The Explorer itself, while nicely furnished, is not luxurious. Nor is it meant to be. Except for the elegance of the Purser's Lobby, the fittings on the vessel are --for the most part-- utilitarian. Meals are ample, if not gourmet. I thought the choices at "dinner" were excellent and enjoyed the food on the buffet more than the a la carte suppers. Plenty of fresh fruit and snacks are available at any time from a fridge located in The Galley. Self-serve hot dogs, chili and popcorn are available during the day in the Bridge Bar on the Sky Deck. An always-full cookie jar sits next to the coffee maker in the lobby.
Harry Connick Sr. entertains on board
The Sprague theatre was host to a series of entertainers, selected to complement our excursion, brought on board at the landing points where we docked. Harry Connick Sr. was the first guest on our journey, followed by a Cajun musical troupe that had our feet stompin' to the beat. A Cajun comic and a guest and staff talent show helped make the evenings brighter.
At 200-square-feet, the cabins are spacious. I found the layout to be a little awkward, since I had to go around my mother's bed to get to my belongings, often waking her in the process. If Eddie Conrad had chosen to make his "picture windows" slightly smaller, like those on a cruise ship, the rooms might have appeared larger, with more wall space with which to work. But no, he wanted "the guests to appreciate the rivers of America the way the river workers experience them," to be able to see everything possible. Smaller windows would have been more cost-effective for him too, both during construction of the barge hotel and in fuel usage for air conditioning. A slightly awkward placement of the cupboards and drawers is a small tradeoff for the incredible vistas those big glass walls produce.
If the weather is terrific, as it was on our journey, a balcony is definitely worth the splurge --with one caveat. The rooms on the starboard side forward (odd numbered rooms from 201 to about 215) are under the exhaust stacks of the barge and the balconies are very, very noisy. I never got used to the grinding whine of the huge fans, no matter how hard I tried. It didn't bother everyone but I used my balcony constantly and it did bother me.
If you are going to travel in the heat of the summer a balcony may not matter. The Royal Deck staterooms have the entire wall of glass and great air conditioning.
The Explorer appeals, for a variety of reasons, to a senior crowd. Access to land at any time is one reason, and as Michael the bartender told me, most of the staff is trained in basic emergency procedures including CPR, and there are at least two licensed EMTs on board. The educational aspect of the excursions make it an ideal Elderhostel offering, and indeed, there was an Elderhostel group on board during our trip. Three staterooms are wheelchair accessible with roll-in showers. All of the public spaces are wheelchair accessible. Special dietary needs can be met with advance notice.
The staff, called Bargemates, are mostly young and energetic, friendly, engaging and funny. Some of the officers, skilled river professionals, also seem terribly young, but their experience belies their age. The excursions are safe and comfortable, relaxing and informal, friendly and personal. A great percentage of the guests are repeaters. On our journey we had a Ten Timer.
Sunset at Morgan City
The number of trips offered, from our Cajuns and Creoles in southern Louisiana to the Foliage and Foals trip on the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers, allows for a variety of itineraries to experience.
My 27-year-old daughter would have enjoyed the trip for the first three days and then would have itched for some nightlife. A weeklong excursion would probably not appeal to that age group, nor to teens nor even to people in their 30s. Children, however, are encouraged; the line has a special program allowing kids twelve and under to travel for free, making for an ideal getaway with the the grandparents. Videos and board games are readily available and there is plenty for a younger child to enjoy on board.
I especially like the fact that teachers and retired teachers get a huge break too, with one person going for half-price when sharing a cabin.
I would take the River Explorer again in a heartbeat. The staff encouraged me to try a Cumberland and Ohio river trip, although some of them like the itineraries that include Mexico and the Gulf Coast, offered only during the winter. For me, any trip would do. I have discovered Barging Through America® and I can't wait to do it again. And my mother can't wait to set up her studio again in The Galley, this time traveling with my father.
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Riverbarge Excursion Line
Jim Zwick's Mark Twain