Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner makes station stops dotting Southern California's coastline. // (c) 2012 Don Barrett / Flickr.com
Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner makes station stops dotting Southern California's coastline. // (c) 2012 Don Barrett / Flickr.com

Nothing gets the heart beating like the anticipation of a road trip. When it’s time to get out of LA, many charming beach towns beckon and are seemingly a short drive away. But hop in the car and the bumper-to-bumper gridlock is enough to dampen the spirits of the most optimistic day-tripper or beach enthusiast.

Fear not, Southern Californians are blessed with a second, often forgotten option – the train. Yes indeed, in Los Angeles, you can choose to make the journey just as important as the destination and hop aboard Amtrak at Union Station.

…make the journey just as important as the destination and hop aboard Amtrak at Union Station

Suddenly you’re creating memories by hanging in the observation car, chatting up a stranger, taking pictures of the emerging coastline and preparing for the day’s beauty – for there’s a beach town lifestyle calling your name.

And wow, so many options. Both the Coast Starlight and the Pacific Surfliner trains have station stops dotting the coastline. You could ride all the way south to San Diego, or instead, north of Santa Barbara, before the track veers inland toward San Luis Obispo. But today we’re featuring three smaller, lesser-known beach communities, where you can simply step off the train and smell the surf.

Carpinteria, Calif.

Just north of Ventura and about 12 miles southeast of Santa Barbara is the coastal community of Carpinteria, home of the “World’s Safest Beach.” Emerge from the train and breathe in that small-town charm. Just steps from the station is Linden Avenue, which takes you two short blocks to the city’s peaceful, often crowd-free beach.

But first, consider a stop at the family-run, Island Brewing Company, an award-winning microbrewery literally across the street. Sample the brews and bask in an authentically local experience and watch more trains zip by – the tasting room patio is next to the tracks.

Carpinteria,Calif., home of the “World’s Safest Beach,” is easily accessible by Amtrak // (c) 2015 Carpinteria Chamber of Commerce
Carpinteria,Calif., home of the “World’s Safest Beach,” is easily accessible by Amtrak // (c) 2015 Carpinteria Chamber of Commerce

Watch the kids practicing football or baseball as you amble down to the gorgeous, clean beach, where locals are playing pick-up volleyball matches. Right next to the city beach is Carpinteria State Beach and campsite, where the smells from grills and campfires only adds to the experience.

While dipping your toes in the Pacific, be sure to turn your back to the waves, because an equally-impressive view awaits – the breathtaking backdrop of mountains. When ready to explore, walk into town to step into the cute boutiques, galleries and antique shops that dot Linden and Carpinteria Avenues.

…the coastal community of Carpinteria is home of the “World’s Safest Beach.

You won’t find cookie-cutter restaurants in this corner of town, but instead taco stands, ice cream parlors, and mom and pop places with names like The Worker Bee Café, Cabo’s Baja Grill & Cantina or Rusty’s Pizza Parlor. You can hang with the bikers on a sunny patio, witness the thriving cyclist community at the bike shop or find literary treasures at the local library book sale.

If you happen to be visiting on a First Friday, you’re in for more of a treat – from 5-8 p.m. the city hosts music and entertainment while participating merchants and vendors offer refreshments in a hometown atmosphere. As you hear that train whistle in the distance, you’ll realize that “unpretentious” may be the word to best describe this gem of a beach town.

Carpinteria Chamber of Commerce
www.carpinteriachamber.org

San Clemente, Calif.

When you say, “I want to take the train to the beach,” San Clemente is the ideal destination, for the station is just inches from the sand. San Clemente is located midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, at the southern tip of Orange County, and as you disembark with others in the know, you’ll appreciate public transit planning at its best. As the train pulls away, the sound of the waves replaces the sound of the engine.

The San Clemente Pier is one of the longest wooden piers remaining in Southern California // (c) Trey Ratcliff / Flickr.com
The San Clemente Pier is one of the longest wooden piers remaining in Southern California // (c) Trey Ratcliff / Flickr.com

A mere 30-second walk from the station and you’re facing the impressive San Clemente Pier, framed by palm trees, with available beach on either side. After visiting the sea, get your exercise and stroll along this landmark, one of the longest wooden piers remaining in Southern California. Observe the local fishermen reeling in their catch, or choose to cheer on the surfers from above as they “catch a wave.”

