Europe was our first experience with train travel, and it is as common there as car travel is here in the U. S. I loved the freedom of enjoying the ride without the responsibility of worrying about traffic and missing turns when traveling to a new city.
We live about 5 hours from New Orleans, and have visited the city many times over my lifetime, but had never considered traveling by train. I honestly did not realize that train travel was available here, or that there was a station within an hour of my home.
I took my first U. S. train trip from Lake Charles, LA to Washington DC, traveling to a football game in West Virginia with my husband. We had a sleeper car, and that provided us with free meals throughout the trip in the dining car. I slept like a baby as the car rocked across the country.
That trip gave me the feeling of security that helped me to decide to travel Amtrak for a work trip with my daughters. We were traveling to New Orleans for a food show at the Convention Center, and decided to stay a few days and make it a fun girl’s trip, including a spa day.
We parked my car at the terminal in Lake Charles, which I must admit felt a little uncomfortable. The terminal is small and in an isolated area, but is clean and well kept. It is not a manned terminal at most hours, but it did feel safe. The train picked us up at 1 in the afternoon, and we settled in for the 5 hour trip.
The luggage area is right inside the train doors, and it almost seems awkward to leave your bags there unattended while you go to your seats, the dining car, or the glass-domed viewing car. We are taught to never leave sight of our bags at plane terminals and on flights, but with train travel, you just sit your bags down in the cubby and leave your worries behind. It feels weird, but we just went with the flow.
Our seats were not assigned, but we were able to find three comfortable reclining seats not too far from the entrance. We did not stay there long, as I was excited to show the girls, Mandi and Candi, how much I knew about train travel. I was so excited to show them the viewing car, and the snack bar, and to enjoy an early dinner in the dining car before we got to NOLA. We had no time to spare!
The viewing car was spectacular, very few people were there, yet, and we were able to choose a wide seat section with tables, and watch the swamps and trailer parks roll past our windows. You think you know an aeaa, but with train tavel, you see areas of town that were previously hidden gems.
I had the BEST black bean burger known to man on the way there, and a grilled gruyere cheese with grilled onions and apple butter sandwich on the way back, that I am still trying to replicate. The food is good, the service is great, and the prices are fair.
We arrived at the station in New Orleans a little after 6 P.M., and I had to face my irrational fear of Taxi Cabs. I have no idea why they scare me so much, but they do. Arick and I usually walk to our hotel, but I was not comfortable dragging my (grown) daughters and their luggage through downtown New Orleans just to avoid a cab ride. The taxis were lined up in front of the station in anticipation of the passengers’ arrival, and we hopped right in the next one in line. I would like to say that my fears were unsubstantiated, but I think we drove the four blocks to our hotel at NASCAR speeds. I am not sure I breathed the whole time, but I am here writing this, so I am guessing that I did.
We booked a room at the Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott, as the location looked perfect for us to get everywhere we needed by foot or Street Car. (Avoiding taxis, remember! lol-and I may have a heart attack and die on the spot if I ever call Uber or Lyft.) It was perfect.
I am sharing a little more of my weirdo-ness here, but ever since Dateline did that story with the blacklights and what was “really” on those pretty hotel floral bedspreads, well, I haven’t been able to spend a night in a room that had one. (Well, there was that once, and a late night trip to Wal-Mart to buy covers so that I could sleep, but that story is for another day.) Anyway, I am familiar with the style of rooms in Marriott properties, and trust them to be clean, reasonably priced, and friendly. The Fairfield did not let us down. I don’t know that I have ever stayed in a more conveniently located hotel in NOLA. The staff was friendly, the halls and the lobby were immaculate, and the room was clean, quiet and cozy. (White duvet covers make me very comfortable, and the Fairfield did not disappoint!)
Mandi, Candi and I unpacked our bags, and decided that a walk to Canal and Bourbon Street would be a good idea, since the crowds would not be so bad on a weeknight, and some oysters at Acme Oyster House were sounding divine.
The roads between the Fairfield and canal were well lit, had nice sidewalks, and very clean. We felt safe and the walk across Canal to Bourbon was just a couple of blocks.
Canal Street, the main thoroughfare in the downtown area, can get relatively crowded, and it is a main hub for the street car stops, too. Bourbon was straight across Canal from our street, and Acme was just a block or so up on the right. There was a short line, but it moved pretty quickly. We stopped and got a Big Ass Beer (just so that we could have the souvenir glass, you know that is a must on Bourbon Street!)
The atmosphere in Acme was hustke and bustle, yet laid back. You really have to experience the electricity that is in the air in New Orleans to understand it. It is like being at the county fair as a kid. You can’t help but stare in awe awe the craziness that is around you, yet you feel safe, and on-guard at the same time. At any given moment, on any given day, in any given spot, a second-line party and band can start coming down the street. Kids and adults playing saxaphone, or an old man singing the blues. If you stop and gawk, a tip is expected, so be aware of the etiquette, this is how they make a living. Same thing in Acme. The oyster shuckers are just doing their job, shucking oysters as fast as they can. I would venture to guess they shucked a thousand while we were there. They are all lined up bejind the bar, just a shuckin. Lots of oysters, bag after bag, after bag. Raw oysters, fried oysters, oyster po-boys…if you have never tried them, you don’t know what you are missing!
We left Acme as full as ticks, tired and ready to waddle back to the room, but the music of Bourbon Street gave us a second wind, (Stinky wind, I must admit. If you have never been to Bourbon Street, you might not understand how the stench of old pee can just pass by without bothering you, but it is what it is, and Bourbon Street sometimes smells like pee. We did not notice it for long.)
