Understanding history by exploring the waterways.
By Eleanor Rubin
Those who seek a place devoid of any stress, where you travel along a placid river observing a landscape whose tranquility is punctuated by the flap of birds, those who seek contentment where you can sit on a skydeck with the breeze caressing your face—then the RiverBarge River Explorer is for you.
A company called RiverBarge Excursions has taken a European style of touring by barge hotel and applied it in a novel way to the United States. In fact, though there is a company offering river excursions by historic and new paddlewheelers, RiverBarge Excursion Lines is the only hotel barge on American waterways.
A barge is a large flat-bottomed vessel purposely built for navigation on rivers and inland waterways. River pilots know that a barge is the most versatile, safe and stable craft that can ply the river. In fact, America’s locks and dams have all been designed with the barge in mind. Company founder Eddie Conrad, who had operated a fleet of commercial barges, saw the potential of modifying the barge as a hotel in order to bring explorers closer to the great American rivers in proximity and understanding of their importance to America’s development.
Measuring 730 ft. long and 50 ft. high, the R/B River Explorer was built in 1998, and actually is made up of two 295- ft. river barges named after America’s earliest explorers of the Mississippi – the forward DeSoto (where the public rooms are situated) and the aft LaSalle (where the 98 staterooms are), each with their own elevators. The vessel is propelled by the Miss Nari, a 3,000 horsepower towboat, the only one in America with Z Peller 360° propulsion units.
The staterooms are spacious, each measuring 200 square feet, and are located on the Royal (main) and Platinum (upper) decks of the LaSalle. All feature individual air conditioning and heating, choice of super queen or twin beds, full tub and shower, satellite TV and VCR, alarm clock telephone, mini refrigerator, large closets, hair dryer. Staterooms on the Platinum deck also feature balconies. There are three rooms which are wheelchair accessible. Each room has a large picture window that opens, so that you can observe the landscape (binoculars are provided in the room, as well).
The public rooms include The Sprague, a multi-purpose, two-story entertainment facility that can accommodate all guests, and the adjacent Crevasse bar; the Lobby is a popular place to read, play cards, watch the river through the Rio Vista’s large solarium-style windows and visit the Purser’s Desk for additional information; the Guest Pilot House is a replica of the real pilothouse, featuring authentic pilot chairs, radar, river charts and radio with actual transmissions from the Bridge. The Governor Galvez Room, named for the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, features three card, poker and bumper pool tables and video and book libraries. The area can also be used as a small meeting room.
Guests can sit in the sun on the Sky Deck, home to the Under the Bridge Bar, The Gym, two whirlpool tubs and a jogging and walking track.
Traveling on the RiverBarge is a completely different experience than cruising, where the emphasis is on onboard activities and entertainment; sailing or boating, where the emphasis is on the boat.
On the RiverBarge, it is the rivers, themselves, and the culture that has grown up around them that is the focus of the trip–how the rivers shaped America by fostering commerce and settlement and tied some of its most influential cities together. RiverBarge Excursions offers a selection of itineraries ranging from four to 10 days in seven regions of the country’s rivers. Guests can experience the ease and complexities of river travel by watching other river traffic and what is coming around the bends, as well as wildlife and vegetation along the shores.
The essential aim of RiverBarge Excursions is to create a feeling of family-whether you have come with your own, or not. In essence, the barge becomes a floating community of people who share your interest in exploration.
The emphasis of RiverBarge Excursions are the shore activities, entertainment and special events that are arranged so that guests can experience the culture, history and sights of a region as if you were escorted by your favorite relative who lived there.
This sense of community starts with the exceptional staff–warm, friendly and accommodating. The intimate nature of the barge-accommodating 198 guests-the common interest in exploration, the casual atmosphere and the open seating at meals, all contribute to this. As the trip progressed, the strangers, the staff, the captains, all melded into a family.
As a matter of fact, the RiverBarge it has all the comforts of home. The galley has a refrigerator where you can help yourself to all kinds of goodies. There is a big cookie jar as well as coffee, cappucino, tea, sodas etc. that all people are encouraged to partake of. Just in case you may want something between meals or a late night snack.
The meals are good southern homestyle cookin’. I didn’t hear one complaint about the food for during the entire trip. There is open seating for every meal. This is conducive to get to know all of your temporary “family”. Breakfasts and lunches are abundant buffets that are pleasing to the eyes as well as a delight to the palate. Dinners are served a la carte. If you do not see something you want, you only need to ask. They are very accommodating. There is a minimal charge for liquor and beer but non-alcoholic beverages are provided.
