All Aboard the ‘Coast Starlight’

Train Ride Offers View of Coast Like No Other

Paul Wellman (file)

A friend of mine told me the best sex she’s ever had was in a sleeper car on the southbound Coast Starlight train coming back from San Luis Obispo, the steel wheels pounding the rails as the late California sun peered in.

This was not my experience.

On a recent Saturday, I caught the 10:20 a.m. northbound Pacific Surfliner on its way to S.L.O. from San Diego. It was a foggy June morning and the Amtrak platform was sparse.

I knew the train ride would lend itself to a slow Saturday of dreamy French film landscapes. If nothing else, I could get some writing done.

This was also not my experience.

I was too busy staring out the window. The mighty June sun had already breached the marine layer by the time we reached Goleta. As we traveled north, the water grew clearer and the sun rosier, and by noon, the Central Coast was wide awake. There was no shortage of paddlers, surfers, and kayakers soaking up salt and sweat. I could almost feel their soothed exhaustion. I couldn’t help but smile to myself; it’s almost summertime.

My only regret was not cracking a beer at 10:30 a.m. like the guy in front of me. Instead, I had a third cup of coffee and realized the sluggish Pacific Surfliner might not be the best mode of transportation for the over-caffeinated. “American infrastructure,” joked the guy on the phone behind me. But a UCSB student who was about to graduate was more positive. “I love California,” she said as we passed the sprawling Gaviota Coast. “I need to figure out how to stay here.”

Indeed. Looking at the rounded bluffs above the gray-blue water reminded me of a feeling I had years ago in Europe. As I walked along the canal in Amsterdam, with little colorful rowboats stacked every which way, I thought, “It’s more like Disneyland than Disneyland will ever be.” The Central Coast is to California, I realized, as Amsterdam is to Europe.

When I arrived in S.L.O., a little behind schedule, my sister was waiting for me in her white hatchback, and we headed straight to S.L.O.’s famous High Street Deli. We enjoyed the tasty Dutch Punch ​— ​turkey and bacon on a toasted Dutch roll ​— ​and washed it down with a can of Rincon Blonde Ale.

If possible, I’d recommend staying the night. The one-way coach ticket from Santa Barbara to S.L.O. is $35, so you might as well get your money’s worth. And there is no shortage of enjoyable things to do. The breweries are plentiful. My sister’s favorites are BarrelHouse, Libertine, and Central Coast Brewing. To dine, I’m told Big Sky, Granada Bistro, and F.McLintocks are great. Or for a cheaper meal on Thursday evenings, the farmers’ market is a downtown favorite for fresh produce and a quick bite. Hiking is another option. Sister recommends Bishop Peak (tallest in the city), Madonna Mountain (a little easier), and Valencia Peak Trail (a decent three-miler).

Unfortunately, I had to get back to Santa Barbara. My sister dropped me off at 3:20 p.m. at the train station that’s just a short drive from downtown. As I made my way to my seat, I climbed over some zombified riders. Many had been nestled in since 8 o’clock the night before when they boarded the southbound Coast Starlight, which travels daily from Seattle to Los Angeles, stopping in Portland, San Jose, S.L.O., and Santa Barbara.

Views from the Starlight, taller than the normal northbound Pacific Surfliner, are stunning. It exposes you to spaces usually hidden from the public eye. In Grover Beach and Guadalupe, the train offers cockeyed views of backyards, some perfectly kept with green grass, plastic pools, and swing sets, others piled full of metal car parts.

The feeling was enhanced as I rode through 35 miles of coastline belonging to Vandenberg Air Force Base. Six giant Satellite Launch Complexes, also known as SLCs (pronounced “Slicks”), grab your eyes in the otherwise bare lands. American flags hang on each launch pad.

Fifty miles south, the privately owned and usually unexposed Hollister Ranch, stretching along nine miles of coveted coastline, is visible to train passengers. A caravan of five or six Airstreams and picnic tables under a string of lights perched the bluffs.

As my beer buzz overpowered my morning caffeine, I found myself glad the train moves slowly. As we approached a stop, the conductor told us over the loudspeaker, “Just enjoy the view.”

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