R/B River Explorer

RiverBarge Excursion Line

A SuiteCruising Unique Vacation Review - Kris Krenz

Taking the scenic Route

Barging through America on the R/B River Explorer

RB River Explorer in Nashville Tennesee

Sitting below First and Broadway on Nashville’s Riverfront was the R/B River Explorer. The only vessel of it’s kind.

The R/B River Explorer operated by RiverBarge Excursion Lines, is not a paddle wheeler, ship or a boat, but a hotel made up by a series of two large barges pushed by a towboat. Both of these barges have three levels. The lowest level is called the Royal Deck, the second level is named the Platinum Deck and the top level is the open air Sky Deck.

The two barges are named after famous explorers. The larger forward barge called the DeSoto is where dining, lounges and most entertainment is located. The large aft barge named LaSalle, houses the guest staterooms. Each barge has the unique ability to operate independent of each other via their own power plants. The Sky Deck is a large sunning, viewing area. The top of the LaSalle Barge houses the Pilot house, the exercise room, hot tubs and the covered Bridge Bar. During our trip a smaller forward barge called Mr. Wally was in place. Mr. Wally an optional attachment houses a bow thruster used for maneuvering when the R/B River Explorer navigates narrow winding rivers such as the Cumberland and Tennessee.

The LaSalle and DeSoto barges are each 295 feet in length. Mr. Wally the forward most utility non-passenger barge is 40 feet in length. These three barges are lashed together and pushed by a 143 foot towboat named the Miss Nari to create one large floating hotel of approximately 773 feet in length. The widths of the barges are 54 feet and the clearance height needed by the R/B River Explorer is 49 feet 10 inches.

The historic towboat M/V Miss Nari is named for Mrs. Narcissa “Nari” Conrad, the late wife of Eddy Conrad, the CEO of RiverBarge Excursions Lines. The Miss Nari is the only river towboat in America with a twin propulsion 3,000 horsepower Z peller 360 degree unit, which can completely turn the entire tow in place. The Miss Nari was built in 1951 and started her career as the Delta Cities. If you check your history, on September 13, 1970 the Delta Cities’ tow of gasoline filled barges broke loose crashing into the Port Arthur Bridge. The barges, the bridge and the Delta Cities were engulfed in flames. The Delta Cities suffered severe fire damage and remained out of service for years. She became known as “the Hulk” for a period of time as she lay dormant. Today the newly equipped and refurbished Miss Nari, still shows the scares of this tragedy with heat-warped decks. The Miss Nari pushes the barges along at speeds of 9 to 10 miles per hour although faster speeds can be achieved depending on river currents and conditions.

Pushes? – Yes the Miss Nari is a towboat. Towboats are used to push tows, which consist of many barges lashed together. Some tows can have three or more barges side by side with the average tow made up of 15 barges. Towboats differ from tugboats as tugs have pointy bows and are used to maneuver large ships in place or maybe pull a barge or barges via a tow cable. Towboats typically have large flat blunt bows used to push barges or tows, hence the name towboat.

Enough of the technical stuff, I’m sure you are more interested in the RiverBarge experience or what RiverBarge Excursion Lines has to offer guests. -- I can say that the barge experience is not at all like a cruise ship experience. There is no comparing the two, only that they are both floating vacations.Stateroom onbord the platinum level with private balcony

The barge’s staterooms offer more space than traditional cruise ships with all staterooms the same uniform size of 200 square feet. The exception is that the platinum deck staterooms have a private veranda. The veranda offers bonus footage beyond the 200 square feet. All staterooms are true staterooms keeping in tradition with river travel when rooms were named after the states in the Union. The windows in all the staterooms are very large an offer virtually unobstructed views. Pictured above is our stateroom 241, the Montana stateroom. Above our bed was a painting of the Montana state capital and state bird.

All beds are twins that can be converted to a queen size. Stateroom amenities include a coffee maker, mini fridge, phone, two channel onboard radio, binoculars, writing desk, large closet with plenty of shelf space, satellite TV with VCR, alarm clock, large windows that slide open and individual climate control units that warm or cool your stateroom quickly on demand.

The stateroom bathroom is complete with a “home sized” bathtub shower that is larger and wider then found on any cruise ship with the exception of some suites. The bathrooms are also fitted with a true flush toilet and have an apartment size sink with a cabinet to stow toiletries out of view.

The décor of the staterooms is very modest and plain, however the rooms are user friendly, functional and comfortable. The verandas found on the Platinum deck house a long stationary metal bench.

Staterooms are not assigned when the excursion is booked. When booking the customer request either the Royal or the Platinum Deck. Staterooms are assigned upon check in similar to check in at a hotel.

