This report describes a journey I took two years ago between Anchorage, Alaska and Santa Barbara, California. It was First Class all the way, combining a First Class seat aboard Alaska Airlines between Anchorage and Seattle with a First Class Standard Bedroom aboard Amtrak’s Coast Starlight between Seattle and Santa Barbara.
Flying between Anchorage and Santa Barbara involves a single connection in Seattle and takes about six to seven hours, depending upon time spent between flights in Seattle. My journey would take considerably longer, leaving Anchorage on a Wednesday evening and arriving in Santa Barbara fifty one hours later on Friday evening.
After checking in, I headed over to the B Concourse where I swilled cheap beer and munched upon packaged peanuts whilst ensconced in a comfy chair at Alaska’s Boardroom. Boarding was called at about 6:45pm and I was surprised to find that only a relative handful of passengers would be traveling to the Emerald City this evening. The load was four up front and perhaps twenty in the back. Although Alaska had scheduled a 737-900 for tonight’s journey, indeed a DC-9-15 would would have been better suited! Still, no complaints as we boarded Boeing’s largest 737 and stretched out.
Although it was a sunny evening in Anchorage, dark clouds loitering ominously over the Chugach Mountains meant a scenic flight down the coast was not likely to be. As we taxied out to the north-south runway, we passed a China Eastern MD-11, two EVA MD-11s and a UPS MD-11! I had no idea UPS had any MD-11s, but the plane looked good in UPS’s brown and gold livery.
After a surprisingly long take off roll for such a lightly loaded aircraft, we quickly climbed to our cruising altitude of thirty some odd thousand feet. Flight time was projected at an expeditious two hours and fifty five minutes, putting us into Seattle about fifteen minutes early. I reclined my seat and awaited the presentation of an ice cold MacTarnahan’s Ale and tonight’s dinner. Although Alaska does not employ menus on its flights between Alaska and Seattle, please bear with me as I present tonight’s dinner offerings in menu form:
Romaine leaf salad accented by tomatoes, red peppers and cucumbers.
Herb vinaigrette dressing
Topped with bacon and onion gravy and served with Anna Potatoes and Spaghetti Squash
Lemon Pepper Shrimp
Presented atop fettuccine and accented with a light cream sauce
** ***** **
Chocolate Tangerine Cheese Cake
The dinner service began with the arrival of a tray bearing a salad and a dinner roll. The salad was decent enough, though I missed the spinach, mushroom and bacon salad from my last dinner on Alaska. That was one of the better salads I’d ever had aloft!
For my entrée, I requested the Filet Mignon. I like shrimp but it always seems that with airline entrees, you never get enough of them. The guy across from me did order the shrimp and as his entrée arrived I noticed that sure enough, there looked to be only about four shrimp sitting atop the creamy fettuccine. My fillet mignon was presented soon after and it looked pretty good. Alas, looks can be deceiving. The meat was chewy and the potatoes undercooked. I’m not sure what Anna Potatoes are supposed to be but if tonight’s offering was any indication, Anna wasn’t a very good cook. Even the squash seemed a bit too crisp. Indeed, this meal hardly represented the quality upon which Alaska Airlines has built a well deserved reputation for excellence aloft. As I chewed on my steak like a dog on a piece of rawhide, I reflected that we all have our bad days. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed very good service and meals on Alaska over the years, so I reckon I’ll just write this dinner off and look forward to a better one next flight.
The chocolate-tangerine cheesecake was quite good. It consisted of a layer of orangish-pink tangerine flavored cheesecake atop another layer of chocolate cheesecake with a chocolate graham cracker crust. A small slice of tangerine completed the presentation and I washed it all down with a cup of coffee and Baileys. A delicious ending to a not so delicious dinner.
Descent into SeaTac was a bit rough but we landed smoothly and taxied straight in to Gate D-2. After claiming my pack, I met up with friends from Snohomish and disappeared into the night.
AMTRAK’S COAST STARLIGHT
The Coast Starlight is by far the finest train in the Amtrak system. A ride on this train offers excellent opportunities to experience old-fashioned style and comfort in an age where speed and efficiency are now are the watchwords. Normally I could never afford First Class accommodations aboard this train but Alaska Airlines offers just that in exchange for 20000 miles from their Frequent Flyer program. This is the same amount required for their roundtrip coach saver award, and aboard Amtrak is good for round trip First Class travel anywhere between Seattle and Los Angeles. Accommodations are in a Standard Bedroom and all meals are included in the fare.
Train travel can be such a grand experience! It all starts with the train station. A good train station is truly a work of art, indeed a monument to transportation. Just to walk into a big city train station can be awe inspiring ~ the high sculpted ceilings, the polished stone floors, the church-pew like seats, the classic announcements, the slight hint of old cigar smoke… New York's Grand Central Station immediately comes to mind.
Unfortunately, Seattle's King Street Station falls a bit short in all of these areas except for perhaps the cigar smoke. I do however remember reading that the men’s restroom at this station was once voted Best In The Nation back during a time when such things were worthy of public accolade. These days my personal vote would go to the restroom at the Loews Odeon Cineplex Theater in Sacramento, California. An awesome water closet!!
