As with most river cruises, American Empress' itineraries are port-intensive, meaning you'll have a port call each day. Complimentary hop-on, hop-off bus excursions are included in each port. The boat visits small towns, so the tours aren't a major time commitment; many passengers on our trip never hopped off, instead electing to use the tour as a way to learn about history of a town without actually going to the various museum and educational excursion offerings. One nice touch: Admission fees to museums and attractions that are part of the hop-on, hop-off tours are covered by American Empress. Having the buses makes a big difference in the feel of the cruise. Because passengers can go at their own pace and do their own thing, the trip feels less like a tour than many other river cruises.
The line also offers optional "Premium Experience Excursions" for an additional fee. These can be done in addition to the hop-on, hop-off tours and include more in-depth exploration of the area. Examples include a visit to the fabulous Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM) from The Dalles or a "Lewis and Clark Experience" in Astoria, Oregon.
In addition to the formal shore excursions, staff members lead a daily guided walk, usually to a museum or monument where passengers can pick up the HOHO bus to come back. We found these surprisingly well attended and fun; our morning hike to the Astoria Column with the band's drummer, Mike, ended up lasting almost all day as he helped us find a nature trail, the house where the Goonies was filmed and an outstanding brew pub.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
During the day, the ship schedules craft-making sessions and trivia contests. The ship also retains the massive historic art collection held by its previous owners, and passengers can do a self-guided tour to learn about the pieces, many of which reflect Native American history. Movies are also screened in the Paddlewheel Lounge.
A different musical performance is held every night in the Show Lounge, with opportunities for both early and late diners to catch it. American Empress has a four-person band that's very talented, as well as a piano player. The cruise director and her assistant also work as performers. We found the quality of entertainment quite good for such a small boat; shows were well attended. A dance party featuring live music from the '50s and '60s was also quite fun, with crew members showing up to bust out their moves and get people on their feet.
Because American Empress sails in the Pacific Northwest, following along the route Louis and Clark took in 1805, daily lectures by onboard history and culture experts are heavy on the history of that era. The ship hires riverlorians, who lecture daily -- sometimes twice! -- on various topics, including the Oregon Trail, regional topography and even local fish. We were impressed with how knowledgeable the riverlorians are. They speak expertly on nearly every aspect of the Pacific Northwest and were always around to answer questions.
American Empress is not a late-night boat -- expect things to shut down by 10:30 p.m. -- but the bars and lounges do brisk business at Happy Hour and when the piano player is at the keys.
Show Lounge (Deck 1): The Show Lounge, located on Deck 1, generally offers the more formal entertainment option each evening. The room, decorated in deep reds and golds, has a dance floor and small stage where the band and singers perform. A bar is located at the back.
Paddlewheel Lounge (Deck 2): The Paddlewheel lounge is a large but comfortable spot where gorgeous stained glass highlights 24 windows and dark walnut panels cover the tray ceilings. From this venue, passengers get a close-up view of the massive paddlewheel turning. A small bar there opens in the afternoon, and freshly baked cookies and milk are served at 4 p.m. every day. This also is the gathering spot for pre-dinner cocktails. A pianist and singer provide late-night entertainment there, too. On our cruise, this was Frank, a would-be curmudgeon with fun patter and excellent boogie-woogie skills. The crowd particularly loved his "One-Hit Wonder" and "Sixties Hits and Misses" shows.
American Empress doesn't have an official top deck or sunning area. Outdoors throughout the ship, however, passengers will find groups of white wooden rocking chairs, perfect for taking in the scenery on a pleasant day. Smoking, prohibited in all indoor and most outdoor spaces, is allowed only on the port side aft on Deck 4, outside the River Grill & Bar.
American Empress has a small shop where passengers can purchase toiletries, logo items, clothing and jewelry. It's located next to the purser's desk on Deck 1. This area also has a mailbox for postcards, and it's where you'll sign up for reservations at the River Grill, pick up a hop-on, hop-off pass or arrange transportation.
At off-hours, the Paddlewheel Lounge is a quiet spot to steal away to for some reading or computer time. The space offers a small library with some fiction and nonfiction books, many about the region and its history, as well as board games.
The Paddlewheel Lounge has four computers, and passengers can browse the internet for free. You'll also get the best Wi-Fi signal there, but it's still quite slow. We found it extremely difficult to get Wi-Fi outside the lounge.
American Empress doesn't have a spa, fitness center or pool. There are no official fitness classes, but if passengers onboard are qualified and willing to teach classes, the line will allow it, with signup, and provide a location for it. On our sailing, one passenger was a Zumba instructor and taught classes in the morning in the Show Lounge. On another sailing, the fitness-oriented cruise managers hosted off-ship hikes and other recreational endeavors.
The ship offers six cruiser bikes for use in ports on a first-come, first-served basis, as well as helmets and bike locks. A wraparound balcony circumnavigates the fourth deck, and on a nice day, passengers will take leisurely strolls around the boat.
American Empress doesn't have facilities or programs for families. If several children are onboard, the staff will work with parents to come up with appropriate activities.