After a few hours in Portland, it was time to continue our epic train journey across the country. After several days on the Empire Builder line coming from Chicago, we were ready to continue south to San Francisco on Coast Starlight.
Coast Starlight is one of the most popular routes operated by Amtrak today. Offering service from Seattle to Los Angeles and almost 30 points in between, Coast Starlight first cuts through the rich agricultural terrain of Washington and Oregon, continuing down through Sacramento and Davis on the way to Emeryville, the closest stop to San Francisco. It was here that our trip came to a close, though many passengers continued for arguably the best part of this journey, which then proceeds to hug the coast following stops in San Jose, Salinas, Santa Barbara and Simi Valley, among others.
The total trek from Seattle to Los Angeles takes about 36 hours, so this is certainly no alternative to flying if you’re in a rush. Rather, Coast Starlight offers a unique opportunity to see nearly the entire expanse of the American Pacific Coast without doing anything more than looking out the window to enjoy the scenery.
Much of Empire Builder’s route consisted of desolation. Coast Starlight, by comparison, was surrounded by lush agriculture, framing the Three Sisters Mountains in the background:
We passed through Eugene shortly before dinner, home of the University of Oregon, and then proceeded through more farmland until dusk set. The next morning, we were greeted initially by an obstructed view of Sacramento’s train station near dawn, then on through a variety of industrial areas until we finally broke out toward the water, providing the first glimpses of the Pacific Ocean. Several bridges later, we’d find ourselves in Emeryville, where we’d end our train journey.
The Pacific Parlour Car
Coast Starlight is of particular note to train enthusiasts as the last line operated by Amtrak to offer a proper parlour car. Once a common respite for first class passengers, only the Pacific Parlour Cars attached to Coast Starlight remain in operation.
Originally built in the 1950s, these cars have been lovingly maintained and feature a variety of unique features for sleeping car passengers. While seating in standard observation cars shares more in common with public transit than anything else, the Pacific Parlour Car is populated with plush swivel club chairs and a pair of couches.
The Parlour Car also offers a number of tables for meal service, along with premium menus offering unique items not found in the standard dining car. Additionally, the Parlour Car features bar service and a variety of board games and books from a small library.
On the lower level of the Parlour Car is a movie theatre with two daily showings and about 20 seats. The theater features a large HD flatscreen and Blu-Ray player, though soundproofing and low lighting make for a more enjoyable viewing experience than you might expect.
Since our journey was set to end in Emeryville the morning after departing Portland, we were able to enjoy lunch, dinner and breakfast service in the Parlour Car. For lunch, I had a very nice chicken caesar salad:
Dinner was a treat: the Parlour Car had short ribs on the menu, along with some of the staples normally offered in the standard dining car. The short ribs were very well prepared and delicious, and could have easily held their own against proper restaurant entrees, much choices offered in Business or First Class on longer flights with most airlines:
After the short ribs, we even had some Haagen-Dazs ice cream for desert, Cathay Pacific style. Breakfast the next morning offered an omelette, made to order, along with a pastry and jam. Shortly after breakfast, we were in Emeryville, and it was time to say goodbye to our last train for this journey:
The Bus Transfer
Once we arrived in Emeryville, we needed to take a bus to get to San Francisco, across the bay. Amtrak offers bus service to a number of central locations within San Francisco, including service to Fisherman’s Wharf. The Fisherman’s Wharf stop was just a few blocks from the Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf, where we were set to stay for a night, making it a perfectly placed transfer point. Prior to booking, I’d expected that we might need an Uber ride across the bay from Emeryville, so having the option to continue on our journey’s final miles for no additional charge was nice. The bus itself was an unremarkable charter bus, though the driver was courteous and happy to help with loading and unloading baggage from the compartment below.
So, was taking a 53 hour train trip worth it? After all, we could have simply flown home from Chicago, instead of going to all this trouble, crossing so much land over such a long period of time at such a slow pace compared to jetting off at cruising altitude. In a word: yes. This trip was an opportunity to see parts of the country I wouldn’t likely see on my own. While I like the west coast quite a bit and have spent a fair amount of time up and down the coast, areas like Wisconsin, much of Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho and even a fair amount of Washington state would not have been likely stops without the help of Amtrak and Empire Builder.
Throughout the journey, we got to see some incredible sights, and some that weren’t so incredible – endless plains with little variation – that became incredible simply by virtue of their expansive nature. In addition, we had the opportunity to meet people at meals from a variety of walks of life, learning more about their stories and how they came to share in this journey with us. While accommodations are spartan, riding on Amtrak in a roomette is still comparable from a comfort perspective to many Business Class cabins. After all, there are lie-flat seats, an enclosed suite, included meals, and priority treatment.
It’s important to point out how little we felt confined on the train for much of the trip, as well. 53 hours on any moving object is a long journey, and you could easily slip into madness trying to attempt such a feat in a car or on a bus. Even the best and biggest planes tend to feel cramped over time. The train, by comparison, offered plenty of space to move around, even if much of that movement, understandably, was constrained to forward or backward.
I would not likely ride the Empire Builder again, at least not at the same time of the year, or in the same direction. I would, however, check out Southwest Chief or California Zephyr, two Amtrak routes originating in Chicago and ending in California that pass by entirely different expanses of the country. Before setting out, I thought Amtrak would offer an outstanding redemption value for Ultimate Rewards points and a unique way to see more of our own backyard. Afterwards, I think exactly the same thing, and I’d encourage you to strike out on an adventure by rail of your own!