After exiting the train at College Station, we drove a few miles to The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. We have stayed here at the Shrine Hotel a number of times. The hotel is quite nice, priced reasonably, the restaurant is excellent, the people are nice and the surroundings are beautiful. The AAA-rated Shrine restaurant has been in existence since 1960, and is well known throughout the area for its great service and outstanding food. Unfortunately we weren't there for the lunchtime soup and salad bar, which features 8 homemade soups and numerable salad selections. We have stayed and eaten there in the past, and the soups were some of the best we've ever had, ranging from French Onion to Minestrone. They also have an outstanding Sunday Brunch and weekend buffets. Since we weren't there at any of those times, we ordered one of the evening specials on the menu; specifically the 3 piece fried chicken dinner. This meal was very reasonably priced and included mashed potatoes, green beans with mushrooms, bread, and a small salad. We didn't go away hungry!
Tuesday Morning we were up early as we had reservations on the Amtrak Kansas City Mule and we didn't want to miss it. As it was, we could have left at least an hour later but as anything can happen when you are trying to catch a train (or plane for that matter) we didn't want to take any chances. There was a light rain so it was dark and dismal as we exited the hotel. It was a short drive to the Fairview Heights MetroLink station. Most of the stations in Illinois have long term parking. Dave had called the Metro office when he was planning this trip to fund out about this and the fact that the long-term parking is limited to 14 days. At 5:45 there were two security people at the station but we are not sure if they are there all night or not. Actually, parking security is not huge issue for us as TGV (The Green Vomit) is 11 years old and even when he was new he made the very top of the list of the least stolen automobiles in the USA. But it would be quite an inconvenient for us if he was missing when we returned from a trip.
We left Fairview Heights at 5:58 on time and arrived at 6:22 at the Civic Center stop. It was raining harder now so we waited in that station as the Amtrak station was not supposed to open until 7:00. It was cold and wet and not a lot of fun. At 6:45 we donned our plastic ponchos that Dave had bought recently (sure was a good thing that we had them), and headed for the station. We were there before 7:00 but the station was open. There were a lot of people already there. At 7:03, the Texas Eagle arrived over an hour ahead of schedule (8:09). There were a lot of people that got off, most of whom stayed at the station. Dave talked to one passenger and he said the train had been running late but had made the time up in the last two stops. We found this amazing but there may be padding in the schedule at St. Louis. We wondered how the Mule would pull up to the station as the Eagle was stopped at the platform but in the rain we did not see that there was another track closer to the station. We ate a snack that Julie had brought with us while we were waiting. The train pulled up and we were called to board only a few minutes before the scheduled departure time.
Dave did not try to get numbers in the rain; there was a café/business car and two coaches. The coach we were on was ancient but well maintained except that the windows needed a good washing. But with the lousy weather there was probably no point in doing that. We had noticed that the Texas Eagle looked dirty too. Dave tape recorded notes on the trip and they are below. At the stations, the scheduled departure time is first followed by the actual time. So here we go.
301 - Kansas City Mule, Tuesday March 22, 2005
7:50/7:50 Departed St. Louis. We ran near the MetroLink tracks for a time. The train, as you might expect, runs through an industrial area. We don't think it's as interesting as entering or leaving the south side of Chicago.
8:19/8:20 Departed Kirkwood. There was a large group of children and a few adults who got on here. We counted 25 that came into our coach and it looked like an equal number getting on the second coach. It turned out they were going to Jefferson City, the state capitol. West of Kirkwood, we passed through Castlewood State Park.
8:22 We passed an area on the north side of the track that Dave later found out (with some research) is the The Museum of Transportation. There was a lot of railroad equipment such as a steam locomotive parked outside.
8:28 We passed through an area that is mostly wooded. There are what appear to be limestone cliffs on the north side of the track and a river on the south.
8:42 There are a number of tracks here and there are trains on sidings.
8:46 We passed through a tunnel.
8:49 We passed through another tunnel.
8:54 At this point we joined the Missouri River which is on the north side of the track. We traveled along the Missouri for quite a few miles on this trip.
9:02 We lost power while at the Washington stop.
8:56/9:05 Departed Washington.
9:07 In this area, there is more open farm land.
9:13 We are next to the Missouri River again and followed the river to New Haven.
9:24/9:38 Departed Hermann; we are beside the river again until reaching Gasconade.
