[Amtrak trip] New Orleans to Houston


Sign on the wall of Amtrak Houston Station

9:00 AM Departing from New Orleans

After three jazzy days (and nights) in New Orleans, it was time to leave. The driver/guide who took us to plantations the day before had said “no matter what you ask, New Orleans will say ‘the answer is love.'” I was sure that I would miss the colorful, vibrant, and smiling city of New Orleans. I downloaded some songs by Louis Armstrong as memories and headed to the Amtrak station.

My next destination was a totally different city, the city of (wow!) World Series Champions, Houston! (New Orleans doesn’t have a Major League baseball team.) Appropriately, the train number of Amtrak train (Sunset Limited) from New Orleans to Houston was ‘1’, yes, ONE. I have no idea how Amtrak numbers its trains, but the route of ‘one’ train definitely is the longest one I have ever seen, 48 hours! The train (only leaves on Mon, Wed, and Saturdays) runs from New Orleans all the way to Los Angeles passing Houston and Tucson etc.  I was heading west and planning to go to LA as well, but surely wasn’t brave enough to take the 48 hours train ride. So I decided to get off at Houston: only 9.5 hours ride.

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Routes of Sunset Limited

New Orleans was the starting point of this looooooong train. Like the trains before, Amtrak staff gave out the seat numbers as people were getting on the train. We got the second to last seat from the back of a coach car. The last seats were for crew members. For the next nine hours, I could not help but listen to the conversations between two Amtrak employees, mostly about the heavy workloads that they have to endure. They argued about how hard oneself worked, and how another didn’t.

The train started the long journey as the the rivers, wetlands, and swamps of Louisiana were folding. The water was green, abundant with water plants. I could hear people shouting “look, alligator!” here and there, but I could not spot one. One woman said “wherever there is a water, there is an alligator.” (!)


On a way from New Orleans to Houston: Lake Charles (Louisiana)


On a way from New Orleans to Houston: Lake Charles (Louisiana)


On a way from New Orleans to Houston: El Dorado (Texas)


On a way from New Orleans to Houston: Trinity River (Texas)


This train too had an observation car where you can look out the windows. The views of Southern states were fascinating so I spent about two hours in the car. Not like the train from Chicago to New Orleans, where the observation car was very loud like a party car, the train from New Orleans was very quite with people observing the sceneries of Mississippi River and Lake Charles. The train kept running westward as the weather changed from sunny to rainy to sunny to cloudy to sunny again.


Observation Car in Amtrak Sunset Limited


Observation Car in Amtrak Sunset Limited


There were a couple of more things I learned on this trip, about the long distance Amtrak train.

1. Dining car and lunch box option

Passengers on a reserved coach could have meals at dining car too. Food at dining car for sleeping car passengers are all free, and coach passengers need to pay for the meal if you want to dine in the dining room.
To use the dining car, you need to make a reservation first. The crew will announce that coach passengers should come to the dining car to make a reservation after they take reservations from the sleeping car passengers. (So it might not be possible to get the best time slot for your choice, if you are coach passenger.)
In case of Sunset Limited I took, the dining staff announced if anybody would go for an ‘early bird’ takeout option around 1~2 hours before the regular meal time (10:00 AM for lunch for example.) You can get a lunch box with something similar to angus beef burger, chocolate chip cookies, water etc. at around $15.00 which seemed like a good deal (I packed a simple lunch before I got into the train so didn’t have chance to try one though.)
In the dining car, you have to share a table (the Amtrak crew described it in such a friendly way as “you will make new friends.”) If you are not comfortable with eating with strangers, lunch box seemed like a good idea. (Below is Amtrak dining car menu, in case you are interested. Click to enlarge.)

2. ‘No Wifi’ is common
There was a free wifi on a train from Boston to Chicago. Most of the train I took on the east coast area offered free wifi. I figured that the train tickets are so expensive, it is obvious that Amtrak offers a free wifi. I was so wrong! Apparently, free wifi is only a thing of an east coast train.
The train from Chicago to New Orleans didn’t seem to have wifi but I didn’t bother to ask because it was a night train and I slept for the most of the time. On the train to Houston I asked the crew if they have a wifi and he answered back “only on business and sleeping cars.”
However, three days from this train, I took a sleeping car and there was no wifi either. I needed to use a wifi and my mobile phone data plan was running out, so I had to upgrade my plan for more data to use hotspots.
(another) However, trains often run through remote lands so ‘no service’ or ‘4G’ on cell phones are very common. Then you are doomed to read a book. 😛

8:00 PM Arriving at Houston

We arrived at Houston around 8:00 PM. It was about 1.5 hours late because the train had to go around the city as we got closer to Houston due to some construction or something. I was excited see the skyscrapers of Houston as the train slowly approached this big city. Being delayed wasn’t something unexpected, the thing that surprised me was the size Houston Amtrak station. It was so small! It was smaller than any ordinary subway station in NY. I thought “oh, it must be a temporary one.” I was wrong!


