Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train across California is a glorious route on the 50-year-old network – iNews

“Well, I wait around the train station, waiting for that train.

To take me, yeah, from this lonesome town!”

Jimi Hendrix’s “Hear My Train A Comin’’ was rattling through my headphones as my train pulled out of Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles. I was bound for Jimi’s hometown of Seattle – an ever-so-slightly daunting 35 hours away. It was a long trip. But like many people these days, I was reluctant to fly.

Amtrak has recently marked its 50th anniversary, as did The Coast Starlight: the signature LA to Seattle sleeper I had just boarded. There had been a certain romance to the notion of travelling overnight to a city I didn’t know. But as I crammed my suitcase into my minuscule “roomette”, I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my decision.

Coast Starlight views of the ocean

“What’s the Wi-Fi password, please?” I asked the attendant, as she made her rounds.

“There’s no internet onboard, sir,” she said. “But the views are neat.”

I peered out of the window. Downtown’s grisly cityscape had given way to broad fields of citrus trees and deep purple bougainvillea. I could get used to this. Or rather I had to get used to this. Luckily, I’d brought a good book with me. Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express details his train journey from Boston to Argentina. It’s 500 pages long, but I had time.

“For railway reading, the best book is the plottiest,” he writes. “A way of enduring the haphazardness of the journey with order.”

I’m not sure The Old Patagonian Express could be described as plotty, but it’s certainly a fun read. My eyes flicked from page to window, window to page. I was mesmerised. By now we were at the beach somewhere north of Oxnard, and I watched in wonder as dozens of pelicans wheeled across the water.

A voice shook me from my daydream.

“Santa Barbara, ladies and gentlemen. Santa Barbara, five minutes.”

I rested the book on my lap and surrendered to the view. Squinting into the city’s well-manicured gardens like some peripatetic Peeping Tom, I saw surf boards, sun loungers, barbecues.

Towns drifted past hypnotically: San Luis Obispo, Salinas, San José. But not all of them had the Californian perfection of Santa Barbara. There were scrapyards, trailer parks, and countless homeless encampments. Near Salinas, what I initially took to be a university building, turned out to be a state penitentiary, the gun turrets a giveaway.

Amtrak train stopped at Santa Barbara (Photo: Getty)

Later, in the dining car, I began chatting to a moustachioed man at the table opposite: Ruben from Brooklyn, New York.

“I’m loving the train, man,” he said. “I thought about flying, but I just couldn’t face JFK”.

“You get to see so much more on the train than on the freeway,” he continued. “And this steak isn’t bad, either.”

It was true. My tortellini was definitely a step up from British Rail-era sandwiches, and there was a pleasing Murder On The Orient Express formality to the flower vases, tablecloths, and silver cutlery. I ordered more wine as Ruben began to tell me about the girlfriend he was visiting in Portland.

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In the words of Paul Theroux: “The conversation… derived an easy candour from the shared journey, the comfort of the dining car, and the certain knowledge that neither of us would see each other again.”

I slept well in my cosy cabin, despite the railroad track’s constant jazz percussion. By morning, we had crossed the state line to Oregon. A mist had descended, leaving only the silhouettes of autumn pines. I was reminded of Perthshire, and the faint outline of a silvery loch (Odell Lake) completed the mirage.

Sights and sounds of Seattle

As soon as we reached Seattle, it began to rain. I didn’t mind. The gloomy weather seemed to fit the Pacific Northwest’s grunge mystique. Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix were both born here; both died tragically at the age of 27.

Since I’d just spent two days in a tiny compartment, I was desperate to stretch my legs. So the following morning, I grabbed an umbrella from the hotel lobby, and trudged three miles across town to Cobain’s turn-of-the-century mansion in Denny-Blaine. It is a gorgeous neighbourhood, with sweeping views of Lake Washington, but I didn’t want to hang around the house like a Nineties voyeur. Besides, I had a date with Jimi Hendrix.

