Got to admit it — it's tough for this Californian to give up his car for the weekend, but that's exactly what we did on a recent train getaway to Santa Barbara that proved we could do our small part to help reduce traffic and vehicle emissions and still have a great time.
In fact, just put aside the benefits to the environment and look at the benefits to our own family: We saved on gas, vehicle wear and tear and on the frustration that always comes with a never-know-what-you're-gonna-get drive through the L.A. freeway system. We got to try a new adventure, introduce our 8-year-old to rail travel and we packed a lot of sightseeing into a short two-day period.
Santa Barbara is especially well suited to car-less travel because years ago city fathers decided they needed to do something to reduce the congestion they were seeing with many more visitors and the smog that would trap itself over the city. The Santa Barbara Car Free Project today offers travelers discounts on Amtrak as well as at participating hotels. They sweeten the pot by throwing in a multitude of discounts on local attractions and transportation. Our family of three decided to give it a try, traveling to Santa Barbara from our home in north San Diego County. Boarding the 7 a.m. northbound Pacific Surfliner in Oceanside was a snap. Accustomed to long waits nowadays for air travel, we showed up nearly an hour before our train to check our one large piece of luggage. But A/ we really didn't need to check the luggage — there is a rack you can put your luggage on in the business class rail car — and B/ you can step right on the train, even purchasing your tickets onboard.
Business class is slightly more expensive but offers reserved seating and amenities such as a continental breakfast, a newspaper and a comfortable work area with a power outlet for our laptop. We went up the stairs to the second level, found our seating and sat back to enjoy the scenery. In just a couple of minutes we were on our way, the gorgeous California coastline passing before our very eyes.
We were reminded of a recent country chart-topper called Sunday Morning that talks about the many walks of life in the USA and how people spend their Sunday mornings. It was, in fact, Sunday morning and we were observing our fellow Californians out for their morning jog or enjoying a newspaper and coffee on their beachfront deck, or preparing an outdoor breakfast in one of several beachfront state parks along the Surfliner's path. The train sped along, often at 70 miles per hour or more, taking us on an adventurous route through many parts of the Southern California coastal region that we had not seen in our many drives along Interstate 5.
Another way to describe the feeling is to relate it to those "Over" shows — you know, the PBS television programs that are entirely made up of aerial views of life in a city or region. We were not quite as high up -- our window on the Surfliner must have been all of 15 feet off the ground — but it still had the same mesmerizing effect.
Our trip from Oceanside to Santa Barbara took about five hours but we noticed something quite curious. When driving that distance, we always are anxious to arrive. But on the Surfliner, we almost were sorry we had arrived. It was such great relaxation and interesting scenery that the journey was no longer a means to an end but part of the end itself. Our stress-relieving getaway weekend had started from the moment we had boarded the train.
Arriving in Santa Barbara, it was just a three-block walk to the Hotel Santa Barbara, one of the "car-free" participating hotels with a location in the heart of the city near sidewalk cafes and chic stores along State Street. We checked into our spacious and comfortable room by noon and were sitting at a sidewalk bistro just a few minutes later, enjoying some terrific people-watching and Panini sandwiches. In fact, we lingered a little too long over lunch and then did something we were trying not to do: we hired a taxi. It was the only way to get to the harbor in time to hop aboard the 43-foot sailboat, the Sunset Kidd, for a two-hour cruise along the Santa Barbara coastline.
The ocean provides the best, most panoramic view of Santa Barbara, its mountains and its beaches and offers convincing evidence that local tourism promoters were spot on when they named this part of the coast the "American Riviera." One can imagine such places as Monte Carlo or Cannes when you take in this spectacular overview along with the parade of luxurious yachts and young, beautiful people. Captain Dennis Longaberger prides himself on offering a true sailing experience rather than a tourist boat and says the Sunset Kidd is a rare example of a private sailboat that has been upgraded to carry passengers. The best part of this sail was watching two pods of dolphins frolic just a few yards from our boat.
Back from our sail, it was just footsteps to the Endless Summer bar-café, a perfectly located restaurant and watering hole named after the famous surf movie and offering gorgeous views of Santa Barbara's harbor area. Known for such specialties as its popcorn shrimp, fresh ahi and to-die-for Kaui Mud Pie, the restaurant enjoys a loyal following of both locals and visitors who keep coming back for more.
This first day set the tone for the entire trip — great restaurants, visits to such attractions as Stearns Wharf, the waterfront, the shops along State Street, the various parks, gardens and museums that all are either within walking distance of downtown or easily reached by the city's convenient public transportation. The Car Free Project offers a $2 discount off the Santa Barbara Trolley which, for $21, will let you ride the trolley all day to eight different area tourist attractions. (note: you can save $5 by purchasing your ticket online at www.sbtrolley.com). Another convenient way to get around the main part of town is the Electric Shuttle which runs up and down State Street as well as along the beach areas. It's just 25 cents each time you board.
If that's still not enough options for transportation, hybrid taxi service is 20 percent off for Car Free visitors, and there are plenty of local bike rentals.
We had a full day of sightseeing that second day because our train didn't depart until 7 p.m. We had done a lot in just two days, and the gentle journey home by Amtrak gave us the opportunity to truly sit back and relax — a far cry from our usual nail-biting trip home on those congested Southern California freeways.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Santa Barbara is about 100 miles north of Los Angeles and a comfortable train ride from many coastal cities to the north and south.
WHAT: Santa Barbara is one of Southern California's most beautiful cities and can easily be seen "car free" or you can drive the coastal highway through Ventura to reach Santa Barbara.
WHEN: Any time of the year. Santa Barbara has one of California's most comfortable year-round climates. Our suggestion would be to consider avoiding the busiest Amtrak trains which are those that depart northbound Friday night and southbound Sunday night. At peak times, coach class can be standing room only. Amtrak is seeing more customers as fuel prices climb.
WHY: The Spanish architecture sets the mood in Santa Barbara, but the city is loaded with tourist attractions including Stearns Wharf, the harbor and marina, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, the Museum of Natural History and the Courthouse as well as parks, gardens and a robust downtown shopping area.
HOW: The Santa Barbara Car Free Project offers discounts on many visitor services in order to encourage people to visit the city without their car. Amtrak allows a 20 percent Santa Barbara Car Free discount on coach fares. The adult coach fare from Oceanside to Santa Barbara, roundtrip, is $66 before discount. Business class offers reserved seating and is $16 more each way with no discount. In addition to discounts on Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner, there are discounts on lodging, services and retail items. For more information, go to www.santabarbaracarfree.org or phone (805) 696-1100. For more information on the Hotel Santa Barbara, a very classically styled hotel with an excellent continental breakfast, go to www.hotelsantabarbara.com.
Photos, from top: Transportation is only 25 cents each way on the Electric Shuttle; Cruising aboard the Sunset Kidd; Santa Barbara Courthouse has incredible beauty inside and out; Mud pie to-die-for at the Endless Summer bar-cafe
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway