American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) Best For:
• Guests who enjoy a first-rate, relaxed river cruise experience.
• Couples, family & friends traveling together, and parents traveling with adult children.
• The overall demographic is primarily 60-plus age range. As a FAM cruise, this lowered the overall age range.
• Well-traveled history buffs looking for a luxury river cruise.
• Domestic travelers, there are a very small percentage of international travelers.
• Guests who have traveled on AQSC sister ship, the American Queen.
• Cruisers who prefer to relax and enjoy the unfolding river views.
• Guests who have motion sensitivity, as the river cruising is very calm.
Saturday April 2nd: Pre-Hotel Stay – Portland Hotel Stay
Guests of AQSC received a complimentary, one night deluxe hotel stay in Vancouver, Washington (Portland Airport-PDX-is the nearest airport). For this 2016 Launch season for the Columbia and Snake River Cruise, AQSC used the Hilton Vancouver Washington. This package included breakfast, taxes, porterage and transfers. The ship is close to the Vancouver Farmer’s market, the number one visitor attraction and home to over 200 vendors. Guest staying at this hotel received a morning overview of the American Empress, priority specialty dining reservations at the River Bar and Grill, and pre-cruise check-in.
For FAM guests, the hotel is not complimentary. I opted to stay at Hotel Rose in Portland, Oregon. The hotel is pet friendly. This hotel lured me with it complimentary pineapple cupcakes, and coffee daily in the lobby. The hotel is approximately 25 minutes from PDX and equal distance to the dock in Vancouver, WA.
Conveniently located walking distance to Portland’s famous Saturday Market, and the ooey gooey goodness of Voodoo Donuts. Hotel Rose provided complimentary bicycles, helmets and locks for guests to mix in with the local biking culture. I recommend including a few landmarks which are a short distance by bike: Powell’s Books (largest bookstore on the planet), St. Mary’s Cathedral, and Waterfront Park Trail along the Willamette River.
Using transportation there are some great stops while in the city: International Rose Test Gardens, Portland Japanese Gardens, and The Grotto – National Sanctuary.
Note: Portland is for foodies and has a very casual feel. “Keep Portland Weird” is the city’s motto. Save some time for people watching it is truly fascinating. There is a bounty of stellar food venues; many have got their start from the unending lines of food trucks adorning the city streets. I decided on cuisine from Kathmandu, Nepal, which was a solid choice. Portland is a utopia for vegans. I had my first, unbelievably good, burger made with beets and cashew cheese. The curry ketchup with home style fries was excellent.
If you only have time to make one food stop, I highly recommend The Salt and Straw. Best fresh made ice cream (gelato included), I’ve ever experienced. The ice cream is made with all locally grown ingredients, and Zagat-rated. The 30 minute line was well worth it! I sampled the strawberry honey balsamic with black pepper; the honey lavender; and Arbequina olive oil. I landed on a scoop of the Arbequina olive oil. They do offer ice cream by mail.
Sunday, April 3rd, Day 1: Vancouver, WA
The ship departure at 6 p.m. allowed for some pre-cruise premium shore excursions (additional charge): Mount St. Helens Tour including Portland City Tour; and Portland City Tour – “The Rose City”. Both excursions included pick up at the Hilton in Vancouver and transfer to the ship.
I arrived shortly before the 3 p.m. embarkation which allowed me to meet guests, which later turn out to be phenomenal new friends who I shared the journey with. Guests were greeted at embarkation with jazz music from the Empress Quartet and small treat from the dessert tray. My luggage was delivered within ten minutes of arriving in my stateroom.
AQSC is touted as the largest, most elegant riverboat in the Pacific Northwest. AQSC has a dedicated fleet of motor coaches, which includes a fully narrated hop-on, hop-off (ho-ho) tours for each port town. The morning typically has three departure times from the boat (AQSC uses the term boat, not ship). Maps are provided every night in the staterooms outlining the various stops along the ho-ho route. Motor coaches pick up are every 15 minutes in the morning, and every hour in the afternoon for most days. The boat visits small towns so the ho-ho provides time to explore the local shops and museums. Some guests took the ho-ho tour for an overview of the town. Most full circuits requiring about 45 minutes. Most admission fees to museums and attractions are part of the tour, though you will still want to bring some spending monies as most have gift shops.
