The American Riviera by train

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

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  • Disembark from the train at San Clemente pier, just steps away from the beach.

    The Pacific Surfliner

    Thomas J. Story

    Click to Enlarge


We may be free of schedules, but Amtrak isn't, and with only a couple of afternoon trains to San Clemente in Orange County, we have a late lunch before moving on.

South of San Clemente, the train eases into a long, stationless platform at the city's pier ― close enough to the ocean to taste the spray.

I flash back to my senior year in England. I lived near a village of 200 outside Canterbury, in a roadhouse inn that sat across from a platform as unadorned as this one. It was that year of crashing at pensiones and hostels that most inspired us to take this rail trip. I even considered dusting off my old backpack for the journey but instead opted for a rolling bag: more forgiving for a chronic overpacker, if lacking a bit in vagabonding panache.

We roll our luggage to our inn that overlooks the platform and head to the water. I can't prove it scientifically, but at San Clemente, the Southern California coast takes on a more tropical light, the air sweetened in summer by humid flows out of Mexico.

It's intoxicating. Once we start walking, we just keep going, past palapas and palm trees, the air a sultry bath and our bare feet chilled in a cold plunge of foaming waves galloping ashore.

In England they call the waves' caps "white horses," which is the name that head chef and owner Mark Norris gave his restaurant across from the beach. I'd like to claim this spot as one of those back alley discoveries you live for as a traveler. But really, it's steps off the lobby of our inn, with tables on a tiny patio and a Mediterranean-inspired menu.

With only a climb back up the stairs to our room ahead of us, we linger and chat with Norris after dinner, as the night's first fog drifts through the pier's lights. The train, Norris says, reminds him of his mother's house in Devon, which sits by the tracks. Now that is serendipitous ― to have found perhaps the only other person in town who would be reminded of England on a warm San Clemente night.


In Santa Barbara, the train edges a neighborhood between the idealized Mediterranean world of downtown and its dreamy California beach line. It's called the Funk Zone, and as often as we've come into Santa Barbara for museums and shopping, typically on our way to the Santa Ynez Valley wine country about 30 minutes beyond, we've missed this latter-day Cannery Row.

We shortcut through the zone on the way to our hotel off State Street. A truck delivers hay bales to an animal-supply business near the intersection of Anacapa and Yanonali Streets (Santa Barbara has the most lyrical street names in the country). There are glimpses of the ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains rising over town the idea of its grapes taunting me as we walk the back streets.

We stop in at Metropulos Fine Foods Merchant, which carries everything from Santa Barbara County olive oils to jams made by Trappist nuns in Italy. Then we discover an urban wine country: no vineyards, of course, but tasting rooms and production facilities. We work our way through several, from the Santa Barbara Winery, which pioneered winemaking here way back in 1962, to the newly opened Kalyra Winery ― where winemaker Mike Brown has operations in the Santa Ynez Valley and in Australia's Barossa Valley, and the tasting room is all tikis and Aboriginal-inspired art and surfboards.

A train whistle blows, announcing another Surfliner's arrival. We walk past board shapers taking a break from their sanding to snag a little California sun. Hang loose, I think, remembering the surfers I saw on the way in. You wouldn't think surfing and train travel have much to do with each other. But if surfing is all about surrendering control and working with what comes along, well, that's an approach to train travel too. I can't say we caught the perfect wave. But it's been a good ride.


Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner ($42 one-way from San Diego, with stops in San Clemente and Santa Barbara; 800/872-7245) stops at many major Southern California cities.

Pony up for business class It's the only way to guarantee a seat (not assigned). Business class is often $11 extra.

Pack light You'll mostly be hauling your own bags, and overhead space is tight.


The Keating Hotel Don't be tricked by its Victorian exterior. This San Diego hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter has a fire red lobby and an urban attitude. From $339; 877/753-2846.

Casa Tropicana Boutique Inn Across from the train platform in San Clemente, the inn has rooms with tropical- and sea-themed decor. From $285; 800/492-1245.

Inn of the Spanish Garden The Santa Barbara inn blends a Spanish courtyard setting with contemporary touches. From $269; 866/564-4700.


San Diego 619/236-1212

San Clemente 949/492-1131

Santa Barbara 805/966-9222




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