The American Riviera by train

Ditch the car and explore three classic Southern California beach towns the easy way

Matthew Jaffe

There's no way I'm reading now that the train has reached the ocean.

I look out from the Pacific Surfliner at Pacific surf riders: longboarders and shortboarders, paddle surfers and surf kayakers. There are dolphins too, glowing in sunlit waves.

I imagined that the train would race by unnoticed, but the surfers turn toward the tracks. One straddling his board raises his arms, both hands splayed in an enthusiastic shaka salute.

His message, of course: Hang loose.

Which is exactly what my wife and I are doing on a train rolling through our own Southern California backyard.

I hope to rediscover familiar destinations by traveling by train. To relive the carefree days, I tell myself, like when I was a college student in England. My only plan is to stay in a trio of classic destinations (San Diego, San Clemente, and Santa Barbara), but with no pressure to hit big attractions; the small stuff would count. We'd welcome randomness. We'd embrace wrong turns. We'd free ourselves in a sense by restricting ourselves: no set itinerary, no maps, and no cab fares more than $5. Those are the rules. And with gas prices hovering near $5 per gallon, we might even save some cash.

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