When Ted Frank took his daughter and her friends on the train to Santa Barbara for a YMCA Indian Princesses outing, he found it was a tossup which of the attractions the girls enjoyed the most--the city's zoo or the train.
"They loved the freedom on the train to walk to the snack bar and bathroom," said Frank, an NBC executive.
"They moved around a lot because they were so excited about not being cramped in a car." Frank took his family of four on another rail trip a few months later and made more use of the train's wide seats.
"Instead of worrying about traffic, we played board games and enjoyed the time together as a family," Frank said.
Many Southern Californians are making the same discovery as the Franks. In a region known for its homage to the automobile, train travel is a welcome change of pace and even an end in itself.
What follows are some suggestions for day or weekend trips by train in Southern California. Climb aboard Amtrak's San Diegan, which makes eight daily round-trip runs between Los Angeles and San Diego and three daily trips between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara--with more than a dozen stops between the two furthest points.
Once you arrive at any of the destinations highlighted below, you'll be surprised at the ease with which you can explore nearby attractions without a car, by walking or taking a convenient bus, trolley or shuttle.
Amtrak also sells tour packages that include sightseeing or hotel accommodations for two or more nights. You cannot make reservations for coach service unless there are 15 or more people in your party. Just be sure to arrive at the station in time to buy tickets and walk to the platform.
All coach seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. If Los Angeles is your point of departure, leave a bit more time to look around graceful Union Station, with its soaring beamed ceilings and colorful tiles. You also may want to spend some time a block away at Olvera Street, the open-air Mexican market where merchants sell handicrafts from south of the border.
Catch the first San Diegan train of the day. It leaves Los Angeles' Union Station at 8:20 a.m. and arrives in Santa Barbara at 10:55 a.m., allowing most of the day to explore this scenic town. During the trip from Los Angeles, you'll travel along some of the most beautiful coastal right-of-way in Southern California. Sit on the left side of the train when you're heading north for the best view of the blue Pacific and the mountainous Channel Islands.
From the Spanish Mission-style Santa Barbara station, the beach is a two-block walk down Chapala Street. At the harbor nearby you can rent motorboats and sailboats, or sign up for a shoreline cruise.
One block east of Chapala Street is Stearns Wharf, a Santa Barbara landmark built in 1872. Walk out the long, wooden-plank pier to discover restaurants, specialty shops and the Sea Center, a small marine museum that features coastal ocean life.
Rent bikes or four-seater "pedalinas" at the foot of Stearns Wharf to head east along ocean-front Cabrillo Boulevard for more attractions. On Sundays, Chase Palm Park east of the wharf becomes a colorful art gallery where you can buy paintings, photographs and crafts.
Farther east on Cabrillo Boulevard at Ninos Drive you'll find the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens, home to more than 500 animals, from lions to sea lions. A miniature train circles the grounds. Adjacent to the zoo is the Andree Clark Bird Refuge, a landscaped water lagoon that attracts hundreds of varieties of birds.
To see the Spanish-flavored central part of Santa Barbara, catch one of the trolleys that run up State Street from Stearns Wharf every 90 minutes. A walk through the 12-block area can include stops at the elegant County Courthouse, Historical Society Museum, Museum of Art and any of several specialty shops and outdoor restaurants.
The trolley continues on to the graceful Santa Barbara Mission, completed in 1820, and the nearby Museum of Natural History, which showcases the area's Chumash Indian heritage.
Southeast of Santa Barbara, the sprawling seaside town of Oxnard remains relatively undiscovered. The city's 4-year-old red brick Amtrak station anchors a mid-town transportation center where you can catch buses or taxis to the harbor and the nearby town of Ventura.
A few blocks from the station is the 1-year-old Gull Wings Children's Museum, an activity center filled with hands-on exhibits for kids. Around the corner, the Carnegie Art Museum displays traveling art shows.
At Oxnard's Channel Islands Harbor, visit Fisherman's Wharf, a Cape Cod-style village of shops and restaurants. Nearby at Channel Islands Landing, rent a small boat to explore the harbor or go out on a whale-watching trip (January through March only) with Cisco's Sportfishing.