American Queen Steamboat Company purchased American Empress (formerly Majestic America Line's Empress of the North) in 2013 and completely refurbished the vessel, officially launching it in spring 2014. The paddlewheel boat is the largest sailing the rivers of the Pacific Northwest.
The refurbishment was a dramatic overhaul; public spaces and cabins got new carpet, paint, wallpaper, lighting and general updating. décor, decidedly Victorian with ornate furniture, floral carpeting, brass, frosted glass lampshades, lace curtains and elegant wallpaper, feels rich and elegant. Step onboard, and you'll be transported to a time when steamboats were a regular sight on America's rivers.
Yet the ship's surroundings feature contemporary influences. The Astoria Dining Room is sleek and light-filled with plenty of two-tops and the newly added River Grill offers a bistro-like experience. Still while American Empress is more accurately described as a steamboat without steam, there's no missing the iconic red paddlewheel.
Because the boat visits ports in Washington and Oregon, food and beverages onboard are locally sourced, a real highlight for fans of fresh seafood, up-and-coming wineries and craft beer. The food is generally excellent, both simple and familiar but mostly prepared to perfection. Service is friendly and knowledgeable.
Itineraries are designed for passengers who love history and wine, and many of the excursions are included in the price of the fare. Port towns generally are small, meaning passengers can explore as part of the included hop-on, hop-off bus tours or on their own by bike or on foot. Premium options are available for a fee, but we thought they were worth the price (some in the range of about $59 per person) because they were more immersive. With the premium options, you'll get closer to the history and wild beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Either way, you'll follow in the footsteps of explorers Lewis and Clark and perhaps sample some of the wines Oregon and Washington offer.
American Queen Steamboat Company had great success with its alfresco Front Porch on fleetmate American Queen, so much so, it brought the concept to American Empress, dubbing the venue the River Grill. There, eating and drinking is combined with the great outdoors in an open-air concept that makes this the spot for socializing and sightseeing. Likewise, the Paddle Wheel Lounge, with its sophisticated lodge vibe, is a quiet retreat during the day that picks up speed at night when live vocals and piano set the mood.
Passengers onboard American Empress are mostly Americans in the 60-plus age range. They're well traveled history buffs who are fond of wine. English-speaking international travelers from the U.K. and Australia also comprise a small percentage of passengers. While parents and their adult children show up occasionally, young families and their children are rare.
Dress onboard American Empress falls squarely into the country club casual category. During the day, passengers wear what's comfortable for exploring: jeans, T-shirts, sweaters, sweatshirts, sneakers and rain jackets (it is, after all, the Pacific Northwest). The ship will provide umbrellas on rainy days.
At night, men tend to wear dress slacks or khakis with button-down or polo-style shirts and sweaters. While some men wear jackets, ties are rare. For women, dresses, skirts, dress pants or capris along with casual blouses or sweaters are the norm. Formal wear isn't required as there are no elegant nights onboard.
Gratuities are not included in the cruise fare; $16.50 per person per day will be automatically charged to passenger onboard accounts. A 15 percent surcharge is automatically added to all drink purchase. There is no charge for room service, but a tip of $1 or $2 for the delivery is appreciated. Gratuities for tour and excursion operators are not included in the cruise fare and therefore are at the discretion of each passenger.