Day 5. From Chicago to 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.
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!
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)!
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.
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.
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.
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.