Rhine River Cruise

Following our Swiss rail tour we decided to take a Viking river cruise. It’s a mighty long airplane ride across the Atlantic so we thought we should do more than one thing. When Viking offered free air and they would fly us whenever and wherever we wanted that clinched the deal.

Viking is the largest river cruise operator with over 80 boats. We chose Viking’s Rhine Getaway. It’s an 8 day cruise from Basel Switzerland to Amsterdam Netherlands with stops in France and Germany.

Our ship Viking Eir

Viking cruises include a tour at every port and ours started with a tour of Basel.

Us arriving at the Basel train station
The mighty Rhine
Basel Cathedral
Basel Rathaus or city hall

We cruised at night to our next port and traversed several locks which our boat just barely fit into. It was pretty interesting to look out our window at night and see a the concrete wall of a lock. Breisach Germany is the gateway to the Black Forest. The weather was very rainy and cool so hiking was out but we did see a cuckoo clock making demonstration and taste Black Forest cake. The weather was better in the afternoon and we toured Colmar on the French side of the Rhine. We really like this quiet Alsatien town. The medieval Gothic and Renaissance buildings contribute to the storybook character of the place. Turns out the sculptor who built the Statue of Liberty was from Colmar.

Breisach cuckoo clock attraction
Colmar tram tour
Canal scene
Rennaisance building
Bartholdi – Colmar sculptor who built the Statue of Liberty

Strasbourg France is home of the European Parliament and a city that has flipped from France to Germany and back again several times. This town presents strong influences from both countries in its food and culture. It is built on many islands in the Ill River, a close tributary to the Rhine. We loved the medieval architecture, the food and coffee. We toured the Alsatien Museum. This is a great city to visit.

Towers entering Strassbourg
Beautiful city on the Ill River
Cathedral from Alsace Museum
Many historic half timber buildings
D in a busy cafe
Tarte flambeau and coffee

The next day we visited the small city of Speyer Germany. The Romanesque cathedral here is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was the largest in the world until St Peters was built in Rome. Eight German kings are buried here. Later we also visited Rudesheim a town in the heart of Reisling wine country. It was another lovely place to walk and explore.

Speyer Cathedral
Typical old bridge in Speyer
Us in Rudesheim

For many the next day’s cruise through the Middle Rhine was the highlight of their cruise. This is another UNESCO World Heritage site known for its turreted castles and fortresses overlooking the Rhine from their steep hillsides. Most of the castles here were built in the 10th to 13th century to collect tolls on the heavily trafficked Rhine. On the steep banks of the Rhine grapes are still harvested by hand for their world renowned wines. Our day started out cold and foggy but turned into a spectacularly clear beautiful day.

Rheinstein Castle
The Pfalz toll station
Reichenstein Castle

Mid morning we passed Lorelei Rock a narrow and deep part of the Rhine where legend has it a maiden betrayed by her lover committed suicide and became a siren luring sailors to their death.

Lorelei Rock
Marksburg Castle
Stolzenfels Castle
Rheinfels Castle

Koblenz Germany was our next stop the same afternoon. There we had an excellent tour from a young man who really shared a personal story of his town and country. Koblenz is a beautiful city built at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers where the 1871 unification of Germany is celebrated at the German Corner with a huge statue of Wilhelm I. Later we took a cable car over our ship and the Rhine to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress towering above the city. The fortress is the largest in Europe where construction began in the year 1100 on the hill where Romans had a fort in 400 AD. There has been a settlement here since the 4th century BC. Another great place to visit.

Ehrenbreitstein Fortress
Kaiser Wilhelm I

Our last stop in Germany was Cologne known for its spectacular 14th century Gothic cathedral. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site the cathedral survived World War Two while 95% of the city was destroyed. Viking had the finest dock location in the heart of the city. Our guided tour showed us many highlights of the city and we were able to see the inside of the cathedral on our own. We enjoyed a virtual reality tour of 1926 Cologne. This was one night we had dinner on our own with street food in a plaza. Later we enjoyed the sun deck of our boat at dusk when thousands of green parakeets came screaming in to roost nearby.

