The stars and stripes flutter from the flagpole atop American Queen Voyages’ American Empress. It’s the first clue that this riverboat is a celebration of America, from its friendly and supremely capable all-American crew, dining that showcases some of the country’s best loved dishes and an itinerary that takes us along the Columbia and Snake Rivers, past scenery that inspired a ton of Woody Guthrie songs.
I’m aboard the season’s first sailing of this 3,388 grt, 223-passenger vessel that originally entered service in 2003 as Majestic America Line’s Empress of the North. In 2013, the vessel was acquired by American Queen Voyages and refurbished. She began sailing the Columbia and Snake Rivers the following year.
During my 8-day sailing aboard American Empress, I discover a home-grown masterpiece that is perfect for those wishing to retrace the history of the Lewis & Clark expedition, enjoy the area’s phenomenal wines, discover some marvelous off-the-beaten-track sites or simply sit back and ooooh and aaaah over the majestic scenery that lines these amazing rivers.
And, like all American Queen Voyages, American Empress is a largely all-inclusive experience with fares including a one-night pre-cruise hotel stay, ground transfers between hotel and vessel, unlimited beverages, open bar, unlimited wifi, unlimited guided tours (premium tours additional), and more!
Day 1: Vancouver…Pre-Cruise
Not THAT Vancouver, but Vancouver, Washington, practically spitting distance from Portland, Oregon, and the embarkation point for American Empress and her Columbia and Snake River cruises. We sail tomorrow, but a night at the Hilton Vancouver provides stress-free cruise registration and a quick Covid test. It also gives me a chance to explore Vancouver where I find Dosalas Latin Kitchen, a lavish waterfront restaurant that serves terrific tapas with a decidedly tropical accent…and features the most extravagant cocktail presentation I’ve ever seen. I never thought I wanted my martini served in an ornamental bird cage or a Tiffany box but Dosalas convinces me that I sure do!
Day 2: Portland…Embarkation
A private breakfast for American Empress guests at the Hilton Vancouver and then we’re off to Portland for a tour of this “City of Roses” before being deposited at the gangway of the riverboat.
Hmmm…how can I say this? I visited Portland about five years ago and it was one of the loveliest and liveliest cities I’d ever seen. Not so right now. We visit stunning sites like The Chinese Garden, the vast Rose Garden and downtown Portland and find the experience marred by endless homeless communities and destroyed shops. Our tour guide bemoans the situation, citing as the root, the city’s exceedingly generous homeless benefits and its hesitancy to enforce laws. Heartbreaking.
On to cheerier things, specifically American Empress which, at first sight, resembles a riverboat in drag. She’s adorned with frilly, decorative touches just like an elaborate wedding cake, her fire engine-red paddlewheel the stunning focal point. We’re greeted at the gangway by our female captain, Andrea Mickelson, a young local woman who fell in love with the rivers and, amazingly, used education, hard work and determination to rise from housekeeper aboard Queen of the West to Captain of American Empress in just a bit over 20 years.
I board and find American Empress is lovely, with period furnishings that call to mind the days of Lewis and Clark. Native American art and artifacts line the walls of the wide hallways while modern touches like hydration stations and a few computer terminals in the Paddlewheel Lounge place us firmly in the present.
My 200-square-foot Deluxe Veranda Stateroom continues the period feel with dark woods, queen bed with padded headboard, old fashioned tulip reading lamps, gilt edged-framed Native American prints, upholstered armchairs, desk, armoire and two wide closets. A decorative brocade valance tops sheer, flowing curtains while additions like water bottles, a flat-screen TV and Keurig coffee maker are nods to modern life. A door leads to a small balcony outfitted with two chairs and cocktail table while a snug little bathroom with shower completes the living space.
The social heart of American Empress is the Paddlewheel Lounge and, once unpacked—not a huge chore, as American Empress is a decidedly casual experience–I meet friends there and sip a delightful pinot noir from the wine capitol we’ll sail through. Soon it’s off to The Astoria Dining Room for my first dinner aboard–I’m in a vegetarian mood tonight, so I forego dishes like beef tenderloin and lobster tail in favor of a delicious fried oyster appetizer, Caesar salad and a cauliflower steak dressed with a pungent chimichurri sauce.
