The Coast News Group
Amtrak’s Surfliner passes through Gaviota State Beach, 33 miles west of Santa Barbara. Much of the 351-mile Surfliner route between San Diego and San Luis Obispo includes spectacular shoreline, quaint towns and, at this time of year, emerald-green foothills, some that can be seen only by plane or train. Courtesy photo
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On the Surfliner, a meandering and memorable trip to SLO

The train platform at the Oceanside Transportation Center is deserted when we arrive at 4:30 a.m., but as Amtrak’s 4:57 a.m. northbound Surfliner approaches, the number increases to a half-dozen.

We have about a minute to climb aboard, settle our luggage and find our seats.

The next time I check my surroundings, our train is pulling into Los Angeles’ Union Station, where the number of passengers boarding increases considerably. For a moment, I regret having dozed away the miles between Oceanside and Los Angeles, but then it occurs to me that the sun is just coming up, so we didn’t miss much.

During the 15-minute layover at Union Station, I head to the car behind ours for coffee, juice, pastries and vegan gluten-free cookies. Besides these complimentary snacks and drinks, business class fare — $20 to $30 more than coach — gives passengers the services of an attendant; additional leg room; priority boarding; and a fully refundable ticket if canceled prior to departure. Seats in all coaches have outlets for charging devices, and Wi-Fi is available throughout most of the ride.

Our destination on this early-January day: San Luis Obispo, or SLO Town as locals call it. This Central Coast town (population 45,000; 65,000 when Cal Poly is in session) also is the end of the line for the Surfliner.

Our goal: to spend 3½, car-free days in SLO. (More on that later.)

There is plenty to see outside Amtrak’s Surfliner windows on the run between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. This community garden in Carpinteria, the stop between Santa Barbara and Ventura, sits adjacent to the tracks. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

The Surfliner is not the fastest way to get from North County to SLO — although it could be depending on what happens as you thread your way through the maze of freeways that is Los Angeles.

Today, however, we find that spending a couple of extra leisurely hours on the train is a more-than-fair trade for avoiding the often-white-knuckle drive through the state’s largest metro area. In fact, as our train pulls into SLO, I find myself hustling to stash my iPad, notes and book into my backpack and wishing we had just a bit more train time.

Looking back on our 350-mile, six-county trip, we found it both relaxing and entertaining. I relished the uninterrupted time for reading, and when my eyes needed a break, there was an IMAX show happening right outside our window.

We saw stunning coastline, quaint small towns worth further investigating, and some awe-inspiring countryside that, in some cases, can only be seen by plane or train.

There are two dozen stations between Oceanside and SLO, and though that sounds like a lot, the train never stops for more than a minute at each station. I occasionally checked our progress on my phone, and was surprised at the meandering route of the Surfliner, sometimes heading due north and sometimes heading due west — a reminder that California’s coastline sometimes faces south.

The seven-hour-plus trip from Oceanside to San Luis Obispo on Amtrak’s Surfliner allows passengers to set up camp for working, reading and watching California’s coastline pass by the windows. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Some of the scenes beyond our window were expected; some were not. I’ll remember what must be the healthiest magnolia trees in Southern California, thriving near the Simi Valley Station; the looming Santa Ynez Mountains; early stages of construction of a village near Moorpark Station; the seemingly endless emerald hills of Lompoc and strawberry fields of Camarillo; the community garden of Carpinteria; the Victorians of Oxnard; the sharp silhouette of the Channel Islands, looking as if they’d been pasted on the horizon; the cyclists peddling along Highway 1; the historic Ventura Pier stretching into the ocean; and the sunlight dancing on the hypnotizing Pacific surf, reminding us why we endure the high cost of West Coast living.

All of this made climbing out of bed at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m. very much worth it.

The damage caused by recent heavy rains may necessitate the periodic closure of portions of the track, so check with the Surfliner’s schedule. Travel by bus may be necessary to bypass these sections.

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