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.

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