I have been fortunate during the pandemic. One of my greatest loves is travel, and although I did not get the opportunity to return during last summer to work in a gifted student program for Johns Hopkins University in Hong Kong, nor will I this summer, I have still been able to travel on a few trips.
On the heels of the outset of the pandemic in March 2020, I went for a weekend to Austin, Tex., a combined pleasure trip and to visit my boyfriend’s daughter and her family. I spent the summer working virtually on a leadership project for my state’s department of education, so there wasn’t a great deal of leisure time. However, in September 2020, we took a road trip to Mobile, and in November 2020, just after recovering from moderate cases of COVID, we flew to visit my boyfriend’s brother in Telluride, Colo.
We had planned last year at the end of March to take a regular train ride to New Orleans for several days, but in addition to our concerns about the virus, the temporary closure of our hotel in the French Quarter quelled that plan. At the time, I had no idea the pandemic would last this long. Leave it to me: I had never lived through a pandemic before.
Fast forward to now: I’m about to get ready to leave again on the train to head to New Orleans for the first time since September 2018. As always, I haven’t packed yet—and probably won’t until the last minute, but in spirit, I’m ready to go.
I’m excited, first of all, just to drive to Memphis and spend the night prior to our departure. We’ll be staying at a downtown hotel on the trolley line and enjoying barbecue for dinner at Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous. I hope also to be able to walk downtown near the river, perhaps to Tom Lee Park, and enjoy the bluff scenery and the muddy Mississippi.
The next morning, we will rise early and board the train, which departs from Central Station promptly at 6:40 a.m. For added safety and the bonus of pre-paid breakfast and lunch meals, we have booked a roomette on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans. While not as large as a full sleeper, a roomette offers a private train car space with two facing seats that fold into a twin bed. Above it, a bunk pulls down for additional bedding. During the approximate eight-hour trip, we plan to nap, read, talk, and enjoy the scenery of the Mississippi backcountry.
Now don’t get me wrong: we’ve both been fully, duly vaccinated, but we still plan to take precautions. We will wear our masks while indoors in public places, and we will not enter any venue that appears to be crowded and thus lacks appropriate space for social distancing. A number of music venues, particularly those that offer standing-room-only viewing of musical groups, have not re-opened from the most recent closure.
I know my first stop for dinner, as always: at Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar on Iberville. I know I’ve surely written about them before, but there’s almost nothing quite like their specialty chargrilled oysters, with their Parmesan, mozzarella, garlic butter, and lemon zest. And if you don’t use the crusty bread they provide on the side to sop up the leftover liquid, you’re wasting one of the best parts.
Then, of course, there’s always the barbecue oysters at Redfish Grill, flash-fried in mild-flavored Crystal pepper sauce, made right there in Louisiana, and topped with melty bleu cheese crumbles and fresh chives. With that mention, I’ll have to stop writing about the food in New Orleans. It’s lunchtime, and I’m getting hungry.
In the meantime, I’ve got to plan my accoutrements and get packed. In just over 24 hours, the City of New Orleans will be leaving Central Station, and I hope to be on it, meandering my way to the Crescent City for a little taste of a return to normalcy—and delicious cuisine—for the first time in a while.