10:11/10:34 Departed Jefferson City; the area around the station looked quite interesting and we could see the state capitol building. Unfortunately after leaving the station the view of the capitol building is blocked much of the time by a parking garage. We discussed that fact that if more people used Amtrak there wouldn't be as many cars to park so the city probably wouldn't have needed this garage which was blocking our view. After Jefferson City the train runs parallel to and sometimes right beside US Route 50. A number of years ago Dave read a book about a man's drive from one end of this route to the other. He found it fascinating.
10:56 We are on a siding behind a UP freight waiting the opposing Amtrak. The conductor announced that we would back off the siding to go around the freight. We never backed up so we assume that we just followed the freight.
11:30 We are eating a lunch consisting of cheeseburger and milk. We are stopped.
11:40 We are moving again!
11:47 In this area, a lot of the farmland here is hayland. The topography is rolling with some forest.
12:00 In this area there is still a lot of hayland, pasture, and cattle with rolling topography and some woodland.
12:19 We are back in forested areas with rock cuts.
12:22 Here there is rolling hayland with some woodland
11:12/12:37 Departed Sedalia.
11:55/13:07 Departed Warrensburg.
12:39/13:54 Departed Lees Summit. After the station we continued through the urban area for a short time then passed into an area that has lots of woodland.
14:00 We passed through an industrial area then into a residential area.
12:55/14:10 Departed Independence
13:30/14:27 Arrived Kansas City.
We exited the train and went to the elevator. We then had a moderately long walk to Union Station. This was all outdoors. We entered Union Station in the Amtrak area. It is a relatively small area at the back of the station. We walked through the Amtrak area and into the main hall. We quickly discovered that the station is very beautiful and very poorly marked. Dave headed in the direction we thought the sign was indicating to the The Link. After a number of stops to look around in an effort to find the The Link, Dave spotted it on the second floor in the east end of the building. We went up in the elevator and began the long walk to the Westin hotel.
It was a dreary day and it was cold inside the The Link so we were glad to have our jackets. We made our way to the Westin lobby and had to go back downstairs to the first floor to the check in desk.
We had a very nice room on the 11th floor overlooking the Crown Center Square. It was a very nice view from our balcony. One thing we found curious was that there was a building just a few blocks away that has a huge sign that says Western Auto. It seems like KC was their headquarters but we thought that the company had gone out of business. It made us wonder who pays to maintain and light this sign, so Dave searched the internet and found it is now Western Auto Lofts.
The Westin is part of Crown Center. In 1968 Joyce Hall of Hallmark Cards had the idea to revitalize a part of Kansas City that was described as "decaying". Today located there are the city's two largest hotels, 2,000,000 million square feet of office space, dining, entertainment and shopping. The main part of Crown Center has three levels with restaurants and stores including a model railroad shop.
We ate at a number of restaurants but the most interesting for railroad fans would have to be Fritz's Railroad Restaurant. The entrance to the restaurant looks like a railroad crossing, and the seating is all booths. There is a telephone at each booth, where you call your order in. Various kinds of burgers (with rather interesting names, we might add) are the main items on the menu. A server delivers the drinks, but the food is delivered via a very unusual method. There is a model train track that runs along the wall near the ceiling. When your order is ready it is loaded on to a train. When the train gets to your table, a mechanical arm stops your order at a platform above your table. Then a tray which has your order on it is lowered to within reach of the table. Everyone was watching the train to see orders being delivered, and it was especially exciting when it was our turn! We had ordered the `Gen Dare" hamburger which was a double burger topped with, would you believe, hash browns!! It was one of the best hamburgers we have ever eaten. The French fries could only be rated as fair, but the homemade strawberry milkshakes were outstanding. A boxcar-style window (their description; we have never seen a boxcar with windows) was located beside our table, where you can watch a second rain periodically pass by with a painted pastoral scene in the background. A fun experience for we train buffs at a very reasonable price!
We also ate at the The Brasserie, Milanos, and The American Restaurant the latter being described as the only four star restaurant in Kansas City. It also rated 4 diamonds by AAA. All of these restaurants were located within the Crown Center Complex, and overall we were very pleased with all of them.
