DUBUQUE, Iowa — Mark Twain knew what he was talking about in a Tribune interview 127 years ago, discussing the virtues of the upper Mississippi River. The big river around Hannibal, Mo., where he grew up, is less interesting, less scenic, he said, but the upper stretches bring something new around each bend.
One way to experience the upper Mississippi is a visit to Dubuque, a gem of a river town built into the river bluffs.
Beyond the river's exquisite scenery in these parts, the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium provides a taste of river life through its exhibits, such as the permanently moored William M. Black side-wheeler steamboat. Or you can get into the action by steering barges in a modern-day towboat pilot-house simulator.
As for living exhibits, the latest featured river critters at the museum are turtles.
"Turtles: Secrets of the Shell" kicked off the museum and aquarium's 10th anniversary in September, as the museum reached the 2 million-visitor mark, and will be on display through 2014 "by popular demand," said John Sutter, the museum's marketing director. The traveling portion of the exhibit will hit the road to Iowa nature centers after its Dubuque showing.
About 220 turtles representing 100 species are housed in 40 enclosures in the Norman Gallery in the Woodward River Discovery Center. Museum officials believe it to be the most diverse and largest public collection in the world.
Regular aquarium features in the museum's National River Center include four salt-water aquariums, with one 40,000-gallon tank containing species found at the mouth of the Mississippi. Visitors also experience a canal and a river cave. A children's "museum within a museum" enlightens the younger set on river life, letting them crawl through a beaver lodge. A theater presents 3D high-definition films, plus special effects, including wind, mist, seat movement and smells.
In addition, this is the first full season that a completed River Plaza connects the museum's two-building campus. The River Plaza features a public boat marina, aviaries hosting two American bald eagles and one red-tailed hawk, a stream with fish-feeding stations, a demonstration pavilion, a giant walk-through catfish model and a Great River Road interpretive center locating all of the interpretive center locations on a 22-foot map of the Mississippi River.
My wife and I thought the experience here was well worth our $15-per-person admission.
Dubuque, with a population of 59,000, arguably is the most picturesque of upper Mississippi River towns, with its towering bluffs, historic homes and engaging points of view. Yet the city is small enough to navigate quickly, though you'll be taking a lot of hills and turns.
In that 1886 Tribune interview, Twain said it was strange how little had been written about the upper Mississippi, considering that the less interesting portion south of St. Louis got so much press.
"Along the upper Mississippi every hour brings something new," Twain said. "There are crowds of odd islands, bluffs, prairies, hills, woods and villages — everything one could desire to amuse the children. Few people ever think of going there, however ... a whole list of 'discriminating English people' (writing about the United States before 1842) had hardly an idea that such a stretch of river scenery existed."
One added bonus that came after Twain's time is the mind-boggling river traffic, with barge "trains" so long it's a wonder the tugs can maintain control of them. That alone is worth a visit to the riverside. But Dubuque offers more.
Dinner options are many. We chose a homey, half-century-old Italian restaurant, Marco's. It's one of those friendly neighborhood places, neon sign out front, where everybody's comfortable, well-watered and well-fed.
For a bluff-top supper club experience, hit Timmerman's Supper Club on the Illinois side in East Dubuque. The mantra there: "Where food and beverage are as spectacular as the view." It also offers a 74-room hotel and resort, Timmerman's Hotel & Resort.
You can get a bird's eye view of downtown on Dubuque's incline cable car, which runs 189 feet up and down the slope of the city. Called the Fenelon Place Elevator, it operates April through November.
For some solid exercise and a peek at inland countryside, bicyclists, walkers and joggers may want to hit the 26-mile packed-dirt, gravel and crushed-limestone Heritage Trail that stretches from Dubuque to Dyersville, Iowa, home of the movie "Field of Dreams." Or shorten that ride, as we did, and haul bikes to the small Iowa towns of Sageville or Durango to ride the trail along the Little Maquoketa River to Graf and back.
And if the river culture gives you that old-time gambling feel, Dubuque does have two casinos: the Diamond Jo Casino (563-690-4800, diamondjodubuque.com) and the Mystique Casino (800-373-3647, mystiquedbq.com/casino).
By the time you're done visiting the area, you'll see that Twain was on to something.
If you go
The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, 350 E. Third St., Dubuque, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily., admission $15 adults, $13 ages 65 and older, $10 3-17. 800-226-3369, mississippirivermuseum.com.
On the National Register of Historic Places is the Fenelon Place Elevator, an incline cable car that runs 189 feet up and down a hill between Fenelon Place and West Fourth Street. Hours are 8 a.m.-10 p.m. April through November, but call and verify. 563-582-6496, dbq.com/fenplco
More than a dozen hotels and motels are within half-dozen miles of downtown Dubuque and the river museum.
The Grand Harbor Resort, in the Port of Dubuque near the river museum, has a 25,000-square-feet indoor water park and a Tony Roma's restaurant. 866-690-4006, grandharborresort.com
The Hotel Julien, in downtown Dubuque, was built in 1839 and recently was restored and renovated to the tune of $30 million. Guests have included Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Al Capone. The hotel has a spa and a fine-dining restaurant. 800-798-7098, hoteljuliendubuque.com
The area has a wide selection of bed-and-breakfasts, especially if you include Galena, Ill., just 16 miles away. One example is Clarke Manor, a hilltop 1850s Italianate mansion in Dubuque that looks over the Mississippi and downtown Dubuque. 563-588-1182, clarkemanor.com
For more info on Dubuque lodging, search traveldubuque.com.
Marco's Italian & American Foods, 2022 Central Ave., Dubuque, 563-588-0007, marcospizzadbq.com.
Timmerman's Supper Club, 7777 Timmerman Drive, East Dubuque, 815-747-3316, timmermanssupperclub.com.