Monday, March 31, 2014

Riding the Rails on the Coast Starlight

As I've previously mentioned, I booked us on Amtrak to travel along the California coast in large part to avoid the steep drop fees the car rental agencies wanted to charge us.

This was my first time riding a real Amtrak train in the United States.

While I've often traveled around Europe on a train, its just not something I think of usually when planning a trip. I'm not sure why I even thought of it, frankly, but once I did, I realized what a brilliant idea it was.

First, it saved us almost $400. Who doesn't like to save money?

Second, Carl is not much of a road trip kind of guy (I joked after we drove to Florida that my failure was in only planning surprise goodies along the trip for two of my whining "kids" - and it wasn't that far off from the truth --love you, honey). He says that my driving makes him 'ill' but then he complains about how much he has to drive. Go figure. Anyways, with the train, no one is driving, so its a win-win for everyone.

Third, I was going to get to visit Santa Barbara! On my bucket list!

Fourth, the route we would be riding is Amtrak's "Coast Starlight," and its one of their premier rail journeys that often makes the lists for the best train journeys in the world. We pretty much rode right along the California coastline, even closer than the cars all driving along Highway 1.

Which meant that, fifth, I was going to see some breathtaking scenery, and not have to listen to certain other people in my party complain about why I wanted the slower, scenic route and we couldn't take the speedier Interstate 5 down south.

Sixth, I found out there were outlets on the trains. Outlets to charge those little electronic devices that are attached to Team Danger when traveling and which frankly, are indispensable for my own sanity.

Seventh, this train had an actual dining car, where you make reservations and go eat in the dining car for a good hour with waiters. It always makes me feel like I'm in 'The Lady Vanishes,' and I have to resist the urge to write "Mrs. Froy" on the window and pop out my own bag of Harriman's Herbal Tea, which of course all decent Hitchcock fans know "a million Mexicans drink." But I digress. Still, there is just something so wonderfully decadent to be spending an inordinate amount of time on a train and taking time out of your possibly boring train ride to make your appointment in the dining car.  Even if one is dining with one's children ordering pizzas and chocolate milk.

Eighth, since no one was driving, we could drink along the way. Who doesn't love a bottle of wine (or two) as you zip along the California coast?

Ninth, look how much space we had! Airlines could learn a thing or two from Amtrak. I could fully extend my legs in front of me! And recline! This picture of Carl and Ryan demonstrates all the space quite well, I think.

Tenth, Alex was super-excited about getting to ride the 'Hogwarts Express,' and couldn't WAIT to carry his suitcase on board and stow it above him. Kids. Me? I was thrilled there was luggage storage when you fist stepped on the train so that I didn't have to carry Big Bertha any further than necessary, let alone up to the second story where our seats were located.

Still, as fabulous as the train ride was (and as cool as it felt to be doing the green thing and riding the train), there were a few things I didn't like.

One, I wanted to do nothing but gaze out the window at the scenery for eight hours. The rest of Team Danger, however, wanted to do nothing but close the window shades so the bright light didn't interfere with their tablet viewing. This was a constant battle for me, and one I lost more times than I wanted to win.

Two, eight hour train ride? With our delays, it was more like nine hours. That extra hour counts. A lot.

Three, the woman sitting behind me. Chatted a LOT. Now, I'm fairly certain the poor stranger with the misfortune to be sitting next to her had a much worse trip of it than I did, since he had to actually answer her periodically with his monosyllabic responses. But let's just say that listening to her tell him her life story for five hours put a crimp in my window time and book reading (which I did during my lost battles for window time).

Four, some of the people riding the train scared me. One woman was walking around openly drooling on people as she would pass them and asking if we were "Sarah.". Others clearly had been saving up all their donated loose change for five months to afford this trip. Some sat in their seat playing the guitar (and singing) for nine hours. I tried to not have elitist feelings towards these clearly less-fortunate souls, but um, let's just say that I didn't let the kids go to the bathroom by themselves.

Fifth, the Amtrak website told me there was WiFi on the train. I made the mistake of sharing this fact with Team Danger beforehand. Was there WiFi on the train? Yes. But only for first class passengers. And were we in first class. Noooo. So no Netflix.

Sixth, I also didn't appreciate the constant announcements for wine tastings for first class passengers, or cheese tastings for first class passengers. It would have cost us about twice as much to ride first class as second class. In Europe, I've never seen such a big discrepancy between the offerings for first and second class seats, so I didn't think twice about booking the cheaper tickets. But between the wifi, the wine tastings, and the cheese tastings (not to mention avoiding the droolers and guitar players), I think I would have paid the $$ for the first class seats.

