Luxury cruise ship leaves St. Paul and sparks river dreams for passengers and locals

Bob Wilson got off a bus at St. Paul’s Lambert’s Landing on Saturday, a native returning to his hometown for the maiden voyage of the Viking Mississippi, a 450-foot-long cruise ship and floating symbol of that city’s hopes for a renaissance of waterfront tourism.

The sun glistened on the Mississippi River as minnows swam below and seagulls screeched overhead. Wilson and dozens of other passengers and passers-by leaned against a handrail as they squinted at the ship preparing to carry up to 386 people downstream from St. Louis.

“We’ve had vacation trips like this delayed, postponed, by a year and a half to two years because of the pandemic,” said Wilson, 68, who lives in San Diego and said he hadn’t returned to the town where he grew up in over a decade. “But it’s been a great experience to come back to this area.”

The launch of the Viking Mississippi represents years of planning and preparation for the city. For passengers and many locals who passed by and admired the scene, it represents excitement and opportunity for a historic river town trying to get back to its roots.

The trip is part of an agreement between St. Paul and Viking, a Swiss-based luxury cruise line. It took years to set up, said Terry Mattson, president and CEO of the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, and construction delays had postponed the trip. But the ship docked safely at St. Paul around 4:30 a.m. Saturday.

The Viking Mississippi has a swimming pool, a bar and 193 cabins. On Saturday morning, workers rolled aboard crates of fresh fruit, vegetables and other food. Crew members smiled as they said “Hello”, clapping as the first passengers boarded.

For Randy Graff, 39, a safety and security supervisor with the city’s parks and recreation department, the ship symbolized his work and his planning.

“I was definitely anxious last night,” Graff said. “I’ve seen drawings and that sort of thing, 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 it does to activate the river and what it brings to St. Paul in terms of the volume of people and tourism,” said Andy Rodriguez, director of parks and attractions. Hobbies. “This [river] is such an 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 landed, and said they were excited for the rest of their trip.

“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, there were some who were part of this story. Mary Rogers, 88, remembers feeling the same excitement as a child in the 1930s when she watched the Capitol steamer dock at the same location as the Viking 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 nice way,” said Susan Rogers. “I fished a lot here with my father. Seeing a big boat like that is impressive.”

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

“I think that’s being reversed now, or has been reversed in the last 20, maybe 30 years,” Hampl said. “This is not the start, but proof that the city has decided to turn to 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 seen the city clean up significant sections of the river in recent years and hopes to one day take advantage of that effort by boarding a cruise ship or paddle boat.

“It’s a pretty fancy experience, so yeah, I would love to do that one day,” Van Norman said.

He may have to wait. Tickets for the ship’s America’s Heartland tour in 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 are sold out after 2024.

The Viking Mississippi pulled out of downtown St. Paul Saturday night around 8 p.m. He is due back for another trip to St. Louis next Saturday.