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TRAINS: Twelve lovely hours

One of an occasional series.

The view from a Superliner Roomette on the Amtrak Coast Starlight.

The view from a Superliner Roomette on the Amtrak Coast Starlight.

All images by IBIT/G. Gross unless otherwise identified. All rights reserved.

A day’s ride down the California coast aboard the Amtrak Coast Starlight proves the perfect antidote to two weeks of stress.

I had flown up from San Diego to Oakland to deal with medical emergencies in my family. Now, after two weeks, it was time to go home. This time, however, I wouldn’t be flying. In more ways than one, I needed a break.

Which was why, at precisely 8:50 on a drizzly Oakland morning, I was aboard the Amtrak Coast Starlight as it gently edged away from Jack London Square Station, heading south to start the second of its two-day run from Seattle.

Behind me were two weeks of hospital visits, doctor conferences,bedside vigils, rehab centers, dialysis clinics.

Ahead were 12 hours aboard the Coast Starlight, a double-deck Superliner train.

I’d made this run before — first as a kid with my mother, more recently with IBIT guest columnist Walt Baranger from LA to Oakland.
Parlour car 2

This time, instead of sitting in a Coach seat, I’d be holed up in one of Amtrak’s Superliner Roomettes, the smallest and cheapest of its sleeping compartments. Two comfortable facing seats which convert at night into the bottom bunk, with a fold-out table between them to share by day and space beneath to store small luggage.

Let me be clear here: traveling by Coach on an Amtrak train is infinitely better than flying in Coach. A normal-sized human can travel in actual comfort. No Sardine Class on the rails. What’s more, even at top speed, passenger trains are amazingly quiet, much more than airliners with their noisy jet engines.

Still, if you’ve never done it, a train trip in your own compartment — or “sleeper,” as it’s still often called — truly takes rail travel to that proverbial “next level.”

First, there’s the “chill factor.”

In every passenger car on a train, people are constantly in the aisle — going to and from the bathroom, the lounge car, the dining car, the luggage rack. In your own compartment, you have only to shut your door and draw the curtains to create your own quiet, climate-controlled little world. Put on your headphones to listen to your favorite tunes and watch the world glide past your window.

Come nightfall, while Coach passengers are reclining nicely in their seats to go to sleep, you are curling up in your own bunk bed.

Another important difference shows up in the dining car, where Amtrak has worked hard over the last several years to raise the quality of its food. The cost of your compartments covers all your meals aboard the train. As long as you don’t order wine or beer with your meals, you can eat your way across America without once taking out your wallet.

You also get first dibs on meal reservations.

On the Coast Starlight, however, Amtrak goes a major step further with the Pacific Parlour Car, reserved for sleeper passengers and found exclusively on the Coast Starlight.
Train wine tasting
The upper deck is split into two sections. One is a lounge area, with comfy swivel chairs, along with couches positioned for sightseeing and small tables for your laptop or tablet computer, with plenty electric outlets and — drum roll, please — free wi-fi. The rest of the upper deck is a small dining area plus stand-up bar.

Downstairs is laid out as a rolling movie theater, complete with a big screen.

As a compartment passenger, you have the option of taking your meals in the dining car or the Pacific Parlour Car. It’s a tradeoff. The dining car menu is more extensive. The parlour car is calmer and quieter.

The Pacific Parlour Car also offers an afternoon wine tasting just before dinner — again, included in the cost of your sleeper ticket.

Actually, I might have spent the whole trip in the parlour car were it not for the 1950s oldies being played non-stop via Sirius XM radio, which pretty much guaranteed that I would spend as much time as possible in my comfy little roomette.

For a lot of travelers, music is a big part of the experience. The airlines provide their own wide-ranging audio selections on long international flights, but the railroads are “there” yet. Not to worry; computers and digital audio/video players make it possible for every travelers to literally bring a library of tunes along with them.

When I’m on a train, I’m usually looking to chill, and the iTunes playlist I create generally reflects that. This is a sample of the playlist I created for my Amtrak Coast Starlight trip:

“French Dream,” Marc Antoine, from the album ‘Classical Soul’
“Big Girls,” Kenny Barron Quintet, from ‘The Kenny Barron Quintet: Quickstep’
“Dansa Negra,” Yo-Yo Ma & Kathryn Stott, from the album ‘Obrigado Brazil’
“When Love Comes Around,” the Braxton Brothers, from the album ‘Steppin’ Out’
“Dreamin’,” the Heath Brothers, from the album ‘Expressions of Life/In Motion’
“Just Gets Better with Time,” The Whispers, from the same album
“Keep Looking,” Sade, from the album ‘Stronger than Pride’
“Last Train Home,” Pat Metheny, from the album ‘Still Life (Talking)’

What would you play on a long train trip

All this self-pampering set me back $206 — $88 for the base fare and $138 for the roomette — or almost $40 less it had cost me to fly to Oakland in Coach.

It gets better. Every passenger pays the basic Coach fare no matter what, but the extra charge for a sleeper compartment is per trip, not per person. Friends or couples who can share the cost of a compartment can score both serious creature comforts and major savings.

There are some minor drawbacks to a Superliner Roomette. When I say it’s just big enough for two people, I do mean just. If you’re larger than a typical fourth grader, you may find the bunk beds more than a little cramped. Also, you don’t get your own wash basin, toilet or shower in a roomette. Amtrak reserves en suite bathrooms for its larger and more expensive bedrooms. For you, those are downstairs.

And none of the seats in sleepers recline.

Funny thing, though. Once you’re rolling in your roomette, with your tunes in your ears, sipping on a tasty beverage and gazing out the window as you watch the scene across the horizon change every second, none of that seems to matter.
Salinas Valley
You can take pics along the way and share them with your Facebook and Twitter friends (which I did). You can break out the laptop and get some serious work done (which I did not). Or you can exhale and do nothing at all (of which I did a great deal).

By the time you’ve covered your first 50 miles, you can almost feel your blood pressure dialing itself down.

Somewhere between the bottled water, the Martinelli’s sparkling cider and the Sierra Nevada pale ale, between the Cabernet, the riesling and the pinot grigio, between the salad of cherry tomatoes and strawberries sprinkled with grated Parmesan and the chicken hiding under a liquid blanket of red wine and beer sauce, the condos of Jack London Square and the backlots and backyards of East Oakland and San Leandro turn into the salt ponds of Hayward and Fremont.

Further on, sprawling suburbia fades seamlessly into farm country, where the vegetables of future dining car salads and the grapes that will star in future wine tastings still thrive in the ground, arrayed in precise rows that fan past your window like long fingers when the train is at speed.

Hills still green from winter rains briefly give way to rolling terrain so bare and brown that it lacks only a few craters to qualify as a moonscape. You almost expect to see a green, lizardlike Gorn from Star Trek, chasing a gimpy William Shatner in slow-motion through the narrow draws.

Not long after you clear Paso Robles and its quaint little station, the sand dunes in the distance signal that the sea is near. And when the Pacific Ocean suddenly spreads out before you, with the sun shining its own enormous spotlight down through the clouds on the waters that seem to fill the lower half of your window, you know why some passengers spend hours staking out seats in the lounge cars of this train.

The LA night skyline greets you as you pull into Union Station, the end of the line for the Coast Starlight. Ahead for me are two more hours aboard a different Amtrak train, the Pacific Surfliner, before San Diego and home.

By then, however, I was already de-stressed.

The Coast Starlight had done its job, in twelve lovely hours.

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