The difficult aspect of this review is to be accurate and objective, without sounding like a company shill. My wife and I were on the Sept. 20, 2014 cruise from Portland (Vancouver) to Clarkston.
Of course, no voyage is perfect, so I’ll begin with the “rough spots”. It’s not apparent without examining the cruise itinerary, but the Clarkston to Portland (Vancouver) cruise actually begins in Spokane, a major metropolitan area in eastern Washington State. Getting to/from Spokane is considerably easier than Clarkston, or Lewiston, its twin city in Idaho. For most folks, this itinerary is probably better, because there’s a $49 charge to ride AQSC’s bus from Clarkston to Spokane, while it’s included in the cost of a cruise ending in Vancouver. The cost for both cruises is the same.
This is the first year of cruising for the American Empress, and some of the promotional and informational literature remains focused on her larger sister ship, the American Queen, which sails on the Mississippi and tributaries. For example, the American Queen Steamboat brochure states that the River Grill offers “a selection of sandwiches, fresh fruits, popcorn, and soft-serve ice cream around the clock….” In practice, ice cream was always available there, popcorn never was, sandwiches only around lunch, and fresh fruit for only part of the day. Light snacks and cookies were also available in the Paddlewheel Lounge from 3-5 daily.
AQSC presumes that all passengers fly to and from the cruise. They offer zero assistance in arranging transportation that’s not related to airlines. That’s both disappointing and short-sighted on their part. With no help from AQSC, my wife found a very inexpensive one-way car rental. We paid $65 for a two-day rental, from the Lewiston Airport ($25 cab ride from the dock) to downtown Seattle, where we live. That allowed us to visit with relatives in the area before traveling home.
The shower controls involve a flow control on the left and a temperature control on the right. The controls are identical, with no markings, and no explanation in the guest guide book. It’s a great idea, but not typical of most hotels, and could use some explanation.
I didn’t care for the coffee on the Empress. It tastes pretty much like generic diner coffee. In an area with so many excellent choices for coffee, AQSC could do better. The River Grill does have a self-service espresso machine. I didn’t use it, so can’t comment. I spent 20 years in the Navy, so this isn’t the worst coffee that I’ve tasted. That “honor” actually goes to Norwegian Cruise lines.
It would be nice to have an indication of the ship’s position, ideally presented as a channel on the stateroom television screen. Hopefully, this will be added for the ship’s second cruise season. A repeater in the Paddlewheel Lounge would be nice.
The deck plan on AQSC’s website is horrible. It’s too small, and nearly impossible to read the stateroom numbers. I found a better one on a cruise site. This was important when it came to selecting a stateroom.
The complimentary Internet access was so slow as to be unusable. In fact, my cell phone refused to recognize it as a valid Internet connection, though my laptop did. I brought a mobile hotspot, which had coverage for about 2/3 of the cruise, as did my cell phone. Of course, most cruise lines charge obscene rates for Internet connections. If you need to have an airline boarding pass printed, ask the Purser’s office, which has better Internet access.
This cruise is aimed squarely at adult passengers, with no provisions for children’s activities. I would not recommend it for families.
The main dining venue, the Astoria Room, offers sit-down service for all three meals. The River Grill offers buffet service for breakfast and lunch. For dinner, it is reservation only. Unlike the Astoria Room, the menu doesn’t change. The staff tries very hard to offer an excellent dining experience. However, the arrangement of the room works against them, and there is considerable noise associated with the service. My wife and I ate there one evening, then canceled our second reservation. I would be happier if the River Grill offered buffet service for all three meals. It’s a nice effort by AQSC, but the passengers’ interests would be best served by offering a dinner buffet service.
The first night of the cruise is actually in a hotel room, in Spokane or Vancouver. Bus transportation is provided to the ship’s embarkation point, though the Vancouver hotel is an easy walk from the dock. This is actually a very clever way to handle the check-in process, as well as baggage. Nevertheless, it is uncommon in the industry. AQSC stated that they had paid gratuities to the hotel staff, so none was expected from us. A voucher was provided for the hotel breakfast buffet. We had a wonderful time in the hotel, which is located adjacent to a very nice park in downtown Vancouver. We walked to the Veteran’s Memorial mural and to the Fort Vancouver site after checking in to the hotel. It’s a very pleasant area. With check-in accomplished at the hotel, you can go directly to your stateroom after boarding the ship, with your luggage waiting in your room. I should add that we rode Amtrak to the Vancouver station, which was a 15-minute walk to the hotel. We had roll-aboard suitcases and a backpack.