View of Houston from the Amtrak Station



Unexpectedly small Houston Amtrak station


Unexpectedly small Houston Amtrak station

I called Lyft to go to the hotel (Club Quarters Houston) and the first thing the driver said was “Gosh, I didn’t know there was a train station here.” I asked him where the ‘real’ train station (not the temporary one) was, and he said “no, no, this must be the real one.” He added, “nobody rides a train in Houston. Nobody uses public transportation in Houston. There are very fancy metro, and you will find there are so little people there. And nobody walks in Houston. It is car, car, and car.” Really?

It was only about 5~10 minutes drive from the train station to the hotel. After dropping the luggages, I went out for a late dinner to one of the casual restaurant nearby and grabbed a beef brisket taco with a glass of local beer. The hotel was near the ‘central’ metro station, and interestingly enough the street was quite empty. ‘It is only around 9:00 PM, where is everybody,’ I thought, or is 9:00 PM too late for Houstonians? As I walked back to the hotel, I witnessed a gentleman with a very formal suits running into a building with a brown bag meal.  Is everybody just working? I shall find out!


Very quite night streets of Houston


***Amtrak trip: full list***


[Amtrak trip] 24h in New Orleans (2)

 9:00 AM Plantations Tour

After eating surprisingly good free breakfast (with warm sausages, egg scrambles, grits etc.) at the Drury Inn, I went for a tour to a couple of plantations in Louisiana. There are several plantation tours offered by tour companies. I made a reservation the day before to go for Gray Line (one of the biggest tour companies it seemed) Double Plantation tour ($88.) You could choose two plantations among three on the list (Laura, Whitney, and Oak Alley.) I googled some pictures and basic info, and picked Laura and Oak Alley plantations. The tour was from 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM and the pick-up area was near the French Quarter, right beside the Mississippi pier.

The big coach bus was about 2/3 filled with tourists. 1.5 hour bus ride itself to the plantation was quite fun. The New Orleans native bus driver (interestingly without the accent though) was also a very good tour guide, telling us various interesting stories about New Orleans with his headset microphone (something like that New Orleans people call an avocado ‘alligator pear.’) The view of Mississippi river, the second longest river in the world after Nile (according to the driver, fourth longest river according to Wikipedia,) through the bus window was stunning.


Mississippi River from the tour bus to the plantations

The first stop was Laura plantation. About 10 minutes after the bus dropping us off, the tour guide walked us through the plantation. Laura plantation is a typical creole sugar plantation that was happened to be run by women most of the time. I had been confused about the word ‘creole’ that was being used everywhere in New Orleans, from food to housing, and the guide finally made it clear for me. The term means people who are ‘French speaking (doesn’t need to be a French), Louisiana born (regardless of ethnicity), and Catholic.’


Laura plantation


Laura plantation


A pot that was used to purify sugar in Laura Plantation

After about 1.5 hours at Laura plantation, the bus drivers picked us up again and headed to the next plantation, Oak Alley (15 mins drive.) Oak Alley plantation is one of those very photogenic spots that make you shout out ‘OMG, I must go there!’ The real thing was no less than the pictures in the internet. Big oak tree branches were making a beautiful entranceway to the front door of the main building.

There was a restaurant in one of the buildings inside the plantation complex, so I had a quick lunch there. They served mostly traditional Louisiana meals in a cozy atmosphere.  We had chicken+smoked sausage gumbo ($9.95) and fried oyster poboy royale ($14.95.)

After the lunch, the tour guide of the plantation walked us through the main house. Contrast to the beautiful scenery, we of course learned about the painful history of slavery embedded in the plantation. It was also a little bit sad to learn that the family who owned this beautiful plantation couldn’t hold it for more than two generations due to mis-judgement on some investments.


