Cruising By Barge

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A few weeks ago I was reading a travel magazine and saw an ad for RiverBarge Excursions. What was a river barge? I called the company and they sent a brochure which explained that it cruised the Ohio and Mississippi rivers at various times of the year depending on the seasons.

It looked like an enjoyable experience so I booked us on a mid-October cruise, which departed and returned to Cincinnati, Ohio.

The barge is the “River Explorer” and it accommodates 198 passengers in generous 200 square-foot cabins, all positioned to have large windows looking out on the scenery, and some with balconies. The barge units coupled together are 730 feet in length and towed by a large tugboat. This is an informal way to experience our great American rivers with four- to 10-day itineraries. It is, in fact, a floating hotel barge.

All meals are included in the price of your river cruise as well as all shore excursions, which are offered to various towns and cities on your itinerary. Also, there is no tipping. Aboard, you will find complimentary fresh baked cookies served in several locations and on the top deck, which is outside, with covered areas, there is an abundance of popcorn, hot dogs and a selection of beverages, all of which are also included in the fare. In one of the lounges hot coffee and tea are available all day and evening. The only extras are items from the gift shop and alcoholic drinks from the bars.

Meals are served in the galley at usual meal times. Breakfast and lunch are available from a buffet and waiters serve dinner. The menus offer a good selection of items and no one goes hungry. I gained three pounds in eight days!

The barge is arranged so that the public rooms are forward and the hotel section is aft. This works well since any noise from entertainment is away from the sleeping areas.

The cabins are well laid out with queen or twin beds, desk, two chairs, television, refrigerator, large closet and a bathroom equipped with a tub and shower. All cabins are the same size. The only difference is that deck two offers the addition of a small balcony.

The public rooms include a large lounge with wonderful windows, two bars, a large auditorium, a forward facing “pilot viewing room” and a large dining room. The top (sky) deck is 700 feet long and includes a covered bar area, picnic area, lounge chairs, jogging track and two saunas. One never feels cramped. The feel is wide open and free.

The passengers come from all over the United States. Many on our cruise were repeaters, some having been on the barge as many as 10 times previously. For the most part they love the river experience and come back time and time again. This is probably the most informal water experience I have enjoyed. No dress shirts, ties, etc.; only what I would wear at home. This is great because you are comfortable all day and evening.

I have spent much print here explaining the river barge because when I told friends we were taking a barge vacation they looked at me with confusion. And, you may not be aware that the famous paddle wheel riverboats that have plied the Mississippi and Ohio rivers for almost 100 years are going out of business at the end of the year. So, that leaves the River Explorer the only chance to cruise the rivers for an extended vacation.

One of the nicest features of our trip was the opportunity to visit the small towns along the Ohio River. From Cincinnati we stopped at the beautiful town of Ripley, population around 1,800 with well-preserved homes, averaging more than 200 years old. We were able to stroll around the town and visit with the people. A bus took us to the top of a hill for a tour of the John Rankin House, which is a National Historic Landmark. The home was reputed to have been one of Ohio’s first and most active “conductors” on the Underground Railroad. John Rankin was an author of numerous letters on American slavery, which were first published in a book in 1826.

We enjoyed watching our vessel pass through several large lock systems, which lifted or lowered the barge as much as 70 feet at a time.

Floods of major proportions have invaded the Ohio River for centuries, with the most destructive occurring in 1937, when the river rose more than 65 feet, severely affecting the towns and cities along its path. Again in 2004, floods rose more than 53 feet over the banks. Levees, dams and walls have been erected in an effort to ease the rise of storm waters since the early 1930s. Watermarks can be seen on buildings in many of the towns visited while cruising the river.

There is wonderful relaxation sitting in a deck chair and watching the activity of the passing shoreline as the barge finds its way on the river. On our trip we visited Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. In mid-October we enjoyed the fall colors with leaves turning from green to yellow and into blazing reds.

One of our favorite stops was Marietta, Ohio, a town of some 25,000 residents and many homes more than 200 years old and beautifully preserved, with wonderful gardens and large front lawns. From here we were driven to a small town called Roscoe Village, about 65 miles away. Here we enjoyed lunch in an outdoor garden and roamed around the town enjoying each store. Nearby we boarded an authentic Erie Canal boat for a short trip to experience the monumental method of transportation in the earlier times of our country. The Erie Canal is some 475 miles long and was all dug by hand. Our boat was towed by two horses, just the way it was done 150 years ago.

We also visited Point Pleasant, W.Va. and Portsmouth, Ohio — both are wonderful examples of how life is lived along the river.

There was entertainment each evening in the auditorium. The music of the region and early American instruments was the feature. The entire eight days was truly our most American experience to date.

Instead of driving to Sky Harbor Airport, we decided to hire A Touch of Class limo service for the journey down and back from the Valley. Parking at the airport is now $25 per day, so hiring a limo is no longer an extravagance. We were taken to curbside check-in and met at baggage claim. To learn more about this great service, call A Touch of Class at (928) 978-0857.

RiverBarge Excursions operate on the upper rivers in the summer and the lower Mississippi in winter. Its main office is in New Orleans. For more information, call 1-888-462-2743 or visit the Web site www.riverbarge.com.

Your travel professional can help you with additional information and arrangements.

A barge vacation is a great way to enjoy America in comfort and informality, with wonderful crews waiting to serve. I highly recommend it.

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