I’m tempted to return to The Paddlewheel after dinner but jet lag and a bit too much of that local pinot noir convinces me otherwise.
Day 3: A Taste of Astoria
It’s foggy and rainy–no surprise, as this is mid-March in the Pacific Northwest—and we’ve arrived in Astoria.
Today we’ll explore Astoria with Regina Charboneau, American Queen Voyages’ Culinary Ambassador, a respected chef, restauranteur and cookbook author who The New York Times christened “The Biscuit Queen” following a review of her feather-light biscuits. Sorry, NYT, this woman is so much more than biscuits—she’s a friendly and super humble superstar with a shipload of culinary knowledge and a dazzlingly colorful background. Seriously, who else can say Mick Jagger dined at their home and requested leftovers to take back to his hotel??
Regina guides us through streets filled with quaint, independent shops until we arrive at Pat’s Spices and Teas, a specialty store stocked floor to ceiling with—you guessed it–unique and exotic spices and teas as well as bitters, olive oils, nuts and more. I purchase a bottle of jalapeno olive oil and pray that the bottle doesn’t leak into my suitcase on the journey home.
A quick stop at Blue Scorcher Bakery with the best bear claw pastry in Oregon before heading over to Fort George Brewery & Public House, a converted 1924 warehouse, for lunch: More fried oysters for me, while others feast on crunchy fish and chips, burgers and Caesar Salad. We all sample a massive plate of “Dirty Fries,” perfectly seasoned french fries smothered in gorgonzola, pork belly, peppers and chipotle mayo.
This was a long day and while most of our group choose to return to the ship, I join Regina and her husband Doug on a jaunt to Pilot House Distilling, a working distillery that produces local products–gin, whiskey, vodka and even the infamous absinthe, a potent liquor that, in 1912, was banned in the U.S. and remained illegal until 2007. I might have to agree with that 1912 ruling…I have my first absinthe here at Pilot House and find its delicious licorice flavor frighteningly appealing. Time to head back to American Empress…for a nap.
Fortunately, I revive in time for dinner! American Empress’ Astoria Dining Room breaks with the typical riverboat tradition of offering a rather limited menu and, instead, I find a choice of three appetizers, five main courses, three soups, two salads and five desserts with “always available” options that include cold water lobster tail, prime grade burger, salmon and chicken breast. Tonight I splurge, beginning the meal with tender fried oysters (they’re so delicious in this part of the country!) and a spinach salad followed by a main course of earthy and tender mushroom-crusted beef tenderloin. Bourbon pecan pie is the decadent dessert. I did say “splurge,” didn’t I?
Day 4: Rolling on the River
A day on the river! Annual maintenance of The Dalles Lock and dam has delayed our transit to midnight which means a day aboard American Empress. I’m not complaining.
I head to the oh-so-casual River Cafe for yogurt and coffee. A full breakfast is available in the Astoria Dining Room so, heck, I do that too and discover that the dining room’s breakfast menu is even more expansive than the dinner menu and it also changes daily! While standards like fresh fruit, oatmeal and eggs of all kinds populate the Express Breakfast portion of the menu, a second section features luscious specials like pain perdu, breakfast B.L.T., pecan-and-walnut-studded grilled bread pudding, quiche Lorraine and more.
At 9:30 this morning, a presentation in the Show Lounge brings the Lewis & Clark expedition to life. I find many of my shipmates have booked this itinerary specifically to walk in the steps of William Clark and Merriwether Lewis as they seek direct passage to the Pacific Ocean, documenting the flora and fauna of the area and interacting with the native Americans who call this land home.
This is the perfect morning for me to do some exploring of my own, specifically American Empress’ self-guided Art Gallery Tour. Each piece of art aboard American Empress is discreetly numbered and a handy booklet provides the narrative that corresponds to each. It’s an easy way to familiarize yourself with the art you’ll be passing in the corridors on board—a rich, themed collection that reflects the Alaska and Pacific Northwest heritage, from Faberge Eggs to photographs of steamwheelers of yesteryear.
