River Time

Sometimes timing is a factor in a successful trip. In our case, with four days of walking, shopping, fabulous meals and late nights in New Orleans, it was perfect to end our vacation with a relaxing and regenerating barge trip up the Mississippi on “river time.” “River time” is what happens on the Mississippi as your watch becomes less essential and you realize that the river has its own easy pace.

RiverBarge Excursions runs trips from four to ten days, featuring seven regions and/or rivers throughout the year. Since we were leaving from their homeport of New Orleans, the “Delta South” trip featuring Plantation Country was our itinerary. It was a natural extension of our visit to the area.

Before our journey, we re-read Huck Finn and Life on the Mississippi. The mighty Mississippi comes alive as Mark Twain describes the river. We also rented the video of “Show Boat.” Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner star in a tribute to life on the Mississippi. The fabulous musical score by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II includes the classic “Old Man River.”

Upon embarkation, you quickly realize that the River Explorer is not a cruise ship. It is actually two wide, large flat barges and a towboat. There are staterooms rather than cabins and the trip is an excursion, not a cruise. Since there are only 200 passengers, the roomy public areas are uncrowded. One quickly settles into “river time.” The river becomes an integral part of your voyage and everything slows down to a relaxing, peaceful rhythm. Incredible sights and sites flow by. We slowly glide by ocean going cargo ships, industrial complexes, levees, bridges, small towns and antebellum mansions.

We departed from New Orleans in the late afternoon and the following morning visited the Houmas House Plantation and Gardens in Burnside, Louisiana. Built in 1840, the plantation was named for the Houmas Indians who settled the area. The gracious home is furnished with authentic period pieces. In its glory days, the plantation flourished and grew to over 20,000 acres. By 1860 the owner, John Burnside, was the prime sugar producer in America. In 1964, Houmas House was the setting for the movie “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,” starring Betty Davis. Later that evening, back aboard the River Explorer, there was a presentation of Cajun history and music in the Sprague Theater.

The next day we docked at the state capitol, Baton Rouge, and took a short coach ride to visit St. Francisville, Louisiana. Our first stop was the Rosedown Plantation and Gardens. The mansion was completed in 1834 and the formal gardens planted in 1836. The main house, historic gardens and the remaining 371 acres are preserved as a state historic site. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the history of the region. Next on the schedule was the Myrtles Plantation, which is operated as a year round, full service, twelve room Bed & Breakfast. The mansion dates back to 1796 and is a step back to the antebellum south and its splendor. There is even a ghost that haunts Myrtles Plantation! Our final stop of the day was the historical Grace Episcopal Church and Cemetery. Back on the River Explorer that evening after dinner, the entertainment was a delightful classical guitar concert.

Our last day was a serene and relaxing one spent reading on our balcony and watching the scenery slide by, enjoying “river time” as we slowly made our way back to New Orleans. During the day we visited the Pilot House on the Miss Nari; it was an eye opening experience watching the captain at work. The traffic on the river is unbelievable; every conceivable type of ship plies the waters. There was a special farewell BBQ lunch served on the upper deck, which made this a festive final day aboard the River Explorer. Once again, “river time,” pleasant and unhurried.

About the R/B River Explorer

Owned and operated by entrepreneur Eddie Conrad, the River Explorer is the first American built, flagged and crewed hotel barge in North America. The River Explorer is 740 feet long and 50 feet high. It consists of two 295-foot river barges, the DeSoto (fore) and the LaSalle (aft), both named after the two most famous explorers of the Mississippi. This behemoth is pushed by the towboat, Miss Nari, a 3000 horsepower towboat that is 140 feet long. The R/B River Explorer cost $21 million to build. The DeSoto contains the public areas including the restaurant, lobby, purser’s desk, guest pilot house (featuring pilot chairs, river charts, radio and radar). Also on the DeSoto is the Sky Deck with the Under the Bridge Bar, gym, two whirlpool tubs and a walking/jogging track. The Governor Galvez Room features card tables, bumper pool and a well-stocked library with a nice selection of complimentary videos. Nearby is the gift shop named, of course, the Louisiana Purchase. Rounding out the layout is the Sprague Theater, home of the nightly entertainment. The LaSalle contains 98 identical, spacious and comfortable staterooms measuring 200 square feet each. The staterooms on the upper deck have small balconies. All feature individual heat and air conditioning controls, choice of queen or twin beds, satellite TV and VCR. There is a mini refrigerator, large picture windows that open and binoculars (another nice touch). The bathrooms are large and have a shower/tub combination. There is plenty of storage space. The River Explorer also offers a complimentary self-service laundry for passengers. Each stateroom is named after a state, located on deck in order of its admission into the Union. Smoking is not allowed in staterooms; there are four areas aboard where smoking is allowed.

