The main dining venue offers regional fare. // © 2014 American Queen Steamboat Company
American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) became the biggest player in the Columbia and Snake river cruise market after the launch of the 223-passenger American Empress, the largest river ship west of the Mississippi. The 360- by 52-foot vessel, formerly Majestic America Line’s Empress of the North, was purchased from the U.S. Maritime Administration last year and given a $5 million refurbishment prior to its return to service in April.
After five years laid up at Swan Island near Portland, Ore., the ship was in need of cosmetic repairs and decorative tweaks, from stripping and painting the exterior decks to the installation of new carpeting, wallpaper and LED lighting. And while the 2003-built American Empress retains its Victorian riverboat character — pressed tin ceilings, lace curtains, stained glass windows and a museum-quality art collection culled by former owner Bob Giersdorf included — a makeover of the grill, main dining room and show lounge are fine enhancements to the product.
Up on the ship’s Vista View Deck, Calliope Bar and Grill has been transformed from what was essentially a hot dog stand into the more upscale indoor/outdoor River Grill, a buffet-style breakfast and lunch eatery that becomes a reservations-required — but still complimentary — grill at night. The space echoes the very successful Front Porch on AQSC’s American Queen, where seats are at a premium from morning until night. Dinner here was one of many highlights on my cruise, with a four-course, cooked-to-order meal and a range of entrees including lamb, filet mignon, steamed lobster tail and seared veggies.
The main dining venue has also evolved from the Russian-themed Romanoff room to the Astoria dining room, with a new layout and a contemporary look featuring fiber optic lighting and glass chandeliers. Astoria offers full-service breakfast, lunch and dinner prepared with locally sourced ingredients, such as sustainable fish, seasonal produce and artisan cheeses. A variety of Washington and Oregon wines and beers are included with lunch and dinner, and there is a supplemental wine list with more choices for an extra fee.
Accommodations range from 150-square-foot Veranda Staterooms to 410-square-foot Luxury Suites. All have flat-screen televisions, safes and mini-fridges, plus a full line of Clarins bath amenities. Aside from a single with a twin bed, accommodations are fitted with a pair of twin beds or a queen-sized bed. Verandas on the Frontier and Discovery decks are private, while those on Vista View Deck are shared with an open promenade.
Although the American Empress is now looking and functioning better than ever, it was the ship’s 90-member crew that made my five nights onboard a superlative cruise experience. They were genuinely engaged, eager to assist and uncannily able to memorize guests’ names, drink and dining preferences.
Another plus is the complimentary hop-on, hop-off private coach service in each port, which allows guests to explore local highlights at their leisure. There are also premium excursions to places such as Mount St. Helens visitor’s center and the spectacular Multnomah Falls for an additional fee. Six bicycles, complete with locks and helmets, are also available for guests who want to burn a few calories while touring on their own. Riverlorians (onboard historians) give guests background on the rivers and their history, and the guides on tour are exceptionally knowledgeable.
A pre-cruise luxury overnight hotel stay, transfers to the ship, onboard Wi-Fi and specialty coffees and other beverages are included in the fare, as is a wine tasting and at least one wine pairing at dinner.
American Empress sails eastbound and westbound voyages (alternating weekly) through some of the world’s most dramatic and varied river scenery, from the lushly forested Cascades and the awe-inspiring Columbia Gorge to the rugged desert terrain of Eastern Washington. Cruises begin or end in Vancouver, Canada; Portland, Ore.; and Clarkston, Wash. The ship visits Astoria, Ore.; The Dalles, Ore.; Stevenson, Wash.; and Sacajewea State Park along the way.