Saturday, November 9, 2013

San Jose Train Trip, Part Two: Back to San Diego

So, I've been back in San Diego since very early Monday morning, so since I already wrote about my trip up to San Jose, I suppose it's about time I discussed the trip back, as well. The trip back paled a bit in comparison to the trip up, for several reasons I'll discuss below. But ultimately, it's hard to compete with the excitement of the beginning of a vacation, especially when the end of the journey marks the return to everyday life, so it was unavoidable things wouldn't be quite as exciting. But still, I did enjoy the train trip, and am still eagerly awaiting my next train voyage (in early December).

My return trip on Coast Starlight train 11 was to begin from San Jose around 10:00. My sister and her family had to leave for church around 8, so I said I could just wait at the train depot. She stopped by a Starbucks for me on the way, and I had my coffee and croissant while I waited. I read a bit, and watched a soldier and his fiance, I'm guessing, pose for photographs of them "reuniting" at the depot.

Amtrak's website kept saying the train was on time, though I couldn't find it on the "track a train" map. As the arrival time neared, an Amtrak representative made the rounds telling us the train was about an hour late. So I settled back in on a bench and waited, until being told it was time to line up for the train. We still had awhile to wait before the train finally arrived. At first, the woman who was monitoring the line said the train arrived on the wrong platform, and people started walking that way, even though I was pretty sure it wasn't the train, far too short, wrong paint job, no sleepers, etc, and sure enough, it was not the Coast Starlight. Our train arrived about five minutes later, well over an hour late. Our tickets were scanned on the platform, and we were assigned cars based on our destination, myself ending up in the final train car with the other people heading to Los Angeles or beyond.

The train was pretty full, much busier than my trip up. Apparently Saturday isn't that popular a travel day, while Sunday is a very popular travel day. I got a window seat again, and my seatmate was quiet and courteous, but didn't seem to speak much English, so we didn't really chat. The problem with all the LA-bound passengers being put in the back car, there was no chance I'd get the row to myself for at least part of the trip. Which isn't a big deal, the guy was nice and at least one of us was away from our seat for a lot of the trip. But it would have been nice to have more room, for at least part of the trip. But if I really didn't want a seatmate, I should have paid for a Roomette (I should have more to say on that option later).

I was again on the ocean side of the train, though it would be awhile before I saw the ocean, and not soon after it would be dark, as we were traveling on the first day of daylight savings time. But I still enjoyed the views of the farmland and hillsides, just as much as I did coming down. I did spend some time in the observation car, enjoying the views, and watching the sun set as we neared Point Conception. Again, I didn't enjoy the views quite as much as I did coming up, partly because I knew my vacation was coming to an end, and partly because of the early darkness. But it's still a very scenic route, and even with the fuller train, I still could sit in the observation car with limited fuss (never on the ocean side, but I was fine with that).

I had lunch in the dining car, and was again impressed with the quality. I had the special, chicken breast with gravy and mashed potatoes. Pretty good, and filling, the sort of meat-and-potatoes meal I would imagine goes over well with the typical Amtrak customer. I liked the gravy, a bit on the sweet side. Three of us at my table had the chicken, while a forth had the bratwurst, which looked pretty good, and though it didn't come with a salad, our waitress bought him one, so he wouldn't feel left out as the rest of us ate iceberg lettuce and one cherry tomato. My tablemates were nice, and like me a bit on the quiet side, but we did chat a bit, and it was obvious all three (two of which had sleepers) were much more experienced with train travel, and I believe all three were connecting to trains East in Los Angeles (I know two were, I forget the third's destination). The dining car was almost full, unlike my dinner experience going North, so I was a bit concerned I wouldn't get a reservation for dinner.

I didn't. For lunch, they started in the back car and went up taking reservations, but for dinner they made their way back (after taking reservations in the sleepers, of course), and never got to my car, before announcing the dining car was booked. They kept saying in the dinner announcement that it would be limited dinner service, I'm not sure if that meant they were out of stuff, or just meant that our arrival in Los Angeles would be before the traditional end of dinner service. In any case, it meant no dinner in the dining car for me. I looked at the cafe car menu, which seems worse on the long-distance trains than on the Surfliner. As it turns out, my only purchase from the cafe in either direction was a cup of coffee early that evening heading home. My sister prepared a snack bag for me with Gracie's rejected Halloween candy, some madeleines and other treats, and as I said my lunch was filling, so I just snacked on what I had, and hoped it would carry me over until dinner in Union Station.

Eating in Union Station seemed a good option, as the train was making up time. By Santa Barbara, we were very close to on time, if memory serves, and as we passed into territory I'm a little more familiar with, it was becoming obvious the train would be early to Los Angeles. I still wasn't able to find the train on Track a Train, nor was my mom. When I checked it before leaving my sister's house, it showed the train being near Seattle, which I thought was the next day's train getting ready to depart. I eventually figured out what was going on when I heard other passengers chatting in the observation car, and someone who was on the train since Seattle said that the train hit a tree or something that fell on the tracks, and damaged the locomotive, which was replaced. I believe that Track a Train tracks the locomotive, which was still in Washington, and apparently the system was never updated with info on our new locomotive. So that took some of the fun out of tracking the train for my mom back home, but ultimately just made my early arrival in Los Angeles, by about 45 minutes, a happy surprise.

Union Station was pretty hopping, that evening, both with homeless and travelers. A long line snaked through the waiting room, of passengers getting seat assignments for the east-bound trains. I probably should have had the steamed buns again, or gone to Subway, but I decided on pretzel hot dogs, which were okay, but nothing special. I should have ventured out and eat in the neighborhood, since I had time, but I didn't think of it at the moment. I sat and read for a bit; on the trip down, I'd gotten caught up on my backlog of magazines, and so it was only at this late hour that I actually started reading one of the books I brought with me (a biography of Athanasius Kircher, which I have been enjoying very much). The last time I was in Union Station in the evening, an art event, Station to Station, was happening; this time, the Opera was conducting a site-specific event, Invisible Cities. Patrons of the arts had wireless headphones, while I just had to listen with my ears, and singers walked around and interpretive dancers (groan) invoking the feeling of people trying to catch a train (a bit redundant, it seems). I wasn't super impressed, but I don't know how much the lack of headphones hindered my enjoyment. Charging ticket fees for a show in a public space seems a bit ballsy to me, but as travelers like myself were able to enjoy some of the performance, and tickets to some performances were free, I can't really complain.

Sooner than I expected, the initial boarding announcement was made for my train home. I rushed to board the train, happy thoughts of arriving on time in San Diego dancing through my mind, vindicating my decision to take the train. I found a seat in coach, stunned momentarily by the lack of space; the 24 hours or so total I spent on the Coast Starlight's roomy coach seats had spoiled me. It really did seem like I had less legroom than usual, but after adjusting my seat to my satisfaction, I decided I was wrong. I got settled in and read a bit, in the station, looking forward to being home, when the conductor announced that, although our train was early, the new crew that would take over for the rest of the journey was on a train heading north, running late. Which was a bit frustrating, to be on the train but unable to go anywhere. We ended up leaving Los Angeles a bit over 30 minutes late. Once we got moving, the trip was uneventful; I read a bit, but mostly napped. They tried to make up some time on the way, which seemed to work for awhile, but ultimately we were about 40 minutes late into San Diego. Not the end of the world, but when you're scheduled in at 1 AM, even small delays are frustrating.

A friend was waiting to pick me up, and kindly give me a ride home at this ungodly hour. Around 2 AM, I got home, and realized as I approached the front door, I didn't have my keys. I pounded on the door, awaking the dogs but not my mom, so I called on my cell phone and woke her up, and she got the door. So I got to see my mom and my dogs after a 9 day absence, though the dogs were too tired to be too excited. I dug my pajamas out of my luggage, and left the rest of the unpacking for the morning, after having a nice sleep in my own bed.

Looking back, I'd say my train travel to San Jose went very well. Yes, the train was late coming home, but if Amtrak gets you across California and is late less than an hour, they've done as well as an educated customer can expect (sad that our expectations are so low, but they are). And heading north Amtrak was remarkably punctual. I would definitely take the trip again, and am now only more eager to cover the whole route next time, and go up to Seattle. One thing that did surprise me, I ended this trip seriously wondering if it's worth the extra money for a roomette on a one-day trip. I don't need a place to sleep, but a roomette for this trip would have cost me $108 each way. That's a lot, but on a long train trip you have a lot of time in your seat to get value for what you paid. It also includes your meals, which I would say could be almost half the fare; dinner, in particular, isn't cheap. And by pre-paying for your meals, you are assured a spot in the dining car, or the Pacific Parlor Car, which would have avoided my fate of eating a lousy dinner in Union Station. You also get a wine tasting and other services of the Parlor Car, including Wi-Fi. Now, even with all that, it's still hard for me to swallow paying three figures for 12 hours or so in first class. But after you consider meals and Amtrak Guest Rewards points, you're really only paying about $50-60 for the private room and access to the Pacific Parlor Car, and the free coffee and juice and Wi-Fi that comes with it. And when you consider I'm unlikely to travel this route more than once every couple years or so, is it really worth quibbling over $50 or so? (If I had a companion with me, the calculus is changed significantly, as both of us would get meals for the same cost, making the room practically free, but the roomette is rather uncomfortable for two, with coach actually being quite a bit roomier, so it's a different set of offsets to consider). I'll probably have a more educated opinion after I've actually traveled in a roomette (I will definitely get a roomette if I'm traveling overnight), but I have a feeling I'll splurge for the roomette should I take the train to my sister's again.

