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The American Riviera by train

  • Story Highlights
  • Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner stops at many major Southern California cities
  • Spend the extra money for business class to guarantee a seat
  • In San Diego, the trains arrive and depart from the 1915 Santa Fe Depot
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By Matthew Jaffe
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Sunset

(Sunset) -- There's no way I'm reading now that the train has reached the ocean.

The Pacific Surfliner skims the Southern California coast. Tip: If you're traveling north, sit on the left side for a view.

I look out from the Pacific Surfliner at Pacific surf riders: longboarders and shortboarders, paddle surfers and surf kayakers. There are dolphins too, glowing in sunlit waves.

I imagined that the train would race by unnoticed, but the surfers turn toward the tracks. One straddling his board raises his arms, both hands splayed in an enthusiastic shaka salute.

His message, of course: Hang loose.

Which is exactly what my wife and I are doing on a train rolling through our own Southern California backyard.

I hope to rediscover familiar destinations by traveling by train. To relive the carefree days, I tell myself, like when I was a college student in England. My only plan is to stay in a trio of classic destinations (San Diego, San Clemente, and Santa Barbara), but with no pressure to hit big attractions; the small stuff would count. We'd welcome randomness. We'd embrace wrong turns. We'd free ourselves in a sense by restricting ourselves: no set itinerary, no maps and no cab fares more than $5. Those are the rules. And with gas prices hovering near $4 per gallon, we might even save some cash.

STOP 1: San Diego

There's something liberating about being out of the car, free to discover the people and places in that big world between point A and point B. We get quick affirmation of that notion as we disembark at San Diego's 1915 Santa Fe Depot: We come face to face with revenge of the nerds on a metropolitan scale. We have stumbled through the looking glass and into Comic-Con, the annual gathering of pop-culture tribes: comics freaks, sci-fi buffs and anime obsessives among them. While people-watching is one of the best parts of seeing a city on foot, we had hardly expected this quality of street theater. Sunset.com: Savor San Diego's Little Italy

Nor had we expected to get diverted even before reaching our hotel. But it turns out the train station's old baggage room is a gallery space of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Burdened with our luggage, we must take turns seeing the exhibits before heading to our hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter -- less than five minutes by cab and one of downtown's best-preserved areas, with all of its Victorian and Queen Anne buildings.

After checking in, we walk along Fifth Avenue, swimming upstream against Comic-Con goers emerging from the convention center, before bailing for lunch at Bondi, an Australian-themed restaurant.

As the day ebbs, we walk in and out of stores, the character of the streets changing as we stroll. We eventually wander into Little Italy, once home to tuna fishermen and now an enclave that combines markets and restaurants with modern lofts. We come upon Anthology, a music venue that sets the vibe of a 1940s supper club in a multilevel contemporary space with audio fetishist-quality acoustics.

For years, I've had a knack for missing jazz legend Mose Allison, but in a nice bit of luck, he's playing here tonight. Allison races through his classics, a human in shuffle mode, his voice still hipster cool.

We consider cabbing back to the hotel but decide to walk, extending our improvised day. I can't say San Diego is quite a 24/7 city à la New York, but past midnight, the Gaslamp is still hopping, so we're giving it a go.

STOP 2: San Clemente

We may be free of schedules, but Amtrak isn't, and with only a couple of afternoon trains to San Clemente in Orange County, we have a late lunch before moving on.

South of San Clemente, the train eases into a long, stationless platform at the city's pier -- close enough to the ocean to taste the spray. Sunset.com: Seeing San Clemente

I flash back to my senior year in England. I lived near a village of 200 outside Canterbury, in a roadhouse inn that sat across from a platform as unadorned as this one. It was that year of crashing at pensiones and hostels that most inspired us to take this rail trip. I even considered dusting off my old backpack for the journey but instead opted for a rolling bag: more forgiving for a chronic overpacker, if lacking a bit in vagabonding panache.

We roll our luggage to our inn that overlooks the platform and head to the water. I can't prove it scientifically, but at San Clemente, the Southern California coast takes on a more tropical light, the air sweetened in summer by humid flows out of Mexico.

It's intoxicating. Once we start walking, we just keep going, past palapas and palm trees, the air a sultry bath and our bare feet chilled in a cold plunge of foaming waves galloping ashore.

In England they call the waves' caps "white horses," which is the name that head chef and owner Mark Norris gave his restaurant across from the beach. I'd like to claim this spot as one of those back alley discoveries you live for as a traveler. But really, it's steps off the lobby of our inn, with tables on a tiny patio and a Mediterranean-inspired menu.

With only a climb back up the stairs to our room ahead of us, we linger and chat with Norris after dinner, as the night's first fog drifts through the pier's lights. The train, Norris says, reminds him of his mother's house in Devon, which sits by the tracks. Now that is serendipitous  to have found perhaps the only other person in town who would be reminded of England on a warm San Clemente night.

STOP 3: Santa Barbara

In Santa Barbara, the train edges a neighborhood between the idealized Mediterranean world of downtown and its dreamy California beach line. It's called the Funk Zone, and as often as we've come into Santa Barbara for museums and shopping, typically on our way to the Santa Ynez Valley wine country about 30 minutes beyond, we've missed this latter-day Cannery Row.

We shortcut through the zone on the way to our hotel off State Street. A truck delivers hay bales to an animal-supply business near the intersection of Anacapa and Yanonali Streets (Santa Barbara has the most lyrical street names in the country). There are glimpses of the ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains rising over town -- the idea of its grapes taunting me -- as we walk the back streets. Sunset.com: Head to Santa Barbara's waterfront

We stop in at Metropulos Fine Foods Merchant, which carries everything from Santa Barbara County olive oils to jams made by Trappist nuns in Italy. Then we discover an urban wine country: no vineyards, of course, but tasting rooms and production facilities. We work our way through several, from the Santa Barbara Winery, which pioneered winemaking here way back in 1962, to the newly opened Kalyra Winery -- where winemaker Mike Brown has operations in the Santa Ynez Valley and in Australia's Barossa Valley, and the tasting room is all tikis and Aboriginal-inspired art and surfboards.

A train whistle blows, announcing another Surfliner's arrival. We walk past board shapers taking a break from their sanding to snag a little California sun. Hang loose, I think, remembering the surfers I saw on the way in. You wouldn't think surfing and train travel have much to do with each other. But if surfing is all about surrendering control and working with what comes along, well, that's an approach to train travel too. I can't say we caught the perfect wave. But it's been a good ride.

Train tips

Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner ($42 one-way from San Diego, with stops in San Clemente and Santa Barbara; 800/872-7245) stops at many major Southern California cities.

Pony up for business class: It's the only way to guarantee a seat (not assigned). Business class is often $11 extra.

Pack light: You'll mostly be hauling your own bags, and overhead space is tight.

Where to stay

The Keating Hotel: Don't be tricked by its Victorian exterior. This San Diego hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter has a fire red lobby and an urban attitude. From $339; 877/753-2846.

Casa Tropicana Boutique Inn: Across from the train platform in San Clemente, the inn has rooms with tropical- and sea-themed decor. From $285; 800/492-1245.

Inn of the Spanish Garden: The Santa Barbara inn blends a Spanish courtyard setting with contemporary touches. From $269; 866/564-4700.

City info

San Diego 619/236-1212

San Clemente 949/492-1131

Santa Barbara 805/966-9222

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