Mention the word barge in Pittsburgh, PA and it conjures up visions of huge flat-bedded vessels topped off with mounds of coal, being eased down the city’s rivers by small tugs.
But last month, Pittsburgh was treated to a visit from a very different kind of barge, a huge four-part vessel which docked in the city for the first time ever, giving local residents a view of a different life on the river.
The RiverBarge Excursions vessel, docked in PIttsburgh.
RiverBarge Excursions operates the country’s only river barge hotel, a popular form of travel in Europe but one which hasn’t caught on here. That could change, though.
The vessel -- as long as two football fields -- conducts four to 14 day river excursions on America’s inland waterways. While on the trip, river travelers can take advantage of off-boat tours at the cities where the barge ties up for awhile, and learn a little more of the history of that area.
A slow, meandering way to see America’s river cities, the vessel offers travelers a way to look back in time at the bustling river cities and of a laid-back lifestyle that is hard to find in our hectic world. Going with the flow is a way of life on the river, hence the term “RiverTime,” used by the excursion line to explain that clocks and watches are of no help on the river. The river determines arrivals and departures, not set scheduling, something Americans may not be used to.
Visitors waiting to board the barge hotel.
Travel packages come with an all-inclusive tab for the trips (excluding gift shop and alcohol sales). That means you are treated to two buffet meals a day (breakfast and “dinner” which is really lunch) and an a la carte meal for supper. Like its bigger cousin cruise lines, snacks and other quick meals are available to passengers all day long.
The New Orleans-based excursion line enjoys a 75 percent repeat business and mainly transports those who are 55+. There are some families who travel on the river, though. Maximum occupancy for the vessel is about 200 people, who reserve either one of the 50 staterooms with a private balcony or the 48 without. There are three handicapped-accessible staterooms on board. Each stateroom is about 190 square feet, with two twin beds that can be pushed together to form a king-sized bed.
Although Pittsburgh visitors weren't allow access to the hotel's staterooms on the staff-provided tours, photos of the rooms show that they are functional, but maybe not as luxurious as those on ocean cruise lines. My friend said she thought they looked more "college" than "cruise." The lounge also had more of a 1950s feel to it, complete with a pnk and black swirled carpet and pink chairs. That said, it didn't seem to deter passengers from spending time there, reading and visiting.
While you are sailing along the river, activities include entertainment in the theater, use of a fitness room and walking track, visits to the library to check out books and puzzles or lounging on deck chairs, where else but on the barge's upper or Sky Deck, for an unhampered view of the world drifting by.
A view of Pittsburgh's Heinz Field from the hotel's lounge.
RiverBarge Excursions offers several different cruises to choose from including Cajuns and Creoles (sailing the Atchafalaya River and the Lower Mississippi River); Expanding Frontiers (barging along the Cumberland River); The Route of Jean Lafitte (between New Orleans, Galveston and Port Isabel on the inland Gulf Intercoastal Waterway) and others.
Prices for barging range from about $1,400 to about $3,000 per person, double occupancy, depending on how many days you spend on the rivers.
For more information, visit www.riverbarge.com or call 1-888-462-2743, ext. 1). Happy barging.
By Teresa K. Flatley