Up A River Without A Paddle Aboard COLUMBIA QUEEN (Portland to Clarkston)

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Earlier this month, I joined Uncommon Journeys for a portion of their Portland, OR to Coeur d’Alene, ID trek on board Majestic America Line’s sweet little 150 passenger COLUMBIA QUEEN. Oakland, CA-based Uncommon Journeys offers wonderful package tours that often combine riverboats, trains, and deluxe (usually vintage) hotels, recalling a grander, more genteel era of travel. It is through this unique company that I have recently been able to enjoy a St. Louis to Cincinnati voyage on DELTA QUEEN, a Cincinnati to Pittsburgh voyage on AMERICAN QUEEN, and a rail/sea journey to and from Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

COLUMBIA QUEEN at Stevenson, WA.

The 1,599 gt COLUMBIA QUEEN was laid down as a casino boat (intended as a sister to the DETROIT PRINCESS, which operates on Lake Charles, LA) at the Leevac Shipyards of Jennings, LA. Only the hull and a portion of superstructure were completed when she was purchased by Delta Queen Steamboat Company and redesigned by the same architects (Jacksonville, Florida-based Rodney E. Lay) who built the spectacular Mississippi River boat, AMERICAN QUEEN.

The 218 by 56 foot COLUMBIA QUEEN was finished by Cascade General Shipyard at Portland, OR in 2000. She operated for two seasons before Delta Queen shut down in October of 2001 and was laid up until 2005 when she was purchased by Great American River Journeys. Unfortunately, the second venture was not a success and she was laid up again until finally sold to Ambassador’s International, parent company of Majestic America Line, for whom she has been sailing since April of 2007.

The ship is powered by four Cummins diesels that drive 2 fixed screws (1,200 bhp each) and 2 Schottel Z drives (900 bhp each) for a top speed of 13 knots and a normal cruising speed of 11 knots. The collapsible stacks are merely decorative and the exhaust is expelled from the fantail, underneath a series of water jets designed to keep smuts and fumes at bay.

Externally, the COLUMBIA QUEEN appears a bit stout when compared to her paddlewheel-equipped fleetmates but she is quite well designed from a passenger’s perspective. In this respect, she is like Celebrity Cruises’ MILLENNIUM class of ships where a degree of outer grace is sacrificed in favor of good passenger flow and pleasing internal appointments.

COLUMBIA QUEEN’s Deck Four Category A Suite 401, facing forward.

COLUMBIA QUEEN, Back Porch, facing port.

She has four passenger decks, beginning at the top with Deck Four, which is almost fully encircled by a wide promenade that connects via wide stairs to the forward landing of Deck Three. Fourteen large cabins and the Back Porch lounge/buffet are located on Deck Four.

The Explorer Bar, facing port.

Deck Three starts with an open observation area, continuing inside with the Explorer Bar and twenty nine cabins.

COLUMBIA QUEEN Purser’s Lobby, facing starboard.

Purser’s Lobby, facing port.

Multnomah Falls down the stairs.

Category B balconied stateroom 329, facing port.

Deck Two also has an outside observation area, leading to the oval-shaped Purser’s Lobby with adjoining boutique and grand staircase leading down to Deck One, followed by thirty two cabins.

Passenger flow on COLUMBIA QUEEN is excellent, with two very wide staircases (forward/port links decks Two through Four and aft/starboard links decks One through Four) and a large elevator (connects decks One through Four).

Up the COLUMBIA QUEEN’s grand staircase.

COLUMBIA QUEEN Astoria Room, facing forward.

Deck One begins midships with the Lewis and Clark lounge/bar which adjoins the Astoria Room, the ship’s combination restaurant and show room (loosely based on the DELTA QUEEN blueprint).

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Orb over the Lobby.

CQ over the proscenium.

Totally random carpet shot.

The COLUMBIA QUEEN is handsomely appointed in mahogany tones, kitschy Tiffany-inspired lamps and chandeliers, pressed tin ceilings, frescoes depicting Columbia River scenery, velvet curtains and native American-inspired soft fittings. The overall look could be described as Victorian “light” with a hint of Lewis and Clark.

Tow away zone!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Majestic America Line (MAL) berths its vessels at the hard-to-reach, unattractive Fred Devine Diving and Salvage Yard, located on Swan Island across the Willamette River from downtown Portland. The depressing industrial facility is a puzzling terminus, especially when there is a convenient and attractive cruise berth in downtown Portland, adjacent to the city’s many attractions.