Oak Alley plantation


Oak Alley plantation


Lunch at Oak Alley. (top) Poboy and (bottom) Gumbo

5:00 PM Dinner at Pier 424 Seafood Market


(top) Boiled jumbo shrimp and (bottom) alligator fries at Pier 424 Fish Market

After coming back to New Orleans by the same bus, it was a time for an early dinner. The day before, I reserved the famous Natchez steamboat cruise ($48, without dinner) that goes up and down the Mississippi River and the boat was to leave at 7:00 PM. There was an option to eat dinner on the boat ($83, including the cruise) but eating something on the boat wasn’t my thing, so I went for a dinner before the cruise. There were still several things left on my list of ‘ten things I must eat in New Orleans’ and I was to leave the day after, so I felt like I should hurry.

I went to Pier 424 Seafood Market for the dinner because they had boiled crawfish on the menu. However, I was disappointedly told it was not the season. I tried boiled jumbo shrimp with potatoes and corns (MP, around $30 I think I paid) and fried alligator ($12, tasted like chicken)  instead. Big dishes of fresh seafoods were satisfying enough.

7:00 PM Natchez Steamboat

After the dinner, I finally headed for the cruise, the famous steamboat that had been hosting various people since 1823. The current boat is the ninth generation of Natchez, cruising since 1975. The jazz band was already playing on the boat. The vibe was lively while the boat cruised into the sunset. My last night of New Orleans was passing with the tune of jazz and the sound of the steamboat foghorn.


Natchez steamboat (panorama)


Natchez steamboat (panorama)


Jazz at Natchez steamboat

9:30 PM Jazz at Musical Legends Park

The boat brought us back to the land at around 9:00 PM. For the last sprinkle of New Orleans, I headed to the casual outdoor jazz bar in the middle of French Quarter. Cafe Beignet at Bourbon St. was located in the Musical Legends Park. The tiny park is famous for the three statues of jazz legends standing near the gate (Al “Jumbo” Hirt, Antoine “Fats” Domino, and Pete Fountain.) And of course, there was a live jazz being played in the middle of the courtyard. The wind was still warm as the sound of live jazz danced through the night air.


Musical Legends Park


Jazz at Musical Legends Park

***Amtrak trip: Full List***

[Amtrak trip] 24h in New Orleans (1)


Be nice or leave! Motto of New Orleans


10:30 AM The oldest tram in the world

I started the second day in New Orleans quite late. It seemed it was the way everybody was doing it in New Orleans. After taking a good rest, I went for a lunch at Carrollton Market in the west side of the city (Carrollton) beside the Mississippi river.

It was about 4.7 miles from my hotel. I decided to try the historic New Orleans tram #12, oldest streetcar in the world! I could buy the ticket very easily with the smartphone app ‘RTA Go Mobile.’ One day unlimited ride ticket (Jazzy pass) was $3.00.

The tram was made with wood and rattled as it went slowly. There was no window glass on the driver’s seat so the driver could announce whatever he/she wants (like “take the next tram!”) by shouting it out loud to the streets. The tram took the historic St. Charles Ave, which was filled with beautiful/huge houses and large trees.


The oldest streetcar in the world

12:00 Lunch at Carrollton Market

Carrollton Market was reported in Forbes magazine as one of the four restaurants that you shouldn’t miss today in New Orleans. And the owner/chef Jason Goodenough had been named the chef of the year by New Orleans Magazine last year. The food was very elegant and interior was cozy. I had Oyster Goodenough French Omelet ($17) that was very unique and rich in taste.


Carrollton Market


Oyster Goodenough French Omelette at Carrollton Market

2:00 PM Waking around Magazine Streets

Magazine Streets are 6 miles stretching streets in the west side of New Orleans filled with local shops. The streets are abundant of vintage shops, antiques, and various local products. I was not planning for shopping but ended up buying a leather pencil case at Box Paper Scissor (beautiful stationery shop) and two vinyls (SP) of Quincy Jones and George Harrison at Peach’s Record.


Kaweco fountain pens at Box Paper Scissor


Peach’s Record


Very very interesting coloring book at Peach’s Record

4:00 PM Cocktail time

We took the tram again to come back to the French Quarter. It was now sizzling and impossible to stay outside for too long. So like everybody else in New Orleans, we went for cocktails. At first, we just grabbed any seat at the bar Famous Door that was playing live music (something like Irish country songs…?) and drank a big cup of Hurricane cocktail that so many people were drinking (rum+passion fruit juice.)


