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Copyright 1995-2004 
Linda Coffman

 

Empress of the North
Columbia & Snake River
Cruise Review
October 2004

by Robert Benton

Portland was in its typical autumn mode as we settled down on the runway, misty and gray with a few hints of changing foliage. At the luggage carousel we found the first evidence of the hospitality to which we would become acclimated when a representative of the ship met us to collect our suitcases and ease the transfer to the hotel via the ever present hotel van waiting outside. The trip began with a night at an nearby hotel, registration for the hotel and the ship and a get-acquainted dinner with the promise of an included (actually, every tour was included with this line, American West Steamboat Cruises) tour the next morning to Mount St. Helens, the newly re-active volcano known for blowing her top in 1980. The dinner, a buffet affair in one of the hotel banquet rooms, provided a nice chance to get acquainted with a few of our soon-to-be shipmates, a great device for breaking the awkward silences with which we insular types surround ourselves. We also got a short explanation of tomorrow's procedures.

A good night's sleep and it was morning. Breakfast was buffet style and satisfying and we were off to meet the buses. What was different here was that we were provided four new shiny quarter million dollars each buses which were to remain with us during the entire cruise (moving ahead to the next stop after each day's touring) with some of the most personable and knowledgeable drivers we've ever experienced. We were encouraged to sample each of the drivers, but found Jim, driver of bus #4 so engaging, we remained with him for the duration. They know the area, the stories and enough anecdotes that it made the trips short and challenging. The buses were modern and comfortable, with huge pillarless windows and restrooms (and they "knelt" to make the final step easy for the older among us, a very large number).

Mount St. Helens' closest visitors center was closed to the public since the mountain's reawakening, but the second was the normal venue for our ship anyway so there was no loss, except for the sun, most often absent in these shorter fall days. We also had the "privilege" of the "Oregon mist" which is standard operating condition in the Pacific Northwest. We were able to view a wonderful video, "The Fire Below," on the buses so all of us understood the entire process of the first eruption even before we got to the mountain, and though the rain was light and intermittent, the view was quite limited. Excitement built on the return because we were headed for our ship, and though the docking location was a bit lacking in convenience (the river was low and the Empress drew a bit too much water to use the normal dock, so we had a bit of a walk and a steep ramp to negotiate, in the rain, to board. The crew tried their best to make it easier, including golf carts for those with mobility problems, and slightly damp, we did get on board and headed to our room to dry out. Our luggage was there to meet us, having traveled direct from the hotel, and the glass of complimentary champagne and hors d'oeuvres did help to warm our dispositions.

The Empress of the North is a sparkling vessel, just a little over her first birthday, red and white with bunting and high, flared stacks (and, of course, they conveniently fold down for those low bridges) and four decks high. The art in each of the corridors, neatly listed and described in an in-room guide, is nothing short of spectacular. It is named and themed for Russian nobility (she spends her summers in Alaska, sailing the Inside Passage, as close to a river as Alaska gets) and with a collection of Faberge eggs, matrioshka (nesting family) dolls, lacquer boxes and other Russian artifacts opposite the Purser's Office and gift shop. The Romanov Dining Room is similarly decorated from Imperial Russia. Her rooms are spacious and nicely decorated and most have verandahs to watch the scenery and passing ships drift by during the day. The rooms all have TV sets with DVD players, with a lending library of discs in the gift shop available at no cost, and clock radios with CD players. There is also satellite TV from most of the networks, CNN and others always available as well as a camera mounted on the pilot house to share the Captain's view with the passengers. In addition to the dining room, there is a show lounge (which is also our lecture hall during the day), the Paddlewheel Bar, serving evening drinks and appetizers before dinners (two seatings, but no assigned tables) and dancing before and after the evening meal, and the Calliope Lounge which serves light breakfasts and lunches each day.

A weak point? Perhaps the entertainment was somewhat of a disappointment, but in the light of the circumstances it is explainable. First, unlike a cruise ship, the Empress (and her smaller and older sister, the Queen of the West) don't have the space to carry entertainers as passengers for the length of the cruise. Additionally, the shorter length of the trip militates against more than one performance. In the Portland, Oregon market, the supply of top flight talent is somewhat limited, and the arrangement, for that reason, is to board the entertainer(s), provide the two nightly shows (for first and second seating) and then disembark them and provide service to return them to their homes. That may not be the standard operating procedure, but it works for them. It is, therefore, a nice diversion but not something which is memorable. We also had a young man, a member of the Nez Perce indian tribe whose antecedents provided help and shelter to Lewis and Clark and their party, who told us about his tribe and his people over the years and how they relate to current times and lifestyles, a tremendously interesting presentation.