I discovered the special appeal of the RiverBarge, taking the “Expanding Frontiers,” a week-long excursion that departs from Nashville, and lets you experience the Cumberland River, Clarksville, TN, Lake Barkley, Ohio River, Paducah, KY, the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, the Mississippi River and Cape Girardeau, MO, before arriving in St. Louis, where the key attractions are the Gateway Arch and the Museum of Westward Expansion.
When we came on board, we were given a name tag with the name of the barge on a neck-chain. This served multi purposes: it helped us get to know each other onboard, and and when we went ashore, it served as our admission ticket to museums and exhibits. We went freely everywhere because the tag identified us as RiverBarge Excursion travelers. This is an aspect of the all-inclusive nature of the trip: in addition to accommodations, entertainment and all meals on each excursion, RiverBarge Excursions’ basic price always includes all tips, taxes, port charges and scheduled shore activities.
The trip started in Nashville, Tennessee, which has come to be known as the Country Music capital (it is the home of the original Grand Ol’ Opry, which still stands, but there is a big new one). Nashville also boasts being the hometown of three presidents, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson and James Polk.
After Nashville, we traveled to Clarksville, Tennessee, where we visited a museum that had the most awesome embroidery exhibit as well as a miniature train assembly run by volunteers, and an exhibit about Sequoia and Samuel Morse.
Our next stop was Paducah, Kentucky. This is really an interesting and alive city. The River Heritage Museum should not be missed. On a whim, I went on a carriage ride (not included with the tag). The flood walls have the most magnificent paintings about their history. When you leave Paducah, you see the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, which you can identify by the different colors of the waters.
We went next to Cape Girardeau, which has a church with the most beautiful interior, done in mosaics with lots of shiny gold glass.
When we landed in St. Louis, it signaled the end of our wonderful trip. The barge docked in front of the Gateway Arch. You can take a bus provided by the barge or walk to the Arch. There is a museum and a tram that goes to the top where you can get a wonderful view of St. Louis.
The time spent on board passes very pleasantly and is very relaxed and casual. There is a jogging and walking track, shuffleboard, a well equipped gym and Jaccuzis. There is a library well stocked with books. You can read on the skydeck or watch the panorama of trees and sunsets go by. We chatted and played cards and before long, the guests got to know each other well. At night there was entertainment in the Sprague theater, Blue Grass music, jazz and a swing band which got us dancing. Regional entertainers including gospel choirs, storytellers, dancers and bluegrass, Cajun and blues bands are hand picked from various landings to perform on board.
Families are encouraged. children under l2 can travel free when they are in the staterooms with their parents; teenagers (up to 18) travel at half price.
Indeed, the casual nature of the trip, the opportunity to go ashore each day, make the trip a good choice for “Grandtravel”-where grandparents take their grandchildren on a trip where they can spend a lot of quality time together and share experiences of a lifetime-as well as intergenerational vacations. The experience offers a first-hand view of what youngsters are learning in Social Studies-how the rivers shaped America’s development-and there are also opportunities to watch wildlife, even alligators. From Swamp Tours of America’s wildest freshwater swamps and bluegrass bands, to animated storytellers, the trips can be very satisfying vacations. Moreover, children 12 and under travel free when sharing a stateroom with grandparents.
The trips also cater to the rising interest in “geotourism”-travel that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place being visited, including its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and well-being of its residents. RiverBarge Excursions caters to these travelers on all the trips.
The tradition of storytelling, such a central part of our culture, is also given new vitality by the RiverBarge Excursions. Onboard, guests experience storytelling as an art form.
There is a Scholarship for Teachers program allowing teachers as well as retired teachers to travel at half price when accompanied by a full-fare companion.
Guests can also take advantage of an early booking bonus, by booking six months or more in advance to earn $100 in “Barge Bucks,” an onboard credit. And once an Explorer, you get to be a special BargeMate Guest to receive special benefits, like participating in inaugural ceremonies on new itineraries.
“Home Free” program allows guests complimentary transportation from the Destination Landing to the Boarding Landing, or they can begin at the Destination Landing and receive complimentary airfare to where the vacation begins. In select cities, motorcoach transportation is provided back to the boarding city.
