"This is HUGE!"
The River Explorer docked
in New Orleans
Both my mother and I had the same reaction as we boarded the Riverbarge Excursion Line's sole vessel, River Explorer
, for our discovery of Cajuns and Creoles in southern Louisiana.
We had looked for something intimate, eschewing a traditional cruise in favor of the 200-passenger Explorer and its itineraries in the central regions of the United States. We had never barged before, had never had the experience of a river cruise, and we wanted something "close to home." River Explorer fit the bill perfectly for our late winter getaway. We met in New Orleans, my mother from the west coast, me from the east.
"This is an 'excursion,' not a cruise in the traditional sense," CEO and visionary Eddie Conrad is quick to point out. And -except for the fact that it's on water, has staterooms and includes meals- one is not likely to confuse the Riverbarge Excursion experience with a cruise ship. Two barges, built specifically for the purpose of creating a river-going hotel, are welded together and pushed by a "tow boat" through the rivers of America from the Gulf Coast to Illinois.
I underestimated the size of the Explorer because I wasn't paying attention. I knew that each of the passenger barges (De Soto, the front barge with public areas and La Salle, the rear barge with the staterooms) were each 295 feet in length. Put together end on end, that's nearly 600 feet of passenger space. Norwegian Cruise Line's Crown is 614 feet long, Celebrity's Zenith is 684. The difference is that those cruise ships tower several stories high and have 600 cabins each while the barges are two stories (and a sun deck, called the Sky Deck) and the vessel has only 100 staterooms. The River Explorer is large in size but it's also intimate -- with so few guests and literally no formalities, you get to know your onboard family pretty quickly and pretty well.
The Purser's Lobby
We entered via a stairway that brought us into the Purser's Lounge, (also known as the Rio Vista Lobby,) a large, bright space filled with contemporary furnishings and lined on both sides with walls of windows. Small booths with tables are available for reading or letter writing and the furniture is positioned in intimate groupings for conversation. The brushed-aluminum facade of the purser's desk dominates one end of the room.
A light lunch was being served in the lounge while the vessel was readied for the new guests, but before long we were signed in and en route to our stateroom; our luggage was already waiting for us.
When I had booked this excursion I was in seventh heaven... all of the staterooms (named for the U.S. states, of course) have a full bath including a tub, an in-room coffee-maker, and a window that opens. Who could ask for anything more? Add satellite television, a video player and a library of tapes, turndown service complete with bedtime goodie, and a thoughtfully placed pair of binoculars in the room, and you have near perfection. BUT... When the brochure claims "big picture windows," it's being too modest by far.
The entire wall is a window
in a Royal Deck stateroom
The staterooms on the Royal Deck, the one without balconies, have an entire window WALL. Floor to ceiling, side to side. It's amazing, and because it's on the lower level, and because the barge takes a shallow draft, you get the impression that you are literally standing on the surface of the river as the craft moves along.
Our stateroom was on the Platinum Deck. Although the actual room was identical to the Royal Deck staterooms, we had the addition of a small balcony with a (surprisingly comfortable) metal bench welded to the side wall. The weather on our journey was so absolutely perfect that I spent more time on that balcony, day and night, than I did in the room.
Page Two | Page Three | Page Four | Page Five