And that's it for my Coast Starlight trip reports. You'll notice I haven't discussed what I did once I arrived at my destination. I'll try to get that up here soon, in one or a series of reports.

Friday, November 1, 2013

San Jose Train Trip, Part One: The Trip From San Diego

Hello from San Jose! I'm at my sister's house, on the eve of Halloween, getting ready for her big Halloween extravaganza. It's been a few days since I took the train up here, last Saturday, and I thought I would try to write the first half of my trip report while I'm up here, and I can summarize the train trip home later.

Going back to last weekend, my trip was to begin at 6:05 AM on Pacific Surfliner train number 763. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am not a morning person, so I was not exactly excited about this early departure, especially since Amtrak claims you have to arrive 45 minutes early if you wish to check luggage (which I did). So I figured I had to leave the house by 5 AM, which meant getting up at 4 AM. Surprisingly, this proved easier than I anticipated, and by a quarter to 5, I was ready to go. My initial plan had been to get a ride from my mom, but given the need for an early start, her night-blindness made that a rather bad idea. So this seemed like the ideal time to try out Uber, which I'd heard so much about. I fired up the app and summoned a car around 4:45, and was surprised to find there was a car pretty close by in the East County. which picked me up in ten minutes. I was also surprised to find that, even though I ordered the cheapest car, an UberX, I was actually picked up in a roomy SUV. The total fare from my house to the Santa Fe Depot was $28, and I got $10 off that as a new customer (if you would like to sign up for Uber, my referral code is: z8zx3 and both you and I get a $10 credit if you sign up with that code). So for $18, I was whisked away in style, and arrived at the Amtrak station with time to spare. Based on my one experience, I highly recommend Uber.

At the Santa Fe Station that morning, there were already a fair amount of people at the station. Quite a few homeless sleeping on the benches, tuning out the constant stream of safety announcements pouring out of the HDTVs (at one point, it gave pointers for how to take out a terrorist with a thrown piece of luggage, should you find yourself in immediate danger), but also several travelers. I was surprised that, as late as 6:15, the ticket counter was still not open. I had a suspicion the 45-minute rule for checking luggage might not be strictly enforced, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't, if the counter where luggage is checked wasn't even open yet at that time. I can't say for sure, though, as no one checked any luggage after me, when the counter opened a few minutes later.

I walked around the station a bit, finding it very peaceful this time of morning. I eventually wandered over to the line for boarding, took my place at the front of the Business Class line, and waited to board. As I waited, I was very disappointed to spot the single-level Amfleet train, that I was forced to ride on my trip back from Anaheim recently. I did not like the train, but I came to terms with it as I waited to board; it would be a very small portion of my journey today, and I would be in business class, so I could compare it with my experience in coach. About ten minutes before departure, we were given the first call to board, and I walked over to the train, but I couldn't figure out just how to board. The doors to business class were closed, so I thought maybe I had to board from the next car and walk up to business class. The next car had open doors, but the stairs weren't deployed. As I puzzled this over, a redcap or someone came running over, shouting, "Wrong train!" I followed his gestures and realized the train I was boarding was on the next track! I was embarrassed, but relieved to see I was on a standard trainset. Though I was surprised that the seats were slightly different from my last trip, with a smaller footrest and a different style fold-out tray. Neither of these was a big deal, but I was also surprised to find that the seats didn't really recline. When you pushed the button to recline, the seat of the chair just slid out underneath you, but the actual frame of the chair didn't move at all. For an early morning train, this was disappointing. It ultimately didn't matter, because despite my plans to sleep, I was actually wide awake and not remotely tired by the time I boarded, but it was surprising to learn that even the double-decker trains have differences between them, for better or for worse.

We departed San Diego right on time, and were pretty punctual for the entire uneventful journey. I enjoyed the complementary coffee and cinnamon roll and muffin, as usual, and enjoyed the view, this time bathed in early morning fog. I got caught up on some reading on my phone, news and stuff, but mostly just relaxed, something I would be doing a lot of this day and this trip. This is the longest vacation I have had in a very long time, certainly since I started working for my current employer 5 years ago. It's rare that I take more than a long weekend, and taking this trip has made it obvious to me how much I needed it. Long weekends are fun, but not enough. I've said that vacations just leave me more tired than before; that may be true sometimes, but I don't think that'll be the case this trip. Half-way through it, I feel fantastic. And I think the relaxation of train travel is one of the reasons why.

We arrived at Union Station in Los Angeles right on time. The Pacific Surfliner would be continuing north, but I (and my luggage, I hoped) would be transferring to the Coast Starlight for the remainder of my voyage. I entered the station and quickly got my seat assignment, a very simple process that seemed to confound everyone else in line for reasons I couldn't fathom. With time to kill, I first went to the Famima!! convenience store. I had heard about this chain before, but didn't realize there was one in Union Station; I actually was in it briefly on my last trip there, but didn't notice the different food options (I only noticed they were charging $20 for ear buds and quickly left). I bought a couple steamed buns, to eat later on the train for lunch, one chicken teriyaki, one bbq pork, and stuffed them in my backpack. I then went upstairs, to the Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge, which my business class ticket on the Surfliner entitled me to access. Last time I tried to enter the lounge, I was told I needed a business class ticket departing Union Station to enter, which isn't the case according to Amtrak's website, so I was somewhat expecting a fight on this trip. But the lounge attendant was pleasant, and while she was insistent that I should probably just head to the platform since the train was ready to board, she still admitted me to the lounge with barely a glance at my ticket. I used the restroom and grabbed a mocha from the automated espresso machine (it was surprisingly good, given the circumstances), and headed back down to the platform to board.

I walked out on the platform just as Coast Starlight train 14 was pulling into the station. I found car 12, where I would be seated, and waited for the call to board. I found my seat, second row from the front of the car, window seat, ocean side, and took a seat. Coach on the Coast Starlight was impressive. Lots of legroom, a footrest, and a leg support folds up from underneath your seat, like a lay-z-boy. The chair reclines a bit, though not quite as far as I anticipated, given that people travel in these seats overnight. Overall, it was quite comfortable. I don't know that I would sleep well in it, were I traveling overnight, but I could get some rest in it in a pinch (I still think I'll book a roomette, when I take my overnight trip). The aisle seat was soon taken, by a passenger heading to San Luis Obispo after a cross-country trip. He was nice enough, but even better for me, he spent most of the trip in the observation lounge, so I mostly had my row to myself. The train departed right on time, and I settled in and enjoyed the view. I was surprised how rural the landscape was, just a short time after leaving Los Angeles.

I spent the first half of the trip in my seat in coach, mostly, enjoying the view and reading a bit. Considering the 15 hours it takes to get from San Diego to San Jose, I didn't get much done on the train. Most of my time was spent looking out a window. I never turned on my new laptop, which I bought, among other reasons, to use on this long train trip I knew I had coming up. But for the brief spurts of time I spent electronically connected, my phone was more than adequate. I got caught up on some old articles and monitored the news a bit (including the sad news of Marcia Wallace's passing), but mostly just used the train time to decompress. I did eat my steamed buns from Union Station, which were cold, but still not bad. Especially the teriyaki chicken, the BBQ pork wasn't all that great cold. And in the early afternoon, I think my early start time finally hit me, so I napped a bit, or at least rested my eyes, I don't think I ever actually dozed off.

After getting off the train briefly in Santa Barbara to stretch my legs and watch people smoke, I decided to check out the observation car. I expected it to be overrun with people, as I hear it is a popular place on the train and getting a seat can be tricky. But it wasn't too full, this trip. My coach car was full, but I got the impression that the train wasn't at capacity, and that the sleeping cars, in particular, weren't that crowded. The lounge at Union Station wasn't very busy, and when they took reservations for the dining car, there seemed to be plenty of seatings available. So there were quite a few seats in the observation car (though the ocean side was pretty full), and I settled in and enjoyed the views, many of which are not available by any means other than rail. Trails and Rails volunteers provide some context, explaining just what you're looking at, and telling some stories about shipwrecks and other events along this remote stretch of coast. If you're taking the Coast Starlight, this is the time to be in the observation car, because these are the views only the train offers (the highway veers north, while the train continues west until Point Conception--California's corner, as it were), including Hollister Ranch, and Vandenberg Air Force Base.

