We’d barely had 24 hours in LA before we were ready it to bid it farewell. Such is the reality of whistlestop train tours. It’s an ineffably strange way to travel, alternating between zipping around a vast city in a single day to spending whole days and nights in the moving limbo that is the twilight world of the Amtrak sleeper.
While we enjoyed LA more than we thought we would, its role on this trip was always that of a stopover. But no matter, as the relatively short journey on board the Coast Starlight to San Francisco was easily one of the highlights of our voyage.
Union Station itself is such a triumph it’s almost a shame to leave. Built in 1936, a melange of Mission and Art Deco styles, Union Station is feted as the last of the great US stations. Everything from the ceiling tiles to light fittings has a burnished grandeur about it. Even the leather public seating seem impossibly luxurious. It’s starred in a multitude of films, from Bladerunner to Chinatown, and you can take behind the scenes tours of the building.
(Being Sleeper Car passengers, we had access to the fairly new Metro Lounge, which served its purpose pleasantly enough for the WiFi and free drinks, if you can block out the TVs blaring loud infomercials, but doesn’t quite match the public section of the station for decor or atmosphere.)
Leaving LaLa Land behind, the tinge of unreality stayed with us a while. First there were neat rows of tall pines perched on hilltops that looked more like filmsets than actual filmsets, then we pass a wrecker’s yard where mannequin limbs clawed their way from the usual car part carnage. We pass a handsome early 20th century bridge daubed with the cryptic graffiti ‘There is no City’. In less than thirty minutes we’re rolling through Simi Valley, a craggy patch of desert landscape and tunnels that’s stood in for the Wild West on countless celluloid outings.
This being our third Amtrak journey, we’d grown accustomed to socialising at mealtimes, but on this leg the fraternising starts ahead of schedule, when the middle aged couple occupying the adjacent carriage duly inveigle themselves on us.
The wife seems sweet, if a little dopey, but her husband is the irritating, crass, overbearing type who uses your name too much. For some reason he reminds me of Bulldog from Frasier, only not as funny. He cracks some lame jokes about us being ‘good buddies with the Beatles’ and we shun the view, feigning sleepiness to take refuge from his already tiresome banter.
Soon after we meet our our attendant. Hector is a kindly, if taciturn, elderly Latino man who walks with a stoop and make his way through the car distributing oranges and apples. He looks way too old and weary to be working this long haul overnight route.
The dusty terrain soon gives way to the vineyards of Oxnan and as if in response we’re greeted with an announcement from Flavio ‘everybody’s favourite parlour car steward’, even if he does say so himself, entreating us to stroll down to the car to sample a bloody mary, ‘or how about a little mimosa to get the day started right?’ Being suggestible types, naturally we oblige.
The Parlour Car is certainly one of the Starlight’s particular highlights and unique to this route. It’s a pleasant and sociable car, divided into three areas, a handful of dining tables, a couple of chaise lounges facing each other with little cocktail tables and plush armchairs that swivel round so that you can admire 360 degree views. (Access to it is restricted to sleeper car passengers, so even if you’re not overnighting on the train, it’s well worth the modest upgrade fee.)
We get chatting to a couple, all glammed up on their way to see Jimmy Buffet live in San Luis Obispo who assure us that we’ll get our first glimpse of the Pacific soon and sure enough it appears with suitable majesty, all sparkly and topaz. The beaches and bays are remarkably unspoiled, just the occasional gaggle of surfers and lines of immaculate cream RVs (no obvious signs of meth production were evident), flocks of muddy brown spoonbills and some cormorants sunning themselves on the rocks in the centre of pools.
The procession of tiny coves that spools past makes you want to reach for the emergency stop chord or at least wistful for some sort of slow motion replay. The seascape is punctuated by countless oil rigs, which surprised us, before we get into serious swimming pool territory in the suburbs of San Jose.
A soundtrack of good times sixties tunes plays in the Parlour Car. No Ventura Highway as we’re passing Ventura or Hotel California (and alas our old buddies the Beatles are conspicuous by their absence), but Do You Know the Way to San Jose and the Beach Boys soon sidle up on their surfboards.
I step off the train at San Luis Obispo and enjoy the irony of having a good puff of my e-cig on the platform of the first town to ban smoking in public places. ‘They don’t even let you do that on the train huh?’ shouts a lady from across the platform.
The terrain gets wilder past Santa Barbara as moors of cranberry and orange gorse and sandbanks drive a wedge between us and the ocean and ramshackle farms crop up with tractor playgrounds, bear-shaped scarecrows and pens of horses peck at the dry soil optimistically. We learn that this has been one of the driest years in aeons for California, which has long grown accustomed to aridity. Gullies and dried river beds enlivened by the odd cypress tree and startled deer.
The train begins to climb into the San Margherita mountains, where the sun battles to flicker its way through the hills flanking us. Here there are Alpine log cabins and Union Pacific Cabooses, seemingly a world away from the classic California coast we’ve just enjoyed. This is the mission route, El Camino Real, where 21 missions were built in the 17th – 19th centuries as waystations to accommodate horseback travellers.
We take a raincheck on the tempting-sounding local wine tasting in the Parlour Car, our bellies still sated by perhaps the best Amtrak meal of our entire trip, a delicious turkey panini on cranberry bread.
Back in the Parlour Car, in the fading afternoon sun the taupey hills collect shadows and begin to resemble the wrinkled backs of lazy beasts that have long dozed off in the baking sun. We watch the oil derricks hypnotically nodding the earth, lulling us into our own sleepy state.
Such peace is relatively short lived though, as Bulldog accosts us again with a volley of overly familiar questions. Learning that I write for a living he asks if he is likely to feature in my story. ‘What, I met this annoying, nosey guy who wouldn’t quit asking me questions?’ his wife pipes up, hitting the nail square on the head. Until now she has been quietly working on her quilt and we silently wonder if this hobby has developed as her own personal marital coping mechanism.
Eventually we’re back into farmland, amid neat rows of Salinas’ surreally bright green crops that leap out at us after so many hours of near desert and which have surely been under constant irrigation.
We pass the cow town of King City, with the signs for Roy’s Garage and Queen’s Motel hinting at the characters from some chapter of a forgotten John Steinback novel. Even from the confines of carefully controlled train car, we can smell the pungency of a garlic farm several minutes before we spy the sign.
Having seen the Pacific, as evening comes we decide it’s time to sample the Starlight, so we turn out the lights in our cabin near Olny. It proves a little elusive but still it’s nice to ride at street level again, as we had done for longer stretches on the Crescent train, past railroad crossings and neon-lit diners and motels.
Come nightfall you get a chance to sample one of the Starlight’s other curios, it’s dedicated cinema coach. The car comprises a 50 inch flatscreen TV and several rows of flip-up cinema seats. When I checked it out I virtually had it to myself, possibly because it was showing the terrible new Captain America film, but still watching a movie on a moving train is something to experience, mainly just so that you can say that you have.
Before we knew it we rolled into Oakland’s Jack London Station and were finally reunited with our luggage, after a tense few minutes when we watch everyone else’s being decanted on the platform and board the coach to transfer us to downtown San Francisco.
Need to Know
The journey from LA to San Francisco took 12 hours, leaving just after 10am. You can get a coach seat from around $65, but we recommend upgrading to a sleeper car to access the Parlour and Cinema Cars. Ours cost $126 for the pair of us and includes lunch with a non-alcoholic drink.
There is a free courtesy bus from Oakland station which takes 30 minutes and drops you off at the SF Ferry Terminal or the Financial District. The Coast Starlight goes on to Portland and Seattle. The full journey takes around 35 hours.