Amtrak Family Adventure: Los Angeles to Seattle by Train

coast starlight

Waiting to board the Coast Starlight

Looking for an adventure out of Los Angeles that’s scenic, educational, and relaxing? Why not skip the traffic jams and try a train trip? Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train heads right up the California coast and then through Oregon and Washington, ending in Seattle. This easy 34-hour journey is spread out over two days and one night, and even by the end of the second day our kids weren’t quite ready to leave the train. As we told more friends about the trip, we discovered that very few of them had ever done it…and they had lots and lots of questions about it, so we thought we’d answer a few of the most frequently asked questions.

parlour car dining

Dining room in the Parlour Car

1) How was the food? Loved it! When you book a room in a sleeper car, all of the meals on your journey are included. For each meal, you get to choose whether you want to dine in the Pacific Parlour car or the dining car. You book a reservation time, head on over at your appointed time, and then you can order from among several choices on the menu.

Breakfast to order on the dining car: Grits, veggie omelet, sausage, and biscuit

Breakfast to order on the dining car: Grits, veggie omelet, sausage, and biscuit

Our meals were hot, fresh, healthy, and pleasing to both kids and adults. There are several “specials” for every meal, but just to give you an idea, here’s the dining car menu (remember that meals are included if you’re in a sleeper car so you don’t have to worry about the price of each item), the northbound Pacific Parlour menu and the southbound Pacific Parlour menu.  Extra dining car bonus: You get to watch the scenery going by while you eat – it’s better than TV.

2) How was the sleeping? Surprisingly comfortable. Our family sleeping room was designed to sleep four – two adults plus two kids; which means there was an upper and lower adult-sized bunk, and an upper and lower kid-sized bunk. Our group only had one adult and two kids so the older kid (age 10) slept on the upper adult bunk to give him a little more leg room. Had we been a group of four, it might have been a tight squeeze – the kids’ bunks are very compact – but with three people we felt we had more than enough room. In the daytime, we had plenty of room for each kid to sit comfortably by his own window, while an adult could lie down and read a book between them. If you’re looking to stay in a sleeper car, there are several sleeper car room types available depending on the size of your party, including special bedroom suites that have their own bathrooms.

passing the time3) How were the bathrooms? The bathrooms are pretty similar to airplane bathrooms – They’re tiny and you may get bounced up and down a little bit while you’re sitting in there. But overall they were clean and well-kept. On our sleeper car there were three separate toilet rooms, plus one shower room, and we never had to wait for the bathrooms.

4) What did you do the whole time? We spent a lot of time either looking at scenery, reading, playing cards, or playing on iPads. At least three of our waking hours each day were spent in the dining car.

parlour car theater

Movie theater in the Parlour Car

Plus, in the Pacific Parlour car there were movies showing each day (a 3:00 pm kids’ movie and an 8:00 pm adult movie). The observation car also featured a National Park Service docent who gave a talk about the scenery through the Trails and Rails program. The kids had a great time moving from car to car and checking out all of the activities.

5.) Who is available to help you once you’re on the train? Each sleeper car has its own porter, kind of like your own flight attendant, who helps you get oriented and who helps you convert your seats into beds at night. As soon as we got on the train, our friendly porter brought us fresh water and fruit. There’s also an attendant call button in each sleeping compartment if you need assistance. Also, the dining car personnel travel around the train to assist people with breakfast, lunch, and dinner reservations.

A small farm in San Ardo, California, as seen from the Amtrak Coast Starlight train

A small farm in San Ardo, California, as seen from the Amtrak Coast Starlight train

6.) What scenery did you see? In the first part of the trip, we enjoyed a lovely view of the Southern California and Central California coastline. Then the train took a “right hand turn” and headed inland through farm country. We reached Oakland at about 10:00 pm when we were going to sleep, so we didn’t see any scenery between the Bay Area and the California-Oregon border. But at breakfast the second morning, we got a chance to see fabulous waterside scenery through Oregon, and the views continued all the way through Washington.

