Riverbarge on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway
Midwinter is the time to follow the whooping cranes and roseate spoonbills to their habitat on the southeast Texas coast, and one way to go is by water. The R/B River Explorer --- a 98-room hotel built into the hulls of two old petroleum barges --- makes the trip along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway between Galveston and Port Isabel four times mid-January to mid-February. The 8-day adventure is the "South to the Border" segment of the RiverBarge Excursions regional voyage called "The Route of Jean Lafitte."
The hotel barge (the only one of its kind) docks at the foot of the Strand on Galveston Island, allowing time to see the Texas Seaport Museum and the Windjammer Elissa as well as explore the historic town. At Port Isabel a sidetrip into Mexico (Matamoros) takes in the outdoor market and a program of folkloric dancing as well as the Rio Grande Valley. In between it passes through the Colorardo River Lock; visits Corpus Christi with its museums and aquarium on Padre Island; Rockport, home of the Texas Maritime Museum; Port Aransas on Mustang Island; and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Designated a "Globally Important Bird Area" in 1998, the Refuge is the residence of more than 392 species including pelicans, egrets, spoonbills and herons. Here in its saltwater marshes the endangered whooping crane -- one of North Americašs rarest birds -- is making a comeback from a low of 15 birds in 1941.
Dawn and dusk are prime times to see wildlife, and the flat-bottom barge is surprisingly noninvasive for its size. In fact, the height of the Explorer gives the best perspective of any craft permitted in the area, and 60-95 whoopers have been seen up close on every trip. Alligators, dolphins and white-tail deer are also plentiful. Each stateroom is equipped with binoculars to carry up to the Sky Deck or train out the room's picture window.
Eddie Conrad, owner of RiverBarge Excursions and a follower of America's waterways since boyhood, says "This is our most spectacular excursion yet the least taken, probably because people are less likely to travel just after the holidays." Of the many and varied barging trips available year round, the winter "Route of Jean Lafitte" is the most eco-focused. Marine educators and ornithologists Dr. Rick Tinnin and Judy Reynolds from the University of Texas are on board the entire trip, and rotating speakers include specialists on both endangered species and coastal history.
Port Isabel, a village on Laguna Madre at the south tip of South Padre Island, has a lighthouse built in 1853 and a notable shrimp boat fleet. Incidentally, Jean Lafitte, the "Gentleman Pirate" (c.1780-c.1826), headquartered at Galveston, raided the coast and was last seen in Port Isabel. The treasures he supposedly hid along the way have never been found.
Getting there on the RiverBarge is an eco-experience in itself. The 50-foot high 860-ton vessel moving along at an easy 11-12 miles per hour is a tribute to recycling. Rescued from the scrap heap, the working barges now named "LaSalle" and "DeSoto" in honor of the explorers were rebuilt as well as refitted to become a floating hotel at a cost of $24 million. Linked together and including the towboat (the M/V Miss Nari) they constitute a 730-foot vessel. RiverBarge Excursion Lines was incorporated in 1995, and the Explorer was launched in 1998.
Instead of coal, grain, iron ingots and the like, the barge carries 196 passengers in comfort unsurpassed on America's inland waters. Staterooms measuring 200 square feet have individually controlled AC/heat, bathrooms with tub and shower, twin or super-queen beds, mini-refrigerators, coffee makers, TV and VCRs, telephones and even hair dryers. Three staterooms are wheelchair accessible.
The barge has a restaurant called The Galley; a theater for movies and regional entertainment; library with books, videos, games, card and bumper pool; gift shop and two bars. On the Sky Deck there is a gym, two whirlpool tubs, shuffleboard and a walking track. Sound like a cruise ship? It is --- just don't expect midnight suppers; costume balls or black-tie events. On the Explorer, it's afternoon bingo, ice cream socials, and a top deck regional cookout that, on the Texas coast, will most likely be a shrimp boil.
In lieu of set mini-meals the Explorer has "Open Fridge" for raiding day and night as well as help-yourself anytime beverages and a bottomless cookie jar. The Galley has no-reservation open seating, and the cookery is American home-style with variations of menu according to the region of navigation (expect Tex-Mex on this one). Hot dogs are available on deck for those who don't feel like going down to the noontime buffet.
The bargemaster can often be persuaded to take small groups on a tour of the M/V Miss Nari. Eco-travelers will find this especially interesting since the visit includes a full explanation of how the near-derelict tow boat was refitted with Z-Peller units instead of rudders and requires only 1200 gallons of diesel fuel per day (other vessels of similar size use 3000). From the reusable plastic "Barge Mugs" given each guest to low-phosphate detergents in the laundry, the barge is notably eco-conscious.
One unadvertised pleasure is the Guest Pilot House where passengers can listen to the captain's radio communications, watch the radar and follow the route on official navigation charts.
The Explorer goes year round adjusting its 4-to-10 day trips north and south according to the season. That is, spring and winter cruises are in the south; summer in the mid-Mississippi and Missouri rivers and autumn on the Ohio River taking in the Louisville horse country as well as the color. In 2003 and 2004 there will be special itineraries for the bicentennial of the Louis & Clark expedition.
Nothing is compulsory. Shore visits may include a bus tour or you can poke about on your own. National Geographic and Smithsonian films are shown before each port both in the theater and simultaneously over stateroom television.
On my barge trip, the passengers ranged in age from one to 100 with the majority around retirement age. There are no real facilities for young children though one 12-year-old girl on her third voyage with her great-grandmother was enjoying herself thoroughly.
Price for the Galveston-Port Isabel leg of the "Route of Jean Lafitte" begins at $2,230 per person in a double room including shore excursions, airport transfers and all tips. Other barge trips begin as low as $750. Teachers and retired teachers get a 50 percent discount with a full paying companion; children under 12 travel free; kids up to 18 can have their own room at half fare. Complimentary airfare returns you from the destination landing to the home landing, and bookings six months or more in advance earn $100 in barge credits usable in the gift shop or bar.
RiverBarge Excursion Lines, Inc.
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