We broke our independent travels in Spain with a five-night, six-day luxury train tour of Andalusia.

The Al Andalus train had two lounges, two dining cars, sleepers, and a long line of cars for staff and supplies.  Here are some photos to give you an idea of our luxury train experience:

Al Andalus luxury train

Al Andalus luxury train

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Piano lounge

Piano lounge

Second lounge with wi-fi

Second lounge with wi-fi

Dining car

Dining car

Public bathroom near the lounge

Public bathroom near the lounge

Detail of faucet

Detail of faucet

We slept on board every night, with the train stabled at a train station.  We stayed in a superior room, which had its own bathroom with toilet, sink and shower — surprisingly roomy.  Our room had a couch (which was made into the queen-sized bed), a table, two chairs, a closet, and plenty of storage spaces in nooks and crannies.  The room did not feel cramped, but Carol and I soon discovered that if we were both trying to get dressed at the same time, we had to continually dance around each other.  We learned to shower and dress in shifts, the first one took off for the lounge car while the second slept in for a few minutes longer.

Door to our sleeper/room

Door to our sleeper/room

Interior, Superior Room No. 3

Interior, Superior Room No. 3

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Our bathroom

Our bathroom

Our shower

Our shower

Once we put ourselves into the hands of the Al Andalus staff, we were pampered and entertained and fed.  All meals were provided, either on the train or in fine restaurants at our destinations.  Each lunch and dinner was a four-course meal, selected by our capable chefs and hosts.  We all ate the same dishes.

Example of a first course: potato and shrimp salad on lettuce

Example of a first course: potato and shrimp salad on lettuce

Example of a main course: bull tail with artichokes

Example of a main course: bull tail with artichokes

Each day’s sightseeing and activities were planned for us — all admission fees were included, guides were provided, and we were transported door to door by our very own bus, which followed us on our route.

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Our bus driver. He was amazing navigating some very narrow streets!

Our bus driver. He was amazing navigating some very narrow streets!

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“We sat inside, comfortable in our mutual foreignness, with nothing to do, no effort to make, no Spanish to try to speak, but just to sit on superb foam rubber seats and, as my companion would have put it, be taken places.”
— H. V. Morton, A Stranger in Madrid

Al Andalus staff

Al Andalus staff

Our tour manager, Carolina

Our tour manager, Carolina

There were about 60 of us on tour.  Half the group was a private German tour group with its own tour manager.  The rest of us came from Uraguay, Puerto Rico, Canada, Australia, Europe, and one other couple from the United States.  Most everyone was a couple.  Most everyone was in their late 50s, 60s or 70s I would guess.  There was one young couple with a small child.

I did not know quite what to expect from a tour like this.  I was curious to see how much free time would be built into the schedule (very little).  The days were fully booked.  Unlike a cruise, which offers several shore excursions at each port, we were all given the same daily itinerary and activities.  For tours of major sights, two or three guides were engaged — one German-speaking guide for the German group, and a multi-lingual guide(s) for the rest of us.  That meant that everything was said at least twice or three times in succession, so we were standing around waiting for the English portion, which grew a bit tedious, especially for the more enthusiastic, long-winded guides.  And it also meant that someone was always talking — little quiet time!

I was worried that I would not have enough time or freedom to photograph at each day’s destinations, but I came to appreciate that the tour was more of a survey than an in-depth study of any particular thing.  I thought there was a nice array of activities that represented the Andalusian culture of the area, things I might not have experienced as an independent traveler.  I was happy, but the days were very full, and I wished there were more than 24 hours in a day so I could have had more down time to enjoy the train lounges, meet my fellow travelers, work on my photos and journal, and maybe even read and relax!

Another surprise was how little time was actually spent moving on the rails.  We stabled overnight in train stations, not moving.  The distance between cities was not long.  And about half the time it was too dark to see out the windows when we were en route.  Train travel is so rare for most Americans.  I would have liked to look out of our room’s windows, watching the scenery go by.

