The Silver Splendor chugged into the Santa Barbara train station looking as sleek as its name implied. I’d booked a seat on a day train trip in a vintage dome and dining car, sponsored by the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens. It offered a novel way to see a spectacular section of the Pacific Coast, offering birds’ eye views of secluded, often unseen beaches, from tracks that hugged the ocean far west of Highway 101.
Although this trip wouldn’t take us far — from Santa Barbara up the coast to San Luis Obispo and back — the itinerary included an onboard botanist to talk about California’s coastal plant life. Steve Junak, the Gardens’ herbarium curator with an M.A. in Botany, proved to be an easy-going guy — more a tour guide than botany wonk — and he had no trouble keeping up a chatty discussion for the 40 guests aboard the Splendor.
The native flora of the California Coast, which needed little fanfare as it was a gorgeous spring day in early March, nearly played second fiddle to Junak’s pithy commentary about not only the railway but the colorful history of the region.
His grasp of local California lore included a history of the Native American Chumash villages, Spanish land grants, Hollister Ranch, Vandenberg Air Force Base, the largest peace time U.S. naval disaster off Honda Point, Lompoc’s 1889 Gold Rush, Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments’ set buried in the Guadalupe dunes, and comments on a Utopian society south of Pismo Beach in Oceano called the Dunites.
The Silver Splendor was as much to be desired as the coastal scenery. Built by the Budd Company in 1956 and used for the daily Chicago-Denver run, John and Heidi Caestecker of San Clemente bought the car in 1997. Caestecker, a likeable, smiling man, who is also a train enthusiast, accompanies all train tours and answers questions about his prize acquisition.
“We bought the car in the Midwest,” he explained, “and moved it out to Fullerton, California.”
They worked on refurbishing it for 12 years until 2009, he continued, totally restoring it to its full operational capacity. The Splendor seats 24 up top in the dome car and 24 down below in the dining car. The Botanical Gardens’ tour included a catered buffet luncheon and drinks, served by two waiters, one of them Caestecker’s son.
“I was able to quit my regular job two years ago,” Caestecker said, “and now this is my full-time job.”
From his beaming smile and readiness to answer all questions, it’s obvious that the job suits the man.
The car is pulled by Amtrak and Caestecker is aligned with four other vintage train car owners who also offer their cars for hire through LARail.com. The Silver Splendor is kept near the LA station, and is booked 40 weekends a year. It’s available for tours, private parties, weddings and movie shoots.
We pulled back into Santa Barbara station just before 5 p.m. The afternoon’s activities, after a 40-minute stop in San Luis Obispo, included more pristine ocean views from the vintage railway car’s windows along with fresh cookies and a further slice of history from Junak. The coastal train trip was a very pleasant way to spring into spring.