Famous Door at Bourbon Street

It was a bit early for a dinner and too hot to walk around, so I decided to go for… another cocktail, thinking it must have been weather that made New Orleans a birthplace of cocktail. My next stop was Carousel Bar at Monteleone Hotel. The bar is the only rotating (yes, spinning slowly like a carousel) bar in New Orleans and according to its website it had been spinning for 65 years now! I had Vieux Carre ($12.00), signature cocktail created in 1938 (Rey Whiskey+Sweet Vermouth+etc.) which was strong enough for a hot summer day


Vieux Carre cocktail at Carousel Bar (minions not included :-P)

7:00 PM Seafood Dinner at Felix

I had this list of ’10 things that you must eat in New Orleans,’ from USA tourism site and felt like I was running out of time to eat them all in three days. So to check out several menus at once, I went to Felix’s Restaurant & Oyster Bar. It was very casual restaurant that served New Orleans style seafoods. We had half shell oysters, char-grilled oysters, Crawfish Etouffee, and Jambalaya. The waitress recommended seasonal local draft beer which was watermelon (!) beer. It was perfect for the weather and the food.


Char grilled Oysters at Felix


The list of ‘ten things I must eat’ in New Orleans

After the dinner, it was cooler than before so we walked to the next spot, Frenchmen St. On a way, I encountered a wonderful shop (Magnolia Sugar & Spice Praline Kitchen & Hot Sauce Bar) that had hundreds (or thousands) kinds of hot sauce. They even had hot sauce tasting bar (“Taste at your own rick”) to feel the different tastes of hot sauces. I couldn’t resist but to buy one Louisiana ‘original’ hot sauce, although for me it was almost impossible to tell the difference among various kinds.

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Magnolia Sugar & Spice Praline Kitchen & Hot Sauce Bar



Hot sauce tasting


9:00 PM Jazz time

The main street for New Orleans jazz is Frenchmen St, about 15~20 mins walk from the crazy Bourbon St.  According to the website, Frenchmen St. is “the capital of live music in New Orleans. With 20+ bars, venues, and restaurants all within a 2 block area, each hosting various live music events 7 days a week.” So how could I skip it?

The first jazz bar we hopped into was the Maison where the band, Smoking Time Jazz Club, was playing. We sat at the bar and nobody asked for a cover charge. (Later I found out the show is all free unless otherwise specified.) The show was great and so jazzy, quite different from something like $50.00 cover charged live in New York.

After the show and a glass of local IPA, we headed to another jazz bar nearby, the Spotted Cat. This time we had to pay $10.00 entrance fee but the didn’t have to order anything. We were standing in the crowd so it was not easy to drink anyway. The night was turning deeper and so was the music. It was getting warmer from heat of the crowd, but nobody seemed to care and nor did I.


The Mason



The Spotted Cat


[Amtrak trip] Chicago to New Orleans

Day 5. From Chicago to New Orleans

Chicago–>New Orleans
Amtrak 59 <City of New Orleans>, Reserved Coach
Departure 8:05 PM
Arrival 3:47 PM (next day)

8:05 PM Departure from Chicago

The daily train from Chicago to New Orleans, ‘The City of New Orleans’ started around 8:00 PM, just in time to enjoy the sunset of Chicago from the departing train. I remembered the docent from Chicago architecture boat tour telling us the quote from Mark Twain. “She is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.” Indeed, I shall come back one day.

The train slipped quietly through the night. It was to pass Champaign-Urbana, Carbondale, Memphis, Jackson, and arrive at its final station New Orleans after about 19 hours (934 miles.) I fell asleep as soon as it left and woke up around at 5:30 AM near Memphis. The crew announced that it was ‘designated smoking stop,’ and so many cigarette lovers jumped off excitedly. I realized the train was running about one hour early, meaning that it needed to wait for passengers for about an hour. I had more than enough time to get off and to stretch myself. After Memphis, I couldn’t go back to sleep.


Stopping at Memphis


Observation car in ‘City of New Orleans.’ Later this car turned into a party car.

The Amtrak train from Chicago to New Orleans was a little bit different from the train from Boston to Chicago. The biggest difference was that it had an observation car, where the chairs were installed sideways to look at sceneries through the large windows. It was the next car from my seat, so I went to take a look around 8:30 AM. Then I found out that there was a whole different world being unfolded in observation car. It was not an observation car, it was a PARTY car! People were laughing, talking, singing, playing cards and it was so loud and joyful. Someone even was playing wild music with a Bluetooth speaker and one group was having bachelorette party. The city of New Orleans in the train already!

