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Deep South Holiday Travel
by Hugh Frank Smith

[This article was first published in The Memphis Commercial Appeal and is reprinted with permission.]


What a good feeling it is to be enjoying the most hassle-free Christmas I have ever known. No holiday stress. And I don't have to confront the frantic last-minute shoppers.

That's because I completed all my gift-giving plans in November. I can just sit back and relax.

In October I ordered my postal cards, addressed and stamped them and mailed them the last week in November as I do every year. No envelopes to fuss with. My card includes next year's calendar that friends say they like to put in their billfold.

For out-of-town relatives and friends I ordered goodies for some and magazines for others - - Newsweek, Bon Appetit, Talk, Vanity Fair, Southern Living, Sports Illustrated, Better Homes and Garden.

For local friends I bought the gifts that my four granddaughters - - Elena, 11, Flori, 9, Rachael, 8, and Susannah, 4 - - sold me to benefit their schools at St. George's in Germantown and Lamplighter in Cordova. Now all I have to do is to put each gift in a Merry Christmas bag (no wrapping) and deliver it.

The granddaughters' big and only gift - - I emphasized this to them - - was a long weekend in Nashville highlighted by the Rockettes' Christmas show at Opryland. It was worth the trip, for both myself and their mother Sunde, just to see their faces light up as each act unfolded portraying the magic of Christmas and Santa Claus.

Are we having a recession? No sign of it in Nashville. Thousands of cars inched along the roads leading to Opryland, creating a several mile backup. Crowds during Thanksgiving weekend were attracted to the huge mall, the Rockettes and the spectacular display of lights in the Opryland Hotel.

The Christmas gift that my daughter Melanie and I gave to our employees, Dotsie Long and Mary Watson - - an Amtrak train trip to New Orleans for three days and two nights - - proved the perfect gift for them and for me, too. It was their first visit to the Crescent City. And it is all I want - - or need - - for Christmas. (Note to relatives and friends: Please don't take me too seriously on this remark.)

The train trip was more enjoyable than I had possibly imagined. A sumptuous breakfast on the way down, lunch and dinner on the way back, and a lounge car open at all times for sandwiches, snacks and cocktails (standard brands: $4, premium brands: $5.) The wine list included Kendall-Jackson (glass $4, bottle $20). Cocktails and wine cost more than that at many Germantown and Memphis restaurants.) The entrée choices at dinner, with prices ranging from $11 to $17.50, included New York Strip, Catfish of the Delta, Double Cut Pork Chop, Southern Plantation Chicken, Fettuccini du jour - - Alfredo or Marinara, Chicago "El" (chicken tenders dinner for children 12 and under.} Dessert choices: New Orleans-style Bread Pudding, Mississippi Mud Cheese Cake, Chocolate Treasure (Amtrak's Signature Dessert). Big Apple Pie and Pie a la Mode. Afterwards a movie came on - - this trip it was "Rat Race." Is this crazy, deafeningly loud film what teen-agers line up to see? Heavens!

We sat in roomy, unusually comfortable seats in the observation deck as we traveled south on the City of New Orleans through the vast, water-logged Delta, the water so high in many fields that the wheels of the irrigation equipment were barely visible.

We stayed at Hotel Provincial in the French Quarter for $99 a night. We enjoyed our most-talked-about meal at the Palace Café, highly recommended by Melanie's friends Eb (sic) and Myra Thomas of Memphis, connoisseurs of New Orleans food for many years. My meal included seafood gumbo, a crab appetizer and the best catfish - - pecan-crusted - - that I've ever eaten. My niece, Martha Cameron, who flew down from Birmingham to join us, was especially interested in the stunning murals on every wall that depicted colorful New Orleans scenes and celebrities past and present.

I had to go back to see if the Fairmont Hotel (formerly the Roosevelt) still puts up an elaborate display of Christmas lights that I remembered when my bride Rachael and I stayed there one night during our World War II honeymoon while I was on Navy leave. I was not disappointed. I have never seen a more breath-taking Christmas Fairyland. The entire walls and ceilings glittered with snow and stars. Sparkling white Christmas trees lined both sides of the long, spacious lobby. The hotel must have had to start in August to complete such an immense project.

Two hours before departure time I suddenly realized we hadn't seen two of New Orleans' major attractions: the aquarium and the D-Day Museum. We had to rush through both of them, but they were well worth the visit.

As our Memphis-bound train sped through the cotton fields in the Delta darkness, I remarked to Mary, "As we ride in style on this luxury train, it makes me realize it sure is a long way back to the days when you and Dotsie picked cotton in Mississippi and Missouri - - and I plowed behind a mule in a cotton field at Smith Hill Farm, Alabama."

My second "Christmas gift trip" was coming to an end too soon.

As we neared Memphis I looked back on the granddaughters' trip to Nashville and decided to reverse my original decision. Even though I had told the girls the trip would definitely be their only Christmas present, I began to have second thoughts. When I spend Christmas at their farm home near Moscow and I see them opening a lot of gifts from friends and relatives on Christmas Eve, it somehow just doesn't seem right that there wouldn't be a little something under the tree for each of them - - from Papa. So now I'm going to have to go out, after all, and endure the holiday crowds, just like the rest of you, to find the girls a little surprise.


You can E-mail veteran newspaper columnist Hugh Frank Smith at Bugesmith@aol.com.

Here are three more HFS stories:
Growing Up Apart With Jimmy Carter
Tribute To My Sister

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