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Beyond New York: The Train to Montréal (Part One)

by Moderator August 2012 - last edited April 2013

If you're planning a trip to New York, remember that your travels don't have to end at the city limits. One of the best things about NYC - other than the thrills of the city itself - is that the whole of the northeastern corner of North America is within easy reach, and arranging a two-centre city break couldn't be simpler.

In the first of our explorations beyond New York we took a historic journey along the Long Island Gold Coast, but today we're venturing even further afield by catching the scenic train to Montréal. Here's our guide to arranging your own adventure on the rails and beyond...

 

Experiencing the scenery of upstate New York

Amtrak has a more extensive network in the northeast than almost anywhere else in the country, and some of the train company's most fabled routes depart NYC's Penn Station for points north, south, east and west. The train to Montréal, which has been running as a daily service since 1974, is known as the Adirondack - named after the upstate New York mountain range which forms part of the Appalachian chain - and has been voted one of the ten most scenic train journeys in the world by Condé Nast Traveler magazine. The journey has something to offer in every season but is unsurprisingly at its best in autumn, when the fall colours so worshipped in this part of the USA explode into life.

 

 

The train hugs the shore of the Hudson River Valley © Nancy Kennedy The train hugs the shore of the Hudson River Valley © Nancy Kennedy

 

After leaving Penn Station, the railroad follows the path of the Hudson River Valley for some 150 miles, gently meandering northwards to the New York state capital of Albany. The valley itself is a revelation. As the train rolls out of Midtown alongside the Hudson River Greenway and through Inwood Park at the tip of Manhattan, a twenty-mile line of dramatic sheer cliffs rises up on the opposite shore, forming a canyon just north of the George Washington Bridge. These cliffs are known as the Palisades, and at their highest point around Fort Lee have been designated a National Natural Landmark.

 

The best views are from the stretch of track just north of the Harlem River (which separates Manhattan from the mainland), and up through Yonkers to Croton-on-Hudson. North of here, the cliffs reshape themselves into thickly forested hills, where dense clusters of trees are interrupted every so often by old ruins, abandoned castles, remote holiday cabins and stand-alone clapboard houses, many with their own moorings or rickety wooden jetties. Being able to sit back and watch life on the river unfold - early morning rowers, puttering pleasure boats, fishermen throwing out lines, people lazing on the decks of small anchored sailboats - is one of the chief pleasures of taking the train.

 

After leaving Albany - where it stops for long enough to allow a decent outside leg-stretch - it heads north through Schenectady and Saratoga Springs, skirting the foothills of the mountain range that gives it its name. Outside of Alaska, the Adirondack Park is the largest protected area in the United States, larger than the entire neighbouring state of Vermont. Although the train doesn't travel directly through the mountains, the wide perspective of endless, faraway hills and valleys gives some indication of its vastness.

 

North of Fort Edward the train follows the path of the Champlain Canal - part of the New York State Canal System - and passes barely a settlement or other sign of human life for about sixty miles, which is probably why the birdlife is so rich here. Great blue herons perch in the low trees by the towpath just feet from the train window, sandpipers and yellow warblers peck at the waterline and Canada geese swoop overhead, all against a blazing backdrop of cedar, maple, beech and pine trees.

 

The appearance of long, thin Lake Champlain marks the beginning of the final third of the journey. The train clings to its western shore for almost the entire 125 mile length, passing by yachting clubs and boathouses, rocky coves and beach campers. It even has its very own Nessie, according to local legend. The lake monster "Champ" is supposedly around 8 - 10 ft long with dark silvery scales and has been spotted more than 300 times.

 

Into Canada

The Adirondack crosses over the border into Canada after Rouses Point, the last station in the USA. From here onwards, the scenery becomes flatter and more agricultural; fields of tall corn sway in the breeze and glow in the early evening sun, and farms, grain elevators and barns dot the landscape. Before too long the train starts to head west towards the city of Montréal, and the farms slowly start to be replaced by newly-built outer suburbs, industrial buildings and more established residential neighbourhoods, before crossing the St. Lawrence River onto the Island of Montréal and into the Gare Centrale.
 

 

Don't miss Part Two of this post where we explore the cultural bounty and unique atmosphere of the city of Montréal.

 

Need to know

The Adirondack from New York to Montréal takes eleven meandering hours. This is a train ride for fans of 'slow travel' in the genuine sense of the phrase; for those who wish to get a feel for the landscape beyond the city, experience the rural scenery of upstate New York and make the journey itself an integral part of their holiday plans.

 

The train leaves NYC's Penn Station at 8.15am daily and arrives in Montréal at 7pm. You will need proper documentation (valid passport) to enter Canada. The train stops at the USA/Canada border where customs officials come on board and do their checks. Remember to bring a good book, as this process can take up to an hour.

There are some really good fares available if you book online in advance. One-way tickets are currently available for just $63 (about £40) and for that you'll get a wide, comfortable seat with footrest, power point, free wifi and access to the cafe car with wider panoramic windows. On certain days, you'll also be able to take advantage of the National Park Service's Trails & Rails programme, where volunteers board the train at specific points along the route to provide contextual history and commentary about the area you're passing through.

For the best views of the Hudson River Valley, sit on the left hand side of the train. Those on the right will be in prime position further up route, when the train snakes round the shore of Lake Champlain.

If time allows, you may wish to purchase a multi-city ticket and break up the journey overnight or longer. The best options for a longer stay along this route are probably Saratoga Springs, a popular spa town with a long tradition of horseracing and polo, and Westport - the jumping-off point for the short bus ride to Lake Placid, a year-round resort in the Adirondacks, most famous for twice hosting the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980.

 

A view of Lake Placid in the Adirondacks © Tony Fischer Photography A view of Lake Placid in the Adirondacks © Tony Fischer Photography

 

Remember - check out Part Two for our guide to Montréal.

Virgin Atlantic operates six daily direct flights to New York from London Heathrow.

Header shot of Poughkeepsie and the Hudson River by eleephotography.

 


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About the author: Maxine

Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.