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Viking cruise passengers eagerly discover Duluth

"This is the most engaged package tour group I've ever seen, in 10 years of doing this," said the North Shore Scenic Railroad station manager.

Lake Superior Railroad Museum Foundation Executive Director, Ken Buehler, left, chats with cruise ship passenger Ted Yablonski
Lake Superior Railroad Museum Foundation Executive Director Ken Buehler, left, chats with cruise ship passenger Ted Yablonski at the museum on Monday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — After a hiatus of nearly a decade, it's a novelty for the port of Duluth-Superior to welcome cruise ships. The experience is just as novel for the guests disembarking to spend a day in the Twin Ports.

"People didn't realize how wonderful the Great Lakes were," said Marlene Schloss, of St. Cloud, standing in the Great Hall of the St. Louis County Depot on Monday morning.

"We knew it," Schloss continued, "which is why we're doing the cruise. They're from California, Arizona, all these places, and they had no idea it was so beautiful here."

Schloss and her husband, Phil, were among over 200 passengers from the Viking Octantis scheduled for an excursion to the Depot while the 665-foot cruise ship harbored in Duluth on Monday. The ship is making multiple Duluth stops this season, and Monday's passengers found even more waiting for them at the Depot than their predecessors did.

Passengers debark a tender.
Passengers debark from one of Viking Octantis’ tenders behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Mary Tennis, executive director of the Depot, said it became clear that Viking passengers had "a huge amount of interest, not only for the train ride and train museum, but just Duluth in general."

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The county-owned venue decided to make the most of that interest by planning "Dock at the Depot" events to coincide with local cruise stops. On Monday, passengers from the Octantis were scheduled to arrive by bus in two waves.

About a dozen local craft, gift and food vendors were stationed in the Depot's west wing. To accommodate the passengers' schedule, exhibits from the Duluth Art Institute and the St. Louis County Historical Society were also available for viewing starting at 9 a.m. rather than the Depot's customary opening hour of 10 a.m.

Buses that brought cruise ship passengers to the Depot wait outside
Buses that brought cruise ship passengers to the Depot wait outside for them Monday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Stacey DeRoche, the Depot's event and marketing coordinator, said the response from vendors was "instant" when they were approached about the series. "I had 30-plus vendors contact me," she said.

To accommodate as many vendors as possible, "we'll mix it up a little bit" from one event to another, said DeRoche. The pop-up markets will happen five more times this year, with the last of the season planned for Sept. 19.

Sarah Herrick-Smisek, co-owner of DLH Clothing, said that as a Lincoln Park business, "we've really been struggling" to figure out how to connect with passengers on cruise ships that disembark at the DECC. The Depot event provided that opportunity.

"We were just really interested in this event to see what we can do," said Herrick-Smisek shortly before the first cruise guests arrived. "We're a company that really loves representing our city, and so we want to show that off."

Porter Jerry McGee helps cruise ship passengers board the North Shore Scenic Railroad
Porter Jerry McGee helps cruise ship passengers board the North Shore Scenic Railroad.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Passengers on Viking's "Undiscovered Great Lakes" cruise stop in Duluth on Day 3 of their eight-day journey from Thunder Bay to Milwaukee.

They have several options for Twin Ports area shore excursions, ranging from Agate Bay kayaking to a Glensheen visit. The North Shore Scenic Railroad excursion is a hot ticket; this week, over half of the ship's passengers chose to hop a train either in the morning or the afternoon of their Duluth day.

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With tickets starting at $6,495, the cruise overall is proving popular. The Octantis has a maximum passenger capacity of 378, and according to Viking's website, four of five remaining "Undiscovered" Great Lakes trips this season are completely sold out. (Some passengers, like the Schlosses, are redeeming credits they held from COVID-canceled cruises.)

In a competitive vacation market, Viking positions its trips as "more destination focused and culturally immersive" in comparison to, say, a "Margaritaville at Sea" cruise.

A Frost River bag purchased at the Depot's pop-up event would fit right in on the Viking Octantis, described as "an expedition ship built specifically to explore the world’s most remote destinations."

Cruise ship in harbor.
The Viking Octantis sits in the Duluth harbor. This was the ship’s second visit to Duluth this year. The first was May 30.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The ship's amenities include a science laboratory; a library curated in collaboration with the Scott Polar Research Institute; and an auditorium advertised as "the world’s most advanced venue for learning at sea." Where another cruise ship might have a martini bar, the Octantis has an "Aquavit Terrace."

