It’s pure Americana…..the sight of a multi-decked Mississippi riverboat gliding seemingly effortlessly along the mighty river, its signature black smokestacks pointing skyward, as its great red paddlewheel slaps the river behind. It’s a dream trip for many, and one that’s often long remembered….. (all photos by Dave G. Houser except as noted)
By Dave G. Houser
There’s no better way to get to know and enjoy a river than to be out on it.
That’s certainly the case for America’s mother of all rivers – the mighty Mississippi.
I was introduced to the lower reaches of the Big Muddy several years ago during a paddlewheeler voyage from New Orleans to St. Louis – and just last October experienced the upper section on a cruise from St. Louis to St. Paul.
For me, the upper river proved the most engaging – and I’m not the only writer to make that observation. In fact, here’s what Mark Twain had to say on the subject in the Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1886:
“It is strange how little is written about the upper Mississippi. The river below St. Louis has been described time and again, and it is the least interesting part…(with) low shores, the ungainly trees and the democratic buzzards…along the upper Mississippi every hour brings something new. There are crowds of odd islands, bluffs, prairies, hills, woods and villages – everything one could desire to amuse the children.”
Queen of the Mississippi
My vessel of choice for the 7-day voyage was American Cruise Line’s Queen of the Mississippi, a gleaming white five-deck 150-passenger replica of the 19th-century steamboats that routinely churned up and down the river, transporting both freight and passengers.
ACL proclaims itself an “All-American” line, utilizing American crews and U.S.-built ships. This one was turned out in 2012 by a company-owned shipyard in Maryland.
Beneath her antique veneer and authentic paddlewheel, the Queen is a thoroughly modern craft featuring 78 cabins in seven categories, 65 of which have private balconies. They range in size from a 600-square-foot owners’ suite to single cabins at 210 square feet.
Standard double cabins measure a commodious 304 square feet – larger than most cruise ship staterooms. Each cabin has a satellite flat-screen TV/DVD, Keurig coffeemaker, wireless Internet access and complimentary Wi-Fi.
Public areas include six lounges, ranging from a cozy library to the spacious Magnolia Lounge, home to most presentations and entertainment – and a complimentary Happy Hour, a popular ACL tradition offered on all of its vessels.
Up top, there’s a sun deck, exercise equipment and a casual café. The Dining Salon is large enough to accommodate all 150 passengers at a single (open) seating.
Gateway to the West
Joining me for the voyage was my lady friend and fellow cruising enthusiast, Melinda Renner, who joined me in St. Louis a day prior to departure to give us some time to explore the city’s many attractions.
St. Louis is famous, of course, for its soaring Gateway Arch, symbol of the city’s role as “Gateway to the West.” The world’s tallest arch rises 630 feet from a 90-acre site (a national park unit formally known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial) that was undergoing a massive landscaping project during our visit.
We nonetheless managed to make our way through the confusion to join a “Journey to the Top.” This popular tour shuttles visitors in elevator cars to an observatory atop the Arch, where narrow slit-like windows afford awe-inspiring views over St. Louis and the Mississippi River.
A Historic City
Next, we walked to the nearby Old Courthouse to have a look at exhibits from the Museum of Westward Expansion, temporarily moved there from the Arch during construction. Our visit to the Courthouse (famous as the setting for the Dred Scott case) was enhanced with a performance by a string ensemble from the St. Louis Symphony.
Later in the day, we strolled around Laclede’s Landing, a popular, and historic riverfront dining and entertainment district named after one of the French fur traders who founded St. Louis in 1764. An early dinner at Hannegan’s Restaurant & Pub found us making a big mess out of a delectable rack of St. Louis-style barbecued ribs.
Following a smooth and efficient boarding process the next morning, we were underway. We were soon passing through several of the 26 locks we’d encounter on the way to St. Paul and the landmark confluence of the country’s two greatest rivers – the Mississippi and Missouri – near St. Charles, MO, where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out on their Pacific Ocean Expedition in 1804.
A Perfect Port-of-Call
Hannibal, MO, forever linked to the Mississippi River as the town that most inspired America’s greatest author and humorist, Mark Twain, proved the perfect first port-of-call on our voyage.
Twain spent his boyhood years in Hannibal – a young rascal then known as Samuel Clemens – where childhood experiences sparked his huge imagination, leading to some the world’s most widely read novels. Naturally the town is all about Twain.
On every visitor’s must-see list is the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum (a National Historic Landmark) and the Becky Thatcher and Huckleberry Finn Houses – all nicely restored and offering a comprehensive, easy to follow interpretation of Clemens’ life.
Where Corn Is King
In Davenport, IA, where corn is king, we thought it appropriate to join an included tour to the John Deere Pavilion. It makes perfect sense that one of the world’s major manufacturers of farm machinery would be based here in the American heartland.
The Pavilion (located in neighboring Moline, IL) is a massive glass and steel structure housing the largest display of John Deere equipment and technology in the world, all thoughtfully presented in some fascinating exhibits, many of them offering hands-on experiences.
