My wife and I sailed on the August 9 departure of the American Empress, a 7-night journey that began in Vancouver WA (across the river from Portland OR) and ended in Clarkston WA, about 2 hours south of Spokane. The cruise exceeded my expectations and would be enjoyed by just about anyone above age 60 or perhaps younger people traveling with their family. For the record, we are a 65-year old retired couple from California.
The ship carries about 200 passengers, most in cabins with a balcony. One quirk is that the more expensive cabins/suites are on deck 4, the promenade deck. These cabins have an outside seating area with a short "fence" cordoning it off from the promenade walkway so there is less privacy in these cabins. Those in window cabins can still enjoy the river views and there are several comfortable outdoor seating venues on different decks. Our category C balcony cabin on deck 2 was a bit small but completely adequate and comfortable. It included a refrigerator, flat screen TV and a safe. Wi-Fi generally worked well in our cabin. The speed was about what you would expect on an ocean cruise, faster than dial-up but far slower than on your home cable modem.
The dining experience was very good to excellent. For breakfast and lunch there are two venues, a sit-down meal in the main dining room and a buffet on the top deck. In both cases the offerings were not as numerous as you would find on a sea cruise but there was enough variety to please me. We ate all of our breakfasts at the buffet; I was very impressed with the summertime fruit selection. A 'made to order' omelet station was also available. We ate most lunches in the sit-down venue. There were a few choices from a 2-course menu with optional dessert. Service was prompt. The buffet lunch also featured a grill offering hamburgers and hot dogs.
For dinner the buffet area was converted to an alternative restaurant with tablecloths; advance reservations are required with a limit of 2 visits per voyage. The River Grill featured a fixed menu that included entrees like lamb chops, filet, and lobster. Service was attentive. Tables for 2 are very small so it is useful to share a table with others. Dinner in the main dining room offered open seating at two times, 5:30 and 7:45. The menu generally consisted of a choice of 2 appetizers, a soup, a salad and a choice of about 4 or 5 entrees, one being vegetarian.
Wine is offered each evening with dinner, one white and one red. The reds were generally pretty good or better. However on two evenings the white wine offered was off-dry to sweet, not a good choice for dinner. Wine service was very attentive with generous pours. Many evenings I requested a final glass of wine to take to the show.
I was pleasantly surprised by the on-board entertainment. Each evening there was a 45-minute show in the show lounge featuring a 4-piece band. The cruise directors, a husband and wife team, provided excellent singing and dancing most evenings. A guest banjo/guitarist, Will Kiefer, gave excellent performances on two evenings. The shows were augmented with a humorous piano-bar entertainer in the main bar. My only criticism of the entertainment was that the song selection was a bit stodgy, more "Lawrence Welk" than 'Woodstock". As I pointed out in my on-board ship review, those of us that are now 65 are part of the "Woodstock Generation" and we will begin to represent a greater portion of their passenger demographic.
Another key aspect of the entertainment was a series of talks provided by the Riverlorian, Lawrence Cotton for this voyage. A highlight was his two-part depiction of the Lewis and Clark journey from the early 1800s. He managed to bring this adventure to life. He was also frequently on deck chatting with passengers. On occasion he would take to the PA system to narrate scenery or lock transits.
Shore excursions were very well designed and executed. Each port featured a no-cost "Hop-on Hop-off" bus service that visited several attractions. A good map with the bus timetable was provided for each port. Generally you could also purchase a premium excursion for more in-depth exploration. The optional shore excursions were priced similar to sea cruise excursions. The full-day Columbia Gorge excursion was a highlight. We also very much enjoyed the half-day wine excursion. Of the Ho-Ho trips, we enjoyed Astoria the most.
--Cruise direction of travel: I recommend the westbound itinerary for a few reasons. Eastern Washington is dry and dusty. I would have preferred to end the trip with the more lush scenery of the Columbia Gorge and western Oregon. Flights out of Spokane are more limited than from Portland; it is good to get the more difficult flight out of the way initially by flying into Spokane.
--the no cost Ho-Ho bus tickets are required for the first few departures. This is to avoid crowding. The tickets and map are available the evening before; it is prudent to get them early so that you can secure your desired departure time.
--Make reservations for the River Grill dinner shortly after embarking the boat. Try to pick evenings where the ship is traveling rather than docked; this provides better views while dining. And generally you can secure a third night if you also ask for dinner the night of boarding; this doesn't count against your two-night quota.