(Editor’s note: This is Part One of a 10-part series on an Uncommon Journeys trip aboard a Pullman train to New Orleans.)
The Arlo Guthrie song keeps running through my mind, “Riding on the city of New Orleans …”
And here I am on that famed train headed from Chicago to New Orleans, bringing up the rear of an Amtrak passenger train. As soon as I boarded the vintage train at historic Union Station in Chicago for our Uncommon Journeys trip, it seemed as though we were heading back in time.
A courteous white-jacketed bowtie-clad Pullman porter took my luggage, escorted me to my train compartment, showed me how to work the antique switch panel in my room (one button summons a porter, another turns on the night light and so on), pointed out the electric wall plug for my laptop computer, demonstrated how to pull down the bathroom sink and push it back up to empty the basin, showed me how to lower the curtain on my large window and asked if there was anything else he could do.
Pullman porters have a longstanding reputation for top-notch service and these modern-day Pullmans are certainly living up to that. Then it ‘s off to cocktails in the lounge car, looking like something from the set of TV’s Mad Men, only the old-timey ashtrays in this train car no longer hold cigarettes.
With the wheels rumbling neath our feet, we climb the stairs to dinner in the window-domed Scenic View dining car. Here we have a bird’s eye view as our magic carpet made of steel skims along the tracks.
The panoramic scenes are one of the major pleasures of train travel. We pass by little towns, farms, cows grazing in pastures, creeks, old cemeteries, bustling cities and constantly-changing sights as we edge closer to New Orleans.
I had heard the food was good on Uncommon Journeys but didn’t expect it to be this good. This is an all-inclusive trip so alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages are included as are the fabulous meals. Tonight, we have a “City of New Orleans Four-Course Dinner.”
Each meal has its own lovely menu and I appreciate a little note atop each one – “As you travel over this beautiful land of ours, may you ever be reminded of the grace and beauty that has been bestowed upon us. Let us acknowledge our debt with our prayers of thanksgiving.”
The relish tray on the white-linen-covered table looks like something my grandma served for family dinners more than half a century ago. Celery sticks, olives stuffed with pimento, ripe black olives and watermelon pickles are tasty starters. Then comes salad, fresh greens with Illinois Central Dressing or Pullman Vinaigrette. Since the Pullman steward brought servings of both, I had some of each. Both dressings were very good.
Entrees were roast beef tenderloin with Madeira demi-glace, herb-roasted chicken breast with sherry mushroom cream sauce, pan-seared filet of salmon with vermouth caper butter and lemon wedges or grilled seasonal vegetables with roasted red pepper coulis.
Entrees are served with potatoes Romanoff, roasted fresh veggies and rolls and butter. I’m a potato connoisseur and the Pullman ones were excellent. No mushy bland potatoes here. Firm potatoes with special seasonings teamed well with the just-right beef. If the beef is on the menu on the way back to Chicago, I’m going to have it again. It was that good.
Dessert was a choice of frozen chocolate mousse with raspberries or fresh strawberry parfait with balsamic, whipped cream and cookie crumb topping. I chose the strawberries and sure wasn’t disappointed.
Don’t know how Chef Dan Traynor creates all this delicious cuisine in his little railcar kitchen. “He is very organized,” Pullman steward Jeremy Kniola tells me. “And he is very good.”
I will certainly attest to that.
After dinner, it’s time for a nightcap and a chance to visit with other passengers or to read or to look out the window and just think about life. I head to my compartment to write a bit, enjoy the zipping-by landscape outside my large window and get ready for bed.
The Pullman porter has already made up my comfortable bed for the night. During the day, the compartment is arranged with a sofa. At night, a bed miraculously appears from somewhere. A small private bathroom has a toilet and a sink that folds down over the toilet and then folds back up when not in use.
Seems hard to believe, the porter notes, that to empty water in the basin all you have to do is fold it up. Very handy.
The Uncommon Journeys trip lasts only three nights – one on the train to New Orleans, one in New Orleans and one on the train back to Chicago. That doesn’t seem long but it is a great mini-vacation, especially in today’s world when many folks have a difficult time getting away from work or home for too many days.
I’ll tell you more about Uncommon Journeys and the train on the way back. Going to sleep now. Tomorrow will be a busy day – in that mystical, mythical, magical city of New Orleans.
For more information: Contact Uncommon Journeys at (800) 323-5893, www.uncommonjourneys.com