AQSC started the journey with full-color, double-sided maps outlining our journey staterooms. Lewis and Clark’s expedition was the opposite direction of our itinerary. According to Laurence Cotton, our Riverlorian, traveling the same direction as the expedition, East to West, provides more daytime travel. The rivers passes through 7 ecosystems in 7 days! The West is close to a rainforest, receiving up to 80 or more inches of rainfall a year. The East is has desert conditions receiving less than 15 inches or less of rainfall a year.
Monday, April 4th, Day 2: Astoria, OR
This is the oldest American Settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. This area was inhabited by the Clatsop Indians for thousands of years. In 1805, Lewis and Clark’s expedition arrived here where they wintered at Fort Clatsop.
The battle of the premium shore excursions was shared by many guests. The tough decision between The Lewis & Clark Experience and Zip Lining Adventure ensued with much thought. The winner was the Zip Lining Adventure, which allowed me to face my fear of heights, head on. The day was a double victory as our small entourage of three guests zip lining was enhanced when our tour guide offered to take us through a fast-forward tour of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park at Fort Clatsop.
High Life Adventures provided a progressive series of an 8-course zip line. What a tremendous pleasure to share in the bucket-list-item for an 82 year-old from our ship as part of our zipping team. The afternoon of adrenalin culminated with The Zwing Extreme Zip Swing (additional charge, highly recommend). A surprise visit from Yeti at the end of one of the zip courses, added to the fear factor as he jumped from behind the trees.
Note: Guests on The Lewis & Clark Experience received a complimentary book, In the Wake of Lewis and Clark: From the Mountains to the Sea by C. Mark Smith. Though I did not purchase this excursion, I did order my copy on Amazon and enjoyed the easy read. Bonus, C. Mark Smith was one of the tour guides on the ho-ho.
Tuesday, April 5th, Day 3: The Dalles, OR
The terrane has changed significantly from the lushness of Oregon’s west coast to the desert-like conditions of The Dalles of Oregon. There were no premium shore excursions in this area, though interestingly enough, our Lounge Entertainer, Ted Horwitz, hails from this small town. He entertained us each afternoon and evening in the Paddlewheel Lounge.
The Dalles has many high tech companies residing there due to tax breaks, enhanced with the Columbia River Gorge Technology Alliance. Google invested 1.2 billion dollars in its data center. Apple and Amazon are investing in communities in Oregon, as well.
Quite a few guests participated in the on shore hike emulating the Corps of Discovery on an easy ½ mile hike lead by Laurence to Lewis and Clark’s Rock Fort Camp. The crew and Riverlorian offered numerous on shore hikes ranging from ½ miles to 2 miles most days.
The American Empress left port at 3 a.m. on day Day 3. New friends from aboard the boat came together after a yummy dinner to walk to a local karaoke dive. What fun times were had singing “We are Family” with some friendly folks from The Dalles!
Wednesday, April 6th, Day 4: Stevenson, WA
I choose the popular Multnomah Falls and Vista House premium excursion. This tour began on the Old Scenic Highway offering breathtaking views along America’s most scenic landscape. There were many vantage points and photo opportunities along the way: The Columbia River Gorge, Crown Point, Vista House, Multnomah Falls (Oregon’s highest waterfall), and much more.
When I arrived back in my stateroom, AQSC surprised me with a picture memento of our day’s journey on the premium shore excursion. What a stellar gesture!
Thursday, April 7th, Day 5: Cruising The Columbia River & Tri-Cities (Richland), WA (overnight)
It was a relaxing morning paddling down The Columbia River with many onboard activities to choose from: Zumba Gold, Read Our Mind Game Show, Trivia, Riverlorian Presentation, Bridge Players Meet, Future Cruise Talk, and Disembarkation Talk.