…see why San Clemente is called the “Spanish Village by the Sea”

When you reach the end, see why San Clemente is called the “Spanish Village by the Sea,” for the views of the coast and the town’s cliff-hugging architectural homes are stunning. As a reward, consider a bowl of clam chowder at The Fisherman’s Restaurant right on the pier, with deck seating above the pounding surf.

The actual town center of San Clemente offers loads of fun thrift shops, bars and homey eateries as well, but it’s a steep hike up the hill without a car. If you need two days at the beach, spend a night at the Beachcomber Motel, an indie property right in the heart of the action, with killer views. But remember, proximity to the pier and beach means you’ll be hearing those lovely trains pass by several times during the day and into the night – a small price to pay for beachside perfection.

San Clemente Chamber of Commerce
www.scchamber.com

Encinitas, Calif.

In northern San Diego County, just below Carlsbad, is the scenic town of Encinitas, where you can’t help but notice the healthy lifestyle. (Consider bringing your bike along for the ride, as Amtrak offers limited reserved bicycle spaces on most trips, often with no fee.)

The glistening sands of Moonlight State Beach, in Encinitas, Calif., reflect the sky and give the illusion you’re walking on water. // (c) 2014 Ed Forsyth
The glistening sands of Moonlight State Beach, in Encinitas, Calif., reflect the sky and give the illusion you’re walking on water. // (c) 2014 Ed Forsyth

On Coast Highway 101, just blocks from the station, you’ll discover you’re among friends, as long-distance cyclists zip through town on training rides, and locals on beach cruisers coast into this bike-friendly, historic shopping district. You can ride south alongside spectacular coastal views or simply meander north, waving to passing trains.

Meet the local, friendly waitresses at The Encinitas Café and the 101 Diner, and practice your meditation with a visit to the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple and Gardens, perched above the Pacific. The pace is simply slower here, where people live and breathe surfing, especially in the northern Leucadia district, where the motto is, “Happy the Funk Up.”

 …in the northern Leucadia district the motto is, “Happy the Funk Up.”

Pottery and plant places intermingle with arty bookstores and yoga studios. There are enough coffeehouses to try a new one each day of the week, but the Pannikin Coffee & Tea takes the cake, as it’s embedded in an historic Santa Fe RailwayStation, built in 1888. The “taco shops” are also omnipresent, but you’ll swear-off canned soup forever after trying the tasty, flavorful soups at La Especial Norte, a thriving Mexican eatery.

And then there are the beaches. Take in the views perched atop the steps down to Grandview beach, or follow the parade of surfers to Leucadia State Beach, known locally as Beacon’s. At low tide, wander down B Street to Moonlight State Beach, where the glistening sands reflect the skies, giving the illusion you’re walking on water. Featuring a large playground, fire pits, volleyball nets and well-maintained restrooms, you’ll see why the local residents can’t resist a day at the beach.

Encinitas Chamber of Commerce
www.encinitaschamber.com

Even if you skip the train and choose a longer visit via car, the towns of Carpinteria, San Clemente and Encinitas offer a beach town culture, with a chance to park within steps of the beach, often with no fees or hassles.

Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner makes station stops dotting Southern California's coastline. // (c) 2012 Don Barrett / Flickr.com
Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner makes station stops dotting Southern California’s coastline. // (c) 2012 Don Barrett / Flickr.com

Amtrak
www.amtrak.com

 

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Joe Guay is an actor, writer and voiceover artist who revels in exploring the ever-changing neighborhoods and villages of Los Angeles - often by bike or by foot. A former resident of Pittsburgh, PA and Cleveland, OH, he's now most at home west of the Rockies. Passions include good books, live theatre, road trips and cycling through Southern California. Dream excursions for the future: island-hopping in French Polynesia, crossing Canada by train, biking through Italy & Spain, nature-loving in Costa Rica, and exploring all of America's National Parks.

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