Originally created 07/04/99

Cruise includes variety of activities



CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- It's excitement at 5 mph, an adventure that falls somewhere between rafting with Huck Finn and cruising on The Love Boat.

Vacationers seeking outdoor adventure from the comfort of a motor home are parking their rigs aboard specially equipped barges and floating along waterways deep in Dixie.

Billed by R.V. River Charters Inc. as the World's Only Cruising Campground, the barges carry their loads of recreational vehicles through parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, navigating swamps and bayous as well as major rivers such as the Mississippi and the Tennessee.

"You see the world from a totally different perspective from the deck of a barge," says Eddie Conrad, president of R.V. River Charters. "It's just the relaxation of moving along the waterways."

There's nearly an acre of concrete on two linked barges that have space for 26 rigs. Each RV has an electrical hookup, and there are sewage-holding tanks. Boxes of sod where pets can romp and space for picnic tables add a park-like ambiance.

Need a break from the great outdoors? Head to the Party Barge, which has an enclosed clubhouse where passengers can get away from it all while getting away from it all. A television and VCR, barbecue pits and washers and dryers are among the amenities. Two cooks prepare meals to give the travelers a break from their kitchens.

Don't worry about rough waters. Not even the mighty Mississippi can roil this convoy, Mr. Conrad says. A towboat that powers the barges pushes them up the river so slowly that travelers barely feel a ripple.

"You just glided," says Sharon Andrews, 54, of Quincy, Wash., who took a 15-day trip last year with her husband Ralph, 56. "You very rarely ever felt the movement at all."

The idea came from a group of RV owners who in 1988 asked Mr. Conrad, then a commercial barge and towing operator, to take them and their rigs roundtrip from New Orleans to St. Louis. He agreed, loading portable toilets and more than 85 RVs on eight barges.

"It was weird," Mr. Conrad says. But it worked.

"We made it up and made it down without a problem, so we decided to go into business," he says.

Mr. Conrad redesigned three former petroleum-carrying barges, adding concrete decks, generators for electricity and holding tanks for water and waste. He then scouted ports for loading docks flat enough for the RVs to navigate. Now the RVs are loaded onto the barges in three cities: New Orleans and Mobile and Guntersville, Ala.

River Charters went into business in 1990, selling trips through RV clubs and travel agencies. The barges quickly became their own best advertisement. Drivers would stop on roadsides and bridges to watch the motor homes float by.

"The cars were coming by in streams to see us. People waved and hollered," Mrs. Andrews says. "We were just fascinating to them."

During the spring and fall, Mr. Conrad runs about 20 voyages that last from seven to 15 days and cost between about $3,000 and $5,000 per couple, including most meals and off-barge attractions.

"We sell out quickly," says Greg Bruce, general manager for Creative World Travel Inc. of New Orleans, which charters the barges for RV owners.

River Charters has been so successful that Mr. Conrad has branched out, now offering trips for travelers without RVs. He built "hotels" atop two barges to create a kind of cruise ship, including an exercise room, jogging track, game room and theater. The trips run up to 10 days.

The cruises mix views of river wildlife with tours of historic sites ashore and night life and local cuisine in Memphis, Tenn., New Orleans and other cities. Transportation is arranged to plantation homes in Mississippi, the Tabasco factory in Louisiana and other sites.

Other stops include Baton Rouge and Avery Island in Louisiana, Chattanooga and Pigeon Forge (home of Dollywood) in Tennessee, Decatur and Florence in Alabama and Vicksburg and Natchez in Mississippi.

On board there are craft swaps, scavenger hunts and make-your-own-sundae nights. Barge guides prepare meals of gumbo and red beans and rice.

"If you get bored it's your own fault," says Myrada Groth, 74, of Lake Wales, Fla., who has taken seven trips with her 77-year-old husband, John. "Everything is taken care of for you. Once you're on the barge, you're free."

Rolling Down the River, a 15-day charter, is Mr. Conrad's longest. The 1,910-mile voyage starts in Guntersville, Ala., and moves along the Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers, ending in New Orleans.

Jeff Beddow, spokesman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association in Reston, Va., says he knows of no other companies offering such river charters, but he anticipates more creative RV trips as interest in the vehicles grows. Last year, sales of RVs, motor homes and towable campers in the United States rose about 15 percent to 585,400, he says.

A high percentage of the RV owners are retirees, but Mr. Beddow says: "There's a movement of younger people into the market, (baby) boomers with families. They're attracted by the freedom and flexibility. They can change their minds at the last minute rather than being booked into a reservation."

Mrs. Andrews says the barge trips are a great way to see the world.

"We have our own bed. We always have our own house. We have our own food. And there's no driving."

If you go

CRUISES: Barge cruises are scheduled in the spring and fall along the Mississippi, Tennessee, Ohio, Mobile and Tombigbee rivers; the Gulf Intracoastal and Tenn-Tom waterways; and in the bayous and the Atchafalaya River Basin Swamp in Louisiana.

COST: About $3,000 to $5,000 a couple, including most meals and trips to many attractions ashore. Trips can be custom-designed for RV clubs.

DOCKS: Recreational vehicles are loaded on the barges in New Orleans and in Mobile and Guntersville, Ala.

CITIES VISITED: New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Avery Island in Louisiana; Chattanooga, Memphis and Pigeon Forge (Dollywood) in Tennessee; Mobile, Guntersville, Decatur and Florence in Alabama; Vicksburg and Natchez in Mississippi.

WEATHER: Spring is rainy in the Southeast, and temperatures can range from the 50s and 60s to the high 70s. The fall is dry and cool, with temperatures reaching the 70s during the day and dropping as low as the 40s at night.

INFORMATION: Phone R.V. River Charters Inc. of New Orleans, (504) 364-1608.