Our Al Andalus route was the blue loop in the map

Our Al Andalus route was the blue loop in the map

All in all, I felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel on a train like this.  Truly, we were spoiled.  It was completely stress free to have all decisions about where to go and what to see and where to eat given over to the courteous and competent staff.  A wonderful Spanish interlude.

 

 

“Before the seed there comes the thought of bloom.”
— E. B. White

Trays of plugs and liners at the Skagit Gardens greenhouses

“Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings.  Not all things are blest, but the seeds of all things are blest.  The blessing is in the seed.”
— Muriel Ruckeyser

Have you ever stopped to think just where your local nurseries, garden centers and flower vendors get their starter plants?  I was recently the guest of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG) tour of Skagit Gardens, a large wholesale greenhouse company in Washington’s Skagit Valley.  They employ 150 to 300 people, depending upon seasonal needs, so this is a large operation.  The focus on healthy plants is impressive.  Here is a behind-the-scenes look:

Rows upon rows of greenhouses, Skagit Gardens

Trays of cuttings ready for planting

Planting the cuttings, one by one, in trays

Just one of thousands of trays of plugs and liners

Sprinkling system in a greenhouse

Rows of healthy plants growing in a greenhouse, Skagit Gardens

Ornamental kale, Skagit Gardens

A variety of grasses

Orders loaded up and ready for shipping

Riverbend facility, Skagit Gardens

ASCFG tour of Skagit Gardens facilities

Stacked trays

Retractable greenhouse roof

Skagit Gardens truck sign

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The desert is a reliquary, its dryness and gradual pace preserving most of what people deposited on their way through.  When the Anasazi walked away from this region some seven hundred years ago, they left it like a made house, everything in its place.”
— Craig Childs, House of Rain:  Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest

“Perhaps among the ashes, sherds, and crumbling walls we may find a strange and unexpected sort of wisdom.”
— Richard W. Lang, from an informational sign at the Anasazi Heritage Museum

Mesa country of southwestern Colorado

For the next part of our road trip, my sister-in-law and I traveled to the southwest corner of Colorado to explore Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) culture.  After reading about guided tours in the Ute Mountain Tribal Park in the April 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler, I was very interested in experiencing this “off the beaten track” access to the remnants of Anasazi life.   (You can link to the article here:  http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/ute-mountain-tribal-park-traveler/.)  The Ute Mountain Tribal Park promised to be something special because National Geographic Traveler had designated the it as one of “80 World Destinations for Travel in the 21st Century,” and it is one of only nine U.S. destinations to be selected for the list.

We signed up for a half-day tour.  There were five of us, plus our driver and a Ute guide.  We stopped at several rock art and ruin sites in the Mancos Valley in hot, dry mesa country.  The ground at all of these sites was littered with pottery sherds representative of the black-on-white pottery characteristic of Anasazi culture.  We were free to pick them up and handle them, as long as we put them back as we found them.  This is so different from Mesa Verde National Park, where all remnants have been removed and cataloged, and the sites are cleaned up.

Pottery sherds in the Ute Mountain Tribal Park

The sherds would have come from black-on-white pottery like these artifacts, which I photographed at the Anasazi Heritage Museum in Dolores, CO.

Pottery sherd, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Textured pottery sherd -- the texture helped heat to spread evenly

We saw a couple of ruins of the cliff dwellings typical of Anasazi architecture, but the rock art was the highlight of the tour.  Some of the petroglyphs reflected the Anasazi interest in celestial alignments apparent during the solstice and equinox, or in predictions of other astronomical events.  The painted pictographs of the Ute, from 1600 – 1930, depicted more “modern” images — horses, cowboys, etc.

Granary ruin, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Sun panel used in conjunction with celestial alignments

Hands and sun pictograph panel, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Hoop/Sun spiral petroglyph

Petroglyphs, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Rock art, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Bear paws, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Woman and hands

Cowboy and horse pictograph, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

T-shaped window, characteristic of Anasazi structures, in a Tribal Park building from the 1980s

Mesas of the Ute Mountain Tribal Park