Sleepless to Seattle: Journeying on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight

Posted on Feb 3, 2013 in Train Travel | 8 comments

This is a follow up from my previous article “Why I’m Excited About Train Travel.” Keep reading to see how the journey went!

Riding a train is a lot of things. It’s bumpy, it’s claustrophobic, it’s time-consuming, it’s even maddening. But it’s so, so wonderful. What you can see from a train window is something you can’t see from an airplane, a car, a bicycle. Train travel has a nostalgia all it’s own that transports you on a journey beyond the one you’re already on – back in time to when it was the main form of cross-country transport with luxuries and quirks all its own.

I had an opportunity to experience Amtrak’s Coast Starlight line, a 2-day northward trek from Los Angeles north to Seattle whose path crosses through some of the greatest scenery in the western US. Billed as a “Grand West Coast Train Adventure,” the Coast Starlight uniquely features stunning views of the rocky California coastline, bucolic Oregon forests and dramatic Washington mountains, making what would otherwise be a 2-hour plane ride north to the Emerald City a sensational, slow odyssey that allows ample time for you to savor your experience.

We traveled First Class; unlike the airlines this doesn’t mean warmed nuts and room to stretch your feet, but merely that you are an overnight passenger with on-board “room” accommodations. (Your other option is a seat…for 2 days). At almost $1100 per person, which includes use of an assigned en-suite room & bathroom, meals in the Parlor Car and your ticket northward, it’s not exactly wallet-friendly but if you look at it as a once-in-a-lifetime “I should try this” experience, it can be considered worth it.

Our Superliner Bedroom was cramped at best. Perhaps I shouldn’t have boarded expecting the Orient Express, but I didn’t quite realize just how tight and compact it would be. Occupying about 2/3 the width of a train car, the bedroom included a sofa (which pulls out to a bed that can fit 2), chair, small fold-down table, a berth above that pulls down over the sofa to become another bed, sink with mirror and bathroom (toilet/shower) with a door. A small luggage rack was located over the large window. For a family of 3 adults with minimal luggage (a carry-on sized roll-aboard suitcase each), it was still almost comical.

 

Superliner Bedroom - looking in

Superliner Bedroom - looking out

 

Bedtime

The bathroom is about half the size of an airplane lavatory, and is basically a toilet with some floor space in front of it. OVER that floor space is – you guessed it – a showerhead. That means if you want to take a shower, you are essentially standing over the toilet and everything in that tiny room will become soaked – the toilet, the toilet paper roll, the floor, the walls, the door. None of us were brave enough to try, though we did joke that a man could feasibly shave, shi*! and shower all at one time. Trying to wash your face in the room-facing sink was funny too, because it was smaller than a dinner plate and you couldn’t actually put your face over it or you’d hit the light. When the porter came to turn down the beds, we were essentially locked in the room because the sofa stretched the length of the room (heaven forbid you needed to pee or use the sink once that was happening) and the upper berth required serious acrobatics to get into it. Thin mattresses, combined with the rocking, rolling, honking, rattling and general noise of train travel throughout the night made for 3 very tired people the second day.

 

Bathroom/Shower

For food, First Class passengers had a choice of the Parlor Car (more private) or the Dining Car (shared with the rest of the train and the only option for breakfast). Food…was delicious. Fish, meat, vegetables, desserts, wine and cocktails were plentiful, served promptly and tasted, for the most part, absolutely fantastic.  First Class passengers are also invited to a daily complimentary wine and cheese tasting, which featured selections from whatever region we were passing through at the moment (nicely planned!) We felt pretty swanky sipping our chardonnay and downing cubes of cheese while looking out at the Pacific Northwest countryside.

