Slow train to the fast city

When we traveled to New York several weeks ago, we took the Amtrak Adirondack, heralded as one of the world's ten most beautiful train rides.

The 500km trip takes...eleven hours. Seventy-five to ninety minutes are spent parked at the border while customs inspectors board to check passports. Nearly all the rest is spent rolling through spectacular scenery, from Lake Champlain through the Adirondack Mountains to the dramatic Hudson River Valley. The train travels so close to lakes and rivers that I felt I'd be splashed if the windows opened.

I loved the leg room, the views, time to read, nap or chat. Always a fan of rail travel, the slow roll scratched my train itch; the only thing I disliked was the food choice in the café car, so we picknicked on the way home. The fare, $120/person return, was a quarter of a plane ticket.

(It's one of my regrets that I never made the trip on the now-discontinued overnight train; apparently it was a wild party, a congenial salon, a romantic romp, or sometimes all three.) 

Boarding at about 9:30 am. in Montréal, we arrived in Penn Station around 8:30 pm., just in time for dinner. (The NYC-Montréal leg departs and arrives about an hour earlier.) 

In transit, I could pick out every Montréaler by their long scarves, wrapped at the neck. 

Once in New York, I tried to winnow tourists from locals and parse differences. The teeming streets enable looking without overt ogling. When the population of a small town is standing at a traffic light, there's lots to consider.

In the five years since my last visit, I noticed a few changes:

1. Way more cyclists, which leads to...
2. More women wearing pants, outnumbering skirts by about 3:1. Pants are mostly bike-friendly dark.
3. Sticker shock for "artisanal" or handcrafted items, from cookies to pendants, perhaps due to insanely high rents.
4. Where tourists go, brands follow, which is why Chanel and St. Laurent are in Soho. Brand saturation drains the lifeblood from a neighbourhood's character.

Clothes haven't changed much in years: pencil skirts, narrow pants, blazers. There is more East Coast conservatism in NYC than in Montréal. Many are still switching into sneakers for the trek home.

Looking fresh: cropped jeans or pants and heels with a tailored shirt and great belt, often studded or embossed. At Rag and Bone, this orange double-buckle stood out; price is about $215; also available at Sak's.

Coloured denim downtown, indigo uptown. White denim micro-shorts on young, trim women and a few who are not, but go for it anyway.

I didn't see a single female in a hat (a hazard in the subway), perhaps because I was there during the work week. Many women are carrying totes in addition to their handbags, one bag per shoulder, which makes them look like bikes with loaded panniers. "Little dresses"–the shirtdress or shift–are charming on young Peggy Olsens; impeccable skirted suits still inhabit Wall St. 

A woman in a classic suit, but made of coral-striped seersucker embroidered with tiny mint-green dots on the jacket only, and accented with jade-green low heels, made me smile, and she knew why. 

4. Big chunky bracelets and necklaces in resin or plastic: metal has taken summer vacation!

I dropped by any number of indy jewelry boutiques in Greenwich Village, Soho and Gramercy Park, but found much overpriced and overdesigned, compared to cool and casual items like this $35 lucite spike bracelet by Adia Kibur:

At breakfast one morning, I admired my neighbour's elegant, modern watch, which I noticed as she leafed through the paper, waiting to start a business meeting. She told me it was by Balenciaga, the Acier, in gold-tone mesh. (Good. I wouldn't walk around any large city in an eye-catching gold watch.) 
Balenciaga "Acier" in gold tone

Sizing up the boutiques, the scene largely sorted into two camps: either preppy-punchy retro Tory (Burch) or super-skinny hip Isabel (Marant). 

C. Wonder sleeveless shirtdress, $128 at

The glut of disposible fashion (Uniqulo, C. Wonder, Zara, Club Monaco) melted  into a jangly bright blur. I stayed away from those as well as the temples of luxury (Bergdorf's, Hermès, etc.) which would no doubt deliver strict, beautiful clothes. 

This was not a shopping trip, but one boutique, Maraym Nassir Zadeh, pulled me in magnetically when I saw Carven's skirt, quirky and surprisingly wearable. Too short, and at $490, not an impulse purchase! I was happy to learn the shop has an online option.

There is a third genre in NYC, found on mainly 50+ women: the flowy Eileen Fisher/Japanesey look, some of it appealing and a good deal, dull. What reads serene and refined in the store, where all the assistants looked like yoga teachers and addressed me with gentle good will, does not translate perfectly to the street. 

