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CAR-FREE, CAREFREE IN SANTA BARBARA.

Byline: Eric Noland Travel Editor

The tension crawls up the back of your neck like a reptile.

Why was the freeway so crowded at this hour of the day? And now, on this surface street, what was that guy thinking when he shot across two lanes of traffic and turned right, smack in front of me, without signaling? And why are we crawling now? If we don't pick it up, that light's going to ch ... argh, too late.

Time spent in a vehicle in Los Angeles can be a progressively debilitating experience. The aggravation seems to mount in direct proportion to the number of minutes spent behind the wheel.

Why, then, run the risk of compounding the condition during precious time off, when the need to unwind on an out-of-town escape is deemed acute?

Thus, an objective was defined recently. A day trip would be undertaken to Santa Barbara . . . and the car would be left behind. Transport would be conducted almost entirely by rail, trolley and foot.

It proved to be an unqualified success.

The trip up and down the coast was pleasantly restful, almost conducive to snoozing, and getting around Santa Barbara was a snap. A trolley tour took the bite out of the relentless, uphill climb to the mission, and the walk back down yielded unexpected delights. (Isn't it remarkable how much more detail and nuance you can experience when you're on foot?) Dining was an unhurried pleasure - whether at an outdoor patio on a Santa Barbara side street or in the dining car of the Coast Starlight just after sunset.

Best of all, the rejuvenation achieved from a day in one of California's most charming coastal towns was intact upon returning home. It wasn't sapped away in a sea of brake lights on a crawl down the 101.

Divine intervention probably had a great deal to do with the success of the getaway, however. There's no other way to account for a 12-hour period in which not one but two Amtrak trains ran fairly close to schedule.

This rail operation is propped up by the federal government, and at times the experience of riding it is akin to awaiting an important document sent by the DMV through the post office. Horror stories abound - trains that run hours late, conflicting information from rail officials, a great number of blank expressions and apathetic shrugs, and a preponderance of sentences that include the words ``appreciate'' and ``patience.''

All was rail-smooth on this recent weekday, though, and the experience restored hope for future car-free escapes.

The northbound San Diegan features a morning departure (8:50 a.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, 9 a.m. on weekdays) from Union Station with arrival in Santa Barbara around 11:30 a.m. A second option is the Coast Starlight, bound for Seattle, which leaves L.A. at 9:30 a.m. daily and pulls into Santa Barbara just after noon.

The northbound San Diegans also stop in Glendale, Burbank, Van Nuys and Simi Valley, but a departure from Union Station is worth the visit just to experience the historic structure, which stands on the eastern edge of downtown Los Angeles, presiding over the 800 block of North Alameda Street. It was built in 1939, and whenever a filmmaker is trying to reach back in time (``The Way We Were,'' ``Bugsy''), you can count on a scene being shot here. The soaring ceilings and ornate design recall an era when judicious use of space wasn't such a pressing priority.

The train rolled out of the station only 10 minutes late - an encouraging development - and began its intriguing tour of L.A.'s back yard.

For those accustomed to air travel, the initial experience on a train is always a bit startling. The amount of leg room is phenomenal; it would be the envy of even a first-class air passenger. The windows are enormous. There are no seat belts. And after taking on passengers at a stop, the train resumes its journey even with people roaming the aisles - oblivious to whether tray tables are stowed or seats are in their full upright and locked position.

Most people bring along something to read on a train, only to find themselves mesmerized by the passing scene. The train bounces and jaunts along reassuringly, sounding its whistle at crossings.

Rail travel also affords a perverse pleasure for those escaping the car-bound existence of L.A.: At all those crossings along the north edge of the San Fernando Valley, the cars are forced to wait as we go sailing past.

In the cafe car on this day, Steve Patterson and Lew Garber were hunched at a table over a yellow legal pad, a laptop and the contents of their briefcases. Businessmen from San Diego and Orange counties, they said they were on their way to meet with clients over lunch in Santa Barbara, and they were using the rail ride to go over their notes - something that wouldn't have been possible in an automobile.

``It's four hours from Santa Barbara to Oceanside (by train) if we take the 3:49 home,'' said Patterson. ``At that time of the day, it's going to take me four hours to drive it anyway. We drove it when we were up here a month ago, and I got home drowsy, tired, irritable. My wife said, `Hi, honey.' I said (grumpily), `What's for dinner.' ''

It's not easy to keep your mind on your work when the train gets just north of Ventura, however. That's when the tracks hug the beach, affording sweeping views of the ocean and the Channel Islands.

