My wife Tracy and I decided to take a Christmas trip this year. She was jealous of my previous visit to New Orleans for the Grand Masquerade in 2016, as New Orleans is someplace she’s always wanted to visit. Visiting during Mardi Gras is right out, as neither of us do well in crowds of drunken people.
First of all, (with apologies to Fats Domino) we didn’t walk: we took the train. I’d ridden Amtrak once before to attend Armadillocon back in the 1980s, and we’d both had the sleeper car experience during our trip to Egypt more than a decade ago. The train doesn’t stop in our city, so we had to take a bus to Chicago, a long, slightly cramped ride on a bus filled with college students going home for the winter holidays.
The ride down was pleasant. I enjoy train travel, and our compartment was cozy, with two seats facing each other, and a little fold-up table in between, perfect for games of cribbage or gin rummy. On the way down we saw more than a few lovely displays of Christmas lights: neither of us is particularly religious, but the festive, extra lights during the darkest time of the year inspire a bit of cheer in me.
Amtrak, by virtue of using rail lines owned by freight handlers, is subject to the whims of freight traffic. We frequently had to pull off onto a siding so a freight train could pass us, which is the main reason why Amtrak schedules are more vague guidelines than an actually dependable timetable.
Because we had a sleeper compartment, our meals were free. The food on Amtrak varies from passable to reasonably good. Most everything is heated in a microwave, so the food tends to cool off quickly, and the service can be a bit slow during peak times. With space considerations in mind, guests are often paired with others to share a table. For slightly socially anxious people like ourselves, this can be awkward at best, but we found our dining companions to be just the right amount of personable to put us at ease.
Sleeping on the train was a different story. I’d agreed to take the top bunk, and after the beds were folded down, we found we had literally two square feet of floor space to use for undressing. There was an airline-sized communal toilet just a few feet from us in the car, so we decided that changing in a closet was preferable to changing in a cupboard. To further complicate things, our car was second from the engine, behind only the crew quarters car. Trains are required to sound their horns — at great length, it would seem — at every crossing; boy, are there a LOT of crossings between Chicago and New Orleans!
Unlike the configuration where the aisle runs down one side and the passengers sleep perpendicular to the sides of the train, our sleeper compartment had the beds running parallel to the train sides, with an aisle down the middle and compartments on both sides. This ultimately means that these compartments are cheaper, as more of them fit in one car than the traditional configuration. A simple set of seat belt-like webbing provided security for the upper bunk denizen, so worries of falling out were put to rest.
We left Chicago in the evening of December 21st, and arrived in the late afternoon of the next day. We hired a cab to take us to our hotel, the Hotel Duaphine, one block west of Bourbon Street. The location was perfect: close enough to Bourbon Street for convenience, yet far enough to be quiet. We had to plan our trip carefully: since many restaurants and attractions would be closed Christmas Day, and close early on Christmas Eve, we made sure we were covered. That night we ate at RF’s, a lovely place I discovered on my last trip and bonus, it’s only two blocks from our hotel! Having thoroughly enjoyed two meals there previously, I was anxious for Tracy to try it for herself. We were not disappointed; everything was delicious, and there was more food than both of us could eat. We opted to skip dessert.
Our first full day in N’awlins was spent walking around to get a feel for the area, doing a little shopping, and taking our first tour: a walking tour of haunted New Orleans. The tour was fascinating, and ranged over a fair bit of the French Quarter, much to the dismay of our feet. Afterwards, we found a late-night sandwich place — Killer Po’Boys — tucked in the back room of a small tavern, the Erin Rose. The menu at this tiny grill was limited; we ordered some tasty bourbon grilled cheese sandwiches, and vowed to come back to sample the rest of their menu. Tomorrow would be Christmas Eve: we had plans to visit the Audubon Aquarium and have dinner that evening at Superior Seafood across town.