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Thanksgiving on the Empress
Just before seven this morning, American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress dropped her lines and set out into the Columbia River. Half an hour later, we entered the Cascade Locks, which would be our first and only daytime lock transit on this cruise. Since this is the last voyage of the year, it’s also the last time American Empress will pass through a lock until she begins her 2017 season in March.
It’s the American Thanksgiving today, and to celebrate, we’re spending the entire day sailing the Columbia River. There will be lectures, games, prizes, trivia, and a local craft beer tasting, onboard today. All of this will be followed by a spectacular Thanksgiving feast tonight in the Astoria Dining Rom.
Because we’re sailing the Columbia all day, this is a great time to take a closer look at the classy American Empress.
The American Empress was built in 2003 at the Nichols Brothers shipyard on Whidbey Island, in Washington State’s San Juan Islands. Originally sailing as Empress of the North for now-defunct American West Steamboat Company (which, confusingly, did business as Majestic America Line), she used to frequent Alaska’s Inside Passage as well as the Pacific Northwest and the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Majestic America went bankrupt in 2008 after a series of well-publicised mishaps, and the Empress of the North was laid up for the next five years.
In 2013, AQSC bought the former Empress of the North and put her through a year-long refit that refreshed her interior spaces, removing much of the Russian theme that was introduced by Majestic America and replacing it instead with a more poignant, Victorian-style décor. Soft furnishings were upgraded in staterooms and suites, and AQSC added a number of technological upgrades over the past two seasons (like the new power/USB outlets).
By now, you’ve seen the bright-red paddlewheel at the stern of the American Empress, and while it is functional, it is by no means our main source of propulsion. The wheel (which measures 28 feet wide by 37 feet tall and features over 90 wooden slats) provides 3.4 knots of propulsion. Which, admittedly, wouldn’t get us very far.
To help us along, we have two azimuthing, double-ended propellers called Z-Drives. Made by Schottel, these are like oversized outboard motors mounted beneath the hull of the ship. They can turn 360-degrees and, because of that, eliminate the need for traditional rudders. If you’ve ever sailed on a river cruise ship in Europe, you’ve been on a ship powered by Schottel Z-Drives – though a vastly scaled-down version. They have the added benefit of being extra-quiet.
Today, with both the paddlewheel and our Z-Drives, American Empress is making a healthy knots down the river. The paddle can also be disengaged from its 1,200 horsepower electric motor to allow it to “freewheel” as the ship moves along, but I’m told the wheel is actually powered more often than not.
Now that we’ve seen the outside, let’s go inside for a peek at this classically-styled ship’s interior spaces.
The Show Lounge – Deck 1
Located on Deck 1 forward, the Show Lounge is where nightly musical performances are held. Frankly, the entertainment onboard is the best I’ve seen on a river cruise yet. It also doesn’t hurt that the American Empress sports a four-piece band for live music each evening; you won’t find any pre-recorded backup music here!
Larger lectures are held here, like our Riverlorian Laurence Cotton’s presentation on Lewis and Clark today, as are the Wine Tasting Events that have been a part of our special wine-themed river cruise.
Reception – Deck 1
Just aft of the show lounge, the Reception area on Deck 1 is your go-to spot for questions about your onboard account or shore excursions. You can also pick up maps here, or use the kiosk to pre-book your tour tickets for the Hop-on-Hop-off busses the evening before.
Next door, the Gift Shop sports a decent assortment of AQSC logo wear, along with locally-made crafts, goods, and foods.
Running between the main entrance lobby and the Show Lounge, this extra-wide corridor also houses seven Category D Outside staterooms.
The Astoria Dining Room – Deck 1
So comfortable that I’m taking nearly all my meals here, the Astoria Dining Room is exceptional. Décor is classic and elegant, with sea-foam-green high-backed chairs, crisp white linens, and unobtrusive wallpaper. It’s also modern: multi-coloured mood lighting illuminates the dome over the center of the room. At night, it takes on a particularly special ambiance.
Food is primarily American, with a healthy dose of Pacific Northwest ingredients and flavours. But don’t be afraid to try something new: the beer-battered fried chicken I had last night was out-of-this-world good. I nearly ordered a second – and I’m still dreaming about it.