Jimi Hendrix Park, to be precise – just a mile from the high school where he graduated in 1961. I snapped a photo of the purple Hendrix portrait in the centre of the park, then hurried through the rain towards the Museum of Popular Culture.

The train terminates in Seattle

Kurt Cobain’s struggle with depression is well-documented. But at the museum’s Nirvana exhibit, what struck me most was his wicked sense of humour. “We don’t know what may lie ahead,” he writes in a fan club letter, dated 1990. “Maybe we’ll sign with Disney. Maybe we’ll get Phil Collins on drums.” In another letter, he announces: “Nirvana, in special conjunction with McDonald’s, are proud to present: The NEVERMIND Happy Meal!”

I finished my tour of the museum at the small but lovingly curated Jimi Hendrix exhibit. Highlights included scraps of hand-written lyrics, and a piece of the Fender Stratocaster guitar he famously torched at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

On the morning of my departure, Jimi’s “Catfish Blues” was playing in my head. (“You know, there’s one train runnin’ at midnight. Other one leaves just ‘fore day!”) Fortunately, my train was leaving at a respectable 9.45am. Internet be damned, I thought, as I hunkered down with a sugary tea and the last 200 pages of The Old Patagonian Express. Not a particularly Rock ’n’ Roll end to my journey, I’ll admit, but relaxing nonetheless.

How to get there

Virgin Atlantic and British Airways fly from Heathrow to Los Angeles LAX.

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight travels from Union Station, Los Angeles to King Street Station, Seattle. Roomettes carry up to two passengers, and prices start at $487 (£364) one-way, full board.

Where to stay

Pan Pacific Seattle has doubles from $239 (£178).

Where to visit

The Museum of Popular Culture is at 325 5th Avenue, Seattle. Adult tickets: $25-30 (£18-23) online; $35-40 (£26-30) on-site; Children (4 and under): free.

Entry Requirements

British passport holders using an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (Esta) or non-immigrant visa to enter the US will be required to be fully vaccinated and to provide proof of this status prior to boarding a plane to the US. All arrivals, including non-vaccinated under-18s, will also need to provide a supervised, negative Covid test result taken no more than one day before travel. Under-twos exempt.

More US rail adventures

Rocky Mountaineer‘s Rockies to Red Rockies Route

The new Rockies to the Red Rocks route launched in August and is a two-day journey from Moab to Denver through Byers Canyon and Gores Canyon and with an overnight stay in Glenwood Springs, Colorado

A highlight is the crossing of the Continental Divide, as the train passes through 6.3 miles of mountain in the Moffat Tunnel.

The Acela: A route fit for a President

President, Joe Biden’s dedication to Amtrak has earned him the nickname, ‘”Amtrak Joe”; he would regularly commute on the Acela. The full route journeys from Boston to New York City and Philadelphia before arriving in Washington DC. Reaching speeds of 150 mph, the Acela is a high-speed service that travels to downtown between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC and other intermediate cities.

President Joe Biden is a long-time Amtrak passenger and advocate (Photo: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Route 66: a classic American road trip by rail

Travellers can ride the rails along the famous Route 66, spying historic architecture and landmarks along the way. This epic journey travels through Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona before arriving in California, combining several Amtrak train journeys, including the Southwest Chief, passing the Santa Fe Trail, Sedona’s red cliffs and the Continental Divide.

The Sunset Limited for southern culture

Travel from New Orleans in Louisiana, to Houston and San Antonio in Texas on board the Sunset Limited; the oldest named train in the United States. It was introduced in 1894 by the Southern Pacific Railroad before being acquired by Amtrak in 1971.

Vermonter through the seasons

Another Amtrak classic, the Vermonter, is a daily service between Washington DC and St Albans in northern Vermont. It travels through New York City to Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and ends in Vermont, and is spectacular throughout the seasons. In summer, travellers to Vermont can enjoy the “Green Mountain State”; in autumn, passengers can enjoy the golden foliage and in winter there are world-class ski resorts to head to Vermont.