Embarkation in Vancouver, Washington

Welcome aboard the American Queen Steamboat Company's American Empress! Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Welcome aboard the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress! Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Yesterday morning, my Delta Air Lines 737-800 touched down at Portland International Airport under sunny skies. The glistening tarmac, however, told me that we’d just miss the rain – and knowing the Pacific Northwest, it would be back.

It’s not my first time to this part of the world, but this will be my first-ever cruise with the American Queen Steamboat Company, and my first journey aboard the 360-foot long replica paddlewheeler, American Empress. Over the next week, she’ll take me on a wine-themed (some would call it ‘soaked’) journey along the Columbia River, sailing roundtrip from Vancouver, Washington.

Our full itinerary, both here and onboard:

American Empress - Cruising the Columbia River

DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
November 20, 2016Vancouver, WAEmbark American Empress18:00
November 21The Dalles, OR05:00Overnight
November 22Stevenson, WA16:00Overnight
November 23Stevenson, WAOvernightOvernight
November 24Astoria, OR19:00Overnight
November 25Astoria, OROvernight21:00
November 26Portland, OR08:0020:00
November 27, 2016Vancouver, WA06:00Disembark
Guests aboard American Empress began their voyage with a pre-cruise stay at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Guests aboard American Empress began their voyage with a pre-cruise stay at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Some very cool particulars about my specific voyage: not only is it a wine-themed departure, it also happens to coincide with the American Thanksgiving celebration this week. And that, in turn, holds the promise of turkey, stuffing, and even more wine. Which is no doubt popular with Americans. As a Canadian, however, I’m interested in providing you with a foreigner’s look at the American Pacific Northwest and, of course, the American Empress.

The American Queen Steamboat Company – or AQSC, for short – typically includes a one-night pre-cruise stay on its Columbia and Snake River itineraries at the Hilton Vancouver Washington, centrally located in the heart of the quaint downtown district on West 6th.

Organization at the pre-cruise hotel was exceptional, with clearly-printed instructions for joining the ship. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Organization at the pre-cruise hotel was exceptional, with clearly-printed instructions for joining the ship. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

A short but rather expensive ($41) cab ride took me from the airport to the Hilton, where I was checked into my room and provided with a handy embarkation timeline. It outlined the hours of the AQSC Hospitality Desk in the hotel lobby, and provided important information about voyage check-in, when bags have to be placed inside the door of your hotel room for pick-up, and when guests can expect embarkation to begin.

Pre-cruise information was distributed during the pre-cruise hotel stay in Vancouver, WA. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Pre-cruise information was distributed during the pre-cruise hotel stay in Vancouver, WA. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The Hospitality Desk was also open yesterday from 3:00pm until 7:00pm. Representatives were on-hand to answer questions about the voyage in general, today’s check-in procedures, and to pre-book both included and additional-cost tours ashore. Even though some tours are offered on a complimentary basis, they still have to be pre-booked.

That level of preparedness makes a great first impression on guests who, like myself, may be new to AQSC.

My Vancouver Can Take On Your Vancouver

Exploring funky....Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Exploring funky….Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...and cool Vancouver, Washington. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…and cool Vancouver, Washington. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

To make the most of my pre-cruise hotel day, I set out to explore Vancouver, Washington yesterday. Or, as I call it, “The Other Vancouver.”

The Canadian city of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada – almost 500 kilometres to the North – is arguably the more famous Vancouver, having hosted Expo 86 and the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. It’s also the larger city, with a metro population of 2.4 million inhabitants, compared with Vancouver, Washington’s 161,000 as of the 2010 census. Both cities are, however, named after the same person: Captain George Vancouver, who became one of the first Europeans to explore nearly all of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska before dying ignominiously in 1798.

I didn’t know what to expect from Vancouver, Washington, but I liked it. The city has plenty of old-world charm, and boutique dining venues, wine cellars, cocktail bars, and brewpubs on nearly every corner. It’s not touristy in the least: it’s local and authentic, with a sort of ‘take-it-or-leave it’ mentality. If you like it, great. If not – Portland’s across the river.

All checked-in and ready to go! Check-in for the American Empress happens at the Hilton, making embarkation a snap. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

All checked-in and ready to go! Check-in for the American Empress happens at the Hilton, making embarkation a snap. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

But this Vancouver has a problem: it’s relegated to the north bank of the Columbia River, forever in the shadow of the more-famous city of Portland, Oregon that lies just across the river. It’s also referred to – derogatorily – as “Vantucky” (a combination of ‘Vancouver’ and ‘Kentucky’) due to its far-right-leaning constituents. On the flip side, it’s also known as “Vansterdam”, thanks to Washington State’s legalization of marijuana in 2012.

Like the Rhine River in Europe which splits France and Germany, the Columbia River carves acts as a sort of pseudo-border between Washington and Oregon for much of its length. Emptying into the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, this is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, originating 2,000 kilometres away in the Canadian province of British Columbia. It’s also home to some of the most significant historical events in the Pacific Northwest, from the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-06 to its role as part of the first plutonium reactor in the United States.

Best of all, you can river cruise it.

Embarking the Empress

The American Empress, partially obscured at her Vancouver, Washington dock. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The American Empress, partially obscured at her Vancouver, Washington dock. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

One of the ship's most defining features is her iconic red paddlewheel. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

One of the ship’s most defining features is her iconic red paddlewheel. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

This morning, check-in for our voyage was held at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. I made my way down to the conference room on the ground floor at 8:30 and, encountering no line, checked in for my voyage easily. All you need with you is a photo ID and a credit card.

