Rollin’ on the river
The Viking Mississippi takes you on a Norwegian-American adventure
CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
The Norwegian American
Long before I ever dreamed of being the travel editor for The Norwegian American, I worked with Kazuko Masui, a Japanese fashion and food writer and book author, who lived in Paris and worked for a venerable Japanese women’s magazine. I gave her ideas, and then I worked on the logistics for a trip or photo shoot.
Traveling with her and her photographer to Lancaster County, Penn., we photographed Amish quilts and Pennsylvania German gastronomy. In New York City, we explored the world of American sandwiches, including “the submarine, also known as sub, hero, and hoagie,” an astounding revelation for any Japanese home cook. My last trip with Kazuko in 1991 was a voyage on the historic Delta Queen steamboat, the last of the nation’s authentic steamboats. After that, we rented a car and traveled to Acadiana or Cajun country around French-speaking Lafayette, La., where we visited Avery Island, home of the famous Tabasco pepper sauce. We ate crawfish and gumbo and paid a man to take us into the swamp at dawn when photography was outstanding, as were the different swamp environments and diversity of wildlife.
The wooden Delta Queen was an antique artifact, a 90-year-old sternwheeler, which we boarded in Memphis, Tenn., ending our journey in New Orleans. Now out of service since 2008, it was a memorable experience for me with the Mark Twain stories, which, as a native New Englander, I had never heard. The sound of the paddle wheel as it hit the river’s waters and the music of the calliope as we departed all contributed to my memory of the journey.
A Norwegian-American experience
Now I am very excited, because the Viking Mississippi, more of a small ocean vessel than a traditional riverboat, is Viking River Cruises’ first entry into the U.S. river-cruise market. It will be a new type of sailing experience, set to launch in August 2022. With some of the largest staterooms in the industry, seven cabin categories, ranging from 268 to 1,024 square feet, all with private balconies, will be offered.
While larger than Viking River Cruises’ European river ships, the Viking Mississippi vessel feature “clean Scandinavian design.” The ship’s designers chose to display artwork in the staterooms of drawings done by Decorah, Iowa, area children and oil-on-canvas works by Lois Tønnessen Andersen, a Norwegian-American artist featured in our Sept. 18, 2020, issue.
Andersen’s paintings include one that is 70 cm. x 140 cm., and another is a diptych that includes two paintings, each 70 cm x 70 cm. These paintings, representing the theme of the exploration of the Norwegian diaspora, will face each other in an embarkation area, set into the woodwork. Andersen’s recent exhibition “Finding Home—Å finne hjem” at the Sjømannskirken (Norwegian Seamen’s Church) in New York City was based on the Norwegian region of her father’s birthplace.
The artist writes: “My story is like those of countless other Norwegian Americans who have been able to know the places left behind by their forebears. It is a profoundly rich experience to be on the farms, in the homes and churches, and gain a deep sense of the history of the place left so long ago. I am most grateful for the gift I have been given and have been concentrating on images of my own found home, in Farsund, Norway, for many years.”
Adventure closer to home
Viking had planned to unveil the Viking Mississippi in New Orleans in April 2021, but like most travel, the public festivity was canceled because of COVID-19.
Torstein Hagen, the Norwegian founder and CEO of Viking River Cruises, issued a video statement instead: “At a time when many of us are at home, looking for inspiration to travel in the future, I am pleased to introduce a new, modern way to explore this great river,” he said. “Our guests are curious travelers, and they continue to tell us that the Mississippi is the river they most want to sail with us. The Mississippi River is closer to home for many of our guests, and no other waterway has played such an important role in America’s history, commerce, and culture.”
Soon, you will be able to cruise from St. Paul, Minn., to New Orleans on Viking’s 15-day America’s Great River itinerary aboard the 193-stateroom Viking Mississippi, a ship designed just for this river.
On this journey on the Upper Mississippi, you will hear stories of pioneers and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, walk in the footsteps of Mark Twain, and learn about the Norwegian migration. You will be able to enjoy the view as your ship navigates through the river’s intricate lock system. And you can experience the region’s many cultural treasures—from ragtime, polka, and Norwegian folk music to Wisconsin cheese, craft beer, and hearty stews.
The journey starts in St. Paul, Minnesota’s capital, where guests can explore the Twin Cities before heading to Red Wing, Minn., known for its American-made Red Wing Shoes, which produced footwear for soldiers in both world wars. It is also the home of the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame and Museum in the historic St. James Hotel.
The city was named after a celebrated Sioux chief, whose red-dyed swan wing indicated his rank. The first settlers arrived in the mid-1800s, many from New England. They grew more wheat than any county in the nation. German, Irish, and Scandinavian immigrants followed.
After your city tour, you can visit the National Eagle Center in nearby Wabasha, Minn., where you learn about eagle biology and natural history from one of the center’s resident eagle ambassadors.
