I love traveling by train. I haven’t done it a lot in North America, mostly in Europe, where traveling by train is easily accessible and often, the most cost-effective way to get around. But when my husband and I were invited to travel on the Pullman train from Chicago to New Orleans, we jumped at the chance. Chicago and New Orleans were two cities that were at the top of my list of US destinations to visit. Plus, we knew the scenery would be beautiful – and we weren’t disappointed!
Hyatt Centric The Loop Chicago
We flew to Chicago and checked in to the Hyatt Centric The Loop, a new concept of hotel that’s designed to suit both business and leisure travelers alike. Located in the heart of downtown Chicago, the Hyatt Centric The Loop provides easy access to Chicago’s main attractions and is walking distance to Magnificent Mile, the upscale shopping and dining section of Michigan Avenue, as well as Millennium Park, home to Cloud Gate, or ‘the Bean’, as it’s known by many.
The hotel calls a 22-story art deco building from 1927 home and inside you’ll find sleek design, from the open concept lobby to the comfortable, white on white guest rooms. Clean lines and modern minimalism best describe the rooms; they’re stylish and bright, providing sweeping views of Chicago’s skyline. There’s free WiFi throughout the hotel, which is always a bonus. Plus, the fitness studio is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sadly, I did more eating than exercising so didn’t spend any time in the gym but Chicago is an immensely walkable city so I was easily able to achieve my 10,000 steps a day, tracked by the handy health app on my iPhone.
Chicago Food Scene
Chicago is definitely a foodie town and before I arrived, friends had given me a list of must-try places, which my husband and I dutifully visited. We hit Garrett’s gourmet popcorn to try their famous Garrett mix, a delicious combo of cheese and caramel popcorn; don’t knock it til you try it! We had lunch at the Purple Pig, where the menu of tasty savories made it difficult to choose just a few items to try. (The chorizo stuffed olives, and meatballs were yum, BTW!) We hit up Dylan’s Candy Bar on Michigan Avenue for a kid-in-a-candy-store experience and tried Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza at Pizano’s. The wait time inside the restaurant was too long so we opted for to-go pizzas and were sorely disappointed, despite being assured that Pizano’s dished up some of the best deep dish pizzas in the city. Our last lunch in Chicago was at Cochon Volant, inside the Hyatt Centric. This charming, upscale French restaurant is part bar, part brasserie and part bakery – and I loved every part! The newly opened, 180-seat restaurant has a wonderful French-inspired menu and from the bakery, wafts the intoxicating aroma of freshly baked breads and pastries. This is one place I’ll definitely be returning to on my next trip to Chicago.
The Pullman Train
We were able to walk just 10 minutes from the Hyatt Centric The Loop to Chicago’s nearby Union Station to board our Pullman train. It took a little while to figure out exactly where we needed to check in at the train station, but we eventually found our way to a small lounge area, where Pullman passengers can wait. There are snacks and drinks available but you don’t want to fill up because you’ll be served dinner as soon as you board the train.
The Pullman train is actually pulled by an Amtrak train, hitching a ride on Amtrak’s existing Chicago to New Orleans service. On our trip, there were two Pullman cars (one sleeper car and one dining car), as there were only 16 passengers on board. Amtrak had seven cars.
We boarded the train and were shown to our cabin, a small but serviceable place to spend the night; this is train travel after all. The train cars are classic; in fact our car was built in 1947 and definitely harkened back to an era long gone. There’s a real sense of nostalgia on the train and reminded me of classic films I love, like Some Like it Hot and White Christmas (remember when they take the train to Vermont?)
Our cabin had a bunk bed and a bathroom with a sink that was like a murphy bed; you had to pull it down when you wanted to use it and push it back up when you were done, in order to have access to the toilet. It’s a tight squeeze. There’s a common shower stall at the end of the car but not in the individual cabins. Storage is limited. There’s a small space under the bottom bunk but our suitcases wouldn’t fit, so you should definitely pack light if you can. The Pullman folks can store your bags for you if necessary, in which case you’d want to have an overnight bag with just the things you’ll need for the 19-hour journey.
The dining car is all old-school glamour (the staff is dressed in white coats and black bow ties) and the view of Chicago’s twinkling skyline as we pulled out of the city at night was really, really beautiful. Food and drinks are all included in the price of your ticket so you can expect three meals on board: Dinner the first night, then breakfast and lunch the next day. Dress code: Upscale casual. Since most of the dining tables are set for four people, you’ll make new friends if you’re traveling alone or as a couple. And this is one of the best parts of any travel experience – meeting new people. We dined the first night with a really great couple from Belgium, who were on a whirlwind tour of the United States.
