Three Best Launching Pads - 2001
5885 Landregan (at Powell), Emeryville, (800) 872-7245
Crossing the continent by train has it all over the more prosaic, romance-bereft airplane, and the best itinerary of them all is the S.F.-to-Chicago Zephyr, a route steeped in history and beautiful panoramas. After hugging the bay and chugging through the Central Valley you ascend into the Sierra, marveling at the snowscapes from the comfort of the train's club car. The weird, ravishing rock formations of Utah are followed by the towering Rockies, and after the wide flatlands of the Midwest you cross the mighty Mississippi and barrel into Chicago's gorgeous old Union Station 2 1/2 days after leaving the Bay Area. There's a rhythmic quietude about train travel that encourages schmoozing and sipping and tranquil contemplation, and depending on the route Amtrak might also offer up live jazz (on the City of New Orleans), sausage and grits (on the South-bound Crescent City), or current movies (on most of the transcontinental trains).
Bus departs from First Street and Natoma, 956-7500
Traveling via the Green Tortoise bus system is about as far from the Greyhound experience as Woodstock I was from Woodstock II. It's not unlike a four-wheeled postmodern commune, complete with beatific leader (a hipster bus driver/DJ soothing one and all with eclectic sounds), group decisions (an in-bus vote might result in a detour to, oh, the Grand Canyon), and mellow, genial inhabitants (that's you and your fellow passengers). The result is a fun, festive voyage as adventurous as your ultimate destination. The best part is later in the evening when everyone piles out of the bus and the driver transforms the interior into a huge double-decker bed with sheets and blankets and pillows -- so much more comfortable (and intramurally intimate) than your basic coccyx-crimping recliner. If you head for L.A. at dusk you'll arrive early the following morning with plenty of amicizia in between.
Freighter World Cruises
(800) 531-7774, www.freighterworld.com
Imagine, if you will, traveling to Europe on a Brussels-bound Italian freighter with five other passengers: 12 lovely, lazy days of dazzling constellations, bountiful food, Chianti Classico by the barrelful, an unending expanse of Atlantic Ocean only occasionally disturbed by the errant dolphin, and the tranquil sort of extra-biped solitude you can't attain on a relentlessly merry cruise ship. Freighters leave San Francisco and Oakland for ports untold on a regular basis, and the best way to pick the perfect one for your itinerant purposes is to get a copy of Ford's Freighter Travel Guide at your local library. Another option is to let the experts at Freighter World Cruises do your planning for you. You just might find yourself on the Columbus Line's 46-day round-trip transpacific run, reveling in the salty vastness, checking out Auckland and Melbourne, and coming home the old-fashioned way: beneath the towering spires of the Golden Gate Bridge.