Lake Maurepas
Scenery going into New Orleans, Lake Maurepas

Scenery going into New Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain


Scenery going into New Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain


2:50 PM Arrival: New Orleans

The scenery outside was changing from coolness of Chicago to warm, hot, wet, swampy scenery of the South. The driver of the train must have been pumping the gas hard, because the train surprisingly arrived in New Orleans about one hour early (!) at 2:50 PM. I was shocked that New Orleans was a large city with high rises. How stupid I was to think that it would be a small city similar to Cambridge (MA)!


The famous Mercedes Stadium near New Orleans Amtrak station


Colorful New Orleans Amtrak Station


Street near the hotel. “Jazz it up”


It was so hot and sunny in New Orleans. I walked about 15 minutes from the station to the hotel, Drury Inn & Suite. The lobby was really luxurious, and the check-in staff was very kind. She let us know that we get three free drinks (including beer, wine, or cocktail) and free food every day from 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM. I couldn’t believe my ears so asked back, “you mean it’s all free?” (Yes, it really was.)

4:00 PM Walking around French Quarter

It was the first day in New Orleans, so I decided to explore the most famous spot, French Quarter, about 20 minutes’ walk from the hotel. It was only 4:00 PM the streets were filled with partying people. The live music was being played in every corner and everywhere you turn, there were street performers playing jazz.

Park near French Quarter (Jackson Square)

Colorful phone booth in French Quarter

Everybody walking the alleys were carrying some kind of cocktail in their hands. ‘You can drink outside, smoke inside’ has been the motto of New Orleans, I’ve read, and it seemed to be true. Nobody was covering their alcoholic drinks with brown bag and there were several cigar bars with signs ‘you can smoke inside.’ People used to really smoke inside the bars until several years ago, but it is now banned except designated cigar bars.

We headed for the first food of New Orleans,  the world-famous Beignet. The most famous spot for Beignet was Café du Monde. Luckily there was no line for the inside seats, so we just dived in and ordered iced Café au Lait ($5.00) and one dish of Beignet (3 pieces, $2.73.) According to Cafe du Monde’s website, Beignet is “a square piece of dough, fried and covered with powdered sugar.” Hot and crispy fried dough was covered with the finest powder of sugar and it tasted like heaven.


The famous Beignet cafe <Cafe du Monde>


Beignet with Cafe Au Lait

7:00 PM Dinner at Compere Lapin

After taking a walk for about an hour, we went to Compere Lapin (French for ‘brother rabbit’) for a dinner (about 10 mins walk from French Quarter.) It was a nice Creole restaurant serving local food. I had curried goat which was very unique and tasty. My travel companion drank the signature cocktail ‘Copper Bunny’ which was served in very heavy rabbit shaped copper cup that kept the cocktail cold for a long time.


Copper Bunny cocktail at Compere Lapin

9:15 PM Jazz at Preservation Hall

We went back to French Quarter to watch the Jazz performance at the historic Preservation Hall. It felt weird to walk around with no cocktail at hands, so I bought the cocktail that seemed most popular among the crowd, Hand Grenade. Finally, I really felt like fitted to New Orleans.

According to Preservation Hall’s website, it has been operating since 1961. You can book for a seating ticket in advance for $35~50 dollars. We didn’t make a reservation so stood in line for walk-in ‘standing’ tickets ($20.00.) The show started at 9:15 PM and we went in with the crowd. It was not a bar, just a music hall, and we were allowed to bring our own drinks. The hall was very small and had the original decoration from 1960s (no air conditioning.) The 45 mins show (by a sextet) was truly great. Its finale was, of course, ‘the Saints.’ (no photo allowed)

It was already 10:30 PM at night but the air still felt very warm, or even hot. Nevertheless, I felt really festive. I bought a beads necklace that everybody was wearing for 50 cents to celebrate my first day in New Orleans and walked back to the hotel.


Hand Grenade cocktail


Lively street of French Quarter, New Orleans


Oh-I-must-buy-this beads accessories

***Amtrak Trip 2018: the full list***

[one drawing #27] plantations

On the trip to New Orleans, I took about a half day to visit famous plantations. I went with a tour to Laura’s Plantation and Oak Alley Plantation. Did a quick sketch on site and added more  details later at hotel.



(top) Laura’s Alley (bottom) Oak is Alley Plantation

On the trip to New Orleans, I took about a half day to visit famous plantations. I went with a tour to Laura’s Plantation and Oak Alley Plantation. Did a quick sketch on site and added more  details later at hotel.


Laura’s Plantation (in my real photo)


Oak Alley Plantation (in my real photo)


yes, it is a small sketchbook