The Paddlewheel Lounge – Deck 2
One of the coziest and most inviting spots aboard the American Empress, the Paddlewheel Lounge is the place to be for cocktails, live nightly music, games, trivia, and presentations. With its emerald-and-ruby-coloured chairs, hand-painted stained glass windows and old-world charm, there’s nothing else like it in the Pacific Northwest.
Books on everything relating to the Columbia and Snake rivers can be found here, along with a big-screen TV that, today, happens to be showing a Thanksgiving football game (on mute, mercifully). A popcorn machine provides complimentary movie-style popcorn starting from about 10am onwards, and full-service drinks start being served around 1:30pm. Four computer workstations and a printer can be found on the port side of the lounge for guests to use. Internet access onboard is slow, but free-of-charge. Most areas of the ship are wired for Wi-Fi.
The River Grill & Bar
The River Grill and Bar is open daily (check your daily program for times) for buffet breakfast and lunch, and a’la carte dinner. Reservations for dinner are required, but are complimentary. These can be made during voyage check-in at the hotel, or once onboard. Evening cuisine is your average steakhouse fare, which isn’t a criticism, just more of a quantifier. Bring a sweater – it can get drafty up here at night by the windows, which slide open in warmer temperatures.
Guest Corridors, Stairwells and Elevators
This is the only area of the American Empress that I’m not totally enamoured with. Guest corridors on Decks 2, 3 and 4 are, by and large, quite dark, with faux tin ceilings and black patterned carpeting. Stateroom doors, with their faint relief sections, are quite nice, and the artwork here (see below) is superb. But the black carpeting and dim lighting sucks the life out of these areas compared with the rest of the ship, which is universally gorgeous.
The ship’s interior passenger stairwell is situated along the port side of the vessel, and runs between all passenger decks. Two elevators are available on the starboard side of each lobby landing, and service all passenger decks.
Art and Artifacts
This might be one of the American Empress’s most underrated features. The artwork, photographs and artifacts aboard the ship are absolutely wonderful, and change in theme as you transition from deck-to-deck. In your stateroom, you’ll find a handy Self-Guided Art Gallery Tour booklet that explains, in detail, each of the 227 works onboard.
Each deck has its own unique theme. Deck 1 is dedicated to Russian artifacts, including a wonderful collection of Faberge eggs. Deck 2 focuses on the classic paddlewheelers of the Pacific Northwest in the forward half of the corridor, while the aft corridor leading to the Paddlewheel Lounge pays homage to Lewis and Clark; the local Native Americans; and the Oregon Trail. Deck 3 houses works of importance in Russia and Alaska; while Deck 4 focuses on the nature of Alaska, along with the Alaskan and Klondike gold rushes.
Tonight, a traditional Thanksgiving Dinner was served in the Astoria Dining Room, in celebration of Thanksgiving Day here in the United States. Most guests went with the turkey, served up with all the fixings: cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy, and green beans.
The crew have been wishing everyone a “Happy Thanksgiving” all day long, and once dinner had finished this evening, they shook hands and hugged and otherwise congratulated guests. It was such a nice display of affection and humanity, as everyone onboard went to bed well-fed and thirst quenched.
Although both guests and crew lamented being away from family and friends, both of those groups have formed here aboard the American Empress. I think that’s the power of cruising: it brings people together in ways that traditional vacations seldom do.
That’s always worth giving thanks for.
Our Live Voyage Report aboard the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress continues tomorrow as we sail the Columbia River bound for Astoria, Oregon! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog.
American Empress - Cruising the Columbia River
|November 20, 2016||Vancouver, WA||Embark American Empress||18:00|
|November 21||The Dalles, OR||05:00||Overnight|
|November 22||Stevenson, WA||16:00||Overnight|
|November 23||Stevenson, WA||Overnight||Overnight|
|November 24||Astoria, OR||19:00||Overnight|
|November 25||Astoria, OR||Overnight||21:00|
|November 26||Portland, OR||08:00||20:00|
|November 27, 2016||Vancouver, WA||06:00||Disembark|
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