Story and photos by Betsy Marvin
The effort and stress of air travel these days had us thinking of alternatives for a recent trip to New Orleans. We wanted to be able to relax and get things done during the journey so that ruled out driving. And then we recalled the method so popular back in our youth and that is still widely used today in Europe.
The solution? A train ride!
But in the southeastern U.S.? To get from Point A to Point B? Sounded great, but what about convenience, comfort and expense? All concerns proved needless, when we looked into the Amtrak Crescent from Atlanta to New Orleans.
We reserved tickets and additionally booked a roomette, a tiny private space with seats that convert to cots at night with pillows, blankets and even a toilet and fold-down sink. Meals in the dining car are included in the upgrade cost, an under-$50 charge on top of our tickets, which meant that two of us ride one-way to New Orleans for still less than the going airfare and associated costs like a cab to our hotel from the airport.
At seven on a freezing January morning, we take a taxi to the Amtrak station, in Midtown. Atlanta may have been originated at a rail center, but it’s been years since a large passenger terminal has existed downtown.
The pleasant former suburban station fills with passengers, and the train from New York (via Washington, DC) rolls in as scheduled. It takes awhile to unload, but the stop lasts for twenty-five minutes, so there’s ample time for disembarking passengers and those getting on. The platform is far below the station, but an elevator as well as stairway leads us downward, and we find our car.
Soon after we board, a steward shows up to make sure we’re settled, and to direct us to the dining car for breakfast, and as we make our way through the corridor, the train starts rolling, precisely on time.
The dining car, just two cars away from our seats, is lovely, almost the way we remembered from the heyday of railroads, decades ago. Snowy tablecloths with real cloth napkins, vases of crimson carnations at each table, a menu of appetizing breakfast dishes and specials, and prompt service gives us a feeling of old-fashioned graciousness and leisure. We sip our juice and coffee, and enjoy omelet and quiche as the landscape sails by, and we look forward to a restful day.
Before we leave the dining car, the waitress, cleaning off our table, reminds us to set our watches back an hour, as we will soon cross the Alabama line, and informs us that lunch will be served at noon sharp.
Back at the roomette, I take out my laptop and discover that the electrical outlet seems not to be working; the computer is using battery power. Horrified, with plans to spend several hours writing, I ask the conductor, who’s come through to check tickets, and he tells me he’s the wrong one to ask, and that it may just not function. As the outlet was an amenity promised in Amtrak’s website info regarding the roomettes, I am sufficiently concerned to seek out the steward, who simply pushes a reset button I hadn’t seen before, and I’m in business. I also know, now, where to find answers.
The tiny room, about 3’6” by 6’8” would be ideal for one person, and not bad for two. Sitting opposite one another, we angle our legs just slightly, so as not to knock knees, and are very comfortable. A coatrack with two hangers gets our jackets out of the way, and we’d been able to check our larger luggage back in Atlanta, so the backpack and computer bag we carried on, stow easily. While we were at breakfast, the steward brought three little bottles of water, and replenishes as the day goes on.
The train doesn’t move very fast, probably prudent, as we know that the tracks and bed need work. We are accustomed to speedy European rail, so the pace as we pass through sleepy west Georgia towns seems tortoise-like, but very serene, too. After all, the trip will last 12 hours, getting us to downtown New Orleans about 7:40 tonight.
1:20 pm Central Time
We have just finished lunch, probably the best train food we’ve had in years. But to go back a few hours, we took a walk midmorning, through the deserted dining car; they serve meals at designated hours, and the rest of the time hungry passengers are limited to the snack bar, in the car beyond, our destination. First we decided to have a look at the regular seating in the following car, and found that those “non-sleeper” passengers actually had more comfortable seats than we did. These chairs were large recliners, with plenty of legroom. In general, for day travelers, the principle advantages to reserving a roomette or higher category accommodation are the meals and the privacy. We also felt better about leaving our belongings, a leather jacket, two laptops and other items in our designated space where only other sleeper passengers and Amtrak personnel were permitted to go.
The dining area is small for a long train, and we were asked to double up and sit with others. Our lunch companions were an elderly New York couple bound for Tuscaloosa to visit an ailing sister, and they talked enthusiastically about their travels to Florida and Branson, Missouri. I had a spinach salad with freshly grilled salmon, very tasty, and Chuck ate a clam chowder with a small side salad. We had Haagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream for dessert. People who ordered wine or beer, we noticed, were billed, as were coach passengers.
Back in our little space, we enjoy the sunny winter day outside, the hilly Alabama terrain filled with tall pines and rusty oaks, and imagine Civil War soldiers dodging to avoid one another in these woods.
Awhile back our waitress from the dining room came to tell us that dinner would be served exactly at five, and did we want to reserve? Not too hungry after a day of sitting, we nonetheless decided that dinner onboard would simplify our evening, and said yes.
Hills gave way to flatland, and the brown fields disappeared in favor of a tangle of green at the verge, with woods, many of the trees conifers, behind. We’re now running about half an hour late, so will likely not arrive in NOLA until well after eight. A fellow passenger, Louisiana native, told us the train station is downtown, so we won’t have far to go once we’re there.
Ditches and lakes, still frozen in Alabama, now look liquid, and we hope the unusual cold will not reach the Crescent City.
I love looking out train windows at the passing landscapes, rural and urban. Unlike the hectic interstate highways, we seem to be ourselves of the landscape, slithering through forests and fields, skirting warehouse districts and residential backyards. We saw downtown Birmingham in brilliant sunlight, Hattiesburg at twilight, and now gaze at the streetlights of Slidell. A sense of excitement thrills the train as we pass over the long railroad bridge across Lake Pontchartrain, and soon we are summoned to line up to disembark. Sleepy children in the family group ahead of us are suddenly wide awake, fidgeting to be free, and we ourselves look out the windows trying to identify familiar structures, iconic “Big Easy” landmarks.
The depot’s spacious interior is brightly lighted; we find a bench to await our checked luggage. We spend the time scanning the huge mural, now restored, that vividly illustrates the city’s history. An announcement comes that all baggage will be unloaded outside the waiting area, and the laden carts arrive promptly. No endless standing beside a balky conveyor belt!
We climb into a taxi, headed off for the hotel, smiling about our day. The old maxim that “Getting there is half the fun,” comes to mind, a concept we’ve somehow lost in recent years of crowded interstates and unpleasant airport experiences. The day has been stress-free and interesting. And the hotel is just five minutes away!
For information on routes, timetables, fares, amenities and booking, click here.
Check out the options in our article A Real Taste Of New Orleans.