Published May/Jun 2005

The Storied “City of New Orleans” explores America, chugging from Chicago to The Big Easy, with Memphis in between.
By Mike Michaelson

Train travel has stirred the romantic souls of writers and composers. Especially enticing are signature trains, such as Amtrak’s “The City of New Orleans,” that still journeys daily between Chicago and the Big Easy (via Memphis).

It was the focus of a popular folk ballad written in 1970 by Steve Goodman and recorded by Arlo Guthrie and Johnny Cash.
This winter, I experienced the travel mode that appeals to songwriters.

Train versus plane

With bad weather smothering Chicago and forcing flight cancellations across the board, the “City of New Orleans” pulled out of Chicago’s Union Station precisely on time at 8 p.m., with arrival at Memphis scheduled for 6:27 a.m., New Orleans for 3:31 p.m.

Passengers should arrive an hour before scheduled departure and check baggage through. Passengers who purchase a roomette may wait in the Metropolitan Lounge, Amtrak’s equivalent of an airline club lounge. It has marble floors, a cheerful gas fire, groupings of armchairs and sofas, complimentary beverages and a supply of magazines.

Onboard, it’s time to settle into the compact but private quarters, meet the sleeping car attendant who’ll later convert the seats into a pair of bunk beds, and relax as Chicago’s back door slips by.

Revamped Soldier’s Field soon is behind the train as I walk to the dining car. There’s white napery on the tables, a decent steak on the menu and half bottles of wine priced at $10. After, there’s a new-release movie in the dome-car lounge or a book at bedtime.

Memphis and Elvis

Get off the train at Memphis, claim checked luggage and get an early breakfast at Arcade Restaurant, purported to be Elvis Presley’s favorite diner, across from the train station. Employees point out his favorite booth and describe his standard order of peanut butter and banana on white bread. Local favorites are sweet potato pancakes and smoky country ham.

While visiting Memphis, schedule at least a couple of days to visit such sights as Elvis’s Graceland, the fabled Sun Studios (where he cut the first record) and the expanded National Civil Rights Museum. Check into the storied Peabody, the South’s grand hotel, where William Faulkner and Charles Lindbergh were frequent visitors, and ducks march through the lobby.

Beale Street, the birthplace of the blues and W.C. Handy’s old stomping ground, is packed with bars and clubs. Mud Island has a river history museum and River Walk, a scale model of the lower Mississippi River that faithfully reproduces every twist and turn within five blocks.

The celebrated Rendezvous barbecue joint opened in 1948 in a basement across an alley from the Peabody. Order a hefty slab of loin back ribs with mustard-based slaw and beans.

Back on the train and onward to New Orleans, I passed through a slice of the South ravaged by Union forces that captured Jackson, Miss., the state capital, burning it to the ground three times. The train goes by antebellum houses and trailer courts, cooperatives and courthouses, shiny asphalt roads glistening with rain and dark bayous with white egrets.

New Orleans: jambalaya and jazz

Arriving at the Big Easy, the train pulls into a station that sits alongside the Superdome, a $10 taxi ride from the French Quarter, the heart of New Orleans and the place to stay. A top pick is the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, truly a New Orleans centerpiece and exquisitely comfortable.

Along Bourbon Street, thronging crowds, drinks-to-go in hand, are lured by jazz trumpets and the hoarse enticements of girlie-show barkers. Royal Street, just a block away, is sedate, with antique shops, boutiques, galleries, courtyards lush with greenery and the ever-present wrought-iron balconies and pastel façades.

Most of all, New Orleans is a music town and a dining destination. Jazz, its signature sound, is found famously at Preservation Hall, where $8 gets you in and practitioners of traditional jazz ply their craft. There are no drinks, but the heady atmosphere provides a musical high. Expect a long line and lengthy wait. A worthy alternative is The Palm Court Jazz Café alongside the French Market.

Don’t miss these dining spots

Bracket the day with breakfast at Brennan’s and a late-night stop at Café du Monde. Founded in 1946, Brennan’s is an eye-opening tradition that begins with a Mimosa (champagne and orange juice) or bourbon-based Sazerac, includes Eggs Hussard and ambrosial hash cut from quality beef and ends with Bananas Foster prepared tableside.

The Court of Two Sisters is another brunch tradition, with an 80-item buffet and live jazz.

Café du Monde serves café au lait laced with chicory and hot beignets–square donuts sprinkled with powdered sugar.

At the Acme Oyster House, shuckers work deftly at a marble-topped bar as purists spike oysters on the half shell with horseradish and peppery tomato sauce and wash them down with Dixie beer.

Two eateries outside the Quarter are worth a visit. Ride the St. Charles streetcar to the Upperline, a Garden District charmer offering sautéed shrimp with mushrooms, bacon and garlic over crispy grits.

Nearby is legendary Commander’s Palace. Try spicy turtle soup spiked with sherry and fresh pecan-crusted fish.

New Orleans is a rich urban tapestry, and Amtrak provides a colorful way to journey there.

Mike Michaelson is a contributor from Chicago, Ill.

Above: Graceland’s Meditation Garden. Memphis CVB photo.

Below: Crowds gather near the river for the annual Memphis in May festival. Memphis CVB photo

Before You Go
For more information, contact the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) (901) 543-5300, www.memphistravel.com; or New Orleans Metropolitan CVB, 1-800-672-6124, www.neworleanscvb.com.

Your AAA travel agent can make Amtrak reservations. AAA members receive a 10-percent discount off the lowest applicable available Amtrak rail fare at the time of booking. Other restrictions may apply. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.

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