Exploring the Columbia River Gorge with the American Queen Steamboat Company

The American Empress aglow as darkness falls over Stevenson, Washington on November 22, 2016. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The American Empress aglow as darkness falls over Stevenson, Washington on November 22, 2016. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress was enveloped in fog early this morning as she sat at her berth in The Dalles, Oregon. Like steam coming off a hot tub, wisps of mist danced across the charcoal-grey waters of the Columbia River on our port side as guests awoke to their second full day aboard our classic sternwheeler.

And what a full day it was, with the vast majority of guests electing to take part in today’s full-day tour: a 7.5-hour complimentary excursion known as the WAAAM and Hood River Tour.

We set off from a foggy American Empress this morning...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

We set off from a foggy American Empress this morning…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...to join a complimentary full-day excursion to the WAAAM and Hood River, Oregon. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…to join a complimentary full-day excursion to the WAAAM and Hood River, Oregon. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The American Queen Steamboat Company offers this excursion completely free of charge, but it is important to still reserve it either online pre-cruise or once you’re onboard American Empress, as space is limited. It’s a comprehensive tour of some of the highlights of the Columbia River Gorge area, with visits to the WAAAM (Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum); downtown Hood River; and a craft beer tasting at the Full Sail Brewing Company.

Our excursion set out at 9:00 am promptly this morning. I hung around at the back of the line, and got onto the third (and last) coach, which was far less crowded than the first two. Each coach has its own dedicated local guide who delivered the local history and fun facts to us as we travelled approximately 40 minutes west to the town of Hood River, where the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum is located. Since that’s kind of a mouthful, it’s more commonly known as the WAAAM.

Our first stop: the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum, otherwise known as the WAAAM. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our first stop: the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum, otherwise known as the WAAAM. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

A few relics of the past linger outside the museum...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

A few relics of the past linger outside the museum…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...while inside are more than 130 working antique cars, trucks, and an entire fleet of aeroplanes of the past. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…while inside are more than 130 working antique cars, trucks, and an entire fleet of aeroplanes of the past. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Time to quickly mention our dedicated coaches: they’re European-made Van Hool CX45 coaches with leather seats, mood lighting, and all the latest gadgetry. They’re also exceedingly comfortable, with high-back seat and wheelchair-accessible lifts that help mobility-impaired travellers to still take part in the tours ashore.

Why is this important? Because the United States isn’t exactly known for its great motorcoach fleet. Unlike Europe, your chances of being stuck on some old piece-of-crap from the 1970’s is pretty high when you travel within the continental U.S. I’ve personally been on three separate cruise ship excursions – including one in Bar Harbor’s steep Acadian National Park -where the brakes on my rather ancient tour coaches have failed. Having brand-new, European-engineered coaches for guests on the American Empress is an important detail.

Everything in the museum is in working order - including the planes. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Everything in the museum is in working order – including the planes. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Many cars have been generously donated to the museum...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Many cars have been generously donated to the museum…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...restored to their original glory. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…restored to their original glory. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Want to go for a ride in one? You can do that, too! Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Want to go for a ride in one? You can do that, too! Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our first stop as we sped out of the fog and into Hood River: the WAAAM. First opened in 2007, the museum houses 95,000 square feet of exhibits, including over 315 cars, trucks, and early airplanes – all of which are fully operational. The museum also offers rides in some of their classic automobiles on days with good weather conditions, and today they were out in full force, toodling guests around in vintage cars – one of which (a Ford Model T) was 102 years old!

The museum is just massive – and you don’t have to be a car or aviation geek to appreciate it. The sheer depth of the museum’s collection spans several buildings, and seemingly goes on forever. In that vein, we were given three full hours to enjoy this special museum at our own pace, which included a homestyle lunch of hand-made sandwiches, fresh vegetable soup, salads, and of course, homemade desserts.

Afterwards, we were given a little over one hour to shop in the downtown shopping district of Hood River.

