You can practically hear a banjo playing: The Twilight evokes a quieter, less hectic age.
DESTINATION LeClaire, Iowa
DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO 170 miles; 3 hours by car
There are sharks in the Mississippi River. So says Captain Kevin Stier, a river pilot of 28 years. Nobody’s going to film Jaws V: Revenge of the Big Muddy on location in Iowa. But having navigated the churning chocolate-colored waters since he was a teenager, Stier, 47, knows what lurks deep in the shadows of the great river. His description of the hidden predators—small bull sharks that swim up from the Gulf of Mexico—is part of an ongoing narrative that keeps things interesting on the Twilight.
Stier logs 12,000 miles a year piloting the Twilight, an engine-driven, 149-passenger replica of a steamboat. From Memorial Day through mid-October, the Twilight picks up passengers every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday in Buffalo Bill’s hometown of LeClaire, Iowa, and ferries them ten hours upriver to Dubuque. Everyone stays overnight at the Port of Dubuque’s Grand Harbor Resort before meandering back to LeClaire, via the Twilight, the following morning. The land-based portion of the trip offers a tourist’s-eye view of Dubuque: Museums, wineries, and casinos are within walking distance of the resort.
But the heart of the trip is the river, with vast stretches seemingly untouched by the relentless pace of development. There’s only one town in the 40-mile stretch from Savanna to Dubuque: Blink and you’ll miss Bellevue. The rest is federally protected wilderness, a no man’s land of more than 600 uninhabited islands and secluded campsites accessible only by small boat. Look up and you’ll see bald eagles wheeling overhead.
But as Stier’s laid-back commentary makes clear, the Mississippi has changed since Mark Twain’s time. Huck Finn didn’t have to deal with the unexploded bombs that pock the abandoned army depot near Palisades State Park. Every year since President Reagan closed the depot in the 1980s, Stier notes, bomb disposal teams detonate a few more of the weapons that were left behind. The government then opens up a bit more of the area for camping.
Nor did Huck have to contend with barges almost the length of an aircraft carrier. The river’s standard 16-barge loads carry the cargo of 36 miles’ worth of train cars. Watching these leviathans maneuver the river’s narrow drawbridges is akin to watching a disaster movie at its tipping point. Beyond the barges are the river towns that boomed during the lead-mining and logging heyday of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Upriver and down, Stier delivers their idiosyncratic histories. The storytelling breaks for meals, when passengers gather to dine in ornate parlors with bordello-red carpeting, baroquely scrolled ceilings, and lighting sconces that look like gas lamps.
On deck 3, the bartender, Bob Hexamer, serves up milk shakes and margaritas with equal aplomb, while on deck 2, balladeers and Mark Twain impersonators provide folksy entertainment. Twain himself would surely have loved the view from any deck. And were he on the river today, gazing at the long, wild stretch between Bellevue and Dubuque, he might even recognize it.
STAY: The two-day Twilight cruise—$329 per person based on double occupancy (800-331-1467; riverboattwilight.com)—includes a night at the Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark (350 Bell St., Dubuque; 563-690-4000, grandharborresort.com). >> Want to extend your stay? The Holiday Inn Express (1201 Canal Shore Dr., LeClaire; 563-289-9978), built on the bank of the Mississippi, offers spectacular views (rates start around $139 per night).
EAT: At The Faithful Pilot (117 N. Cody Rd., LeClaire; 563-289-4156, faithfulpilot.com), Robert Cook serves surf (citrus-seared scallops, $26) and turf (prime sirloin with bacon-buttered Broccolini, $28). >> The lobster lasagna ($20) at L. May Eatery (1072 Main St., Dubuque; 563-556-0505, lmayeatery.com) will make you happy.
PLAY: The Dubuque Dragon Boat Festival, in which paddlers sprint down the Mississippi in Taiwanese dragon boats, gives all the spectacle of Bangkok’s Royal Barges Museum minus the hassle of a 20-hour plane ride. September 10th through 12th; for more info, dubuquedragonboat.org. >> The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium (350 E. Third St., Port of Dubuque; 563-557-9545, mississippirivermuseum.com) opened a multimillion-dollar wing in June.
Photograph: Ken Smith/Courtesy of Dubuque Area Convention & Visitors Bureau