Miss Nari Towboat The Former Delta Cities

RiverBarge Excursion Lines operates an environmentally friendly barge by providing each passenger with a RiverBarge hot/cold mug for your use around the ship. Using your mug helps to conserve water and waste. At the end of your excursion the mug is yours to take home. Stateroom towels are changed every other day unless you request otherwise. Special detergents and water treatment onboard assures that the R/B River Explorer is always eco friendly.

Again I want to reiterate is that a RiverBarge Excursion Lines’ vacation does not offer the same amenities as a typical ocean cruise. You will find no discos, continuous live music, gambling or endless activities, but trust me you will not miss these amenities once you are onboard. A RiverBarge Excursion Lines vacation allows you to learn about and explore Americas’ heartland in an all inclusive, relaxing way.

I never missed the glitz of an ocean cruise as I became more in touch and in awe of the beauty of our heartland. – The real reason why you would select a RiverBarge Excursion Lines vacation. Watching the banks of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers pass by was a relaxing and pleasurable experience. I stopped for a period of time to watch a bald eagle soar along the banks of the river. Nature sightings were more plentiful than I ever imagined. I spotted countless numbers and varieties of birds such as blue herons, egrets, wild turkeys and bald eagles. Deer and other wildlife were everywhere during sunrise and sunset. Sunsets on the river are just as impressive as on the ocean and you may even witness a “green flash” if conditions are right -- Folklore states that the blue herons house the soles of past river pilots. When the blue herons fly in front of you it is good luck. If they fly the other way beware.

It wasn’t just nature we saw along our excursion we also got to experience man made wonders and traveled back in time historically. Traversing a lock, passing under bridges and squeezing through narrow bridge piers is a never-ending thrill. As the R/B River Explorer passes the many river towns, time seems to stand still as people along the river stop to wave. We really were taken back to a time when riverboats once carried, passengers, goods and troops along the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. Over 100 years ago these rivers were highways and a primary means of travel during the civil war. We passed significant civil war landmarks such as Ft. Donelson and the “Surrender House,” the site of Ft. Henry, which is now a mile marker thanks to dams, and barged past Pittsburg Landing at Shilo.

It was our BargeMasters who always made it a point to alert passengers to wildlife and landmarks as we barged. –BargeMasters are the persons in charge of passenger/crew safety and daily operations of the Barge. There were two BargeMasters on our excursion and two Captains. The R/B River Explorer uses two captains to pilot the vessel. The BargeMasters and Captains are pretty much equally in charge of the R/B River Explorer.

Our Captain navigates the River Explorer through a train bridge on the Cumberland River

It wasn’t all barging past historic points of interest. During our port stops, tours of historic sites and museums were all included with our RiverBarge Excursion Lines’ vacation. Everyone receives the same tour options and could choose if they wanted to go or spend the day on their own.

So when not touring what do you do onboard? -- Well you can read a book or read the river. The barge is designed so that no matter where you are you are, you will have a view of the world passing by. Even the Sprague Show lounge where regional acts are featured almost nightly, offers a view of the riverbanks. If the shutters of the Sprague Show Lounge windows are closed, paintings of river views are on backside of the shutters so you always feel you are on the river. The R/B River Explorer’s Sprague Show Lounge, named after one of the largest towboats in the US, is the largest show lounge afloat on the inland waterways. All 198 guests onboard are able to fit into this two level show lounge. On a RiverBarge Excursion Line trip you will experience only regional acts keeping in theme with your particular excursion.

You can eat constantly if you wish. -- The dining room or Galley as it is named, serves home-style food in a casual open seating atmosphere. The décor is very basic but comfortable with large picture windows that offer a spectacular view no matter where you sit. A regional “Blue” plate special is offered each evening. There is no formal dining onboard, you choose where you want to sit and with whom. Breakfast and dinner (lunch is referred to as dinner onboard) is served buffet style. Your evening meal is a sit down meal served by the staff called BargeMates. The service onboard is very fast and you can take as little or as much time as you want during dining hours to eat. You actually can finish your meal in less than a half hour or take well over an hour… it is up to you. The Galley is the only dining area onboard. However hotdogs, chili, popcorn and condiments are available at the Bridge Bar.

RAID THE REFRIGERATOR -- There is no room service offered onboard, but food is always available in the Galley. Here you will find a fully stocked refrigerator with sandwiches, snacks, yogurts, fruit, milk and other goodies. Just help yourself. Bring a desert back to your room, pop it in your stateroom mini frig to eat later in the evening. Most everything on the R/B River Explorer is help-yourself. There also is the “perpetual” cookie jar, soda fountains, coffee, tea, juice, cappuccino, hot chocolate and ice available 24 hours a day. – My wife and I are typical room service daily cruisers, but didn’t miss the lack of this amenity.

