THE R/B RIVER EXPLORER, America's only hotel barge, is a red, white, and blue whale of a vessel. At 590 feet long and 54 feet wide it could swallow whole schools of the brightly painted narrow boats and barges that travel the waterways of Britain and Europe. Consisting of two former petroleum barges lashed together and pushed by Miss Nari, a powerful 140-foot towboat, River Explorer's blocky shape betrays her commercial past despite the softening effect of bunting and pennants. The hybrid is the invention of Eddy Conrad, a 62-year-old onetime towing operator and present-day visionary based in New Orleans. "I designed this whole project on two barges I didn't own." Conrad had never been on a passenger ship of any kind, and to explain his leap into new territory, he offers a cryptic analogy: "It's like the Protestants."
Once he acquired the barges, Conrad attached them and raised two decks over them. On the lead barge, the DeSoto, he created public rooms and the Pilot House. Behind is the LaSalle, which holds 100 cabins on two levels. Spanning both is a huge open-air deck.
I joined the Explorer in Cincinnati one afternoon last June, at the start of a weeklong roundtrip on the Ohio River, traveling around 160 miles to Huntington, West Virginia, with several stops and side trips along the way. Perhaps even more appealing than any of the places we visited was the chance to settle back on the homely (in the most favorable sense) barge and surrender to river time. River time, built into the Explorer, is defined by the owner and crew as "it happens when it happens," and it has a lot to do with the wonderfully relaxed, unfussy atmosphere on board.
There are, as on any cruise, entertainments and diversions. On the first night Steve Sanford, Cincinnati's city forester, came aboard to introduce the Ohio. He spoke of the river's wooded shoreline, remarking that none of the trees we would see along our route were more than 60 or 70 years old. As settlers came down the Ohio on flatboats, on keelboats, and finally under steam, "we cleared 190 million acres west of the Mississippi," Sandford said. "We tore this country up, we chopped it down." He explained that reforestation efforts starting around 1900 have dramatically filled in the landscape today. "As you look on each side, remember all that took place," he said.
So I started to look on each side, head swiveling between Ohio to port and Kentucky to starboard. "The whole time you are on the Ohio River you'll be in Kentucky. The states have been fighting about that forever," Sanford had told us. What everyone noticed right off was that the river, after a month of spring rain, was extremely high. Its murky brownish green color and tangles of tree limbs floating briskly downstream were tip-offs.
Half the Explorer's cabins have a narrow veranda furnished with a simple metal bench, and since I was occupying one of those, I settled outdoors for long stretches and watched life on the Kentucky and West Virginia shores upriver (my cabin was starboard) and Ohio on the way down. Through the binoculars that are provided in every room I saw kids swimming to a raft watched over by two large black dogs, a woman breakfasting on her front lawn, and a man staring back at me through his binoculars.
The cabins are roomy and very comfortable, outfitted with refrigerators, cable TV, and coffeemakers. Public rooms combine the owner's passion for collecting, for history, and for simply making people feel at home. On the perimeter of the main lounge are booths like those in a coffee shop, but separating each one is a glass panel beautifully etched with the image of one of the bridges that span the rivers the Explorer travels; a label explains its history. Similarly, every cabin is named for a state. Mine was Ohio and bore the number 217, the first digit referring to the deck and the next two to the order in which the state entered the Union. Conrad doesn't tell anyone this; he wants passengers to figure it out for themselves. …