Step Back In Time With the American Queen Steamboat Company

Exploring The Dalles, Oregon with American Queen Steamboat Company.

Exploring The Dalles, Oregon with American Queen Steamboat Company.

Last night, I slept the sleep of angels aboard American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress. Cruising the Columbia River overnight, she slipped quietly into the sleepy riverside town of The Dalles, Oregon just after seven this morning. The first rays of sunlight were there to greet us on what would turn out to be a brilliant, unseasonably-nice day.

Had I not been up and moving about my stateroom, I wouldn’t have known we were docking. American Empress is one very quiet ship, with no rattling, shaking, or even the slightest noise as she came alongside. Some vibration can be felt aft, in the Paddlewheel Lounge, but throughout much of the passenger accommodations, little noise manages to seep through.

American Empress at her berth in The Dalles, Oregon this morning. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

American Empress at her berth in The Dalles, Oregon this morning. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Some wonderful discoveries last night. First, stateroom bathrooms contain a handy night-light that turns on when you turn the main lights off. I didn’t even realize that until I awoke in the middle of the night to use the facilities and didn’t have to pop any lights on.

The other wonderful discovery involves the beds here aboard the American Empress: they’re so comfortable. I just got off a luxury cruise a week and a half ago, and the beds here are every bit as good as the beds were on my luxury cruise with Silversea. The same goes for the pillows, two of which are added to each bed. It’s like sleeping on a well-supported cloud.

Good morning, Oregon! Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Good morning, Oregon! Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Breakfast aboard the American Empress is served today in the Astoria Dining Room from 7:00am until 8:30am, and in the River Grill and Bar from 6:30am until 9:30am. The latter offers a typical buffest-style breakfast, while meals in the Astoria Dining Room are cooked-to-order.

I chose to have a quick buffet breakfast in the River Grill and Bar this morning, and I wasn’t disappointed. Your typical North American breakfast fare is here, from fruits and yogurts to pastries and heartier fare like bacon, sausage, eggs and roasted hashbrown potatoes. A set of machines along the forward wall serve up an assortment of juices and coffees.

The Wheels on the Bus

The American Queen Steamboat Company offers complimentary hop-on-hop-off bus tours on its river cruises, along with complimentary admission to select attractions. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The American Queen Steamboat Company offers complimentary hop-on-hop-off bus tours on its river cruises, along with complimentary admission to select attractions. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

In most ports of call on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, the American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) offers both paid and complimentary excursions. The easiest way to get around, however, is to take one of the American Empress’ logo-wrapped shuttle busses, which run complimentary tours with multiple stops at attractions and points of interest.

These Hop-On-Hop-Off (or HoHo) busses run at intervals between 15 minute to one hour. Each guest is provided with a map of the town that lists major sites of interest, along with a diagram of the bus route and expected stops. These busses pick up where they drop off, and stops are indicated with oversized sandwich boards.

Nestled in among the pristine scenery lining the Columbia River...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Nestled in among the pristine scenery lining the Columbia River…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...is the Columbia River Gorge Discovery Center. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…is the Columbia River Gorge Discovery Center. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

This spectacular museum traces the history of the entire region, and is not to be missed! Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

This spectacular museum traces the history of the entire region, and is not to be missed! Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Outdoor exhibits showcase the early pioneer way of life. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Outdoor exhibits showcase the early pioneer way of life. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Here’s how this works: if you want to be among the first off the ship, you must visit the electronic kiosk adjacent to the reception desk the night before. It looks a bit like an airline check-in kiosk at an airport, and it works like one, too: simply tap the screen and pick from one of four available departure times. The kiosk will then spit out tickets for that HoHo departure.

If you want to enjoy the HoHo later in the morning, or any time during the afternoon, tickets aren’t necessary; they’re merely used to manage “the rush” of folks looking to get off the ship first thing in the morning.

Personally, I love this idea. Not only is it amazing to have a complimentary shuttle service in every port of call, but the American Queen Steamboat Company distinguishes itself by also offering included admission to certain attractions along the way.

Today’s complimentary HoHo route in The Dalles makes six stops. Or, one stop if you end up relieving one of the local brewpubs of their hoppy nectars:

  • Stop 1: The Columbia River Gorge Discovery Center & Museum*
  • Stop 2: The Original Courthouse Museum*
  • Stop 3: The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce*
  • Stop 4: Fort Dalles Museum*
  • Stop 5: Sunshine Mill Winery
  • Stop 6: Downtown Shopping

*-includes admission

While stops 2, 4 and 6 are arguably within walking distance of the ship for most folks, stops 1, 3 and 5 certainly aren’t. And with a population of just over 13,000 inhabitants, much of what makes up the downtown area of The Dalles can be explored on-foot.

Today, I chose to do a combination of the two: personal exploration and sightseeing on the HoHo.

Today, I also chose to explore The Dalles independently, which can be easily done on foot from the ship. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Today, I also chose to explore The Dalles independently, which can be easily done on foot from the ship. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The Dalles was first referred to as such by French-Canadian explorer Gabriel Franchère, who was employed on John Jacob Astor’s 1810 expedition to establish a Pacific Northwest settlement that would come to be known as Astoria. Today, it is a sleepy town that nonetheless exudes plenty of personality.

A stroll through downtown’s Second Avenue reveals abandoned and “for-lease” buildings, many of which have passed their best-before dates. There’s a J.C. Penny store that still has the 1960’s logo brand of that retailer, and an abandoned Art Deco theatre a few blocks up.

