Planes, Trains or Automobiles

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After taking my first overnight train ride, I have to say I am in love with train travel. I decided to do a comparison on how the trip might have gone had I taken an airplane or driven to Utopia, Texas, from Indianapolis.

For pricing comparison I used a seven-day period in January to make it far enough in advance to get better rates.

Planes

Roundtrip airfare between Indianapolis and San Antonio, Texas, is around $400 for regular seating. The flights ranged from six to eight hours depending on the layover. I could not find a direct flight. If you factor in two hours prior to the flight and an hour getting out, getting your checked luggage and obtaining a rental car, then your day is shot.

Traveling by air is uncomfortable. My hips just don’t fit comfortably in those seats and being in the middle seat of a three-seat row is exceedingly cramped. Then you have security; the rush and hassle of taking off shoes, unpacking electronics, repacking electronics, getting pulled out for a random search, uncomfortable lounge chairs, etc.

The meals (when they do serve them) are not very good. At least I have never had anything very tasty. On most flights I was lucky to get a beverage and a small bag of peanuts. Moving on an airplane is also difficult. Either the seat belt sign is on or there is just nowhere to go. Instead you are sitting in a tiny, cramped seat for five or six hours.

If you have to get somewhere as quickly as possible, then an airplane is the way to go, but it is definitely not the most comfortable choice.

In this scenario I would also need to rent a vehicle for the two-hour drive from San Antonio to Utopia ; a minimum of $222 for a week, plus the gas.

 

Automobile

According to MapQuest it is a 19-hour 30-minute drive between Indianapolis and Utopia, Texas. It is 1,244 miles one way. Even if you only stopped for restroom breaks and to fill up the car you will need to add a couple of more hours in there. I used $2.25 a gallon for my gas cost and came up with $112 or $224 for the roundtrip. Plus, you would need at least one night in a motel each way or two or three very dedicated drivers and the ability to sleep in a car.

So, at minimum $350 for gas and a hotel for the round trip. This does not include meals. Let’s say we add in $60 a day for food and drinks; that brings our round trip total to $470. This does not include wear and tear and adding 2,488 miles to a vehicle.

I do love driving. I enjoy the scenery and I like the ability to control my speed, what I want to stop and see, etc. But, if I was trying to get to Utopia and actually have time to spend in Utopia then I would have to drive without making lots of stops along the way.

I would of course have my own vehicle, so there would be no rental fees involved once I arrived at my destination.

Trains

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This is my seat in the Roomette

If I took the train I could get a round trip ticket between Indianapolis and San Marcos, Texas, for $431 for a roomette.  If I wanted to stay in the coach section, I could get a coach seat roundtrip for $137. The trip is 29 hours. I would need to rent the car to get from San Marcos to Utopia, so I have my $222 for the week’s rental.

If you book a roomette all meals are included.
The only thing you have to pay for is alcohol. All non-alcoholic drinks are included with the meals. I ate nine of

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Steak and potato on the train.

my meals on the train. The food was awesome. I had steak and baked potato one night; scramble
d eggs and bacon for breakfa
st, a hamburger for lunch, etc. The menu isn’t very deep, but there are generally three to seven choices depending on what meal you are eating. Dessert included

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An example of one of the lunches I had on the train

a chocolate torte, cheese cake or ice cream. There were limited vegetarian option. If you had serious dietary restrictions you would probably not be able to enjoy the dining car.

If you travel via coach you could bring your own food or you could eat either in the dining car or in the snack car. If you paid for the meals in the dining car it would get expensive. The steak option was $24. If I had paid for each of my meals on the train they would have ranged from $12 for breakfast up to $30 for dinner. I probably would have spent $150 or more eating during the 29-hour train trip if meals had not been included. That would make about $300 for food for the roundtrip. If I subtract that $300 from my $431, that makes my actual sleeping car only $131 for the round trip. What a deal.

The coach seats on the train are fabulous and exceedingly comfortable.

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These are the coach seats on the train. They are adjustable and have footstools and foot rests. Notice the electric outlooks on the wall.

You could certainly travel that way and sleep. You wouldn’t have any privacy, but because the seating is roomy; it is still far more comfortable than falling asleep on an airplane.

The roomettes are cramped for two people (but perfect for one). If you share a roomette

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This is the observation car. There is a bar on the first floor of the observation car that sells some mixed drinks, beer and wine. It also serves food and snacks.

then you need to enjoy the company of the person with whom you are traveling. There are larger rooms on the train, but I did not price them for this post. For the roomette, you sit facing the other person and there is about one foot of space between your knees. In the evening, a train attendant comes by and shoves the two bottom chairs together to form a bed and then drops a bunk down from the ceiling to form the second bed. Even with a bad knee, I was able to get to the top bunk. I had a hard time maneuvering, but it was doable. I much preferred sleeping in the bottom bunk. There was more room and I could look out the window as I fell asleep.

