The American Empress on the Columbia River

Reporter Bone (see mirror) meets his stateroom on the American Empress.
Reporter Bone (see mirror) meets his stateroom on the American Empress.

As a self-confessed history buff – especially of American history – I knew I would love it: An eight-day scenic cruise on the Columbia and Snake Rivers between the states of Washington and Oregon aboard the American Empress.

This was the scene of so much adventure in 1805-06 when the Lewis and Clark Expedition sought to open up this part of the country and form a bond between the federal government in the east and some of the native tribes in the west.

Unlike on the Mississippi, I don’t know that the paddle wheel steamer was an important part of the Columbia and Snake River scene in the past. Until these rough waters were tamed with a 20th-century series of a dozen dams and locks, it seems doubtful. Nonetheless, the premier cruise here now is just such a vessel, decked out in Victorian finery, and operated by a company that seems determined to maximize the quality of a nine-day experience.

After flying into the Portland, Oregon Airport on Saturday, our trip began on a somewhat sour note. The cruise was to begin at Vancouver, Washington, a city we thought was just a hop-skip across a bridge from Portland. Instead it turned out to be a $40 cab ride from the airport to the Vancouver Hilton, site of the official beginning of the cruise. I was more accustomed to ocean cruises in foreign countries, which usually begin with company representatives meeting the cruisers at the nearest airport.

A hillside of bright lobelia fronts the mansion of George Flavel in Astoria
A hillside of bright lobelia fronts the mansion of George Flavel in Astoria

But then our mood lightened quickly. Included in the fare, an overnight in the recently remodeled Hilton turned out to be very comfortable. It’s located across the street from Vancouver’s attractive Esther Short Park, which was coincidentally hosting the regular weekend farmers market.

A hearty Hilton breakfast was also included, and by that time we were totally refreshed. The large riverboat with the big red paddle wheel waited almost at the hotel’s back door. Boarding was a swift process that involved lots of genuine smiles and handshakes from crew members. Soon enough we attended a sail away party with a complimentary glass of champagne in the boat’s Paddlewheel Lounge. Out the window, we could see the big red wheel itself – impressive, even if it only provides about 20 percent of the power needed to move the vessel.

Our cabin, #207 in the Deluxe Veranda (lowest) category on the boat was furnished in a comfortably modern version of a Victorian theme, as good as any comparable stateroom on an ocean-going cruise ship. A door at the opposite end opened to a private outdoor terrace with two chairs. (Accommodations on Deck 4 open to a sort of continuous promenade style deck.)

Mount Hood, as seen from the open top deck of the American Empress, Tuesday, April 21.
Mount Hood, as seen from the open top deck of the American Empress, Tuesday, April 21.

Four decks and an elevator are available for passenger use. Two decks feature a single long central passageway from stem to stern, with walls featuring illustrations of long-ago river life. Toward the stern of Deck 1 is the Astoria dining room. At the forward end of the corridor is the showroom, capable of seating 200 or so, all with a good view of the small stage. Deck 2 houses the Paddlewheel Lounge and library at the stern, plus a small open deck at the bow. A few bicycles are housed there for guest use on shore.

Deck 3 offers two classes of staterooms, the Deluxe Veranda and the Superior Veranda. And Deck 4, features some luxury suites and the casual River Grill and Bar. A wide open-air portion of the same deck is available for nearly 360-degree views of the river and its banks. It was often a little too chilly for us on our April visit, but when I struck up a conversation with one happy group lunching al fresco, they laughingly explained they were from Minnesota.

Some rocking chairs on that deck were often moving back and forth by themselves, a ghostly effect apparently caused by the wind.

The menu and service in the Astoria Dining Room was generally excellent. The small galley is necessarily limited in its ability and capacity compared to large ocean-going vessels. Nevertheless the room offered a surprising variety of choices, even if some snacks, pastries and deserts were brought on board at stops along the way. Beer, wine, and soft drinks served at regular meals were included in the fare.

Lindy and Greg perform on the American Empress
Lindy and Greg perform on the American Empress

The crew was absolutely the most cheerful and friendly I’ve seen in about 60 ocean cruises I’ve taken over a long period of time. This is partly due to its being an all-American staff, of course, with no language impediment or confusing cultural differences involved.

