It may not have quite the romance or the international reputation of the Orient Express, but in terms of pure fun, Amtrak's San Diegan lines are a big kick.
Each train is equipped with a cafe car that serves sandwiches, snacks and beverages, including cocktails, wine and beer; a baggage car; a public credit-card phone; accommodations for the handicapped, and a plush Custom Class car. Costs are reasonable--even on the longest route from Fullerton to San Diego, a round-trip adult fare is only $29 weekends and $26 Monday through Thursday. There are also discounts for children traveling with parents, senior citizens and groups of 15 or more.
One of the most popular junkets, dubbed the "Gambler's Express," is to take the train from one of Orange County's five stations (Fullerton, Anaheim, Santa Ana, San Juan Capistrano or San Clemente) to the Del Mar race track. Free shuttles meet passengers at the Del Mar station twice daily, at 12:58 p.m. and 2:49 p.m., take them to the track, then bring them back to the depot at either 5 p.m. or 7 p.m.
Although Del Mar's racing season ends next Wednesday, there are still other popular destinations easily reached from the San Diego station by bus, shuttle or trolley, including the zoo, Sea World, Coronado Island and Tijuana.
These jaunts can be as elaborate as an overnight excursion or as simple as a daylong outing. Either way, trains are always an adventure, and with the conductors on the line, the trip is never dull.
"Here, let me punch your ticket" says conductor Larry Lindbloom as you board. "We used to punch the passengers but they didn't like it too much," he quips as travelers laugh.
"Yeah, we just rock and roll all day long," says cafe manager John Polk as the train sways slightly speeding down the track. "We keep the right attitude," he says with a smile as he hands a hot dog and a soda to a 5-year-old sporting Lindbloom's conductor's cap, which is falling down over his ears.
As the child delicately walks back to his seat, Lindbloom retrieves his cap from the boy and places it on the head of a 7-year-old girl who beams up at him with appreciation.
The San Diegans are non-stop entertainment, laughs and scenery. There is always something to do or see as the train whizzes down the tracks at 90 m.p.h., passing helicopters and military planes landing at Tustin and El Toro Marine Corps Air stations, past orange groves, bean fields, open spaces and miles of sandy beaches and blue-green ocean.
All the way down the line, Lindbloom points out landmarks such as the twin reactors at San Onofre, which he calls the "Dolly Parton Pavilion," and waves back at surfers and sun worshipers scattered up and down the coastline route. And all too soon, the one- to two-hour trip is over.
As 4-year-old Richard laments as he sits on his back pack watching as the train leaves the depot, "I like trains. That was fun, but I wanted it to go longer."