Tag Archives: cruise

How to Ride the River City Star

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The strains of “Folsom Prison Blues” as played by a one-man band is the perfect soundtrack to a riverboat tour. I bet there’s rich folks eating/In a fancy dining car/They’re probably drinkin’ coffee/And smokin’ big cigars. You are not those rich people, and this is not their sophisticated evening. This is where you embrace the river rat heritage bestowed upon you by dint of being in Omaha.

For the past eight years, the River City Star has hosted 60- and 90-minute cruises up and down the Missouri River from early April through mid-October. Just north of the Lewis and Clark Visitors Center and off of Gallup Drive, plastic palm trees and tropical trinkets guide you down a gangplank to a two-story riverboat. On blistering summer days, the kitschy décor fits.

Sightseeing tours happen every Sunday, no reservations required (but you really should anyway). Lunch and dinner cruises do require reservations and feature a cash bar and live entertainment, either by Win Lander or Joey Gulizia. Bartender Katie serves up Watermelons, exactly the drink that was so popular at the now-closed Anchor Inn. “It’s the drink on the river,” says Tami Bader, director of sales. “And there’s not a bit of watermelon in it.” Vodka and a few other liquors form the secret recipe.20130515_bs_6243_Web

Arrive. Early. If your dinner cruise is at 6:30 p.m., that means the River City Star pulls away from the dock at 6:30 p.m. Get there 15 minutes ahead of time to pick up your tickets at the office and get settled on the boat. Top floor definitely, if it’s a sunny day.

Take the time to soak in your surroundings. Stand at the back of the boat as it pushes off and watch as the twin John Deere diesel jet-drive engines froth up the water for the first time. If there’s a speaker on the sightseeing tour or live music during the dinner cruise, listen to it all. Try to get Lander to tell you why he doesn’t play Elvis.

The River City Star chugs north on the Missouri past the Illinois Central swing bridge, now permanently swung open. “The only way to see it now is from the boat,” Bader says. At Narrows River Park in Council Bluffs, the boat turns south to go underneath the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, breeze past the Downtown Omaha riverfront, and make a final turn just before Harrah’s Casino.

Captain Stephen Hosch.

Captain Stephen Hosch.

Depending on the day, your captain might be Stephen Hosch or Ken Merlin. Captain Hosch isn’t shy about divulging his knowledge of the river. As the River City Star trundles past Freedom Park within the first few minutes of the cruise, he waves his hand to encompass the variety of navy relics on the Nebraska shore. “That’s the Marlin there,” Captain Hosch says. “A ’50s training sub. And the Hazard over there, that’s a minesweeper from World War II. It supported a convoy in Okinawa. It was one of the few steel sweepers.” Incidentally, the USS Hazard is listing a tad these days, after floating on the 2011 flood that reached her on-shore resting place. When the flood finally receded, the Hazard settled back down at a bit of a tilt.

The Missouri is an adaptable lady, but if you look closely, you can still see the damage from the flood a couple years ago. Captain Hosch points out that the eddies swirling between manmade jetties and flood-deposits of sand may produce holes 20 feet deep underneath the river’s surface.

The Loess Hills are in perfect view at this point of the cruise, all golden with evening sun and accented by the earthy smell of the Missouri. As the River City Star turns south, a completely different view presents itself, the Downtown Omaha skyline.20130515_bs_6355_Web

It’s about this time that you should really head down to the buffet (if you’re on a dinner or lunch cruise) to enjoy some grilled barbecue chicken or roast beef, roasted potatoes or perhaps green beans with almonds. If you eat quickly, you can be done in time to see pedestrian reactions when Captain Hosch lets a kid sound the foghorn underneath the Pedestrian Bridge. Stay above deck to see how many swallows’ nests you can count, neatly lined up in the hundreds underneath the lip of the I-480 overpass.

On the way back north to the River City Star’s dock, Captain Hosch points out a channel cut into the Iowa bank. It may look like one of the Missouri’s natural changes in character, but the captain says it’s manmade, a place for catfish and sturgeon to lay eggs in safety. He’s seen deer, beaver, catfish, and huge paddlefish on his many tours up and down Omaha’s section of the river. “And have you seen all these geese?” he asks. “Looks like they’re all out dating tonight.”

The River City Star is inspected by the Coast Guard annually and certified for 149 passengers. Find the latest information on cruise times and prices at rivercitystar.com.

Sharon Ongert, 66

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

World traveler. free spirit. Social butterfly. All these terms aptly describe Sharon Ongert.

The native Omahan has always been an affable go-getter and shows no signs of slowing down as she hits her mid-60s. “I like to follow the advice, ‘Don’t buy things, buy memories,” Ongert confides one morning over drinks at Paradise Bakery.

Ongert in Egypt. Photo provided by Sharon Ongert.

Ongert at the Egyptian Pyramids, 2010. Photo provided by Sharon Ongert.

Ongert loves to travel. “When I was first married, my husband and I spent a year living in Europe,” she shares. “We visited 16 countries and 168 cities throughout western Europe and northern Africa. I guess that’s how it started.”

Once her two kids were born, the family continued to take trips to the Caribbean, Mexico, skiing… “Later, I began traveling with my mom to England, Australia, and New Zealand. My dad didn’t care much for travel, so he paid for the trips, and I’d go with her…it was the perfect situation.”

Ongert in... Photo provided by Sharon Ongert.

Ongert on the chariot tracks in Pompeii, Italy, 2012. Photo provided by Sharon Ongert.

Now single, Ongert continues to travel the globe, often with new friends made on past journeys (of which she has many). Egypt and Peru were recent vacation destinations. “Last year, I took two back-to-back Mediterranean cruises, which took us to Turkey, Croatia, Malta, Sicily, Italy…I keep a travel journal every trip I make and log in every day I’m gone so I can keep track of everything I do.” This year, she’ll put more stamps in her passport with trips to Russia and Scandinavia on the agenda.

In addition to travel, Ongert loves to work…yes, work. She has three jobs. She spends one or two days a week at both Ann Taylor Loft (Village Pointe) and Pottery Barn Kids (Regency Court), which she says has allowed her to make some wonderful friendships with co-workers of all different ages. She loves working with customers as well, adding, “I love meeting all the new moms and grandmas.” The social aspect of working retail is a major plus for Ongert, who once worked as the social director for a Miami-based cruise ship.

Ongert with a friend in Machu Picchu. Photo provided by Sharon Ongert.

Ongert with friend Linda in Machu Picchu, Peru, 2011. Photo provided by Sharon Ongert.

Ongert also officiates tennis matches for a dozen different tennis organizations. “My kids both played competitive tennis, and so I followed it for a long time,” Ongert recalls. “When my youngest graduated, I decided I’d train as an umpire so I could continue in the sport. I’m an independent contractor, essentially, and have chaired matches for the Big 10, Big 12, Omaha Tennis Association, high schools…I’ve watched so much good tennis this way. I’ve always got the best seat in the house!”

To keep up with this busy schedule, Ongert makes it a point to stay fit, working out daily at Lakeside Wellness Center, lifting weights and walking on the treadmill. She’s also a snowbird, traveling to Phoenix every March to spend a month hiking, playing tennis, and practicing her new favorite sport, pickleball.

Ongert at the Colosseum. Photo provided by Sharon Ongert.

Ongert at the Colosseum in Rome, Italy, 2012. Photo provided by Sharon Ongert.

“It’s basically tennis on a much smaller court using a wiffle ball. It’s best for those who can’t cover the ground of a tennis court. It’s a lot of fun!”

That’s Ongert, always up for a new adventure.