The first night, always a little awkward, featured a "Welcome Aboard Dinner" and indicated that the standards of the kitchen were high indeed. Each night's menu had a choice of hot or cold appetizer, two soups, two salads and four entrees, one of which was vegetarian. Two or more desserts plus fruit or ice cream ended each meal. Overall, we had only wonderful experiences with all of the cuisine. Staff was young and enthusiastic, cordial and eager and very personable. Whether they did or not, they certainly seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, from the deckhands to the cabin stewards and stewardesses to the waiters. We also (because this was a Lewis and Clark themed cruise) had an on-board historian, a wonderful and knowlegable man who not only was totally familiar with the expedition and the terrain, but honed the same skills the earlier frontiersmen possessed. He dressed in leather clothing of his own making and made many of his own replicas of the Lewis and Clark equipment, like the muskets, powder horns, containers in which to keep supplies and such. We bought an exquisite copy of a compass they carried which he'd hand-crafted. He added a great dimension to the trip in his lectures on the ship and his presence at the historic sites.

The first full day on the Empress provided a stop at Stevenson, Washington and a visit to the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center, an excellent museum of the history of the Gorge, its settlement, growth and progress including a commercial salmon fishing wheel, lumbering machine and railroad memorabilia. We also had a planned stop at Bonneville Dam, perhaps the best-known dam and power plant on the river, but Murphy's Law intervened and construction on the roadway and bridge made this feature impossible, and at the fish hatchery, remodeling only allowed us a view of the sturgeon pond and Herman, the sturgeon, who was more than 200 years old and still growing as sturgeons do, a living link with the area's past. Finally, we were able to view the spectacular Multnomah Falls, a trademark beauty of this part of the river.

The next day brought us to Umatilla Landing, again in Washington and visits to Fort Walla Walla, the Whitman Mission where the Whitman family of missionaries were the first of the non-Native Americans to settle and might have remained had not a measles epidemic to which the natives had no immunity, cost them their lives as they were blamed for the deaths that resulted. We all enjoyed a visit to the Three Rivers winery (Washington and Oregon produce wonderful wines, though not nearly as well-known as their neighbors in California) and a magnificent lunch at the beautifully restored Whitman Hotel before returning to our waiting river home.

That night, as we were sleeping, the ship left the Columbia to enter the Snake River and continued upriver and through the last remaining locks to Lewiston, Idaho, the easternmost point on the voyage. This was a much anticipated adventure as the entire ship moved to a fleet of jet boats, the only commercial craft that could navigate this rugged river and its terrain. We proceeded up about thirty miles, beyond any roads and accessible only to intrepid rafters and canoeists and a few float fishermen plus hikers and backpackers, to where the Snake met the Salmon River. We also found some petroglyphs made hundreds of years ago by area natives and viewed some mountain sheep. At that point, we'd again met the confluence of three states, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, and we reversed to a takeout point from which we had snacks and returned by bus to the ship. It was time to start our return.

The next day saw us stopping near Klickitat, Washington to make a trip to the Maryhill Museum, the creation of an eccentric millionaire which houses an impressive array of art, the largest collection of Rodin work on the West Coast, native art, beautiful chess sets of exquisite artistry and a sculpture and floral garden overlooking the river below. But we were closing in on the final goal of the voyage, the destination and goal of Lewis and Clark at Astoria, Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia River basin and adjoining the Pacific Ocean.

That final stop, where we overnighted and spent a second day, took us into the beautiful town of Astoria, Oregon, full of wonderful restaurants and shops, and up to the Astoria Monument, a column full of spiraling art and chronicles of the town's history, with a climb of one hundred sixty two steps and a viewing platform with three hundred sixty degrees of vista to Washington, the ocean, Cape Disappointment where the expedition finally found their goal but spent three weeks of continuous rain, and Fort Clatsop, on the Oregon side, where they built a shelter and prepared to leave for the east and their homes. Both of us climbed the tower and down again, which, we hoped, allowed us one more course at the Captain's farewell dinner. We also toured all of the places we'd seen via our buses and found some excellent National Park Service centers at each of them dedicated to explaining still more of the incredible journey made by Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery two hundred years before. It was a trip so amazing, with only one loss of life, and that early on, to a ruptured appendix, and a journey in which their estimate of distance was only twenty six miles off, without any instruments of measurement. The nation is indebted to these men for exploring and mapping the entire passage and the flora and fauna found along the way, none of which was known before their trip.

Our hearts were heavy as we sailed back to our original docking location, this time to board different buses to the airport, hotel or car parking area, but all trips must end and we were delighted to look back on this experience as one of enlightenment, entertainment and enjoyment. For a domestic trip, we found it without peer, full of little touches that helped to make it memorable. If this might fit your needs, it is, as we could attest, certainly your cup of tea. It gets our best recommendation.