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Saturday, January 28, 2023



Oct. 28, 2001 – There are several great perks with aging. Along with your hearing mellowing out so you don't hear bad things people say about you, and your eyesight getting soft so your geriatric friends all look sort of fuzzy and warm, you get great discounts on travel. When my nephew was about to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley and told me he was going to have a great party; I decided to accompany my sister to the bacchanal.
My senior citizen coupons on American Airlines allowed me to fly from St. Thomas to the family homestead in Santa Barbara, Calif., and back for $338. Using the Amtrak "1, 2, Free" program, I was able to get tickets for both my sister and myself from Santa Barbara to the Jack London Station in Oakland for the total round trip price of $150.
For about $500, I could spend a couple days in Santa Barbara pigging out on Mexican food, see a couple of my old buddies, take a premier train trip twice, enjoy a week in Berkeley eating fresh breads and exotic cheeses for breakfast, spend a day or so in San Francisco walking the hills and waterfront, wallow in dirt-cheap ethnic foods, and visit with my sister and her most enjoyable son. Win, win, win!
One of the classic train rides in the world is the Pacific Coast Starlight run between Seattle and Los Angeles. The trip ranks right up there with the Ghan and Indian Pacific in Australia, the Canadian across Canada; the Hong Kong/Beijing Express in China, Russia's Trans Siberian, and the European Oriental Express.
This 1,389-mile trip through three states was put together by Amtrak in 1971. Prior to that, travel from Seattle to Los Angeles had required three different trains operated by three different railroad companies — the Southern Pacific California Coast Daylight, Starlight, and Lark; the SP Northern California Daylight and Cascade; and a number of connecting trains operated by Union Pacific, Great Northern and Northern Pacific.
Views from the upper deck
All Amtrak cars on the Starlight are double deckers. The lower level has special areas for the physically challenged, a kiddy room with toys and VCR cartoons, toilets, and the snack bar or café. The upper level has roomy coach lounges. There is a special sightseeing lounge car with seats facing outward and vista windows extending from knee height to almost the center of the roof.
First Class travelers not only have their own staterooms with sofa and lounge which make into comfortable beds at night, but also a unique Pacific Parlor Car. The parlor car serves breakfast, plus snacks and drinks throughout the day, and provides First Class passengers with a place to enjoy their fellow passengers and the panoramic views of the Pacific coast.
Beginning from the south, the train parallels U.S. Route 101 running along the California coast from Oxnard to Gaviota some 70 miles north of Santa Barbara. Then the line runs through the historic Hollister Ranch, which was private property up to the 1970s. Some of the best surfing off the North American continent is found on the coast of "the Ranch." And this stretch of about 100 miles offers some of the most scenic views of the California coast you'll find anywhere.
Next, the line turns into Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Pacific coast missile base, followed by the Army's old Camp Roberts, which was used for tank training. Most of this run is through landscape little changed from the time John Fremont took his first tour through California in the middle 1800s, staking a claim for the United States of America.
Climbing over the Coast Range north of San Luis Obispo, the train runs through the cherry groves, vineyards, artichoke fields and assorted other vegetable plots of the Salinas Valley. Finally, it crawls through Silicone Valley and the San Francisco Bay sprawl.
The bounties of Berkeley
Our stay in Berkeley was all I had imagined. We walked six blocks to the Cracker Barrel Bakery each morning for hot rolls, muffins and bread accompanied by smelly cheeses of every hue. The graduation party was a blast, with over 40 young graduates in Environmental Planning and Landscape Architecture floating in Margaritas with Mexican taco and tortilla ballast. My nephew, his wife, my sister and I hit the Japanese, Vietnamese, Greek and micro-brewery outlets for great food every night. And the unexpected bonus was finding that ever-elusive gasket for my blender that I could not find on St. Thomas. There it was, waiting for me in a blender outlet in San Francisco.
Traveling back to Santa Barbara, we reversed our route, climbing on the train at 9 a.m. in Oakland, which got us into Vandenberg AFB before 5 p.m., so we were able to enjoy an early dinner gazing out the dining car window as we passed along the cliffs of the Hollister Ranch.
Amtrak now has a mileage program similar to those of the airlines. Every dollar spent on tickets earns you two points, and you can exchange points for free tickets. Meantime, I logged 8,500 American AAdvantage miles on my frequent flyer account. With a couple more flights, I will have enough miles for a free coupon (30,000 miles to the Caribbean) to bring a member my family to visit us in the islands. What a great way to enjoy retirement!

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