HERE'S my favorite travel deal: I call Dawne, my travel agent, and she gets tickets for my two children (ages ten and six) and me for the sleeper car on the train from Whitefish, Montana, to Portland, Oregon. The sleeper on this train has a compartment at the very back that extends the full width of the car; there are windows on both sides. The compartment is big enough for two adults and two children, but my wife, who prizes a weekend to herself, doesn't go. Dawne reserves us that compartment, and on a Thursday afternoon the kids and I drive from our house in Missoula up to Whitefish. The trip takes about three hours, and we have a dinner of sandwiches in the car. The Whitefish train station is a big building in an alpine-rustic style, so picturesque that it's used in Amtrak ads. We put our bags on the platform and explore the station, and the kids run around on the lawn. At about nine-thirty in the evening the train arrives, the shine from its headlight preceding it along the rails of the curving track. The porter, Larry, says, "This must be the Fraziers," and helps us to our compartment. The beds are already turned down, with chocolates on the pillows. The kids clamber all over, going in and out of the upper berth about twenty times. We put on our pajamas and read stories, and as the train picks up speed through the dark northern forests, the kids go to sleep, and they sleep uninterruptedly through the night. I wake occasionally to a sensation of trundling comfort so profound that I might try to imagine it to put myself to sleep if I weren't in it already.
In the morning we get up and open the curtains and look at the sunrise on the mile-wide Columbia River, now beside us. We have a breakfast of juice and doughnuts that's laid out in the porter's room, and then we walk through the train a few times and sit in the observation car and notice our reflections in the glass as we go through the dark tunnels. At about ten o'clock the train arrives in Portland, and our friends Don and Jane, the people we have come to visit, meet us, and we pick up a lot of Cheetos and Cokes and videos for the kids on the way to their house. The kids are rested and happy; what would have been a day and a half of arduous driving has telescoped into a dream; and the tickets cost about $400 total, less than the plane.
IN years of travel I've never found a more satisfying experience -- fiscally, gastronomically, or, for that matter, spiritually -- than dining in the vegetarian restaurants of South India. Entering these Spartan, spotless rooms, you're shown to a tiny table, on which a fresh green banana leaf (the ecologically perfect disposable dinnerware) has already been unrolled. For a dollar or two you're entitled to a mound of fluffy white rice surrounded by a half dozen little hills of different vegetables -- all of them fiery, every one sublime. Waiters come by with buckets of clarified butter and sambar (a marvelous spicy gravy), which they ladle onto your rice; you're allowed as many helpings of vegetables as you wish, until you're full -- or until the chilies have made your lips start burning unbearably. Silverware is not an option. You eat with your right hand, delicately blending a vegetable into the edge of the rice mound, forming the mixture into a ball, and using your thumb to propel it into your mouth.
Why travel if not to challenge and change your ideas -- including those about something as basic as the proper way for food to get from the table to the tongue?
-- FRANCINE PROSE
I FEEL about gourmet shops, particularly ones with prepared foods and ripe rare cheeses, the way some women are said to feel about shoe stores: I can't bear to pass one without buying something. (I also feel this way about paper stores, and pharmacies with sinuous carved Art Nouveau façades, whose interiors are lined with dark-wood glass-fronted cases.) Here is where I can see a new town's favorite dishes, just as the cook means to make them -- something I always itch to see before ordering at a restaurant.
But where to consume the wild-mushroom lasagne, or the veal stew with colorful chunks of peppers, or the sea bass en gelée, or any other dish best eaten at room temperature and not in danger of spoiling after a few unrefrigerated hours? Picnic options can be limited, and outdoor eating requires inconvenient amounts of plastic cutlery and paper towels. Besides, it's so much nicer to eat off china and use silverware.
My solution is to turn my hotel room into a restaurant, washing and squirreling away crockery from room-service breakfasts or asking the hotel's bar or restaurant for rudimentary equipment -- or, to be truthful if not honest, smuggling it when no one's looking. Linen is essential. I press into service hand towels or washcloths as napkins, and fresh bedside mats of polished cotton (standard in relatively modest European hotels, usually starched) as placemats. Among my first purchases after checking into a new hotel is an inexpensive flowering plant, which obviates begging or filching a vase.