Now, the good stuff. Basically, this cruise is as close to all-inclusive as could be reasonably expected. Unlike some other cruise companies, there is no effort to nickel-and-dime customers with bogus fees and continual exhortations to spend more money with them. You pay the published fare, $109 in port taxes, and $16.50 per day of the actual cruise (7 days) for gratuities (you can adjust this figure at the Purser’s office). If you want to participate in the specialty tours, there is an extra, but reasonable charge. Drinks from the bar are charged an automatic 15% gratuity. That’s it, unless you purchase items from the small ship’s store. There is zero pressure to participate in the specialty tours or to purchase drinks from the bar. Dinner includes your choice of four local craft beers or two wines (red and white). All are from the Northwest or California, and the choices change daily. Servers will keep filling your glass until you say “no”. In the two lounges, the bartenders made it clear that they were there to provide your beverage choices, not to push alcoholic drinks. We often chose a glass of water. After a few evenings, one bartender (Dan) brought our water as soon as we sat down.
Bottled water is freely available, both in the staterooms and while leaving the ship in port. There’s no reason to bring your own. If rain is expected, loaner umbrellas are provided when departing the ship.
Drinks in the bar are reasonably priced. The most expensive was a martini, at $12. The most expensive cocktail was $9. Beer and wine were $4-6, as I recall. The daily Happy Hour features reduced prices and drink specials. A bartender told me that all cocktails are original recipes developed by AQSC. While AQSC reserves the right to “prohibit and retain” alcoholic beverages, our luggage was not inspected, and the topic was never addressed. Besides, wine and beer are free with dinner, and bar prices are very reasonable.
Repeatedly, the ship’s staff looked for ways to exceed our expectations. Our room attendant (Carol) offered to provide a different mix of coffees for the Keurig machine in our room, according to our preferences. When my wife commented to a bartender (Ed) that she liked Earl Gray tea, he said that he would insure that it was available in the Paddlewheel Lounge for the afternoon snack time. It was.
Very early in the cruise, several staff members, including entertainers, asked our names, then greeted us by name whenever we encountered them in the ship.
AQSC offers “hop-on, hop-off” tours at each port, for no charge. A fleet of three large, Greyhound-type buses follows the ship to each port. They’re easy to identify, with large murals of the American Empress painted on the side. One is dedicated to the specialty tours, and the other two operate on a schedule of every 15 or 30 minutes, depending on the port. Drivers remain with the buses, but local tour guides are hired from each port. Stops are typically placed at several local museums, dams, or interpretive centers, marked by sandwich board signs. AQSC has pre-paid the admission fee or donation, so there is no charge for their passengers.
Like its larger sister, the American Queen, the American Empress is a US-flagged vessel, so it meets higher safety and health standards than do foreign-flagged vessels that operate to US ports (e.g., Alaska cruises from Seattle). All crewmembers are legally entitled to work in the US. Very few appeared to not be US-born. All seem to enjoy their jobs. It is reflected in their work attitudes.
Pilothouse tours were offered twice, and were scheduled during port visits, for obvious reasons. The Captain was very friendly and explained the technology used to operate and navigate the ship. I visited the pilothouse again, after the tour. I had a wonderful discussion with him about the technology in the vessel and the maritime counterpart to Crew Resource Management training, which is now mandatory for US airline pilots. Engineering tours are not offered, but are available on request – also while in port.
