River museum, parks appeal in Dubuque

Dreary, steep and old. That was my first impression of Dubuque, back in the 1970s, after visiting a friend who landed there because of her first job out of college.

The Mississippi River’s presence was largely industrial. Character and charm were lacking. My friend was glad for our visit; no one else had made the attempt, months after her arrival.

Times change. Now it’s easy to recommend this northeastern Iowa city as a good place to spend a weekend. With or without kids. In summer or winter. Here are a few of the reasons why:

National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium – For good reason, a lot of fuss has been made about this new museum, which is part of a $188 million riverfront redevelopment project. The facility takes a comprehensive, fun and personal look at the river’s history, inhabitants and impact.

It is heavy on the memorabilia of Samuel Clemens, the author better known as Mark Twain. River artwork includes cityscapes from the mid 1800s, pastels from the 1980s. Bios of the 53 people in the National Rivers Hall of Fame – Meriwether Lewis to Louis Armstrong – are as diverse as the river’s residents. River creatures, barking tree frogs to needle-nosed paddlefish, can be viewed in tanks and – in some cases – touched.

A simulator helps visitors feel what it’s like to steer a barge. A huge map of the United States shows major rivers, but no state boundaries. Engaging films drive home the Mississippi’s power to give, take and be sapped of life.

Admission is $8.75, with discounts for senior citizens and children. For more, go to www.rivermuseum.org or call (800) 226-3369.

Eagle Point Park – Tri-state views of Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin are a source of pride here. Some of the park’s 164 acres overlook the river, and observation points are breathtaking, particularly near Lock and Dam No. 11.

The park was established after an influential visitor’s remark in 1907. “I have never seen a place where the Almighty has done more, and mankind less, than Dubuque,” the story goes. People were offended, but they also turned 100 acres into this park the next year.

In the 1930s, a $200,000 Works Progress Administration grant added a Frank Lloyd Wright touch. His style of Prairie architecture is evident in park pavilions and shelters. There also is a rock garden, pond with fish, wading pool. Iowa limestone has been the construction material of choice.

It costs a mere $1 per car to enter the park. For more, call (563) 589-4263 or go to www.cityofdubuque.org.

Dubuque Museum of Art – This building stands out downtown, not because it is flashy but because it looks whiter and newer than much of the rest of the neighborhood. The museum’s permanent collection includes early works by “American Gothic” painter Grant Wood (who was an Iowan) and other regionalist artists, including John Steuart Curry.

Special exhibits include “Great River Fiber Artists,” which opens Nov. 22. Closing later this month are a Joey Wallis photojournalism exhibit and ceramics by Delores Fortuna.

Admission is free on Thursday and $3 on other days; it is closed on Monday. For more, call (563) 557-1851 or go to www.dbqart.com.

Fenelon Place Elevator – This is a swell and unique piece of the past, the world’s shortest and steepest scenic railway. It has been elevating passengers 189 feet, from Fourth Street to Fenelon Place, since 1882. The ride season is April 1 to Nov. 30.

It costs a whopping $1.75 per adult (50 cents for kids) to ride roundtrip in an odd little car that looks rickety but moves efficiently. At one end of the route is a glorious tri-state view.

At the bottom is Cable Car Square, a fine assortment of boutiques. In the Buff (handmade soaps), Sweet Memories and Shamrock Imports are among them, as are a couple of upscale clothing consignment shops, antiques stores and eateries.

If traveling without kids, a well-kept lodging choice is the Redstone Inn & Suites, a 14-room Victorian hotel that a prosperous businessman gave his daughter as a wedding present in 1894. It is attractively decorated, with wireless Internet access and room rates that include a made-to-order breakfast.

Co-proprietor Kelly Lazore is a Dubuque native, one of 12 kids in her family. She and husband Jerry will gladly share their insider knowledge. For more, go to wwwtheredstoneinn.com or call (563) 582-1894.

For parents with children who have excess energy, the Grand Harbor Resort might be a better fit. Its 25,000-square-foot indoor waterpark has a Huck Finn theme and is not yet one year old.

Other parts of Dubuque’s new riverfront are a riverwalk, outdoor amphitheater and conference/events center (to open in November). For more, go to www.americasriver.com or call (800) 798-8844.

With the exception of Eagle Point Park, all of the places mentioned are less than a 10-minute walk from each other. Dining options include the roomy Bricktown Brewery, with at least five handcrafted brews on tap. Nearby landmarks include two historic and operating theaters: the 1889 Grand Opera House and the 1910 Five Flags Theater.

For more, go to www.traveldubuque.com or call (800) 798-8844.

Roughly a half-hour west of Dubuque is Dyersville, the town that gained fame with the 1989 release of “Field of Dreams,” the magical Kevin Costner movie about baseball, cornstalks and dreams-come-true. Fans still flock to the movie site – even, I discovered, on weekday fall mornings.
Why drive out of your way to see a baseball diamond in the middle of nowhere? Here are a few clues, all written in a guest book within a week of my visit:
“The perfect end to a perfect baseball trip with my brother,” writes a man from South Carolina. “Best trip with my Dad ever. His 60th birthday present,” notes a resident of Calgary, Alberta. “Loved the movie. Thanks for keeping the dream alive,” states a Baltimore woman.
The field is open daily, April through November, and admission is free. For more, go to www.fodmoviesite.com or call (888) 875-8404. To complicate life, another party is cashing in on the movie’s popularity, with a corn maze that is next to the official movie site. To learn more, go to www.leftandcenterfod.com or call (800) 875-8404.
“Field of Dreams” souvenirs are sold at both farms. Among the gimmicks: T-shirts and coffee mugs with cornstalks on them; apply heat, and baseball players magically appear.