Majestic America Line’s QUEEN OF THE WEST (L) and COLUMBIA QUEEN (R) at Portland.

Although we had arranged to arrive at the vessel 45 minutes in advance to photograph various cabins and the public rooms, our taxi was late due to Rose Parade traffic and, despite the cab having GPS navigation, difficulty locating the terminal. No one on the boat was expecting us, anyway, so we boarded just as the coaches arrived and made quick work of documenting before the CQ filled with passengers. As most passengers would head to the Lewis and Clark Bar for their welcome on board glass of champagne, we began there.

MAL is in a tailspin and after two years of hemorrhaging financials, the company is negotiating to sell off its riverboat operations. Three of its five currently active boats (DELTA QUEEN, AMERICAN QUEEN, and EMPRESS OF THE NORTH) will be withdrawn from service this year, leaving just the COLUMBIA QUEEN and QUEEN OF THE WEST to forge along the Columbia River. In the interim, the MISSISSIPPI QUEEN has been completely gutted and now lays silent at a Louisiana shipyard while the catamaran CONTESSA sits tied up at the Fred Devine facility. It is a sad situation for the hard-working staff and crew on these charming boats and potentially represents the end of river cruising in American waters. What is remarkable, despite continued management and marketing blunders, is how good the service, cuisine and hospitality is aboard these vessels.

After completing the gist of the documentation, we went to the Back Porch, which to our pleasant surprise, has good cappuccino and coffee in addition to fruits, yogurts, soft serve ice cream and cookies. Boat drill came just before the 5:00 PM departure, basically entailing a safety announcement and donning the life jacket properly for our cabin stewardess to approve.


Once sequestered in my Deck Two cabin 210, one of twenty one 132 square foot category J insides, I took a quick moment to unpack. The stateroom had an extremely comfortable (and tall) queen sized bed, a mahogany veneered storage cabinet with flat screen television, two dressers and a very large bathroom with shower, toilet and sink. The soft fittings were attractively festooned in native Columbia River colors and patterns.

On the eve of her return: QUEEN OF THE WEST.

The 93 gt “Bare Boat” MV CONTESSA ((104 by 36.75 feet/48 passengers) at Portland, OR.

C4 on the Willamette River.

COLUMBIA QUEEN eased away from her berth, pivoting via pods and thrusters in a 180 degree circle, to glide past the QUEEN OF THE WEST (readying for a return to service following a galley fire), the lonely COUNTESS and into the Willamette River. We motored by the Cascade General shipyard and dry dock, where several vessels were being tended to. One, the USNS CAPE JACOB, was of particular interest with her C-4 “Mariner” hull lines reminiscent of the recently departed MONTEREY (ex FREE STATE MARINER).

Lowered stack.
We would have to leave our posts on deck as COLUMBIA QUEEN made her way toward downtown Portland and its scenic waterfront to attend first seating dinner. At the entrance to the Astoria Room, maitre’d, Mike Moe, greeted everyone with a handshake and smile before leading them to their seats. Normally, early (5:30) is the more popular of the two dinner seatings, so we were a little surprised when we requested main (7:00) and were told it was full. Nonetheless, Mike promised to do what he could but asked us in the interim to go with first seating that night.

Raspberry vinaigrette starter.

Breaded halibut entree.

Even from our middle of the room table, the view outside the picture windows was lovely with an early evening sun casting a golden sheen on the starboard side Willamette River scenery. Our waitress delivered a very pleasing selection of courses, from a marinated artichoke heart cocktail to field greens with hazelnut goat cheese and a raspberry vinaigrette to a highly caloric but delicious fresh halibut alyeska (in sour cream, gruyere and cheddar cheese with herbs and spices and topped in buttered bread crumbs). Compared to those on the Mississippi River boats, I found the bread pudding a bit dry and flavorless, so remedied it with a scoop of fresh vanilla ice cream.

By the time we returned to deck, the CQ had reached the Columbia River to begin her eastward journey toward the magnificent gorge. Every shade of green in the spectrum from the yellowish grasses by the river’s edge to the intense blue green pines on the hillsides, greeted us. As the sun finally dimmed over the stern, the high beam searchlights began their swirling trajectory over the bow.

