Husband and I have enjoyed 32 cruises prior to this one. We’ve been on 30 “ocean”, from Carnival on up to Crystal, which is now our favorite. Celebrity is our second favorite, of course knowing that the two products are quite ... Read More
Husband and I have enjoyed 32 cruises prior to this one. We’ve been on 30 “ocean”, from Carnival on up to Crystal, which is now our favorite. Celebrity is our second favorite, of course knowing that the two products are quite different, so our expectations change from one line to the other. The two European river cruises we’ve taken were both on AmaWaterways and we did love almost everything about them. When a friend asked us to consider cruising the Snake and Columbia Rivers on American Empress, I was hesitant, b/c of the high price tag. I did as much research as I could and decided it sounded like we’d be happy, and luckily that was an accurate assessment.
We went east to west, just as Lewis and Clark did on their exploration towards the Pacific Ocean. We flew to Spokane and booked one night prior to the night included by American Queen Steamboat Company. The Historic Davenport is a lovely property and the front desk is very adept at coordinating the night we booked on our own with the night AQSC books for us. Husband had researched restaurants and sightseeing, so we had a great breakfast at Frank’s Diner, walked some of Centennial Trail, saw the waterfalls, saw the Gonzaga campus, and visited the Rose Garden at Manito Park. Dinner at Wild Sage was really great, and a short walk from the Historic Davenport.
Check-in for the Empress was easy, in the Davenport the day prior to embarkation, and we found we had been upgraded from Deck Four (with semi-private veranda) to Deck Three with private veranda and 30 extra square feet in the stateroom. Cue ominous music here, but that will wait until embarkation day.
A buffet breakfast at the Davenport is included on embarkation day. It was mostly acceptable (although not as nice as the hotel itself) but with one glitch. Breakfast went from 7:30 to 9:30 am. We arrived at 8:30 and the dregs of a big fruit platter were offered. Husband informed a server that the fruit needed to be replenished; the server answered that the entire amount of fruit that had been ordered had already been put out and consumed. What? Either AQSC didn’t do a good job of ordering (they do it every other week, so this would be strange), or the kitchen was being inappropriately parsimonious. Soon, though, a server came over to tell us a new fruit platter was out. Just miscommunication? We’ll never know.
We finished up our wandering around in Spokane, shared a sandwich for lunch and endured the wait in the ballroom before our bus was ready for us. The ride from Spokane to Clarkston features some unusual scenery, and there’s a short rest stop during the two-hour ride. The Empress looks lovely waiting there for us and we happily climb the stairs to our newly assigned stateroom, only to find that the two twin beds “cannot” be converted to a queen. It’s very evident from the AQSC web site that some staterooms do indeed have twins that can’t be put together; but I had carefully avoided any of those when booking. Who would’ve thought they’d put an anniversary couple into two twin beds? Eventually it got rectified, but it was an unsettling beginning and we rushed to see the welcome show and unpack before dinner.
Thank goodness after that, all went really well, with much that exceeded our expectations.
Highlights of this cruise were the staff and crew; dinners; HOHO bus sightseeing. The Cruise Directors were Kevin and Melissa (Mel), a married couple, both of whom are great singers and entertainers and cordial hosts. Hotel Manager Lindy was also a charming hostess and singer/entertainer. There’s a four piece band that does a wonderful job accompanying the shows and playing dance music. One night featured Lindy’s husband Greg as a guest performer. He was my favorite, doing a wide variety of Broadway show tunes along with his own clever costume changes. I cried tears of joy when he finished his show, that’s how great I thought it was. The welcome show is a half hour, while the rest are 45 minutes, but for late dining, the show ends half an hour before dinner, which I found to be a kind of a clumsy timing, when guests tended to flood the lobby area between the dining room and the show lounge.
Besides the show theatre, there’s a lounge where a clever pianist, Frank Chase, performs on a nice schedule. That lounge has snacks from 3-5 pm daily, very helpful for those of us with late dining (7:45). Early dining at 5:30 is more popular, but we were very happy with our late dining.
