Summer is all about the warm sun, beaches, and cruising the rivers of the Mississippi! But if you’re like me and you don’t own a boat, but want to do something different, Celebration River cruises on the Celebration Belle is the way to go!
I live in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and made the small trek to Prairie du Chien to meet up with Celebration River Cruises paddle boat. This Celebration Belle boat can host 750 guests for a dinner cruise. Part of this adventure is the beautiful Great River Road drive. I suggest leaving earlier in the day because if you live in the Midwest; you know we really have two seasons, winter and construction. Leave early because of construction and time spent stopping for trains. There is just so much to see and do along the way. While driving, you’ll notice several lookout points where you can stop. Capture the sights, sounds, and scents of the Mississippi River and read the historical markers. Charming small towns offer ideal scenery for picturesque moments with cool stores, sculptures, architecture, and beautiful rolling hills.
The changing fall colors on my left and on my right are the cascading hills along the Minnesota border, which is right across the Mississippi River. There is just something about the sun shining through on this moody overcast day and seeing the bright beams of light as it ripples across the water. The trees are adorned with bright orange, red, yellow, and deep purple fall colors, creating a stunning view.
Driving along the train tracks, train enthusiasts will observe various train cars transporting different goods. As you get closer to your destination in Prairie du Chien, it’s probable that you’ll need to stop for a passing train. Make your way through the historic town that features red brick and limestone buildings. It keeps the old town feeling alive by being unique.
The entrance to the park is located on Water Street. The Celebration Belle’s grandeur is impossible to miss! The boat was so beautiful that I immediately wanted to explore it alone, but I had to wait like everyone else. Make no mistake, I certainly was second in line. The staff, even in the rain, greets you with smiles, and directs you where to go on the boat. The kid-in-me wanted to take off running as if I were the first person in Disney World for the day. After finding my assigned seat, I went right up the two flights of stairs to see all the different decks and the beauty of the nature that surrounded with them!
I would like to pause for a moment to say that those who are bringing disabled friends and family, or you struggle with mobility, there is an elevator for you to use so you can enjoy all the decks. Just ask or inform them when you book or even ask your server the day of. They are pleased to accommodate you.
I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw when I entered the deck 2 cabin. The paddle boat’s historic charm blends with modern red carpet elements and a floral pattern that creates a pampering atmosphere. Over the dance floor, the table in the center of the room had buffet style warmers that were steaming. The grand piano and entertainment stage signaled that I was about to enjoy elegant cuisine. They wrapped the ceilings in gold and silver hues of shiny metals that just lit the room up with the reflections from the different lighting. They donned each table with a satin-sheen-like tablecloth which had our last names on the name cards and blue napkin wrapped silverware. Their table tents showcased the drink menu ranging from beer, wine to blended drinks. In addition to package reminders, their cruises offer shrimp cocktails and celebration cakes for special occasions. You can find information on the different cruise options they have to offer on their website.
The staff were accommodating and doting from the moment I arrived. The server introduced herself and stated she was available for anything I needed. Behind the bar, the staff is replenishing all the necessities. All of them smiled that day without exception. The onboard entertainment for the evening is Aaron Lotzow, playing “Hits from the Decades” as indicated by his sign and fulfilling any requests you may have.
I left behind my sweater and went exploring the 3rd deck. I ran up the stairs to the walkway aligned with red chairs and the Mississippi River on my right. Once again, the air had that fresh rain scent, so I was enjoying the crisp, clean air. The 3rd deck houses the boats souvenir shop, which was open after dinner. They offer everything you could possibly want, including a Captain’s hat for those who aspire to be one. Jewelry, cards, magnets, purses, knives, wallets and so much more. You can also find local wears from other surrounding area merchants. It’s unique!
Just outside the store’s door is the lower observation deck, with a few tables and chairs to sit on. By this time in the fall, the sun is just setting, and you get to see the beautiful colors as it falls below the horizon. In the middle of that deck is a staircase that takes you to the pilothouse where the captain of the ship is and another beautiful observation deck with 2 black smokes stacks that look like there are two golden crowns placed on the top. Our captain of this cruise was Jeremy, who graciously answered my questions about what all the computer monitors did. He detailed 4 systems working in succession: ALS, navigation maps, radar map (for shoreline) and security cameras. The 3 systems can even allow them to navigate through the fog, be aware of who is also on the water near them, the depth of the riverbed, and so much more. The one system looked like the ones I saw when I used to fish with my grandpa Bud Hunter… the green grainy one that would locate fish for you … but I digress. There were a couple of kids, who were explorers much like myself onboard and they soon made their way up to the captain and immediately had many questions. At night, the 4th deck, observation deck, creates a beautifully lit romantic backdrop of lighting along with the night sky. As we continue on, the atmosphere of awe and affection is created as people attempt to photograph the moon, river’s edge, and cities we pass.
I headed back downstairs for dinner where I first met my tables mates, Carrie and Dave. They were their celebrating their 27th wedding anniversary. Dave’s dad jokes, stories of their travels, and other adventures made it easy to enjoy the company of their smiling faces. They said this was one of the best anniversaries yet.
Dinner was buffet style set up on the dance floor. They excuse each table separately to make it orderly, and you’re allowed to go for seconds of everything but the main course, which is Prime Rib. Our entire dinner was so mouth-watering good! The prime rib was cooked to medium rare perfection and was delicious. If you don’t like prime rib, they also offer chicken. There was salad, baby red potatoes, seasoned in what I could only guess as a spicy Lawry’s salt, carrots, corn salsa, Alfredo with noodles and buns. All the food was so great and filling I didn’t need seconds. I had a strawberry daiquiri and a pina colada- both were blended perfectly and strong, without being too expensive. It is a cash bar. Certain drinks like water, soda and coffee are included.
The staff cleared out once everyone was done eating, and the dance floor became available. Aaron, the entertainer, has been playing music and engaging with the audience the whole time. This man does it all – he beatboxes for the bass, creates the background undertones, and plays the piano and tambourine. I was so engrossed in conversation and the amazing food that it took me a while to realize this person can sing both high and low notes. From Piano Man to Britney Spears, we even took a dance break for the cha-cha slide, where I got funky on the dance floor. I befriended two ladies who were uncertain about their dancing abilities, and I assured them that the song would guide them. Aaron kept the party going, and I eventually convinced Dave and Carrie to dance to a slow song. As I watched couples of different ages celebrating each other and taking one another across the dance floor, I had completely forgotten that I was on a boat. This setting takes you into the moment of living life to its fullest, even when indoors loses its allure. You can step outside onto the decks to enjoy the untouched beauty of our driftless region and the night sky that has remained for centuries.
If you still can’t picture it, the boat has an incredible amount of space to enjoy on all of its decks. This place is perfect for weddings, birthdays, retirements, proposals, or just a fun night out with your loved ones. The Captain’s announcement about pulling into port made me realize the 3-hour tour had ended too quickly, leaving me feeling sad. Prairie du Chien marked the end of their season’s final run, so I began considering joining them for a day-long tour from quad cities to Dubuque, IA in the coming summer. The owners of the place are family members and they run it. I was served prime rib by Scott Schadler, the son of the founder of Celebration River Cruises. Peruse their website for all those details and trust me, you don’t want to wait!
Writing and Photography by Riley Hunter