Train travel is one of the few forms of transport left that’s not just about reaching your destination but about savouring the journey itself. Going on a long train trip feels like a journey within a journey, where you’re not just experiencing present adventures but are also transported to a nostalgic, bygone time, where everything seemed to happen at a slower pace. You can admire beautiful views that you would never get to see on a plane or a bus, catch up on a book you keep meaning to read, or chat to other people who like you are in no immediate rush to do something, or be somewhere. Slowness seemed to be the theme of this West Coast trip. I flew from Miami to Seattle to visit my best friend from university who lives in a pretty, very tiny town in central Washington. It was one of those typical American strip towns with buildings on either side of the highway that takes all of a minute to drive past. I stayed here a leisurely two weeks visiting horse ranches, fossil-hunting and riding quad bikes through abandoned Cougar dens. (To be fair that last bit wasn’t really slow, those things really pick up speed! )
When the time came for me to catch my Amtrak train down to L.A., me and three friends took a road trip to Seattle along the scenic North Cascades highway. I felt like I was having the true American travel experience! The highlight of this route is definitely Lake Diablo. The North Cascade mountains that surround it are huge and usually snow-peaked, and the lake itself is an incredibly distinctive green-turquoise colour caused by the melting of nearby glaciers. The lake is a very do-able 2.5 hour drive from Seattle. While you’re there you might as well visit nearby Leavenworth too, a faux-Bavarian meets Wild West town where you can eat Schnitzel and order giant steins of (really good) craft beer from men in Leiderhosen.
The Amtrak Journey from Seattle to Los Angeles is called the Coast Starlight and takes about 2 days. I was a. On my own and b. Not in a sleeper coach, so I knew this was going to be a test of my boredom threshold as well my endurance! I shouldn’t have worried; the views were beautiful enough that the journey did not seem anywhere near its 35 hours, though I’d be lying if i said they flew by! In this direction, the views really start to become spectacular after Klamath Falls towards Dunsmuir in Oregon, with dramatic views of tall pine trees surrounding snowy Mount Shasta.You would normally be arriving here by evening, so the view is made even more dramatic as dusk turns to silvery moonlight. The next morning I woke up in Northern California, greeted by rolling oat-colour hills and grazing deer and cows. I spent most of the rest of the day in the Observation car, which has comfy seats and floor to ceiling windows for the best views. It was here that I watched the train roll into Santa Barbara at sunset, with its stunning Pacific ocean views and surfing beaches.
Coast Starlight Travel tips:
- If you can afford it, stay in a private ‘roomette’. I was lucky that nobody was sitting next to me in coach so I managed to get some sleep by lying across the seats, but I’d have been wide awake all night if not. I was on a budget and a roomette is much more expensive, but you do get all of your meals included and they are served in the private Pacific parlour car. Here they have a bar, cushy swivel easy-chairs, free wi-fi, coffee and they also do free wine and cheese tastings every afternoon. There’s even a mini-cinema room! I had breakfast in the dining room on the first morning as the train rolled along the Puget sound and the food was actually much nicer than I expected.
- If you’re planning to share a roomette, do it with someone you really like – they are extremely small!
- Bring all the usual sleeping comforts – eye mask, toothbrush, inflatable pillow etc. (Especially if you’re in coach.)
- If you have the option, do the route when the days are longest, as it was already quite dark as we got to the Cascade mountains, the prettiest part of the trip. Otherwise try and go when it’s a full moon!
- For the same reason as above, do the option from L.A. to Seattle – if you have the choice.
- Seats are not assigned when you book and are given out as you board so they’re pretty much luck of the draw – if you find a nice controller ask if you can get a seat on the Ocean side.
- If you get bored, go to the viewing car and strike up a conversation with someone. Everyone is unhurried and relaxed and probably bored so I found that people were pretty chatty!
- Use the ladies powder room – they are very clean and there’s actually a little powder-room area.
- If you’re bored easily download some things to watch on your phone, ipad etc. There are sockets by the seats.
- Bring your own food if you’re not keen on the menu and don’t fancy eating snacks.