Iowa river towns buzz with excitement as Viking cruise ship prepares for summer excursions

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In a few months, the skiffs and speed boats frequenting the waters of Iowa's Mississippi River towns will be joined routinely by a five-deck cruise ship carrying nearly 400 passengers eager to check out sites sometimes overlooked by locals.

Set to debut in June and begin docking in Burlington, Dubuque and Davenport in July, the Viking Mississippi is in its final stage of construction after having met a waterway for the first time Monday. Viking Cruises celebrated its "float-out" at Edison Chouest Offshore's LaShip shipyard in Houma, Louisiana.

"It is a proud moment that this new ship has met an American waterway for the first time," Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking, said in a news release. "Our guests have long wanted to sail the Mississippi River with Viking, and we very much look forward to welcoming them on board this summer."

Also looking forward to the Viking Mississippi's voyages are those in cities serving as docking points along the route whose local economies will benefit from the increase in tourism.

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Talks between Burlington and Viking had been underway for several years, save for a pause while Viking considered docking in Fort Madison, but the cruise line changed course in the fall of 2019 and settled on Burlington. To accommodate the Viking Mississippi, whose Burlington stops sometimes will coincide with those of American Queen Steamboat Co. beginning in 2023, the city installed a second mooring station last year. There will not be double-docking days this year.

"We're excited to bring more tourists to the area, because both these companies have their own little buses and some set tours that they take around the area," Burlington Mayor Jon Billups said.

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Planning for the Viking tours — or excursions, as they are referred to by the cruise line — has largely fallen on the Greater Burlington Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Spending time with the community folks who help run this beautiful area, I think Greater Burlington is truly excited about it, and we should be," Michael Dear, executive director of the CVB, told The Hawk Eye on Thursday from inside the Welcome Center at the Port of Burlington, where volunteers and tour guides will greet passengers exiting the Mississippi Viking from July through October.

Since joining the CVB in August, Dear, who formerly worked at Team Staffing Solutions, has kept busy preparing for the cruise's arrival, doing everything from writing scripts for excursion tour guides to planning itinerary and hammering out logistics. So has CVB program director Chris Gram, who took on his role in April after a long stint in the hospitality industry,

"We designed the entire Viking experience in Greater Burlington," Gram said. "We've coordinated with local destinations on these excursions, the places that are going to be the stops where everybody goes."

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It's up to the convention and visitors bureaus of docking cities to hire tour guides, who will be trained by Viking, and coordinate volunteers who will act as greeters and unofficial guides to Viking passengers on docking days.

"We're hoping to have volunteers out in downtown Burlington kind of wandering around Jefferson and Valley and Third streets with big, bright 'ask me, I'm here to help' kind of shirts who can interact with folks and answer questions," Gram said.

The CVB said it has seen a significant amount of interest among locals in lending a hand.

"It's going to be a really interesting mix of people on these Viking boats," Gram said. "I think there's an interest in local people wanting to interact with these folks."

Passengers will be free to roam the downtown area or embark on themed excursions.

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More than 20 stops will be included on the Greater Burlington area shore excursions for Viking passengers, each offering diverse experiences, Dear said.

Each of those stops will be compensated with a per-visitor payout from Viking, giving the sites additional income along with the increase in tourists.

"Even better, there are excursions that are heading down to Fort Madison, to Hinterland Dairy in Donnellson, to Nauvoo," Gram said. "But they'll all go through Burlington, so even folks who are taking those excursions will have downtown Burlington available to them."

"The big thing is folks getting off the boat and flooding into downtown," Dear added.

For Dear, the Viking Mississippi dockings are also an opportunity to highlight the Greater Burlington area's scenic vistas, whose beauty is sometimes taken for granted by locals, and to be more intentional about utilizing the Mississippi River as an attraction.

"That's the Grand Canyon of the Midwest," Dear said, "and we have to find a way to get the optics of not thinking that's in our back yard, but making the presence of the Mississippi more of a front-yard mentality for Greater Burlington."

