Luxury cruise ship departs St. Paul, awakening river dreams in passengers and locals alike

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Bob Wilson stepped off a bus Saturday at St. Paul’s Lambert’s Landing, a native who had returned to his hometown for the maiden voyage of the Viking Mississippi, a 450-foot cruise ship and afloat symbol of that city’s hopes for a riverside tourism revival .

The Mississippi River glittered in the sun, minnows swam below and gulls screeched overhead. Wilson and dozens of others, both fellow passengers and bystanders, leaned on a railing as they looked up at the ship preparing to ferry up to 386 people downriver to St. Louis.

“We had delayed vacation trips like this for a year and a half to two years because of the pandemic,” said Wilson, 68, who lives in San Diego and said he hasn’t returned to the city where he grew up for more than a decade. “But it was a great experience coming back to this area.”

The launch of the Viking Mississippi represents years of city planning and preparation. For passengers and many locals who stopped by and took in the scene, it represents an excitement and opportunity for a historic river town trying to return to its roots.

The voyage is part of an agreement between St. Paul and Viking, a Swiss-based luxury cruise line. Putting it together took years, said Terry Mattson, president and CEO of the city’s Bureau of Conventions and Visitors, and construction delays had delayed the trip. But the ship docked safely in St. Paul around 4:30 a.m. on Saturday.

The Viking Mississippi features a pool, bar and 193 cabins. Workers rolled aboard boxes of fresh fruit, vegetables and other groceries on Saturday morning. The crew members smiled as they said “Good morning” and cheered as the first passengers came on board.

For 39-year-old Randy Graff, Safety Officer for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, the ship symbolized his work and planning.

“I was definitely worried last night,” Graff said. “I’ve seen drawings and things like that, but to finally be here in person and see it — it’s kind of surreal.”

“It’s a big day for us in terms of what this does to activate the river and what it brings to St. Paul in terms of volume of people and tourism,” said Parks and Recreation Director Andy Rodriguez. “This [river] is such a great asset.”

Phil Abromowitz, 75, and Linda Solomon, 73, traveled from Tucson, Arizona, for the cruise, their first time in Minnesota. They visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Van Gogh exhibit days before the ship went ashore and said they were looking forward to the rest of their voyage.

“None of us have been on the Mississippi. None of us have been to this part of the country before,” Abromowitz said. “We know there’s a lot of history here.”

Among the passers-by on Saturday were some who were part of this story. Mary Rogers, 88, recalled feeling similar excitement watching as a child in the 1930s the Capitol steamer docks at the same point as Vikings Mississippi. She and her daughter, Susan Rogers, said they hope St. Paul will continue to open the river to people and tourism.

“It’s nice to see the Mississippi being used in a pleasant way,” said Susan Rogers. “I used to fish a lot here with my father. To see such a big boat out here is impressive.”

It marks a turning point for Patricia Hampl, a 76-year-old writer and lifelong resident of St. Paul. Hampl said the city turned its back on the river years ago.

“I think that’s being flipped now or has been flipped in the last 20, even 30 years,” Hampl said. “This isn’t the beginning, it’s proof that the city has made a decision to go down the river.”

Dennis Van Norman, 78, lives a mile from Lambert’s Landing and has spent countless hours on the Mississippi. He said he’s watched the city clean up significant stretches of the river in recent years and hopes to one day capitalize on those efforts by boarding a cruise ship or paddle boat.

“It’s quite a plush experience, so yeah, I’d love to do that one day,” said Van Norman.

Maybe he has to wait. Tickets for the ship America’s heartland Tour to St. Louis are sold out through 2023. They start at $4,499. Tickets for the ship’s 12-day voyage to New Orleans Start at $12,999. These will be sold out after 2024.

The Viking Mississippi departed downtown St. Paul around 8 p.m. Saturday night. She is scheduled to return to St. Louis next Saturday for another trip.

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