Innovative Barge to Ply U.S. Rivers

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LAFAYETTE, La.--Please don't call the 198-passenger River Explorer, now being built for RiverBarge Excursion Lines, a ship. Don't even call it a boat. Its operators prefer to call it a barge or, to be accurate, two linked barges. The front barge, the De Soto, comprises the public spaces; the other barge, the La Salle, houses the staterooms.

A number of factors distinguish the proposed RiverBarge experience, due to debut Aug. 22, from conventional cruising.

  • Passengers will not eat in the dining room; the eating area will be called the galley. It follows, therefore, that meals will not be cooked in the galley, as they are on cruise ships; that process will take place in what RiverBarge will call--surprise!--the kitchen.
  • The thrum and vibration of engines will not be evident anywhere in the passenger sections of the ship, er, barge. All of the moving parts required for the propulsion of the twin-barge unit will be carried by a self-contained towboat. And, by the way, the towboat will not tow the River Explorer; it will push it. Go figure. According to Eddie Conrad, chairman of RiverBarge, tug boats pull and towboats push.
  • Don't look for a "cruise director." The person performing the functions will be known as the barge master.
  • It might be wisest not to think of this product as a cruise at all. Conrad doesn't. "You won't find the word 'cruise' anywhere in our brochure or advertising," he said. "What we intend to provide is an excursion using the rivers as highways."

    The River Explorer might be the first innovative watergoing passenger vehicle in years, a large-scale adaptation of one of the heartland's oldest forms of transportation--the barge. Its destination areas will not be the oceans; it will never transit the Panama Canal or nose up the fjords of Norway. Rather, it will offer guests a peek at life along the Mississippi, Cumberland, Missouri, Ohio and other great American rivers.

    It will ply its trade in the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana and along the intracoastal waterway as far west as Port Isabel, Texas (with day outings to Matamoros, Mexico.) Its ports of call will be Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo.; Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.; Vicksburg and Natchez, Miss.; New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La.; Galveston and Rockport, Texas, and many more.

    The twin-level barges that will form the River Explorer are in the final stages of construction in the Leevac Shipyards near Lafayette. La. The La Salle will have 99 staterooms, all 200 square feet in size on two decks, the Royal and the Platinum. Each of the rooms--furnished in maple and mahogany--will be named for a state, numbered according to when the state entered the union. Room 118, for example, will be the Louisiana Room on the lower floor and 218 the corresponding cabin on the upper deck; Louisiana was the 18th state, hence 118 and 218. (OK, there are 50 states and only 99 rooms. Sorry, Hawaii.)

    Each stateroom will be decorated with prints of the appropriate state's capital, and its official bird and flower, and will be equipped with a TV/VCR. A library will offer films for the VCRs or, as Conrad put it, "We expect some people to bring their own tapes."

    Units on the Platinum, or upper, level will have private verandas and cost an additional $25 to $30 a day. Per diems will start at between $200 and $250, depending on the itinerary and sailing date. The eight-day inaugural, for example, the Arch (St Louis) and the Pyramid (Memphis), start at $1,730 per person, double, for Royal deck accommodations, and $1,950 per person, double, for the Platinum deck.

    All shore excursions, port taxes and gratuities are included in the published prices of all River Explorer voyages. Booze and anything bought in the vessel's Louisiana Purchase Gift Shop will be extra.

    Three lower deck staterooms will be wheelchair accessible. Meals will comprise buffets for breakfast and lunch, with family-style service (at tables of four or six) from menus in the evenings. Passengers can help themselves 24 hours a day to snacks from the galley, as life on the barge will be informal. "The idea is to make people ... feel at home," Conrad said.

    Food served on board will reflect the area through which the vessel in sailing. So will the entertainment. the Sprague Showroom will offer jazz, country, cajun and blue grass music, depending on the ship's location any given night. Large windows wrap around virtually every room and public area, making the passing landscape a constant backdrop.

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    Fact Sheet:

    Company: RiverBarge Excursion Lines.
    Address: 201 Opelousas Avenue, New Orleans 70114.
    Reservations: (888) 282-1945.
    Information: (888) 650-5041.
    Web: www.riverbarge.com.
    Itineraries: Four- to 10-day voyages on American rivers.

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