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Subject: Our Coast Starlight Trip
Date: Fri, 15 Jan 1999 20:02:43 -0800
From: "John O. Andersen"

Our Family Trip on the Coast Starlight John O. Andersen January 15, 1999

We departed from the Portland train station on December 23rd, 1998. There were many other travelers that day. The train left on time. In fact, for the most part during our journey, we arrived and departed very close to the schedule. The only significant delay was for about thirty minutes just outside of Oxnard, California. We had to wait for a freight train to pass so that we could continue on its track.

Our trip consisted of three legs. The first leg was from Portland to Emeryville, California where we boarded a bus which took us over the Oakland Bay Bridge to San Francisco (approximately 18 hours). The second leg came a week later when we took a bus to Oakland where we rejoined the Starlight and journeyed south to Simi Valley (12 hours). The third and final leg was a nonstop journey from Simi Valley to Portland (29 hours). Our family train ticket (coach seating) for all of these legs totaled $717. Had we traveled at another time (not during the Summer or the Christmas holidays) we could have paid much less. Traveling first class would have been much more expensive for us, though that too is somewhat discounted during the off-season.

Of course, first class travel allows passengers the privacy of a bedroom, includes all meals in the dining car and various other benefits. These would have been nice during this trip, but traveling coach wasn't anything to be ashamed of. The coach seats are like first class seats in airplanes. There is plenty of room to stretch out. Our children brought their own pillows and blankets which helped a great deal. All of us slept, albeit not as well as in our own beds, but well enough to feel rested. I think my longest uninterrupted snooze was over six hours.

The restrooms are downstairs in every coach car. There are several in each car including one equipped for the handicapped and an extra dressing room. Our car attendants were all very "attentive" and made sure the bathrooms stayed clean. We had the same car attendant on the trip from Oakland to Simi Valley as we did a week later on the trip back to Portland. He was a very quiet, intelligent man in his mid sixties. He was born and raised in Hong Kong. I had a long chat about the history of Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China, and how he almost became a Communist. The train is great for having interesting conversations.

At Portland we checked some of our bags and carried on the rest. The baggage check service worked perfectly. That was the only time we used it. The Simi Valley station doesn't have checked baggage service, so we just carried everything on with us. If the train isn't too full of passengers, this usually isn't a problem. There are storage racks downstairs near the car door where passengers can leave their heavy bags. They can carry the light ones upstairs and stow them in the baggage area above the seats.

From the start of the journey, our children spent much of the time in the "Kiddie Car," a special downstairs room equipped with a video screen, toys, a plastic bench, crayons, and coloring books. Of course, parents are required to accompany children while in that area. This was the only complaint my wife and I had about the train ride: the Kiddie Car had only benches, so sitting in there wasn't exactly comfortable. But our children had a blast. On the first leg of the journey, Santa himself visited the Kiddie Car. Everyday after lunch, the train entertainer/juggler/magician performed his show there.

We brought snacks along with us, but did eat at least lunch or dinner in the dining car. Eating in the dining car is a great experience. Four people sit at each table. There are all of the touches of a first-rate restaurant: white linen table cloths and napkins, silverware, china dishes, and fresh flowers in a vase. There is a full menu for all three meals including a vegetarian choice. The children have a special menu which usually included macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, hamburgers or pizza. Passengers who make a round-trip journey on the Starlight will discover that the Northbound menu is different from the Southbound menu.

A dinner for two adults and two children in the dining car will run about $35. If you want a less expensive option, you can try the snackbar on the bottom floor of the Sightseer Lounge Car. Of course, Amtrak allows passengers to bring their own food, but they have to consume it at their assigned seats.

When we arrived in the Bay Area, we detrained and got on a bus to cross the Oakland Bay Bridge (a fifteen minute ride). This bus stops at the Ferry Building, Fisherman's Wharf and Union Square. Since our hotel was only a few blocks from Union Square and we were the last people on the bus, our driver took us right up to the door of our hotel. We tipped him for that.

We stayed at a hotel near Union Square. We had studied several guidebooks and found our hotel to be one of the best values for families. What we particularly enjoyed was the in-room self-catering facilities including dishes, silverware, a microwave, refrigerator, and sink. This made it possible for us to not have to "eat out" for every meal; budget conscious as we are. There is a wide variety of hotels near Union Square as well as in many other parts of the city. Train travelers who don't want to rent a car while in San Francisco, will probably want to choose a hotel either near Union Square or Fisherman's Wharf.

While in San Francisco, we used the public transportation system to get around. This included the cable cars, buses, and light-rail. My wife and I each purchased a 7-day pass which together cost $30 for unlimited rides in San Francisco. The child fare for any ride is just 35 cents so we just paid for them each time we rode. We found the public transportation efficient, affordable, safe, and tolerably clean. It was certainly much easier to get around with than had we rented a car.

Along with walking around Union Square and Fisherman's Wharf, window shopping, and eating in a variety of unique restaurants, we visited several interesting places. On Christmas Day we spent several hours in the California Academy of Sciences at Golden Gate Park. This large museum houses an aquarium, a natural history museum, and a planetarium all under one roof. After our visit we walked through Golden Gate Park then on to the Haight/Ashbury district to look at the places where "flower power" and the hippie movement got it's start.

On another day we visited the famed Exploratorium. This was a big hit for the children. Other fun visits included the Strybing Arboretum and the De Young Art Museum both in Golden Gate Park, the San Francisco Zoo, and the maritime museum. For a bird's eye view of San Francisco, we took the glass elevator in the St. Francis Hotel to the 31st floor.

The highlight of our trip to San Francisco was walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and back. Although the total distance was over three miles, our children didn't once complain. Our eight year old daughter who is a full-fledged geography nut, said it was the "best day of her life."

We left San Francisco on the morning of New Years Eve. The highlight of that leg of the trip was the coastal views starting south of San Luis Obispo and continuing until we reached Santa Barbara when it got dark.

We had a very relaxing week with my parents who now live in the high desert of Southern California. It was a nice change from the tourist week in San Francisco. We visited the towns where I grew up (between LA and San Bernardino), had long conversations with my parents, spent a day at Disneyland, and generally veg'd out watching videos.

Heading back home on January 7th, we enjoyed the coastal views again, this time in the middle of the day. At some points the track gets within a few hundred yards of the surf. The other main highlight of the trip home started at daybreak on the 8th. We were treated to views of Mt. Shasta, Klamath Lake, and the beautiful Cascade mountains of Southern Oregon.

As our last "official act" of the train journey, we enjoyed lunch in the dining car while passing through Eugene. Our train pulled into the Portland station within minutes of its scheduled arrival time of 3:40 p.m.

We loved our trip and look forward to more family train trips in the future. It really was relaxing to not have to do the driving, and we savored the many hours we spent together. We reconfirmed to ourselves that we really do love each others company!

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