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This is one of the larger rooms on the train. This forms a bed at night and a second bed can be formed by bringing down the bunk that is attached to the ceiling.  There is also a private restroom in the larger rooms.

While you might be somewhat cramped in the roomette with a friend, there is so much room on the train that you don’t have to be in one place. I spent very little time in my roomette. During part of my trip one of the coach cars was empty. I spent several hours stretched out in the coach car with all of my electronic equipment spread around me and plugged in to various outlets. I also spent hours and hours in the observation car. I had lots of room and electrical outlets. I could look at the passing scenery, listen to my music via headphones or write. If I wanted company, most of the people in the observation car were friendly and open to conversation. Talking to strangers on a train is a tradition after all.

I could walk all over the train if I needed to move around and at least every two hours (and generally more often) the station stop was long enough so you could get off the train and walk around either the station or the immediate area. Station stops ranged from 10 minutes to 45 minutes.

There were no luggage checks on the train. I never had to take off my shoes or unpack my laptop bag. When we got on the train in San Marcos, the attendant asked for one of our party’s driver’s license. That was their random check.

Most people who know me well also know that restrooms are important to me. My rating of the restrooms between the airplane, plane and driving would probably be a wash. The train restrooms may rate a little lower than the airplane and some gas stations. The restrooms on the train are very small. I also think Amtrak may need to invest in more cleaning staff and some air fresheners in the bathrooms. But, overall they were certainly better than a tree in the woods.

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The doorway leading from the coach cars to the private sleeping quarters.

If you travel in the largest rooms you have a private bathroom. The car with the roomettes had one bathroom on the floor of the rooms and then two more bathrooms on the floor below us, which is also where the shower was located.

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This is the connecting doorway between two cars. It take some getting used to going through these doors and keeping your balance.

I would definitely now choose train travel over any other form of travel if it were an option. Obviously, an airplane will get you someplace faster and train travel is not going to be convenient to many locations. But, if it is an option, I highly recommend it.

Snippets

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This is going to be a free-flowing post about random things I remember about the trip so far.

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This is one of the two homes on the ranch. This is the older home

Currently, I am on a train somewhere in the heart of Texas making our way northeast toward Chicago.

I took my first ride in a Tesla. Not that I had to come to Texas to do that, but that’s where I was when I was offered the opportunity. I am now in love. I want a Tesla. We accelerated so fast I was actually pushed back into my seat. I think the astronauts could use the car for basic training. It was fun to see the car plugged into an outdoor ranch outlet. I am sure the outlet was originally installed so people using power tools or wanting to recharge the golf cart would have a place to plug in. Seeing the car plugged into the old outlet was amazing.

I did not see a single scorpion, snake, long horn or wild pig. I spent so much time worrying about scorpions and rattlesnakes that in the end it was somewhat disappointing not to see one. Some of my traveling companions did see a scorpion in the house we were staying in and they promptly squished it, but that was the only sighting. They also saw a small black snake, but again I wasn’t there so I missed it. And everyone was talking about the wild pig problem in Texas. But, do not mistake the wild pigs for the javelinas. Javelinas look like pigs but only weigh in at 60 pounds and are not related to wild boars. They are in the peccary family, a group of hoofed mammals originating from South America. Evidently, the wild pigs are  something to be concerned about as they are destructive and can be dangerous to animals and humans. I read some interesting articles describing the differences between the wild pigs and the javelinas. I would love to have seen a javelina. If you want to see what a javelina looks like, click here.

We lucked out in terms of weather. The area we were in had been through several years of serious drought, but in the months right before we arrived some significant rain had fallen and greened up the land. Also, while it was more than 100 degrees in the week before we arrived, the temperature dropped into the high 80s and low to mid 90s while we were on the ranch. It was not nearly as humid as it is in Indiana.

I hadn’t been swimming in years, but on this trip I was in two different swimming pools and went twice to the swimming hole on the property. Swimming pools definitely make sense in this part of Texas. Indiana only has three months in which a pool is really useful. The places we visited in Texas rarely see snow for local residents cold is if it drops into the 40s. They get a lot more life out of the pool in Texas.

water fall

This waterfall is the perfect spa experience. If you lie right in the middle warm water buffets around you creating a massage effect. 

