We’d come close, but hadn’t yet fully taken the mini-adventure I kept promising my boys: a round-trip Amtrak ride to Santa Barbara from L.A. No car, no firm agenda, no private transportation backup plan. The idea was to arrive at the charming and historic Glendale train station a few miles from our house in the morning, and come home that same evening. There would be no meeting up with dad in Santa Barbara and then piling into the car to cruise back at our leisure. It’s simple: just the three of us on a random school holiday, schlepping as little gear as possible. Simple, right? Yes and no. Here’s how the day shaped up, and a few things I learned.
1. You can relax, but you’ll need to mind the time.
Unlike car trips, for which the biggest concern is dodging the worst of traffic, there’s a specific schedule to keep in mind. (Major perk: you don’t have to think about traffic. AT ALL.) I didn’t go overboard and prep a preschool style visual itinerary for the day, but I did have to keep somewhat close eye on the clock. This isn’t, say, the northeast with frequent train departures, and Amtrak only runs a few trains per day on the Surfliner. We left around 9 a.m., which got us in around 11:30, and I booked a return trip on the 4:30. Just enough time to have some fun by the coast and to grab lunch (and an ice cream treat) in town. I could have pushed it and taken a later train, but better to wrap up while spirits are still high.
2. Think about how much you’ll all want to walk (in other words, how long until the kids start complaining).
The beautiful Mission Revival style Santa Barbara train station’s location in the heart of town on State Street, and just a beach pebble’s throw away from the ocean, makes this destination ideal day trip material. But you’ll still need to get around. After we stepped off the train, we headed across the tracks to Lucky Penny, part of a stellar food mini-complex that entrepreneur, all-around terrific lady, and mom of two Sherry Villanueva has developed in the city’s so-called emerging Funk Zone (or what my husband calls the “Drunk Zone”), where my kids cannot get enough of the penny tile wall. The wood-fired pizzas and top-notch coffee eaten super casually around outdoor picnic-style benches make it a perfect first stop. (Go back to the complex without the kids for dinner at the Lark and wine tasting at Les Marchands, run by a couple sommeliers with serious creds.) Full of pizza and myself properly caffeinated, We were then ready to hit the beach.
3. Bring as little as possible, but enough for a beach visit.
This was the toughest part. I’m not a big beach-goer, but we’ve skipped it enough times in Santa Barbara that now I really can’t deny my kids a romp in the ocean anymore. I brought a stroller, almost as much to use as a cart for our stuff as for rolling around a small human being. I packed bathing suits, a light throw to lay down on the sand, and one large towel for the kids to share. I didn’t however, bring a bathing suit for me because I didn’t want to spend the rest of the day without access to a shower and thus swathed in briny residue. There was a lot of nervous supervision as I kept them close to the shore’s edge as I trailed along, and yet I had to make sure no one took advantage of my divided attention by absconding with our stuff. (Not an issue when another adult is present.)
4. Figure out what’s doable on foot, and take public transit.
Since Santa Barbara is a compact, quaint, heavily-touristed town, the city makes getting around fairly easy. An electric trolley-style shuttle bus runs along the waterfront and through downtown. So if the kids are clamoring for the Zoo and you’re not sure how to get there without your own wheels, just hop on the bus. Our beach visit zapped a good amount of their energy, but a Santa Barbara jaunt isn’t complete without indulging in a special afternoon treat at local favorite, McConnell’s Ice Cream on State Street (or one of their other locations). Given the reward, that was a walk they were willing to do.
5. It’s all about the journey, not an economically practical or fast excursion.
Unlike airlines, Amtrak offers lower fares for kids. That said, the train trip still cost over $120, so it’s obviously about the journey rather than maximizing bang for the buck, or getting to Santa Barbara as quickly as possible. Frankly, we could have made it there and back on about half a tank of gas in my hybrid, and possibly even found a deal on a hotel room for close to the same amount of money we spent on the train. Also in optimal traffic situations, we usually get to Santa Barbara in about an hour less time than the two and a half hours minimum the train requires. The Shinkansen ’tis not. Nor does traveling alone with two kids look or feeling anything like a writer’s contemplative and productive train nirvana.
But winding our way through the deep Valley northwest of L.A., watching miles of farmland stretch out around Camarillo and Oxnard, and riding what feels like mere inches away from the glimmering Pacific makes the Surfliner such a distinct Southern Californian experience.
Arguably the most awesome part was not having to drive back during Friday night rush hour. So what did I do instead? Kicked back on the train while nursing a Negro Modelo, as my exhausted boys watched the scenery fade into the dimming evening light.