The view changes. Miles and miles of rolling hills give way to sandy beaches, slanted cliffs and tall swaying pine trees.
Our getaway suggestion: Take a relaxing train trip along the picturesque West Coast.
My co-host, Pat Johnson, and I recently traveled on Amtrak's historic Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle. As I packed my bags to hop on a flight from Chicago, I got excited of course for the opportunity to be on the road once again, but more so because -- as a native of California -- I had never had a chance to savor the West Coast by train.
On this particular trip, we were also going to share the new journey with Barbara Collins-Brooks and her husband Ben. Barbara had won the trip through a raffle at our presentation at last year's AARP Life@50+ Annual Members Event in Los Angeles.
So the four of us reunited in Los Angeles to begin our trip. The first evening, we stayed at the beautiful Millennium Biltmore Hotel -- an historic icon in the city. Being from Los Angeles, I was happy to see that the hotel still had many of its original architectural features. It was a pleasure to stay there, especially since it was merely blocks away from Union Station -- the departure location for our train adventure and home to one of America's last great railway station. Built in 1939, the station features classic architecture and is listed on the National Registry of Historical Places.
With a good night's sleep, we were up nice and early and off to the station to board the Coast Starlight by 10:25 a.m.
Our cabin attendant Toni greeted us at the door to our rail car. Well-groomed and with a big smile, she ushered me upstairs to my compartment. I was assigned a "Roomette" -- it was just perfect for me alone! It was clean and had two fresh bottles of water, and a very nice amenity kit, just like you would expect to get in a nice hotel room. Just as we pulled out of the station Toni surprised me with a small bottle of chilled champagne- yummy - which I course accepted!
Chugging along, I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't take too long before we magically arrived alongside the warm, beautiful coast of California with the requiste green sea, the lapping waves and carefree surfers clutching their boards. I was born in Southern California and haven't been back for a long time. My first glance of the ocean from my big picture window on the train made my heart skip a beat, and I remembered as a child growing up in Los Angeles, taking the bus with my twin brother to the beach -- Playa Del Rey. This beach is right under the LAX airport flight pattern but to us -- the noise was just part of life. To us it was all about the water, sun and fun!
We continued to hug the coast and arrived first in Santa Barbara and then San Louis Obispo -- between the two cities we saw beautiful oat-colored rolling hills, hidden coves, grazing cows, horses, and loads of RV campers filled with older people (like us!) parked in designated spaces along the coastal road. When the train traveled inland we saw more rolling hills, tall Eucalyptus trees, and fields filled with all types of growing vegetables.
The Coast Starlight is noted for its remodeled 1950 "Parlour Car" that evokes that era. A really pleasant staff person greeted passengers, served drinks, answered questions and played host.
At 1:00 p.m. it was time for lunch and we were invited to the dining car. Greeting us was Gus, the head dining car attendant who sat us at our table. It turned out that he was a real character and kept us laughing throughout the entire trip! The menu was also a big surprise not only for lunch but for dinner too - lot's of yummy choices from healthy to comfort food -- like a pulled pork quesadilla, fresh salad with baked chicken, meat loaf and lamb shank with a fabulous wine sauce. When you purchase a Roomette your meals are included.
Traveling on a train allows you to de-stress and creates an atmosphere of "no rush" travel -- plenty of time to enjoy your meals, read, nap, or most of all, talk to other train travelers. Sometimes I think we forget to do this in the fast-pace we live in! You never know whom you'll meet, and most other train travelers begin to also go into relaxed mode, friendly and easy to talk with. Our little party of four quickly fell into the relaxed train mode.
Night fell as we approached San Francisco and the bridge and city lights were so stunning! Toni came around to make our beds and checked to see if we needed anything else. The swaying train was so smooth and relaxing, I fell asleep reading almost immediately.
The next morning I awoke to a lovely sunrise and realized that we were in Oregon. We made a brief stop in Klamath Falls -- a doorway to the logging industry -- to pick up more passengers. I got off to smell the fresh air and stretch my legs. After we re-boarded it was time to have breakfast and again watch the amazing scenery as we whizzed by. In the distance I saw large plumes of steam rising like ghosts into the air from small manufacturing plants, logs floating in small streams alongside the rails and in the distance large mountains rising from the land.
In a few hours we arrived at Chemult, Oregon the gateway to the mighty Cascade Mountains, and where two docents boarded the train to provide commentary along the way to Portland. As we climbed higher, the ground slowly became white with snow and majestic pines stood regal along the sides of the tracks -- like sentries. We went through more than 14 tunnels as we climbed, crossing on trestles that spanned small and large canyons. One tunnel was cut into the mountains with a 180-degree turn -- we were traveling north and the tunnel turned back on itself going south. Built in 1922, the route of the train was an engineering marvel when you considered it was cut through these massive mountains at an altitude 7,600 feet at its highest.
As we continued going north, it began to rain and looking out the window I noticed that first of all, we were really in the wilderness, and that there were a lot of small waterfalls rushing down the sides of the mountains. Being on the train gave us a front-row seat to nature's wonders something many of us forget to enjoy!
Early the next morning we arrived in Seattle and checked into the Warwick Hotel -- a fabulous Seattle icon. (Picture of the Warwick Hotel) After a quick nap, I set off to visit the Experience Music Project, a museum that celebrates Seattle's two music giants - Jimmy Hendrix and the band Nirvana! I got to see Hendrix's handwritten lyrics on different hotel letterhead. I was surprised to find out he played for Bob Dylan, that Little Richard was the first big star he worked for...and that he served with the 101st Airborne. It was great to be in the heart of Nirvana-land which really infused Seattle and made grunge a whole new genre.
What I didn't know, is that it also was the home of the Science Fiction Museum. I heard oral histories from some of the greatest sci-fi writers in the world and learned about the behind the scenes stories of well-known TV shows like Star Trek. I also visited the avatar exhibit which was fantastic, though I didn't take any pictures, so another reason to come back to Seattle and spend more time at this great place. The museum also has a horror exhibit, but I didn't have time to fit that into my visit either. I wandered outside into the shadow of Seattle's Space Needle.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at the Seattle Glassblowing Studio and saw some pretty spectacular glass objects of art. Before leaving the studio the sales clerk told me I was passing right by one of the best doughnut stores in the Northwest, Top Pot and not to miss it.
That same night we met for dinner and talked about our train adventure and the wonderful time we had sharing our time together. All of us decided that we have to tell our friends and family to try train travel more often.