At nine, we returned to the Astoria for the evening show, which was basically a welcome on board introduction of the staff by Kansas City based purser, Mel Drybread, and a quick musical interlude from the boat’s band. From there, it was up to the Explorer Bar, where pretty and talented songstress Kim Krohn took requests well into the evening.

At 10:00 PM, the CQ’s diesels had quieted down. We tied up at Washougal, Washington for the duration of the night so that we could enter the Gorge in daylight.

Basalt curtains.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Maybe it was the bread pudding or the chocolate medallion on my pillow, but sleep was elusive for the entire night, making it all that much easier to get up in time for breakfast in the Astoria, a combination buffet set up with pancakes, waffles, fruits, breads and an omelete station (which thankfully uses fresh eggs and not the stuff in cartons). There is also a menu to order from and plenty of coffee and orange juice, served by the CQ’s friendly wait staff.

Hello, Gorge-ous!

Somehow, despite it being posted clearly in the program (between 7:00 and 8:00 AM), we missed Multnomah Falls, a stunning 620 foot ribbon of water plunging from the basalt cliffs into the Oregon side of the gorge. Nonetheless, the scenery that greeted us on deck was sufficiently magnificent. Towering cliffs, dense forests and swirling patches of fog rose all around us. We remained on deck as Discovery Guide Pat Workman told how the gorge was formed and pointed out various landmarks from the Back Porch.

Hello, Gorgeous, ctd.

It is theorized the Columbia Gorge was formed through a cataclysmic series of floods caused by the repeated collapse of an ice dam that formed Lake Missoula, a body of water stretching from Idaho into Montana. The gorge was the only route for the water to escape through the Cascade mountains into the sea, funneling thousand foot high walls of water that carved out huge sections of land.

Harlequin steps.


Bonneville, part one.

Bonneville, part two.

Bonneville from above.

In addition to the natural wonder of the gorge with its many waterfalls and rock formations, there are the locks, a series of eight dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers that have enabled navigation 465 miles inland to Lewiston, Idaho. Our first encounter with a lock was the Bonneville, which has a 675 by 86 foot lock chamber that would lift us approximately 70 feet
into the next section of the river.

At 11:00, it was back to the Astoria for a quick lunch, which included cheese soup and a chicken caesar salad with rice pudding for dessert.

COLUMBIA QUEEN at Stevenson, WA.

MAL coaches await in Stevenson, WA.

Van Gogh in the Gorge.

Floating feathers.

Hello, Gorge-ous!, ctd.

After passing under the cantilevered Bridge of the Gods, we tied up at the Washington town of Stevenson. At 12:15, we disembarked and boarded a bus (MAL owns three coaches that “follow” the boats up and down the river each night to provide the included excursions along the way) for a ride to the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center. Our driver, Lynne, was extremely knowledgeable and on the return, managed to safely navigate part of the old Oregon trail to get us up to a bluff overlooking the river on our return.

Passing barge.

Travel By Rail.

The Empire Builder passes.

We were back at the boat in the late afternoon, ready to continue our eastward journey. A note under the cabin door from Mike Moe told us we were switched to second seating, allowing more down time by the rail as the scenery passed by, some of it quite literally, in the form of dozens of trains hauling cargoes along both sides of the river.


Just as I was stepping into the shower, there was an announcement from Mel on the PA alerting us to a splendid but fleeting view of Mt. Hood in five minutes. I immediately threw on some clothes and ran up to deck and waited with a small huddle of shutter bugs for the cylindrical volcano to appear from behind the Oregon town of Hood River. Although I was late to dinner, it was well worth having such a clear view of the beautiful mountain, which spends most of its time veiled in clouds formed by its own weather system.

Our tireless and ever smiling waiter, Gabriel, hails from Miami. He had just come from NCLA’s PRIDE OF HAWAI’I, and, before that, DISNEY MAGIC and an RCCL ship. He managed some four or five tables with finesse, seeming ease and a smile.

Impressively, Mike, the circulating maitre’d, greeted everyone by their name, a rather accomplished feat on any, let alone, just the second night of a cruise.

Kim Krohn takes requests.

Dinner included an excellent tomato and gorgonzola soup, a so so salad (similar to the prior night’s but a little wilted — Gabriel was thankfully able to dig up some olive oil and balsamic vinegar to douse it with) and a lovely pan-seared salmon.

