Thursday, October 25, 2007

Our Memphis Trip, Day 5, Thursday

We woke at 5:00 am to get ready for the southbound morning City of New Orleans train. The Memphis weather was off and on light rain and chilly out. Our taxi was on time at 6:00 and we got to the station as the train arrived a few minutes early. It departed on time and soon we were in the dining car ready for breakfast. They were out of all the hot breakfast items, so we had juice, coffee, toast, cold cereal with milk, and yogurt. Some people at our table were grumpy at the lack of hot items. But it didn't appear to bother the waiter at all.

It isn't easy eating a bowl of Frosted Flakes with milk on a moving train. Lots of spills.

The engineer was in a hurry and much of the trip was rough with the cars swinging from side to side. On one trip to the snack car, two cars away then down a narrow spiral staircase, I fell down in the middle of the observation car. Luckily I wasn't carrying any hot liquids. I was very careful on the way back to my seat.

We got in to the New Orleans station around 3:30 pm. And got a cab to the parking garage. A few minutes later we were on our way out of the city and headed for home. We decided that since we had such an easy time getting out of New Orleans before the rush hour, we would try to drive all the way home without spending the night on the road.

We made it home with a beautiful full moon leading our way due east to Pensacola. The trip was tiring but we were glad we did it. It's probably the last chance we will have to experience what train travel was like in the U.S. for earlier generations.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Our Memphis Trip, Day 4, Wednesday

The weather this morning had improved. Still misty and rainy, but the wind had died down and it seemed warmer. We still had the rental car so after breakfast at the hotel we set out to see a bit of Memphis.

Elvis Presley's GracelandWe headed for Graceland. The ads all say "Elvis Presley's Graceland." It is down the way from "Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel." We saw Graceland. That's what we tell people. Actually we saw it as we drove past. The rain had returned and we were in no mood to stand around in it waiting for a tram to take us from the parking lot to the mansion.

We drove south to Mississippi and the casinos in Tunica. We expected a strip of casinos, just like the Las Vegas Strip. But the eleven casino hotels are far apart, miles and miles apart. And we never did see the Mississippi River.

The designers of Tunica seem to have learned nothing from the newly created town of Laughlin, Nevada, where a cluster of casinos creates a community of attractions along the Colorado River, all within walking distance from each other, or a quick trolley ride, or a delightful boat ride -- free except for a tip to the driver. Laughlin is charming; Tunica is Spaceport Mars.

Beale Street, MemphisAfter a dull and very ordinary lunch at the Goldstrike Casino we headed back to Memphis to drop off the car and return to the hotel. On the wet trip back from the car rental place we did get to see the neon lights of Beale Street glistening in the late afternoon rain. Very pretty.

It was too wet out to go see the ducks at The Peabody.

Dinner was delivery sandwiches and shrimp bisque from Westy's in our cozy room. And early to bed with a 6:50 am train to catch.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Our Memphis Trip, Day 3, Tuesday

A storm had come in overnight and it was dark and rainy when we got up. Should we drive to Arkansas and back today or tomorrow? We watched the Weather Channel and we decided that the worst of the storm was passing north of the line between Memphis and Little Rock. And tomorrow's weather might be worse. So after breakfast at the hotel we called Enterprise Rental Car and they sent somebody to come and get us at the hotel. They do that.

The drive to Little Rock -- cold, wet and windy -- was about 140 miles via Interstate-40 all the way. We were fine in the station wagon we got and we were at the Clinton Presidential Library before lunch. This was my first time ever in the state of Arkansas and for Jack the first time there in 40 or 50 years. What we could see of the city looked very pleasant and I hope we will get back there again someday. When the weather is nicer.

The Clinton Library is very well done and informative (as are all the presidential libraries it seems). The grounds looked lovely, too. But it was no day for a stroll. We had a very good hot lunch in the Library's restaurant Forty Two (he was the 42nd president of the U.S.) and spent about three hours seeing the exhibits.

The weather on the way back was still stormy and we were happy to get back to the hotel before night settled in.

As for getting a taste of Memphis, several local people told us we should eat at the Rendezvous for Memphis-style BBQ. The directions are daunting, but if you follow them you will find it -- "go down the alley next to the parking garage..." We did and we loved the place, its atmosphere and the food.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Our Memphis Trip, Day 2, Monday

Union Passenger Terminal, New OrleansWe spent Sunday evening at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kenner, right near New Orleans' Louis Armstrong International Airport. Shortly after a leisurely breakfast at the hotel we headed into New Orleans to park the car. Although the train didn't leave until 1:45 P.M. it was raining off and on with heavy rains predicted. So we thought it would be a good idea to get to the train station a little early.

By the time we got to the parking garage, at Machu Picchu Travel Services on lower Jackson Avenue, the rain was belting down. Angel who runs the place (and yes, he's from Peru) drove us to the Union Passenger Terminal.