Oregon marshland and mountains

Oregon marshland and mountains, as seen from the Amtrak Coast Starlight train

7.) Do you stop and get out during the trip? No, the trip is designed so that you stay on the train the entire time (approximately 10:00 am the first morning, until 8:30 pm the next day). If you need to get out for a quick break (such as a smoke break) you can do that at the bigger stations where there’s a longer stop, but it’s only about 5 to 10 minutes. Ideally, you can just rest and relax and let Amtrak do all of the driving.

Eight Perfect Days in Hawaii With the Kids

One of the best parts about Hawaii – the fact that there’s so much to do! – is also one of the biggest challenges for a family with limited vacation time. How do you get in all the things you want to do in Hawaii – including relaxing – with only a week to spare?

The Fairmont Orchid

The exterior of the Fairmont Orchid facing the ocean

To take on that (admittedly tough) question, our family headed from Manhattan Beach to the Big Island at the end of June. We went there with a list of things that we ideally wanted to do before heading back home, but we resolved not to be so list-driven that it would cost us relaxation time. In short, our goal was balance.

While we didn’t want an entirely pre-packaged vacation, we found that a resort hotel with a full list of amenities was the easiest way to get the family into all kinds of beach activities. At the Fairmont Orchid, we had everything we needed for island fun within an arms’ reach. In the middle of the week, by the time we were ready to rent a car, we were ready to see the sights beyond the hotel. Here’s how the week came together:

A sea turtle crawls up on shore

A sea turtle crawls up on shore at the Fairmont Orchid

Day 1 – Water Fun and Sea Turtles: After arriving in Hawaii at around lunchtime, we shuttled right over to the Fairmont, did our check-in and a quick poolside lunch at the hotel, and then got on our swimsuits and went straight for the water. The lagoon at the Fairmont is a favorite resting spot for honu (sea turtles) so you’re sure to see these beautiful creatures swimming and lounging in the sun. (Sea turtles need vacation too, you know). Insider Tip: Spring for the Fun & Sun Activity Pass ($75 per stay for adults; $65 for kids) to get easy access to unlimited pool toys, snorkel gear, paddleboards, kayaks, and more.

Black lava and white coral beach

A black and white (black lava and white coral) beach hike

Day 2 – Hiking and Movies: We woke up early for a bright and breezy hike around the Fairmont property. The beaches surrounding the resort are filled with colorful black lava and white coral, making for a stunning landscape. We took advantage of more swimming, snorkeling, and paddling time in the pool and in the lagoon, then relaxed in the steaming hot tub. That evening, we took in 4D movies at the 4D Adventure Ride theater in the Shops at Mauna Lani. Each movie is 8 to 10 minutes long, and your seat shakes and the wind blows (and you even might get sprayed with water) in time with the movie. The shopping center also features several restaurants, a grocery store, and various clothing and surf shops. Insider Tip: Take advantage of the free shuttle that runs between the Fairmont and the Shops at Mauna Lani every 10 minutes.

Scenes from Gathering of the Kings

Dazzling sights at the Gathering of the Kings luau

Day 3 – Kayaks and Luau: We started the day with a relaxing breakfast in the Fairmont Gold lounge. Staying on the Gold level entitles you and your family to all sorts of convenient amenities, like a daily continental breakfast, featuring many traditional Hawaiian dishes, afternoon tea time, and early evening canapes and cocktails at the honor bar. The lounge is open all day with access to cold drinks and light snacks, and the friendly concierge is always ready to help. Later we got kayaks for the whole family to paddle around the island. In the evening, we enjoyed the Gathering of the Kings luau on-site at the Fairmont, which provided more than three hours’ worth of food, drinks, entertainment, and crafts for the kids. Insider tip: Get in line early for the best seats at the luau.