The library onboard also serves as a game/meeting room. Available were books, movies, puzzles, bumper pool and many other games. The library is also open 24 hours a day and on the honor system with no need to sign out, books, movies or games.

Hallway Onboard the River Exploer

The Purser’s Lobby is a very large comfortable socializing area where many played cards, read a book, newspaper or just stretched out on one of the many couches. This area also houses the front desk.

Two bars are located onboard, the Bridge Bar, an open air bar on the Sky Deck and the Crevasse Bar on the Royal Deck. The Crevasse Bar is aptly named. Behind this bar is a large original painting/mural of a natural disaster, an explosive break in a levy.

High above the Sky Deck is the pilothouse where the captains maneuver the vessel, not on the Miss Nari as you would think. The pilothouse is always open and offers the most complete panoramic views. Most any time you wish you can visit the captain(s) in the pilot house. Our captains, Kenny and Joe, truly enjoyed company and sharing their river stories. If you feel like you are intruding by being with the Captain(s) you can always sit forward in the pilothouse lounge on the Platinum Deck and listen to the radio communications between the Captain(s), bridges, locks and barge mates. You can also view radar and plot your course with the provided river charts in this lounge. This lounge offers a spectacular up front forward view of the river, here you feel like you are leading the way.

Front Desk Onboard the  River Explorer

TRUE HOMELAND CRUISING, AMERICAN OWNED AND OPERATED – On our excursion there were no forms to fill out, no customs and no waiting. Just like a hotel we pulled our car up along side the barge, dropped off our luggage and checked in with “ZERO” lines! We then grabbed a quick snack, got off the barge and parked the car and toured Nashville. After our barge trip was over, we were permitted to leave our luggage onboard as we toured the city. After touring we picked up our car, went back onboard, grabbed a bite to eat and use the restrooms. Even though our excursion was technically over… Flexibility is what RiverBarge Excursions Lines offers. Try the same on any popular cruise line…

Since the R/B River Explorer is an American built and registered vessel, the staff/BargeMates and other members of the crew are mainly if not all American. The only language barrier encountered is American regional dialects, but everyone had fun with that. Most of the BargeMates were from Southern US states. The staff onboard is always extremely accommodating. If you asked for something out of the ordinary a BargeMate would bend over backward to try and satisfy your request. Tips are never expected as they are included with the price of the excursion.

With a staff complement of less than 50, you will find the BargeMates multitasking. For example your stateroom attendant may be bussing your table during mealtime or chaperoning your tour bus on an excursion. Because there is no real crew area onboard, recreational/off time is shared with the passengers. By the end of your vacation you end up becoming like one large family.

Florence Alabama Kris is in front of the well where Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan spelled out W-A-T-E-R. Hellen Keller's brith place Ivy Green, Tuscumbia, Alabama

PART OF THE RIVERBARGE FAMILY -- As a RiverBarge Excurion Lines’ alumnus, you become a part of the RiverBarge family. If you happen to see the R/B River Explorer tied up somewhere and you have your old nametag/room key and photo ID, you are always welcomed back onboard and invited to join the guests for dinner at no charge. No other cruise operator offers this “your family” hospitality to past guests.

Remembering fellow passenger names onboard becomes very easy. Combination name tags/onboard charge/room keys are issued to each guest upon check in. On this card in bold letters is printed your name, city and state. A necklace with a pouch to hold this card is also provided. At the beginning of the trip I had to admit that I was not keen of this idea and felt it awkward to wear a nametag. I was amazed that everyone wore them all the time with no complaints. The tags were helpful in remembering names and great conversation starters. Also the number of RiverBarge excursions taken were reflected on these tags. All crewmembers wear them as well including the Captains and BargeMates.

RIVER TIME -- What is unique about a barge trip versus most cruise vacations is voyage flexibility. At any time the Captains can stop or pull along the side of the river and tie up to the trees along the riverbank as we did one evening when the fog made it too risky to move along the narrow winding Cumberland River. We also would pick up or drop off the entertainers in some of the most unusual spots such as a park located along the banks of the river. At one point our river journey was well over 24 hours behind schedule thanks to fog and a stuck swinging train bridge however this in no way put a damper on our vacation. We were on RIVER TIME where schedules are hard to keep. Once you surrender to RIVER TIME the relaxing and unwinding from life’s regimented schedules and daily stress begins. - by Kris Krenz

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