National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
The warm, sunny weather that was following us up the river turned chilly for our morning arrival in Dubuque, IA. We quickly warmed to the city, however, with its revitalized riverfront that features the huge and handsome National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium – our objective for an ACL-included self-guided tour.
A Smithsonian affiliate, this sprawling complex has earned praise as the one of the Midwest’s finest museums. Built on the site of the Dubuque Boat & Boiler Works, operating from 1851 until 1972 as the nation’s largest shipbuilder on inland waters, the museum couldn’t be better positioned to trace the colorful history of the Golden Age of Steamboating on the Mississippi.
The museum couples seamlessly with the adjacent Aquarium where visitors can get up close and personal with some of the creatures that call the river home – from massive gar and catfish to playful otters.
An All-American Atmosphere
La Crosse, WI, got our vote for the most attractive and inviting town or city we’d visited so far during our voyage up the Mississippi. It’s just plain pretty and possesses the sort of friendly, wholesome all-American atmosphere that makes you feel you’d enjoy living there.
The Queen docked at lovely, leafy Riverside Park – the city’s showpiece riverfront park – a picture-perfect setting on an October morning with the fall colors out in force.
ACL’s staff onboard the Queen included three outstanding and versatile individuals, known as “riverlorians” who served in various capacities as lecturers, guides and entertainers. Mike Jennings, a veteran riverboat lecturer, delivered daily talks on matters of history, geography and river lore while the dynamic husband and wife duo of Steven Marking and JoAnn Funk anchored the evening entertainment and also shared their knowledge of the nature and ecology of the upper Mississippi through a number of presentations.
JoAnn – a La Crosse native – led a group of us on a walking tour of the city, taking in the downtown historic district and visiting the International Friendship Gardens, a colorful network of demonstration gardens that celebrates sister-city relationships between La Crosse and several foreign cities. Later, we joined a bus excursion through the city’s Victorian residential neighborhoods, pausing to tour the 1858 Hixon House – the elegantly furnished home of a one-time lumber baron.
Churning ever northward toward our next destination – Red Wing, MN – the nature of the river changed dramatically, narrowing considerably and flanked by bluffs ablaze in fall foliage. Nearly everyone emerged on deck for the show and to join Marking and Funk in a game of eagle spotting. The big raptors nest in large numbers along the river in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Red Wing has to go on record as the quirkiest of ports along the upper river. It’s a wee town of just 16,000 but has a huge reputation for resourcefulness and productivity. Settled by Scandinavian immigrants in the 1840s, it soon became the primary wheat market in the world – and it was here that puffed wheat cereal was invented.
Boots to Pottery
Red Wing brand shoes and boots have been made there for a century – as were the famous art pottery products of Red Wing Pottery. Showrooms and museums of those two venerable companies highlighted our ACL-included tour. The Red Wing Store features a real attention-getter with its “World’s Largest Boot” exhibit. The oversized leather work boot measures 20 feet long by 16 feet tall and weighs in at 2,300 pounds.
Collectors of art pottery or glass are quick to recognize the name Red Wing. The company was a prolific producer of art pottery, stoneware and hand-painted dinnerware from the late 1800s until the plant was shuttered in 1967. Our tour group loved the Pottery Museum with its collection of more than 5,000 pieces ranging from massive stoneware jugs to delicate vases.
Reaching St. Paul
A riverboat cruise is generally a slow-moving event, but it hardly seemed as if a week had passed as Queen of the Mississippi tied up in St. Paul, MN to bring our weeklong cruise to an end.
All in all, the voyage went flawlessly. Meals were tasty, plentiful and well presented and the Queen’s officers and crew were invariably friendly and efficient. As a veteran of more than 40 cruises, I will tell you unequivocally that ACL is among the best in the business of small ship cruising.
Following the customary hugs and farewells, we made a beeline for the St. Paul Farmers’ Market. We’d gotten word that this was the best place to be on a Saturday morning in St. Paul. Founded in 1853 and featuring more than 300 vendors, it’s one of the nation’s oldest and largest public markets. We had a great time there, wandering about and making photos.
Rather than rushing off to the airport on our arrival day in the Twin Cities area, we’d booked a night at the 1910 Saint Paul Hotel and after a long walk around the city we settled in that afternoon at the castle-like Landmark Center to watch the St. Paul Civic Symphony Orchestra rehearse a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
That evening, as we sat down for a light dinner at the hotel’s lobby bar, we heard a familiar voice – that of our riverloarian/entertainer (and new favorite songbird) from the Queen, JoAnn Funk – who made it home to St. Paul just in time for her regular Saturday night gig at the hotel. It was a fitting finale to a wonderful week on the Mississippi.
If you go:
For 2016, ACL’s Queen of the Mississippi will be joined by a new sister vessel, America, and together they will offer 17 upper Mississippi River voyages back and forth between St. Louis and St. Paul from July 16 to October 14. Both vessels feature seven cabin categories with fares ranging from $4,540 to $7,560 per person for the 7-day voyage.
For more information, call 800-460-4518, or see www.americancruiselines.com.