We returned to the Astoria at 9:00 for the show, River of Song, then up to circle the outer decks and peer in at Kim Krohn’s set in the Explorer Bar. Although we had only had one glass of wine the prior eve, the bar tender remembered exactly what it was and offered it again.

Night on the river is always splendid: in lieu of the big shows, discos and chocolate fountains of high seas cruise ships, one gets the constellations, a gentle breeze and the anticipation of what the search lights will illuminate around the next bend.

The tide is high and we’re moving on….

Monday, June 10, 2008

After a quick breakfast in the Astoria, I was up on deck as COLUMBIA QUEEN attempted to tie up on the Oregon side of the river at Umatilla Landing. The three coaches awaited at what must have been the usual outcrop of land, but even with her long proboscis-like bow ramp, the CQ could not safely reach shore with the unusually high river tide this morning.

COLUMBIA QUEEN near Pendleton, OR.

The eastern Oregon and Washington scenery had changed dramatically from yesterday’s fjords and evergreens to golden plains, backed with occasional, distant rolling hills. We continued up river, finally securing a spot an hour or so later. The order of the day’s excursion would change a bit but all would still be seen.

i>Pendleton above ground.

Pendleton underground.

Once “encoached”, we watched as the CQ hoisted up the gangway and prepared to sail to the junction of the Snake and Columbia Rivers where she would take on fresh water at Sacagawea State Park. We would meet her there after a most satisfying day, first portion spent at the former gold mining town of Pendleton, Oregon, known not only for its woolen shirts but for an infamous underground street that has in recent years been excavated. An excellent guide led us through a subterranean speakeasy, Chinese workers’ accommodation and an ice cream parlour.

Tree pees.

I’m Alive!: Northern Saw-Whet Owl.

Lunch with a native Indian dance at Hamley’s Saddle Shop and Saloon was provided. From Pendleton, we were driven through dramatic countryside to the Tamatsklit Cultural Center, an amazing museum dedicated to the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes, telling the moving, if distressing story of how these people were displaced by European American settlers and yet maintained a connection to their culture and heritage. There is also a “raptor” room with rescued birds of prey from a huge golden eagle and horned owl to a diminutive Northern Saw-whet Owl.

Pendleton skies.

Twin Sisters.

We crossed more remarkable scenery, including farmland and a drive past butte-like formations on the edge of the river, before reaching the COLUMBIA QUEEN in the late afternoon. As soon as we re embarked, the COLUMBIA QUEEN hoisted her lines, blew her whistle and headed into the mouth of the Snake River, promising yet more remarkable, if arid, scenery to come.

Three Of Diamonds.

Four Of Spades.

Mouth of the Snake.

Searchlight on the Snake, One.

Searchlight on the Snake, Two.



Dinner was excellent, but the evening treat was to stay in our seats afterward as Nate Shafer and the Columbia Quartet performed “Stage Door Canteen”, a wonderful set of songs from the World War Two era. This is what riverboats are made for and the audience response was overwhelming. The dance floor stayed full until the last song was played and we headed up to see Kim Krohn once more before a last walk around deck and the somber task of packing.

Tuesday, June 11, 2008

Nez Perce trebesman and story teller, J.R. Spencer in the Astoria Room.

Catching up from the prior night’s bout with insomnia, I slept in until 9:00, missing proper breakfast in the Astoria. I took a late riser’s continental breakfast and cappuccino in the Back Porch as COLUMBIA QUEEN meandered along the rocky, windy corridor of the Snake River. It was raining lightly outside.

A wonderful morning treat was the presentation in the Astoria Lounge by Nez Perce tribesman, JR Spencer, who shared with us (with bits of humor sprinkled in) in prose and song some of his tribal legends and the story of the coyote people.

MV ISLAND SPIRIT at Clarkston, Washington.

At 11:00, we were alongside at Lewiston, Idaho, tied astern of the yacht-like river cruise boat, ISLAND SPIRIT. As we clambered off into our car for the drive through a snow flurry up to Spokane, Washington and our flights home, the rest of the COLUMBIA QUEEN’s passengers were off to the Hell’s Canyon jet boat tour while the Uncommon Journey’s group was to spend a couple days in Cour d’Alene. Those continuing on the cruise would enjoy a day on the river, an excursion to Mt. St. Helen’s visitor’s center, and a day at Ast
oria before returning to Portland.

Many thanks to Uncommon Journeys, Christopher Kyte, and the dedicated crew of the COLUMBIA QUEEN!

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego

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