An Unforgetabble Journey – Taking The Coast Starlight To Seattle

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Rounding a curve in Southern Oregon.
Rounding a curve in Southern Oregon.

Love Of Trains

Perhaps it was our monthly trips to Disneyland as a child that caused me to develop an appreciation for trains.  Growing up in Southern California and then eventually moving to Las Vegas meant that I didn’t get to ride them all too often.  There is no subway to commute to/from work and we never took any long distance trains.  In fact, growing up we hardly traveled at all.

Over the past decade I have definitely made up for all of that non-travel as a child.  During my travels, one of the greatest areas of interest for me has been taking trains in foreign countries.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not a train “geek” who knows about every locomotive and track type, just someone who loves the shaking side to side, noises and feeling of being on a train.

Shawn Reece & Jasmine in our sleeper cabin on the train from China to Mongolia.
Shawn Reece & Jasmine in our sleeper cabin on the train from China to Mongolia.

Despite having traveled on trains in dozens of countries, I still had never done a long distance journey in the United States.  In fact, I had never set foot on an Amtrak train. Seeing how easy it was to transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak Guest Rewards, I made a point to put such a journey on my short term bucket list.

We booked the ticket two days before departure.  This leg of our journey cost 15,000 Amtrak points which were transferred 1:1 from Chase Ultimate Rewards.  There were no taxes or fees, so the total cost was $0 not including gratuities.

Fun Before We Board

The beach in Santa Barbara, California.
The beach in Santa Barbara, California.

My wife already had plans to be in Southern California, so my son and I caught a ride with her to begin our trip.  The day before our journey up to Seattle began, the three of us visited Santa Barbara.  We walked along the beach and out to the end of the pier, strolled through the picturesque neighborhoods and even wandered into a dollar store where my son decided he suddenly wanted to own a cowboy hat.

While our day in Santa Barbara was nice, I couldn’t wait to board the train.  Since the Coast Starlight train does stop in Santa Barbara we could have stayed and boarded there, but I decided it was best to backtrack to Oxnard, since the stretch between the two cities is among the most scenic of the trip.

Strolling through a quiet neighborhood in Santa Barbara.
Strolling through a quiet neighborhood in Santa Barbara.

After awaking in our cookie cutter room at the Holiday Inn Express, the three of us ate some breakfast and made our way to the train station. Upon entering I was immediately impressed with the station’s size. While it wouldn’t compete with stations in large cities, Oxnard’s train station was impressive nonetheless.

20 minutes after arriving at the station an announcement came over the loudspeaker. Our train was pulling in!  Since my wife Jasmine had to get back to work on Monday, she was not able to join us. As we boarded the train she gave us a wave and then waited on the platform as we disappeared and our journey began.

All Aboard

Our train pulling into Oxnard Station.
Our train pulling into Oxnard Station.

Just after boarding, our cabin attendant Julio introduced himself, showed us to our room and told us that we had a dining reservation at noon.  Considering it was now 12:02, we dropped our bags in the cozy roomette and made our way to the dining car.

In the dining car we were paired with a single woman who looked to be in her early twenties. While we technically ate together, she was on her phone the whole time and I couldn’t stop staring out the window as the train was traveling right on the edge of the ocean.  It was spectacular.

Our view during lunch.
Our view during lunch.

The lunch special of the day was Kung Pao Chicken.  I would come to find out that this is the special everyday, but I digress.  I ordered it and Shawn Reece opted for a cheeseburger.  Both meals were decent, but the service felt like that which you would receive at a bad Denny’s.

Our server was neither fast or attentive, which to be honest wasn’t really of concern to me since we were in no real hurry.  The part that was most upsetting was the lack of friendliness.  All we heard during every meal was the employees complaining and talking rudely to customers.  The view outside was among the best I have seen, while the atmosphere in the dining car made me want to jump overboard.

Two women enjoying the view in the Parlour Car.
Two women enjoying the view in the Parlour Car.

After lunch was over, Shawn Reece and I retreated back to our room for a few minutes.  Unfortunately our roomette was located on the right side of the car, meaning that we couldn’t see the ocean.  Luckily the Coast Starlight is the only train in the Amtrak fleet which has a Parlour Car.

The Parlour Car is essentially a first class lounge car.  It has a separate dining area for sleeper car passengers along with a bar area & several seating areas to look out of the picture windows.

A peak inside of the Parlour Car on the Coast Starlight.
A peak inside of the Parlour Car on the Coast Starlight.