Amyway, we walked a couple of blocks and made a couple of stops when the music called our names. It was still early, not quite 10 o’ clock, so we felt safe enough to listen to a few bands. We usually stop at the Cat’s Meow, the Old Absinthe House, Jester, Finnegans, Deja Vu, or whoever has the best music. The doors are almost all open to see and hear from the street. If it feels creepy, we leave. The street pizza is not bad, either, if you walk off your oysters!
We got back to the room before 11, and got a great nights sleep in the Fairfield’s comfy beds.
We walked to Canal Street early the next morning, after an awesome breakfast of eggs, bacon and waffles, and hopped a street car to the Convention Center.
The cross street at the Convention Center stop also has a stop to catch a ride to the French Quarter for beignets at Cafe Du Monde. Get there early, it fills up fast! (So worth waiting on a table, and I cannot imagine how many hundreds of pounds of powdered sugar they must go through in a day!) We hopped the street car for the French Market area on Sunday morning, and enjoyed the beignets, and the walk around the square with all of the street artisans and vendors hawking their wares. Watch for Mardi Gras bead trees, too. I don’t think they grow anyplace else!
The walk from the streetcar stop to the Convention Center goes through a small mall, and there are a few outside activities and you can see the water and the cruise area docks from the top of the raised walkway. The walk is short, clean and safe, as is the convention center itself. The Convention Center was well organized, clean, had plenty of restrooms and rest areas, and is a great location for a convention or show.
We went to a couple of comedy shows while we were there, too, and really enjoyed the House of Blues. It is a little more “touristy” than some of the other comedy joints, with chain restaurant style food, but it is in a relatively easy to get to, still safe-feeling area of town, and draws a good crowd. The decor is eclectic, and it definitely has a cool feel to the place. The show was fun, and it was a good experience.
On Monday, after the food show was over, our train would not head back to Lake Charles until Tuesday (they go East one day, and West the next.) so we decided to have a spa day, and made appointments at the Woodhouse Day Spa. It was a probably short, but seemed long, street car ride from our spot on Canal to the spa, but there was a stop right across the street from the entrance. Very convenient, and it was less than $2 each to get there. It felt more like regular public transportation than tourist transport, once we got out of the downtown area. People were in their work clothes, construction workers, hospital personnel in scrubs and such. It was a crowded, but fun experience.
The Woodhouse had a small retail area, as you walked in the door, and we were greeted by a staff member, shortly after entering. After a little mix-up and confusion, she found our appointments and brought us into a small wakting area in the back. Apparently, a bridal party had booked last minute, and the spa was shorthanded.
Therapists came for Mandi and Candi before they could even get robes on and paperwork completed, and I read magazines for the most part of the next hour as bridesmaids giggled in the next room. It was relaxing, and I did not mind.
A therapist finally called my name and led me down the hallway to the Vichy Shower room. She explained that it was not working right, and the water had to stay running out of a pipe coming out of the wall with a rag hanging over it. The table was a bare, wet table, and the room was moist, yet cold. She asked me to lay on the table and cover with a towel, as she left the room. She returned a short while later and turned the water on from a hose, and sprayed me down with it. The water never got to a warm temperature, and it was cold, awkward and uncomfortable for both of us. She directed me to relax on the table while she got the massage room ready. I was cold and shivering, so I went ahead and just sat up and put my robe and slippers back on and stood in the wet room until another therapist came after me 10-15 minutes later. She directed me to a small massage room, and I reminded her that I wanted a relaxation massage, not deep tissue, as I am very sensitive. She proceeded to talk for the next 45 minutes as she gave me the deepest tissue massage that I have ever experienced. I thought I was going to die. At times, I was certain that she was going to break my ribs with her elbows. Other than a few bruises, I survived it, though. When I got back to the waiting room, the girls were there and and dressed, they had been waiting anout a half hour for me to get done.
Their experiences were rushed, but adequate, and all-in-all, we were not very impressed, and the Woodhouse was the least favorite part of our trip, and the least enjoyable girls spa outing that we had ever experienced. We caught the street car back to the downtown area of Canal, and made our way to Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar, for arguably the best po-boy in NOLA.
Felix’s is right across the street from Acme, and is more of a traditional diner setting, with a limited menu of only the good stuff. Mandi and Candi tried their famous roast beef po-boy, and said it was the best they had ever had. The meat was tender, and the gravy was well seasoned, but not spicy.
I had the shrimp po-boy, and it was outstanding. Mayonnaise, lettuce and shrimp on real crusty French bread. It was so loaded with shrimp that they spilled over onto my plate. Delicious.
After our meal, we walked back to the room to pack, since the train was leaving early the next morning. We enjoyed another good night’s sleep in our freshly made room, and a final hot and free breakfast on the Fairfield the next morning, before taking an even wilder and crazier cab ride back to Union Passenger Terminal to catch our train back home.
Feeling like old hands on the train, we made our way down the track, quickly placed our bags in the cubby and headed straight for the viewing car to have a great view on the way back to Lake Charles.
We dropped Mandi off at the Lafayette station, where her husband met us to pick her up, and Candi and I found my car, still safe and sound, on the Amtrak lot in Lake Charles.
All-in-all, it was a great girl trip, and one that I would recommend for anyone wanting to travel to a walker-friendly destination and enjoy the journey as much ss the arrival.
For more South Louisiana activities, check out the following posts:
Katie at Zen Life and Travel has a great list of activities in New Orleans.