But this is also where one of those uniquely Amtrakian experiences occurred. The train rolled to a stop in the middle of nowhere. No station in sight. Nothing on the schedule. No explanation over the public-address system. It just sat there motionless for several minutes.

Conductor Peter McNamara later gave an explanation that came as no surprise to veteran train travelers: We had sat on a side track to make room for a southbound train. But it would have been nice if that information could have been provided unsolicited via public-address announcement.

As the train resumed its pace, it offered views of surfers shivering in the waves off Carpinteria, then passed the lottery-dream homes of Montecito. If you looked out the windows on the right, you might be demoralized by the sight of cars on the 101 traveling twice the speed of this diesel locomotive. But why fret? Those people behind the wheel, while making better time, had to pay attention to what they were doing.

Seeing the sights

The Santa Barbara train station couldn't be positioned more strategically for a day trip. It sits at the base of Santa Barbara's picturesque main drag, State Street, and just four short blocks from Stearns Wharf and the ocean. It's also just steps from the Enterprise Fish Co. restaurant at 225 State St., an ideal spot to begin a Santa Barbara visit with a satisfying lunch.

The cavernous building is a former laundry, and it presents a Cannery Row-like ambience, with bare red-brick walls and sunlight streaming through the clerestory windows high overhead. This place embodies California casual: wood floor, no tablecloths, servers clad in T-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes. A giant mesquite grill commands the room, and it is kept busy - six fresh-fish entrees are available on this day, all priced under $11. The menu also features nine varieties of draft beer and eight wines by the glass (Santa Barbara County offerings abound).

Outside, little electric trolleys periodically roll by. Their destination is downtown; the fare is 25 cents for any ride of any duration. But the objective on this day is to get to the Santa Barbara Mission high in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains, then wander back through the city's picturesque neighborhoods.

To get there without walking, the best bet is to stroll to Stearns Wharf and catch a Santa Barbara Trolley Co. tour, a bargain at $5 per person. It leaves here every 90 minutes starting at 10 a.m. (the 1 p.m. trolley is the best after-lunch option for train travelers). You'll get a guided tour that swings down the coast through Montecito's tony village, loops around the stately Biltmore, returns to State Street and climbs to the mission.

The ride is open-air and pleasant. About the only drawback on this trip was the diction of the driver. He mumbled through his familiar spiel, often at breakneck speed, in the manner of ``Fast Times at Ridgemont High'' stoner Jeff Spicoli on a megadose of caffeine. Pity any foreign travelers with halting English skills.

Also, the choice of attractions was at times dubious. The trolley slowed to a crawl by a beachfront estate in Montecito. ``Cheryl Tiegs lives here,'' came the tour commentary. (My, I'll bet she appreciates that.) And on a side street in downtown, the guide pointed out a grassy area on the right. ``See that pile of wood there? That's where they filmed a movie last week. I can't remember the name of it.'' Unbeknownst to the passengers gazing to the right, Santa Barbara's historic Casa de la Guerra - built in the early 19th century by the settlement's presidio commandante - was passing by on the left.

Spanish charm

At the Santa Barbara Mission, the trolley stops for 15 minutes. If you want to spend more time at this venerable edifice, simply wait 90 minutes for the next one to come along. The plan on this day, however, was to walk the 3-1/2 miles back to the waterfront.

It's a rewarding course. Santa Barbara adopted strict building codes in the wake of a 1925 earthquake that reduced much of the community to rubble, and its residential neighborhoods feature a preponderance of Spanish, mission revival and craftsman architecture. You don't have to worry about a lot of postwar stucco boxes blighting the area. And you won't find any of the overbuilt monstrosities found on postage-stamp lots in so many of L.A.'s suburbs.

Yards and gardens are often bordered by tall, thick hedges or whitewashed walls with cascading bursts of bougainvillea. Palm trees line the streets, and citrus trees, birds of paradise, geraniums and hibiscus flourish in this coastal climate. The route is pedestrian-friendly; nearly every street is bordered by a sidewalk and parkway.

One suggested stop on the way back is Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens, which take up a city block bound by Arrellaga, Micheltorena, Santa Barbara and Garden. Here, you'll find a tranquil spot to rest on a bench along a winding walkway. A substantial lily pond at the center of the park is gorged with enormous koi fish, while the rocks at the water's edge are often crowded with turtles sunning themselves.

Another must stop on the return walk is the Court House observation deck (corner of Anapamu and Anacapa). An elevator takes you most of the way up before dumping you off at a Quasimodo-like stairwell. The reward at the top will threaten to take your breath away.