Village Burger

Cheeseburger in paradise – Scenes from Village Burger in Waimea

Day 4 – Petroglyphs and Stars: While the grownups relaxed, the kids took a morning petroglyph hike with the Keiki Aloha childrens’ program. The Fairmont is home to one of the largest petroglyph fields in the Hawaiian Islands, and after the kids viewed the petroglyphs, they came back to the kids’ center and recreated their own. In the afternoon, we rented our car and drove to Waimea to the highly regarded Village Burger for lunch, a highlight of the trip from our kids’ perspective. These burgers, made from locally raised cattle, are probably among the best you’ve ever tasted – and the shakes are outstanding.  As the sun set, we headed back up the mountain to the top of Mauna Kea for some world-class stargazing. At the Visitor Information Station at 9,300 feet, the nightly stargazing program allows visitors to choose from an array of high-powered telescopes to see once-in-a-lifetime views of the moon, Mars, and more. If conditions are right, you’ll also see part of the Milky Way. Insider Tip: You’ll want to dress warm – really warm – for evenings atop Mauna Kea. The visitors’ center also offers various souvenir jackets, hats, and scarves for sale, as well as coffee, hot chocolate, and soups.

Kona Jet Ski

A trampoline in the middle of the ocean with Kona Jet Ski

Day 5 – Fish and Jet Skis: Hawaii is known for its fresh fish, so we decided to go straight to the source. At Honokohau Harbor in Kailua-Kona, we had front-row seats of the fishing action at Bite Me Fish Market as a sportfishing boat brought in a freshly caught marlin. From there, we headed out to downtown Kailua-Kona to catch up with the folks at Kona Jet Ski. We took a short motorboat ride about a half-mile out to “Adventure Island,” which was the launching point for our jet ski adventure. After jet-skiing, we had a blast jumping on the giant ocean trampoline that floated next to Adventure Island. Now we can say we’ve jumped on a trampoline in the middle of the ocean! Insider Tip: Bring your own towels out to Adventure Island so you can dry off, have a drink, and relax after your time in the water.

Sunset torchlighting at Fairmont Orchid

The sunset torchlighting ceremony at the Fairmont Orchid

Day 6 – Fishing and Resort Sunset: Back at the resort, we reserved a family fishing trip aboard a double-hulled canoe with our native Hawaiian guide, Ikaika. Ikaika brought along all of the fishing equipment, plus a cooler full of snacks and drinks, and guided us through the fishing process. At night, Ikaika was also the Fairmont’s torchlighting ceremony leader, and he led a gaggle of kids across the resort as he blew a conch shell and lit torches across the resort. Insider Tip: Grab one of the lounge chairs by the pool at sunset and you’ll have a front-row seat at the torchlighting ceremony as well as the spectacular sunset.

Snacking at the mac shack at Joe

Snacking at the “Mac Shack” at Joe’s Nuts

Day 7 – Island Drive, Night Volcano: After checking out of the Fairmont, we headed south through the Kona and continued through lush coffee and chocolate country. We stopped at Joe’s Nuts, a quirky little macadamia nut farm, where the kids could check out the trees, try their hand at cracking the nuts, and sample different flavors. We continued driving around the island all the way through to Volcanoes National Park, where we had rented a house for the night in the little town of Volcano. Insider Tip: Head into the park at night and stop by the lookout at the Jaggar Museum to see the hot volcano glowing in the dark. Extra bonus for us – we saw a nighttime rainbow, lit by the glow of the volcano, because it had just stopped raining.

Hawaiian root vegetable and taro chips with the volcano smoldering in the background

Hawaiian root vegetable and taro chips with the volcano smoldering in the background

Day 8 – Lava Tube and Farewell Dinner: We went back to the park in the morning, watched a short video at the visitors’ center and enjoyed a delicious meal at the Hawaii Volcano House. Then we headed off on a kid-friendly hike down through the amazing Thurston Lava Tube (you’ll need to be able to walk up and down stairs to get there) and around the rim of the crater. After that we said goodbye to the volcano, headed back around the island, enjoyed a delicious final dinner back in Kona at the Fish Hopper, and then flew home. Insider tip: Take one of the red-eyes back to California so you give yourself a full day for your last day on the island.

Aloha, Hawaii! We were so sad to leave – but we were filled up with satisfaction knowing that he had gotten so much in to our eight days in paradise.