GETTING THERE: Eleven major airlines fly into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Travel packages and excursion rates are competitively priced so it is wise to shop around or consult your travel agent. There is an Amtrak depot in St. Paul, and Greyhound, Jefferson and Zephyr bus lines go into both cities.
ON THE RIVER: The Padelford Packet Boat Co. Inc., (612) 227-1100, offers a three-night one-way "Fashionable Tour" yacht cruise down river from St. Paul to La Crosse, Wis., (across the river from La Crescent, Minn.), with overnight stops and sightseeing shore tours in Red Wing, Winona and La Crosse. The trip (including the return by bus) costs $294 per person. Day cruises are available in the Twin Cities area.
The Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen offer old-time steamboat travel featuring five meals a day and nightly Dixieland jazz. Two-night cruises go from St. Paul to Wabasha in September and October and range from $230 to $850 per person, depending on the accommodations. Call (800) 228-3777.
Queen of the Lakes Cruise, (612) 922-4700, offers trips on Minneapolis lakes aboard a small stern-wheeler for $1.50 per person. Day trips on larger stern-wheelers are also available on the river at Red Wing and Winona and range from $6.75 to $29.75 for adults. There are special children's fares.
Griffith Marine Industries, (612) 436-7855, offers public, private, group and charter excursions on the St. Croix and the Mississippi.
Houseboats are available by the week. Those sleeping eight may be rented for as low as $16 per person per day. Consult the chambers of commerce of the various river towns for particulars.
WHERE TO STAY: The Twin Cities offer the standard hotel and motel accommodations of the national chains, in addition to several luxury hotels. There are also a number of historic inns in the area, with rates ranging from $40 to $120 double.
For the river experience, try the Nicollet Island Inn in Minneapolis (95 Merriam St., 612-623-7741). It is on the river near the spot where the first Europeans sighted the Falls of St. Anthony. The Lowell Inn in nearby Stillwater (102 N. 2nd St., 612-439-1100) is a charming antiques-filled country inn within sight of the St. Croix.
Down river, Red Wing offers the historic and comfortable St. James Hotel (406 Main St., 612-388-2846), built in 1875 and recently restored. Nearly half the rooms have views of the river and the bluffs.
In Wabasha, the Anderson House (333 W. Main St., 612-565-4524) holds fast to the Victorian customs and traditions of its opening day in 1856. Much of the original furniture and fixtures are still intact. It is a block from the river in a small-town residential neighborhood.
In Winona what is now The Hotel (129 W. 3rd St., 507-452-5460) was opened in 1892 as the best commercial hotel in a newly prosperous lumbering community. It has been renovated with an eye to its original turn-of-the-century elegance.
WHERE TO EAT: Twin Cities inhabitants and their neighbors down river lean to steak houses where the drinks and portions are large. Many of these restaurants have traditional followings and are good places to see patrons at their friendly best. The menus run to meat and potatoes but often list good local fish.
Of late, good French restaurants and a variety of ethnic eating places also have begun to appear in the area. La Tortue in Minneapolis is well-known for European cuisine, as is Forepaugh's in St. Paul and Gordon's, also in St. Paul, for French cuisine. Sandwiches and lighter food are to be found at Dudley Rigg's Cafe Expresso in Minneapolis and Chocolate Mousse in a remodeled firehouse in St. Paul. There are good Chinese, German, Italian, Japanese and Mexican restaurants but surprisingly few featuring Scandinavian specialties.
Down river, the Mississippi Belle at Hastings is worth a try. The Anderson House in Wabasha is famous for hearty food based on the legendary Grandma Anderson's cooking in the tradition of her Pennsylvania Dutch forebears. The food is not quite what it was when Grandma and then her daughters and grandaughters in turn presided over the kitchen, but the fresh walleyed pike and Mississippi catfish are pan-fried, and the menu lists Dutch beef rolls, chicken with dumplings, Double Dutch fudge pie and Dutch sour cream raisin pie.
*For more information on Minnesota state parks: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Recreation, Box 39, Centennial Office Building, St. Paul, MN 55155.
*For information on wildlife refuges: Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge, P.O. Box 228, Winona, MN 55987.
*For information on the River Road area: Minnesota Department of Transportation, Great River Road Program, Room 704, Transportation Building, St. Paul, MN 55155.
READING: The magazine Hiawatha Valley Guide (Valley Publications Inc., P.O. Box 109, Wabasha, MN 55981); Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi"; "Minnesota, a State Guide" (compiled and written by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration in 1938, revised edition by Hastings House Publishers, New York, 1954); "Historic Fort Snelling Chronicles," Minnesota Historical Society.