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By Lori Erickson
Those of us who live within a short drive of the Mississippi often forget just how remarkable the river is. Celebrated in song and story, the Mississippi has an almost mythic status around the world.
To get a renewed sense for the river's wonders, book a two-day cruise on the Twilight riverboat, which travels between the Quad Cities and Dubuque from May through October. Modeled after the classic steamboats of the 1880s and considered by many to be one of the prettiest vessels on the Mississippi, the Twilight is trimmed with wrought iron filigree, encircled by promenades and lounges perfect for watching the river flow by, and topped by a wood-and-glass pilot house. Anyone who's read “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is likely to look at the Twilight and imagine a certain white-suited gentleman with bushy white hair smoking a cigar in one of its rocking chairs.
While Mark Twain would have felt right at home on the Twilight, so do modern travelers. Guests board the boat at 8:30 a.m. in the small town of LeClaire just north of Davenport. Even at its full capacity of 140 passengers, the boat offers plenty of space to roam. Each of its three decks features a long and narrow dining salon with floral carpets, stained glass windows and ornate architectural details that recall the height of the Victorian steamboat era.
Though the air-conditioned interior is comfortable and inviting, most passengers spend the majority of their time on the exterior decks, for the real star of the cruise is the Mississippi. Lounge chairs and wooden rockers provide front row seats for a slowly changing panorama. The majority of the 166-mile trip passes by banks dense with woods and underbrush, a landscape little changed since when explorers first ventured up the Mississippi's channel. Much of the area is part of Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, a mazelike expanse of islands and backwaters that provides rich habitat for a wide array of animals.
The Twilight's slow progress upriver provides exceptional bird-watching. Huge flocks of white pelicans frequently circle above the boat, while cormorants dive for fish and great blue herons perch on sandbanks. Occasional huge, messy nests in the trees on the shore give clues to the river's most famous inhabitants: bald eagles.
“When I first started working on the Twilight as a deck hand, it was a big deal if we saw one bald eagle a week on the river,” says Captain Kevin Stier, who with his wife, Carrie, owns the Twilight. “Today we see many eagles every day - in fact, our record is 83 in a single day. It's wonderful to see how the health of the river has improved over the years.”
While the river is alluring, other diversions await passengers inside. Each afternoon brings live music, with musicians playing traditional river tunes as well as more modern standards. Passengers also can play cards, read, and visit with their fellow travelers, who may range from vacationing Amish couples (the Amish are frequent passengers because of a shuttle that provides transportation from their homes in Indiana) to Europeans who have traveled thousands of miles to experience firsthand the romance of the Mississippi River.
As on most cruises, the Twilight makes certain its passengers don't lack for calories. Hearty lunches and dinners are prepared on board and eaten at small dining tables in the salons, while snacks of fruit and vegetables and freshly baked brownies and cookies fend off hunger in between meals. Wine, beer, and a variety of non-alcoholic drinks are available for purchase at a bar on the third deck.
About 6 p.m. the boat docks in the harbor at Dubuque, where passengers disembark for an overnight stay at the Grand Harbor Resort. Because the Twilight doesn't sail until late the next morning, people have the chance to explore some of the charms of the city. Many passengers use their free passes to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium to learn more about the landscape they've been seeing from the decks of the Twilight. Guests can also tour the Old Jail Museum, try their luck at the Diamond Jo Casino, marvel at the Tiffany stained glass windows in St. Luke's United Methodist Church, and visit the shops, boutiques and galleries of downtown Dubuque.
As a sprightly tune plays on the Twilight's calliope, passengers bid goodbye to Dubuque shortly before noon. Once on the river again, the boat travels more quickly now that it's traveling downstream. Following a substantial lunch, the schedule for the second afternoon matches the relaxing pace of the first day, with live music, socializing and (for more than a few) a nap induced by the rhythmic, soothing sounds of the water breaking against the side of the boat.
Throughout the cruise, Stier periodically shares stories and information about the Mississippi's history and ecology. Passengers also can stop by the pilot house to visit in person with Stier, who knows the river's bends and turns so well that he's able to chat while skillfully handling the massive pilot's wheel.
“I love being up in the pilot house because the views change with each shift of the weather and sunlight,” Stier says. “I also enjoy visiting with our passengers, who often come from a long distance to see the Mississippi. Many of them are surprised by how wild the river still seems. We don't think of the Midwest as having wilderness, but much of the land we pass by is inaccessible on foot.”
The Twilight returns to its home dock in LeClaire around 6 p.m. Passengers depart a few minutes later, shaking hands with members of the crew as they exit the boat. Many stop to take a last long look at the Mississippi before they return to their regular lives, savoring the sight of its broad expanse growing even more beautiful in the slanting light of evening. With luck they'll return someday to cruise again on the Twilight.
For more information, call 1-(800) 331-1467 or see RiverboatTwilight.com.