First, a caveat: I am not an aficionado of cruise ships, and furthermore the only two cruises I have previously taken were by Crystal Cruises and Oceania, so I not only may not know what serious cruisers like, I also probably have unrealistically high expectations for food, facilities and service. Having said all that, I did enjoy our cruise on the American Empress down the Snake and Colombia Rivers, and can generally recommend it, with a few cautions.
The short version: If you don't require polished 5 star service, perfectly consistent cuisine, always fascinating ports of call, youthful fellow passengers, and a deep roster of onboard entertainment, but do enjoy watching a variety of rugged scenery slip by your balcony, lazy days of reading and lounging, watching wildlife, day trips to view natural splendor, and learning the history of the land and the early explorers, this could be the trip for you.
The longer version, divided by topic:
This is a small ship with only four public decks and approximately 115 cabins, not one of the behemoths that sail the seas, but it has to be svelte in order to fit through the many locks that line the river. And it's a reasonably faithful replica of a paddle wheel steamer of Mark Twain's day, though with modern diesel engines. The boat is historically appropriate in that a century ago, luxury paddle wheelers were common on the Columbia River. Compared to a top tier ocean liner, it doesn't dazzle with wall to wall polished brass and crystal, but the public areas are nicely appointed, usually in period style, clean and well maintained. The cabins are likewise clean and feature the amenities you would expect in a modern cruise ship, but if you travel with a number of electronic gizmos requiring regular charging, you will want to bring some sort of outlet multiplier, though they do provide an iPod/radio dock with a modern iPhone jack, a USB port, and a mini audio cable. There is ship-wide free WiFi, though it can be a bit intermittent and is never what you would call fast.
The bed is quite comfortable, but the feather pillows a bit slab like. As a nice bonus, all cabins feature balconies, though the cheaper fourth deck cabins (where we stayed) don't have private balconies, since the promenade deck for walking or running goes on the outside of these balconies' railings.
There is a main formal dining room on the first deck, along with a theater/lecture hall and a tiny shop; on the second aft deck is the bar/library/lounge, featuring comfy chairs, a small performance stage, and a cool view of the giant paddle wheel turning through the aft window; and on the fourth deck is the more casual grill restaurant, which also features patio seating on the aft deck. That's basically it – there's no gym, spa, guest laundry, pool, etc. From the outside, the boat is pure photographer eye candy, and predictably drew a throng of gawkers wherever we berthed.
One minor facilities complaint: the public areas tend to be cooled to walk-in freezer temperature levels, which was welcome when we were sweltering in 100+ degrees outside at the beginning of the voyage, but not so much when we got to the chilly coast. Hardest to understand was the fourth deck grill, where on a chilly day in Astoria they had all the exterior deck doors open at lunch hour and when we pointed this out, the waitress shrugged and apologized but did nothing. Realizing there was a reason the only people in there was one bundled up group of diners, we took our plates to the cabin and cranked the heat up.
The crew/staff: Those in senior positions (officers, bar manager, maitre'd, purser, head of housekeeping) were pleasant, professional, articulate, and helpful. Many of the rest of the line staff were...unpolished. Not rude, not disrespectful, not incompetent, not unhelpful, just kind of young, well meaning and uncouth. So be warned: if you are a connoisseur of high end international cruise lines where they train their staff like they worked in a 5 star European hotel, you may occasionally get your fur rubbed the wrong way. If you don't rank your specialness too highly, you'll do just fine. In terms of handling logistics, everything seemed well organized and efficient.
The entertainment: Sorry, can't help much here, since this isn't our scene, but as stated above, this is a small boat, with very limited space, so you are not going to see a wide variety of options. The "Riverlorean", the resident historian and local expert who gave periodic lectures on contextual history as well as spontaneous commentary as we sailed past various landmarks, was knowledgeable, articulate and interesting. Much of the entertainment that we skipped seemed aimed at the post-retirement crowd, which brings me to:
I'm 50. Until a family with teens joined us mid-cruise, I was probably the youngest person on board, though there may have been 3-4 other passengers who might possibly have held that title, but only by a year or two. Between this handful of us and the rest there was a big leap of about a decade. I would guess the median passenger age was 70, with a large contingent in walkers or other assistive devices (which frequently made boarding and exiting buses a very leisurely affair). I have no idea if this was a demographic fluke or the norm for this cruise, but if your idea of a perfect cruise is being around an active posse of your peers, and your peer group is not a retirement home, this may not be for you. Although it was a little odd for us – our two previous cruises, though geared towards mature adults, at least had all age demographics somewhat represented – we are two introverts who mostly don't go on these trips to socialize and meet people, so it wasn't a deal breaker. And the cruise served as a good reminder to check our ageism at the door, since several folks we met were bright, interesting and engaging.