Some of our fellow passengers commented that for that reason alone, they preferred the overall experience to ocean cruises they had taken. Several crew members memorized our names and seemed genuinely interested in the quality of our enjoyment in all aspects of the cruise. I’ll wager that no cruiser challenged the automatic $16.50 per day gratuity that was added to the bill at the end of the voyage.

Each day provided a full or half-day stop at various atmospheric towns and villages along the way. We were especially gratified to find that at least one shore excursion at each stop was also included. These were conducted in the company’s own buses which showed up at each port to perform a well-designed “hop-on, hop off” round-trip experience. This usually meant that they were divided into 15 to 30-minute periods for exploring various museums, or other stimulating experiences relating to the river or the local history.

Well-designed maps, etc., were also provided, along with a daily program – The River Times – outlining both on-board and on-shore activities.

There were also some longer and more comprehensive tours offered for an extra charge at some of the stops – but no high pressure sales efforts to book them. We limited our own experiences to the hop-on, hop-off system, but interviewed some others who declared they were also happy with the longer excursions.

Thankfully, two annoying operations on many ocean cruises – a casino and an art auction – were absent on this wholesome American river itinerary.

The on-board activities primarily consisted of a few events in the showroom. Many attended the daytime lectures of the “Riverlorian,” a woman who was well-versed in the history and lore of the river along with the towns and sights along the way. At night a six-member band took the stage. It was often fronted by a talented young couple, cruise director Doug Pendzick and his wife, Lindy.

In one of my daily blog entries to All Things Cruise from the boat (which are still posted on this website), I predicted that one or both of the duo would eventually leave the river and go on to make a much bigger splash in the entertainment world.

We had to skip some other on-board activities, such as tours of the engine room, the pilot house, or the galley. But we never missed the performances of Lindy and Doug who sometimes “brought down the house” as far as the passengers were concerned. They specialized in quick-change song and dance interpretations of the popular music of the late 20th century, an era identified with the lives of many of the passengers.

There was also entertainment on tap in the piano bar, a section of the Paddlewheel Lounge.

After Vancouver, stops along the two rivers were made at Astoria, The Dalles, Stevenson, Richland (the Tri-Cities), with the final stop at Clarkston, across the Snake River from Lewiston, Idaho. The ship was lifted up through locks at around eight dams along the way.

At Astoria, a hilly community named for John Jacob Astor who shipped furs from here long ago, the boat flirted with the notoriously rough waters at the mouth of the river. Here the American Empress tied up at the Coast Guard wharf and some cruisers alighted to see the place where the Lewis and Clark expedition spent the winter of 1805-06. We also enjoyed visiting the 1885 George Flavel House, a Coast Guard museum and other historic attractions.

At The Dalles, we inspected the exhibits celebrating the end of the Oregon Trail and other related events. Here some cruisers chose to walk to the exact spot where the Lewis and Clark party camped among some large rocks which were there then and are still there now.

A cruiser from the American Empress inspects a statue of Sacajawea
A cruiser from the American Empress inspects a statue of Sacajawea

At Stevenson, our principal experience was the nearby Bonneville Dam. Through special underwater windows we could see the salmon climbing one of the many “fish ladders” in their struggle to swim upstream to their spawning grounds.

After a long day just enjoying the river views, we tied up at an attractive public park at Richland, known as one of the “Tri-Cities,” counting the adjoining communities of Pasco and Kennewick. During World War II, the area was a central area for manufacturing parts for the first atomic bombs. But we especially enjoyed visiting the modest but well-designed Sacajawea Museum in a park exactly where the Columbia and Snake Rivers join. Sacajawea was the Indian woman who served as guide and interpreter to Lewis and Clark, and the surrounding area was a popular meeting point for several native American tribes in the early nineteenth century.

The Snake River carried us through scenic Hells Canyon and other attractive areas before landing at Clarkston, Washington, marking the end of the tour – or the beginning for travelers who would take the cruise in the opposite direction. Tours from Clarkston included a roadside museum run by Nez Pierce tribe members on the Lewiston side of the river.

Although Clarkston was our final port, we chose to take the optional bus tour of Spokane, along with guests were headed for the airport. A principle attraction: A free ride on an historic merry-go-round.

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