The river cruise line employs an all-American crew. // © 2017 Ginger Dingus
Feature image (above): AQSC’s Vineyards, Vintages and Varietals itinerary takes place onboard American Empress. // © 2017 American Queen Steamboat Company
It was 4 p.m. onboard America Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC)’s 223-passenger American Empress, and passengers were gathered in the ship’s Show Lounge, swirling and sipping a sample of Oregon’s renowned pinot noirs.
The first of three hosted wine-tasting events during my Vineyards, Vintages and Varietals cruise was a lively affair — and a change from the river cruise line’s typical nine-day Columbia River voyage, which sails between Portland, Ore., and Clarkston, Wash.
During the themed weeklong itinerary, which sails roundtrip from Portland with embarkation in Vancouver, Wash., clients first stop in Astoria, Ore., where craft beer is the focus of the complimentary Astoria Ale Trail shore excursion.
The cruise then moves to The Dalles, Ore. — an overnight stop and the cruise’s easternmost point — where I found a highlight to be the included tour to the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum. At the museum, clients shouldn’t miss their chance to ride in a vintage Ford or Chevy and see the restoration workshop, where antique cars and planes are returned to their former glory.
In Stevenson, Wash., which is also an overnight port of call, guests can take advantage of the complimentary hop-on, hop-off motorcoaches and free access to the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center, as well as a self-guided tour of the inner workings of Bonneville Dam. Returning to Portland for a day, cruisers then choose among three included tours: a city overview, a taste of the booming food truck scene or an all-day limited-edition tour of one of four Willamette Valley wineries.
Wine flows onboard, too, where complimentary Oregon and Washington wines are generously poured during dinner. Guests enjoy both reds and whites on each sailing, while beer lovers can choose from various craft brews.
“We are now offering 100 percent local wines,” said Terry Lunder, hotel manager for AQSC.
For a change of pace, clients can reserve — at no charge — a table at the top deck’s casual River Grill & Bar. Menu items include lobster, wild salmon and filet mignon. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style here, while the more formal Astoria Dining Room features table service.
While the ship cruises leisurely along the Columbia River, the riverlorian’s informative talks in the Show Lounge focus on everything from wildlife and geology to the historic explorations of Lewis and Clark. One deck above, the popular Paddlewheel Lounge acts at once as an internet cafe, library, game room and piano bar. This cozy space overlooks its namesake red paddlewheel, which is used to help with the boat’s propulsion.
There are seven cabin categories onboard, and all come with a veranda except for seven exterior staterooms with a window. Beds are either twin or queen, and most cannot be converted, so be sure to ask clients if they have a preference before booking. There are two wheelchair-accessible cabins, and two onboard elevators reach all four decks.
Two more wine cruises are scheduled for this year, departing Nov. 12 and 19. Included in the rate are pre-cruise accommodations, port excursions, onboard meals, entertainment and onboard drinks.