North of San Luis Obispo, the train continued on its journey. As we moved further into Northern California, the most noticeable thing was just how spread out everything is. The stops get further apart north of Santa Barbara, with two hours or more between stops, because there isn't really anything in between, just farmland or rolling hillside. While people seem to rave about the Coast Starlight's ocean views, I was more impressed by this, a side of California I hadn't seen in awhile. Now to be fair, this is a view you also get from driving, but the last time I drove, I found the endless farmland stultifying (though I did also find certain stretches of road to offer stunning vistas). But from the train, I had the perspective and the patience to sit back and enjoy it.

With the beautiful landscapes all around me, I pretty much stuck to the observation car, and didn't spend much time in my actual seat. Which was fortunate, because both times I headed back to my seat, someone else was sitting it in. The first time, the guy was all apologetic, said he was just enjoying the window view and that he would move, but I told him not to worry about it, I was just getting a snack out of my bag, and would be heading back to the observation car. So that was fine. But when I headed back later that evening, after dinner, there was again someone in my seat, charging some electronic items in the outlet. I asked him to move, and he ignored me at first, then slid over to the aisle seat, leaving his items charging in the pouch on the chair in front of me, using both outlets so I couldn't charge my phone. Since I was getting off the train in less than an hour, I didn't make a big deal out of it, but it was rude. And there wasn't a seat marker above the aisle seat, so I don't even think he was assigned that seat, which made me wonder if he just jumped into my seat to make the conductor think he'd already scanned his ticket. But that was the only rude person I encountered on my trip, and I was glad I didn't have much more time of the train, so I didn't really have to deal with him much.

 Besides seatmates, my other main interaction with other guests was in the dining car. I ate lunch in my seat, but did make an early reservation for dinner that evening. I understand sometimes it can be tricky to get a dinner reservation in coach, but like I said before, I get the impression the sleepers were not terribly crowded, so there was plenty of room at the tables for us hoi polloi. I had a 5:30 reservation, the first seating of the night, and was put at an empty table, to soon be joined by a train enthusiast (I believe the term is "foamer") and two friends heading to Davis to reunite with an old friend. The two women seemed put out that they had to sit with us, but I was already aware they are quite strict about such things; it does seem odd, though, when all the other tables are empty. But we had a nice chat with each other, and enjoyed the view, though the setting sun did interfere a bit. I did enjoy the experience of eating my salad as I watched lettuce being grown.

After the mediocre salad, the main course arrived, which for most of the table was the steak. My train dining experiences only extend as far as the cafe cars, so I did not have very high expectations. And while low expectations may have helped, I must say it was a very good steak. Nothing earth-shattering, and certainly overpriced, but it was flavorful and reasonably tender, and cooked to order, though the gentleman sitting next to me found his overly rare, but the waitress happily took it back and had it cooked a bit longer. I also liked the mushroom sauce that was served on the side. Even the baked potato and veggies (a corn succotash) was pretty good. 

For dessert, I had a blood orange sorbet, which was good, but tiny, but not terribly expensive, if memory serves. The service was good (my iced tea was refilled promptly), and the accommodations reasonably luxurious, for a train (no paper plates here). Again, it did seem overpriced, but I'm fine with that, as a captive audience and all. In these sorts of settings, I'm fine paying a reasonably inflated price, as long as I at least get a quality product (it's the difference between the good expensive food at Disneyland, for instance, to the crap they charge a ton for at the San Diego Zoo). All in all, my first experience with an Amtrak dining car was a very pleasant one, and on my return trip, I'm going to try to have both lunch and dinner in the dining car.

And with that, I think I have covered all the main aspects about my trip on the Coast Starlight. We arrived promptly on time, perhaps a minute or two late by the time I was actually able to detrain (that is the proper term, I'm told). I was able to retrieve my checked luggage after just a few minutes (ignoring the homeless man screaming obscenities, who was apparently upset that his bench was dirty), and was ready to go before my sister even arrived to pick me up. Overall, it was a very relaxing, pleasant, well-run trip, and I highly recommend it, if you have the right mindset. There was a man in the observation car bitching and moaning about how long the trip was taking, and he just couldn't stand it. If you can't take the inefficiencies of the train versus, say, flying (or even driving), then the train is not for you. I certainly wouldn't take it if I needed to be somewhere promptly, though so far Amtrak has proved quite reliable on my handful of journeys. But I think a lot of us need to be forced to slow down from time to time, and if you're willing to accept the pace of train travel, it is an environmentally-conscious, historically-resonant, peaceful and dignified way to travel, decompress from the pressures of daily life, meet new and interesting people, and reacquaint yourself with the world around you. As my vacation here in San Jose is nearing an end, I eagerly await my return voyage.

I think I'll leave it here, my experiences in San Jose, Santa Cruz and San Francisco can be saved for another post, probably after I get back.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Disneyland Train Trip (10/17/13)

I find myself with a fairly busy fall, by my standards. I leave for San Jose in a few days, and soon after I get back, a friend is getting married, preceded by a bachelor party in Vegas. And my October also seemed pretty full, with work taking up more time as I had to work extra hours on various weekends. Because of this, it turns out that last Thursday would be pretty much my last chance to see Disneyland in all its Halloween garishness. I had only been there this year during the kick-off weekend, which I describe in these two posts. And while I did see most of the attractions, I wasn't really feeling it that trip. And truth is, I wasn't even that excited to go this trip. It felt almost like an obligation, that I have to go one more time and see the Halloween stuff, hopefully on a somewhat less busy day. I had the day free, since I worked an extra day the Saturday before, and work was hectic enough that I was eager to get out of town for the day and decompress. But truth is, I probably would have rather gone someplace other than Disneyland. But I'd also been a bit under the weather earlier in the week, and almost cancelled my trip entirely. And actually, for that reason, Disneyland was a pretty good pick as a destination. I've been to Disneyland so many times, it's a very low-obligation destination. If I just want to take it easy, move slow and see the sights, and leave early, that's perfectly fine (as it was, I was feeling pretty fine by Thursday, so it ended up not being an issue).

As I was admittedly a bit underwhelmed by the idea of going to Disneyland, I did decide to do something to make this trip distinct from other trips, by taking the train to Anaheim. I booked business class on the Pacific Surfliner going up, and coach heading back. I would have probably done business class both ways, but I thought the flexibility of an unreserved coach ticket would be convenient, as I could catch an earlier or later train if I so desired. Besides, I rely on the free coffee to recoup a fair amount of the cost of business class, and late at night that wouldn't be as much of an option (as near as I can tell, decaf isn't even an option in business class; I only see one coffee pot). Instead of the Old Town stop, I left this trip from the Santa Fe Station in San Diego, the station from which the Surfliner departs. It's only a few more minutes on the trolley, and as I learned that parking in Old Town is in a bit too short of a supply to rely on, I might as well get the train at Santa Fe and get first dibs on seating.

And like my other trips by train, I did enjoy the train ride. But I will admit, taking the train to Anaheim isn't the most practical means of getting there, and I doubt I'll do it again, at least very regularly. Anaheim is usually about a 90 minute drive for me, but taking the train, from leaving my house to arriving at the Magic Kingdom, took about three hours. Now, if I hadn't taken the trolley to the train station, that would have cut a fair amount of time off the trip; if you live closer to the Amtrak station than I, the trip may be more practical. But economically I'm pretty sure it's more practical to drive. And the fact is, as much as I prefer the train to driving, driving to Anaheim isn't that bad. That's part of why Disneyland has become my default trip lately, the drive is so much more pleasant than the drive to Los Angeles.

But regardless of whether it was a wise choice, I did enjoy the train trip. The train was much busier than my last trip, which surprised me, as I took a slightly later train, and assumed the commuters would be at their destination by the time I left around 9:30. I did have a row to myself, but it seemed like most rows were taken. The rest of the train was also crowded, and when I heard announcements from the conductor reminding travelers that there is one chair per customer, and later that the seats in the cafe car were being used for overflow seating, I was very glad I paid for the upgrade to business class (I think it was $14 between San Diego and Anaheim, a reasonable savings over the cost from San Diego to Los Angeles). I drank a fair amount of coffee, had two cinnamon rolls and a muffin (I waited until late in the trip, to make sure everyone had a crack at them, before I took the second cinnamon roll), and read the complimentary newspaper when I wasn't enjoying the views (see the variety of landscapes the train passes through):

The train made good time and arrived in Anaheim right on time. I bought a ticket for the ART Shuttle, $5 for the day. I had to wait close to 20 minutes for the pickup. The bus arrived empty, and I was the only person to board. Even coming back, I had the bus to myself, though there were two people boarding at the station when I got off. The evening bus actually was almost empty, as I had the wrong stop for the Amtrak Express, but I noticed it just as the bus was leaving the station. Fortunately, the bus driver stopped for me, or I would have had to add the cost of a cab to my day's transportation budget. The shuttle is nice enough, and the wait isn't exactly unacceptable, but it would be nice if they could have a bus waiting for the Amtrak trains (though I suppose it's also there for Metrolink riders, and in any case, the fact that I was the only passenger maybe suggests this isn't something they should really worry about expanding).

