Seedy Bars and Luxury Hotels on the Blues Highway
I lived the gamut on my latest solo travel adventure. My hotels were luxurious. The bars were decidedly not. And I enjoyed just about every service Amtrak offers, from business class, to a roomette, coach and the sightseer lounge. I traveled the Blues Highway from Chicago to Memphis, Jackson and New Orleans – and loved every minute of it.
Solo travel in Chicago
Taking the train from Toronto, I arrived in Chicago near midnight and went straight to the Hotel Monaco on Wabash Ave. It looked like a typical boutique hotel in the lobby but when I got to my room I couldn’t believe it. It was theatrical, full of reds and golds, with unusual accents. It was anything but your bland hotel room. And, when I opened the drapes to see what kind of view I had, I discovered a window seat large enough for a party overlooking the Chicago River. I was in luxury.
My quest for this trip was great blues – not the headliners necessarily but local singers, horn players and guitarists that ooze the blues. When this is what you’re after, you don’t go for the décor, you go for the music.
I went to Kingston Mines. Currently in its 41st year, it has been voted Chicago’s best blues club for 13 years running by the Chicago Music Awards. The music was great – I saw Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang – and the bar was, well, what I expected and yet different. Kingston Mines has two stages going all evening. When one band goes on break, the audience moves to the other room where another is ready to play – and then back again, all night long.
Solo Travel in Memphis
When I think of the blues historically, the city of Memphis comes to mind. I thought this would be blues mecca but, in fact, it was more tourist mecca. The blues on Beale Street didn’t have the authentic feel that I was hoping for. Yes, the bars looked appropriately rough around the edges but they seemed somehow sanitized as well.
On the flip side, my accommodation was beyond luxurious. I stayed at the Inn at Hunt Phelan. This antebellum mansion was built in 1828. Located on Beale St. beyond the main action, it is nestled at the end of a long driveway in beautiful gardens. I stayed in a large front room on the second floor furnished with antiques. This inn is often used for weddings and small meetings. On my first night, there was only one other guest who I never actually saw.
A quiet night at an inn is fine. But being truly alone is something yet again. The caretaker was out of town and without any real need for staff, none were staying the night. It was just me and the phantom guest.
When I arrived back from Beale St. around midnight I couldn’t help but have Stephen King’s “The Shining” in my head. Forcing the images out, I unlocked the front door and rushed upstairs to my room, quickly turning the deadbolt. I half expected an axe to come through followed by Jack Nicholson’s crazed face saying: “Heeeere’s Johnny”.
Of course, it was all in my imagination and the inn was more than wonderful.
I don’t usually go to bars every night of the week so by the time I got to Jackson I was getting tired. I took a day off to relax and The Fairview Inn was the perfect place – I had a wonderful room and the inn has a fabulous kitchen. I ate my dinner at the bar discussing politics with “one of the few liberal democrats in Mississippi”; the bartender. It was great fun.
But what’s a city on the Blue Highway without the blues. When I asked around for recommendations, everyone from the cab drivers to the innkeeper suggested 930 Blues Café. So, that’s where I headed on my second evening in town. Arriving a bit on the early side I found a seat at the bar, ordered a beer and watched the goings-on.
As the place filled my expectations rose. People were definitely looking forward to some great music. And it was delivered. We all thrilled to Jackson’s blues sweetheart, Jackie Bell – a stunning singer and an equally amazing performer.
Solo Travel in New Orleans
In New Orleans I felt like I was back in the big city. In certain ways, it had more in common with Chicago than Memphis or Jackson. Maybe it’s because they’re both large port and convention towns. Whatever the reason, the similarities soon ended and I quickly found New Orleans’ unique flavor.
My hotel wasn’t whimsical like Chicago or steeped in history like Memphis and Jackson; it was, as the French say, tres chique. Which is appropriate given how close it is to the French Quarter. The International House offered a soothing, sophisticated escape in a busy city.
Then there’s Bourbon St. My first visit was disappointing. Like Beale St. in Memphis, it’s definitely a tourist haunt. So I hightailed it out of there and found my way to Frenchman St. where there’s blues and jazz and all sorts of other music. Snug Harbor is supposed to be the place to go but it’s layout didn’t work for me as a solo traveler so I went across the street to Jimbeaux’s. Believe me, Jimbeaux’s is all about the music – which was great – and definitely not about the décor.
I finally did find one place I loved on Bourbon St.: Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. It was my one exception to the seedy bar scene. I enjoyed great jazz in an upscale club where I had a bite to eat and two drinks for under $30.
So, as you can see, I lived the gamut on my solo travels of the Blues Highway. I enjoyed luxury and fabulous music – just not usually at the same time.