The swimming hole was awesome. The creek on my family property in Indiana is not clear. It is full of silt and mud so when you swim or wade you can’t really see what you are stepping on. The water in Texas was so clear. If there was a snake or a turtle, we could see it coming from a distance! There were several springs which fed the creek and provided water for the two homes on the ranch. For two days we lost water to one of the homes due to an unfortunate mowing accident. (An outdoor spigot was put in so close to the ground the person mowing didn’t see it). One of our party decided to go pioneer woman and bathed in the spring. We teased her that in the movies a handsome cowboy would have come along while she was bathing. But, she pointed out she did not put her petticoats over the bushes so the cowboy wouldn’t have known she was there.

The swimming hole had an amazing waterfall as well and was just like a high-priced spa. The water coming over the rocks into the swimming hole was really warm due to the sunbaked rocks. The closer you got to the waterfall, the warmer the water. If you laid right in the waterfall it was exactly like getting a deep tissue massage while lying in water. It may be the most relaxing thing I will ever experience in my life. From now on, whenever I am stressed, I am going to remember that feeling of stretching out in the waterfall and letting the water pound around me.

The creek running through the property was wide with deep holes below the springs, but almost dry above the springs. Above the springs we hiked over large slabs of rock (me worrying about rattlesnakes hiding under the rocks). The fossils were numerous. A ranch near where we were staying has dinosaur tracks on its land, which you can pay to go see, but we just didn’t have time to fit it in.

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In less than one quarter of a mile we went from 15 foot deep water to this. 

The closest town to our ranch was Utopia: home to about 300 people. It had a bank, a Justice of the Peace, café, a few churches, an antique store, gas station, grocery and a thrift store. I loved the grocery. I get overwhelmed in a Super Walmart. In this grocery there were four aisles of food and a small freezer section. If you wanted coffee they had two brands to choose from: Folgers and Maxwell House. When I shop at Kroger I have to look at 37 different types of coffee and ponder my decision. I could learn to love fewer choices.

The nearest Wal-Mart and movie theater were almost an hour away. Living in this area would mean you didn’t just drive out for a quick trip to the store because you forgot something. You would have to be happy working on your own land and doing your own thing. Jimmy Johns is definitely not delivering to this area and if they did, they would need to memorize a lot of gate codes because all the ranches had electronic gates.

While I didn’t see a lot of cattle, I did see pasture after pasture of goats. Thousands of goats. I also saw lots of pens of deer. Not sure if they were venison farms or if they deer were being raised for canned hunts. Texas sadly has a large canned hunting industry. I’m hoping the deer I saw were meat deer.

I did see several deer on the ranch. The property owners maintain feeders for both deer and turkey. The squirrels and the duck also enjoyed the feeders.

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A nest of barn swallow babies

I lost count of the number of hummingbirds we saw. Barn swallows were also prevalent.

The part of Texas I was is called the Hill Country due to the many hills. Since this is the only part of Texas I have been in (except for a weekend once at a convention in San Antonio) I don’t have anything to compare with my stay. But, I do love the Hill Country. It was remote and beautiful.

While I will always call my beloved Parke County, Ind., home; spending this week on the ranch in Texas is something I will always remember.

 

 

The Ranch

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We are getting ready to leave the ranch. I didn’t get to post except on the very first morning here because there was simply too much to do and I was exhausted each evening and just fell into bed.

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You can see the hills of the Hill Country behind me. We are on top of the ranch’s mountain.

Plus, while I am a writer, I feel inadequate to even describe my adventures. I am near a town called Utopia and I guess that is the best description. I am sitting in a chair overlooking a stream. It is so clear you can see almost to the bottom even in the deeper holes which can be up to 15 to 17 feet deep. This morning I watched a fairly large bass swim from one deep hole through some shallows into the next deep hole. I’ve watched a duck who has a predictable morning routine (at least he has the same routine two mornings in a row). And I don’t actually know if it is a he duck or a she duck. But, each morning he goes up the bank, pecks around, then comes back down to the swimming hole and he swims the entire perimeter pecking around and then he goes to the waterfall, spreads his wings out and flings water on himself. He then goes up on the bank and takes a nap.

This ranch isn’t huge by Texas standards. But, it has everything you might want. There is a hill (or as they call it here, the Mountain). The top of the mountain has a structure so people can go up and grill out, sit and watch nature, or lay under the stars.

The STARS. Oh dear. I wish I could describe the stars. Indiana has so much light from cities and towns that it is difficult even when you are in the country to really see the stars. Here there is nothing for miles and miles. I have seen the Milky Way and it was so clear. Everyone has phone apps that show them were the different constellations are located. I just sat down and looked at the sky and marveled at how amazing the stars can be. Then I tried to imagine actually navigating via the stars. Yikes. That might have been difficult.