RiverBarge Excursion Lines, Inc. was created by barge expert Eddie Conrad to offer explorers the chance to see America differently, and it is not unusual for him to travel aboard the R/B Explorer to get to know the guests.
A New Orleans native, his love for river travel began when he was 16 years old and he set off in Lewis & Clark fashion to find the source of the Mississippi at Lake Itasca, Minnesota. Armed with a love for adventure and an interest in history and culture, he was mesmerized with the people who lived along the rivers as he made his way back home. In 1960, at the age of 20, he began working in the inland barge business and three years later, founded the Compass Towing Company, Inc., that grew to 40 boats and 500 employees.
His desire to share his love for Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole cultures led to his founding of RV River Charters, Inc., in 1990, owner of specially designed barges carrying RVs along the bayous and backwaters of southern Louisiana and the Mississippi River. This “cruising campground” gave him the idea for the R/B River Explorer, and he founded RiverBarge Excursion Lines in 1995.
His dream was to have a river barge with the comforts of a hotel that was family oriented without any regimentation or pretentiousness, as for instance a cruise, where you could share the stories of how the rivers shaped America with travelers. Someplace where you can be on your own and have fun. You know what? He succeeded.
Variety of Excursions Offered
RiverBarge Excursion Lines operates the R/B River Explorer on four to ten-day excursions to seven regions of America’s rivers and the Gulf Coast year round:
A new excursion, 1st Explorers begins and ends in New Orleans, and travels the full Atchafalaya River, part of the Atchafalaya River Basin, the largest river swamp in the country. It travels to Natchez, Mississippi, Baton Route, La., Breaux Bridge, the crawfish capital of the world to savor Cajun food and dancing ($2,245 pp/double).
The Route of Jean Lafitte goes from New Orleans to Galveston, Texas to Port Isabel, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico along the Texas-Louisiana Intracoastal Waterway through the National Wildlife Refuge for a look at migratory birds such as the endangered Whooping Cranes.
The Delta South cruises between New Orleans and Memphis on the lower Mississippi River; Cajuns and Creoles features the Atchafalaya River Basin and the lower Mississippi River; The Arch and the Pyramid operates between St. Louis and Memphis on the upper and lower Mississippi River, separated by the confluence of the Ohio River.
Expanding Frontiers is the Nashville and The Cumberland River Valley; America’s Junction is Cincinnati and The Ohio River Valley. “Show Me” – The Big Muddy operates between St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri on The Missouri River Valley.
Specially themed trips are offered throughout the year, as well including:
Mardi Gras Mambo, a six-day excursion filled with revelry. Travel the Bayou Swamps of Southern Louisiana. The riverbarge docks in New Orleans for the Mardi Gras Weekend. The barge is your hotel and the base for participation in the festivities ($1740 pp/double).
Rivers to Rails, an eight-day excursion along the Ohio River, experiencing both modes of travel. The Cincinnati round trip begins with visit to Ripley and a stop at Marietta. There you cross the Hocking River Valley onboard old 1920s railcars to view an 1850s village, Robins Crossing and Hocking Barge Canal. Guests barge to Portsmouth, called “America’s Hometown,” and Huntington, Virginia, to explore the National Coal Heritage Area ($2290 pp/dbl.)
Voyage of Discovery harkens back to the gallant days of Lewis and Clark while exploring the Missouri River Valley on a seven-day excursion beginning in Kansas City and ending in St. Louis ($2640 pp/double).
Literature, Lore and Lyrics is an eight-day excursion from New Orleans to Memphis, visiting Baton Rouge, Natchez and historical Vicksburg National Military Park ($2,526 pp/double).
Foliage and Fillies an eight-day mid-October Foliage and Fillies trip, to enjoy the peak of fall color and the Keeneland Horse Race Track in Kentucky ($2,390 pp/d).
Pricing is fully inclusive of tips, taxes, port charges, all meals and scheduled shore activities and varies depending on length and region of excursion. Based on double occupancy, a four-day excursion begins at $750 per person and a ten-day excursion begins at $2,375 per person (children under 12 travel free, when they share adults’ stateroom; teenagers 18 and under travel for half-price).
Contact RiverBarge Excursion Lines, Inc., 201 Opelousas Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70114, 888-GOBARGE, visit www.riverbarge.com.
© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.