Mary the Riverlorian gave fun talks, including a few that competed with sightseeing, and she led a walk to a Lewis and Clark site at one “port”. Mel led a Zumba Gold class (the one that’s good for us old folk) and also a strenuous hike up to the Astoria Column. THANK YOU AQSC AND MEL for the Zumba Gold. There were even two movies shown on board, as well as trivia several times. Truly something for everybody, I thought. Wi-fi plus guest computers were available most of the time but why are the guest computers so excruciatingly slow? (No exercise room on board, but eight walks around the Deck Four outer perimeter equal a mile.)
HOHO bus really works nicely, with a local guide giving information and bus drivers who are with us all week (and who share in the required $16.50/person/day gratuity added to your onboard account). The guides may not be consistently great, as I had been told on my bus that entry into the Maritime Museum in Astoria was not included, while my friend on another bus did not hear that same announcement. Otherwise, all entry fees for the stops along the HOHO routes are included. There’s even a local guide up at the Astoria Column to answer questions and to give anybody climbing to the top of the column a balsa wood airplane to send off the top, which AQSC had pre-purchased. Nice attention to detail, AQSC! One private home, I believe in Lewiston, Idaho, is not open to the public, only to AQSC guests. The sightseeing is quite varied and educational. My favorites were the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center and Bonneville Dam; but there were truly many other great sightseeing sites, as well.
I could’ve used way more time in every single port, and I needed more time on my premium shore excursion. One day, we came back on the last morning shuttle, having rushed through the two stops we chose, despite having started on the earliest HOHO. We got back at 12:55 pm and Carmen the maître d’ closed the door to the main dining room in our faces (lunchtime until 1 pm). Wouldn’t you know? That day had two things we love on the lunch menu, never to be heard from again. It’s Wednesday, if you’re curious and want to make sure you don’t miss lunch in the main dining room, which was fried oysters or a Reuben. Upstairs in the River Grill (open for lunch later than the main dining room) we had nice soup, salad and entrees, but neither the oysters nor the Reuben were on offer there.
Dinners were quite delicious, with many choices. We found a favorite waitress, Sandra, and her assistant, Sarah; Carmen the maître d’ accommodated us every evening by giving us one of Sandra’s tables. Included wines were ok. Soft drinks and bottled water, cappuccino and etc. are also included throughout the cruise. All servers were very good and personable, sometimes with a quiet personality, sometimes with a happily boisterous one.
Every guest is entitled to two dinners at the alternative dining venue with a fixed menu nightly. The lobster was great but they RAN OUT OF BOTH DESSERTS the night we went. We cancelled our second reservation when we saw that the main dining room’s menu was quite appealing to us.
Breakfast and lunch were more disappointing. Although we usually like to eat al fresco, it was sometimes a bit warm outside, plus the burger couldn’t be cooked any temperature less than medium well. While the soup and the salad were nice, we preferred the main dining room lunch, where the soups were piping hot even though sometimes fries weren’t. Breakfast was more frustrating, with poached eggs and even scrambled eggs (requested to be cooked gently) coming from the kitchen quite overcooked, and toast and potatoes were always cold. Our four friends all enjoyed breakfast and lunch at the River Grill, with one mentioning the made-to-order omelettes, and one choosing to take the meal back to their Deck Four semi-private veranda, which happened to be shadier than the aft outside tables, much of the time.
Comparing AQSC’s Empress to our two AmaWaterways experiences, we give Ama better marks for dining, especially breakfast and lunch, and we give Empress better marks for entertainment and the included sightseeing, which really works nicely.
We had used Lyft from Spokane airport to the hotel (less than half the cost of the hotel’s $25 transfer) and we also used it at debarkation to go pick up our rental car at a hotel not far from the highway from Vancouver, WA, into Portland. It worked great. Then we headed out to Crater Lake where half the road was closed because they’d had 10% more snow than usual this winter (usually they get 43 FEET!). We dined in the lodge where one of the five entrees was “sold out” and so was the bread!! I guess it isn’t easy, running a restaurant? Back in Portland the next day, we loved the rose garden in Washington Park and visited the very moving Oregon Holocaust Memorial, and our dinner at Le Pigeon was as pleasing as Wild Sage had been nine nights before.
We stayed at a Fairfield by Marriott near the Portland airport, and it was a lovely property we’d recommend to anybody. Portland Airport is fun, with great shops and food.
Although the price tag is high, American Empress delivers a very classy product with a steady diet of fascinating sightseeing and five superb hosts/entertainers who add much to the week onboard. Read Less