We arrived in Richland at 2 p.m. and the Ho-Ho ran every 30 minutes.
Friday, April 8th, Day 6: Tri-Cities (Richland), WA
My journey down The Columbia River to The Snake River was highlighted with the premium shore excursion Hells Canyon Scenic Jet Boat Experience. Hells Canyon is North America’s deepest gorge. The jet boats were very comfortable and covered. The bench seat in the back was even more exciting as daring guests were drenched with a combination of mist and waves.
The views along the banks offered tremendous view. Our tour guide mentioned sometimes there are sighting of bear, Big Horn sheep, deer, and other native wildlife can be spotted. I spotted cattle, horses, deer, bald eagle, and various birds.
At the farthest East end of the river, we stopped at the Idaho Garden Creek Preserve and enjoyed beverages and cookies. The views were gorgeous from the of river, orchard, and nature’s landscape.
Note: The Jet boats were enclosed and contain onboard bathroom facilities. This was a scenic jet boat experience; there were no white water rapids.
A week after I arrived home, my latest issue of Backpacking magazine featured an article boasting best views in America’s National Parks, and featuring Hells Canyon. What a fun way to showcase the end of my journey aboard AQSC! I did see many hikers along the river enjoying the gorgeous 80-degree weather and views.
What made AQSC memorable is the outstanding crew and friendliest guests on any cruise line I have journeyed! The overall feel of the ship was jovial, fun, and lasting friendships were forged.
• The maîtres’ in each dining room decorated the dining table for a friend’s birthday. In the Astoria Dining Room, Carmen, head maîtres, gave her a small gift. I have never witnessed such a remarkable experience on any premium or luxury cruise line. On the last night of the cruise, Carmen gave everyone at our table a beautiful picture of Mount Hood, signed “We will miss you”!
• The Riverlorian, Laurence Cotton was the most knowledgeable, engaging, and enjoyable lecturer I have had the pleasure of listening to. He is a true gem for AQSC! He gave daily lectures with a broad range: The Columbia River, “Our Journey Through Time and Place” introduction to the region and its history; “The Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery: Onwards to the Pacific and Homeward Bound”; Kennewick Man and the Hanford Nuclear Site, “Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America (his film produced for public TV); “Oregon Trail: In Their Own Words”; and Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War (his own film).
• I thoroughly enjoyed the Broadway style nightly entertainment in The Show Lounge. Each evening featured a fresh vibe, engaging audience interactions: Music of the Silver Screen, greatest pop & rock from 50’s-70’s, love songs, and Broadway songs.
• Locks and Lox were featured in the River Grill as American Empress traveled through the Bonneville Dam, the first of many locks on the river journey. This was coupled with the $5 Bloody Mary or Mimosa bar with all the fixings, offered most mornings. Laurence indicated the eastbound itinerary featured more daytime cruising through the locks than the westbound itinerary.
• Enrichment Presentation featuring the gifted guest speaker, storyteller, and Native American Tribal Member, J. R. Spencer sharing tales about the Nez Perce Indians.
• Maryhill Wine Tasting with special guest presenter Rich Washburn for a complimentary tasting of local favorites.
• “Dare to Dream” featured the history of steamboating in an interesting video showcasing the origins of the American Queen.
• The good and the sad…welcome aboard and the Farewell Champagne reception.
My floating home away from home was a category C deluxe verandah stateroom #226 on the Frontier Deck. This was an ideal location being one door away from the stairwell and elevators. I enjoyed the view from the port side of the boat across the river as the boat headed eastbound. The stateroom was just down the corridor from the Paddlewheel Lounge where most activities were held. I could hear the music from my stateroom at night which was welcomed.
AQSC was completely refurbished in spring 2014. Staterooms were stunning in the Victorian era with ornate furniture and elegant wallpaper. Many of the staterooms are configured for two twins with limited queen configurations. The AE-C categories are 180 sq. ft. with one picture window, and one door with window. There was ample storage in the two armoires. The stateroom was well accommodated with a flat screen TV, alarm clock, mini refrigerator, safe, Keurig coffee brewer, and binoculars.