American Empress is currently sailing towards The Dalles. Even with misty, foggy weather, many assemble on deck as we sail past the lush mountains and waterfalls that border the river while others absorb the majestic beauty through the ornamental oval observations windows of the Paddlewheel Lounge.
Remember our culinary tour of Astoria yesterday? Today we reap the benefits in the form of two demonstrations by Culinary Ambassador Regina Charboneau. First up is a cocktail demonstration. The Empress Sazerac is Regina’s take on the popular Mississippi River cocktail, suddenly made local with ingredients she’s picked up during our voyage: Absinthe found at the Pilot House Distillery, Quartz Mountain Bourbon picked up at our embarkation city of Vancouver and a bottle of “The Bitter Housewife” orange bitters found at Pat’s Teas & Spices in Astoria. Regina mixes up the potent concoction, entertaining us with stories from her very colorful career. The result, even to this non-bourbon drinker, is delicious!
The Empress Sazerac (serves 2)
Pour 1/4 oz of absinthe into a chilled rocks or martini glass, swirl to coat interior and discard excess liquor. In shaker filled with ice, combine 2 oz. bourbon, 1/4 oz simple syrup and 10 dashes of bitters. Garnish with orange zest or strips of orange peel.
Later, Regina returns to share her recipe for Salmon in Pepper Marinade with Penne in Smoked Tomato Sauce. The small sample provided to each member of the audience just whets my appetite for a full portion, so I’m thrilled that it appears on tonight’s dinner menu!
Day 5: Falling for the Falls in Stevenson
Some things are worth waiting for–like this sunrise, a sky of puffy pink and purple clouds accentuated by massive stripes of vivid orange and yellow, peeking out over towering basalt mountains.
We’re docked in Stevenson and after breakfast we board American Queen Voyages coach for a journey down the Old Scenic Highway toward Multnomah Falls. Snow- capped mountains hover in the distance as our coach glides through an everchanging land created by the cataclysm of colliding plates of the earth’s crust. At Chantocleer Point, we disembark to absorb the magnificence of the Columbia River Gorge, first formed 35 million years ago with evolutions triggered by gushing molten basalt and, during the last Ice Age, massive floods that scoured the canyon, cutting through layers of stone and creating the greatest concentration of waterfalls in North America.
The Multnomah is one of these falls, 611 feet of mighty, roaring power, set amid a backdrop of lush rainforest. We climb the not-too-steep stone steps to the Falls’ viewing platform and are awed.
Back on board American Empress, Culinary Ambassador Regina Charboneau is conducting a smoked salmon tasting. The topic seems pretty straightforward to me until Regina educates us to the many varieties of this Pacific Northwest specialty. Coho…Red…Blue…King…and even “Candy,” sweetened as it is with brown sugar. What isn’t present is King Ivory salmon, a variety, Regina explains, that is particularly rare coming, as it does, from the tiny percentage of fish possessing a recessive gene that prevents the absorption of the pink and orange hued carotenoids found in the typical salmon diet of shrimp, krill and crab. Regina serves us a plate with a sample of each variety of salmon, crackers, cream cheese, capers and onion and guides us through the characteristics of each. I think I prefer the King salmon but, seriously, all of them were delicious! (See Regina’s collection of superb smoked salmon and other recipes at reginaskitchen.com)
Day 6: The Art of The Dalles
Travelers, if they’re lucky, will have a “WTF????” moment somewhere along the line and American Empress’ “Art of the Dalles” tour delivers mine.
I expected spectacular sunsets on this itinerary, awe-inspiring scenery, Native American culture, American history and phenomenal wines, but I certainly didn’t expect an inspiring war memorial and world-class art museum, pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
Enter Sam Hill, a local eccentric and wealthy railroad and utilities magnate. Word is that in the early 1900s, Sam set out to build a resplendent Beaux Arts mansion in a remote, park-like setting on 26 acres overlooking the Columbia River Gorge. At the same time, pacifist Sam decided to honor the local WWI war dead with a memorial that duplicated England’s Stonehenge believing, erroneously, that Stonehenge was a place of human sacrifice and drawing a parallel between that and death in battle.
