When I was invited to join the inaugural cruise of the American Empress from Spokane, Washington to Portland, Oregon in early April, I jumped at the opportunity to experience the rebirth of the riverboat formerly known as the Empress of the North.
The classic paddlewheeler had been laid up since 2008, when her former owner, the Majestic America Line, went bankrupt. After being purchased by the American Queen Steamboat Company from the U.S. Maritime Administration, the 223-passenger boat underwent major renovations and thoughtful refurbishments, and today she is the perfect little sister to the bigger (436-passenger) American Queen, sailing seven-night Columbia River cruises between Clarkston, Washington and Portland, Oregon between April and November.
The cabins (seven categories), like those on the Queen, are furnished in the Victorian style with upscale amenities (Keurig coffee makers, flat-screen TVs with cable, alarm clocks/iPod docks, Clarins toiletries, robes and high end bedding and linens) and private outside decks in all but seven (those have outside views). Standard rooms range from 180 to 225 square feet; suites are 310 square feet and luxury suites measure 410 square feet – all spacious, though the bathrooms are small. Complimentary Wi-Fi is available, but may be slow or non-existent along some stretches of the Columbia River.
The stunning art throughout the hallways and public areas features Russian treasures (including Faberge eggs), Native American pieces and historical items relating to Lewis and Clark and the Gold Rush era.
Dining is a highlight on any luxury cruise, and the food on the Empress (as it is on the Queen) is outstanding — skillfully prepared, fresh and locally sourced from the Pacific Northwest whenever possible. Breakfast choices include steel cut oatmeal, pancakes or French toast, various egg dishes, breakfast meats, fresh fruit and juices. Lunch starts with soup or salad and often features regional fish (salmon is a favorite), a sandwich and a vegetarian dish. Desserts are exceptional; pastries especially shine.
The atmosphere at dinner is like that at a fine restaurant, with the kind of choices found at upscale places: good steaks, fish and well-crafted vegetarian options like mushroom risotto. Regional wines from Oregon and Washington and beer (including local craft beers) are complimentary at lunch and dinner. Also complimentary: regional wine tastings during the cruise, as well as wine tastings and pairings at dinner.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the inviting Astoria dining room. The alternate dining venue, the River Grill & Bar, serves breakfast and lunch along with drop-dead views. In the evening, at no extra charge (reservations required), a menu worthy of a top steakhouse is served. A typical meal included starters of Smoked Pacific Salmon, Washington State Dungeness Crab and a Beggars Purse. Salad choices: the classic Iceberg Wedge or a Hand Tossed Caesar. Entrée choices: Filet Mignon, Lobster Tail, Char Grilled Salmon, Grilled Double Lamb Chop and Cast Iron Vegetable.
As exceptional as the food is, the itinerary plays a major part in this Pacific Northwest cruise. Each morning a trio of decorated (with images of the American Queen and her passengers) motor coaches (guides onboard) is available for complimentary Hop On/Hop Off explorations, with all admissions included, of the ports. At The Dalles, for example, an important stop is the multi-media, interactive Columbia Gorge Discovery Museum, with exhibits that detailed the science and geology of the area from the Ice Age forward; American Indian artifacts; the Lewis & Clark explorations; the history of the Oregon Trail. A bonus: rescued raptors, such as osprey, hawks and kestrel. Also included on the bus itinerary: the Original Courthouse Museum; the 1856 Fort Dales Museum and the Sunshine Mills Winery, which has been featured on ABC’s The Shark Tank and where Empress guests can sample the wines.
After lunch, fee-based premium tours are available. My favorite was the Multnomah Falls and Crown Point tour offered in Port Stevenson, Washington. This took me along The Scenic Highway and to some of the most achingly beautiful scenery I have ever experienced, at the Women’s Forum State Scenic Viewpoint, the Vista House on Crown Point and to Multnomah Falls, the highest falls in the state.
Complimentary bicycles and area maps are available for guests who wish to explore the port independently.
Onboard, at various scheduled times, “riverlorians” give talks on anything and everything related to the cruise itinerary and history of the region; this might include demonstrations of Native American crafts, Lewis and Clark or legends and lore.
Music, dancing and the occasional comedian are part of the evening entertainment in the Showroom. A less formal alternative: a relaxing evening and a post-dinner drink in the Paddlewheel Lounge, an attractive space where passengers can watch the mighty paddlewheel turn, read one of the selections in the library or check email on one of the four provided computers.
Since a trip without shopping is like a day without sunshine for some travelers, the boat does have a small, thoughtfully stocked shop, which sells souvenirs, logo sportswear, fashion accessories and a large selection of stylish and moderately priced jewelry.
Bottom Line: The American Empress provides a unique travel experience, the opportunity to sail one of America’s most scenic rivers on one of America’s treasures, an authentic paddlewheeler. History buffs and lovers of Americana will love this cruise, which is also a good choice for multi-generational travel (though not for small children). The service, by the all-American crew is impeccable and very personal, and the element of “luxury” is evident in the care given to passenger comfort and enjoyment.