Cologne Cathedral
Back of cathedral
Reliquary said to hold the bones of the three wise men
St Martin church one of 360 churches in Cologne

Kinderdijk Netherlands was our last port of our river cruise. Its another UNESCO World Heritage site celebrating the windmills that keep the Netherlands from flooding. We enjoyed a tour of a traditional operating windmill and toured an electric pumping station. By now we are in the flatlands of the Rhine delta on our way to Amsterdam.

Viking does an excellent job on their river cruises. Our boat held a maximum 190 passengers and the restaurant dinner is the only option. Dinners take 2 hours every day and all tables seat at least 6 so it is a very social cruise. The included tours are very good quality and while we only opted for one optional (extra charge) tour it was excellent as well. We met many interesting people.

New friends on the boat
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Sugar Express

U S Sugar in Clewiston Florida recently restored a historic steam locomotive to full operating condition. When the Florida East Coast Railway Society offered a charter excursion train pulled by No. 148 we jumped at the opportunity.

This is one beautiful locomotive

FEC locomotive 148 is a 4-6-2 Light Pacific built in 1920 by the American Locomotive Works in Richmond Virginia. She pulled passenger and freight trains all the way to Key West on the Overseas railroad bridges. In 1952 the locomotive was acquired by U S Sugar where she hauled sugar cane until the late 1960s. After retirement the locomotive traveled around the country as an operating attraction before languishing inoperable in storage for 40 years.

148 at night
Randy at the night shoot

Our train

In 2016 U S Sugar re-acquired 148 and restoration began in 2017. After thousands of hours of work by sugar employees and restoration experts No. 148 was returned to service in April 2020 just in time for her 100th birthday. Built as an oil burner (FEC founder Henry Flagler was a partner of John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil) 148 now runs on used vegetable oil. The locomotive operates on the tracks of U S Sugar’s freight railroad, the South Central Florida Express. Sugar’s railroad hauls more than 1000 cars of sugar cane per day during the harvest season from October to April and also interchanges 15,000 cars per year with CSX and Florida East Coast Railway. The passenger cars are beautifully restored and more are on the way. U S Sugar is in the process of restoring a second steam locomotive which had been on static display in front of the Prime Osborn Convention Center is Jacksonville.

148 at track speed
Sugar Express baggage/open car
Inside Sugar Express passenger car
Sugar cane field
St Lucie Canal

Our weekend included a night photo shoot and engine shop tour on Friday. Saturday’s all day excursion included 3 photo run-bys and lunch catered on the train. Then Sunday we had a “Raisin’ Cane” tour of the sugar fields and structures. We thank the Florida East Coast Railway Society for organizing this event. We look forward to more rail events in our home state.

Run-by on Port Mayaca bridge

This is a popular addition to the tourist experience in Clewiston Florida. U S Sugar is using the railroad to reach the public with its message of commitment to returning clean water to the Everglades. The pollution we see today in the Caloosahatchee River comes not from sugar but from cattle ranchers along the Kissimmee River dumping ag waste into Lake Okeechobee. We learned a lot. Good for Big Sugar.

Sugar explaining Best Management Practices

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Best of Switzerland Rail Tour 🇨🇭

Our Vacations by Rail Best of Switzerland Rail Tour begins in Zurich the largest city in the country.  On arrival at the airport we took the local train to the city then walked to our hotel.  Trains are the best way to see the country. Zurich alone has 3000 trains per day. We explored this old city by walking on our own before meeting our tour manager and our group of 32.

Zurich’s Limmat River
Trams, bicycles and walking are best in Zurich

Switzerland is the cleanest most organized country we have visited.  The city of St. Gallon is an easy 1 hour train ride from Zurich.  It’s most famous for its abbey and Baroque cathedral.  After our tour we had time to try some  local foods like biber, a kind of gingerbread and the best hot chocolate ever.