By the time dinner is over, it’s so dark outside that there are no views to take in so your options are either to hang out in the dining car and enjoy a few drinks, or head back to your cabin. We knew the sleeping arrangements would be interesting – and they were! After a few rounds back and forth, debating who was going to sleep on the top bunk and who on the bottom, my husband decided he’d climb up to the top and I’d sleep down below. Once we had settled in to our respective bunks, the real fun began. The ride was rocky. Really rocky. And loud. We couldn’t stop laughing, wagering on who would be rocketed from their bed first in the middle of the night. Fortunately, the upper bunk has a makeshift ‘net’ made from what looked like seatbelt straps, to catch you if you’re unceremoniously tossed from your bed. This didn’t happen but as the train loudly rolled and rattled its way down the train tracks, I knew I wasn’t going to sleep. And I didn’t. It was just too bumpy.
My husband tossed and turned as well up there in his bunk but eventually put in a pair of ear plugs, which he says really helped him get to sleep – so don’t leave home without your ear plugs!
When morning came, I was exhausted but excited to really experience the train during the daytime. After breakfast, I stayed in the dining car, hoping to do some work but the WiFi never worked. Instead, I was forced to disconnect so I read my book as the beautiful scenery whizzed by me. A much better plan, anyway!
The train journey follows the Mississippi River and makes 17 stops along the way. The stops are short, though, some just a minute or two. But in Memphis, Tennessee and Jackson, Mississippi, the stops are longer and can be up to 40 minutes. It’s up to the Pullman porter’s discretion, whether or not to let passengers off but ours did so we were able to disembark and get some fresh air.
The Pullman train experience is truly an exceptional one, and reminded me of what it must have been like back in those early days when train travel was glamorous. Despite the bumpy ride that made sleep elusive, it was a journey I was so glad to experience, riding the rails from one end of the United States to the other. It provided the opportunity to see parts of the country that I might not have seen otherwise and it was relaxing to sit at a window seat and watch the changing landscape pass me by.
The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans
Our train journey ended in New Orleans, another city I was stoked to explore. From the train station, we took an Uber to the Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans and our driver couldn’t have been any friendlier.
Stepping into the hotel is a ‘wow’ moment. It’s definitely got a grand dame feel to it. Situated inside the historic 1908 Beaux Arts Maison Blanche building, the Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans oozes antebellum charm. The sweeping lobby is a luxurious greeting, especially for first-time guests and sets the stage for the decadent experience that’s to follow.
A porter escorted my husband and me to our room – and we needed his guidance. It’s a bit of a maze to get from the lobby to the Club Level rooms, which have their own dedicated elevators. But it’s worth the winding walk. Our Club King room was fit for a king! The first thing to catch my eye was the luxurious canopy bed, draped in silk. The high ceilings and neoclassical furnishings made the room effortlessly elegant and I appreciated the recessed bookcases, home to classics like Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities, though perhaps Tennessee Williams would have been more fitting? The very large bathroom had a very large bathtub and separate stand-up shower and I love the Asprey toiletries you find in Ritz-Carlton hotels, especially the super moisturizing body lotion.
The hotel certainly pays homage to its historic roots but is, of course, also fully equipped with all the amenities that a modern day traveler would expect: flat screen TV, satellite TV service, WiFi and hair dryers, to name a few.
After you’ve taken some time to unpack and luxuriate on the beckoning bed, you’ll probably want to get a bite to eat. If you’re in a Club room, you’ll have direct access to the Club Level, which offers all kinds of delicacies continuously throughout the day (breakfast, light snacks, hors d’ oeuvres, beverages and sweets). You’ll never go hungry! Otherwise, you can check out the two on-site restaurants, Davenport Lounge and M Bistro, for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as afternoon tea. For a really special experience, book dinner at the Davenport Lounge when the hotel’s headline entertainer Jeremy Davenport is playing. You’ll dine to the inimitable sound of his jazz music, a truly New Orleans experience.
Located just at the edge of the French Quarter, the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans is perfectly situated for exploring. Just walk outside and you’re mere steps from the famed Bourbon Street. I’ll admit: Bourbon Street wasn’t for me – it’s loud, boisterous and there are so many drunk people – but they all looked like they were having a grand old time, so it really depends on what your definition of a good time is! But you’ll definitely want to check Bourbon Street out at least once and I’m glad I did. As an alternative to Bourbon Street, try Frenchmen Street for an authentic New Orleans experience; you’ll find lots of restaurants, cafes, shopping and live music.
Like Chicago, New Orleans is also known for its food. From po’ boys and jambalaya to gumbo and beignets, there’s lots to try. My stay was far too short so I’ll definitely need to return to really explore the food scene but two of the places I’ve been told to try: Galatoire’s and Café du Monde, apparently the ‘beignet Mecca’ of New Orleans. My husband and I strolled by Café du Monde on Sunday morning and the line was unimaginably long. Those beignets must be damn good – although some people have said that the beignets at the Ritz-Carlton are better; I’ll have to investigate further.
The incredible experience traveling by Pullman train from Chicago to New Orleans is one I’ll never forget. I saw, heard and tasted so much in just a few short days and if you have the chance, do it – it’s a wonderful way to see America.