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So you want to take an international trip this summer but spent your last cent on day drinking and Bey and Jay Z's On the Run tour? There's a fix for that, just north of the border: Montreal.
The largest city in Quebec, Canada is also the largest French-speaking city in North America, so you'll experience that cultural immersion while also growing wider by eating excellent bagels, smoked meats, and poutine. Fortunately, getting to the city's equally as pleasurable, with an 11-hour train ride up the Hudson Valley and through New York state on the Adirondack, often called one of the most scenic train rides in the world.
Since tickets are crazy cheap—$67 each way in the summer, leaving from Penn Station at 8:15 a.m. every day and arriving at Montreal's Gare Centrale after 7 p.m.—there's really no excuse, unless you're terribly afraid to be alone with your mind for half a day, or you have no passport.
Last month I took the train and found some notable sights, sounds, and prehistoric monsters. Your observations may vary, but your mileage won't (it's 381 miles for everyone).
Oh, the People You'll See!
After we pull out of Penn Station (on schedule, imagine that!), I notice there are French speakers swarming. How do I know even the ones who aren't speaking are French? Their aggressively angular eyeglasses give them away. An American dude, a software developer named Aaron, sits next to me. He's taking the trip because he "just wanted to go somewhere near New York but not spend 'Europe money.'" In the cafe car, young beardos with laptops get anxious every time the WiFi drops out, which is often. One young woman wearing a black cocktail dress weaves down the aisle in what can only be described as a train walk of shame, which is curious, because the Adirondack doesn't have sleeper cars...
The Scenery Is Gorgeous
I asked the ticket taker where to sit for a good view. "Left side you see the Hudson, and right side you see Lake Champlain," he says. Done. If all you've seen of the Hudson River is the stretch outside the Meatpacking District, do yourself a favor and see more of it. The next best thing to being outdoors is watching the outdoors fly by while in a cool air-conditioned seat. We pass many blue clapboard houses and a lone (though surely not lonely) man with his chair and gear set up for a day of fishing in the river.
Hot Conductors! Wait, What?
On the return trip, I overheard one woman call her sister to wish her a happy mother's day, then hang up and complain to her friend about how her sister jumped down her throat about not calling earlier. "Just enjoy the moment. Seize the moment!" she says. I think she's drunk. "Happy Mother's Day, bitches." She chills out by flirting with the silver fox conductor a few minutes later: "Look at you with your sexy smile," and he laughs, moving down the cars, asking everyone "How we doing? Everyone happy? We're almost there."
You Might Spot a Monster
Halfway through the trip, if you're smart, you'll switch to the right side so your eyes can follow Lake Champlain all the way up New York and into Quebec. But if you're really smart, you'll bring a GoPro or have an iPhone at the ready in case you come across Champ, the monster who allegedly lives in the freshwater lake and moonlights as mascot for the Vermont Lake Monsters. Think of the payday! Suddenly I became an amateur cryptozoologist, Googling "best Champ photos" and tracing sightings back to 1609.
Witness the Ultimate Golden Hour
Sure, that moment when the sun's setting makes brownstones glow, trees pop, and everyone look a little more gorgeous than normal in the city, but chugging along the Hudson Valley, this becomes uber-golden hour. Everything glows, even through a smudged window. Pictures don't do the moment justice. I want to return during peak foliage season in the fall but am afraid my head will explode.
You Can Trick the TSA
Coming back into the city five TSA employees boarded and asked everyone, individually: "Where're you from, where're you going, who were you visiting, what do they do, where did you stay?" But they also asked people for their fresh fruit and vegetables and "packaged meats." I'm not a law-breaker, but was I supposed to tell them about the smoked meat sandwich I was bringing back from Montreal, the remainder of a taste test comparing the cuts at Reuben's, a flashy diner on Saint-Catherine, and Schwartz's, a Katz's-like institution with walls held up by newspaper clippings? I don't care. They couldn't have my sandwich. And, by the way, Schwartz's won.
Amtrak's Adirondack line runs daily from New York's Penn Station to Montreal's Gare Centrale. Ticket prices may vary, but it's still a hell of a lot cheaper than flying.
Kara Cutruzzula is a culture and travel writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @karacut.