Closer to the railroad tracks, the hands of time wind back another 50 years, to the turn of the last century. The Baldwin Saloon, just inset from the area where American Empress is docked, is the best-preserved example of this frontier-style architecture.

The Baldwin Saloon recalls a bygone time. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The Baldwin Saloon recalls a bygone time. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

So does the local (now closed) Theatre...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

So does the local (now closed) Theatre…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...and this old-timey J.C. Penny Co. storefront. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…and this old-timey J.C. Penny Co. storefront. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

You probably don’t know that The Dalles is also the site of the worst bioterrorism attack on United States soil. Back in 1984, followers of a man named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh poisoned salad bars in ten local restaurants in The Dalles with the Salmonella enterica, resulting in nearly 800 residents falling ill. Rajneesh and his followers purportedly held the attack so that they would win an election in Wasco County. Things didn’t go exactly as planned: the crime was traced back to him and his followers, two of whom were convicted of attempted murder.

And yet, The Dalles is far from obsolete. Google built a massive server farm not far from our docking location, in the shadow of one of Lewis and Clark’s overland camping sites. Craft brewing and wine production are big business here, as is the town’s history as part of the Lewis and Clark saga and as the official ending point of the Oregon Trail. The Dalles is also the second-largest municipality in Oregon outside of Portland.

Sleepy streets...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Sleepy streets…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...and great local bookstores. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…and great local bookstores. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I first visited The Dalles last year, and today I took the opportunity to patronize my favorite bookstore in the area, Klindt’s Booskellers. While I browsed, I realized just how close-nit this town is: I was the only person who came in this morning with whom the proprietors weren’t on a first name basis. You know the scene in every western where “The Stranger” walks into town and the townspeople all turn their heads to look? Yep. That’s me.

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I also hopped-on the hop-on and travelled up to the frankly spectacular Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum. Stewards of the Columbia Gorge, the Museum traces its history from the Ice Age through to the native people’s that called this land home, to the Lewis and Clark expedition, and on to its present-day impact. Plan on spending at least a full hour here admiring the exhibits – and more if you want to walk the trails or take part in the raptor program on offer.

Wine-Themed Afternoons

After lunch onboard....Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

After lunch onboard….Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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

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

...it was time for a complimentary local wine tasting in the Show Lounge. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…it was time for a complimentary local wine tasting in the Show Lounge. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

By the time I was done with the Discovery Center, it was time for lunch. Back onboard the American Empress, I enjoyed lunch in the classy Astoria Dining Room, feasting on Cream of Broccoli soup and a very tasty Beef Brisket sandwich. While wine and beer aren’t free with lunch (only dinner), soft drinks, coffee, tea and water are complimentary at all times, so I paired lunch with a Ginger-Ale.

On most river cruise ships, there isn’t a lot going on during port days. Not so aboard the American Empress, which takes a decidedly ocean liner-esque approach to its daytime activities, with plenty of fun and enriching options on offer.

We sampled four different types of wine, all from the same local producer. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

We sampled four different types of wine, all from the same local producer. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

This afternoon, for instance, guests could participate in The Match Gameshow in the Show Lounge; take part in a talk by our onboard historian (a “Riverlorian” in AQSC parlance) Laurence; attend a Veteran’s Meet-and-Mingle; or even tour the Engine Room of the American Empress – something I missed out on by not reading my River Times daily program properly!

Since this is a special Wine Theme departure, the first of our wine events was held this afternoon in the Show Lounge. At 4pm, a complimentary wine tasting was put on by the Canoe Ridge Vineyard of Walla Walla, Washington.

Founded in 1989, Canoe Ridge is situated in the Horse Heaven Hills American Viticultural Area. The winery focuses on three different varietals, namely Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. We were able to sample all of these, plus a Sauvignon Blanc, in our tasting this afternoon. Which, naturally, was accompanied by a variety of cheeses and fruits.

Classy Evenings

This evening, I dined in the River Grill up on Deck 4 aft. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

This evening, I dined in the River Grill up on Deck 4 aft. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our wine tasting with Canoe Ridge was just the beginning. Tonight, guests dining in the Astoria Dining Room and the River Grill were able to enjoy pairings from Waterbrook Winery of Walla Walla. On offer tonight: an exceptional Riesling; a Chardonnay; and a Merlot.

This evening, I dined in the River Grill, the alternative dining venue aboard American Empress. With a set menu of American favorites that doesn’t vary throughout the week, guests are encouraged to book here at least twice throughout their cruise, and I made my reservations for this unique dining venue up on Deck 4 yesterday during hotel check-in.

More complimentary local wines were on offer here, which change nightly. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

More complimentary local wines were on offer here, which change nightly. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The menu remains the same each week...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The menu remains the same each week…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...and serves up classic steakhouse fare. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…and serves up classic steakhouse fare. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

This multi-course menu includes American favorites like smoked salmon, Lamb Chop, filet mignon, lobster tail, Caesar salad, and other classic dishes. Chances are good that you’ll be seated with other guests, but that’s all part of the fun on this cruise: socializing with your fellow guests.

Dinner at the River Grill exceeded my expectations.  It’s a theme that has permeated my first 36 hours onboard the American Empress, which has been a darn good experience from end to end.

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report aboard the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress continues tomorrow with a journey from The Dalles, Oregon to Stevenson, Washington! 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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