitcase a few steps to the nearest hotel - and there will be a hotel nearby, rest assured. Fredericksburg is easily walkable, as I discovered on a walking tour courtesy of the appropriately-named Scott Walker, of Hallowed Ground Tours. As he led my group through the charming downtown area, he pointed out the bullet holes still scored into buildings from the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg - during the Civil War the city housed wounded troops from both the Confederate and Union forces.

Fredericksburg is a city that sums up Virginia well. Charming, friendly and historic, the state is sometimes called the Mother of Presidents because it was the birthplace of no less than eight of them. Nestled in the foothills of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, it was one of the Thirteen Colonies in the American Revolution and flew the Confederate flag during the Civil War. But that doesn't mean it's stuck in the past - Virginia is surging ahead as one of the largest wine growing states in America, with more than 160 wineries, and is proud of its many different labels, which are celebrated during Virginia Wine Month every October.

Back on the train, the route took me to beautiful Richmond and an overnight stay in the convenient and beautifully well-appointed Omni Hotel, right in the heart of the downtown restaurant and entertainment area. With its arty community and lively music scene, gourmet eateries and old cobbled streets, Richmond has got a great vibe and a city tour should take in the fascinating Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as well as Monument Avenue, a Parisian style boulevard commemorating famous Virginian Civil War figures, as well as the late tennis player Arthur Ashe.

Amtrak - the main inter-city train service in the US, operating more than 300 trains a day to more than 500 destinations across 21,000 miles - has tapped into the nostalgia surrounding rail travel with the 1940s typefaces adorning its train timetables, imbuing the very act of reading a schedule with a retro glow.

To make Virginia’s iconic tourist destinations more accessible, Amtrak Virginia has improved the service on two routes, to Lynchburg and Richmond in the heartland of the state.

After Richmond, I returned north before transferring to the Washington DC-to-Lynchburg route, which takes in quaint Culpeper, filled with quirky boutiques and peaceful streets, and Charlottesville, which is best known as being home to two presidents - Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. From here, I stopped off to visit Jefferson’s beautiful mountain top home, Monticello, a UNESCO World Heritage site and for another overnight hotel stay, this time in the conveniently located Hilton Garden Inn.

On and on the train travelled, marking off the miles to the beat of wheels on track, to Lynchburg, where the Old City Cemetery features not one, but five museums and the graves of 2,200 Confederate soldiers.

Once one of the three wealthiest cities in the US, in the mid-1800s Lynchburg was a thriving industrial centre built around manufacturing, shipping, tobacco, iron, and steel. These days, the pedestrian-friendly walkways of the downtown district heave with antique shops, fancy boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, and bars. There are 11 Civil War sites as well as hip spots such as my favourite hotel of the trip, the Craddock Terry shoe-themed boutique hotel.

Ignore those who say America has no history. How much more history do you want in the state that boasts Graffiti House, in Brandy Station, Culpeper County, which served as a Civil War field hospital. Soldiers from both sides scrawled on the walls, and many of their drawings, doodles and signatures have been preserved, giving the house its name. As the guide told us the stories of some of the men associated with the place, it was hard not to feel a ghostly chill.

Then there’s Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, near Lynchburg, with its original and reconstructed nineteenth century buildings, which became famous as the site where the Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union commander Ulysses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, heralding the end of the Civil War.

Travelling back north, en route to Dulles airport and home, I spent a final gloriously sunny afternoon at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, George Washington’s former home and now American's most visited historic home, during which I explored the grounds and chatted to actors in period costume, who told the history of the great house and its famous inhabitant.

With just a few hours at most between locations, hotels close to the stations, and the option of hiring a car at any given town or city in order to explore more, I couldn't have wished for a better way to see the ‘rail’ Virginia.

VIRGINIA FACT FILE

AMTRAK: Virginia offers services to more than 21 stations in the state. The Lynchburg route stops at Charlottesville, Culpeper, Manassas, Burke Centre (Fairfax) and Alexandria. Its route to Richmond stops at Staples Mill, Ashland, Fredericksburg, Quantico, Woodbridge, and Alexandria. Visit www.Amtrak.com or www.amtrakvirginia.com for schedules, fares and information.

Amtrak routes that pass through Virginia include The Cardinal (Chicago-New York); Carolinian (New York-Charlotte); Crescent (New York-New Orleans); Northeast Regional (Boston-Virginia Beach) and the Silver Service (New York-Miami). Fares between Richmond and Washington start from approx. $62 for a round trip and between Lynchburg and Washington, the fare is around $78 for a round trip.

Fly to Washington Dulles airport for Union Station and the start of Amtrak's routes through Virginia (www.virginia.org).

  • For the OMNI RICHMOND HOTEL, Richmond, go to www.omnihotels.com
  • For the HILTON GARDEN INN, Charlottesville log on to www.hiltongardeninn.hilton.com
  • For the CRADDOCK TERRY HOTEL, Lynchburg, www.craddockterryhotel.com
  • MOUNT VERNON, www.visit.mountvernon.org
  • MONTICELLO, www.monticello.org (most hotels offer shuttle services to Monticello, which is about five miles from downtown Charlottesville)
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