The first time I visited New Orleans was in 2010, when I took travelled on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, an overnight service from Chicago. This covers the 1,500 km route, which roughly follows the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, in around 20 hours. It was therefore fitting that my return to New Orleans, in March 2018, was also by train. This time I travelled on the Crescent, another overnight service which starts in New York City, although I picked it up at Manassas, just south of Washington DC.
This was part of a much longer journey which had seen me start in Boston, before taking a series of trains down Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor from Providence. Swapping a New England winter for the spring-like weather of the Gulf Coast (it was 25°C!), I spent a weekend in New Orleans before catching another train, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, to Tucson, which marked the end of my train travel for the trip. Ideally, I’d have taken the train to Phoenix, my final destination, but sadly it lost its passenger service long ago, so instead I drove the last leg. From there, I flew back to the UK, making my final way home.
You can see what I made of New Orleans after the gallery.
I arrived in New Orleans on a Friday evening in March, a mere 1½ hours late (which, considering that I’d been travelling for 27 hours, wasn’t too bad). I was staying right in the centre of the French Quarter, which, for those who don’t know New Orleans, is both the historic core of the city and party central. Even better (or worse, depending on your perspective), I was staying in a little apartment on Bourbon Street, one of the main drags, lined with bars and party venues.
I ended up walking from the station, which takes about 30 minutes and, as I made my way along Bourbon Street, flooded with a very drunk Friday night crowd, past raucous bars, pumping out loud music, I wondered what I had let myself in for. The place I was staying, the Bourgoyne Guest House, wasn’t my first choice. When I visited New Orleans in 2010, I stayed at the St Peter House Hotel (now Inn on St Peter), a charming boutique hotel a few blocks from where I was staying this time, but in a comparatively much quieter part of town. Standing on a corner, it had a lovely, sheltered courtyard and traditional cast-iron balconies all the way around. I have very fond memories of sitting on the balcony in the morning, drinking my coffee.
Back in 2010, I’d been able to get a room there for under $100 a night. Eight years later, it was sold out, although admittedly, it was a weekend and I had left it very late to book anything (the whole trip, other than the flights in and out, was cobbled together was I went along). In my defence, I really hadn’t expected New Orleans to be that busy in early March, so I only managed to secure my accommodation a couple of days before I caught the train down. I’ll know better next time!
Since I was only staying for the weekend, I didn’t want anywhere too far from the centre, so that further limited my choices. In the end, I managed to find a room at the Bourgoyne Guest House, but even that was $140 a night (most of the other options, if they had rooms at all, were well over $200/night). Even so, as I wandered down Bourbon Street, I really did question my choices.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Yes, I had picked somewhere right in the heart of the loudest, busiest part of the city, but the room itself was ideal. It was one of several off a courtyard set back from the street and accessed down a long, narrow corridor which led off Bourbon Street. My room was at the back of the courtyard on the ground floor, with a row of rooms upstairs, accessed by an internal flight of stairs which led to a balcony running the length of the courtyard. Although I did have balcony envy, I suspect it was a little noisier up there, whereas my room really was insulated from all but the worst of the noise.
The room itself was pretty neat. I had a bedroom, which opened onto the courtyard, where I had access to a table and chair for my morning coffee. Meanwhile, off to the right was a bathroom at the back and a small kitchen with an old gas hob at the front, so I could have cooked for myself. More importantly, there was a kettle, so I could make my own coffee. I settled in, got some sleep, then headed out the following morning to explore.
You can see what I found after the gallery.
On my first trip in 2010, I’d done many of the standard tourist things, including taking a paddle steamer down the Mississippi, as well as going on guided tours of some old houses in the French Quarter and the famous cemeteries in the Garden District. All of this is highly recommended, as is walking around the Garden District looking at the mansions, and wandering the French Quarter, admiring the architecture.
Although I would have happily done it all again, this time I was visiting with my Coffee Spot hat on, and, with little time available, I gave the usual tourist things a miss. Also, because it was a weekend and hence very busy, I passed on the local music scene, which I had also sampled on my first visit, attending a couple of jazz and blues bars, which are well worth it if you like live music.
Instead, I set about tracking down New Orleans’ small but vibrant speciality coffee scene, starting with Spitfire Coffee, conveniently located a block from St Louis Cathedral, the spiritual heart of New Orleans, which is in the middle of the French Quarter. Of course, all it takes is one, and at Spitfire, the barista filled me in with a list of places I needed to visit.
Suitably fuelled (both with caffeine and knowledge), I set off for my first target, Sólo Espresso, largely because it closed at three in the afternoon and time was ticking. It’s off the beaten track to the east of the French Quarter, on the border between Bywater and St. Claude, which gave me an excuse to take a 50-minute stroll through Crescent Park which runs along the north bank of the Mississippi. From there, I came back to the French Quarter for more touristing and dinner before planning my itinerary for the following day.
You can see what I got up to after the gallery.
I started my Sunday morning with a stroll through Louis Armstrong Park, which borders onto the northern edge of the French Quarter. My destination was Pax Treme, a new venture from Scott, the owner of Spitfire Coffee, which had opened at the start of that week! Nestled under the freeway, I-10, which cuts right through this part of town, I immediately fell in love with the place!
Sadly, it had to close in early 2019 due to a series of unfortunate incidents (including a break in). The good news is that it reopened towards the end of the year (full disclosure: I provided some investment to help the reopening get off the ground) just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit New Orleans hard. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit the next time I’m in New Orleans.
From Pax Treme, I jumped in a taxi and headed all the way down to the Cherry Espresso Bar which is in Uptown, near the Mississippi on the other side of the Garden District. I spent the rest of the afternoon there, in part hiding from a series of really heavy downpours, before making my way back to the French Quarter. Although a walk past the mansions of the Garden District would have affording plenty of sight-seeing opportunities, it would have taken me about 90 minutes.
With all the rain about, I decided to make my way 10 blocks north to St Charles Avenue and catch the streetcar back to Canal Street, which marks the western edge of the French Quarter, separating it from the Central Business District. New Orleans’ streetcar network is another thing high on the tourist list and is well worth taking. Other than the short route on the waterfront (which really is just for tourists in my opinion), the rest of the network is a practical, albeit slow, way of getting around town, and fully integrated into the city’s transport network. The line I took, along St Charles Avenue, is the oldest, having first run in 1835, and has some lovely old rolling stock dating from the 1920s.
Back in the centre, I had dinner, took one last stroll along the waterfront, then headed back to my apartment, ready for an early start the following morning, when I was due to catch the Sunset Limited, Amtrak Train No. 1, all the way to Tucson, Arizona, which you can read about in the next instalment of this Travel Spot.
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