Our first Swiss train
St Gallen cathedral
Typical street in St Gallen

Our next day we took the local train to Lucerne, one of Switzerland’s mot idyllic cities.  On arrival we caught a paddle wheel ferry on Lake Lucerne to Vistnau.  There we rode the Rigi Mountain cog railway to the top of Mt. Rigi. This was the first railway of its kind in Europe. It was originally built in 1871. Now we’re clearly in the Alps with spectacular views in all directions.  On the way back to the lake we took the cable car.  We ferried again back to Lucerne where we stayed in a 500 year old hotel, Wilden Mann.  Lucerne is beautiful and we’d love to visit again.

Us in font of Chapel Bridge
Lucerne waterfront
Our ferry on Lake Lucerne
Mt Rigi cog railway
Mt Rigi view
Dairy cows have distinctive bells to find them in the fog
Cable car view

The Golden Pass Line train from Lucerne took us over the Brunig Pass and Bernese Oberland to Interlaken, a resort town from the 18th century.  The town sits between two lakes and is still popular with the elite. We enjoyed watching hang gliders leap from the adjacent mountains and land in the town green.   Our journey that day ended in Lausanne on Lake Geneva in the French speaking west of Switzerland.

Lake view along Golden Pass Line
Interlaken station
Victoria Jungfrau Hotel
The Eiger, the Jungfraun and the Monch mountains tower over Interlaken

Montreux was our first stop the next day where we toured 1000 year old Chateau Chillon,  one of the most authentic castles in all of Europe.  The castle sits on the shore of Lake Geneva on the same location where Romans built a fort 2000 years ago to guard the trade route from Italy to France. Our train journey this day ended in Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn.

Chillon Castle
Interior courtyard
Freddie Mercury recorded in Montreux considered the Swiss Riviera

In Zermatt we had a walking tour and history talk with a local guide. After that we walked to the Gornergrat Railway station where we caught the highest cog railway in Europe to the top at 10135 feet. The ride was spectacular but after a quick look at a glacier the clouds obscured the Matterhorn and everything else. On the way back we were able to hike to get a great shot.

Gornergrat Railway has been taking people to the top of the mountain since 1898
The fog was thick
Glacier from the top of Gornergrat – Matterhorn obscured by fog

Next day we rode the famous narrow gauge Glacier Express to St Moritz. 8 hours on the slowest Express train in Europe. This train crosses 291 bridges and 91 tunnels on its 181 mile journey. Lunch is served on the train before arriving in St Moritz. We stayed at Hotel Simi in this ritzy town.

Glacier Express on Landwasser Viaduct

We rode another famous train the next day. The Bernina Express runs from St Moritz to Tirano Italy. It’s the highest rail line in Switzerland and a UNESCO World Heritage site. We had great views above the treeline and then dropped down into Italy. We enjoyed a great lunch there and picked up some food delicacies. Then we took a local train back to St Moritz.

Alp view near Bernina Pass at 7638 feet
View from Bernina Express
Kreis Viaduct in Italian speaking Switzerland
Railfan friend Paul getting the shot

Our last train day took us on local trains from St Moritz to Chur (coor) then to Zurich. We had a walking tour in Zurich and then a farewell dinner at our Hotel Glockenhof.

Us at Basel train station off to the next adventure

We highly recommend Vacations by Rail and their Best of Switzerland tour. Oliver was a great tour manager. We had excellent hotels every day, fabulous buffet breakfasts and lots of walking. Our first week we each had over 100,000 steps. Switzerland is a beautiful country. They have the best chocolate, bread and cheese. Their trains are among the best in Europe. Always on time, quiet and clean. We’d go back anytime. There is more to see.