This ensemble by Nu (at Yaso, in Soho) could work... or not. I saw a woman trying things; she wasn't distinguishing between loose and too big. The sales staff proffered vague smiles and that infuriating question, "What do you think?" Where is Stacey London when you need her?

It takes a good eye for proportion, plus some jewelry, to pull this off without looking like you were recently expelled from a monastery. 

Home again, we found that chère Christine, taking her own holiday with a friend, had left our apartment in better condition than she found it (what a perfect guest!); the only thing missing was the chance to see her.


Susan B said…
The train sounds wonderful, and your observations are astute, as always. I'm tempted by that lucite bracelet you've shown, I'll admit. One really doesn't see skirted suits anymore here in LA (though if I worked downtown near the courthouse/financial district I might).
Madame Là-bas said…
Thank you for your post about the train. I want to do a fall foliage holiday from Québec City or Montréal ending in NYC or Boston and perhaps the train can be part of my journey.
Duchesse said…
Pseu: I see skirts with unmatched jackets here, but few classic skirt suits. But Wall St. is a bastion.

Mme Là-bas: If you want to do that, reserve now as it is sold out far in advance during the fall colour season.
There is a very liberal cancellation policy.
LPC said…
Oh you make me wish so much to be in Manhattan! Colored denim downtown indeed!
Jane W. said…
Sage as always, Duchesse. Enjoyed your observations of NY.
I have just read this aloud to my husband as we are planning to go to NY in the next year and this would be such a great way to travel!
sisty said…
The train ride sounds just wonderful. Was there dinner service on the train? I understand that can be pretty good also, but if it were me, arriving in Manhattan at dinner time, I would have waited, too.

Was the seersucker suit a skirt suit, or pants suit?
Duchesse said…
hostess: It's much more relaxing than flying.

sisty: There wss only a canteen selling a few awful microwaved offerings. We carried food on. Reading Amtrak's site, it seems the trains with sleeping berths have dining cars. This route operates as a day trip only.

The suit was a skirt suit; very classic except for the striking fabric and beautifully cut. My guess is Italian.

A pity that the train is so very slow - a friend in NYC tells me that service has declined since his parents took their honeymoon trip by rail to Montréal and Québec City,over 60 year ago (I get the impression that Joe has heard this story countless times). And no train at all any more between Mtl and Boston,though there is talk of reviving it.

The autumn colours excursion is extremely popular among travellers from Asia.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: If one's goal is getting between the two cities quickly, then yes, the slow speed is an annoyance. In my case, the purpose was to see the spectacular views, so I enjoyed the pace.

A Greyhound bus takes 8-9 hours; driving time is at least 7 hrs (depending on border and traffic).

I have several more rides on my wish list, especially Chicago-LA via the southwest-on the Texas Eagle-stopping to see family in TX en route. I'm happy going just about anywhere on a train.
And the train is SO much more comfortable than a bumpy bus!

Yes, I remember the painfully slow but breathtaking old train between Lyon and Turin.
Gretchen said…
That trip SO beats the Acela. Not much scenery to speak of on the way from Washington to NY. I would have loved to see that seersucker suit, but the watch is definitely intriguing enough. I'd never get used to how it tells time, but as a conversation piece/jewelry (which, with phones and computers,mis what my watch is now anyway), it sure is an interesting piece.
materfamilias said…
I always love your fashion observations -- so astute! I recognize so well those yoga instructor SAs. . . We spent most of yesterday taking the train from Barcelona too Bordeaux (two changes). Much less luxurious than your trip, as we were happy enough with 2nd class, but still so relaxed and efficient and affordable (especially if booked online ahead of time).
SewingLibrarian said…
I'm laughing at the monastery comment. Although I have seen women who look good in those garments, that look isn't for everyone, including me. I'm envious of your trip, and I love riding trains. The Chicago - Los Angeles route sounds fabulous!
Swissy said…
What a fun and informative post, Duchesse! I almost felt as though I were there myself. When I lived in NYC a million moons ago, I noticed that the scene changed about every six months...
Duchesse said…
materfamilias: Though I have never taken a Spanish train I'd not call the Adirondack luxurious and there is only one (coach) class.

Look forward to seeing your photos!

Gretchen: It was like qwearing sculpture and more readable than you might think (I could do so from several seats away.). Though I often use my phone for time, I do like the convenience of glancing at my wrist and still wear a watch many days.

SewingLibrarian: I am growing ever less drawn to those clothes. One of my friends calls them "designer shrouds"- mean, but I see it.

Swissy: I suspect when I was younger (you too?) I was more attuned to subtle shifts.

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