Ahead of changes, train ride an enjoyable experience

Amtrak’s Miami trains–the Silver Star and Silver Meteor–have a Facebook page where the former has acquired the derogatory nickname “Silver Starvation” — because it no longer carries a dining car.

Since Amtrak meals are about to become a major issue, a friend and I recently tried the Star to see how things work without the usual waiters and chef-cooked meals of long-distance trains.

We had a blast.

The Silver Star — like every other Amtrak train — does have a cafe lounge, with a fairly robust array of pricey sandwiches, snacks and drinks: besides the usual pizza, dogs and chips, there are such items as hummus, Caesar salads, Philly cheesesteaks, organic brownies, turkey ciabatta, Buffalo chicken wrap and a decent shelf of alcohol. Nonetheless, having heard about food shortages and long lines in the Star’s lounge, we packed our own eats — and this is one of the great things about trains: You can bring pretty much whatever you want. Nobody checks your bags or makes you take off your shoes like they do at the airport; literally no one cares.

So John and I crammed our luggage full of nuts, crackers, breakfast bars and alcoholic beverages, while also grabbing take-out sandwiches before boarding on a sunny August afternoon in Washington, D.C.

Good thing, too. Comfortably ensconced in our sleeping-car bedroom, we noted that the cafe was packed throughout the trip, with lines often stretching all the way down the car. Yet seating in the lounge was readily available, and we ate our meals more comfortably there than on the tiny fold-out table in our room. (Technically Amtrak forbids bringing your own alcohol into the cafe; but my bourbon travels in a plastic soda bottle, and no one noticed.) Sleeping-car passengers on the Star get free morning coffee and juice, so after a bumpy but restful night and an in-room breakfast, we disembarked in Kissimmee, Florida, planning to visit Blue Spring State Park.

Located about an hour from Orlando, the 2600-acre park sprawls around natural spring which flows out into the St. Johns River, creating a bucolic winter haven for manatees. During summer months, when this protected species is elsewhere, the park offers boating, tubing and swimming — including a chance to snorkel to the springhead.

Now when I picture a natural spring, I see a hole in the ground with water bubbling out. But at Blue Spring, this “hole” is a 40-foot-wide vent that churns out 104 million gallons a day. For a mere $13, we rented snorkeling equipment and swam right over it, along with dozens of other patrons.

Several were scuba-diving into the vent, which descends to an aquifer hundreds of feet below (you need a permit for this). The water is clear, not too cold considering its source (73 degrees) and loaded with fish. Near the vent I spotted a spiny black critter about two feet long, and just as I was readying my underwater camera for a shot, the snorkeler next to me grabbed it by the tail and stood right up. (The water is quite shallow in spots.)

The aging animal — a type of catfish, which can survive out of water for long periods of time — was remarkably chill and did not struggle while getting passed around before being returned to the water. At the park I also saw a raccoon circling someone’s picnic stash (surprising, because these animals are generally nocturnal); and then an armadillo wobbled out of the brush and sniffed around as well. For our total of $19 (with the $6 park fee), all of this stuck me as a nature-lover’s bargain.

After two days with friends in Leesburg, we re-boarded the Star at Kissimmee; but not before stopping at tiny Miguelo’s, a local Puerto Rican cafe recommended by our Enterprise Rent-a-Car driver. And it was authentic, all right: Only one English menu, with a waitress who needed a translator to talk to us gringos. But this early dinner enabled us to again avoid the train’s cafe — though we did get some lunch next day; and I must say the northbound Star and its lounge were considerably less crowded.

Both the Star and the Meteor run New York to Miami, but they diverge in the Carolinas, with the Star stopping at state capitals Raleigh and Columbia. The Star also takes longer, side-stepping over to Tampa before it reaches Miami. And the Meteor has a diner, which makes it’s a bit more expensive than the Star. However, as of Oct. 1, Amtrak plans to remove the dining car on all Eastern trains except the popular DC-to-Orlando Auto Train — a cost-saving measure from somewhat unpopular Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson, who formerly oversaw Delta Air Lines.

Chef-cooked meals (always included with sleeping-car fare) will be replaced by pre-made boxmeals — which I tried last year and found pretty good. On the Star, our most interesting food experience occurred southbound, while waiting to buy drinks in the cafe. As a calm but very busy young man filled order after order, one patron suddenly asked if, before preparing food, the hard-working attendant would wash his hands. The atmosphere was tense as the customer insisted it was only because of the many credit cards changing hands, and maybe the server wanted to put on some gloves?

“I’m not gonna touch your food,” was the terse reply.

And he didn’t — handily slitting plastic and microwaving everything in what seemed like a matter of seconds. Later, we heard the picky patron subjecting three Amtrak staffers to a 10-minute diatribe on how rudely he’d been treated by the attendant, how he wanted an apology or a refund, and could he call ahead to get a pizza delivered to the train in Cary, North Carolina. (This never happened, as far as I could tell; and how many pizza workers wear gloves anyway?)

All the while, I kept thinking: “Dude, if you’re that germ-phobic, bring your own food.”

That’s what we did.


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