While every effort was made to have the American Empress look like a classic riverboat, its systems are very contemporary. The paddle wheel actually provides some of the propulsion, though powered by an electric drive motor. It is used only while cruising. For steering and maneuvering, the ship is equipped with two “Z-drives” and a very innovative bow thruster – all powered by the ship’s four diesel-electric generators. Three GPS systems, including an interesting GPS compass, along with a magnetic compass and gyro compass, two electronic map displays, and a radar screen, aid navigation. I was pleased to learn that the Captain is very comfortable with the technology, but still refers to paper charts. I am very familiar with airliner flight deck technology, and understand its limitations. The ship’s navigation technology is state-of-the-art for maritime applications, but well behind airliner technology. Technology in the engineering spaces is equally contemporary, though hidden from the public.
The Astoria Dining Room is a wonderful venue, with sit-down service. One early reviewer didn’t care for the blue ceiling lighting. I agree that it’s inconsistent with the overall décor theme, but not unpleasant. It’s just different. The food was wonderful, as was the very attentive and accommodating service. Dinners included an appetizer, soup/salad, entrée, and dessert, along with beer and wine. A comparable dinner in a downtown Seattle restaurant would cost around $50, plus tax and tip.
Entertainment was surprisingly plentiful and good for a vessel of this size. There were five entertainers, a music quartet, and the Riverlorian. That’s 10 entertainers for a ship with a capacity of a little more than 200 passengers! Two additional entertainers joined the ship during port visits. Two husband-wife teams (Lindy/Greg and Laura/Bill) provided great singing and dancing entertainment, plus Bill’s magic act. The piano player, Frank, is someone who simply must be experienced. He didn’t just play the piano – it was part of him. His casual, off-hand comments and stories were exceptionally entertaining. The quartet provided accompaniment for singing, as well as some great music alone. Entertainment was typically scheduled for Happy Hour in the Paddlewheel Lounge, one 45-minute show in the Show Lounge, and a second 45-minute show in the Paddlewheel Lounge. Unlike some larger cruise ships, all entertainment was finished by 10:00. This was a good thing, as it appeared that all passengers were eligible for AARP membership, with most being eligible for Medicare. This was a late-September cruise, but I would expect similar demographics in the summer.
Laurence Cotton, the Riverlorian, was outstanding. He takes his job very seriously, and is well-versed in Northwest history, culture, and geography. He offers a large lending library of relevant books, a book of nautical charts for our journey, and at-least-daily talks about the Columbia River, its history, and its inhabitants, including Native Americans. Two guest presenters were also worked into his schedule. He provides a variety of tourist-related information for each of the ports in advance of the visits, and a summary of what we’ve seen. He’s typically found in the River Grill for breakfast, available to chat with the passengers about river lore and history. I skipped some tours and activities, rather than miss his talks.
AQSC’s brochure suggests “country club casual” for evening attire. Women tended to dress a bit nicer than the men. There may have even been a cocktail dress or two. I saw one man wearing a sport coat, but several were in jeans. I wore a pair of white cargo pants for the entire cruise, with different polo or collared shirts. I felt very comfortable.
Our stateroom was in the lowest-cost category, located on the fourth (top) deck. I selected it because I wanted to be on the top deck, for several reasons. The only other choices on that deck were the expensive suites. On check-in, I asked the Purser about deals for upgrading to a suite. Unfortunately, all were booked, even though the ship was only 1/3 full. Bummer! She was very cooperative and helpful in suggesting upgrades to mid-range cabins, and offered a discounted price. However, we were very happy with our room, so remained there.
Our stateroom was small, but very comfortable. We’d requested a double bed. It was impossible for us to tell that two singles had been joined. The bed was very comfortable. The room included a desk, two chairs and a nice piece of furniture that housed the television, Keurig coffee machine, refrigerator, and several shelves for storing small items. Two large wardrobes provided plenty of closet and drawer storage. Even our cheap stateroom included robes and slippers. Several electrical outlets were available, unlike our previous cruise on the Norwegian Jewel, which offered a single one-outlet location to plug in all of our electronic devices.
To summarize, the American Empress (and presumably her sister, the American Queen) is a “class act”. There is no nickel-and-dime strategy to generate incremental income from the passengers. Everything seems to function smoothly, despite this being the AE’s first season with this company, and the employees are simply outstanding. I look forward to another cruise with AQSC, probably on the Mississippi next time. Read Less