by Sally Hixson | WDSD Contributing Reporter
My husband and I have found a great weekend getaway that includes wonderful sights and sounds along with good food, and, of course, good wine – without the hassle of driving. Hop aboard an Amtrak train heading north from San Diego County and your journey becomes an adventure. And, don’t forget to not only pack your bags but also your cooler with some good wine, cheese, crackers and whatever else your stomach desires.
Parking is limited and pricey at the downtown train station, so we park in the lot at the Solana Beach station – it’s free and in a safe neighborhood. Even though you have made reservations, it’s a good idea to get there a little early to pick up your tickets (make sure you bring a photo ID) and to get all your gear across the tracks to await the train. When I hear the train whistle, I can’t help but think of the old Johnny Cash song: “I hear the train a comin’.” When you board, head upstairs for a better vantage point. Now you can breathe a sigh of relief, your journey has begun.
Our favorite rail destination is Santa Barbara, where we pick up a rental just a few blocks away and drive either to the Santa Ynez or Paso Robles wine countries. Amtrak reservations are easily made at Amtrak.com (http://www.amtrak.com). You can book regular coach at $64 roundtrip, or splurge like we do and travel business class for an additional $34 per person, round-trip. Prices do rise a bit during holidays, so plan accordingly. The business class car usually is populated by adults only, many of whom commute and compute on their laptops, and features complimentary snacks and drinks. If you have three or more in your party, you can occupy facing seats across a table to share snacks or possibly play a game during the five-hour ride.
The food offered in business class is not exactly wine country gourmet, but not bad. In the morning, conductors offer such continental breakfast fare as coffee and muffins, and in the afternoon, riders choose wine, beer, sodas or water to go with pre-packaged snack bags. For quality control, we recommend bringing your own beverages/snacks so you’ll be sure to have your favorite. And, as on all Amtrak trains, a Café Car stands ready to scratch a sudden itch for a hot dog or drink.
It’s utterly enjoyable to leave the driving to the engineer and sit back to enjoy the marvelous views of the ocean, fields and fauna. Don’t worry if the journey from San Diego begins with your seats on the land-ward side of the train, because when the train departs Los Angeles, it reverses direction and your seats will be on the ocean side. Either side affords a nice view of the coast through large and accommodating windows.
My husband, Tom and I have traveled the route so many times that we know almost all the stops, and there are quite a few between San Diego and Santa Barbara. It’s fun to go from very populated urban areas to remote rural landscapes filled with fields of California produce. Don’t be surprised if you get a few waves from people all along the route. In fact, part of the time, you’ll be looking directly over the backyards of residents along the track, and they don’t seem to mind the daily presence of hundreds of eyes on their property.
Shortly after leaving Solana Beach, you catch your first glimpse of the ocean and the train remains on the coast until San Juan Capistrano, where it turns east and passes through a few Orange County stations before pulling into Union Station in Los Angeles. Most stops are short, with the exception of a longer wait in L. A. So sit back, open another cold one and get ready for the train reversal.
As the train clears the L.A ‘burbs and approaches Simi Valley, the terrain changes suddenly into a landscape distinguished by rocky hillsides and sagebrush. You’ve now entered the world of old westerns. It is, in fact, where many old western films were shot, and you can almost imagine seeing the Indians on the edge of the precipice or John Wayne chasing bad guys. After this, the train travels through one of the mountains and down a long, dark tunnel, before heading back to the ocean and the sunny fields of California.
Gardener and landscapers will especially enjoy the journey through acres and acres of lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes and artichokes. For fun, familiarize yourself with the plants ahead of time and impress everyone with your “Green Acres” knowledge.
Once you reach Ventura, you’re back on the coast and passing impressive ocean-front homes. The journey is nearing its end, so pour the last drops of wine and relax. You’ve avoided the nasty LA traffic that you still can see from the comfy train. Santa Barbara is not far from LA, but the freeway narrows to two lanes on each side, causing quite a bit of slowing in both directions.
As you ease into Santa Barbara, grab your belongings and work your way downstairs. The stop is a quick one, so you need to de-train quickly. The good news is the presence
of a small Avis rental car agency just about two blocks away on East Montecito Street. We always reserve a car in advance as the small lot holds a limited number of cars. I usually wait at the station with the luggage while my husband gets the car. Then, we’re ready for the next part of our adventure.
If you opt to stay in Santa Barbara, there are several nice hotels, but be prepared to pay a bit more than you do in other areas. The Inn by the Harbor is pleasant and within walking distance of the station. From the Inn, it is an easy walk into the heart of Santa Barbara and to either of the harbors. The city has several tasting rooms, but if you want to head out to wine country, there are several options from which to choose.
About 43 miles to the north, off Highway 101, the Santa Ynez Valley comprises Buellton, Solvang, Santa Ynez and Los Olivos, and given the several notable wineries in the area, spending several days visiting is quite possible. Otherwise, continue north into the Santa Maria Valley or up to Paso Robles, home to more wineries than anywhere else in California. Paso Robles is about 134 miles from Santa Barbara, a pleasant drive of two to three hours.
Whatever you choose to do, you don’t have to worry about the LA to San Diego traffic nightmare, since you have your Amtrak return tickets. When we leave San Diego, we usually pack a bottle or two and when we return, we enjoy a bottle of newly purchased wine. After dropping the car at Avis and walking to the Santa Barbara train station, you’ll enjoy the Amtrak/Avis trip in reverse and be back in Solana Beach just five hours later.