We were on the American Empress for its Clarkston to Vancouver cruise on October 9-16, 2017. We flew to Spokane on October 7 and spent two nights at Spokane’s Davenport Hotel (one night was already covered by the cruise). The Davenport is a wonderful and historic hotel — be sure to take the self-guided tour of some of the hotel’s public rooms. We ended the cruise with two nights at the Dossier Hotel in Portland, Oregon (a much less interesting hotel with not much to offer except a good location).
This is a cruise that will appeal to people who are interested in the history, geology, wildlife, indigenous peoples, and scenic beauty of the Pacific Northwest’s Snake and Columbia Rivers. It has an unhurried schedule, which makes it possible to be on a river cruise that is both fascinating and relaxing at the same time.
While the boat is well-maintained and very attractive, it would not be a good choice if you are looking for a cruise that includes a spa, a swimming pool, specialty shops, casino, etc. It has none of these. While it does not have a gym, it does have bicycles onboard that you can take out when the boat is in port and you can walk around the entire top deck (though you may smell some diesel fumes on the stern section when the boat is docked).
The weather during this October cruise was fairly cool. Mornings were sometimes in the upper 30’s or low 40’s, and highs were usually in the 60’s (occasionally in the low 70’s). Since we checked the weather forecasts before we left home, we brought clothes that we could layer – shirts, turtlenecks, sweaters, and a light, rain-proof jacket. (Not much rain, fortunately.)
There are a lot of pluses. Mary, our “riverlorian,” was outstanding. She is a natural teacher who has an impressive mastery of a wide range of topics, from Lewis and Clark to the “Great Missoula Floods” to the underlying geology of the region to the history and culture of the indigenous peoples in the region. She is an engaging story-teller: fun to listen to and a terrific asset to the cruise. She scheduled a range of talks at all different times of the day, and was often in the Paddlewheel Lounge to answer individual questions.
In a very different way, the American Empress entertainers were also a great asset. Mel, Kevin, Lindy and the American Empress Quartet were perfect for this cruise: they are all very accomplished performers and musicians who provided evening shows that were aimed at an audience of mostly folks in their 70’s and 80’s. (There was also a piano bar in the Paddlewheel Lounge that people seemed to enjoy. We, however, were generally in bed when he was performing.)
The cruise includes hop-on, hop-off buses at each of the stops that run every half hour in the morning and every hour in the afternoon. What I especially liked is that (a) the local guides who ride with you on the buses are very knowledgeable presenters so that even if you just stay on the bus the whole time, you’ll still see and learn a fair amount and (b) the stops themselves are very well chosen. The American Queen Steamboat Company seems to put a lot of thought and effort into choosing and vetting these stops.
The hop-on, hop-off stops are all included with the cruise. Our only “premium” tour (i.e., you pay extra) was the full-day trip to see the rose gardens in Portland followed by a trip to Mount St. Helen’s. Wow! Part of the wow factor was that we lucked out and had a stunningly clear day for the trip to Mount St. Helen’s and an excellent guide (Trudy). It was a memorable day and well worth the extra cost.
The artwork on each hallway and in the public spaces makes the boat something of a floating museum. The artwork is numbered, and there’s a booklet in each cabin that lets you do a self-guided tour. It’s worth doing.
Unlike some other cruises, the American Empress does not bombard you with constant p.a. announcements hassling you to buy something or do something. Just a few announcements to remind you that a talk or presentation is about to begin. I appreciated their restraint.
We stayed in one of the two luxury suites that includes the cruise line’s “Commodore Services.” While it is costly, I think that we got our money’s worth. We were extraordinarily well cared for by Todd, our river butler, and Liz, our housekeeper. The location of this stateroom (Room 201) was another big plus: it is at the front of the boat on starboard side and has a private balcony. We had great views in two directions (forward and starboard) from which we could view scenery, birds, and marine life or watch what happens when the boat goes through the locks. If it was cold out, we could stay inside our stateroom’s sitting area and still have a great view through the windows that faced forward. But I think that we would also have enjoyed this cruise a lot even if we hadn’t been in that suite.
We ate most of our meals in the Astoria Dining Room. The menu is surprisingly varied. There was plenty of standard fare (steaks, chops, and pasta) but also options that were more adventuresome. It is not a four-star dining experience, but it is awfully good, and the servers are remarkably friendly and eager to please. It includes unlimited wine at dinner. The River Grill has breakfast and lunch buffets each day, but we preferred the sit-down service in the Astoria Dining Room.
Our only dining disappointment was the one night we dined in the River Grill, rather than in the Astoria Dining Room. I had lobster tail, and my wife had a steak. Both were merely OK (the lobster tail is rather tiny, actually), and the place was surprisingly noisy. The prep area is right where you enter the restaurant from the inside hallway (a bizarre location, frankly), and it fills the room with the noise of clanging dishes and pans. It didn’t help matters that at a table near us was a boorish fellow diner with a booming voice and very decided political views who perhaps was drinking too much of the wine and would not stop talking.
Another complaint: the walls are pretty thin. The company might consider providing white noise machines for those in staterooms with noisy neighbors.
Apart from that, we had a great time. This is civilized cruise for people who get a lot of pleasure from seeing and learning new things. The passengers are mostly retirees, and most are outgoing and sociable. At meals you have the option of sitting at a table for two, four, or six — which is a way of saying that you have the freedom to mingle as much or as little as you want with others on board. In sum, the cruise lived up to its description on the American Queen Steamboat Company’s website, and if you are attracted by what you read on the website about it, then you’ll enjoy this cruise very much.
This has a separate sitting room that's attractively furnished, and the bedroom has lots of storage space. As others have noted, the bathrooms on the American Empress are small and include only stall showers (no tubs); that's true even in their luxury suites.
There are TVs in both the bedroom and the sitting room and a Bose sound system. But the main advantage of the suite is that it gives you an excellent view as you are cruising the Snake and Columbia Rivers.
You can access the veranda from either the bedroom or the sitting room. The suite includes the cruise line's Commodore Services, which are as described on their website. We were very comfortable and well cared for.