A Summer Weekend: San Antonio to New Orleans
An extended Big Easy debauch by way of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited.
There is something wonderfully anachronistic about traveling by train in this modern age. And I’m not talking about workaday back-and-forth commuting on some dreary regional transit full of pallid stiffs. Quite the opposite: I mean real rail travel, travel the old-fashioned way—a weekend summer sojourn by way of a great big, shining Amtrak locomotive. Specifically, the Sunset Limited, which has traversed Texas on its route from Los Angeles to New Orleans and back since 1894. Sure, there are speedier ways to get from point A to point B (motorcycle, car, bus, plane, dirigible, horse, tortoise), but sometimes a trip is enhanced via the mode by which a traveler has chosen to arrive at his final destination. This was most definitely the case on my fifteen-hour-long trip from San Antonio to New Orleans. Here is an ideal itinerary for a classic whirlwind summertime weekend getaway. All aboard, y’all!
Afternoon/Night: The Sunset Limited rolls out of San Antonio at the crack of dawn on Fridays, so unless you call the River City home, start your trip by checking into the historic 1859 Menger Hotel on Thursday. After enjoying the courtyard pool, stroll less than a mile, partway via the shady River Walk, to Mi Tierra Café y Panaderia, on Market Square, for Tex-Mex and a tune (“La Negra”) or two (“Volver”) from the roving mariachis. A nightcap is necessary at the famous Menger Bar, once Teddy Roosevelt’s pop-up Rough Rider recruitment center. But first take a moment to remember the Alamo by walking across the street (literally—the most venerable edifice in the entire state is just across the street). It’s beautiful at night.
Train Fact! There is no Wi-Fi on the Sunset Limited, so fill the iPod with Amtrak’s nifty route podcasts and some Satchmo and Armand Hug in advance. Bring along books by Faulkner and Twain too.
Morning: Thankfully the depot is nearby, because you’re supposed to arrive thirty minutes prior to the train’s 6:25 departure. While a private compartment is far pricier than reserved coach, it does include three squares in the dining car, so it may be worth the splurge. Train food is tastier than you’d think (and costlier; an Amtrak Signature Steak will set you back $25.75), plus the dining car is a fine place to meet folks. I made the acquaintances of Pete, a kindly old rail hound; four Amish kids on their rumspringa; a pair of fun-loving Kingwood schoolteachers; and a young nurse who just likes riding around on trains.
Afternoon: As you depart the Houston station, report to the right side of the observation car to glimpse Buffalo Bayou, Minute Maid Park (Go, Astros!), and the city’s skyline.
Night: Arrive at New Orleans’s impressive Union Passenger Terminal and cab it over to the classic (and classy) Hotel Monteleone, in the French Quarter. Once you’ve checked in, hustle to Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar (which closes at eleven) for half shells of heaven (Rockefeller, Bienville, and raw) by the dozen. Stretch your train-weary legs until you’re ready to ponder the Monteleone’s rich literary history (Capote, Hemingway, Faulkner, Williams, and Welty were all guests) from the crisp comfort of your hotel bed.
Morning: Grab beignets and a chicory café au lait at Café Du Monde before heading up to the MoonWalk promenade on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River. Listen to the riverboat calliope, then take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the morning Quarter.
Brunch time: Hop on the St. Charles streetcar for the short trip to an old-school jazz brunch at the charmingly dowdy Commander’s Palace. Walk off the turtle soup and flambéed shrimp and grits in the pretty Garden District, along bustling Magazine Street, or take shade beneath the Spanish moss–festooned oaks in Audubon Park.
Afternoon: Head back to the French Quarter for the National Park Service’s self-guided jazz walking tour, which includes Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park and Black Storyville. After you’re fully jazzed, it’s rooftop-pool time at the Monteleone, a Shangri-la reminiscent of the European villa of a wealthy (and imaginary) friend.
Night: At Parkway Bakery and Tavern, it’s a question of po’boys: the hot roast beef with gravy or the golden fried shrimp? You can’t go wrong. Hit one of the three early(ish) nightly jazz sets at the famous Preservation Hall. The shank of a New Orleans evening tends to come late, so there’s plenty of time to wind your way over to Frenchmen Street for some less touristy musical fare—maybe the revived jazz of Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns at the Spotted Cat Music Club. Everything old is new (and great) again.
Night(cap): Order the sublime brandy milk punch at the Carousel Bar and Lounge—one of the world’s all-time best lobby bars/actual functioning carousels—which, thankfully, happens to be in the lobby of your own hotel.
Bar Fact! One spin around the 25-seat carousel at the Carousel Bar is a fifteen-minute, 0.075-mile-long trip. Enjoy the ride.
Upon rising: Dip in the pool and observe the bleary-eyed remnants of last night’s fancy wedding party as you nurse your coffee. When you’re ready, walk over to the Acme Oyster House for a lunch of plump oysters and a hair-of-the-dog Bloody Mary.
Afternoon: Go local and revel New Orleans–style, with nonstop blaring brass, continuous dancing, flashy finery, and plentiful booze (if you’re able) at a second-line parade (they take place on all but the hottest Sundays). Otherwise, there’s the air-conditioned National World War II Museum or the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.
Night: Galatoire’s has served top-notch traditional New Orleans cuisine since 1905. After the delicious shrimp étouffée and one last bite of black-bottom pecan pie, it’s off to a self-guided, improvised tour of notable New Orleans cocktail lounges: relish a refreshing Ramos Gin Fizz (just like Huey Long used to have) at the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel, and save the Sazerac (New Orleans’s official drink) for your next stop at the swanky Polo Club Lounge at the Windsor Court Hotel. Harrah’s casino, across the street, is good for a complimentary-if-you’re-gambling drink, although it could very well end up costing you. And beware: the return train to San Antonio departs at 9 the following morning.
Train Fact! With stops, the train averages 38.2 miles per hour along the 573 miles of track between San Antonio and New Orleans.
With a successful New Orleans weekend behind you, a well-deserved, clickity-clack-induced fifteen-hour-long doze is in order.