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Memphis – Music and Food

Our trip to Memphis included much more than Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum. We toured Sun Recording Studio in a small storefront building where Sam Philips started the business in 1950. Sam’s partner Marian was the first to hear Elvis perform and a year later got Sam to bring him in. The session didn’t go particularly well so Sam took a break. During the break Elvis tore into Big Boy Crudup’s “That’s Alright” and made rock and roll history. Sam Philips found the sound he was looking for. Sun recorded many early rock and roll pioneers like Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis as well as blues legends like BB King and Howlin Wolf. Johnny Cash got his start at Sun. But Elvis made music history.

Original microphone used by Elvis at Sun
Control room at Sun where Sam Philips was the first to record Elvis
Artists rendering of Sun Recording Studio

While the big attractions in Memphis are Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum there is so much more largely centered around music.

Memphis also had the first black owned and first woman owned radio stations in the United States. They had the first radio station that played black music and white music on the same station. STAX music was another recording studio that featured great R & B acts like Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding and Bobby Blue Bland.

Memphis Rock and Soul Museum
Beale Street

B B Kings Blues Club on Beale st is just one of many live music venues in Memphis today. It’s a nice compact area with plenty of Bar B Q too

Diving into Rendezvous Restaurant ribs in an alley near Beale Street
The original B B King Blues Club on Beale Street
Live music until a kitchen fire closed the club for the night

Memphis even has a vintage streetcar line. Which of course we had to ride.

Beautiful vintage streetcar in downtown Memphis

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Memphis – Graceland

We’ve never been big Elvis fans but Graceland is such a worldwide attraction that we had to see what it was all about. It’s not an inexpensive place to visit.

After a introductory film we were shuttled to the home which is not huge by today’s standards but very personal to Elvis. The home is preserved as it was when he lived here. He bought it in 1957 and loved entertaining family and friends.

Us in front of Graceland
Living room
Backyard where he and friends rode horses and golf carts
The Jungle Room
70s media room
Home movies are part of the home
Elvis is buried on the grounds along with his still borne twin and other family members

The home is just the beginning at Graceland. There is a large museum displaying many items from Elvis’s career. There is one room just for cars. Another has boats. Another huge room displays his iconic costumes. Then there’s still another room dedicated to his legacy and all the artists influenced by Elvis. Some of those included Elton John, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon who is quoted as saying “If there had been no Elvis there would be no Beatles”

One of dozens of cars
The first Cadillac
Elvis’s boat
Close up of an outfit
An entire wall of costumes
The legend

We were thoroughly impressed by the quality of Graceland. We arrived only curious about Elvis and left with a deep appreciation of the man and his legacy.

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Memphis- The National Civil Rights Museum

Memphis has a lot to offer. Our first stop was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. It’s a very moving history of the movement from the earliest days of slavery through the violent 50s and 60s. Even if you think you know much of the story there is so much more to learn. This is a world class museum.

The motel looks much as it did in 1968 on the outside
The wreath marks the location where King went down
King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers
There is a Montgomery bus where Rosa Parks refused to move
Many displays and images of boycotts marches and protests
This actual bus emphasized the deadly bombings frequently happening during the struggle

We spent 4 hours there and only left because they were closing. There’s still more to see.

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Cloudcroft New Mexico

Mexican Canyon trestle

Cloudcroft New Mexico is located in the Sacramento Mountains in the southeastern part of the state. In this hot dry region it is an comfortable oasis due to its elevation. Fodor’s travel recently called it one of the most overlooked places in the country. We visited on our way from Palm Springs to Florida. The railroad history, mild weather, scenic views and hiking made this a place we’ll come back to visit.

Cloudcroft NM at elevation 8676 feet

The Alamogordo and Sacramento Railroad climbed over 4000 feet in 32 miles with grades of up to an unheard of 6.4%! Historically trains slowly climbed trestles and S curves to the timber in the mountains. Vacationers flocked to the mountain air on up to 5 trains per day from El Paso. This was one of the most spectacular western railroads. Today trestles can be reached via hiking trails.

Salado Trestle

We stayed at the Cool Pines RV Park in nearby Mayhill. It’s a lovely quiet park.