On to Wisconsin
Then it’s on to La Crosse, Wis., where you can explore numerous sites on the National Register of Historic Places, with a panoramic tour of the city, its important architectural landmarks and the array of engaging statues lining the riverfront that make La Crosse feel like a vast open-air museum.
If you choose the River Town Discovery Tour, you see the best of La Crosse that blends scenic views with historic landmarks. Start at Grandad Bluff Park, which offers commanding views of La Crosse, the Mississippi, and the three states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.
As you make your way to downtown La Crosse, view the St. Rose Convent and learn the story of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Next, visit the Hixon House, the former home of the 19th-century lumber baron Gideon C. Hixon. The modest exterior hides a rich interior filled with furnishings and objects Hixon acquired during his international travels.
Back to your roots at Vesterheim
You may also consider an optional journey to Decorah, Iowa. Nestled among beautiful rolling hills, Decorah is a blend of small-town charm and urban convenience. At its heart is Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum and Folk Art School, the largest museum in the United States dedicated to a single immigrant group.
Discover Norwegian immigrant life at Vesterheim, with its thousands of items of material culture and 12 historic buildings, a folk-art school, and library. Gain privileged access to the museum’s education center, where you can admire items not available to the public, including magnificent Norwegian folk art and hand-carved furniture.
Tour the Norwegian Lutheran Bethania Church, relocated from North Dakota, and explore Heritage Park with its original mill, blacksmith shop, and Norris Miller Stovewood House from the mid-19th century. Originally located on the west side of Decorah, this house is a rare example of stovewood construction, using short lengths of wood and mortar. The system began in the mid-1800s, probably in Canada. Exemplifying fashionable town living, this is the only example known to exist in Iowa.
Then you may choose to sign up for one of two classes. Discover the history of a unique Norwegian decorative carving technique called kroting. In this technique, wood is removed from a painted background using a v-tool, leaving the natural wood color underneath to bring out a design. These were geometric patterns painted on a wall with a liquid chalk the consistency of yogurt. The chalk paint was made by grinding elements from the earth into a fine powder and mixing it with kefir. These designs can be attributed to mere decoration or to add protection to the people living in the dark home. Designs were then painted on the walls with fingers or a handmade brush. There are only a few examples of kroting remaining in the western part of Norway. In class, you will decorate a wooden plate with a symbolic Viking design.
There is also a class to fashion a silver sølje (meaning shiny or sunny) earring with golden spoons or disks. Antique pieces date back centuries. Norwegian folklore says the spoons would ward off evil or illness during times of transition in one’s life. The metal used is silver, which is said to ward off trolls. Traditionally, sølje pieces were given for a special occasion, with smaller pieces given at birth or a baby’s christening. They are traditionally worn with the bunad or national dress. Larger pieces, such as a heart with a crown symbolizing a Norwegian wedding crown, are a wedding tradition.
Paul Gilbert, director of communications at Vesterheim, sums it up: “We are so excited to welcome those traveling on Viking River Cruises to Decorah and Vesterheim. We have been working with Viking for years and are glad to see everything coming to fruition this summer. Decorah is one of the important places in Norwegian-American immigration history and Vesterheim is proud to share that heritage through our exhibits and folk-art classes.”
More to explore
Decorah is also home to the “second-best brewery in the world,” Toppling Goliath. Sign up for a brewery tour and have a craft-brewed pint with lunch. Other recreational options abound. Take a tour of the Seed Savers Exchange, where heirloom display gardens, historic orchards, and heritage livestock breeds connect visitors to America’s garden heritage. You can also spend time on your own trout fishing or cycling on the city’s biking trails. Visit Luther College, founded in 1861 by Norwegian immigrants. Situated in the heart of Decorah is Hotel Winneshiek, opened in 1905, a blend of 21st-century comfort and 19th-century charm—and the food is delicious.
The trip continues to Dubuque, Iowa, Quad Cities (Davenport and Bettendorf in southeastern Iowa, and Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline in northwestern Illinois), and Burlington, Iowa, and Hannibal, Mo., the childhood home of author Mark Twain, which inspired so much of his work. Then, the next stop is St. Louis, with attractions like the Gateway Arch National Park and the Anheuser-Busch brewery.
In the latter part of the trip, guests can enjoy scenic cruising along the Lower Mississippi and stops in Memphis, Tenn., Vicksburg and Natchez, Miss., and Baton Rouge, La., before finally arriving in New Orleans.
The Viking Mississippi is a wonderful way to see a slice of America, with special experiences along the way. It’s also a matchless family travel opportunity that will yield memories to last a lifetime.
Though Mark Twain wrote some of his best work from the 1870s to the 1890s, his words ring true today: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” he wrote. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Amen.
To learn more about Viking River Cruises, visit vikingrivercruises.com.
See also “Finding home, over and over: Lois Tønnessen Andersen explores her heritage through painting” by Victoria Hofmo.