(Editor’s note: This is Part Four of a 10-part series on an Uncommon Journeys trip aboard a Pullman train to New Orleans.)
As Louis Armstrong croons in the old song, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?”
I sure do. I’ve been visiting the Crescent City for decades. Every time I leave, I’m yearning to be back again.
Every traveler has favorite cities, places to return time after time, always finding something new along with revisiting old familiar haunts. One of my special spots has always been NOLA. Although I’ve visited many places in my years as a travel writer, one of those that calls me back the most is that indefinable gem cradled between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.
When I heard about the Uncommon Journeys trips aboard a Pullman train from Chicago to New Orleans, I thought that would be an interesting experience. I could drive to Indianapolis, take Amtrak from Indy to Chicago and board one of those marvelous old-time Pullman trains.
The trip would be short. Three brief days – one night on the train to New Orleans, one night in New Orleans and one night on the train to return to Chicago.
We would leave Chicago at 8 p.m., enjoy a luxurious dinner on the train, sleep in my own little private Pullman room and arrive in New Orleans about 2 p.m. the next day. Check into the Westin Hotel on Canal in New Orleans and have about 22 hours to explore the city.
We would meet for brunch at 11:45 a.m. the next morning at the Palace Cafe, then board our Uncommon Journeys train for a 1:45 p.m. departure from New Orleans, arriving in Chicago about 8 a.m. the following morning.
Those 22 hours in New Orleans, of course, would have to include some sleep. I can stay up all night if I have to but don’t see the need to do that very often. Besides, riding on the train is part of the pleasure. Didn’t want to sleep all the way back to Chicago.
So what to do in New Orleans in such a short time?
I already had an itinerary laid out in my mind. After stashing my suitcase in my lovely Westin room, I headed straight to the World War II Museum. You can spend hours in the museum. But it closes at 5 p.m. so I saw what I could then sauntered back to the French Quarter. My time here was going to be totally walking for me. The Westin was a great home base for that.
Getting something cold to drink, I sat on a curb and watched the parade of humanity.
Some things never seem to change. Music from the street bands oozes over the streets The raucous tap-tap-tap of youngsters with bottle caps on their gym shoes dancing away for tips. Scarcely breathing “human statues” in various arrays and unmoving poses – a fella in a patriotic white suit walking a toy dog; a “masterpiece painting” with an elaborately dressed artist posing in a frame; a guy painted in brown sitting atop a trash can giving the world the finger. Got to give them credit for creativity.
A burly guy in long blond wig strolls by in his studded black bra, black tutu, torn fish-net stockings and a turned-up cowboy hat that proclaims him to be “Big Sexy.” He is trolling for tips to be tucked into his bra. Two working girls in even skimpier clothing lean out of a Bourbon Street bar luring customers inside.
A fella comes up with a proposition I probably first heard 30 years ago. Nothing new – “Bet you a dollar I can tell you where you got those shoes,” he announces.
Not to give away a secret but I already know the answer – “You got them right there on your feet,” he says with a laugh before hurrying off to find a better sucker.
Although it’s not Mardi Gras and it’s still broad daylight, a young boy stands on a filigreed balcony above Bourbon Street, tossing strands of bright beads to people in the street below. Probably his family rented the off-season apartment and it came equipped with bulky clumps of beads for the New Orleans tradition.
I learned long ago that this city is far more than booze and beads and Bourbon Street. It’s also a charming cosmopolitan city rich with history, architecture, delicious cuisine and a unique culture. The buildings found in the French Quarter – also known as the Vieux Carre (which means Old Square) – aren’t reproductions but the actual remains of the homes and businesses that first appeared in the 1700s.
Because the city didn’t have strict zoning laws until the 1930s, some buildings are oddly juxtaposed with each other. For example, Bourbon Street features nightclubs with nude dancers next to churches.
The awe-inspiring St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest continuously active Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States. The cathedral is where Andrew Jackson laid his sword on the altar following his victory against the Brits in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
In my short visit this time, I want to do all the touristy things – ride a streetcar, marvel at sea life in the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, see the Audubon Zoo, take a swamp tour, shop on Magazine Street and in the French Market, eat breakfast at Brennan’s, brunch at Court of the Two Sisters, tour the above-ground cemeteries and visit the grave of voodoo queen Marie Laveau, sip a hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s and savor an unforgettable dinner at Antoine’s.
Antoine’s is where Oysters Rockefeller was created. The sauce is so rich that it was named after the richest family in the world at the time.
Instead, with my time almost up, I peek into the New Orleans Cooking School and pick up a recipe for pralines, sit for a bit in the lovely lobby of the Hotel Monteleone and recall its ghostly history, walk around Jackson Square with its mix of artists selling their wares and fortune tellers and tarot readers vying for paying visitors.
Rather than a big sit-down dinner, I buy an oyster po-boy from Desire Oyster House on Bourbon Street and continue my watching while munching. Before leaving the next morning, I would walk back down to the Café du Monde for customary beignets and café au lait.
Preservation Hall on my way back to the Westin Hotel seems a fitting way to end my one night in New Orleans. Although many legendary musicians have come and gone, Preservation Hall has changed little from the first time I saw it so many years ago when I initially discovered the city.
Since Preservation Hall opened in 1961, it has attracted millions of music fans with its traditional jazz. The idea of preserving traditional New Orleans jazz had been around since the late 1930s when music historian William Russell and a few others began searching out survivors of the music’s formative years and recording their music and memories.
In 1961, a group named The New Orleans Society for the Preservation of Traditional Jazz opened the gates of a reformed art gallery and invited the curious and the interested to listen to small groups of old timers who had been rescued from neglect and racial discrimination.
But it took the dedication of a young tuba player named Alan Jaffe and his wife Sandra to save the new Preservation Hall from folding. The Jaffes were determined from the beginning that Preservation Hall should be unique in the French Quarter – there would be no booze, no B-girls, no hustle, no high prices (admission is still $15) and the comfort of the players would come before the needs of the audience.
Those rules continue today and first-time visitors to Preservation Hall often are amazed at the seating arrangements – or lack of them – inside the former carriage house. Three long wooden benches plus small oned alongside the walls and a handful of folding seats in the corner are immediately taken by those at the front of the line. Two rows of cushions on the floor in front of the benches also are quickly snapped up. Then the back of the hall is left for standing room.
But the music is what people come for and the sounds these players create may be heard nowhere else in the world.
Some ragtag drums, a trombone, trumpet, clarinet, banjo, bass fiddle and an ancient up right piano with its front boards missing don’t look like much – until they feel the magic of these musical artists, many of them in the last days of their lives.
I remember what horn player Wendell Brunious said – “In New Orleans, we find a reason to celebrate anything. When someone dies we celebrate the fact that the person lived and that life goes on.”
In and of herself, New Orleans is a legend well worth visiting and revisiting. Already, I miss New Orleans.
For more information: Contact Uncommon Journeys at (800) 323-5893, www.uncommonjourneys.com.