With its steam-calliope belting out a catchy tune, the Victorian-style Twilight Riverboat eased into the muddy current of the Mississippi River. At 156 feet, the colorful Twilight is reminiscent of the stately, floating palaces of a bygone era and easily could handle 140 passengers. On this Saturday, the first day of the long Memorial Day weekend, we would have expected the railings to be crowded. As it was, we were two of 16 passengers. Practicing social distancing was not an issue.
A need to get out of the house found us in LeClaire, Iowa, whose partial lifting of coronavirus-related restrictions coincided with the acknowledged first day of summer.
LeClaire, a little community three hours west on I-80 and a stone’s throw north of Bettendorf, clings to the bank of the river. Its scenic downtown overlooking the wide river drips with charm from its 19th century facades housing little boutiques and specialty shops.
We did not know exactly what to expect for our overnight visit. Would there be an onrush of crazed, wild-eyed tourists escaping a pandemic-induced hibernation? Or would normally crowded sidewalks be empty of visitors still concerned about being too close to each other for comfort? In the end, we discovered it was a little of both.
Our first clue was the empty parking lot of our chosen hotel. We were greeted by an amiable, unmasked, desk clerk who stated in response to my inquiry that business had not “been too bad” but nothing like they were used to based on their nearness to the interstate. My wife noted the lack of hand-sanitizer at the counter.
After registering, we proceeded to our room. Although the clerk had assured us of the cleaning and sanitizing efforts of the staff, we took the time to wipe down and disinfect all of the hard surfaces. Different times call for different measures.
After all reasonable precautions, we headed out to find lunch. It didn’t take long to realize not all had taken the call to fully reopen. The first two establishments we came to were still operating under the imposed restrictions with their dining rooms still closed but providing carry-out.
We made our way down Cody Road toward the nine-block historic downtown. There, we discovered, as several others had, the Blue Iguana, a Mexican-styled cantina, was open for business albeit with reduced capacity. With every other table out of service to comply with social distancing, the outdoor dining in front was completely filled by a group of motorcyclists. Based on the license plates, they were fellow escapees from Illinois.
The masked host stated she had a table out back that overlooked the river. We enthusiastically nodded affirmation. Settled into our chairs with complimentary chips and salsa and two cold cervezas, we embraced our first culinary adventure in two months. A certain tenseness seemed to slip away as though being carried downriver by the meandering water.
Afterward, we began exploring the various emporiums lining the quiet thoroughfare. Again, not all shops had reopened, but those that had greeted us warmly. The Shameless Chocoholic was serving a variety of wonderful, handmade, indulgent creations. Grasshopper’s Gift Shop is housed in an expansive century-plus old home, each room providing an eclectic variety of gifts, clothing and antiques. The basement contains the Captain’s Spirit Cellar. There is also Bela Gift Shop, a little gem that specializes in kitchen decor. Next door, my wife found Daffodil Row, a women’s clothing boutique, inviting.
Unfortunately, the Green Tree Brewery and Mississippi River Distilling Company, skilled crafters of their specific libations, beer and spirits respectively, were not open yet. However, the Wide River Winery’s outdoor patio was open. As we departed with a few bottles of their harvest, we were thanked effusively for helping out in the difficult times.
While we continued exploring the various shops, conversations tended toward the hope the usual influx of summer tourists would return soon. The most telling tale of the effect on tourism was our visit to Antique Archaeology. The famed original home of the TV show “American Pickers,” the twin buildings usually are crawling with devoted fans. Upon approaching a vacant parking lot, one block off of Cody Road, we wondered if they were open. However, the doors were unlocked, and we were greeted warmly. The empty showrooms allowed a more leisurely exploration of the various treasures and gifts but was highly unusual.
Dinner that evening was at the Crane & Pelican, housed in a brick Italianate-style house built in 1851 by riverboat captain Daniel V. Dawley. We had secured a table by reservation. It appeared not to be necessary as at the time of our 6:30 seating, there were only four other occupied tables. Soaring windows that overlook the River provided a warm ambiance to our meals. My wife chose the Salmon Filet topped with toasted pecans and a blueberry compote, and I indulged in the comfort-pleasing roasted beef brisket with smashed potatoes open-faced on soda bread dripping gravy. With the setting sun as our backdrop, we could not have been more content.
The next morning, we visited The Buffalo Bill Museum. Built to celebrate William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the legendary frontiersman and entertainer who was born in LeClaire, it houses artifacts and memorabilia from his Wild West Show and local history. I found the Lone Star, the last wood-hulled boat used on the River, which is housed in the connecting annex even more enthralling. The dry-docked, 105-foot-long steam-wheeler can be fully explored and provides a historic view of working on the mighty river.
Afterward, we made our way to the aforementioned Twilight. Typically offering overnight excursions to Dubuque, Carrie Stier, co-owner with her husband, mentioned people were not too inclined to the extended cruises during the current climate. As an alternative, they were offering one-and-a-half-hour sightseeing cruises upriver with Captain Stier providing commentary on the river’s history and pointing out bald eagles, pelicans and other wildlife. Even at that, the passenger list was minimal.
It was exciting to get away for even the briefest of interludes. However, it’s obvious even with restrictions eased, it might be awhile before a more robust level of comfort returns to travelers. Nevertheless, if so inclined, the picturesque village of LeClaire is beckoning.