In other words, the Octantis passengers didn't buy tickets to turn their brains off. "This is the most engaged package tour group I've ever seen in 10 years of doing this," said Josh Miller, North Shore Scenic Railroad station manager.

"They have a complete weather station on board. They take water samples," marveled Ken Buehler, executive director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and one of the tour guides narrating bus tours preceding the groups' arrival at the Depot.

"They've got questions; they're interested in the history; they want to know more about Duluth," said Buehler. "It's amazing."

Members Only
The man who's led the Duluth museum for the past 20 years became an unlikely YouTube star telling the stories of all the trains in the St. Louis County Depot.

The passengers have seen some history themselves: According to the DECC, cruise guests' average age is 70. Phil Schloss marveled at his return to the Depot, which he knew as a "beautiful functioning train station" when he lived in Duluth during the 1960s.

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"I used to have business trips down to Minneapolis-St. Paul," said Schloss. "So I'd come here, take the train, go down and come back that night."

Cruise ship passengers are reflected as they wait to board the North Shore Scenic Railroad
Cruise ship passengers are reflected as they wait to board the North Shore Scenic Railroad.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Ninety-five percent of this summer's Duluth-bound cruise passengers are from the United States, according to the DECC, but Monday's visitors said the cruise revealed their own continent in a new light.

"We wanted to enjoy the Great Lakes. We haven't really traveled up here that much," said Sonia Woodbury, of Salt Lake City. She said she was astonished by Lake Superior's sheer size. "I knew that," she said with a laugh, "but I just didn't get it until we were on (the lake). It feels like we're on the ocean."

It was clear from the passengers' attire that they knew they weren't on a Caribbean cruise. Rather than Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops, many of the passengers opted for high-traction footwear, weatherproof hats, KN95 masks and expedition vests.

That said, a vacation is a vacation. One woman wore a shirt with sparkly beads arranged to picture a few servings of wine and the statement, "at my age, I need glasses."

Tour guide with sign.
A guide waits for a group of passengers from the Viking Octantis behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Whether the passengers came thirsty (a beer-and-chocolate walking tour was another excursion option), they didn't come hungry. Robert Lillegard of Duluth's Best Bread offered some of his company's most tempting baked goods, but he wasn't particularly surprised that the visitors were already stuffed.

"Cruise ships, I've been on one, and you eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, a second breakfast. It's like 'Lord of the Rings,'" said Lillegard, referring to the fictional hobbits' habit of doubling down on the first meal of the day.

Duluth has been planning for years to roll out the red carpet for cruise passengers, and Monday's guests said they recognized the effort.

The first cruise ship since 2013 to arrive in Duluth's harbor will be here May 30, and will dock at the new customs facility in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

"The people here are very friendly," said Lois Vanderwood, of Franklin, North Carolina. "Getting off the ship, and all these people welcoming you: makes you feel like you're at home."

"Could not be friendlier, all the people greeting us," agreed Lauri MacNeel, of Cincinnati. "That was really impressive, to see such a warm welcome in the harbor entrance."

Ted Yablonski, left, chats with Lake Superior Railroad Museum Foundation Executive Director, Ken Buehler,
Ted Yablonski, left, chats with Lake Superior Railroad Museum Foundation Executive Director Ken Buehler.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Paul Lukens and Jeremy Wilson of Superior Roux were keeping their New Orleans-inspired fare warm for the 11 a.m. train passengers, some of whom might have been looking for lunch when they got back. In the meantime, the chefs were chatting about the Twin Ports.

"We had a couple of people just asking about the area, saying that they love the cool weather because they're from Florida," said Lukens. "It's hot for us; it's cool for them. It's a nice mix."

If you want to experience the Depot like a cruise passenger, the vendor pop-ups are free and open to the public. Remaining dates this year are July 25, Aug. 8, Aug. 22, Sept. 5 and Sept. 19. For more information, see experiencethedepot.org.

Rick McGarrey, of Buenos Aires, Argentina, leans out from a locomotive at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum
Rick McGarrey, of Buenos Aires, Argentina, leans out from a locomotive at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum. McGarrey was in town on the cruise ship.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Cruise ship passengers Cathy and Lenny Tout, of Panama City, Florida, look inside a locomotive at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum
Cruise ship passengers Cathy and Lenny Tout, of Panama City, Florida, look inside a locomotive Monday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Ken Srigley, of Greeneville, Tennessee, climbs down from an exhibit at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum
Ken Srigley, of Greeneville, Tennessee, climbs down from an exhibit at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum on Monday morning.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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