Outdoor Observer

Train travel offers unusual vistas and relaxation

By Alex Wilson 08/02/2012

Riding Amtrak trains is a relaxing yet exciting way to view seldom-seen parts of beautiful California coastline, cities and farms, as my wife, Dawn, and I learned during a weekend getaway to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary.


We rode the Pacific Surfliner to San Luis Obispo, and learned that several bed and breakfasts are within walking distance from the station for the historic Spanish mission town ringed by rugged mountains.


The Pacific Surfliner is the pretty blue train connecting San Diego and San Luis Obispo, and conductors encourage passengers to bring bikes and surfboards along. Its silver cousin, Coast Starlight, travels all the way to Seattle.


Since we live in downtown Ventura, we loaded a backpack with everything we needed, including snacks, and strolled to the Seaside Park station. We brought reading materials, but were so mesmerized by the beautiful views that we spent most of the time gazing out the large windows and sharing romantic moments. We saw dolphins, and pelicans flying in formation beside the train.


The train provides a new perspective on views familiar from driving. People at beaches and campgrounds along the Rincon waved and smiled. We felt compelled to wave back to the anonymous people whose names we’ll probably never know, and had an instant connection with them because of our majestic form of travel.


We viewed seldom-noticed areas of Santa Barbara, even though we’ve spent ample time there, including the day I proposed to my Bunny. The most interesting section of the journey was when the tracks veered away from the commonly traveled 101 freeway, which makes a 90-degree turn north at Gaviota. The train keeps chugging west past the private, gated Hollister Ranch coastline, Point Conception and Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is normally closed to public access.


The beaches and canyons of Hollister Ranch are rugged and more deserted than most other parts of Southern California, but we did see locals riding horses on the beaches and driving their trucks right on the sand to surf scenic point breaks.


Vandenberg is interesting on many levels, both scenically and historically. We saw numerous launch pads for rockets, including a huge one that was built but never used for Space Shuttles, with a giant U.S. flag painted on it.


The train then traveled inland though oak-studded hillsides, cattle ranches and strawberry fields before we reached our destination. When we stopped in the small farming town of Guadalupe, the conductor half-jokingly announced, “Prepare to see beautiful and historic downtown Guadalupe.”


We stayed at a lovely and historic bed and breakfast called Heritage Inn that’s about eight blocks from downtown San Luis Obispo. The century-old building has an interesting history and the innkeeper, Linda, kept us entertained with its stories over complimentary wine in the evening and a delicious breakfast, including steaming frittata, homemade muffins and fresh fruit, in the morning.


San Luis Obispo also has a natural feel to it, with a creek running next to the old Spanish mission and right behind restaurants and taverns lining downtown’s Higuera Street. We strolled the creek during the day and saw ducks and little fish swimming in the water while shaded by a canopy of trees. That night we dined at an elegant restaurant called Novo, where we were seated directly next to the creek and were serenaded by frogs, which helped us celebrate our anniversary over crème brûlée.


The train voyage makes us excited to ride the often overlooked mode of travel again, perhaps heading south to visit San Juan Capistrano or San Diego.

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