STEVENSON, Wash. — For as long as I’ve been covering the river cruise market, I’ve heard quiet rumblings that the Columbia and Snake rivers offer a river cruise experience not to be missed.
The American Queen Steamboat Co.’s (AQSC) relaunch of the 223-passenger American Empress finally allowed me to see for myself whether the claims were true.
You don’t have to get too far outside of Portland, Ore., to understand why AQSC acquired the American Empress (formerly the Empress of the North), refurbished it and put the paddlewheeler back into business in the Pacific Northwest.
The Columbia River Gorge is breathtaking. The soaring Cascade Mountains that rise from riverbanks covered in pine trees and striped by endless waterfalls are a sight to behold.
Combine that with the rugged outdoorsy-ness of the region, and there seems to be less pressure on the paddlewheeler to be anything too fussy or even anything beyond a reasonable means of transport through this wondrous landscape.
But of course, the American Empress is much more than an adequate vessel.
Having learned from the relaunch of the 436-passenger American Queen in 2012, the executive team at AQSC has allowed that this project was far easier and the launch far smoother than that of the American Queen.
And while there were still some last-minute tweaks being made during the pre-christening cruise this week, the good condition of the vessel when AQSC acquired it from the U.S. Maritime Administration (Marad), combined with lessons learned from the American Queen, were evident.
Alternative dining venue the River Grill on the fourth deck received one of the ship’s most intensive makeovers. On this trip, it was still in the process of being transformed from a snack stand into a sophisticated dining experience, saddled up to a U-shaped bar. The quasi-construction area surrounding the venue promised to be finished in time for the christening ceremony.
It was at the River Grill that I had one of my favorite meals onboard: fresh, local, smoked salmon and steamed lobster tail.
The company has invested in technical and cosmetic touch-ups throughout the vessel, including changing the layout and color scheme of the main restaurant, the Astoria Dining Room.
Previously steeped in deep reds with banquettes lining the windows, the tables have been broken up into smaller, more convenient configurations, and the room has been detailed with fabrics in modern, metallic hues.
For art lovers, the American Empress is a treasure trove of interesting pieces evoking different themes throughout the vessel, including local steamboat scenes, Native American images and marine life. All the art was purchased with the vessel; it had been stored safely by Marad while the ship was laid up following the collapse of Majestic America Line in 2008.
There is, of course, great value in refurbishing an older vessel such as the American Empress, which originally launched in 2003. But there are some drawbacks, as well — for example, lackluster bathrooms, a throwback to a time when river cruising was not such a premium product.
But even the older elements of the vessel are unworn, clean and respectable. Many of its vintage attributes, like the Paddlewheeler Lounge at the aft of the vessel, with windows that look right onto the churning paddlewheel, are an important part of the vessel’s allure as a sort of floating museum.
And anyway, even the slightest inclination to get snobby about a dated amenity here or there is quickly muted by the nature and scenery through which the riverboat sails.
The American Empress is a notably smaller vessel than the American Queen, which means fewer public areas and a more intimate experience overall. The itinerary is steeped in history, natural beauty and no shortage of regional wines and cuisines.
The vessel will run seven-day, one-way itineraries between Portland and Spokane, Wash.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.