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fossil found on the creek hike

We went on a creek hike, which was amazing. My family has a wonderful little creek through our property and I love creek hiking. This was just like that except the terrain was so different. We found lots of fossils and the rocks are amazing. The creek had spots where it was 15 feet deep and then we hiked to a place where there was no water at all except for what might be in tiny pools.

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One of the many little waterfalls on the creek.

There was a lot of tension in the 19th century between Native Americans and white settlers in this area because the area has natural water sources and water access was everything. I went to a small museum and read about all of the things farmers did to try and stretch the water farther and farther away from the may water source. In the 1920s this area became famous for onion and spinach production. But then various disasters such as drought, molds and insects came along. Farmers learned that relying on a single crop could be disastrous. Texas also made a series of roads just for farmers to help keep the farmers on the farm and get their crops to railheads or towns.

air plant

Air plant

I wish I could describe how beautiful the live oaks are and they are all covered in air plants. The air plants real name is ball moss or bunch moss. They do not hurt the tree. They take no nutrients from them. While the live oaks in Florida are covered in Spanish moss, the ones here are covered in the ball moss. The fence posts are covered in the ball moss. Everything that doesn’t move is covered.

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Repairing the cedar fence around one of the homes on the ranch

One of the fun things I did was help repair a rail fence around one of the homes on the ranch. Most of the fencing and any railings are made of cedar rails because there is so much cedar around. I read some interesting articles on the cedar (juniper) trees. They are not invasive as some people think, they just haven’t been as prevalent in the past and fires and changes in environment help them move more into the hill country. They also don’t suck up lots of water as people assume. However, there are people who have terrible allergies to the cedars. But, they smell awesome and make good split rail fences.

I will write more later, but I wanted to do an update before we repack our suitcases (I have to take all of my clothes outside and shake them as I left everything on the floor and everyone is convinced scorpions are now in the clothes). Then I need to take a shower and stuff everything back in the suitcase (along with some books I bought and various and sundry other things).

Day 4: The Creek

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I woke feeling very refreshed and went outside with a cup of coffee. Looking at the

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My shadow in the  water

 

beautiful creek I made a decision. I wanted to go creek hiking. I put on my creek shoes and set out to explore. The realities of my abilities in my mind are somewhat different than the reality of my current body. I slipped a few times in the water and realized that jumping from stone to stone or climbing up rocks was easier when I was 15 than it is at 55. But, I was determined. Once I got going I regained a lot of my confidence.

I found a rock where I am positive at some point someone put these two rocks together to form a chair. I just can’t believe they would be positioned this way accidently. I spent half an hour sitting on this rocky chair and watching the water and a pair of kingfishers. If I could have bottled the feeling I had sitting on this rock watching nature, I could make a fortune.

People were making their way to the main house for breakfast and I decided to take the

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A flower with the rushing water in the background

creek route. I walked down the creek taking photos of

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Fish (big catfish) swimming in the swimming hole

waterfalls and little plants. The main house sits above a deep hole in the water that is the “old swimming hole.” It is about 12-15 feet deep and home to many fish. The water is so clear you can see almost to the bottom. The swimming hole is fed by a spring, so even in times of drought (which the area has been going through) there is water in this spot. During a serious drought several years ago, many area farmers were killing their cattle because there was no water for them. The people who own the ranch where I am staying took down their fences so any area ranchers could drive their cattle to the swimming hole to water them. Area residents have told the owners that many generations of residents learned to swim in this swimming hole. I am told we will be trying our hands at swimming in the old swimming hole soon.

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The swimming hole as seen from the top. 

Day 3: The ranch

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After leaving the Bed and Breakfast in San Marcos, Texas, we headed to Gruene, Texas. This tiny town is known for a famous dance hall and is now a tourist town. There was a wonderful antique mall where I found a glass baby bottle with dogs embossed on it. I decided to add that to my dog collection. I visited a pottery and winery. Picked up three bottles of wine and then we all ate at a restaurant overlooking a river for lunch. I had an amazing sandwich.

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The newer ranch house as seen from the creek

Then it was an hour and a half drive to the ranch where we are staying. I wish I could describe the ranch. I can think of many adjectives, but none of them do it justice. It isn’t a ranch with cattle or horses. There is no longer any livestock on the ranch. But, there is a beautiful creek and two homes and 180 or so acres to explore. We took a short tour in a golf cart, but something happened to the battery and we ended up walking back. But, it was a beautiful evening.