The food is uncomplicated, well prepared and plentiful. The breakfast buffet features an egg

and omelet station along with pancakes, french toast, fruit, yogurt, grits, hot and cold cereal, toast, bagels, pecan and cinnamon rolls, biscuits and gravy, croissants, muffins, etc. Lunch is also served buffet style with a chef’s specialty station, along with other hot dishes and an abundance of cold cuts, cheeses, salads fixings, side dishes, soup, breads and rolls and many choices of desserts. Dinner features table service focusing on regional dishes. For starters there is a soup or salad (or both) and a choice of three entrees, including a “blue plate special” usually fish or shellfish served on a blue plate. This is followed by a choice of several homemade desserts. Seconds are encouraged and vegetarians and special diets accommodated. Food service matches the character and personality of the owner, casual, attentive and friendly. There is an open seating policy and plenty of tables by the windows in the comfortably large dining area. Freshly baked cookies, coffee, espresso, latte, cappuccino, hot chocolate, milk, tea, coffee, soda and juices are available twenty-four hours a day. You won’t experience hunger pains while onboard!

Both the shore trips and nightly entertainment are focused on promoting the culture and history of the region; educational and well thought out programs for the guests, no big splashy production numbers or corny comedians. This is a casual vacation. No ties or coats are needed and there is lots of time to catch up on your reading.

Travel Tips & Money Savers

RiverBarge Excursions takes great pride including in the cost a number of items that are expensive extras on other ships. Their policy is no hidden charges, expenses or add ons. Here are examples: free overnight stays at boarding and destination cities on most excursions; all scheduled shore sight seeing trips, port charges and taxes are included; a no tipping policy; and “home free” ticketing whereby they fly you back to your embarkation city. Further special savings include no charge for those 12 and under traveling in the same stateroom and half price for those 13- 17. RiverBarge Excursions also has a Teachers Program that extends a 50% discount to educators. Non-alcoholic beverages are complimentary and they have an open pantry for their passengers. Your only extras are reasonably priced alcoholic beverages and personal purchases in the gift shop. Transfers to and from the airport are also included and on the way to the airport after the barge trip, they take you on a narrated bus tour of New Orleans. This is a “lagniappe,” a little something extra and a very nice farewell touch, typical of the guest friendly policies of the company and owner.

There are dozens of interesting itineraries up and down the Mississippi, Cumberland, Missouri and Ohio Rivers, plus the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Intracoastal Waterway from which to choose. For more information regarding RiverBarge Excursions contact them at 1-888-282-1945 or online at www.riverbarge.com.

For statewide info get a free copy of the Louisiana Tour Guide. It can be ordered by calling 1-800 99GUMBO or online at www.LouisianaTravel.com. Another resource is the State of Louisiana, Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism. They can also provide maps and travel information. They can be contacted at 1-888-677-1400 or online at www.crt.state.la.us.

Trivial Pursuit Facts

The “mighty” Mississippi is 2,350 miles long, the longest in North America and third longest in the world. Some 300 rivers and streams empty into the Mississippi on its course winding south. Each year 724 billion cubic yards of water rush through the mouth of the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico some 95 miles to the south of New Orleans. Third longest? What are the other two? Answer: the Nile and the Amazon. Here’s another interesting fact: The lower Mississippi River receives more water from the Ohio River than any of the other feeder rivers.

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