Welcome to picturesque downtown Hood River, Oregon! Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Welcome to picturesque downtown Hood River, Oregon! Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I’d never been to Hood River before, and I was really taken by this little town of just over 7,000 inhabitants as of the 2010 census.

To start with, I found a bookstore just after disembarking our coach, so that’s always a big win in my books. Pun fully intended.

Secondly, Hood River is a wine or beer aficionado’s paradise. If you love good wine and a clever joke, go into Naked Wines at their tasting room on 2nd Street. They’ve got seriously good wines, and I got a kick out of their racy brand names. Who doesn’t dream of opening a bottle of Penetration Cabernet Sauvignon, Foreplay Chardonnay or Sure Thing Symphony for family and friends this Holiday season?

Hood River is a quaint town...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Hood River is a quaint town…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...that just happens to boast some excellent brewpubs and wine shops. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…that just happens to boast some excellent brewpubs and wine shops. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

In keeping with that theme (the alcohol, not the ‘sure thing’), we visited Full Sail Brewing for a full sail tasting of some of their most popular brews to round out our day.

We were able to sample the Full Sail Session; the Full Sail Amber; and the Full Sail Hop Pursuit IPA. Of the three, I surprised myself by preferring the Full Sail Hop Pursuit IPA. I’m not typically an IPA fan; my tastes tend to run towards the Amber Ales. That’s the benefit of a tasting like this; you may find that you enjoy a particular brew that you would have otherwise passed over.

Following our beer-soaked hour at Full Sail Brewing, we re-boarded our American Empress-branded coaches and made our way back to the American Empress, which had steamed without us to the town of Stevenson, Washington.

Just after 4pm, our coaches returned...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Just after 4pm, our coaches returned…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...to the American Empress, which had sailed on to Stevenson, Washington. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…to the American Empress, which had sailed on to Stevenson, Washington. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I’d forgotten how dark it gets in the winter in the Pacific Northwest. As we drove back to the ship, the scenery outside turned into shades of blue and grey as the last rays of light faded from the cloud cover that had been with us for much of the day. At barely 4:00pm in the afternoon, night was well on its way to enveloping us.

Nightfall here during the age of exploration barely 200 years ago must have been a frightful thing. When Lewis and Clark were charting a course overland to the Pacific Ocean, nights like this were commonplace on their expedition. Yet many contemporary books are written from a place of victory; few deal with the fear, uncertainty and hardships that Merriweather Lewis and William Clark would have faced on nights like this. There is still debate to this day, in fact, as to how Lewis died, though most contemporary accounts conclude he committed suicide just three years after the end of his expedition to conquer the Pacific Northwest.

Returning to the soft glow of the American Empress, enveloped in the rains of winter on the Pacific Coast. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Returning to the soft glow of the American Empress, enveloped in the rains of winter on the Pacific Coast. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I think it’s worth mentioning how wonderful it is to return to the American Empress at night, and how much I am enjoying this ship. To see her lit up at her Stevenson, WA dock, lights blazing brightly amid the blueish dusk of the evening, surrounded by droplets of pelting rain, gives one an almost rustic, cozy feeling. It’s as if the past has come alive again, right before your eyes.

And yet, when you step aboard you enter into a world of decidedly modern opulence. There’s drinks in the Paddlewheel Lounge, followed by another lavish, Pacific Northwest-themed dinner in the Astoria Dining Room. A post-supper show in the Show Lounge follows, with most guests choosing to retire back up to the Paddlewheel on Deck 2 aft to hear Frank do his thing on the ivories: excellent music punctuated by bad jokes and good cocktails is a winning mix.

I like that the American Queen Steamboat Company offers river cruises on the Columbia River; one of North America’s most beautiful (and often-overlooked) waterways. But I love that the company is dedicated to recreating the nostalgia and romance of a time gone-by. The Columbia river has a rich maritime history filled with paddlewheel ships of all shapes and sizes, and American Empress – the former Empress of the North – is a wonderful, modern homage to all the ships that have come before her.

Like the American Queen on the Mississippi, the American Empress isn’t just a river cruise ship. She’s a steward of the past.

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 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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