Seventh, the first few hours of my train journey were not along the coast. We cut through some not so attractive parts of central California, and it seemed like it took longer than it should have to reach beautiful coastline. Why didn't we go along the coast through Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur, for instance?

Will I ride Amtrak again? Possibly.

But it will be hard to top the scenery aboard the Coast Starlight.

Which I think made the whole experience worth it.

I think.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Cousins, Chinatown, Adventures, and Prime Rib

The best part of our trip to California? Spending time with family.

We don't get to see my brother and his family nearly enough, so we treasure each moment we get with them.

My brother lives up in these hills - I've never seen them so green as they were this trip. Normally, the hills have more of a golden hue to them.

After a morning spent playing around the house and swimming at their club, we headed back into San Francisco, and hit Chinatown.

This was the boys' first time hitting a "little country," and the moans and complaints we heard before stopping quickly went away when they saw just how cool Chinatown was.

They loved picking out their own set of chopsticks (and some as souvenirs for their Texas cousins).

All the stores are decorated so fantastically. I wanted every  one of these chinese lanters hanging in this shop, for instance. (Damn you, 50 lb suitcase limits!)

Ryan was excited because he found Pokemon cards for sale, and bought this set for only $2.99, a set I'm pretty sure would have cost us $12.99 at our Target.

And the boys were in heaven in this store which sold nothing but replica weapons from movies and tv shows.

These photos cracked me up. Here, we have the Transamerica Pyramid building, arguably the most famouse ladnmark in San Francisco's skyline. But when you add in the cool Chinatown lantern, street signs, and the woman in her Chinese brocade jacket and hat, along with some good old radical protestors, its like the best of San Francisco all wrapped up in one photo. All you need to add in to make it complete would be a cable car...

Oh wait! There's a cable car crossing the street. Score!

After Chinatown, we had early dinner reservations at my father's favorite restaurant of all-time, the House of Prime Rib.

Dad first discovered it when he was in seminary in Berkeley in the sixties (always such a great image to me, of my dad in Berkeley at the height of the hippie movement).

HOPR is somewhat of a cultural institution - your men choices consist of which cut of prime rib do you want... the smaller City Cut ... the huge King Henry VIII cut ... or the Children's Cut. The prime rib is wheeled around in this great cart and cut at the table for you. You are served salad, Yorkshire pudding, creamed spinach, and a choice of baked potato or mashed potatoes.

This was my first time taking the kids when we got them food there. In the past, I've simply fed them some Old McDonald's happy meals right before we went. But that was about four years ago, and they've become fans of red meat since then. I was nervous... but happily, they loved it as much as we do. (Just, maybe not the Yorkshire pudding, but that's fine - more for me).

Ryan and Laurel kept themselves busy drawing a still life of the wine bottles behind our table.

And then it was back home, across the lovely new and improved Bay Bridge. These aren't the best photos, but it was stunning how the light would move across the bridge.

The next day was Sunday, and Robyn had suggested we spend our day in Berkeley at the Adventure Playground.

I had never heard of an adventure playground before, but apparently they are quite common in other places of the world.

This was quite possibly the coolest part of our entire trip, and everyone had such a blast, we didn't think we would ever be able to get them to leave.

First up: the zipline.

 Then there was rope climbing, rope swinging, and rolling around in tires.

But that wasn't quite dangerous enough for Team Danger, and the California offshoot of Team Danger.

Because it wasn't long before they decided they needed some paint, hammers, saws, and nails, and the only way to get these items is to collect nails and trash on the ground.

Oh, and one Mr. Dangerous will do the trick.


The boys (aka Carl) built this bench, and the girls helped them paint it. Much to Team Danger's dismay, they ran out of red and green paint. Pink was NOT on their approved paint choice list.

Ryan also added a store to one of the structures.

Then they all got down to some serious building. Like birdhouses.


And... bazookas. Team Danger didn't seem to get the memo that we were in Berkeley, of all places. Still - we didn't get kicked out, and Ryan's bazooka was THE fought-after item at Adventure Playground when it was time for us to go.

We had such a great time at Adventure Playground. I couldn't help but think it would fit right in with Austin's Keeping it Weird motto, and the boys agreed. Alex has even started making plans to start one himself as his Eagle Scout project (way to think ahead and plan, Alex. Truly my son.)

My favorite project we created, though, was this great cat made by Beau, Audrey and Laurel. Precious kitty faces. :)

California has a much later spring break than Texas does, so sadly, this was our last full day in Northern California with the girls. We thought it would be too much of a distraction for them and Beau to stay while they went off to school and work, so on Monday, we started our journey down south. It was great to see them again, and I loved how they could all just pick right back up from last Easter as if we hadn't just been apart for almost a full year. Love these girls.


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