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River cruising: a leisurely way to explore U.S.

Dean and Carol Dubois watch the River Explorer cruise boat as it docks at the public landing in downtown Cincinnati. They traveled on the boat the next day.
Dean and Carol Dubois watch the River Explorer cruise boat as it docks at the public landing in downtown Cincinnati. They traveled on the boat the next day.
David Kohl, Associated Press

CINCINNATI — Rivers were natural highways for early Americans. Now some of these storied waterways host overnight and multiday 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, Wash. "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, Calif, 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.

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 paddle wheel. 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 paddle wheeler — 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, Okla., 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, Minn. "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."

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