 

Parlor Car

Wine & Cheese Time

Veggie Burger w/ all the trimmings

Stops are pretty regular, but in order to keep on-time (they manage a strict schedule and in fact, even when delayed, we managed to make up for lost time and arrived in Seattle a bit early) they keep stops short and sweet, allowing passengers to only stretch their legs for a few short minutes on the platform (no wandering off!)  At the end of the 2 days, I was so starved for fresh air and room to run (or get exercise of ANY kind, frankly, other than walking up and down the length of the train, which is slow-going anyway because there is a constant traffic jam and mostly you’re trying not to fall over as the train moves) that I felt a little stir-crazy.  Even with an on-board arcade, a book I’d brought with me, my iPhone games and lots of viewing cars to watch the scenery go by, I began to get restless and felt like I was just looking forward to each meal during the day if only for something to DO.

Service on-board is extremely casual – if a server or porter got frustrated with passenger requests or people generally being annoying (which was often) it showed in their reactions and sounded in their voices. We made friends with the dining car captain, but even he got so aggravated by people not listening to directions (you are called by assigned time to the car for each meal and people never paid attention) that he made several PA announcements expressing his frustration. I was a little taken aback – refined hospitality is not a hallmark of this journey, by any means.

However, I wasn’t there for the food, the sleep, the video games. While they certainly enhance an experience and would truly have been lovely, I wanted the experience of a different type of travel. I wanted to see the part of the country that I always miss, and a part that only trains can reach. On-board educators gave talks about the areas we went through, exposing the history and some fun facts and stories about the sights we watched out the window. It was incredibly relaxing sitting in the sunshine of the viewing car with a glass of wine, looking out the window, lost in my thoughts and knowing there was nowhere I needed to be and nothing I was missing at that very moment. Coast Starlight encourages you, even if by accident or by lacking luxuries elsewhere, to simply sit back and enjoy the journey.

Viewing Car

Oregon

Pulling into Portland

And so we did. Is a nonexistent night of sleep, inconsistent service and lack of a fresh shower still worth the trip? I’d say yes. (It was only one night anyway). While train travel probably will never be my first choice, I’m so incredibly glad that we took the initiative to just try it. Plus it allowed for an excuse to explore Seattle for a few days, a city I’d not spent much time in and enjoyed even more than I expected. I also have a new found respect for the pre-airline days, when travel took longer and wasn’t as easy. If you’re looking for something unique and fun, and are willing to forego a few luxuries along the way, I’d recommend the Coast Starlight train trip to anyone as a unique and nostalgic American getaway.

*Personal note: I found security to be a concern on the train. There is no screening of passengers or luggage, and unless you have items that you do not need to access during your trip that can be stored in the locked luggage compartments, anything you bring on-board is subject to theft. Rooms are not lockable and luggage anywhere else is just…sitting there. There was an instance of a passenger losing some medication from their luggage due to theft. Thank goodness that was it, but it’s something to be aware of and something that stayed in the back of my mind throughout the trip. Be vigilant of your belongings!

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8 Comments

  1. $1100 is actually a good price compared to Canada’s train trips – although I am not sure if luxury is increased despite the price. I was thinking of doing a train trip within British Columbia. As a Canadian I thought it would be good to take advantage but even for a resident the prices aren’t feasible – upwards of $3000 CA.

    I know I’ll do it one day but I do hope it’ll be a bit more luxurious when it comes to bathrooms, service and security.
    Very informative read!

    Murissa

    • Is it? Despite my discomfort on the train, I think taking the one thru Canada would be ah-mazing…and from what I’ve heard/seen it does indeed look a bit more luxurious. But WOW that’s expensive. Glad you enjoyed the blog!

  2. The trick to sleeping on a train is to enjoy the movement — let it rock you to sleep. Very nice write-up with excellent pictures. Thanks for taking the time to share this. My wife and I are taking the Starlight from Seattle to Santa Barbara in a couple weeks. It is definitely a nice way to travel if you have the time. First class on this Amtrak train is very nice.

    • You’re probably right – just have to get used to the movement! Thanks so much for reading – hope you and your wife have a fantastic trip! The scenery is unforgettable.

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