Once on board the shuttle in the morning, Disneyland was a quick drive away, the shuttle not really taking much longer than the shuttles from the Toy Story parking lot. I went through the security check (the first time I've actually had a backpack for them to inspect) and got a locker ($10, since my backpack wouldn't fit in the smaller lockers), and around 11:30 it was finally time to hit the park.

I was a bit surprised to see Disneyland was busy. I wasn't too surprised by the line for Haunted Mansion, but even Pirates of the Caribbean was spilling out to the overflow line. I would meet up with a friend later who pointed that this was caused by the Halloween parties; no one wants to go the days Disneyland closes early for the parties, so more people clog the parks on the other days. My first ride of the day was Splash Mountain, and the single-rider line probably took 15-20 minutes. That's not too horrible, as it probably has the slowest-moving single-rider line in the resort, but still a sign that it was a very busy day. The ride attendant put me in the back of the log, when a mother and her son who were in the front of the line asked to switch so they could sit in the back together. Now, big guy in the front seat means the whole log's getting drenched, but I figured it was her funeral, so I amiably took my seat in the front of the log. And we got soaked, though only in the typical way you get soaked on Splash Mountain. Once, I hit a white squall at the bottom of the briar patch, and was just as soaked as if I had fallen off the Mark Twain into the river below. But typically, even a rough ride's not that bad, you just get pretty wet, and that's what happened this time. I got pretty wet, including some wet underpants, which always threaten to ruin your day. But it was a hot day, and I dried very quickly, so overall it was a perfectly fine ride on Splash Mountain, even if I did end up with another ridiculous picture of myself looking terrified:

But even after that mighty plunge, I still was beginning to feel a bit groggy and light-headed, and it was clear my first priority at the moment was lunch. I had been meaning to try the new menu at the Harbour Galley, and so that's exactly what I did. I was surprised to find a line here, it's rarely busy, but being a busy day in the park, combined with their new menu, it's not really that surprising. I was sad to see the salmon salad is no longer offered, it was a nice choice when I wanted something light. The broccoli-cheese baked potato is also gone (it was alright, though the cheese was subpar). Shrimp salad has replaced both, available either as a salad, or on top of a baked potato. I was tempted to get a baked potato, but I thought it wasn't really baked potato weather, and besides, I had been wanting to try the lobster roll. So I did. At $13.99, it's hard to believe it's actually lobster. They do put a piece of lobster on top, but I have to assume it's just "seafood salad" that makes up the bulk of the entree. I don't know that for sure, though, and frankly don't really care, as long as it tastes good. I really liked it from the first bite, it was very strongly seasoned with something, and it tasted good. It came with kettle chips, with bay seasoning, that at first bite I found quite delicious. But in both the case of the chips and the lobster roll, the flavoring got overbearing the more I ate. By the last bites of the lobster roll, I was just glad it was finished. I don't think I'd get it again, especially when those baked potatoes look so alluring (not to mention the bread bowls).

I ate my lunch and got a bit of a pick-me-up from my iced tea, and then was off to find my next adventure. But I must say, I didn't really get that much accomplished at Disneyland this trip. I think I fell into a trap I often do when the park is busier than I expected. I end up spending 45 minutes trying to decide what line to get in, because I don't want to wait 20 minutes for any particular attraction. I'd have been better off just getting in the Haunted Mansion line, but instead, I just wandered around checking out the sights and looking for the mythical walk-on attraction. I had picked up a Fastpass for Star Tours when I first got to the park, and not long after lunch it was time to ride it, so that's what I did. I went on its a small world, which appeared to have an unusually long line, because one side was out of service, with a technician furiously trying to repair a boat:

The line still moved reasonably quick, though, and I was on in about 15 minutes, not the 45 minute posted wait time. I noticed the boats were getting pretty backed up with the one side out of commission, but didn't think much about it, until my boat came to a halt in front of Lilo and Stitch. The boats were now backed up all the way to the Hawaiian portion of the ride. I honestly don't find the music as annoying as many do, but it's not a brief ride to begin with. And it ended up taking about twenty minutes to get out, from this point. I took the opportunity to take a bit of a nap in the back seat of the boat, so I came off the ride a bit refreshed. But I did make a mental note to skip it if I ever see one side of the ride having mechanical difficulties (sometimes they just close one side because the park isn't busy, and that doesn't usually cause much of a logjam).

And that was about it for Disneyland. I don't think I rode anything else. I didn't even go to the Tiki Room, which is a sort of sacrilege for me. Even after my small world catnap, I was still dragging a bit, so I decided to go to Ghirardelli and have a hot fudge sundae, before watching Aladdin.  This may be another sacrilege, but I must admit I'm not really that crazy for Ghirardelli. I've been disappointed with my sundaes in the past, but I've always ordered some sort of specialty sundae, and some non-core element disappointed me,  like I didn't like the peanut butter they used. But this time I just got the basic hot fudge sundae, and it's just okay, something about it just seems slightly off. Maybe I don't like their vanilla ice cream? I once got a chocolate shake, and had similar feelings about the chocolate ice cream. So truth be told, I think I might just give Ghirardelli a pass next trip, as I would be just as satisfied with a chocolate croissant from the Jolly Holiday, and it would be a lot cheaper.

After I finished my ice cream, I was off to get a seat for Aladdin. Last time I saw the show, I noticed the seats in the balcony on the far ends of the auditorium, with just one row on the extreme sides of the theatre. I thought they might offer an unusual perspective on the show, and the various effects. I made a mental note to try them out sometime, and so this time I tried to snag a seat there. Unfortunately, by the time I walked across the auditorium, the far seats (which I thought would have a better view of the carpet) were taken, so I walked back to where I came in, and took the only remaining seat on the other side, which was the closest to the stage. But given how far off to the side the balcony is here, it was a pretty lousy seats, in many respects. I had trouble seeing a lot of the stuff happening deep in the stage. But it did offer a different perspective on some of the signature elements of the show. In particular, it offered a very close-up look at the carpet flying over the audience, with the performers at one point mere feet away (with their backs to me at that moment, unfortunately). I also could see the performers on stage much closer than I'm used to in the balcony. And I could see some of the actors awaiting their cues off-stage, and seeing them hastily ascending the stairs next to me to get to their window in time to deliver a line. Don't know that I would sit there again, but it did offer a different perspective.

The show itself was just okay. The genie wasn't bad, per se, but it was a rather by-the-numbers performance, with some of the more stale jokes remaining. The last performance I saw was much better, but this performance was still entertaining. It's a good show, and the Broadway-caliber staging makes it seem like a real bargain for a theme park. I often feel like it alone has justified my trip to Disneyland, and I felt no different this trip, when I wasn't quite in the Disneyland mindset. If I had just taken the train to Anaheim to see Aladdin and nothing else, it seemed to me that would have been a reasonable thing to do. The rest of my day was just gravy.

Turning on my cell phone as I left Aladdin, I discovered multiple frantic voice mails from my mom, letting me know that a Pacific Surfliner train hit a truck in Sorrento Valley, shutting down the tracks. She was convinced I was now stranded in Anaheim for the night. I assured her Amtrak deals with this kind of thing fairly regularly, and if the train wasn't running through that stretch of tracks by the time my train was scheduled, they would probably bus us down to San Diego. I wasn't as worried as her, but I did think I would now be late getting home. But as it turns out, they had the trains running again, on a different track, I think, before my train picked me up at Anaheim, and while we were close to 20 minutes late, I don't think the accident was a factor.

But regardless the unsettling news from the tracks, I went on with my day, and rode a few rides in DCA. As I was getting on the Little Mermaid, I got a text from a friend that she was at the park that day, as well, and so I met up with her as soon as I got off the ride, just in time to see the neon lighting in Cars Land. We chatted for a bit, and then I rode on California Screamin' with her kid.

And with that, I realized my day was coming to an end. Monika was leaving, and I had to catch my shuttle bus soon after. I did some quick shopping, retrieved my stuff from the locker, and went to catch the bus (which as I said before I did, barely). It was an odd day at Disneyland. It didn't seem like I did much. I did precisely nothing related to Halloween, which was ostensibly the point of this trip (I never made it to the villains stuff at Big Thunder Ranch, couldn't exactly say why, it just didn't happen for some reason). I missed such personal favorites as the Tiki Room and Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln. But despite not doing much, and despite the fact that, as I've admitted many times, my heart just didn't seem to be in this trip, I still had a good time. Maybe it was the train trip, adding novelty to the day. Maybe it was just that it was better than my last trip. Maybe it was seeing Aladdin. Maybe running into my friend and watching the neon glow together. But whatever it was, I ended up being very glad I went. I'm still standing by my claim that I'm going to let my pass expire for a few months, take a break from the parks. But I still love the place, even if I don't feel the compulsion to go over and over again like I used to. I'm looking forward to taking a break from it, but Disneyland is still a special place.

