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FRIDAY, AUGUST 17, 2007
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TRAVEL TRIP
Buses, trains but no automobiles on money-saving California trip

By Roberta Graham
Special to The Daily

"74 degrees. Sunny. And not a car in sight," the Amtrak ad said, as I flipped through a travel magazine.

Driving on vacation is not my idea of fun, so it was an easy decision to forgo a car to explore the coast of California with my husband. Although we flew to California, we walked, biked and took buses, trolleys and trains while there.

Several restored train stations in California could be included on a list of America's architectural treasures. On our four-day journey on the "Pacific Surfliner" — from San Diego to San Luis Obispo — fellow passengers suggested seats where we saw views of the Pacific Ocean that don't exist from the highway.

The accommodating train staff directed us to the snack car during lulls in the scenery. Because we departed on a weekday, our train was about half full. On the Friday we returned, however, the train was packed with friendly college students traveling home after finals — plugged into every available computer outlet. An added bonus to this Amtrak trip was a side excursion by bus to Solvang, a small city with no train connection, included in our ticket price.

At a fraction of the cost for renting a car and high gas prices, our carefree bargain provided surprises around every bend.

California's outdoor culture encourages discovery. From whale watching in the San Diego bay to exploring the elaborate Hearst Castle (one of two castles in the U.S.) in San Simeon, every day held the promise of adventure. Our dilemma was: Should we visit another fascinating museum or take one more leisurely walk?

The area also values alternative ways to promote clean air. Mass transit is encouraged, many communities offer walking tours, and we even stayed at a motel that furnished free bicycles in Santa Barbara.

Our taste of exquisite local cuisine was enhanced by our car-free experience. The $2 fresh lobster tacos at the convenience store were in walking distance of our daughter's house in San Diego.

Within walking distance of our motel, a basket of fresh shrimp awaited our taste buds at the Shellfish Co. on the wharf in Santa Barbara.

It was easy to travel downtown San Diego by bus or trolley. The San Diego Transit Web site asks your address and destination then proceeds to plan your trip. When we met our daughter for lunch in Little Italy, we feasted on authentic Italian pizza.

Our Amtrak bus stop in Solvang gave us a taste of its Danish heritage with its award-winning bakery "established in 1890 in Denmark." Solvang is easy to navigate by foot from the Amtrak bus station.

Of the 21 missions, which preserve California's Spanish heritage, San Juan Capistrano was the most captivating to me — perhaps because of the song "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano." Its historic train station is now a restaurant, but the Pacific Surfliner still stops at this community made for walking.

It was a long walk to the Point Loma Seafood Co., but well worth it, because of an unexpected show. As we were enjoying our last fish meal in San Diego, a wild sea lion entertained us. The sea lion was also enjoying his lunch with tentacles of squid dribbling down his chin.

This car-free vacation immersed us in the eclectic culture of California from a different perspective. This diversity provided the serendipity of a trip to Europe — without a passport.

On the Net

  • Amtrak: www.amtrak.com; (800) USA-RAIL

  • San Diego activities: www.101sandiego.com

  • San Diego transit: www.sdcommute.com

  • Santa Barbara: www.santabarbaraCA.com; www.SantaBarbaraCarFree.org

  • San Luis Obispo: www.visitslo.com

  • Bus to Hearst Castle: www.rideshare.org; (805) 541-2877

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