ABOARD A PULLMAN CAR BETWEEN CHICAGO AND NEW ORLEANS — Since childhood, I've had a fascination with trains. It began with visits to my grandparents' house, where from the bedroom in which I slept I could hear the whistle of trains passing through the night on their way to who knew where.
I've always thought a train trip offered endless possibilities for intrigue and adventure that you just can't experience in a postage stamp-size seat on an airplane.
Sipping a glass of wine in the Pullman train's Adirondack Club car as we pulled out of Chicago en route to New Orleans, I set about proving my theory, eyeing my fellow passengers and wondering what each of their stories really was.
Could the innocent-looking middle-age couple be diabolical saboteurs straight out of North by Northwest? Is the nice lady who heads back to her compartment for a "nap" destined not to return, forcing me to make like the amateur sleuths in The Lady Vanishes?
I told you trains sent my imagination into overdrive. Of course, it turns out my fellow passengers were just train buffs who had signed on for the 20-hour overnight trip on the Chicago-based Pullman Rail Journeys.
As we were a small group, only two Pullman cars were in use. Our sleeping car, called Chebanse, was built in 1949 and originally used to transport passengers between New York and Miami. The sleeping car has six double bedrooms (small) and eight roomettes (smaller), plus two showers (smallest).
The second car, the Art Deco-style Adirondack Club, serves as the lounge, dining and observation car. This is where passengers spend the majority of their time, sipping libations while watching the landscape from the picture windows. Built in 1950 for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, it was bought by Pullman in 2012.
For larger groups, sleeping cars are added as needed, as is the Scenic View, a full-dome dining and lounge car.
We left Chicago's Union Station at 8 p.m. on a Friday. After dropping my bags in my compartment, I joined other passengers in the dining car for a welcome drink before a dinner of blackened salmon with cilantro-scallion vinaigrette, followed by lemon cake with fresh blueberries and accompanied by a selection of wines.
I will remember this the next time I feast on airline fare of stale pretzels and half a can of Coke, and will wonder for the umpteenth time why America hasn't embraced train travel the way Europe has.
After dinner, entertainment came courtesy of Rita Ruby and Elaine Moore, engaging singer-guitarists from Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, who invited us to join them in folk and country classics. After a spirited rendition of Patsy Cline's Walking After Midnight, I decided it was time to do my own walking — down the corridor to my compartment, which I found made up for the night.
Lying in the dark, I listened to the clickety-clack of the train wheels as we made our way through Illinois and the far western edge of Kentucky before reaching Memphis in time for breakfast.
Then, it was back to the lounge car to watch the landscape change from Mississippi farmland — it seems the entire town of McComb turned out to greet us as we chugged in on what we learned was National Train Day — to the eerie bayous of southern Louisiana, studded with cypress trees and strung with Spanish moss.
There was time to enjoy lunch before rolling into New Orleans about 4 p.m.
A few days in New Orleans
Normally, the Pullman journey allows passengers a 22-hour layover in New Orleans before departing at 1:45 p.m. Sunday for the return to Chicago. I chose to tack on an extra few days in the city where I used to live and then fly home.
The question of what to do Saturday night in the Big Easy already had been answered. My friend Margarita had arranged dinner in the newly opened Galatoire's 33 Bar and Steak. If you're familiar with the iconic Bourbon Street landmark Galatoire's, this is its sister property next door.
The décor is similar in style to the original — tiled floors, ceiling fans and antique bar — but the menu is, as the name suggests, more focused on steaks and chops than traditional Creole cuisine. It does offer Galatoire's staples including the famed turtle soup and trio of oysters, and if you ask nicely, a server will bring you the light-as-air pommes frites.
If you're looking for a quiet, sophisticated alternative to the raucous clubs on Bourbon Street, you'll find it at Patrick's Bar Vin. Just a block off Bourbon, it overlooks the courtyard of the Hotel Mazarin, with its shimmering fountain and lush foliage.
The amiable Patrick Van Hoorebeek has a legion of loyal fans, local and out-of-town, who flock here to experience his personal touch. (Before you leave, he's likely to sign you up for the Krewe of Cork, the wine-centric Mardi Gras organization he founded.)
At Bar Vin, you'll find an elegantly furnished French Quarter oasis, where you can enjoy high-end vintages including Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label and Baron Phillippe de Rothschild pinot noir by the glass.
Along the River Road from New Orleans to Baton Rouge is a string of plantations that have been restored to their former grandeur — among them, Nottoway, Oak Alley and Houmas House. The latter, owned by New Orleanian Kevin Kelly, has become a destination in itself.
When Kelly bought the property in 2003, he set about restoring the Greek Revival mansion situated at the end of an avenue of moss-draped oaks. Visitors will marvel at the treasures filling the 16 rooms, including a clock on the front mantel that once belonged to Marie Antoinette.
Next, Kelly tackled the grounds, which today are a 38-acre tapestry of live oaks, lush plantings, ponds and fountains. The restored Turtle Bar is in the original 1828 garçonnière, or bachelor quarters.
Dining options range from the casual Café Burnside to the formal Latil's Landing and elegant Carriage House, the latter re-created from the original plans of 19th-century New Orleans architect James Gallier.
The newest additions are the 22 cottages nestled along an alley of ancient oaks and modeled after historic structures found on Uncle Sam Plantation downriver. The cottages are beautifully furnished for overnight guests.
A visit to Houmas House will show you why it's called the "crown jewel of Louisiana's River Road."