But with my day at Disneyland over, there was still the matter of getting home. The train was late getting to Anaheim, by about 15 minutes. When it arrived, I was surprised to see it was not the train I'm used to. Apparently, to add capacity, there is one Pacific Surfliner train that uses old Amfleet single-level train cars. I was vaguely aware of this, and of the fact that passengers do not like the train, at all. But I had never considered that I would be on this train some day. But on my second trip, here I was. I sprinted down to an open door (unlike the new trains, the Amfleet cars don't have automatic doors, so only the doors nearest the attendants actually open), and walked through the cramped cars looking for a seat. I was beginning to worry I'd have to sit next to someone (egads!), but I did find a seat towards the back by myself. I was immediately appalled by the legroom. Not unbearable, but much worse than the standard Surfliner car. Just out of curiosity, I tried to lower the tray from the seat in front of me, but there was nowhere for it to go. Once my ticket was collected, I went to the cafe car and got a mediocre hot dog, and while there I got a peak into business class, which looked like quite an improvement over where I was sitting. I can't really say how it compares to business class in the other trains, but I feel comfortable saying there must be a much more noticeable difference between coach and business classes on the Amfleet trains than on the standard trains. I certainly hope I don't have to take this train when I go to Santa Barbara next month.

Whatever its shortcomings, though, the train did get me home. Between the outdated rolling stock and the fact that this was one of the Surfliner trains they now have making Coaster stops, we arrived late, which seems inevitable. But not ridiculously late, and soon enough I was on the trolley, and was home just slightly later than usual for a Disney trip.

So to conclude, I would have to say Amtrak is not really a reasonable way to get to Disneyland from San Diego. I don't know that I would do it again. But I think it worked out for me, on this trip. It was a relaxing ride to the park, and given the stresses of my last few visits, that's exactly what I needed. It set the mood for the trip, so when I discovered the park to be busier than I expected, I just went with it. It was hardly my most productive trip, but I think I'm at a point where I need a trip that leaves me wanting more. And now, I actually find myself, if not craving another trip, at least looking forward to my next trip with anticipation instead of dread. So I think this trip worked out well, serving as one step in the process to slowly nurse my Disney fanaticism back to health. Let's hope my next trip goes as smoothly (not sure when that will be - Thanksgiving weekend? I've actually been twice on that weekend, and it's actually a much more pleasant day than you might think).

Monday, October 14, 2013

Channel Islands National Park and Disneyland (Part Two)

Hello, and thank you for joining me for part two of my trip report. Part One recounts the first day of my trip, an afternoon at Disneyland and evening at Santa Monica Pier on the way to Oxnard. I pick up today with day two, Saturday, and the purpose of my trip, Channel Islands National Park (specifically, Santa Cruz Island).

I had some stuff to do in Ventura that morning, so I had to get a later start than I would have liked. Well, I never really like to get an early start, I'm not a morning person. But the boats leave when the boats leave, and if you can't make the early boats (9 AM, not exactly the break of dawn, anyway), you have to wait for the noon boat. If you're not camping overnight, that only allows about four hours on the island (the noon boat arrived at Scorpion Harbor in just about one hour). But my hope is the limited time I had would allow me to explore a reasonable portion of the island, and get a feel for the place, should I like to take a longer trip in the future.

I arrived at Island Packers about 45 minutes early, as instructed, and quickly checked in. I grabbed a grilled cheese sandwich from a grill within walking distance, and explored the harbor and beach a little bit. Walking on the beach, I could just make out the islands, despite the marine layer. On a clear day, you should be able to see them quite easily. Santa Cruz Island is about 20 miles off-shore, but fairly large and mountainous, so it has a reasonable presence when you're standing on the shore, and just seeing a glimpse of it made me eager to visit the island; I'm surprised, as visible as it is, that it is one of the least-visited National Parks.

My transport to the island, The Islander, was about what I expected, a reasonably large and, it turns out, fast ship, the sort of boat that offers whale-watching back home in San Diego (Island Packers does offer whale-watching and nature tours that don't involve island landings, too). We left harbor promptly, and the journey to the island didn't take long. I will say, as someone who doesn't have a lot of experience with ocean voyages, it was the roughest boat ride I can recall experiencing. I wouldn't hesitate to take the voyage again, but I was surprised, given the reasonably good weather conditions. I wouldn't want to be out in the channel during a storm. But the captain and crew managed the journey well, and we arrived in one piece after about a hour, despite a few brief pauses or rerouting to observe dolphins or other marine life.

Our destination on Santa Cruz Island was Scorpion Harbor. Disembarking on the pier, the kelp forest in the harbor was easy to see all around us. A brief orientation with a park volunteer explained the rules of a National Park, and informed us that a brief guided hike would be offered in a few minutes. I checked out the immediate area, reviewed the map one last time and asked the ranger if my itinerary seemed reasonable for the time I had (answer: maybe), and joined the guided hike.

The volunteer docent explained a bit about the island, its geography, history, and the environmental struggles it has faced, and the recent efforts that are restoring it to its original state. After about a mile or so, she concluded her hike, and let us go on our own way. I enjoyed learning about the island from the helpful volunteer, but I was also eager to go off on my own, since the solitude is sort of the point of visiting a relatively isolated island. And while I took one of the easier hikes for a daytripper, a loop going to Potato Harbor, I didn't see too many people once I set off on my own. Of course, there are plenty of hiking trails in California where you can experience a similar level of solitude without a $50 boat trip, but there is definitely something about being on an island, especially one that has been let to return to it's natural state, by and large, and with no services offered, no concessions or anything.

The island is often described as America's Galapagos, which I think might be overstating the case, at least in terms of the island's qualities as a tourist destination. Yes, there are plants and animals here found nowhere else, but fat chance seeing most of them. I didn't see the island fox or the bald eagle, which wasn't a huge shock, but even the more common sea birds were fairly scarce. Mostly what I saw were ravens, which were still fun to watch, but watching ravens is hardly a transcendent experience. And the inland flora, mostly coastal sage and chaparral, is certainly in need of conservation, but doesn't make for the most interesting sight-seeing. Though there was some interesting plant life to observe, here and there.

But I don't mean to sound too negative. The inland landscapes are interesting to look at, even if they didn't change much on the relatively brief hike I took. And my failure to see much wildlife is no doubt at least partly due to my short time on the island (besides, I might have wanted to see an island fox, but the island fox's job isn't to entertain me). And the coastal views from the cliffs I was hiking on were phenomenal. I was especially impressed with the diversity of landscapes, the way every cove seemed to have it's own personality, and even the North and South sides might have dramatically different appearances. And as impressive as they looked from above, I imagine they must make for sublime views for kayakers and boaters enjoying from below.

My ultimate destination was Potato Harbor. It was a good destination for a half-day trip, just about the perfect distance to visit and return in time to make your boat home. It's also a very scenic terminus. It would have been a great place for a swim, but there was no path down to the water at Potato Harbor, or anywhere else on this hike; if you want beach access, pick a different route.  I watched some birds frolic overhead, ate a snack, and sooner than I would have liked, began heading back.

The trail I took back was more inland, so the views weren't quite as impressive, and on this sunny day, walking across the chert deposits got a bit hot. It was interesting to see the chert up close, the park volunteer explained that it was from these deposits that the Chumash got the material for making their bead money, which was used by tribes across California and the nation, as well as by Western traders. But it was hot, and as the surface deposits are quite erosive, it made for someone unsteady footing, compared to the journey up. In the end, once I returned to Scorpion Canyon, and sat down in some shade in the campgrounds there, my feet were killing me and I was fairly tired. So in this way, too, my itinerary for the trip worked out well, I covered just as much ground as I had the energy to cover.

My boat was scheduled to leave at 5:00, but I got back to it just a bit before 4:30, and went ahead and boarded. The crew and rangers were busy taking camper's luggage aboard, rangers quick to verify that they had packed their garbage along with their supplies (everything you take on the island you have to take off). The boat back, accommodating both day and half-day visitors, as well as campers, was much more full than the boat over, but there was enough seating for everyone. The return voyage didn't feel quite as rough, but pretty huge waves were battering one side of the boat. Bottle-Nosed Dolphins were observed briefly, and more of the common dolphins that followed our boat on the way out, though this time they seemed to have somewhere to be, so we didn't see much of them. At one point, the captain pointed out some wildlife in front of the boat, but the one side of the boat was too crowded to pass to the front easily. So I decided to go on the other side, and just time the waves so as not to get soaked. But that plan turned out to be about as stupid as it sounds, and I got pretty soaked.  Others at the front of the boat seemed to get fairly wet, too.

