Columbia River Gorge OverlookWith the relaunch of the 223-passenger American Empress by the American Queen Steamboat Co. (AQSC) earlier this month, several thousand more passengers each year will now experience the rich local history, culture and nature of the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The American Empress sails a one-week, one-way itinerary between Portland, Ore., and Clarkston, Wash., or the reverse, an abbreviated version of which I experienced firsthand during the prechristening cruise.

While the journey either begins or ends in Portland, Ore., the boat actually docks across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash., which, while lesser known than its Canadian neighbor of the same name, is home to the impressive living museum Fort Vancouver. Of course, passengers will surely want to also tour the forever-quirky Portland, with its up-and-coming foodie scene and diverse neighborhoods.

During the cruise, passengers will stop in Astoria, Ore., a charmingly picturesque fishing village and port town.

East of Portland, the paddlewheeler passes through a lock at the Bonneville Dam as it either heads into or returns from the heart of the Columbia River Valley.

In The Dalles, Wash., guests should be sure to opt for excursions that take them to the scenic overlooks of the Columbia River Gorge and to Multnomah Falls.

Historical highlights

Western Antique Aeroplane Automobile MuseumA premium excursion to the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum, an over-the-top collection of vintage cars, motorcycles and airplanes, won't disappoint, either.

At the Sacajawea State Park in Washington, another port call, details of Lewis and Clark's expedition are brought to light at the park's Interpretive Center. The center also houses a large collection of Native American artifacts, a testament to the region's strong Native American roots and cultural influences.

Washington and Oregon are also known for their wines, and AQSC offers wine tours that enable guests to see and experience the local winemaking process firsthand. Onboard, the wines are paired with regional cuisine, with a strong emphasis on fresh fish, seafood and smoked salmon.

Toward the eastern end of the itinerary, the boat sails onto the Snake River and heads toward the Idaho border.

The start or end of the sailing is Clarkston, Wash., from which AQSC offers a premium jet boat excursion through Hells Canyon, a narrow, 10-mile-wide canyon located along the Oregon-Washington-Idaho border that is said to be the deepest river gorge in America.

The American Empress, which had been dormant since 2008 (and was formerly the Empress of the North), joins the 120-passenger paddlewheeler Queen of the West and the 88-passenger S.S. Legacy, a turn-of-the-century-style coastal steamer, on the rivers of the Pacific Northwest.

Together, the three vessels are bringing antique charm and deluxe onboard amenities to the rich destinations of the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly. 

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