Food Feature: Rolling on the river

Forget tricked-out paddle-wheel bilge, it's the stripped-down R/B barge

Sophisticated travelers have long explored Europe on barge cruises of the continent's canals. America's canals were made obsolete by railroads, but we still have our mighty rivers.
Until recently, the only option for cruising them was on tricked-out paddle wheelers that mimic the steamers of yesteryear - river-borne wedding cakes with ersatz historical frills like calliopes and stained-glass lamps.

But now comes the R/B River Explorer, the only cruise barge in America. It makes voyages of four to 10 days, from ports like Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans and Cincinnati to travel the Mississippi, the Missouri or the Ohio rivers.

I sailed the Ohio. As soon as I boarded, in Cincinnati, I climbed up to the sky deck. Just below me, a little boy skipped along the river's edge, dragging a stick in the shallows — as little American boys have been doing, down by the riverside, for centuries. Then blasts from the horn and a rumble from the bow thruster signaled our departure.

Europe's cruise barges, mostly small wooden craft, typically accommodate a dozen or two passengers in intimate luxury. By comparison, the River Explorer is industrial strength. And next to the gussied-up American paddle wheel ships, it's as plain as a bathtub. Instead of frilly lace or fine linen, think sturdy poly-cotton blend. Picture a Days Inn, afloat.

The River Explorer consists of two converted former oil barges, one behind the other — each 295 feet long by 54 feet wide — pushed by a 3,000-horsepower towboat. The 99 spacious staterooms have amenities such as tubs and showers, cable TV, coffeemakers and refrigerators, and big picture windows. Half have private verandahs — well worth the small premium in fare. Prices run $1,775-$3,395 per person, depending on length of cruise and type of room, and include all accommodations, food and activities.

In the dining room, casual dress is the rule and you sit where you like. There are lounges, bars, a library, a theater, and above it all is a vast deck with a track, shuffleboard, an exercise room, hot tubs, picnic tables and lounge chairs.

There's nothing pretentious, no stewards in starched uniforms. Crew members tend to wear chinos and polo shirts. But what they lack in finesse, they make up for in friendliness. A cruise on the River Explorer is a no-nonsense middle-American experience.

This seems just right for our big interior waterways, where soaring bridges loft interstate highways overhead, long freight trains rumble by on shore, and — aside from little pleasure boats buzzing over to investigate — most of the vessels you meet are cargo barges as muscular as your own.

The majority of the passengers on my trip were older couples. One day, we passed a line of disused barges. Across their rusted hulls was stenciled, "Retired. Do Not Load." A group of gents near me grunted their affirmation.

There is no specific provision for children's entertainment. Besides reading, dozing, chatting and watching the world go by, available diversions include a library with videos and board games. Curious, self-reliant kids could get a lot from a trip like this, but those who need lots of external stimulation might get cranky.

Once under way, the barge vibrated gently, but there was no hint of pitch or roll. Life quickly took on a delicious slowness. Our route took us upriver, stopping at Ripley, Ohio; Maysville, Ky.; and Huntington, W.Va. There, we turned around, and put in at Portsmouth, Ohio, before returning to Cincinnati.

This isn't breathtaking country, but given how long-settled and industrialized the Ohio valley is, the landscape was surprisingly unspoiled — low, wooded ridges that were turning fiery colors at the time of October sailing.

The Ohio was our country's earliest thoroughfare to settlement west of the Appalachians, and the old river ports where we stopped were all rich in historic architecture and artifact.

Some mornings, there were casual lectures on river lore. At a few towns where we stopped, local performers came aboard, and at others, we were invited to events on shore. Some passengers opted to take day excursions by bus to places like a race track and horse farms in Kentucky.

I preferred to stroll around the towns. All of them have preservation efforts under way.

The food on board — buffets at breakfast and lunch, simple table service at dinner — was as straightforward as everything else about the cruise. And there was enough variety to satisfy all but the strictest vegetarians.

The after-dinner entertainment, supposedly grounded in local culture, was a mixed success. At Huntington, where the daily bulletin promised an evening of "mountain music from West Virginia," we were serenaded by a dozen fellows in red polyester sport jackets who played big-band tunes.

But at Portsmouth, there was a bluegrass group that really cooked. Still, my favorite after-dinner activity was sitting in the passengers' "pilot house" on those nights when we were sailing. Its interior is kept dark, so you can read the radar displays and see the river and the traffic of other boats and barges. It was easy to pass hours there.

But I equally enjoyed nights when we were tied up — as at Maysville, where our stern line dipped into the green water before looping around a big old riverside oak, like an image out of Mark Twain. I left my verandah door ajar, so I could hear crickets and frogs chirping in the riverside brush, and the soothing lap of the water against the hull.

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