Once checked-in, I received my ship keycard and a boarding pass for the coach transportation between the hotel and the pier. The earlier you check in, the earlier you’ll transfer to the ship. I secured a spot on the first transfer, departing from the hotel at 3:15pm.

At 10:30am, an orientation briefing was held in the hotel’s ballroom. This covered shipboard basics like the use of your keycard as an onboard purchase system, but was still useful, particularly for those who are new to cruising.

Shore excursions for the week were also discussed, but this was a bit disjointed: because this is a unique itinerary, the shore excursion brochures don’t have the correct itinerary or days of the week listed in them (we’re in Astoria, for example, on Friday instead of Monday). This led to much confusion as guests attempted to plan around the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday.

My home for the next week: a cozy Category C Balcony stateroom. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

My home for the next week: a cozy Category C Deluxe Veranda stateroom. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

At 3:30pm, I boarded the American Empress, which couldn’t have been easier since I already had my keycard given to me at voyage check-in at the Hilton.

I made my way to my home for the next week: a Category C Deluxe Veranda Stateroom on Frontier Deck 2. At 180 square feet, these classically-designed staterooms have everything you might expect from a river cruise ship. They are available on Deck 2 or Discovery Deck 3, and represent the most common type of accommodation onboard the American Empress.

My Category C Deluxe Veranda Stateroom, facing the door to the corridor. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

My Category C Deluxe Veranda Stateroom, facing the door to the corridor. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Immediately after you enter the stateroom, you’ll find two wardrobes on the side and the door to the bathroom opposite. The bathroom is your standard run-of-the-mill cruise ship bathroom: functional, but by no means pretty. Still, it has plenty of storage space, a vacuum toilet, and a stand-up shower.

The wardrobe is excellent – you could easily fit clothing for two for a week in it. I’m travelling solo, so I’m only using a single closet, if you don’t count the fact that my shoes and coat are taking up residence in the one closest to the door.

The room is particularly pretty during the evening, with light streaming in from the oversized windows. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The room is particularly pretty during the evening, with light streaming in from the oversized windows. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Love the Victorian-era detailing. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Love the Victorian-style detailing. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

My stateroom has two beds that cannot be pushed together. When the brochure says, “queen or twin beds”, it doesn’t mean you have the option to do both like on most cruise ships. Some staterooms are in queen-only configuration, while others are twin-only. Personally, I don’t care what the bed arrangements are, but if you have a burning desire for one over the other, it’s best to ring up AQSC and ask, as the brochure doesn’t specify which is which.

In my stateroom is a small desk and a mini-armoire with a flat-panel TV, a Keurig coffee maker, a mini-fridge stocked with complimentary bottled water, and some cool shelves that you could easily slip a wine bottle into. Bonus points for that – storing wine in staterooms is never easy.

The bathroom is your average cruise-ship affair: basic but functional. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The bathroom is your average cruise-ship affair: basic but functional. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Staterooms feature Clarins of Paris toiletries. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Staterooms feature Clarins of Paris toiletries. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I absolutely love the décor of my stateroom. Designed to mimic the grandeur of steamboating on the Columbia at the turn of the last century, it has plenty of dark walnut woods, brass accents, frosted glass lamp shades, and elegantly-patterned wallpaper. Another bonus: the Mark Twain-y artwork of classic steamboats on the Columbia River really sets the tone for the week.

A great feature: extra plugs and USB plugs on the desk in each stateroom. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

A great feature: extra plugs and USB plugs on the desk in each stateroom. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Balconies are oversized and well-designed. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Balconies are oversized and well-designed. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The piece de resistance of the stateroom is, however, the rather large balcony that exists outside a bulkhead-style door. It’s large enough for two chairs and a small table, and is a great place to watch the river go by. It’s also completely sheltered from the elements; unless it’s raining sideways, you can enjoy the views regardless of the weather.

Out And About: An Evening Aboard American Empress

Sunset falls over Portland...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Sunset falls over Portland…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...as American Empress prepares to sail. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…as American Empress prepares to sail. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Tonight, I ambled back to the Paddlewheel Lounge for a cocktail before venturing off to dinner in the Astoria Dining Room. While live music played, the giant red paddlewheel of the American Empress began to churn, visible from the windows at the aft end of the room. The ship isn’t propelled directly by the paddle (she’s got two modern Z-Drive-style propellers to take care of that), its snappy rotation certainly adds to the romanticism of the ship.

Enjoying a cocktail...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Enjoying a cocktail…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...in the cozy Paddlewheel Lounge before dinner...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…in the cozy Paddlewheel Lounge before dinner…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...in the elegant Astoria Dining Room. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…in the elegant Astoria Dining Room. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Dinner in the Astoria Dining Room was an elegant affair, with high-backed chairs, soft mood lighting, and huge windows looking out onto the darkness of the Columbia River. A multi-course affair served with complimentary local wines and craft beers, the cuisine has impressed me right off the bat. It’s not fancy, but it is flavourful, excellently plated, and proudly American.

As first impressions go, American Empress is winning me over, second-by-second. On the first night of any cruise, that’s always a great thing.

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report aboard the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress continues tomorrow as we arrive in The Dalles, Oregon! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog.

American Empress - Cruising the Columbia River

DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
November 20, 2016Vancouver, WAEmbark American Empress18:00
November 21The Dalles, OR05:00Overnight
November 22Stevenson, WA16:00Overnight
November 23Stevenson, WAOvernightOvernight
November 24Astoria, OR19:00Overnight
November 25Astoria, OROvernight21:00
November 26Portland, OR08:0020:00
November 27, 2016Vancouver, WA06:00Disembark
 

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