So by the time I got back to Ventura Harbor, I was wet, tired, and sunburned (my hat and clothing mostly protected me, but I didn't bring sunscreen and my arms got burned fairly substantially). I really wished I was still checked in to my hotel in Oxnard, but I had the bright idea of booking a hotel in Anaheim, to be ready to start my day at Disneyland on Sunday. The thinking, as I said previously, was to break up the drive. But as it turns out, I would have much rather liked to lie down in a local hotel room, take a shower, and take it easy, maybe explore the town a bit, have a nice late dinner or something. But as it stood, my hotel room was waiting in Anaheim, so that's where I headed.

The drive was actually fairly pleasant, no traffic or anything, and I got to the Hilton Anaheim fairly quickly. I pulled into the valet area while I checked in, and must have been quite the sight. I had intended to wash my car before I left, but never got around to it, and it was pretty much covered with bird crap. Myself, my hair was a mess from the salt water, I was sweaty and red from the sun, and exhausted, and my legs and stiffened up during the drive, so I was a bit unsteady on my feet as the valet got my car door for me. I quickly checked in, drove myself to the self parking, and before I knew it I was in my room.

I must say, I found the hotel disappointing. Nothing terribly wrong with it, but considering I thought I was upgrading my experience, I really preferred the Doubletree Orange County, over by the Crystal Cathedral. Not only is it cheaper, but the rooms are a bit better furnished and, at least from my limited experience, better maintained. Both seem a bit dated at the moment, but the Doubletree only feels a bit long in the tooth, while the Hilton seems to be trying too hard to be hip and modern, which only serves to call attention to the ways it falls short. Wallpaper was peeling in the bathroom, and the armchair in the room was too low and uncomfortable, with no footrest or ottoman. The floor to ceiling window gave me a nice view of the convention center, though, and the bed was very comfortable, which is ultimately the most important thing in a hotel room. In the end, it got the job done, so I can't complain too much. But again, I thought I was splurging a bit booking a room here, but I don't think it was worth paying extra to stay here. If I got a pretty good deal, I would be more than willing to stay here again, but I think it cost me about $30 more to stay here over the Doubletree (and the Doubletree, in Orange, California, has much lower room taxes than the Hilton, in the Anaheim resort district, and parking is a bit cheaper), and I'd have to say that was a waste of money. And it certainly didn't help matters that the hotel was outshined by far by the Hampton Inn I stayed at the previous night (and that's Hilton's "bargain" brand).

Of course, I can't blame the Hilton for the fact that I really didn't want to be there, I'd rather be just waking up from a nap in Oxnard, or driving the rest of the way home to sleep in my own bed. But I was there, so I tried to relax, take a shower, read a bit, and get some sleep. Part of why I paid the premium for the Hilton was to be within walking distance to Disneyland, so I could pop in for a few hours Saturday night if I wanted, and easily be there at opening on Sunday. But the idea that I could possibly go to Disneyland Saturday night was laughable to me then, in the here and now. I had no energy for such things. And on Sunday, I realized there was no way I was getting up early if I didn't absolutely have to. Even the noon check-out time was beginning to look iffy. But I made it, Sunday morning, was up and about by 11, had a quick breakfast at Starbucks (the in-room coffeemaker coffee was undrinkable, and I'm not too much of a coffee snob), and drove across the street, to park in the Mickey & Friends Lot and take the shuttle to Disneyland, keeping my walking to a minimum.

As you might have guessed from the description of my energy level and mood, I did not end up spending a lot of time at Disneyland. My first stop was New Orleans Square; I planned to start my visit with the Haunted Mansion, but Pirates of the Caribbean had just broke down, and from the look of things the entire line had migrated to the Haunted Mansion, so the line looked quite like Friday's. So I decided to hop on the train and take the grand circle tour, instead. Which was nice, this being the sort of visit where I really cherish sit-down times. As it turns out, when I disembarked back at New Orleans Square, the Haunted Mansion still had a fairly long line, but Pirates was just reopening, so I got to ride it with essentially no waiting. And once that ride was done, I rode the Haunted Mansion, which now had a reasonable line, though still a bit longer than usual.

After that, I began to wonder if there was any point to sticking around. I wasn't really feeling it, I was exhausted, and what did I really need to see that I hadn't seen Friday, or at least recently? I didn't ride it's a small world on Friday, but I don't necessarily ride that every visit (it's close to it, but it's not absolutely essential - I'd have to say Haunted Mansion and the Enchanted Tiki Room are probably my only two absolutely essential rides; maybe Tower of Terror, too, but honestly I'm beginning to get a bit jaded about that one). Space Mountain? I really don't like the Halloween overlay, I just miss the regular soundtrack too much, and I think the whole thing looks cheesy, so I was fine with skipping it. I did remember that I hadn't ridden Indiana Jones this trip, as I had planned, to see the new effects at the beginning with Mara. So I hopped in the single-rider line and checked it out. I was mildly impressed, it's definitely an improvement, a nice little plussing. Nothing earth-shattering, but it works well. And then I left. I didn't even pop into the Tiki Room, deciding to count the weekend as one visit, so seeing it on Friday kept my streak intact.

So that's that. Four rides and I went home. As this blog post is a bit delayed, I can't even remember if I ate in the park. I think I went to In-N-Out on the way home, but I won't swear to that. I did buy some pumpkin fritters to take home; my mom wanted to try the pumpkin beignets, but that line was crazy, while there was no waiting for the fritters. I did want to try the menu at the Harbor Galley, but that didn't happen this trip.

What did I learn from this trip? I learned that the Channel Islands are a very special place well worth a visit. I also learned that, while I'm really not fond of long car trips, especially those that traverse through Los Angeles, breaking them up with stops on both ends at Disneyland might be counter-productive. It took away some of the focus on the trip, so that the new experiences were overshadowed a bit by Disneyland, which is a wonderful place, but which obviously is a bit lacking in novelty when you go as much as I do. I think the Friday stop at Disneyland might have been a reasonable accommodation, letting me avoid peak traffic times, and inspiring my last-minute decision to swing by Santa Monica on my way to Oxnard. But the Sunday trip was ill-conceived. I should have booked two nights in Oxnard, which would have given me some time to explore the town a little bit, walked around the harbor and stuff. As it is, I never stopped anywhere in Oxnard other than my hotel room. Oxnard doesn't have the best reputation in the world, but I thought it looked like a nice enough place, at least worth exploring if you're already there. And then I could have just driven home on Sunday. I could have taken the scenic route again, seen it during daylight hours, and maybe stopped at a few places that looked interesting if I wanted to break up the drive. But cramming an overnight stay in Anaheim only served to dilute the experience of my weekend getaway, and cheapen Disneyland a bit in the process.

The fact is, I feel a bit burned out on Disneyland at the moment. I partially blame this trip for that. I also blame Disney's horribly botched Tiki Room merchandise event, which definitely hurt my opinion of the brand and their competency, and their respect for their customers. I'm going back to Disneyland on Thursday (taking the train, as a bit of an experiment to see how well Amtrak works for visiting the Happiest Place on Earth), but I must admit I'm not that excited. It feels like an obligation, as it will be my last chance to go during Halloween Time. I've had similar feelings a time or two before, and they've passed; it usually only takes one good trip to make up for several more middling experiences. But my pass runs out in early December, and while I was already planning on waiting to renew, I am now far more confident in that decision, and I have a feeling my membership lapse may last longer than I originally thought. I'll be back, no doubt about it, but there are other things to do in this world. I think I've been overdoing it a bit, trying to make up for all the years I didn't go at all, and I think it's time I found a happy medium.  It'll give me a chance to explore some other destinations in Southern California and beyond. And even if I get theme park withdrawal, I still need to visit Knott's and see the refurbished log ride (and I think in many respects, Knott's beats Disneyland at Christmas), and it's been well over a year since I've been to Universal Studios, I think, and I wouldn't mind going back (and it's easy to reach via L.A.'s subway, so there's another train trip!). But when Disney begins to feel like an obligation, it's time to mix things up a bit.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Los Angeles Train Trip (Union Station, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, Museum of Jurassic Technology) 9/26/13

A brief pause on part two of my posts about my recent trip to the Channel Islands, so as to write about my still-more-recent trip up to Los Angeles this weekend, while it's still fresher in my mind.

As I mentioned recently, I've taken an interest of late in train travel, and Amtrak. I have some trips coming up, to San Jose in October, and Santa Barbara in December, and am beginning to plan a trip to Seattle for next year. But in planning all these excursions, there's an element of uncertainty, as I haven't been on an Amtrak train, or really any train that is not a theme park attraction, in about twelve years. So I was anxious to ride a train to gain the experience to plan additional and possibly longer trips, and also reading about various trains and planning future trips made me eager to hop on the train just for the fun of it. So when I recently found myself with a long weekend, having worked through the previous weekend, a train outing seemed the perfect way to spend the extra day off. And after a trip to Knott's Berry Farm was nixed because of the difficulties of getting there via public transportation quickly, and the fact that I'm a bit theme-parked out at the moment, Los Angeles seemed the next logical choice.