It only took an hour or so for Shawn Reece to bore.  He quickly returned to the room to listen to music while I firmly planted myself in a chair to enjoy the views.  As we left Santa Barbara, everyone in the Parlour Car began talking about Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Vandenberg Air Force Base is home to one of the largest missile launch facilities in the country.  The launch pads are also used by civilian companies like Space-X and others for launches.  Apparently Amtrak is the only way to see parts of the base that aren’t open to the public.  We passed a few launch facilities, but for some reason this wasn’t as interesting to me as the ocean we had now left behind.

Taken near Santa Barbara.
Taken near Santa Barbara.

A Change Of Scenery

Eventually we passed the last of the launch pads and made our way to San Luis Obispo and beyond. The scenery outside had now changed again as oil derricks and farms dotted the landscape.  For some reason being on the train made even the most mundane scenery come alive for me.

Oil derricks in Central California.
Oil derricks in Central California.

I spent much of the rest of the day with the same view, alternating between reading a book and listening to podcasts. Before I knew it, the sun was going down and we were pulling into Emeryville Station north of Oakland.

Our tablemate at dinner that night works for a company that makes antennas that are placed on airplanes for internet service. We had a nice conversation and he was impressed that I had any knowledge of what he was talking about.

Shawn Reece enjoying his train ride.
Shawn Reece enjoying the view from the dining car.

Following dinner, Shawn Reece retired to the room and & I chatted with a couple of Australians who were taking their first sleeper train. I briefly recounted my experiences in Australia while they told me a few stories.  Eventually they headed to bed and I struck up an interesting conversation with another one of the passengers.

While I never got his name, he described his journey from his home in Portland, across the country to South Carolina to visit a railroad museum. He then spent a few days at the museum before boarding the train back home.  This was the last night of his long journey and he was feeling a little nostalgic.

Seemingly endless farms in Central California.
Seemingly endless farms in Central California.

He talked about some of his favorite parts of the trip and how there were too many screaming families on one of his trains.  He asked me about what I do and upon learning that I write about travel he had a few questions.  It was a nice conversation and one that was quite informative. Once again the time flew by and as I looked at my watch, it was closing in on midnight.  It was time for bed.

On To Oregon

The next morning I arose to fantastic views of the pine forests of Southern Oregon. After staring out the window for a couple hours, Shawn Reece awoke and we made our way to breakfast.  My feelings about the service remained the same and our seatmates were polite, but not very talkative.

Mt. Hood as seen from the train.
Mt. Hood as seen from the train.

Much of the day was spent like the previous one.  Reading, listening to podcasts and staring out the window.  Since our roomette was pretty small, Shawn Reece and I alternated between the Parlour Car and our room.  Other than views of Mt. Hood, the landscape remained pretty constant and beautiful as we made our way up to Portland.

Originally we were supposed to stop in Portland for 40 minutes.  An old family friend who lives there had come down to the station to say hello to Shawn Reece and I.  Unfortunately the train was running late due to a long delay the night before in Northern California, so we only had about ten minutes.  We talked for a few minutes, took some pictures and suddenly the conductor called for everyone to board.

Crossing over from Oregon to Washington.
Crossing over from Oregon to Washington.

As we crossed the border into Washington it was now about 4pm.  The trip up to Seattle would still take a few more hours which was fine with me considering we would be chugging alongside Puget Sound for the final portion.

A Stunning Final Leg

Along Puget Sound south of Seattle.
Along Puget Sound south of Seattle.

The delayed arrival of our train meant that we would get to watch the sunset over the glistening waters of Puget Sound.  I am not going to lie and say Shawn Reece wasn’t bored at this point, but even he perked up at the spectacular scenery in front of us.

For what seemed like about two hours, we slowly made our way up to Seattle alongside the water.  This was definitely the most scenic part of the trip.  The coastline in Southern California was nice, but watching the sunset along Puget Sound took this train trip to another level.

As the sun continued to fade, we finally arrived in Seattle’s King Street Station.  We only had one night in Seattle, so we leisurely walked the mile to our hotel with our backpacks strapped on.  After dropping our bags, it was time to head to the Space Needle.

Every time I am in Seattle I tend to go to the base of the Space Needle, but I have never yet been to the top.  Instead, I always marvel at the Alweg Monorail and its amazing station.  The monorail is a holdover from the World’s Fair and still runs on its mile long track through Downtown Seattle.

The monorail invokes nostalgia in me.
The monorail invokes nostalgia in me.

After sitting on the grass for a few minutes as the monorail roared overhead, our day was over and we slowly walked back to the hotel.  Fulfilled and full of excitement, we headed to bed knowing that the adventure had just begun.  We still had yet another train journey ahead of us.  This time from Seattle to Chicago.


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