EMPRESSed On The Columbia, Part Two

Continue down the Columbia River on board American Queen Steamboat Company’s AMERICAN EMPRESS with calls at Stevenson, Washington and Astoria, Oregon before the ship’s inaugural preview cruise ends at Vancouver, Washington.

American Queen Steamboat Company

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All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2014.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

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Good morning, Keurig!

When I awoke, my balcony was hovering over the jetty at Stevenson, Washington, a small town that provides convenient access to a number of attractions in the Columbia Gorge. I was too late for the full breakfast in the Astoria and with the Grill still under construction, had to rely on my handy in-stateroom Keurig to get the day started.

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Hop on Hop Off, stop one.

The agenda was to ride the Hop On, Hop Off, which stopped in the center of the small town and then headed on to the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center with a final stop at the mighty Bonneville Dam. Closed to visitors on my most recent Columbia trip, this huge dam, completed in 1938, is one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA projects that not only provided much needed work in the Depression but to this day supplies clean, hydroelectric power to the region.

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Bonneville Dam escalation.
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Orange turbines.

In the visitor’s center, there is a precipitous escalator that takes viewers to an elevated walkway and room overlooking the Bonneville’s mighty orange turbines.

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Fish ladder.
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Fish canal.

Fish ladders in each of the Columbia and Snake River dams allow salmon and other fish to migrate back upstream for breeding. Once up the main ladder, they navigate a small canal and swim past underwater windows where their progress can be observed.

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Espresso drive through.

After I returned to Stevenson, I took some time out to walk around the town, which has more than its fair share of drive through espresso joints. Is this a cold weather phenomenon or just a quirk of the Pacific Northwest?

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Chicken tortilla soup.
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Astoria ceiling.
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Marionberry sorbet.

Another great lunch awaited in the Astoria, my favorite selections being the piping hot chicken tortilla soup starter and a flawless, icy marionberry sorbet.

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AMERICAN EMPRESS Fwd. Vista View Deck, facing starboard.  An ideal spot for a pair of ellipticals?

My colleagues wisely dashed off on the premium tour to Crown Point and Multnomah Falls, two of the most scenic spots in the Western US — in the heart of the Columbia Gorge. As I did this on my last visit, I took the opportunity to get a blog post completed and then went for a much-needed run on the adjacent railroad tracks. The EMPRESS does have six bikes available for guests to use (generously, at no fee) but otherwise is sorely lacking in the fitness department. I had the same issue when the ship was EMPRESS OF THE NORTH with the then owners’ prevailing wisdom that there is no room for a full-sized gym. A locker with freeweights and mats and a few ellipticals or treadmills on one of the sheltered decks would go a long way to remedy this challenge for those of us who are dependent on a daily cardio ritual.

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Folding funnel.

I headed out for another set of photos of the EMPRESS in the afternoon light, only to find her funnels in the process of “collapsing” to accommodate her passage under the Bridge of the Gods.

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Wine tasting in Show Room.

Back in the Show Room, just as the EMPRESS cast her lines, there was a wine presentation and tasting hosted by the Washington State Wine Association, featuring four excellent Sparkman wines.

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Bridge Of The Gods astern.

I took a small break between the fruity Sauvignon Blanc and peppery Pinot Noir to dash up to the open deck for a shot of the Bridge Of The Gods as we neared the Bonneville locks.

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Splendor in the glass.

Every cruise aboard the AMERICAN EMPRESS will feature at least one included wine tasting and a dinner pairing highlighting a local Washington or Oregon winery.

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Exiting Bonneville lock.

The AMERICAN EMPRESS emerged from the shadows of Bonneville’s lock into a brilliant late afternoon sun. We were surrounded by some of the most beautiful and unique scenery on earth, a mere forty miles east of the cities of Portland and Vancouver.

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Aesthetically, Columbia Gorge is on par with Norway, Alaska and even Montenegro’s Kotor Fjord. Its waterfalls, steep basalt cliffs, dense forests, craggy trees and lush meadows provide the ultimate backdrop for the largest paddlewheeler in the West.

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Multnomah reflected.

On the Oregon side, the monumental Multnomah, whose lower portion was obscured by foliage, was followed by a series of sinewy falls hundreds of feet high.

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Chef Paul prepares in the River Grill.

Even though workers were still in the throes of converting the new space from its former incarnation as a glorified hot dog and popcorn counter, we would be privy to the first meal in the River Grill in the aft portion of Vista View Deck (4). Our group gathered around the bar and preparation area to watch as Executive Chef Paul and his dedicated staff whipped up what may have been the best in five days and nights of supremely good meals on the ship.

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River grill potato.

When the River Grill debuts this coming week, it will host a small group of guests each evening for a very special multi-course dinner, not unlike the specialty restaurants on sea-going cruise ships but without a surcharge.

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River grill veggie entree.

Reservations will be required and guests should allow ample time to enjoy all of the freshly cooked, locally sourced delights that will unfold.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

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Was it really Thursday already? I awoke to the belching and snorting of sea lions cavorting outside my balcony shortly after the EMPRESS secured herself to the wharf in Astoria, just aft of a pair of Coast Guard cutters.

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Astoria shipping.

As I had recently seen and “done” most of Astoria’s sights, from climbing up to the Astoria Column and taking the expedition to the Louis and Clark Experience on Cape Disappointment (on the Washington side of the river), I chose to have another “catch up” day, seeking out parts of the ship to photograph and then upload photos for this blog.

