Riding Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner

Of all the ways to travel from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo, about 250 miles northwest on California’s Central Coast, the train takes the longest but is easily the best. Flying takes nominally one hour, but add in time to get to the airport, pass thorough security (heaven help you!), wait to board, wait for your baggage, hire a car and get to town, and you might as well have driven. Driving takes 3.5 hours, but as an Angeleno I spend enough time behind the wheel, so a driving trip is the opposite of my idea of a good time.

The train takes 4.5 hours and costs $32 each way (that’s less than gas money) and, most importantly, lets you preserve your sanity. Other things you can do: nap, look out the windows for reminders of why this is called the Golden State, even get some work done. Most of this blog post was written on my laptop plugged in to the wall outlet in the nifty new double decker train cars. There was wireless internet too.

And what scenery it is. On my trip in March the train hadn’t even left the San Fernando Valley before reaching hillsides that recent rains had turned as green as Scottish moors. There were flocks of seagulls, fields of fresh wildflowers and stunning ocean views. North of Goleta, cows grazed on sloping seaside pastures. Makes you almost believe that Real California Cheese slogan about happy cows coming from California.

There’s even business class, for $17 more. The differences: free coffee, tea and water, packaged cinnamon muffins (OK) and cinnamon buns (not so much) at breakfast time, and, later in the day, a snack pack of kettle cooked potato chips (gluten-free, no less!), dried fruit and nut mix and an oatmeal cookie, all of which were better than the breakfast foods. Business class seats were larger and had more legroom, but on the older train I rode north there was no overhead luggage rack so I had to park my bags in the back of the car, while the lucky passengers in coach had racks at their seats.

It wasn’t all poppies and cream. Cellular phone and wi-fi service cut out intermittently between Goleta and points north, including an extended stretch near Vandenberg Air Force base, near Lompoc (On the other hand, do you really need these the whole time anyway? But that’s another matter). And while some of the staff were charming to the point of almost chirpiness, others acted like they’d been working on the railroad all their live-long days and couldn’t be bothered.

But on balance, I’d totally do it again.