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Kilgore Texas

Downtown Kilgore

We really never heard of Kilgore let alone planned to visit but our granddaughter recently moved there so we had to stop by. The town operates the Harris St RV park near downtown. It is very nice with paved sites and beautiful lawns although its a little difficult to reserve thru the city. The rate was $20/night for water and electric site with an onsite dump station. Our granddaughter moved to Kilgore to pursue her passion for horror films and actually landed a leading part in the upcoming prequel to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

What surprised us was the first class museums and lively downtown of Kilgore. The East Texas Oil Museum tells the story of the first east Texas oil strike right under the town in 1930. What happened next was amazing. The small dying town exploded overnite into a boom town. At one point there were more than 1100 producing wells within the city limits. The East Texas Oil Museum is a first class facility telling the story.

East Texas Oil Museum
Smithsonian quality exhibits

Another unexpected attraction was the Texas Broadcast Museum. A couple of locals collected an incredible array of historic TV and radio broadcast equipment. Among the historic items we saw were one of the original 3 ESPN mobile broadcast trucks, the actual TV camera that filmed Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald and a projection TV built in 1948. For fans of history and technology this was a very interesting museum.

Actual camera that filmed Ruby shooting Oswald
One of the first 3 ESPN mobile studio trucks

We very much enjoyed meeting our daughter in Kilgore to visit our granddaughter. The town was upbeat and friendly. Right off I-20 we would recommend it as a pleasurable stop for travelers in Texas.

Restored railroad depot

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Chiricahua National Monument

One of our absolute favorite national parks is Chiricahua National Monument in southeast Arizona. We remember the smell of the forest the first time we visited. The park is located about an hour from the RV parks in Benson. Its an easy day trip but we hope to camp at the park campground one day. The Chiricahua Mountains rise up to 9,273 feet with plants and animals from 4 ecosystems meeting in this range. There are species from the Rocky Mountains, the Sonoran Desert, the Chihuahuan Desert and even the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico.. This area was home to the Chiricahua Apache since the1400s. They called the rock pinnacles “standing up rocks”.

Our favorite trail is the Echo Canyon loop which combines 3 trails into a spectacular 3.4 mile loop. There are views of the rock pinnacles around every turn on this easy to moderate hike. We love it so much we haven’t tried another trail.

Echo Canyon trail
Probably some type of Spiny Lizard

We know there are many more trails to explore. There is also much human history to learn. For these reasons we know we’ll return to this beautiful national park. Its one of those we call 3rd or 4th level parks that are less well known and just isolated enough to be safe from overwhelming crowds. Only tell your best friends.

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Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park

Florida has many nice state parks with good campgrounds. Payne’s Prairie is one we have been curious about for a very long time. Every trip north or south on I-75 crosses Payne’s Prairie near Gainesville. The campground is accessed from the south side near Micanopy. There are 50 campsites which offer electric and water hookups as well as very nice restrooms and showers. There is a dump station too. For tenters there are fine campsites off the main loop. Our smaller 25 foot RV fit in very nicely.

We visited in December and the weather was very mild – warm days and cool nights. The prairie is 27,000 acres of mostly wetlands with an amazing abundance of wildlife. It is home to a small herd of bison which once roamed Florida. Many wild horses and cattle descended from those brought by the early Spanish explorers find home here. Birdlife is abundant as well for migratory and resident birds. The park has a fine visitor center and museum interpreting the nature and history. Staff are friendly and knowledgeable. While we were there we saw bison, horses, alligators, eagles, deer, owls, egrets, ibis, herons, bitterns, gallinules and anhinga as well as others we could not identify.

27000 acre Payne’s Prairie Preserve
State park trail
American bison (butt)
American alligator – one of the largest we’ve ever seen
American bittern
Anhinga “Snakebird”
Wild horse standing in flooded prairie

We enjoyed the campground, wildlife and many trails. Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park is one we would highly recommend.

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