The Coast Starlight is a cruise on rails, and the food’s pretty good

The long vacation trip to Europe fell through. Too complicated. So now this season’s vacation plan calls for something different: short getaway trips around the West. And the best so far has been a quick trip to Santa Barbara by train. Something different.

It was the Sailor Girl’s idea. She’s my companion and the navigator on small adventures. “We’ll go first class,” she said, “in one of those little rooms. It’ll be fun.” She didn’t have to say it twice. I’m a believer in the gospel according to Edna St. Vincent Millay: “There isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, no matter where it’s going.”

We rode Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, down to Santa Barbara on Friday and back again on Sunday. The Starlight is a long-distance train and runs 1,377 miles every day down the West Coast from Seattle to Los Angeles. So we just did a portion of the run, enough to get a good feel. It’s not our first time on the Starlight, and every trip is a bit different.

There are a couple of things to understand about riding the rails. It’s not your grandmother’s train. It’s not the good old days. They’re gone and won’t come back. And Amtrak is not like the swift high-speed European or Asian trains. This country has not invested in passenger rail, not really. There’s an old cliche about American rail: It is what it is. And that’s not bad.

There’s always a small thrill of anticipation in going on a trip, pulling out, leaving town.

We left from Emeryville, not exactly Grand Central Terminal or the Gare du Nord. But the waiting room was full: little kids, young men, old ladies, couples traveling together. There was a stir at train time — three trains in close succession: the San Joaquin, the California Zephyr, the Capitol Corridor. All aboard for Fresno, for Bakersfield, for Reno, for Denver and Chicago, for Oakland and San Jose, all aboard the Coast Starlight for Salinas, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Oxnard and Los Angeles. Last call. All aboard.

It’s not like the airport. No long lines, nobody going through your baggage — what’s in that bottle, sir? Nobody has to take off his shoes or go through an X-ray. Passengers are not treated like suspects.

There seemed to be plenty of room on the train, even in coach; nobody was packed in tight the way they do on planes these days. We paid extra for a bigger room on the return trip and spread out, looked out the window, read a book. Even took a nap.

It takes about an hour or so to adjust to riding on the train to get the feel of it. An hour after takeoff on a jet you get the idea you are somewhere, 30,000 feet up, peek out the tiny window and there’s the country below, spread out like a map. On the Starlight, an hour into the trip and you are still rolling along the east side of San Francisco Bay, past the unfamiliar marshlands off the beaten track just north of San Jose, the train’s engine sounding the horn for a road crossing, like the old movies.

Later you pass through the backyards of Santa Clara County, some unexpected woodlands later down the line, and then green fields all the way south, past Castroville, down the long Salinas Valley, then over the hills, through some tunnels, and around a big sweeping curve into San Luis Obispo.

The train rolls south through the Santa Maria Valley, to the coast just past Guadalupe, down a last valley full of cows and then along the Pacific Ocean for miles, on the edge of the continent, moving slowly, past beaches and cliffs, windswept and wildly beautiful flyover country.

The train skirts remote rocky Point Conception, and the land changes. It’s palm tree country now, gentler surf, more open country, warmer. You can almost see the boundary between Northern and Southern California.

As the country rolled by out the window, we had time for lunch and dinner in the dining car. We thought the food was pretty good, flowers on the table and a white tablecloth and a complementary glass of wine at dinner.

The train seemed in no particular hurry. It sped up and slowed down with no explanation, going like 60 sometimes and slowly at others. Once in a while, it stopped for a minute or two in the middle of nowhere. The Starlight is a bit like a family friend who often turns up late.

It took about nine hours to get from Emeryville to Santa Barbara. But you have to think of it as a land cruise rather than a fast trip.

Santa Barbara has a beautifully restored old railroad station, all arches and palm trees. The beach is only a couple of blocks away.

We were just tourists in town, walking up State Street, the main shopping street, noticing the sidewalk restaurants, the white buildings with tile roofs, the people strolling. It was a California crowd, mostly young.

One thing that struck us: The city was remarkably clean. Almost no graffiti. What did Dorothy say when she realized she had left home behind? “I have a feeling we’re not in San Francisco anymore.”

The trip back was pleasant and uneventful. We signed up to make another trip.

Carl Nolte’s columns appear in The Chronicle’s Sunday edition. Email: cnolte@sfchronicle.com

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