I booked round-trip accommodations for Thursday, leaving from the Old Town station at 8:30 AM, to arrive at Union Station around 11:15. The return train left Los Angeles at 7:30, to return to San Diego at 10:15 PM. My agenda was to explore Union Station and the surrounding area, and use the Metro to visit the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It seemed to me a full schedule, but not too ambitious for someone not familiar with Los Angeles' public transportation. And I would say it worked well (I was rushed at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, but I've been there many times before, so I just focused on the newest bits).

I could have had a bit more time in Los Angeles had I booked the first train of the morning, but I just can't get up that early for a purely leisure trip. Getting to the 8:30 train meant getting up earlier than I would have liked, but I managed to have myself out the door by 7:40. I had booked the train for the Old Town Station, rather than the originating Santa Fe Station. This way I could easily park at Old Town, for free, no fuss, no muss. Or so I thought. But after circling the entire lot and verifying there was not a single spot free, I began to panic. I headed up to Old Town State Park, to park in their lots, but they were all posted "no transit parking," and I didn't feel like taking the risk of a tow (though how would they know I wasn't just a very thorough visitor to the park?). I saw signs for paid lots, at $5, which I would gladly pay, but they were all time-limited, the longest I saw being 10 hours, which wouldn't quite cut it. I kept driving around, again beginning to panic, when I found a spot in front of a church. I took it, looked around several times, lest I had missed a no parking or two-hour parking sign, and then walked down to the transit center, relieved that things had worked out. If I hadn't found that spot, I'm not quite sure what I would have done. So I learned, in the future, to take the trolley to the Old Town station, and save myself from parking worries while minimizing my carbon footprint (the Solana Beach station has free 14-day parking, which sounds tempting, though I don't know if it's any more plentiful that Old Town's).

Parking solved, I arrived at the station and waited for the train, which arrived right on time. For this trip, I purchased a business class ticket heading up, and coach coming down. I upgraded the first leg of the trip primarily to guarantee myself a seat. The Pacific Surfliner is unreserved in coach, and while I figured it was unlikely to be an issue, for my first trip I wanted the peace of mind of knowing a seat would be waiting for me (I needn't have worried, as it turns out). And the free coffee sounded appealing given the early departure time, as did the pastries. I also was curious to see just how the business class and coach experiences rate, and was also quite curious about the new executive lounge in Union Station, available to business class travelers (and those booked in sleeping cars). So upgrading the morning trip to business class seemed to be a good purchase. It was a tough call, because while the cost doesn't exactly break the bank, it is about a 50% premium over coach. I'll share my experience with each level of accommodations, but if you're wondering whether I thought it was worth it, I'll just say, it's certainly arguable, but shortly after I returned home, I upgraded my tickets to Santa Barbara to business class. So apparently I thought it was worth the cost.

So when the train arrived, I ran up to where I thought I would find business class, which is right behind the locomotive. So I ran to the front of the train, but was told business class was in the back. I sprinted to the rear of the train and just managed to board right after the "all aboard" last call was given (I realized I should have just boarded where I was, and I could have walked leisurely to the back through the trains). I figured sometime they must have moved business class to the back, but it just occurred to me as I write this that maybe the locomotive was behind the train pushing, instead of pulling. San Diego doesn't have facilities to turn a train, so the Pacific Surfliner is pulled in one direction, pushed in the other. So perhaps that's why business class wasn't where I thought (or rather was, but my orientation was off). But in any case, I made it onto the business class car, went upstairs, and found a seat.

The car wasn't particularly full, but the best seats, coast-side window seats facing forward with unobstructed views of the ocean, were taken. I settled for a window seat facing forward with a slightly obstructed view due to a support beam between windows. I was impressed with the legroom, and the seats in general were nice. I waited for the attendant to take my ticket, and then went to the back of the train car to see the complimentary refreshments. I got a cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll, along with a copy of the USA Today. I skimmed the paper, enjoyed my cinnamon roll, and drank the first of many cups of coffee. The most intrepid reportage I read in USA Today was a major story about the popularity of pretzel buns (it reminded me of a headline from an old paper--USA Newz--from the '90s featured in an episode of Gravity Falls: "Cheese Crust Pizza Declared Delicious"). But I enjoyed the cinnamon roll very much, tasting much fresher than it looked in it's cellophane packaging. I wasn't quite as impressed with the muffins I had later, but they weren't bad. And the coffee was fine, nothing amazing, but it was good, perfectly drinkable coffee, and I drank a lot of it. I certainly recouped a goodly portion of my business class fee on the refreshments. Walking the train a bit, though, I saw that booking business class for a seat was not necessary on this trip. In fact, the other cars were far less populated than business class. Spread out over several cars, the coach customers actually seemed to have a quieter environment than business class customers. Though that's mainly due to one loud-mouth in the back of the car talking politics. I was very disappointed to realize I forgot my earbuds, so I couldn't drown him out with my music. But it wasn't too bad, and the soothing rocking of the train and the beautiful views out the window soon let me tune him out and relax in my own little world.

Overall, I really enjoyed the train trip North (and coming back, I might as well add now). It's relaxing to not have to drive, be able to just sit back and relax. It takes about the same amount of time as driving (a bit longer, if traffic is good), but it's not dead time, it's part of the vacation. I enjoyed a treat and some coffee, took in some coastal scenery, read a bit, and was in Los Angeles a few minutes early. When things go right, as they did on this trip, it's a great way to travel. A shame it's not always reliable, but given the resources they have, and the fact that they have to share the tracks with freight trains, Amtrak does a good job. At least from what I've seen so far.

First thing I did in Los Angeles was check out Union Station. It seemed the logical choice, since that's where I was. It is a sharp looking place, I loved the waiting room and some of the mosaic work and signage. But it wasn't so much the building that impressed me as the crowds. It reminded me of airports years ago, bustling but not quite unbearable. A lot of people in a hurry, but not too many people about to collapse under the stress. The energy of the crowd was mostly rather pleasant, feeling like a well-oiled machine. With some 15 tracks, plus the Metro subway and bus terminal, there's a lot of movement going on here, but it seemed to accommodate it well, at least on this Thursday after rush hour. But with everyone else bustling to reach their destination, it almost seemed perverse to just stand there, especially when my time was somewhat limited, so I head out of the station and into Downtown Los Angeles.

My main goal was to get something to eat, while reconnoitering for a possible future visit to Chinatown. So I headed to a place you hear about often on train websites when Union Station is mentioned: Philippe's, supposed inventor of the french dip sandwich. I must say, having heard people rave so enthusiastically about the sandwich, I just didn't quite get it. It was fine, but nothing remarkable, certainly nothing I'd crave. But I'm still glad I came here for the atmosphere and the energy of the place. Just a bit ahead of the oncoming lunch rush, it was still pretty hopping, with lots of people milling about the counter. But I was quickly beckoned to the counter to order, choosing the basic sandwich and an iced tea, which was already poured in small glasses with lemon (had I not consumed so much on the train, I would have got the 45-cent coffee, just to say I purchased a 45-cent coffee in this millennium). I sat at one of the communal counters and quickly consumed my sandwich, while taking in the charming surroundings. There was even a bank of telephone booths. It's close to Union Station and has a lot of character, so it's certainly worth trying, but just don't set your expectations too high.

After Philippe's, I walked around the area, and checked out the sites, mainly Olivera Street and Chinatown. I was particularly interested in Chinatown, as my mom expressed an interest in going up to Chinatown for lunch for her birthday (she thought that sounded like a good excuse for a train trip), and so she wanted to know if there was anything close enough for her to walk that looked good. I wasn't too impressed with the options. It seems like the heart of Chinatown is just a little too far for her, and a little too hilly. But there was a Chinese restaurant across the street from Philippe's, and while it hardly screamed authenticity, that's not really what my mom likes, so I think it might be up her alley. As I told her, though, it's not far from the entrance of Union Station, but the outside of Union Station is itself far from Union Station; it's a long walk out from the trains. But I told her I thought she could manage (and I'm sure we can get a wheelchair or something to help her at least part of the way). I also suggested Hollywood as an alternate destination, as the subway seems to get us right around the corner from the Hollywood Museum in the Max Factor Building, which she has long wanted to see. So hopefully we'll go up and see some sights soon.

I would have liked to walk around Downtown on the other side of Union Station, see City Hall and Angel's Flight, but I decided I didn't have time (I didn't know it at the time, but Angel's Flight had derailed shortly before my train arrived in Los Angeles). But time being somewhat at a premium, and not really knowing just how much time my travels on Los Angeles' public transportation would really take, I decided to head to my next destination, The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. My initial plan had been to take the Metro light rail, but I saw I could also get there by the Metro Silver express bus, so I decided to give it a try instead. I would recommend you go with the Metro Expo Line instead (you have to transfer from the subway to get there from Union Station, but still is the better way to go). I thought the Silver line would work well, because it had dedicated lanes and could just drive right past the traffic. Unfortunately, this isn't so in Downtown Los Angeles. By the time it got to these dedicated lanes, I was at my destination. So for the route I took, the express bus was just a bus, albeit with a few less stops. It worked okay, but based on my experience heading back to Union Station, the Expo Line seems the way to go.