The Brasserie has a bistro-style setting, and features both American and Continental cuisine. We ate both breakfast and lunch there. For breakfast, Dave was pleased with his choice of French toast, and Julie ordered a la carte; an order of one scrambled egg (which must have really been two or from a huge chicken!) and a toasted Wolferman English muffin, which was also huge. (We theorized that it was meant to match the size of the chicken!) Julie likes her muffins toasted so as to be crisp. When she saw her somewhat limp muffin being served, she asked the waitress if she could have it a little more toasted. The waitress was quick to bring it back to the kitchen for further toasting, and upon arrival back to the table she told us that she had held the control down manually for several minutes so that it would toast more. What a waitress! Needless to say she earned a generous tip! The lunch buffet at the Brasserie was another memorable dining experience. The selections were somewhat limited, but the food was outstanding. Julie, especially, loved the chicken dish which tasted like Coq au vin and was the best that she had ever eaten (including her own homemade version, which is hard to believe!). Salads, various vegetables, and an array of desserts that would satisfy the most demanding sweet tooth rounded out the meal. The price was very reasonable, and the service outstanding.
Milanos, an Italian restaurant, is located within the mall at Crown Center, but is definitely not your basic mall restaurant. Upon entering the restaurant, we were led to a table where the linens were real and crisply white. There are more windows than walls, and we had a wonderful view of Crown Center Square, where the trees were covered with white lights. Our culinary adventure began with a good sized basket of bread sticks and crusted Italian bread that served with garlic and basil flavored butter. Our waiter was always there when you wanted him, but was not intrusive. Dave ordered the lasagna, and Julie ordered a small pizza, both of which were very good. We only wished that we had realized that we had a coupon with us for a free dessert with purchase of an entrée! The dessert selection is supposed to be outstanding.
The American Restaurant was without a doubt the most elegant restaurant that we've ever eaten at, not to mention the most expensive! We probably would not have been able to afford to eat there were it not for the coupon book for discounts at restaurants and shops within the Crown Center. Dave had printed a coupon for this book from the internet site and we had picked the book up upon our arrival. If they are still available, this little booklet is a must if you visit Crown Center! We could not believe that there was a coupon for `buy 1 entrée, get 1 free' at The American Restaurant. After all, this is not a 99 cent McDonald's hamburger here! It was an opportunity to dine in a Four Star/Four Diamond restaurant that we could not pass up. However, before we made the decision to eat there, we called about the dress code, since that was a concern of ours. We learned that a dinner jacket was suggested, but not necessary. Dave had packed a cardigan-type sweater (the closet thing to a dinner jacket that he had) and planned to wear that, although he felt a bit nervous without a tie. Also, fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it!), Julie had not had space to pack a dress or skirt so she felt that she had to go shopping to see what she could find! She was back an hour or so later after finding some suitable bargains. We changed clothes and off we went.
The American Restaurant earns its superior rating by its outstanding food, elegant décor, a great view, and excellent service. We especially liked the tiered seating with its panoramic view of the city and the live piano music. Upon our being seated, the chef sent a complimentary appetizer to our table. It was shrimp with artichoke hearts, bathed in a tequila lime sauce. It was one of the most artistic food presentations we'd ever seen! Dave ordered the prime rib with a potato gratin and Julie ordered the lobster with purple stuffed potatoes. Both were outstanding. Since they were late in bringing Julie's potatoes, we were not charged for them. The total bill (since we had one free entrée, and they didn't charge us for the `late' potatoes) was only $37.00 plus tax. After leaving a very generous tip, we still only ended up spending a little over $60 there, which was well worth it! Definitely a place we would recommend, especially if you have the coupon!
The most interesting part of the Hallmark Visitor Center is an area where there are people doing some of the work needed on greeting cards. One man was hand making a die that will cut shaped greeting cards. It is a laborious process. Another man was running a press that was cutting out party glasses that can be seen in the accompanying photograph. Also in this area is a machine that will make a small bow on demand and then deliver it to an exit chute were you can take it.
The next day we went to Independence to visit the Harry Truman Library and Museum. We started out around 8 AM and took bus 54 to downtown where we caught bus 24 that goes to Independence Square. From there we took 291 (this was more of a van with bloat rather than a bus but was very comfortable) to the Museum. The driver on the first bus was extremely helpful, the second okay, and the third was nearly useless as we could only understand about 20 percent of what his mumbled replies were to our questions.
Dave has always wanted to visit the Truman Museum as he remembers seeing Mr. Truman on television occasionally in the 1960's as reporters would chronicle his daily walk. There was a section in one display case about these walks during the period after he had left the White House. This museum is very interesting and well worth going to. President Truman was one of the most quotable presidents. Two examples: "If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog." "What would Jesus Christ have taught if he had taken a poll in Israel?" If you are going to take the bus, as we did, consider taking a more southerly route (this was the second alternative Dave researched) to avoid Bus Route # 24 unless you like "interesting" crowds. There was an altercation across the aisle from where we were sitting on our return to downtown KC that nearly turned into a physical fight.