How to see the California coast by train

Nicola Brady
The Amtrak Coast Starlight: Amtrak
The Amtrak Coast Starlight: Amtrak

I only catch a glimpse of it for a few seconds. At first, I think it’s an upturned boat, but then I recognise the telltale ridges on its belly – I’m looking at a small humpback whale. It’s stranded on a tiny, inaccessible patch of beach, on the coast somewhere outside of Gaviota, in Santa Barbara County.

It’s not the cheeriest start to a story, I admit. But it’s an incredible sight. And one made all the more impressive by the fact I’m zooming past while effectively lying in bed. I’m travelling from Oakland to Los Angeles on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, the train that starts its journey in Seattle.

The idea first occurred to me three years ago, when I was driving California’s Pacific Coast Highway with two friends. Somewhere along the coast I looked up, saw the silver train whizz by, and realised that you could do this journey – the whole gorgeous, beguiling stretch of it – without stepping foot in a car.

In fairness, the route doesn’t strictly follow the same path as Highway 1. I don’t catch my first glimpse of the sea until seven hours in, when we pass Santa Maria. But that doesn’t mean the journey is any less scenic. After leaving the outskirts of Oakland, we chug our way past wineries, the vines standing in uniform lines parallel to the train tracks. We go past backyards with trampolines and lemon trees, past hazy, distant mountains, and alongside trees dripping with Spanish moss.

Although my 12-hour journey takes place during the day, I book a roomette, mostly so I can treat the day like an elongated lie-in. And the whole set-up is pretty damn swish – the two wide seats in my cabin face each other, and can be reclined to make one bed, or a half up, half down lounger of my own invention.

But even the cheapest seats are impressively plush, with plenty of leg room and a bit of recline. There’s also a jazzy observation car, with swivelling seats that face the giant, floor to ceiling windows. The whole carriage has a futuristic, glass tunnel feel – later, at sunset, the surprisingly empty room is soaked in an amber glow.

I spend most of the day in my little roomette, snuggled under a blanket (the air conditioning is blasting furiously, as is often the case in the US) gazing out of my window hour after hour. At some point, I lie down and take a little nap, the train rocking me back and forth as the Californian sky rolls past my head.

Amtrak Coast Starlight goes past untouched stretches of beach (Amtrak)
Amtrak Coast Starlight goes past untouched stretches of beach (Amtrak)

And then it’s lunchtime. Another reason to book a roomette (or a business class seat) is that all your meals are included, taken in the grand dining car. I eat lunch with a family making the journey from the Bay Area – they tuck into burgers while I have some fairly mediocre baked chilaquiles. “It isn’t the best burger I’ve ever eaten,” one of them tells me. “But if the best burger I ever ate was on a train, that would be pretty depressing.”

When I first catch that longed-for glimpse of ocean, my heart sinks. Because just at that moment, the sky clouds over, and the water takes on that murky, greyish tinge that makes me feel like I’m in the opening credits of Big Little Lies.

But as the train snakes along the cliffs, we shoot towards a blue sky. The clouds make way for the sunshine and suddenly everything is drenched in light, from the heather rolling down the hillside to the seaweed washed up on the sands.

The observation car has floor-to-ceiling windows (Nicola Brady)
The observation car has floor-to-ceiling windows (Nicola Brady)

Though it’s taken a while to get here, the train is often closer to the sea than the Pacific Coast Highway, the rusty tracks weaving right alongside empty beaches that no one would ever be able to access by car. The ever-changing view is utterly mesmerising, particularly when a gaggle of dolphins swim alongside us as I eat my (excellent) evening steak. I later realise, much to my millennial shame, that I had taken 423 photos over the course of the day.

As the sun begins to set, I take a glass of wine to the observation car, the sun-blushed mountains of Santa Barbara on my left and the silky Pacific Ocean on my right. When the sun plops below the horizon I move back to my little room and get back under the blanket, as we move through the suburbs of LA.

The view might not have the wow factor of the coastline, but to me, this is the real California. It’s not just about the slick glamour of Beverly Hills, or the rolling vineyards of Napa. It’s the used car lots, the graffiti splashed train tunnels, the glimpses of strip malls (and strip clubs) as we creep into LA.

Pulling into Union Station is something of a dream of its own: an art deco masterpiece that feels like the entrance to end all entrances. There’s no baggage carousel, no sprawling terminal, no passport control. Just a vaulted ceiling, angular chandeliers, glossy tiled floor and beautifully retro ticket counters.

I had assumed that after 12 hours on a train, I’d be tired, grouchy and in desperate need of a comfy bed. Instead, I wheel my suitcase into the heart of downtown LA, feeling like I’ve just woken up.

Travel essentials

Roomette fares from Oakland to LA start at $182, with coach fares from $53.

amtrak.com; visitcalifornia.com

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