by Larry Taylor; Photos by Gail Taylor

One of the major attractions in California is its beautiful coast line. It can be driven by car up the coast via Hwy. 101 and later Hwy. 1. A far more relaxed and scenic way, though, is by train on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner with its tracks paralleling the coast much of the way from San Diego to San Louis Obispo, 267 miles away.

Amtrak features all the comforts – modern bi-level cars, providing large panoramic windows, comfortable, custom-designed interiors and a spacious Café car, serving a variety of fresh sandwiches, snacks and beverages.

On a recent stay in San Diego, my wife and I had the occasion to travel to Los Angeles. Not looking forward to driving the frequently traffic-choked highway, we opted for the only two-hour ride to Union Station in Los Angeles. I’m a theater reviewer so we needed to get to L.A. for the August opening of the Tony award-winning play “Red,” in the L.A. Music Center’s Mark Taper Forum. The play deals primarily with contemporary artist Mark Rothko’s frustrations with the establishment.

We decided to spend the night at Checkers, the boutique hotel on Grand Avenue near the theater.

After the stay, we would take the train back  next day. Another benefit of this trip was the prospect of seeing the new Grand Park, located close-by. It had opened to much hoopla July 28.

Grand Park

The park, a block wide looks down from the Music Center four blocks to the City Hall. This provides a much-needed greenbelt in the heart of the city’s Bunker Hill area, now a forest of large buildings.

Solana Beach to Union Station

We left the Solana Beach station on the outskirts of San Diego at noon. We figured it was better boarding here. It was less-crowded than the downtown station and had ample free parking. Soon we were settled in comfortable window seats. We had books but didn’t expect to read much with the striking views from our window, on this clear, warm, sunny day. There were many getting off and on board who had gear in hand, ready to depart in beach towns for the short walk to the sand – a great way to go without parking hassles.

Over half the ride, took us through the beach towns, the tracks often just a little over a hundred yards from the beach. The water was warm, the waves were great and a multitude of surfers, sun bathers and boogie-boarders were out that day. After Oceanside, the stretch of beach in Camp Pendleton Marine base was fairly deserted, except for the occasional line of tanks and trucks for training.

Coming up next, San Onofre and the nuclear power plant also site of famed surfing spot, Trestles, with some of the best waves in the world. We had a couple minutes to enjoy the boarders’ spectacular rides. From San Juan Capistrano, the train wended its way inland for Orange County stops – Irvine, Santa Ana, Anaheim (adjacent to Angel Stadium) and Fullerton.

The last stretch took us through an industrial section before coming to the Los Angeles River, last lap to Union Station. It was mid-summer but there was a surprising amount of water trickling down the cement river bed. As well, grass and reeds supported quite a bit of bird life.

Union Station

Finally, our destination – the beautiful art deco Union Station, which opened in 1939.

Built on a grand scale, it became known as “Last of the Great Railway Stations” built in the United States. In 1980, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the station is a tourist site itself.

Downtown – Checkers, Theater and Grand Park

A Hilton hotel, Checkers is conveniently located in the heart of the business and financial district of Los Angeles. This historic boutique hotel is only blocks from many of the area’s key destinations, including the MOCA museum, Disney Hall, the Music Center, Convention Center, the L.A. Live Entertainment Complex and the federal and state courthouses. After check-in, we took a walk  on Grand.

commissioned art

Along the avenue here, there are several commissioned art works, adding interest on the uphill stroll.

Checkers features the elegance of a large luxury property with the convenience and lack of pretension of a small hotel. On the ground floor, Checkers restaurant offers a restful ambiance as well as a varied menu. The dinner offerings took advantage of fresh, local products. Salad choices included such items as roasted, candy-striped beets served with Humboldt Fog goat cheese. For dinner, we shared this, along with roasted Jidori Natural Chicken breast. After our delicious dinner and full of drinks, we judiciously opted to take the hotel’s offer of a limo ride to the theater instead of walking the steep block up Grand.

On July 28, officials opened the first two blocks of the 12-acre Grand Park with a celebration that culminated 12 years of city planning. The park provides a welcome green belt. unifying  four distinct areas, leading to the City Hall. The last two blocks to the City Hall are planned to open later this year.

Replete with fountains that cascade several levels, relaxing promenades and multi-dimensional performance spaces, the park has ample benches for people to sit back and take in the scenery and greenery – 140 different species of plants that create an intertwined landscape of native species, including many drought resistant types. New pedestrian-friendly steps and ADA-accessible ramps create a series of broad terraces leading down into the park from the street about 30 feet above. A Starbuck’s Coffee and ATM are near the entrance, and movable café tables and chairs in hot magenta add bright splashes of color, acting as a consistent “bloom” to complement the foliage.

The park is operated by The Music Center which handles the scheduling of special events. Nancy Hereford, Music Center spokesperson, says that the Group doesn’t have any programming plans to produce shows at this time.  Although, she says, “…we are interested in the potential opportunity of such a beautiful and accessible space. It could also be a great place for our patrons to visit for food and coffee when they come downtown to see one of our shows.”

Next day, after a short cab ride to Union Station, we were set for a pleasant ride back to San Diego.

For Amtrak information, Call (800) 624-872-7245:

Checkers Hotel, call (213) 624-0000;

the Music Center, call  (213)972-7211;

About Larry and Gaile Taylor: Larry spent 15 years in the newspaper industry prior to beginning his teaching career at Fullerton College in 1975. He retired in 2000. During his  careers, he wrote stories on travel focusing on the arts–theater, music and culture. Gail Taylor brings Larry’s words to life with her brilliant photography. They travel extensively and share their adventures with travelers.