Then we had to figure out who was sleeping in which house. I decided to stay in the older of the two homes. It has a beautiful porch that has been enclosed and contained three beds. There is no Wi-Fi or cell phone service in this house, so keeping up with the world is difficult. All you can do is RELAX.

Then I looked up at the sky. With no ambient light from nearby towns or cities, the sky was a world I have never seen before. It was simply breathtaking.

Vacationing is tiring, so I ended up going to bed early.

Day Two: Dallas

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The highlight of the second day on the train was a brief stop in Dallas. I had been told that Dealey Plaza was very close to the train station. I checked my maps app on the phone and it said it was a five-minute walk. I had 25 minutes at this train stop. The train employees are VERY clear that if you are not on the train when they say “all aboard,” then you are going to be left behind.

My traveling companion had actually been on a train when a man was left behind when he wandered too far away. He had left his wallet and his phone on the train with his wife. The train employees told the wife there was nothing they could do but call the conductor of the next train coming through to pick him up.

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The red brick building in the background is the Book Depository

There I was on the train platform with the location of President Kennedy’s assassination just a five-minute walk away, but the knowledge that this train was not waiting for me in my mind. Then I remembered words from my former boss. We had been on a business trip that took us to St. Louis. We got into our hotel very late at night. The hotel was close to the Mississippi River, but the walk to the river wasn’t the best in terms of safety. He decided he was going to walk to the Mississippi so he could say he stood on the banks because he said, “I may never be here again.”

Right, on to the grassy knoll. I power walked as fast as my overweight body and achy foot would let me. I got to the plaza where luckily there was a map that showed the locations of everything. I found the building where Lee Harvey Oswald took the shot that ended Kennedy’s life. And then the Grassy Knoll – subject of so many conspiracy theories. OK, I admit, I don’t really know what I thought the Grassy Knoll would look like – perhaps some menacing hill. But, it was just a little incline up to a building from a street. The former Texas School Book Depository was also just an ordinary looking building. Of course they were just ordinary places, but in my mind they had loomed so large for so long.

I snapped a few quick pictures and power walked back in plenty of time. I am glad I did it though because who knows if I will ever come this way again.

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The grassy knoll

After Dallas we had a really long station stop in Fort Worth and there was nothing I could go visit in 45 minutes. Instead we spent 10 minutes discussing the seed pods of a magnolia tree because it was interesting and fuzzy.

The rest of the train adventure went by too fast. Lunch was awesome and we also had one last dinner on the train. I finished a book and enjoyed another wine as the scenery went by.

We got off at San Marcos, Texas. Our group spent the night at the Crystal River Inn. San Marcos is a college town so when we walked downtown there was a square around a beautiful courthouse. There were at least four bars on every side of the square. I have to say we brought the average age down of the bar we stopped in by quite a bit.

Two kitties were snuggling on the roof of the bed and breakfast we are staying in. The staff told me they have one official cat, but the rest come to visit. It is a beautiful bed and breakfast and the coffee is AMAZING.

UntitledI slept very well in a soft fluffy bed that did not move.

I have to say I loved the train and I want to do lots more train travel. You will get somewhere faster by car or by airplane and you can get there cheaper as well, but I have never had so much fun going on a trip.

Air travel is so stressful with the getting on and off, going through security, getting there two hours early, sitting in a cramped seat. Driving is fun, but you still have to be alert and if you can’t stop a lot then it can be monotonous. The train is like being on a cruise ship only instead of water you are rocking along on the rails. I could sleep, I could eat, I could get a drink, I could visit with fellow passengers. The food was absolutely amazing. I can even see doing a train trip on my own. I love to travel, but I also like to see people sometimes. This would be perfect.

The seats on the train are amazingly comfortable. There is so much room and no one had to inspect anything. I never had to take off my shoes, show anyone my laptop or wonder if I left something in my bags that couldn’t get on a flight.

I am definitely going to be checking out some more train travel in the fut

Day Two: Morning

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After making my way out of the bunk bed I headed to the dining car for breakfast. Walking 20160821_081117_resizedon the train is an art form. You have to watch your balance and if the train shifts while you are going between cars, you need to be prepared to grab the door handle. You actually aren’t outside at any time, but the area between the cars is definitely interesting. If you are carrying something like a cup of coffee while walking in the cars, you really have to be careful not to spill it on your fellow passengers.

I had a great breakfast of scrambled eggs, French toast, fried potatoes and bacon. Again, it was complimentary since we have sleeper rooms.

I decided that I had to experience taking a shower on a train. It actually was really nice. The shower and changing room was much larger than the bathrooms. The shower was super clean and towels are provided. I felt much refreshed after the shower and finishing my second cup of coffee while I watch the scenery go by.

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View from the back of the train