Here, there is a 360-degree view of the city and its setting: the ocean, the mountains, the tree-shaded neighborhoods, the sea of red-tile roofs downtown.

Upon returning to the center of town, there are plenty of places to rest the legs and slake a thirst. Santa Barbara's preoccupation with the Spanish motif has seen to that - there are patios, plazas, fountains, courts and sidewalk sitting areas everywhere. For an option off State Street's well-worn path, however, try the Paradise Cafe, one block away at the corner of Anacapa and Ortega. It has a comfortable patio area screened by greenery and plenty of refreshment and snacking options.

On this Tuesday, there was a further reward in Santa Barbara: a bustling farmers market. Two blocks of State Street were closed to vehicles to accommodate it, and numerous merchants - most of whom employ organic farming methods - offered everything from white asparagus to brown eggs to local wildflower honey to something labeled pea sprout pesto. (The market is held 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturdays, 4 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays.)

At last, it was time to return to the train station - or at least the cluster of trailers next to it. The station is being restored to its original 1905 form (which, remarkably, won't conflict with Santa Barbara's design standards) and is targeted for completion in July.

But something was terribly amiss here. At 6 p.m., the Coast Starlight came chugging into the station from the north. It was early.

Even the conductor on the morning train had agreed that this southbound train had gained great notoriety for its chronic tardiness. It is one variable on this trip that can quickly substitute for any car-related stress that you've managed to shed.

When a passenger train falls behind schedule, for whatever reason, it loses its track priority, and often must move onto side tracks and sit idle for interminable periods to make way for slow-moving freights.

On a visit to Santa Barbara a year or so ago, the Coast Starlight was running more than three hours late, such that Amtrak had to arrange for a bus to carry the 6:17 passengers back to points south. One problem, though: A station loudspeaker announcement said the bus would be leaving shortly from the parking lot. Passengers waited. And waited. They went inside and inquired about the bus, only to be told, ``Oh. It already left. When I made that announcement, I didn't know that my co-worker had already released the bus.''

Two travelers that day, unwilling to wait until 10 p.m. or so for a train ride home, wound up taking a taxi to the Santa Barbara Airport, renting a car, driving to the Glendale station to collect their own car, then caravaning to Burbank Airport to drop off the rental. This added considerable aggravation - and expense - to the trip.

Later that night, at 11:45, curiosity prompted the travelers to call Amtrak's automated train-update service. The Coast Starlight was in Oxnard. At 12:15 a.m., a subsequent call was placed. The Coast Starlight was in Klamath Falls, Ore. Huh? Ah, of course: New day, new train, and the previous day's passengers had vanished into some nether region of Amtrak's computer.

On Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, you don't have to cast your fate with the Coast Starlight. A San Diegan train travels the route, leaving Santa Barbara at 6:39 p.m. with a scheduled return to Union Station at 9:30.

On weekdays, one way to reduce the risk of aggravation is to book on the day's last scheduled southbound San Diegan, at 3:49 p.m., but this does not allow for much of a day in Santa Barbara.

On this particular day, however, everything was working smoothly for the Coast Starlight. The train left on schedule (unfortunately, that meant we missed seeing the sun set into the ocean by about 10 minutes), and soon last call was given for the dining car.

On its long-range trains, Amtrak has a reputation for serving food that can best be characterized as microwave medley, so it was natural to brace for the worst. But this dinner on rails was a pleasant surprise. Two of the entrees, a cheese tortellini in pesto cream sauce and a baked chicken breast stuffed with mozzarella, both served with snow peas and a green salad, were very good. And with the Pacific Ocean whizzing by the window, the setting was tough to beat.

Seating at dining car tables is communal, a jarring diversion from our insular urban lives, but it's a nice way to make acquaintances with other train travelers. Across the table was an eighth-grade science teacher from Hawaii who is kind of a glutton for this mode of transport. Last year, she traveled the rails from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., then north along the Eastern Seaboard to Maine, before returning through the Northern plains.

Across the aisle, meanwhile, were three codgers discussing other rail journeys past. Long past. One recalled the days when professional baseball teams traveled by train, and was recounting the nonstop high jinks and hazing of rookies in the Pullman sleeping cars.

Following dinner, one of the dining car stewards cheerfully led two passengers on a tour of the first-class lounge - normally off-limits to all but sleeping-car clientele. If you've elected to be sequestered on a train for days on end, assigned to one of the closetlike sleeping compartments, this might take the edge off the claustrophobia: plush chairs for reading or gazing out the window, and a downstairs theater for video movies on a large screen.

