When my friend Patti and I decided to travel up the California coast from San Diego to Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, there was only one hitch. Neither of us wanted to drive or navigate the state’s notorious roadways. California’s car culture was not for us.
Once we settled on Amtrak, ‶car-free in California″ became our organizing motto. With only a few days in each city, we booked hotels near the train stations and concentrated on activities and sites that we could reach by foot, public transportation, or the occasional Uber. It meant minimal stress and maximum enjoyment.
We got off to a great start in San Diego by checking into the Guild Hotel. The modern remake of the 1924 Army-Navy YMCA building sits near the train station and waterfront. We made Balboa Park, the city’s crown jewel, our first stop. Established in 1868, the park blossomed as host of a 1915 exposition that left behind a legacy of handsome Spanish Colonial buildings. We could have spent days exploring the 17 museums, lush gardens, and miles of trails. For a relaxing afternoon, we admired the orchids in the Botanical Building (currently closed for renovation), visited artisans in the Spanish Village Art Center, and spent a few minutes of Zen serenity among the cherry trees, koi ponds, and waterfalls of the Japanese Friendship Garden. It was a no-brainer to continue the international theme with dinner in Little Italy, a quick walk from our hotel.
Patti and I joined joggers and dogwalkers as we made our way to the Maritime Museum of San Diego the next morning. In 1542 Europeans first explored the southern California coast aboard the Spanish vessel San Salvador. A replica is among the museum’s fleet that traces maritime history from the world’s oldest active sailing ship to the world’s deepest diving submarine. The replica British Royal Navy frigate H.M.S. Surprise appeared in the “Master and Commander” film and in one “Pirates of the Caribbean” extravaganza. Scratch the surface in California, and Hollywood inevitably gleams through.
The modest vessel that crosses San Diego Bay to Coronado, a 15-minute ride, has its own claim to fame as the country’s oldest working wooden ferry. Service to Coronado began in 1888 to bring visitors to the brand-new Hotel del Coronado, now a National Historic Landmark. A museum catalogs a who’s who of presidents, royalty, and celebrities who stayed at the glamorous hotel. In 1950, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz honed their characters here for their groundbreaking sitcom. A few years later, Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon filmed exterior shots for “Some Like It Hot.” Alas, we didn’t spot any celebrities hiding behind sunglasses as we strolled the property.
San Diego’s small and charming train station saw us off on a journey aboard Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner. The roughly three-hour trip to Los Angeles followed the coast for much of the route. We watched surfers catching breaks and little kids gleefully waving at the train from the beach.
Built in 1939 in the Mission Moderne style, Union Station in Los Angeles calls itself “the last of the great train stations.” You’ll get no argument from us. Arriving feels like an occasion. Much as California loves its cars, Union Station remains a beloved city landmark. We arrived in time for lunch with a side of history. Great tacos and enchiladas are a block away on Olvera Street. Roughly the site of the first Spanish settlement in Los Angeles, the colorful neighborhood celebrates the city’s Mexican heritage with historic buildings, shops, restaurants, and strolling musicians.
We hopped the metro for a quick ride to the Sheraton Grand Los Angeles. The hotel anchors an older mall transformed into a full-blown “lifestyle experience” with shops, restaurants, and an open-air lounge with synthetic turf for lawn games and live music. The movie theater even serves dinner and drinks. We were clearly in LA, the wellspring of American pop culture.
So we reveled in it. A short walk from our hotel, the Grammy Museum celebrates American music of every style and permutation. Patti and I recalled the soundtracks of our lives as we watched Grammy acceptance speeches and iconic performances on giant screens. A display of red carpet clothing captured the sartorial flair of “Music’s Biggest Night.” Even more panache awaited us at the FIDM Museum of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. We could really appreciate the breadth of costume design looking at outfits from shows as different as the ballroom drag culture of ‶Pose″ or the leather-and-furs medieval fantasy of ‶Game of Thrones.″ Through June 4 “Art of Costume Design in Film” focuses on more than 20 movies released last year.
Celebrating its centennial this year, Hollywood Bowl has hosted more legendary performances than we could count. The metro ride into the Hollywood Hills meant walking a bit at the end, but it was better than sitting in the equally legendary traffic. We concluded our LA stay with a screening of the 1951 musical “An American in Paris” accompanied by a live orchestra. It wasn’t exactly Paris but it sure was magical.
Next morning, we grabbed seats in the observation car on the Coast Starlight for our journey to Santa Barbara. Our disappointment in the first hour of urban sprawl dissipated when sweeping views of blue ocean and dramatic headlands finally filled the windows. Two-and-a-half hours after we left Los Angeles, our train pulled into Santa Barbara’s 1902 Mission Revival station.
A few blocks from the station, the Harbor View Inn sits across the street from the beach. One look at the vista of palm trees, white sand, and clear blue water and I understood why Santa Barbara calls itself “the American Riviera.” But a century ago, warehouses and fish processing plants dominated this stretch of waterfront. It fell into decline after World War II, but once artists colonized the big buildings, developers suddenly saw the neighborhood’s potential. A decade into gentrification, the newly christened Funk Zone abounds with shops, galleries, and eateries.
Stearns Wharf, built in 1872 and the oldest working wooden wharf in California, is the area’s landmark. From here, a popular harborfront path leads westward to the Maritime Museum and the docks where fishermen unload their catch. Panels near the breakwater relate the history of the fishing industry.
These days, though, the Funk Zone is more about another California industry. As part of the neighborhood reinvention, wineries were invited to open tasting rooms to highlight Santa Barbara county wines. Of the two dozen stops on the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail (urbanwinetrailsb.com), almost half are in the Funk Zone. Always ready to support local business, we checked out a few. For a good overview, the Valley Project pours wines from Santa Barbara County’s six viticultural regions — all visible on a massive chalkboard map.
Our adventure was drawing to a close when we cast off from Stearns Wharf for a sunset harbor cruise. From the deck of the Azure Seas, we marveled at Santa Barbara’s postcard location between mountains and sea. Wine glasses in hand, we absorbed the golden glow of the setting sun. The next day we’d be boarding planes, not trains, for the long trips home.
Patricia Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go . . .
For schedule information, see amtrak.com.
San Diego-Los Angeles, Pacific Surfliner from $36.
Los Angeles-Santa Barbara, Coast Starlight from $20, Pacific Surfliner from $31.
500 West Broadway, San Diego
Double rooms from $234.
Sheraton Grand Los Angeles
711 South Hope St., Los Angeles
Double rooms from $273.
Harbor View Inn
28 West Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara
Double rooms from $214.
Visitors Center: 1549 El Prado (Plaza de Panama), San Diego
Visitors Center open daily 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Park admission free, rates and hours for museums and attractions vary.
Maritime Museum of San Diego
1492 North Harbor Drive, San Diego
Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Adults $20, seniors and students $15, ages 3 to 12 $10.
Broadway Pier, 990 North Harbor Drive, San Diego
Daily, $7 each way.
800 West Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles
Open Sun.-Mon. and Wed.-Fri. 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Adults $18, seniors $15, students $12.
919 South Grand Ave., Los Angeles
During exhibitions open Tue.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
2301 North Highland Ave., Los Angeles
Ticket prices vary.
237 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara
Adults $45, children $40.
Patricia Harris can be reached at email@example.com.