The bathroom was small though had a good design. The bath shower stall was quite small. There was a hairdryer, bathrobes, and slippers in the stateroom. Other features were an antique writing desk with chair, which I rotated for views from the picture window. There were two antique style chairs and fine artwork from the regions American Empress travels.
Every evening, the River Times was left in each stateroom and offered a map of the ho-ho destinations, and newsletter for the follow day’s adventures.
Note: The staterooms and on the Vista View Deck have the walking track surrounding them. There is a small railing, see below.
• The cuisine above represents some of the regional Pacific Northwest cuisine, using locally sourced, fresh ingredients with a contemporary vibe. I highly recommend the grilled lobster, and espresso-rubbed tenderloin.
• An all-American staff provided gracious service and warm hospitality. This was the friendliest service I have ever experienced. The head chef visited our table most every night. He even surprised our table with a specially made dessert.
• The ship had a country club casual ambiance, no formal wear was required.
• The Astoria Dining Room had fine the same fine service breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
• The catch of the day was featured each evening in the Astoria Dining Room.
• The drinks were overflowing with regional wines and beer in both dining venues during dinner.
• The River Grill and Bar offered morning made-to-order omelet station, alternative grill options for lunch; including hamburgers, roast beef sandwiches, fajitas, and much more. Both breakfast and lunch buffet had varied daily options offering many choices of cold, hot, and dessert options. Afternoons you could find fruit and cookies to snack on. The drinks were self-service. There was alfresco dining or you could take in the rays from the floor to ceiling windows indoors.
• Complimentary cappuccino, espresso, bottled water and soft drinks were available in The River Grill & Bar anytime.
• Late afternoon snacks were offered in the Paddlewheel Lounge with a wide daily range: huge shrimp & cocktail sauce, cheese & crackers, veggies & dips, and so much more. The antique popcorn popper allowed for a salty and buttery option at any time. For my sweet tooth, I frequented the platter of different types of homemade cookies.
• Room service was available with a special menu and I am told you could have cuisine from the dining room’s menu in your stateroom or for a romantic dinner on your verandah.
• Happy hour in the Paddlewheel Lounge allowed guests to try the featured drink of the day, while tapping their feet to the sweet beat of Ted Horwitz, entertainer and pianist. Ted covered many decades and music varieties from American Folk Music; tunes from the Rat Pack; smooth sounds; to hosting a Rock ‘n Roll Dance Party. His friendly and fun banter with guests, kept the crowd engaged. After dinner, the Paddlewheel Lounge was filled with guests taking in a night cap or dancing to their favorite requests.
• The Empress Quartet featured jazz some evenings. They were a talented group on guys from different parts of Missouri (shout out to where I grew up).
• The gift shop was open when the boat was in port, which was handy.
• A self-guided art tour was offered by way of a brochure in each stateroom/suite. The American Empress showcased fine historical artifacts and artwork of the Native Alaska, Russian, and Gold Rush throughout the corridors.
• Onboard activities offered something for everyone: line dancing lessons, trivia, Independent Travelers Meet & Greet, Bingo, Veterans Meet & Greet, Bridge Players & Game Players, movie matinee, Blackjack Tournament, Pilot House tour, Engine Room Tour, crafts, Read Our Minds classic TV gameshow and The Match Game, and Liar’s Club Game.
• Complimentary bicycles were offered to guests on a first come, first serve basis to explore destinations on their own.
• Be first to attend select lectures by Laurence the Riverlorian as he handed out full-size maps. The maps reflected in detail Lewis & Clarks’ expeditions, featuring the Columbia River and points of interest.
• Take time slow down and take in the view. The rocking chairs on the public deck outside the River Grill & Bar invited a laid-back vibe, whilst overlooking the wake views and paddlewheel.
• I recommend waiting to sign up for the optional tour once onboard, instead of advance for some special travel agent rates.
• Before the cruise, sign up for some Premium Experience Excursions for a more in-depth and active options while in port. The pricing is nominal and money well spent! Read Less