The American Riviera by train
Ditch the car and explore three classic Southern California beach towns the easy way
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.
STOP 1: SAN DIEGO
There’s something liberating about being out of the car, free to discover the people and places in that big world between point A and point B. We get quick affirmation of that notion as we disembark at San Diego’s 1915 Santa Fe Depot: We come face to face with revenge of the nerds on a metropolitan scale. We have stumbled through the looking glass and into Comic-Con, the annual gathering of pop-culture tribes: comics freaks, sci-fi buffs, and anime obsessives among them. While people-watching is one of the best parts of seeing a city on foot, we had hardly expected this quality of street theater.
Nor had we expected to get diverted even before reaching our hotel. But it turns out the train station’s old baggage room is a gallery space of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Burdened with our luggage, we must take turns seeing the exhibits before heading to our hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter ― less than five minutes by cab and one of downtown’s best-preserved areas, with all of its Victorian and Queen Anne buildings.
After checking in, we walk along Fifth Avenue, swimming upstream against Comic-Con goers emerging from the convention center, before bailing for lunch at Bondi, an Australian-themed restaurant.
As the day ebbs, we walk in and out of stores, the character of the streets changing as we stroll. We eventually wander into Little Italy, once home to tuna fishermen and now an enclave that combines markets and restaurants with modern lofts. We come upon Anthology, a music venue that sets the vibe of a 1940s supper club in a multilevel contemporary space with audio fetishist ― quality acoustics.
For years, I’ve had a knack for missing jazz legend Mose Allison, but in a nice bit of luck, he’s playing here tonight. Allison races through his classics, a human in shuffle mode, his voice still hipster cool.
We consider cabbing back to the hotel but decide to walk, extending our improvised day. I can’t say San Diego is quite a 24/7 city à la New York, but past midnight, the Gaslamp is still hopping, so we’re giving it a go.
STOP 2: SAN CLEMENTE
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.
STOP 3: SANTA BARBARA
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.
WHERE TO STAY
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
OTHER GREAT TRAIN TRIPS
Sunset’s roots are in the rails: Our magazine was founded by Southern Pacific Railroad as a travel guide to the West, and our name comes from the Sunset Limited line, where our first issue was handed out in May 1898. We’re still fans of train travel ― here are some of our favorite ways to explore the West.
The Canadian Relive the glory days of transcontinental railroads on this epic three-day journey between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Toronto. Along the way, you’ll see the Canadian Rockies’ towering granite peaks, marshlands, and prairies, and maybe even catch glimpses of wildlife, including moose. The train stops in the mountain village of Jasper and bustling Edmonton, a city that comes alive with arts festivals every summer. A unique feature of the Canadian is the option to stop in the middle of nowhere for an outdoor experience: With advance notice to the conductor, you can pick a random spot between Sudbury Junction and Winnipeg and get off. INFO: From $740 U.S. one-way; 888/842-7245.
Coast Starlight The granddaddy of West Coast train trips, the route runs 1,377 miles between Seattle and Los Angeles. Despite its name, the Coast Starlight spends most of its time away from the Pacific ― not that it skimps on scenery. The snowcapped Cascades and, yes, long stretches of the Southern California coast are among its highlights. Sleeping cars and daily wine tastings help you pass the time on this 35-hour trip, and for some sections in the Northwest, National Park Service guides board trains to offer a bit of area history. Delays are common on this route, so don’t cut things too close on the last leg of your trip. INFO: From $92 one-way between L.A. and Seattle; 800/872-7245.
Alaska Railroad Whether you’re looking for coastal glaciers or the grandeur of Denali National Park, the Alaska Railroad lets you sit back and see the state’s remarkable landscapes in style. Double-decker dome cars offer panoramic views, and you step out to outdoor viewing areas to breathe in the fresh scent of northern forests or get views of tundra and wildlife. With four routes, trips range from the nearly 4 1/2-hour ride aboard the Coastal Classic between Anchorage and Seward to the nearly 12-hour Fairbanks run aboard the Denali Star. INFO: From $69 one-way; 800/544-0552.
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad You might think you were born a century or so too late to ride a steam train over the Rockies. But this narrow-gauge train still huffs and puffs its way along the country’s highest rail route ― all the way up through 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass. The 64-mile, 6 1/2-hour journey from Chama, New Mexico, to Antonito, Colorado (or the reverse), also winds its way through the stone chasm of Toltec Gorge. Beautiful any time of year, the route is at its best in September and early October, when aspens paint the mountains with their yellows and oranges. INFO: $79; 888/286-2737.
Grand Canyon Railway Leave the car behind and travel through stands of ponderosa pine and across sagebrush prairies to the ultimate scenic payoff: the South Rim. The railway from Williams, Arizona, helped open the Grand Canyon to travelers when it began running in 1901, and the 65-mile, two-hour-plus ride is still the classic way to reach this classic park. Choose from a variety of train-car classes, including dome cars and the ultra-posh parlor car. Once at the canyon, take advantage of the park’s many shuttle routes. Not only is the train a fun way to reach the canyon, but you’ll also help alleviate auto congestion and pollution at the South Rim. INFO: From $65 round-trip; 800/843-8724.
Skunk Train Travel through the redwood forests of California’s North Coast on this ideal family outing. The Skunk follows the route of an old logging railroad between Fort Bragg and Willits that dates back to 1885. Depending on the run, a vintage diesel locomotive, steam engine, or motor car pulls the Skunk’s restored passenger cars and open-air observation cars through the Noyo River Canyon. The round-trip takes 3 1/2 to 4 hours, and some summer rides feature barbecues in the shade of a redwood forest. And that name? Well, the Skunk earned its sobriquet back in the day, when motor cars (and their rather odiferous gas engines) were used on the line. INFO: From $39, $20 ages 3–12; 800/866-1690.