Still, though, I was impressed by the public transportation in Los Angeles, a city not exactly known for it. The light rail and subway won't get you everywhere, but if it goes where you want to go, it seems to work quite nicely. The new Expo Line, which serviced my destinations this trip, worked well, and once it is extended to Santa Monica, it will open up even more destinations. I didn't go there this trip, but the Red Line subway seems an easy way of getting to Hollywood. Not all destinations the daytripper like myself would seek out are easily reached by public transportation (getting to Griffith Park seems a tough nut to crack--there is a shuttle to the Griffith Observatory, but only on weekends). I've long wanted to return to the Huntington Library, and it is reachable by transit, but it's over an hour from Union Station, and even then it's about a 1 1/2 mile walk from the Metro station, which is a long way to go to take a walk in their garden. But just the fact that it's possible challenges some of the preconceived notions of Los Angeles transit. I look forward to learning the ins and outs of the Metro system on future day trips.

But leaving behind us the journey and the transportation, now I was finally at the destination of the voyage; after a brief walk from the transit stop, I arrived at the Natural History Museum. Well, first, I arrived at the Rose Garden, which was very nice. Despite the recent heat, there were many healthy roses in bloom. I took my time walking amongst the flowers, before seeking out the entrance of the museum.

I bought my ticket, dodging some minor dust storms being kicked up by the wind on this blustery day. Given the wind, I skipped the outdoor gardens for the time being, and went inside. I started my visit in the Gem and Mineral Hall, expecting to quickly check this off my list before going to something more interesting, but was surprised to find this perhaps my favorite part of my visit.  I think it's the scale of the thing, the way the shelves just seem to keep going and going with more and more specimens, of every color you could want, broken up here and there with exhibits of meteorites or gems, and a video narrated, I believe, by Orson Welles (I didn't actually stop to watch it, but it made a nice aural backdrop to the exhibit). A good mix of the mundane and the bizarre, the warm and the imposing, the darkened exhibit hall was a very peaceful, relaxing space, and I could see it becoming a sort of sanctuary from the everyday if I lived in Los Angeles (there are a lot of places in Los Angeles I would pretty much be a fixture at if I lived up that way, and I think the Natural History Museum could easily make that list).

The Gem and Mineral Hall was certainly not the only aspect of the museum I enjoyed. I did eventually make it out to the gardens. The Edible Garden was a neat idea, and while there wasn't a lot bearing fruit at the moment, there were still things to enjoy in the area, like the pot of plants that all smell and taste like lemon. There wasn't a lot of activity in the Pollinators Garden, but I did see a few butterflies. (The signage in the gardens and other outdoor areas was excellent, playful and useful, pointing out little things you otherwise would miss, the indentations where squirrels had buried their acorns, for instance)

 Inside, I enjoyed the dioramas, as I knew I would, though perhaps my expectations were a tad too high. It is nice that these exhibits survive and thrive in a modern world, and I hope they always have a home here.

The Los Angeles History exhibit was interesting. I enjoyed seeing some Chumash exhibits from the Channel Islands, after my recent visit there. And the WPA model of Los Angeles in the '30s was very nice. It's an unusual exhibit for a Natural History Museum, but I think it works.

I ended up seeing all the exhibits on the main floor. I also briefly went through the hands-on exhibits downstairs. I was impressed, they had a lot for kids to do, and they really encouraged them to get out into their own community and see what they can discover. I briefly went upstairs, but decided I didn't have enough time, and would save that for another trip (I almost bought a membership, but I can't see me coming again until sometime next year, and decided it wasn't a wise investment). And coming across this little freak show upstairs surely encouraged me to turn back:
(But hey, if this is what it takes to get kids excited about birds and stuff, who am I to judge?)

After about three hours, I left the museum, very glad I went, and headed West on the Metro Expo Line, until I reached it's terminus, in Culver City. I grabbed a bite to eat, and walked the three blocks to my next stop, the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I love this place, but it doesn't change much, and so doesn't often justify the trip from San Diego, once you've seen it. But having been away for a few years, it was nice to be back. And things had changed. A new exhibit on Russian Cosmist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky nicely complements the paintings of Laika and other dogs of the Soviet space program in the adjacent room.  Most impressive, though, was the rooftop garden, populated with finches and doves. Given the dark and confining nature of much of the museum, this is a nice escape. I didn't have a whole lot of time left to explore here, so I saw much of the permanent collection only in passing. I did take some time to review the exhibit on Athanasius Kircher; I just checked out his biography from the library, and am looking forward to getting some more context on this odd individual. If you've never been here, you should check it out. I just wish I had more time here. It made for an odd juxtaposition with the Natural History Museum, as the Museum of Jurassic Technology really seems like a conceptual art project about the role of museums like the Natural History Museum in human understanding. Other than it's size, the exhibit on the Stink Ant of Cameroon would not be out of place in one of the diorama halls of the Natural History Museum (I think--the exhibit was broken, so I'm going by memory; one fault I would have with the Museum of Jurassic Technology is that every visit there seem to be several broken exhibits).

Leaving the museum, I took the Metro back to Union Station. Earlier, I had seen set up being done for Station to Station, an art/music exhibition that has been traveling across the nation by rail. I was familiar with it, but didn't realize this last minute trip had me in Union Station the same day as Station to Station. I hoped to see or hear a little bit of it before boarding my train home, but nothing much seemed to be going on while I was there. I did see Beck wandering Union Station with a camera, but things didn't seem to be underway while I was there. Once I arrived, I checked on my train, and found it was two hours delayed. After I read that, the batteries on my phone finally died out (they had been low for some time, my phone does not seem to hold a charge very well anymore). So I decided to head to the new executive lounge that recently soft-opened.  My understanding was that my business class ticket from that morning entitled me to access all day. But I was told your departing ticket needed to be business class. I don't think that is right, judging from Amtrak's website, but there is no mention of this particular executive lounge on their website yet, so maybe it has special rules. So I didn't fight it, I just decided to upgrade my departing ticket to business class, so I could charge my phone and relax in the lounge. I went downstairs to do that, when I thought I should just stop by information and check on the train status first. And I was told my train was two hours delayed in arriving, but a new train had been dispatched, and I would depart on time on that train. So that meant I had no need of the executive lounge after all. So I waited in the beautiful Union Station waiting room, until the platform of my train was announced. Opposite my train on the platform was the Station to Station train, made up of various classic traincars (several pictures that are better than what I took are here). After taking a moment to check out the Station to Station train, I boarded the already-fairly-full Pacific Surfliner (had the people from points North not been delayed, I think the train might have been quite full indeed), took my seat on the coastal side, and waited to depart.

Coach wasn't bad. The chairs themselves are the same, roomy and comfortable. There is less legroom, though it's hard to notice by sight. But once I put my feet up on the footrest, I could definitely tell the difference, my knees feeling a bit more cramped. As a tall person, this is one more reason for me to consider business class; I was certainly comfortable, but was more so in business class, and had the seat next to me be occupied, I might not have felt as comfortable (I didn't use the footrest much in coach, stretching my legs out in the space next to me instead). On the trip down, I did stop off at the cafe car, getting a cheese and crackers platter and a bottled water. The prices were not outrageous, but certainly not a good deal. There were a lot of people in my car, but it was quiet. Some cell phone conversations here and there, but people kept their voices low, and past Irvine or so, it was very quiet, as several people were napping, even though it wasn't that late. I got off at Old Town, surprised how many people on the train were heading to the end of the line (though a lot of them got on after LAX), walked to my car, which was mercifully still there, and drove home.

All in all, it was a very nice trip. As you've probably gathered, this trip was an excuse to ride the train as much as anything. And I had a good time on the train, both ways (had they not been able to get a new train, and I'd been delayed two hours, I might have had a different opinion, but for me, the train was punctual in both directions). It really is the civilized way to travel. I'm looking forward to my upcoming trips even more than I was before, especially riding the Coast Starlight when I go up to my sister's. I was also impressed by Los Angeles' public transportation system. Unlike Amtrak, I wouldn't describe it as fun, but it did get me where I was going in a reasonably efficient manner. And once I got to my destination, I had a lot of fun, experiencing a classic Los Angeles museum and revisiting a museum that presents a quirky postmodern take on the classic museum. It was a long day, and I was on my feet a lot at the museums, but thanks to the fact that I was relaxing on the train instead of driving myself home, I came home from my trip relaxed and refreshed. I'm pretty sure this won't be my last train daytrip to Los Angeles.