Dear hopes to bring fishing tournaments and boat races to Burlington's riverfront, as well as better highlight the area's parks, walking trails, and steamboat and railroad history.

The dockings also have the potential to draw more residents and businesses to Burlington.

"You never know who's going to step foot off that boat and be impressed with Burlington and decide to either move here or start a business here or move a business here," Billups said. "So we're going to put our best foot forward every time."

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Here are the excursions being offered in the Greater Burlington area

Historic Burlington: At the forefront of the excursions is the 3.5-hour Historic Burlington motor coach tour, which is included in Viking's travel packages for both the 15-day voyage between St. Paul, Minnesota, and New Orleans, and the eight-day voyage between St. Paul and St. Louis.

"There are five tours of historic Burlington that will be going on simultaneously in staggered times," Gram said.

Highlights along this tour include Mosquito Park, named for its small size and known for its scenic vantage point; the Garrett-Phelps House Museum at 521 Columbia St., where visitors can check out antiques dating to 1774; and Snake Alley, which was designated by "Ripley's Believe It or Not" as "unbelievably crooked." Only San Francisco's Lombard Street rivals Snake Alley's curviness, but debate still surrounds which is the most crooked.

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Another stopping point along the history-focused tour will be the Des Moines County Heritage Center, where visitors will take in the Gothic-Revival style building that once housed the Burlington Public Library, along with exhibits including a replica of the New York nightclub dedicated to Bart Howard, a Burlington native who wrote "Fly Me to the Moon."

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Other excursions will be available as add-ons.

Art Around Burlington: The 3.5-hour Art Around Burlington excursion will begin with a stop at Cecile Houel's art studio at 409 N. Fourth St.

"She is the local artist who has made, among many other things, an exhibit of Nobel Peace Prize winners," Gram said.

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There, passengers will be able to speak with Houel and learn about her creative process before heading to the Art Center of Burlington at 301 Jefferson St., where they can view works by other local artists, explore the gallery and see a pottery or painting demonstration before embarking on their own art project that they will be able to take with them back aboard the ship.

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Flavors of the Midwest: The 5.5-hour Flavors of the Midwest excursion will take passengers to Parkside Brewing Co., 2601 Madison Ave., for a tour and samplings of craft brews, before embarking for Lindon Wines, 12646 U.S. 61, where Iowa-farmed grapes are used to produce a range of wines.

Then they will journey to Wildlife Lakes Elk Farm, 13810 Washington Road, where they will learn about the sustainability and health benefits of farm-raised elk.

Then it's off to The Drake, 106 Washington St., where visitors will be able to enjoy the full farm-to-table experience.

"They're going to have elk offerings, Parkside beer there and Lindon wines available," Gram said.

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Old Fort Madison: The 2.5-hour Old Fort Madison excursion will take passengers to the upper Mississippi River Valley's oldest military garrison, where they'll learn about the soldiers who manned the outpost from 1808-13, tour the fort, check out artifacts uncovered during archaeological digs, witness a demonstration of a flintlock musket, and walk through interactive exhibits.

Local Civil War expert Eugene Watkins will be on hand to inform visitors of the fort's history during the War of 1812 and its subsequent sieges, as well as its impact on the Louisiana Purchase cemetery.

Also included in this excursion is a visit to a cemetery where 22 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians are buried.

Hinterland Dairy: The 3.5-hour excursion to Hinterland Dairy in Donnellson, owned by Ralph and Colleen Krogmeier since 1978, will show Viking passengers the inner workings of a family farm and how dairy products are created.

They'll also learn about sustainable farming techniques such as cover cropping and no-tillage planting, how cows are raised, how the land is cared for, and how to produce high-quality cheese.

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Historic Nauvoo: The three-hour, 45-minute Historic Nauvoo excursion will take Viking passengers to the Illinois side of the river, where visitors will learn about Mormon history, take a horse-drawn wagon ride, watch a blacksmith demonstration and tour the town's historic buildings.

Nauvoo is where Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints founder Joseph Smith and his followers settled in 1839. Smith and his brother were later arrested and the LDS community there came under siege, pushing residents westward to Utah.

