River Explorer

Seeing America’s waterways by barge

By: Harry Basch

When is a cruise not a cruise? When it’s a RiverBarge excursion.

Right from riverside arrival, moving down the levee to the river, this experience is different. What lies ahead is a barge actually two barges linked together followed by a “pusher” nearly 800 feet of barge that will be home for the next eight days.

“This in not a cruise”, said owner Eddie Conrad. “We don’t even use that word anywhere in our literature. This is an experience of seeing America from a different perspective. We take you from the reality and environment of everyday life and offer a view of life on the river and the surrounding regions.”

In the process of doing this, the atmosphere aboard is completely relaxed and casual. Dressing for dinner may be putting on a clean sport shirt. And the result is that, within a day or so, everyone is chatting, comparing travel experiences and spinning yarns at happy hour, adding up to a comfortable and relaxed experience. All helped along by the warm, friendly service staff of people who are ready to answer any need that arises.

One of the river delights are the days of “barging”: sitting on the Sky Deck watching the commercial barges go up and down the river; identifying the various birds that line the shores along with the occasional wildlife sighting (binoculars are in every cabin); relaxing with a drink at the Bridge Bar; having a cappuccino and homemade cookies in the lobby; wandering into the “galley” dining room to dine when and with whom you like.

Who should go? Anyone interested in the history and culture of the rivers of America and the towns that grew up along their banks. Anyone who would be unhappy donning jacket and tie for dinner. Anyone looking for a stress-free getaway.

Who should not go? Anyone looking for a party cruise with late-night revelry. Anyone looking forward to gambling in the casino. Anyone who is finicky about their food and is looking for haute cuisine.

The public rooms are located forward on the two barges (DeSoto) with the top deck (Sky) open mainly for river viewing, shuffleboard and a jogging/walking track. Deck two (Platinum) has a large open lobby with leather sofas and chairs for relaxing or reading and small banquette areas along the sides for viewing. Forward is the Guest Pilot House where passengers can get a captain’s-eye view of the river on comfortable swivel chairs. Behind the purser’s desk is the small gift and sundries shop and the Galvez Library.

On deck one (Royal) is the Sprague, a two-story entertainment facility that is the center for music and lectures from the large raised stage. Entertainment is gathered locally along the river and the content changes depending on the itinerary. The Nashville to St. Louis run offered a Bluegrass band, Old Time Banjo National Champion Dan Knowles, the guitar thumb picking National Champion Eddie Pennington on other nights, piano virtuoso Patrick Joyce in St. Louis and a grand dance evening with the Jerry Ford Big Band Combo.

Happy hour centers around the Crevasse Bar that runs the entire width of the barge. When the weather is balmy the action moves to the Bridge Bar on Sky Deck.

Dining aboard the RiverBarge is in The Galley. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style while dinner is a sit-down affair. Selections are limited but usually offer a fish, chicken or meat plus pasta; salads; and a vegetarian dish. This is down-home cooking with some New Orleans dishes added to the menu. Don’t look for gourmet dining.

The residential barge, (LaSalle), has 98 identical staterooms (200 square feet) containing queen or twin beds, full tub/shower, satellite TV and VCR, telephone, mini refrigerator, hair dryer, binoculars and large picture windows. Staterooms on deck two have sliding doors that open to a balcony.

Both barges have elevators with easy access throughout the barge for wheelchairs, and there is a free, self-service laundry for the passengers.

Sky deck on this barge has the pilot house where most of the time an open bridge policy allows passengers to visit and query the captain about the barge and the river. A small gym with exercise machines is one of the under-utilized areas, at least on our cruise. But this is offset by the popular Bridge Bar, with a sheltered outdoor seating area and a snack bar. For relaxing after a shore excursion two hot tubs sit at the aft end of this deck.

Itineraries explore the Mississippi, Ohio and Cumberland rivers and the Gulf Coast Intercoastal Waterway without repeating an itinerary, making it convenient to book two excursions back to back (10 percent discount on the second voyage). Fares include gratuities on board as well as on the included shore excursions. The only additional fees would be from bar and gift shop purchases.