Detail, Union Passenger Terminal MuralThe terminal dates from the 1950s and has been kept in good shape. It is well maintained and surprisingly clean. The wonderful murals are high enough up so there's been no vandalism that we could see. Above is a detail of the mural over the doorway to Track 2.

The City of New Orleans departed right on time and as we splashed along the rails we saw how much rain had fallen. There were detours on the main streets because of the flooding and underpasses were filled with water.

After the airport we headed north alongside Interstate 55. Much of the time the rain was so heavy that we couldn't see out of the observation car.

Lucky for us the observation car was even there. Two weeks later the observation car, with its curved floor-to-ceiling windows would be gone, along with the dedicated dining car. The two cars will be replaced with a dining/cafe car combination. This follows last year's switch from china dishes and real linens in the dining car -- replaced of course with plastic plates and paper table cloths.

Near Pass Manchac, LouisianaAbout 45 miles north of New Orleans I snapped this photo of Pass Manchac in the rain. Nowadays Manchac's claim to fame is Middendorf's Restaurant. Perched on the shores of Pass Manchac, on a thin piece of land between Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas, Middendorf's has made thin-cut fried catfish its specialty since opening in 1934. In our opinion they may be famed for their thin-cut fried catfish, but they are surely remembered for their gumbo. It's worth a trip. But sadly the Amtrak doesn't stop there.

Later on... dinner in the diner wasn't bad. We made our reservations earlier in the afternoon and they called us to our table when it was time. A few minutes late but it was close to when they said we could eat. The choices were pretty limited -- chicken fried steak, pasta, salad -- and there were no items that related to New Orleans cooking, perhaps America's most famous cuisine. In fact nothing during the whole trip made any reference to the train's New Orleans connection. Despite the famous song.

The roadbed is rough. Whenever we had to sit on a siding and wait for a freight train to pass us, the engineer later tried to make up the lost time and we sped along tilting wildly from side to side. And there are no seat belts!

After lots of stops for freights and long periods of inching ahead (safely I'm sure) at one mile per hour, we arrived nearly an hour late in Memphis in a light rain.

Memphis and the Hernando DeSoto Bridge at NightOur hotel, the Comfort Inn Downtown, was a ten minute cab ride from the station and what a surprise. The reception staff was warm and friendly and the room was huge and very comfortable -- with a great view of the Mississippi River and the big, red "Memphis" sign just south of the DeSoto Bridge. What a relief after our bumpy ten hour ride.

On the TV news we heard that the floods in New Orleans were very serious, the worst since Hurricane Katrina.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Our Memphis Trip, Day 1, Sunday

Crescent City Steaks, Since 1934

Logo: Crescent City SteaksOn a Sunday afternoon two weeks ago we set out on the first leg of our trip to Memphis, Tennessee. The train out of New Orleans wasn't until Monday afternoon but we decided to drive to New Orleans the day before and spend the night there. This meant we could have dinner at a famous old New Orleans restaurant, Crescent City Steaks.

The Vojkovich family has owned and operated the place for all of its 73 years and it has the reputation of having perhaps the best steaks in New Orleans or anywhere for that matter. I had never been there and Jack thinks it was nearly 50 years ago for him.

It's in an older part of town, on Broad Street about two miles from the heart of the French Quarter. To call the neighborhood "seedy" won't get you sued by any of the locals.

The restaurant is in a neat, old building and at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon it was packed with serious steak eaters. And steak is about all they serve aside from a shrimp or chicken dish ( by special request, only) plus a variety of vegetables and potato side dishes.

Crescent City Steaks dining roomThe steak was wonderful. The best I have ever had and I think everybody around us felt the same way. The prices are good, too. About 60% of what Ruth's Chris charges for the same high quality prime beef. The decor is clean and simple and the service is great.

The Best of New reviewed it in their 2007 Winter Restaurant Guide when Crescent City Steaks reopened after Hurricane Katrina:
CRESCENT CITY STEAKS, 1001 N. Broad Street, (504) 821-3271

This just-reopened Mid-City institution Crescent City Steaks is back serving big cuts of beef that arrive at the table sizzling in butter. There's the 36-oz. porterhouse for two, plus filets, T-bones, rib-eyes and sirloin strips. Bordelaise sauce, potatoes and vegetables are available as side dishes. By request, the kitchen can prepare shrimp or chicken Clemenceau. Reservations recommended. Lunch Wed.-Fri., dinner Wed.-Sun. Credit cards and checks. $$$

Please note: Be sure to call before you go. The hours of operation vary quite a bit.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Noel Coward's Firefly Presents

YouTube amazes me again. Here's 100 seconds of film showing Noel Coward's Jamaican hideaway in the hills above Port Maria. The music is totally wrong -- it's "travelog jazz" and not one of his songs. But it has great views of Firefly and the setting.

Last April we visited Firefly and here's a link to the post about that visit.