Amtrak to New Orleans

This past week it was time to get a break from the many projects I have going on these days and the decision was made to take an Amtrak trip to New Orleans and spend just a couple evenings there.

I have been to New Orleans several times in the past and it is always an enjoyable time. But, like most communities of that nature, a couple days is usually enough for me.

Three of us made the trip via Amtrak and enjoyed the changing scenery as we moved southward.

Amtrak had a special deal at the time we booked and each of us was able to secure a full bedroom, complete with a toilet and shower, nice conveniences compared to the smaller Roomettes which have community showers and toilets.

The train left Chicago’s Union Station about 8 p.m. on Wednesday and before 7 a.m. Thursday we were in Memphis for a brief stop. By 11 a.m. we were in Jackson, Mississippi, the state capital, and there was a short stop there as well, where we could get out of the train and walk around a bit. By then, the weather had warmed considerably and we were in shirtsleeves — a nice respite from the cold Wisconsin temperatures.

The arrival in New Orleans Thursday was ahead of the 3:47 p.m. schedule, always nice, and our rooms were at the Prince Conti Hotel. It was perfectly located right in the French Quarter, just a couple of blocks off of Canal Street.

As for food, our trio enjoyed several dozen oysters along with several appetizers. We also took other delicacies, including the unusually hot wings, covered in a “secret sauce” that heats up the taste buds! And, of course, the horseradish was nostril cleaning, to say the least.

The music, one of the great draws of the French Quarter, was excellent once again, but we did notice the type of music being performed has changed somewhat since our last visit. In the past virtually all the music was jazz or Dixieland but the trend now is more country and basic rock ‘n’ roll. There’s still plenty of jazz and Dixieland, but there is a greater mix of the other sounds.

We did have a little unnerving experience Friday morning when we were walking through a relatively quiet French Quarter. The quarter doesn’t get filled with people until early afternoon. Police tape had been set up near the intersection of Bourbon and St. Louis streets, in the aftermath of a shooting that occurred several hours earlier. Apparently, a person was threatening people with a gun and when police arrived some shots ended up being fired and the person was struck by police gunfire. We were walking near the site of the incident but it was hours after the 7 a.m. situation. By then, except for the police tape and a few squads doing investigative work, complete order had been restored.

That’s not exactly what a person would like to see while on vacation, but it didn’t deter the crowds and through the weekend we didn’t feel like we were in a dangerous location.

On the return trip we pulled out of the station Saturday exactly at the 1:45 p.m. schedule and arrived at Chicago’s Union Station about 9 a.m., nearly an hour ahead of schedule.

People who purchase sleeping accommodations also receive free meals. Our train, the City of New Orleans, is a typical double-decker Superliner consist. In the past, the meals were served by the wait staff and were prepared by the chef in the lower-level kitchen. But now, in a move to improve efficiency and lower costs, the number of selections were slimmed down and the meals are warmed in a microwave.

Breakfast has egg and sausage on a bun (think egg McMuffin), several cold cereals, etc. You get the idea. Lunch and dinner are the same menu and include a beef and noodles dish, a shrimp and noodles dish, etc., and other similar items. Dessert is a brownie or something similar.

The food does taste pretty good, but it’s not like the bacon and eggs or French toast before the change. The old way lunch had a large Angus beef cheeseburger and other selections and dinner featured a nice cut of steak as well.

The new menus have been designed so one member of the staff can make the meals and give them to you to take to seating in the same car. The car is for first class (sleepers) only, and persons who are in coach seating and want a meal have to go to the café car where sandwiches are available.

This newer service is available on all trains from the City of New Orleans and eastward. The western trains, like the Empire Builder, California Zephyr, Texas Eagle and others still have the traditional chef made and waiters delivered food to your table.

The meals being offered on the eastern routes more closely resemble the service on longer airline routes in the country and less like the traditional Amtrak meals. That probably is partly because the new CEO of Amtrak is a former airline executive.

All in all, the new menu on the New Orleans route tastes pretty good, but it’s simply not the same as when a waiter brings your selection right to your table, made by the chef and just the way you ordered it.

Microwave meals are pretty good, but the ambiance is not the same. We hope the western routes continue to be operating the “old way.”

This was a great trip and we’ll no doubt we’ll be back on the rails again fairly soon. Maybe the next time will be a “western route” where meals are prepared on board.

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