Bob Wilson stepped off a bus at St. Paul's Lambert's Landing on Saturday, a native back in his hometown for the maiden voyage of the Viking Mississippi, a 450-foot-long cruise ship and floating symbol of this city's hopes for a riverfront tourism revival.
Sunshine glittered off the Mississippi River as minnows swam below and seagulls squawked overhead. Wilson and dozens of others, fellow passengers and bystanders both, leaned against a handrail as they squinted up at the ship that prepared to carry up to 386 people downriver to St. Louis.
"We had vacation trips like this delayed, deferred, 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 city where he grew up for more than a decade. "But this has been a great experience to come back to this area."
The launch of the Viking Mississippi represents years of city planning and preparation. For passengers, and many locals who passed by and took in the scene, it represents excitement and opportunity for a historic river city trying to get back to its roots.
The voyage is part of a deal between St. Paul and Viking, a luxury cruise line based in Switzerland. It took years to put together, said Terry Mattson, president and CEO of the city's convention and visitors bureau, and construction delays had postponed the voyage. But the ship docked safely in St. Paul around 4:30 a.m. Saturday.
The Viking Mississippi boasts a 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, "Good morning," cheering as the first passengers walked on board.
For 39-year-old Randy Graff, safety and security supervisor for the city's Parks and Recreation department, the ship symbolized his work and planning.
"I was definitely anxious last night," Graff said. "I've seen drawings and those types of things, but to finally be here in person and to see it — it's kind of surreal."
"It's a big day for us in terms for what this does to activate the river, and what it brings to St. Paul in terms of the volume of people and tourism," said Parks and Recreation Director Andy Rodriguez. "This [river] is such a huge asset."
Phil Abromowitz, 75, and Linda Solomon , 73, traveled from Tucson, Ariz., for the cruise, their first time in Minnesota. They visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Van Gogh exhibit days before the ship made land, and said they're excited for the rest of their trip.
"Neither of us have been on the Mississippi. Neither of us have been in this part of the country before," Abromowitz said. "We know there's a lot of history here."
Among the passersby Saturday were some who were part of that history. Mary Rogers, 88, recalled feeling similarly excited as a child in the 1930s, when she watched the Capitol steamer dock in the same spot as the Viking Mississippi. She and her daughter, Susan Rogers, said they hope St. Paul continues to open the river for people and tourism.
"It's nice to see the Mississippi being used in a pleasant way," Susan Rogers said. "I've fished out here with my dad a lot. To see a big boat out here like that, that's 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 turned around now, or has been turned around for the last 20, even 30 years," Hampl said. "This is not the beginning, but the evidence that the city has decided to turn towards the river."
Dennis Van Norman, 78, lives a mile from Lambert's Landing and has spent countless hours on the Mississippi. He said he watched the city clean significant sections of the river in recent years and hopes to someday take advantage of that effort by boarding a cruise ship or paddle boat.
"This is a pretty posh experience so yeah, I would like to do that someday," Van Norman said.
He might have to wait. Tickets for the ship's America's Heartland tour to St. Louis are sold out until 2023. They start at $4,499. Tickets for the ship's 12-day voyage to New Orleans start at $12,999. Those are sold out past 2024.
The Viking Mississippi pulled out of downtown St. Paul on Saturday evening around 8 p.m. It's due to return for another trip to St. Louis on Sept. 17.