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Uploading with smoothie and caffeine.

While at a local cafe, I was able to eavesdrop on all the latest town gossip.  Meanwhile, back on the ship, quizzes, Riverlorian talks and pilot house tours were being offered.

Our final dinner of the cruise in the aptly named Astoria was a wine pairing with some of those great Sparkman selections we had enjoyed the day prior. This was truly the perfect itinerary for anyone who fancies Washington and Oregon’s best wines.

Friday, April 4, 2014

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AMERICAN EMPRESS approaches Vancouver, WA.

After breakfast, it was time to pack, take some final notes and photos and then bid adieu to the EMPRESS. In just a few days, I had enjoyed more than a full week’s worth of activities, excellent food, gracious and attentive service and truly glorious scenery.

Since the ship will actually homeport in Vancouver, Washington, our press group was provided a wonderful opportunity to get to know the underrated city of 250,000 residents across from Portland.

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Lunch Dessert at The Hilton Vancouver’s Gray’s At The Park restaurant.

Our first stop was lunch at the Portland Hilton, which is adjacent to the AMERICAN EMPRESS’ new berth and the included overnight hotel stay for Eastbound cruises.  In the Gray’s At The Park restaurant, a lavish lunch was followed by a dream dessert — a sweet potato hazel nut bread pudding with milk syrup and port wine gelato in a buttery, brittle sugar bowl. Even the pansies were edible!

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Partly cloudy reflections.

The sun and clouds vied for dominance of the skies that afternoon but the Pacific Northwest air was just so crisp and fresh, it really didn’t matter who won.

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Blossoms and Fort Vancouver.

We walked off lunch with a guided tour (led by Greg Shine, chief ranger and historian) of Fort Vancouver, which was established as a fur trading outpost in a strategic spot overlooking the Columbia River by Hudson’s Bay Company in 1825.

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Fort Vancouver gate.

The massive gates surrounding the fort are 750 feet long, 450 feet wide and about 20 feet tall. They once protected 40 buildings, including housing, warehouses, a school, a library, a pharmacy, a chapel and a blacksmith.

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The Grant House, Fort Vancouver.

Our first stop inside was a large home built to accommodate the family of the chief military leader overseeing the fort. Many legendary Generals, including Ulysses S. Grant, Philip Henry Sheridan, Arthur MacArthur, Jr., and George Crook, were stationed here.

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Furs at the Fort.

One space that distressed as much as it interested, was the fur shed, which had a vast collection of genuine skins from tiny minks and beavers to wolves and bears, all game for Hudson Bay’s trappers.

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In the still-functioning Blacksmith shop, genuine blacksmiths were on hand to demonstrate how fur traps were made.

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Beer pairing at The Grant House.

The Grant House is a wonderful, restored Victorian home across from the fort that was opened as a restaurant and bar some five years ago. Its rooms and passageways are reputedly haunted by former residents, a caveat that adds to its vintage charm. Slider burgers (even veggie ones, as shown) with pimento cheese, lettuce and tomato on a challah bun with caramelized spring onion and ricotta flatbread and butter lettuce cups with peas, watermelon radish and smoky blue cheese dressing greeted us. Accompanying Vancouver-brewed beers included a Loowit Tiger Squadron IPA, Ghostrunner Oatmeal Pale and West Highland Mango Moon (the latter a bit strange but ultimately the favorite).

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Heathman Lodge Lobby.

And that was just the beginning of our gluttons’ rampage of Vancouver. At our next stop, the Heathman Lodge, yet another beautifully prepared, wine-drenched feast awaited. The lodge, itself, is a showcase of local crafts and elements, from the spruce logs lining the lobby to the hand-forged chandeliers and myriad murals depicting life along the Columbia River.

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Andy’s Annie Oakley at Heathman Lodge.

The registration area boasts a quartet of signed Warhol paintings, including John Wayne and Annie Oakley.

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Slocum House, Vancouver, USA.

The good people of Vancouver were not done with us until they hosted a visit to the also reputedly haunted Slocum House for yet another wine tasting with its owner. A few of us even accepted his invitation to scale a creaky ladder up to the widow’s walk for some parting views of the city just after sunset.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

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Heading in, bow first.

Please see the official Shipping News post for all the details but suffice it to say, our final full day in Portland, Oregon was also action-packed. I skipped out on a morning walking tour for the one-time-only opportunity to document the arrival of AMERICAN EMPRESS for her gala christening. A light rain soaked my lenses as she sailed up the Willamette River, passed under one final bridge, then raised her stacks to greet onlookers at the waterfront.

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Edging in. Prepare the lines!
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Ray LaHood, Former Secretary of Transportation.
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A big “whack!” into the railing.

That afternoon, I would re board as a visitor and watch as a procession of maritime dignitaries (Including keynote speaker Ray LaHood, former Secretary of Transportation) spoke, then follow godmother Claudette Waggoner, wife of American Queen SC chairman John Waggoner to the terrace on Frontier Deck (2) to witness the ship’s christening.

After a final dinner in the Astoria, replete with great company and a pairing of select Willamette Valley winery wines, our sampling of American Queen’s new Columbia River product and the return of the West’s grandest ever steamboat had come to an end. Here’s to wishing the AMERICAN EMPRESS and her crew a successful maiden cruise season and a long, prosperous future reigning over the mighty Columbia!

End of EMPRESSed On The Columbia

Special thanks: Martin Cox, Marilyn Green, Sebastian Hale, Mike Hicks

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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