The train glided on through the night. It passed over the same stretch of track in Glendale on which Fred MacMurray can be seen disposing of Barbara Stanwyck's husband in the 1944 classic ``Double Indemnity.'' Wonder if they show that one in the first-class theater.

Scheduled arrival time back in Los Angeles: 9:15 p.m. Actual arrival: 8:52 p.m. Remarkable.

After fetching the car (parking: $6 maximum per day), it was assumed the drive home would be a breeze, but what's this? The Harbor Freeway clogged solid? At this hour. Time to opt for a surface street. This ought to do it, if that light just stays gree ... argh!

Oh, to be back on the train - or on a trolley or on foot - in Santa Barbara.

IF YOU GO

ON THE RAILS: Amtrak's commuter train, the San Diegan, operates daily from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. It departs Union Station at 9 a.m. on weekdays (arriving in Santa Barbara at 11:30 a.m.), and at 8:50 a.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays (arriving in Santa Barbara at 11:18 a.m.). The Seattle-bound Coast Starlight also operates daily from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, departing at 9:30 a.m. and arriving at 12:10 p.m. For the return from Santa Barbara, the last southbound San Diegan departs at 3:49 p.m. on weekdays (arriving in L.A. at 6:50 p.m.), but the last weekend train is much later, at 6:39 (arriving in L.A. at 9:30 p.m.). The Coast Starlight also operates daily, leaving at 6:17 p.m., arriving in L.A. at 9:15 p.m.

For departures from points farther north on the route, round-trip fares are progressively lower. For example: $29 from Van Nuys, and $24 from Simi Valley on San Diegan trains. Station locations: Cerritos and Railroad avenues, Glendale; 3750 Empire Ave., Burbank; 7724 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys; 5000 Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley.

IN TOWN: Santa Barbara's electric trolley follows State Street, which is a few steps from the train station. The trolley shuttles between Stearns Wharf and downtown points as far as the Arlington Theatre (between Victoria and Sola). It also works down the coast from the wharf to the zoo. A private company, Santa Barbara Trolley Co., operates a guided tour every 90 minutes starting at 10 a.m. at the wharf. It loops through Montecito, then crisscrosses the downtown area on its way to the mission. Scheduled stops at the train station's historic fig tree: 10:30 a.m., noon, 1:30, 3 and 4:30 p.m.

COSTS: Amtrak's fare is $16 per adult each way between L.A. and Santa Barbara on the San Diegan trains. An upgrade to Pacific Class Service - a bit more comfortable, but not as dramatic as the difference between coach and first-class air travel - is $11. One-way Coast Starlight fares vary (from $16 to $22) depending on how full the train is; a reservation is required for this train. Kids under 16 traveling with an adult pay half-price. Children under 2 ride free. Seniors (62 and up) get a 15 percent discount. Amtrak will offer a Spring Getaway special through June 13: With a two-week advance reservation, the first traveler pays full fare, the second pays half, the third rides free. In Santa Barbara, the city's electric trolley costs 25 cents per person per leg of travel. The Santa Barbara Trolley Co.'s guided tour costs $5 per adult, $3 for children 12 and under. There is ample parking at Union Station's outdoor lot; daily charge is $6.

INFORMATION: Take a deep breath and try to maintain your patience through the phone-tree purgatory of Amtrak's information and reservation line: (800) 872-7245. Don't bother punching ``0'' right away; you can't get a real person until you're deep into the tree. In recent experiences, the reservations agents were extremely well-informed and helpful. Amtrak also maintains an excellent, user-friendly Web site: www.amtrakcalifornia.com. Tickets can be purchased on the Web. Information on the Santa Barbara Trolley Co.'s guided tours: (805) 965-0353. For general tourist information on Santa Barbara, or to order a free visitors' guide, call (805) 676-1266. Web: www.santabarbaraca.com.

- Eric Noland

CAPTION(S):

7 Photos, Box, Map

Photo: (1--5--Color) Day-tripping train passengers may disembark in Santa Barbara, above, where the station is convenient to both the wharf and the downtown district. On a trolley or walking tour of the city, visitors can enjoy, clockwise from upper right, the mission, the view from atop the Court House, an open-air breather on the patio of a State Street cafe, and the serenity of Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens.

(6) Leave the stress - and your car - behind with a day trip by train to Santa Barbara.

(7) The Downtown Waterfront Electric Shuttle will take you up Santa Barbara's State Street for 25 cents.

Tina Gerson/Daily News

Box: IF YOU GO (See text)

Map: Santa Barbara
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Title Annotation:TRAVEL
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 11, 1999
Words:3626
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