ON THE TENNESSEE RIVER - We started getting the stares in Chattanooga.
People drove their cars toward the river to gawk. A police officer cruised up and sat open-mouthed. Boys waved at us from a prep school, and motorists stopped on bridges for a better look.
It's amazing how much attention you draw by placing 29 recreational vehicles on barges and floating them down a river.
Welcome to the latest wave in the cruise industry: RV river cruises.
The ingenious idea takes advantage of two of the greatest passions among many American travelers, the gypsy life of the RV crowd and the leisurely appeal of cruising.
Here's how it works: You drive your RV onto the deck of a converted river barge and connect it to the kinds of facilities you might find in a campground (water, sewage, electricity and special tie-downs). Then you leave the driving to the barge crew, as you cruise from one river town to another, stopping for bus tours and evenings ashore.
At night, you sleep in your RV. During the day, there are some communal meals and lots of games and scenery. "In effect," Ray N. Gaines said, "it's a floating campground."
Gaines, 65, is a partner in the company offering the cruises, RV River Charters of New Orleans, and the fellow who came up with the idea.
Gaines and his wife, Laura, are "365ers" - RV talk for people who live year-round in their motor homes. A retired Army captain, Gaines served for years as a caravan master, leading convoys of RVers through Mexico.
But all the while he had in mind combining RVs with cruises. The idea took shape in 1988 when Gaines met Eddie Conrad, owner of a tugboat company in New Orleans. Conrad agreed to try a test run in 1989. He hauled 88 RVs up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Charles, Mo., then hauled back 90 more.
When Conrad told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which certifies river carriers, about his plans "they had a fit," he said. "When I said we were going into it as a full-time business, they had a quadruple fit."
But patience paid off. The corps now certifies RV River Cruises, and the specially modified barges include safety features from chain-link fences along the sides to keep anyone from straying overboard to fire-fighting equipment at strategic locations. During cruises, the crew keeps a 24-hour watch. "It's inherently very, very safe," Gaines said.
There's another feature: pet relief boxes. Roughly 4 by 8 feet in size and planted with grass, they are to accommodate the dogs and cats RVers bring aboard.
Among the itineraries are the Tennessee River cruise, from Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to Guntersville, Ala.; the Tennessee-Mississippi cruise, from Guntersville to New Orleans (by way of Paducah, Ky.); the Mississippi River cruise, from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and back; and the Mississippi-Atchafalaya cruise, through the bayous of south Louisiana.
Eight-day cruises are around $2,200 for two people, including tours and dinners, 17-day runs are about $4,400 for two.
I joined the Tennessee River cruise in Chattanooga early one Tuesday morning. The cruise had begun Saturday at Pigeon Forge and arrived Monday in Chattanooga, which passengers toured by bus. By 7 the next morning, the barges were out in the channel again.
The RVs were parked diagonally on three barges. A towboat in front is used mainly for steering, and a pushboat behind provides the power. The pilot in the pushboat controls the towboat by remote control.
If that's more about boats than you wanted to know, blame it on the river cruise. One of the benefits of a leisurely trip like this is the chance to talk to the crew and learn about their way of life.
First impressions can be misleading. These guys look like a rough lot: big, bearded fellows with tattoos and snaggle-toothed grins. And there's admittedly a rough side to what they do. If you ask, they will tell you the towns to avoid along the Mississippi, bars where fights start like clockwork, and what it's like to discover a body floating in the river.
But there's a gentler side to them, too. They are polite, attentive to the passengers and eager to explain how barges and river boats work. I got invited into the pushboat for coffee and biscuits and later went upstairs to chat with the pilot.
Out on the deck, there were a limited number of things to do as the north Alabama hills rolled past. The crew pointed out a few sites as we cruised along. Tour organizer Bill LaGrange kept things lively with non-stop chatter and games.
But the nicest part was the scenery. Everyone who goes to the ocean beaches knows about the calming effect of water. Combine that with beautiful pine and hardwood forests rising on hillsides straight out of the cool, clear Tennessee River, and you get the idea.
Next to the scenery, the nicest part was the conversation. RVers, I discovered, are a neighborly lot. Most are retired, and many have traveled widely, although I didn't run into any 365ers other than Gaines. Their motor homes ranged from converted vans to plush, 35-foot models, complete with televisions and satellite dishes. One RVer, T.E. Sikes from Oceanside, Calif., told me he had once seen a 40-foot motor home that featured a baby grand piano.
And, finally, the cruise provides an education in river lore and nature. Laura Gaines said she was surprised to learn how many different vessels use America's rivers: "You see all sorts of things go by."
Same with wildlife. On the Tennessee cruise, we saw muskrats patrolling the shore and hawks cruising the air. The Atchafalaya tour takes RVers through one of the largest and most remote swamps in America.
At nightfall, when they are between towns, the crew ties up to trees along the shore, deep in the woods. Far from city lights, Ray Gaines says, the stars cover the sky with brilliance.
-- Contact RV River Charters, 1-504-364-1608 or 1-800-256-6100.