What remains today are two glorious destinations perched atop the bluffs overlooking the Columbia River but it is the Maryhill Museum that blows…my…mind. I am greeted by the display of an elaborate gown worn by Queen Marie of Romania to the 1896 coronation of her cousins Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra of Russia and gilded furniture from Romanian royal palaces. Upstairs, Theatre de la Mode showcases post World War II French couture fashion on miniature mannequins—and I can’t take my eyes off the cute little shoes, authentic in every detail. But it is the Auguste Rodin Gallery that stops me in my tracks—more than 80 works by Rodin, including bronzes, terra cottas, plaster studies and water sketches. Here. In Goldendale, Washington, for pete’s sake. I’m stunned.
Day 7: More of The Dalles
A second day in The Dalles allows us to take full advantage of the complimentary and convenient hop on/hop off bus that departs from the foot of the gangway, identifying each stop with a colorful sign which makes it virtually impossible to “miss” the bus. A tour guide provides fascinating narrative and is available to answer questions and ours today—a long-time resident of The Dalles–is superb, encouraging us to buy more Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream because 85% of its cherries come from The Dalles and telling us the inspiring story of the positive impact that Google and its local data center has had on the economy with initiatives that have helped businesses, schools and non-profit groups. Google even provides free internet to every resident!
First stop: The Dalles Museum, a modern building that houses exhibits dedicated to the history of this gorgeous area. “Where should I begin?” I ask the friendly (everyone around here is friendly) woman at the booth. “Follow the river,” she responds, pointing to the floor and a glossy reproduction of the Columbia that at first glance looks like someone has spilled a few gallons of water across the marble surface. Sure enough, “the river” guides me to the first exhibit.
Next up: The National Neon Sign Museum. Flashy, funky and total fun! Overseen by its passionate Executive Director David Benko, who purchased the three-story, colonial-style brick building from the city for $1 promising to restore it, the museum is packed with “liquid fire”: vintage neon signs and other charming memories of days past that pay homage to advertising and signage and its role in American history. While you and I might be dazzled by the glowing, flashing calls to Buster Brown, Greyhound, Cadillac and Coca Cola, the jewel in the Neon Sign Museum crown is the very first neon-gas light tube, invented by Georges Claude (the “French Thomas Edison”) and acquired by the museum in 2019. I loved this place so much I even bought a t-shirt.
Day 8: Packing Up in Richland
From my stateroom balcony, I see…something’s happened: a dramatic change in landscape! Gone is the lush, forested riverbank topped with majestic mountains and in its place…desert, dry endless desert, the aftermath of catastrophic flooding events that occurred thousands of years ago.
Today’s my final day aboard American Empress and I decide to stick close to “home,” wandering only through Sacajawea Park, dedicated to the only female member of the Lewis & Clark expedition, a young Shoshone Indian woman who contributed the language translation and cultural knowledge that was key to the expedition’s success.
I return to American Empress, pack and head to the dining room for my final feast aboard: succulent roast duck topped with a delightful red wine sauce alongside broccoli and a rich and creamy corn pudding. Dessert is crème brulee cheesecake. Hey! Tomorrow I’ll be home, having an egg salad sandwich for dinner, so why not go a bit wild?
I love the casual atmosphere of an American Empress sailing! Tonight, a talented guest—Amy Allen—sees the Paddlewheel Lounge’s piano unoccupied and, just like that, decides to entertain us with original songs and covers of pop hits. The perfect end to a perfect cruise!
Day 9: Spokane—a Fabulous “Extra”!
This morning, American Queen Voyages eases our end-of-cruise pain with a superb tour of Spokane before delivering us to the airport.
Spokane…what a cool city: Tasting rooms, ale houses, the grandeur of The Davenport Hotel, the beauty of Manito Park, a ride on a 1909 Charles Looff carousel at the waterfront, Spokane Falls, and a tour of Bing Crosby’s childhood home. I found myself eager to see everything in Spokane—everything, that is, except its airport.
Photos credit Judi Cuervo
Ed. Note: See … American Empress and other American Queen Voyages here: