American Empress: Paddling through the Pacific Northwest

One day aboard the American Empress paddlewheeler began with a bald eagle sighting from my veranda, continued with a forest trek, waterfalls and Washington state wines and wrapped with one of the best meals I’ve eaten on a cruise.

Seeing the Pacific Northwest by riverboat was a revelation. As a kid, I’d spent summers in Washington and Oregon, but I didn’t appreciate the full majesty of the Columbia River Gorge, the rich history of the river towns or the region’s thriving artisan food culture until I sailed on this newly reintroduced vessel in April.

Steep cliffs, dramatic rock formations, towering Douglas firs and sweeping waterfalls formed the scenery. We sailed past islands swirling in the morning mist and Indian fishing camps along riverbanks blazing in yellow and purple flowers. Railway bridges swung open to let the American Empress pass. We transited locks and tied up in the heart of towns and cities.

We learned about Indian history, the Oregon Trail, the Gold Rush and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. We explored top-class museums, sipped great local wines and savored dishes prepared with Pacific Northwest delicacies. On an excursion, I got to ride in some vintage automobiles and would have flown in a vintage airplane past Mount Hood if the cloud cover hadn’t been too low.

The American Empress sails along the Snake and Columbia rivers between Clarkston in eastern Washington on the Idaho border and Vancouver, Wash., an under-appreciated city just across the river from Portland, Ore. Seven-night cruises operate each way.

The paddlewheeler, built in 2003 as Empress of the North, was brought back to life after a five-year layup. It had sailed for Majestic America Line, which ceased operations in 2008.

The new owner, American Queen Steamboat Co., has a record of reviving riverboats. Two years ago it brought back the largest paddlewheel steamboat ever built, the American Queen, on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. This year the company acquired and put more than $6 million into upgrading the 360-foot American Empress as the Pacific Northwest’s largest riverboat. It carries up to 223 passengers.

It’s not a steamboat but is powered by CAT diesel engines, Z-drives and the sternwheel.

The refurbishment brought new furniture, lighting, amenities, galley equipment and an upscale alternative dining venue. The original Russian imperial decor (think “Romanov red”) was toned down.

The Victorian-era charm remains in the flocked wallpaper, ornate ceilings and cut-glass lamps, but there are contemporary boutique hotel touches. All the accommodations have Clarins toiletries, Keurig espresso makers, high-thread-count linens and fluffy duvets. The pillow chocolates are Godiva.

Tasty meals were served in the open-seating Astoria Dining Room where opulent crystal chandeliers grace an elegant space of light green with gold accents. The Pacific Northwest cuisine was a treat.

Breakfast choices ranged from hearty oatmeal to salmon hash and scrumptious home-fried potatoes. Lunch favorites included Idaho rainbow trout, a pulled pork barbecue sandwich, fried oysters and a grilled vegetable sandwich with homemade parmesan potato chips. Soups like tomato basil bisque, cream of forest mushroom and Walla Walla onion were outstanding. The homemade marionberry sorbet merited seconds.

Each cruise features a wine pairing dinner. On mine, a 2012 Birdie Riesling Columbia Valley was poured with Tillamook cheddar fondue, a 2011 L’Autre Pinot Noir Willamette Valley went with mushroom risotto and a 2011 Kingpin Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain with New York strip steak.

All the meals were memorable, but my favorite was a dinner at the River Grill & Bar, where cascading glass doors are opened in fine weather. I watched Chef Paul Wayland-Smith cook at the open galley, pulling miracles out of his shiny new combi oven. His menu offered hot or cold dungeness crab, smoked salmon with blinis and a crispy pastry purse of local shiitake mushrooms with truffle cream sauce. Entrees were grilled lobster tail, filet mignon, a double lamb chop and British Columbia king salmon topped with Oregon crayfish. Dessert was fresh berry cobler.

The local sourcing extended to the bars. The Paddlewheel Lounge, which overlooks the big red sternwheel, stocks brands like Wild Roots Marionberry Vodka, Portland Potato Vodka, Below Deck Silver Rum and Crater Lake Gin made with Oregon juniper berries.

“We went with a lot of local and a lot of craft spirits. Even our well brands are local,” said bartender Patrick Mulvaney.

The star of the cruise was the river. The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area spans 292,500 acres across southern Washington and northern Oregon. It’s a spectacular canyon 80 miles long and up to 4,000 feet deep that cuts through the Cascade Mountain Range.

Destinations were easy to explore since the American Empress is trailed by the company’s own deluxe motor coaches. In each port they operated hop-on, hop-off tours, included in the cruise fare, that circled around to destination highlights. Local guides rode the buses.

In The Dalles, for example, the tour stopped at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Museum, the Original Courthouse Museum, The Dalles Visitors Center, Fort Dalles Museum and the Sunshine Mills Winery. This is a pretty town of wooden houses, flowering trees, a bookstore dating to 1864 and a 1929 theater said to have been the first west of the Mississippi to show a “talkie.”

“Lewis and Clark passed right by here. They camped here three days to repair and dry out their goods before heading to the ocean,” said one of the guides, Linda, who works for the Forest Service. She told us we were surrounded by thousands of acres of cherry orchards, apple trees, grapevines and wheat fields.

The boat also offered premium tours, at an extra charge.

In the afternoon during our day at The Dalles, I took one to the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum at Hood River ($59). It was great. There, hangars house 130 antique cars and the airplanes date as far back as 1917. Some of the enthusiastic volunteers who restore these machines took us for spins. I jumped into the rumble seat of a 1931 Model A Ford Roadster, luxuriated in a champagne-colored 1941 Lincoln Continental and a roomy 1948 Chrysler New Yorker, then puttered along in a crank-started 1914 Model T Ford.

The next day the American Empress pulled into tiny Stevenson, where I spotted the bald eagle. The hop-on, hop-off tour visited the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center and Bonneville Dam.

“This was a dangerous part of the Columbia with rapids before the dam. Early steamers would stop to restock,” said Rick, the local guide. In the old days, logs were floated down on flumes. Now, Rick said, Stevenson is “an artsy-craftsy community.”

The afternoon’s premium tour ($39) was another high point. We crossed the Bridge of the Gods to Oregon and drove along the river past sheer cliffs; Beacon Rock, with a top that resembles a fedora, and Rooster Rock, shrouded in trees.

Our motor coach climbed into the forest on a steep, winding road, the Historic Columbia River Highway. When the highway system was established in 1926, it was incorporated into U.S. Route 30, stretching all the way to Atlantic City, New Jersey.

There were spectacular lookouts at Chanticleer Point and Crown Point. Driving through a beautiful forest of moss-covered trees, we passed seven waterfalls in an eight-mile stretch including 620-foot Multnomah, second highest in the United States.

It was a gorgeous tour, and back at the American Empress, we were in for another treat: a wine tasting with the generous pours of winemaker Linn Scott of Washington’s Sparkman Cellars.

Feeling joyful and tipsy, I joined others on deck as we sailed away on a sparkling afternoon. The captain folded the stacks so we could pass beneath the Bridge of the Gods. We got second glimpses of Beacon Rock and Multnomah Falls, and transited Bonneville Lock.

We all went snap-happy — every glance revealed a photo-worthy scene.

Next day it was drizzly in Astoria, where the Columbia empties into the Pacific. Sea lions barked all around. We docked near the Columbia River Maritime Museum, blocks from coffee houses, a brew pub and the opulent Flavel House, a Queen Anne mansion built by the late George Flavel, a bar pilot on the Columbia and Astoria’s wealthiest man. A premium tour took in the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

Our last morning, beautiful views continued as mist rose off the river and we sailed a short distance back upriver. A railroad bridge swung open, and we arrived at Vancouver, the end of the trip.

I spent a day after disembarking and was surprised by all there is to explore, from interesting Fort Vancouver National Historic Site to the budding arts scene, parks, bike trails, brew pubs, wineries and fine restaurants.

I enjoyed another day across the river in Portland, where American Empress passengers stay during their included pre-cruise hotel overnight on eastbound sailings. It’s a lively, walkable city, where food trucks sell everything from Kalua Pig Sliders to Smoked Salmon Pot Pie, and the towering Portlandia statue is not to be missed.

A well-traveled friend ranks the Columbia River Gorge on par with Norway, Alaska and Montenegro’s Kotor Fjord. After sailing through all of them, I agree.