Scenic river cruises blend past with present

Thursday, September 23, 2004

CINCINNATI, Ohio (AP) — Rivers were natural highways for early Americans. Now some of these storied waterways host overnight and multi-day cruises where recreational travelers can get a mix of the past and present, learn about history and enjoy scenery that changes with the season.

These floating hotels — on rivers like the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi — range from a barge that gives a glimpse into the working aspect of America’s waterways, to ornate Victorian-style steam-driven paddlewheelers. And fall foliage cruises are among the industry’s most popular getaways.

"River cruises offer some of the best amenities of the ocean cruises, but unlike the blue water cruises, you don’t lose sight of land or risk seasickness," said Lawrence Dessler, executive director of the Niche Cruise Marketing Alliance based in Bellevue, Washington "And unlike tours by motor coach or car, you don’t have to pack and unpack bags and travel from hotel to hotel. Your bedroom follows you."

Eddie Conrad said he has been welcoming back repeat guests since soon after his RiverBarge Excursion Lines Inc. launched the River Explorer in 1998.

"I tried to create a product that I felt I would enjoy and hoped that other people would," Conrad said.

The comfortable and casual River Explorer, which is two barges joined together and pushed by the Miss Nari towboat, leisurely plies up and down rivers such as the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri on four- to 10-day trips year-round. Guests can raid the community refrigerator 24 hours a day, help themselves to books, videos and games or lounge on the Sky Deck.

Lois Batchelder, who recently passed through Cincinnati on her 13th barge trip, also likes the casual dining. There’s no assigned seating, and formal attire isn’t required.

"On the barge, you can pretty much do what you want," said Batchelder, 72, of Santa Monica, California, as she relaxed on the Sky Deck overlooking the Cincinnati skyline.

Guests can wander into the pilothouse and watch real-time radar or follow official navigational charts. Cajun, bluegrass and blues bands, dancers and storytellers come on board at various ports to provide entertainment.

‘Kick back and relax’

For travelers wanting to simulate the days when elegant steamboats glided up and down the nation’s waterways, the New Orleans-based Delta Queen Steamboat Company Inc. operates three paddlewheelers on three- to 12-night trips.

The American Queen, billed as the largest steamboat in the world, offers the ambiance of a Victorian mansion with a Mark Twain gallery filled with antiques and a two-story dining room featuring floor-to-ceiling windows for a magnificent view of the passing scenery.

The slightly smaller Mississippi Queen was modeled after traditional Mississippi River steamboat design and features 19th century-style furnishings, an imposing brass and mirrored staircase and a lounge with a two-story glass rear wall where guests can view the giant paddlewheel. Both large, steel-constructed paddlewheelers also offer modern amenities such as movie theaters, bathing pools and musical shows.

The past seems even more in play on the smaller Delta Queen, which also provides a more intimate atmosphere. The 1927 wooden paddlewheeler — a National Historic Landmark — features the original Tiffany-style stained-glass windows, dark teak and mahogany paneling, gleaming brass fittings and a grand staircase topped with an elegant crystal chandelier.

Sam Rhoades, 54, and his wife, Becky, 52, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, have spent most of their 39 river cruises aboard the Delta Queen.

"You don’t feel like you are in a cattle car with hundreds of other people like you would on big cruises, and you can just kick back and relax without the interruption of TVs or phones," Rhoades said.

He was not enthusiastic when his wife suggested their first river cruise in 1999.

"But once we got on board I was hooked," he said, while sipping a cocktail in the comfortable forward cabin lounge aboard the Delta Queen. The boat was docked in Cincinnati on the first leg of a 43-day journey through America’s heartland from Pittsburgh to St. Paul, Minnesota "Just to see the typical everyday folks that wave from the shore or other boats and come down to watch the Queen coming in is great."

Stepping back in time

The trips also give Rhoades a chance to learn more about America’s heritage.

"I enjoy trying to imagine what it was like when the rivers were more like the interstate highways of today," he said. "You find out why river towns like Clarksville, Tennessee, were founded and how industry and commerce developed in this country."

Myra Jenkin, 75, of Marysville, California, feels the pull of history each time she and her husband, Bob, travel on the River Explorer, passing Southern mansions that seem almost frozen in time from an earlier era.

"And I will never forget the feeling you get visiting the Civil War battlefields like Vicksburg and Shiloh or watching the Cajun bonfires that have been lit for years at Christmas," she said. "You really feel like you have stepped back in time."

River historian Virginia Bennett, who has shared her knowledge on board the barge and all three Queens, says passengers want to know what they are seeing and how it was years ago.

"I try to tell them about the difference in navigation, how important river traffic is to commerce and what the river towns were like," said Bennett, of Covington, Kentucky.

Scenery also is a draw.

"The feeling you get sitting in a rocking chair on deck and watching a breathtaking sunset or sunrise or seeing the colors along the riverbanks — especially the reds and golds in the fall — is hard to put into words," said Marian Nusekabel, 65, of Cincinnati. She and her husband, Ray, have spent most of their 25 river trips on the Mississippi Queen.

Shore excursions for river travelers might include New Orleans’ romantic French Quarter or the rollicking Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Some cruises follow themes, such as fall foliage along the Ohio River, old-fashioned holidays and big bands and 1950s music.

Sandra Guile, a spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association in Cincinnati, said AAA travel agents believe river cruises are growing in popularity.

"The smaller river cruises offer something out of the ordinary, especially for those who have already toured abroad and are more interested in American history and easy travel," she said.

River cruise companies are expanding their routes and adding new cruises each year, hoping to attract new customers and to keep the trips fresh for repeat passengers.

For Rhoades, the rivers provide the change.

"There is always something different around every bend," he said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press

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