Of Southern California's many hidden gems, the Pacific Surfliner may be one of the most unexpected. Connecting San Luis Obispo and San Diego through Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, the Amtrak rail is easily the most relaxed method to experience this strip of coastal beauty.
Los Angeles splits the rail line between from San Diego and Santa Barbara, with both trips clocking in at a little over two and a half hours. Push a bit further—five and a half hours, overall—and you hit San Luis Obispo to the north. It's where I started a recent trip, pushing off from Union Station with a French Dip sandwich in hand, courtesy of the nearby institution Philippe The Original.
The Surfliner isn't a speedy journey, my wife Niki and I sat on the upper deck of a cafe car with the intent of having quick access to the train's drink selection. We opted to sip Bloody Marys and coffee, while taking in the beachside views and busying ourselves with card games.
As we trekked on, I found myself meditating to the rumbling rhythm of the tracks below, looking out the window and seeing a surreal manifestation of some vision of California I'd grown up worshiping as teenager outside Seattle—endless blue ocean, perfectly tan sand, palm tress, surf, all encased in an aura of zen.
Of course the Surfliner's expressed purpose is not just the ride, but to actually get you somewhere.
Southbound travelers should explore Coronado Island, which is a slice of classic SoCal unto itself. For those who wind up there, I recommend saving some bucks by staying at the El Cordova Hotel that's located up the street from the legendary Hotel Del Mar you'd otherwise be tempted to break the bank on. You get all of the vibe at half the cost and the best Mexican food Coronado to offer.
If you decide to stay east of the harbor in San Diego proper, check out our friend Eric Steuer's quick guide to sights, eats, and drinks, courtesy of Wired.
As for you northbound voyagers—if you're headed to Santa Barbara, we recommend renting a car and further exploring central California, heading to neighboring Los Olivos and Solvang for some good grub. Anyone headed all the way to the literal end of the line in San Luis Obispo, go ahead and reward your stranger side with a stay at the Madonna Inn. You've earned it.