As noted above, there are two restaurants on the boat. The semi-formal main dining room was a pleasant surprise: cuisine that would stand up well in a sophisticated foodie city like San Francisco or New York, with delicate favors, artistic presentation, and light portions that lend themselves to a multi course meal that won't leave you feeling bloated. The cuisine emphasizes seafood, but always included a vegetarian option and usually some sort of red meat entree.
The fourth deck grill is another affair. Food there is served cafeteria style for breakfast and lunch, and anything served in a stainless steel food warmer is best avoided (a coagulated grey goo with occasional fragments of shrimp billed as "bow tie pasta with shrimp" comes to mind, as do ice cold barbecue ribs). On the positive side, their lunch hot dog/hamburger grilled to order items were excellent, and if you avoid the aforementioned stainless steel food warmers at breakfast, you can put together a satisfying and healthy continental breakfast. At night this space transforms into their specialty bistro style, reservation-only restaurant. We ate there only one night, and found the menu not terribly different from that of the main dining room, the service slower, the preparation more hit or miss (tough and chewy lobster tail), and the late afternoon light more glaring, and opted not to dine there again.
Beer and wine are included at dinner, and are extra cost at other times, as are cocktails. They feature northwest coastal wineries and breweries, with mostly quite good selections, though for dinner there is only one red and one white offered each night, so if you don't like their selections you are out of luck. We attended a local beer tasting and a local whiskey tasting another night (both extra), and were pleased by both. The bar doesn't have a particularly deep roster of spirits, and their mixed drinks trend fruity and a bit sweet, and at least one traditional cocktail was done all wrong (a Sazerac with too much simple syrup, no discernible absinthe flavor, shaken, and served in a martini glass = fail).
We started in the eastern end with a pre-cruise hotel night in Spokane and went west, ending in Portland (or more technically, in Vancouver, Washington, Portland's sister city across the Columbia River). The hotel in Spokane was a delight -- see my separate review of the historic Davenport Hotel on Trip Advisor for details. You are then bussed a few hours drive south to the embarkation port, driving through the lush green rolling hills of the beautiful Palouse district. The boat actually zigs and zags back and forth along the river, sometimes doubling back a whole day's journey, presumably in order to make this a full week's cruise, but the scenery is so attractive it's not a problem. Eastern Washington and Oregon may come as a surprise to those whose image of the Pacific Northwest is based on the Oregon coast and Seattle. Mostly it is a treeless desert, with craggy basalt cliffs lining the river, and a hot dry climate -- temps were over 100 our first couple of days.
By about halfway through the cruise, when you enter the Columbia Gorge, the terrain begins to change dramatically to what most think of a more typical of the area, with towering cliffs covered in fir trees, and beautiful Mount Hood as a backdrop. The weather also changes, with temperatures dropping and also sometimes major winds, since the Columbia Gorge is a bit of a wind tunnel. One fun feature of the trip is to be on deck when you go through one of the many locks that line the river. Particularly dramatic were the Bonneville Dam and the John Day Dam.
With the exception of one day of cruising only, each day included a full day stop at a different port. Let's be honest: the small Idaho, Washington, and Oregon towns that make up most of the ports are not Venice. They are not Barcelona. They are not even Sitka. They are mostly smallish industrial towns, some of which clearly are economically depressed and still waiting for the economic recovery to reach them, with many empty storefronts, and extremely eager members of the town council waiting to greet the boat and point out their attractions. They usually have a historic downtown a few blocks long, usually have a historic museum in some old courthouse, and sometimes have a recently built history and/or natural history museum on the outskirts of town. If you don't know anything about Lewis and Clark, you will by the end of the trip, because the cruise retraces their journey, and every stop features historical sites related to it. It's not until you get to Astoria on the coast that you find a town with any shopping district to speak of. The town of Richland has a very pretty waterfront park that is perfect for walking or jogging.
Each stop includes an included hop on, hop off bus service from the boat with stops at the main points of interest, most of which have their admission fees covered by the cruise company. A local guide is on the bus providing narration, which is either a nice feature or an intrusive annoyance, depending on the guide; one in particular in Richland sounded like she was giving an aggressive and endless sales pitch from the local Chamber of Commerce, while others were more interesting. To access much more of an attraction than historical sites and museums, you need to get on one of the premium excursions, which are usually half day affairs around $60 a head. We'd only did three: the Spokane city tour, because we didn't know what we would do with ourselves while waiting for the bus to the boat (at 3.5 hours the tour was a little long, but a nice way to see the lovely parks and historic mansions of the town), the half day Multnomah Falls tour, which also hits several other spectacular viewpoints and falls (highly recommended), and the half day Maryhill Museum/wine tasting/Stonehenge replica tour (also recommended). There were some fun sounding and more active excursions such as zip lining and jet boating, but we weren't physically up to these, as well as excursions focused on wine tasting, antiques, etc.
The cruise runs both directions of the route, but I would probably recommend the direction we took, in that although the eastern desert has its own surreal beauty, the quality of both the scenery and the communities improve as you proceed west, and to do the cruise the other direction might feel like a journey with diminishing returns. Read Less