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Retro lovers, take note: A cruise onboard American Empress is like taking a step back in time — to when paddlewheelers ruled the waterways, and jazz music was king. Thanks to American Queen Steamboat Company, both are alive and well along the Columbia and Snake rivers in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
Besides a day trip on the historic Natchez steamboat along the Mississippi River (and a 12-minute excursion onboard Disneyland’s Mark Twain Riverboat), I had never sailed on a genuine paddlewheeler. Empress provided my first overnight experience, delivering what the other vessels had only teased.
The delightfully nostalgic four-night sailing took us through towns including Astoria and The Dalles in Oregon, and Stevenson, Wash. Each felt like a time capsule of vintage Americana, and we learned more about the areas via lectures from the onboard “Riverlorian.” The line’s complimentary hop-on, hop-off bus tours make seeing several of the highlights a breeze. One premium excursion to the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum in Hood River, Ore., was particularly fascinating — we had the opportunity to ride in classic cars, including a 1914 Ford Model T.
Fellow gear heads can further nerd out by touring the pilot house and engine room onboard Empress. Off-limits to passengers on many cruise ships, the engine room is a treat. I was able to closely inspect the massive 37-foot diameter paddlewheel (which provides 25% propulsion), as well as supplementary Z-drives (which provide 75% propulsion).
Although our excursion was a great distance from New Orleans, the culture of the Big Easy was never far away. Night after night, the onboard live house quartet and featured pianist brought down the house with swinging songs from the 1920s to the 1950s. Pianist Frank Chase has a musical background in New Orleans, and his irreverent humor was a delightful extension of the ship’s casual mood. Even cruise director Jordan Gonzalez served as one of the singers and dancers onboard Empress, presenting a marvelous one-woman revue.
In short, Empress is just downright fun. Clients tend to be middle-aged and older, although there are the occasional millennials — likely attracted to the convenient itinerary. In fact, by popular demand, the 2018 fall season had been extended to include even more abbreviated sailings roundtrip from Vancouver, Wash. Many passengers have cruised before and have traveled abroad, but they appreciate the ease of a local alternative: The fully domestic itinerary onboard the U.S.-flagged vessel does not require passports.
All the behind-the-scenes workings make the beautiful ship run smoothly. My only complaints were that my shower curtain was short, which let some water outside the enclosure, and that the stateroom walls seem paper-thin. (I even clearly overheard my neighbor remark from his room, “This thing is remarkably not soundproof.”) Nonetheless, cabins are quite comfortable. Handsome Victorian-era decor adorns private rooms, hallways and public venues, giving everything an upscale vibe.
One of my favorite parts of the sailing was the ship’s dining venues and cuisine. For a smaller vessel, Empress offers a remarkable amount of choice, including The Astoria Dining Room, River Grill & Bar, Paddlewheel Lounge and even an extensive 24-hour room service menu. A la carte selections — which are self-serve at the buffet line or fully served in the main restaurant — are surprisingly plentiful and delicious. And don’t miss the tasty cookies offered in the Paddlewheel Lounge, which will have you snacking in between meals. What’s more, wine and beer are complimentary at dinner, and cappuccinos, espresso, bottled water and soft drinks are free throughout the cruise.
Overall, however, the icing on the cake for me was the crew onboard Empress. Staff members were incredibly attentive and genuinely friendly; it was easy to strike up a conversation with them. The vessel — and the line itself — certainly benefits from the effortless hospitality of its crew. I can’t wait for my next opportunity to sail with American Queen and see everyone again.
The DetailsAmerican Queen Steamboat Companywww.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com