Davenport offers up a slice of Midwest Americana

Included in the voyage package for the Davenport docking is the John Deere Pavilion and John Deere Homes in Moline, Illinois, a 3.5-hour sightseeing excursion to the Deere family homes and pavilion, which features a replica of Deere's original blacksmith shop, as well as simulators and equipment.

Also on this excursion is a stop at the Butterworth Center, built in 1892 by Charles Deere as a wedding gift for his daughter.

Another Davenport shore excursion, the four-hour, 15-minute Iowa Farm Visit, will take passengers to Cinnamon Ridge, a fifth-generation family farm focused on sustainability.

Private tours of Davenport's natural history and science museum, the Putnam Museum, and the Figge Art Museum will be available on a privileged basis.

Dubuque to highlight Mississippi River's history and impact

Dubuque will construct a $1.8 million docking bay at Grand Harbor Resort and Water Park to accommodate the Viking Mississippi.

Two of the four excursions being offered there are centered around the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, where preparations are underway to add more shifts, according to a report by NBC-15.

Included in the cruise package is the 3.5-hour Historic Dubuque and National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium excursion, which will include the downtown port area, historic Cable Car Square, Grand Opera House and Fenelon Place Elevator. That's in addition to the Smithsonian-affiliated museum, known for its interactive displays, five aquariums, working wetland and the William M. Black, a restored dredge boat built in 1934 for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Another excursion offers a guided immersion tour of the museum.

The Dubuque docking also will offer a seven-hour excursion centered on Frank Lloyd Wright's private residence, studio and school known as the Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. There will also be a four-hour excursion to the Stonefield Historic Site, where passengers will visit the Wisconsin State Agricultural Museum, the home of Nelson Dewey, Wisconsin's first governor, and more.

'Curating an experience': What to know about the Mississippi Viking

The Viking Mississippi's first Burlington docking is set for July 18, though that could change depending on river conditions. The first passengers to arrive will be coming from New Orleans en route to St. Paul, via Viking's America's Great River cruise.

Other Viking cruises offered are the American Heartland, whose route spans from St. Paul to St. Louis, and the Heart of Delta, which travels from New Orleans to Memphis.

Docking days in Burlington typically will be Mondays and Thursdays, Gram said.

Between dockings, passengers will be taking in the scenic views of the Mississippi's bluffs and shorelines from aboard a five-deck river cruise ship operated by Europe's top ocean and river cruise line.

The Viking Mississippi can carry up to 386 guests. It features 193 staterooms, each with a private veranda or French balcony, making it the first Mississippi River cruise ship to have wraparound private verandas.

Passengers also will be able to enjoy the two-story Explorers' Lounge, outdoor seating at the front of the ship, two restaurants serving up Norwegian specialties and barbecue, outdoor dining, a plunge pool, communal living room, a library curated by London bookshop Heywood Hill and a 360-degree promenade deck.

Upper Mississippi River voyage tickets start at $4,499, while the 15-day full-river voyage starts at $9,999. Pricing has not deterred passengers thus far. Tickets for the river cruises have sold quickly, prompting Viking to open sales for 2023 and 2024.

"Some of the first impressions are it's extravagant and it can be expensive," Gram said. "But just in talking with and meeting with Viking reps for the last handful of months, I'm telling you it's worth it. They're really curating an experience."

Included in that experience is on-board destination performances representing iconic music of the region — including New Orleans jazz and Wisconsin polka — as well as guest lecturers who will speak on each region's art, architecture, history, culture and more.

"They have expert speakers they will load onto the boat and have symposiums at night for passengers as they're going down the river and on ocean cruises," Gram said.

Gram and Dear plan to provide passengers with that same level of hospitality when they reach the Port of Burlington.

"For those passengers, it's an experience," Dear said. "We want that experience to transfer from the river right into this community."

Michaele Niehaus covers business, development, environment and agriculture for The Hawk Eye. She can be reached at mniehaus@thehawkeye.com.

This article originally appeared on The Hawk Eye: Burlington, Davenport, Dubuque prepare for Viking river cruises