The Coast Starlight pulled up to the platform at 9:30am. Train arrivals aren’t like airplane arrivals. They’re much more impressive. Like a parade. First come the big 4200 horsepower diesel locomotives; bells clanging, engines churning, their power is almost tangible. Next comes the baggage car, then the big double deck sleepers – each named after a state – followed by the Pacific Parlor Car, the dining car, the Sightseer Lounge Car and four or five coach cars.
The call to board came soon after. Amongst all the passengers lined up for the Sleeper Cars, I was the only one carrying a backpack. I was the only one with a beard. I was the only one without a walker or a cane. Just kidding there, but I was definitely the youngest of the group. I saw some fellow backpackers across the room in the coach car line looking at me with some confusion. I waved like a lottery winner and strolled out to Car 1130, named “Texas”. The car attendant, Faisal, showed me to Room 13, downstairs on the right. Small but exceedingly functional, it was better than any First Class Sleeper Suite in the sky. It offered a wide reclining seat, a big 5’ picture window with curtains, numerous lights, a thermostat, towels, hangers and a metal compartment that slid out from below the seat and would be more than suitable for icing down some beers later in the trip. A shower and toilets were located just down the hall, coffee, juice and ice upstairs, and complementary meals were next door in the diner ~ what more could one want? Well, okay, an onboard masseuse would be nice…
The meals were pretty good too. For lunch I ordered a salad and a bacon avocado burger. For dinner I selected a chicken breast wrapped in a pastry shell with some kind of creamy mushroom sauce atop it all, asparagus on the side. Very tasty! Seating is communal so you meet a lot of different people. At breakfast I sat across from a well-dressed couple from Florida who had visited Denali National Park (where I work) this past summer. The man was a retired postal employee from a small town in Illinois and had never been to California. Further conversation revealed he’d not been to many places outside of Florida and Illinois and was not overly enthusiastic about the prospect of going anywhere else. When his wife brought up the possibility of going to Hawaii this winter, he opined why go all the way over there when Florida had plenty of tropics right at home? By comparison, his wife was the real go-getter. She especially enjoyed train travel and had ridden almost as many trains as I had. I hope her husband finds a way to enjoy Hawaii and the rest of the world because for sure she’s not going to let him sit around in Florida for the rest of his retirement.
Across from me sat a kinda geeky looking guy in a Metallica T-shirt, black plastic glasses and a somewhat casual approach to grooming. His oatmeal had arrived by the time we were sat and as he waited for his sugar and raisins he held his fork and spoon in clenched fists on either side of his bowl. I thought at first he might be kidding but he kept a firm grip on that silverware until his condiments arrived. He didn’t have a lot to say initially but later let on that he worked for ITT as an engineer working on satellites. In the course of his employment with ITT, he’d been sent to some interesting places ~ Thule, Greenland; a couple of remote stations in Alaska and various bases all over America. He was also a railfan.
Most everyone who chooses to ride a train in this age of exceedingly affordable air travel is a railfan to some extent. Indeed on many longer routes it’s more expensive to take the train than to fly, especially when you add in the cost of meals. Most people simply enjoy the leisurely pace of a train. Others are full blown railroading fanatics that can quote chapter and verse the pre-Amtrak history of Southern Pacific’s Daylight and Starlight trains through California or the gear ratios on Amtrak’s new Genesis Class locomotives. I’m also a railfan but outside of having ridden every Amtrak route in America over 400 miles in length, I can’t keep up with most of the history and technical buffs. The one thing we all share in common is the sheer enjoyment of going somewhere on a train and since that’s exactly what we were all doing at the moment, we were all having a fine time.
The final two hours before we arrived in Santa Barbara were spent rolling along the Pacific coastline, one of the few times the train actually skirts the coast. The sun was low in the western sky, shimmering off the water’s surface. It was really quite nice to be seated in one of the big overstuffed swivel chairs in the parlor car taking it all in. An elderly couple seated nearby marveled at the beautiful coastline but for some odd reason seemed overly surprised that there were no people out on the beaches. “Where are all the people?” the man would wonder aloud each and every time we’d pass another beach. His wife would cluck and shake her head as she’d probably been doing for the past forty years in support of her husband’s many observations. We were still quite a ways from anywhere. I guess the man figured that all beautiful beaches, regardless of how remote, just ought to have people out enjoying them. His constant observations of this point grew tiresome, however. Just enjoy the view, dude. Stop complaining! Eventually we went past a state campground that also appeared to be deserted. Sure enough, he commented on this as well. I felt a need to respond. My suggestion that there might be a bit of anthrax in the area was not well received and when I later blurted out “Hey look! There's a couple of people being taken out to sea by the riptide!” I became positively unpopular. Whaaat! Some people have no sense of humor… The man’s observations ceased however.
A half hour later, we eased into Santa Barbara right on time. Dusk, 75 degrees, a gentle breeze, and the whole evening ahead of me yet. I exited the train refreshed, relaxed and ready for a night in Santa Barbara.
** ***** **
All things considered, I heartily recommend a trip on a long distance American passenger train before congress decides to stop subsidizing Amtrak altogether. So far as I know, Amtrak has never had a profitable year and it seems only a matter of time before all trains in America outside of the busier corridors such as Washington, DC to New York to Boston disappear altogether.
[Edited 2004-01-16 09:44:36]