EDITORS NOTE: Although the Majestic American Line no longer operates, it is hoped that a sale of the company and its assets will bring about the return of the steamboats to the rivers of America. This aritcle gives a taste of what the past had to offer.

 Cruise Articles - Cruise Reviews :
 Columbia River

Columbia River - In Comfort

by Ursula and Eldrid Retief

When Lewis and Clark first discovered the route connecting the east to the west of the USA, they did so, as Clark recorded in his journals, “with great difficulty and much fatigue”.

How times change. Here we are, 200 years later, retracing the path of these intrepid explorers - the final 150 miles of their epic journey to the Pacific Ocean, anyway - in the greatest comfort and luxury, no ache or fatigue in sight, on Majestic America Line’s 235-passenger sternwheeler Empress of the North.
We can highly recommend it, Captain Clark!

You’d be welcomed aboard in Portland, Oregon, by the Empress of the North’s resident band belting out Dixieland jazz as one of the Empress’ friendly all-American staff accompanies you (and Captain Lewis, of course) to your elegantly furbished stateroom. It’s a long cry from the canoe in which you journeyed or even your final log-cabin accommodation at Fort Clatsop on the Pacific ocean (which, except for a splendid souvenir shop, you will find unchanged when you stroll through it on one of the Empress’ excursions).

We’ve been on riverboats where the cabins were so cramped there was no room to stroke the ships’ cat, never mind room in which to swing it. On the Empress the staterooms, most with balconies and every one with huge view windows, are spacious, so are the bathrooms, there’s an abundance of closet and drawer space, storage for your luggage, a mini-bar, color televisions and DVD player.

The cruises are superbly organized. Majestic America Line arranges overnight accommodation at the DoubleTree Jantzen Beach Hotel in Portland (with free parking for the week you are away) and hosts a welcome reception and dinner there. Your luggage is collected and transferred directly to the Empress of the North while you are whipped off to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument followed by lunch before returning to Jantzen Beach to start the cruise. Along the nearly 1,000 mile long route the Empress traverses eight locks and dams.

The Empress of the North and its 163-passenger sister-ship, Queen of the West are authentic reproductions of the 1800s-era sternwheeler riverboats that sailed Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Powered by real working paddlewheels and redolent with historical charm, the behind-the-scenes, state-of-the-art technology allows travelers to cruise into history with all the amenities and comfort of the 21st century while recapturing the bow landings, shallow-water cruising and live showboat-style entertainment which made these vessels so popular in bygone days.

Each evening there are pre-dinner cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and live entertainment in the two elegantly decorated showrooms on the Empress, Golden Nugget and Paddlewheel Lounge, and after dinner it’s Showtime! in the Golden Nugget with the ship’s entertainment staff led by Bo Ayars and an array of gifted guest performers.

Night after night musical themes took us down Memory Lane - riverboat jazz, the best of Broadway, old-time country-western, a magician in the guise of a riverboat gambler, a female trio singing the Golden Oldies, a big-band revival, and during the captain's farewell dinner a musical celebration of America. Following the tradition established more than 150 years ago, the entertainers board the boats at one spot on the river and depart it hours later and miles away after their performance.

In the Paddlewheel Lounge, where huge windows afford close-up views of the three-story high paddlewheel as it whooshes through the water, the Pacific Breeze husband and wife duo of Ty and Nonoy were in cabaret. Don’t forget to pack your dancing shoes!

Sumptuous meals are served in the Empress of the North’s Russian imperial palace-inspired Romanov Dining Room. While Lewis & Clark’s overland journey from the East is a well-known chapter in American history, few appreciate the impact that early Russian explorers and fur traders had on American settlement. The opulence of the Russian imperial court is recaptured in the single-seating Romanov Dining Room’s historic patterns, colors, and textures. The double eagle, herald of the Romanov family, adorns the back of each chair. Ornately carved columns, richly colored wallpaper, lush brocades, elegant chandeliers, and a faux sky domed ceiling present the experience of dining in a palace of the elegant Romanov era.

By the way, casualwear is the byword on the ship, even at dinner ..... except for the Captain’s Cocktail Party and Farewell Gala Dinner where ladies can wear dressy pants suit or cocktail dress, the men anything from a suit to slacks and a sportscoat.

One of the most popular gathering places on the Empress is the Calliope Bar and Grill, not only for its alternative continental breakfast and midday meals and the huge selection of drinks, snacks, popcorn, lattes, espressos and sandwiches and a low-fat yogurt sundae machine - all complimentary and available 24 hours a day - but for the panoramic views. We spent hours watching the river go by, hot dog, in one hand, a cappuccino in the other.

The Empress of the North features 8-night cruises from Portland along the Columbia, Willamette and Snake Rivers between October and May. Between June and September, the Empress plies Alaska’s Inside Passage, the first paddlewheeler to do so in over 100 years, operating 8-night cruises round-trip from Sitka and 11-night cruises between Seattle and Sitka, following the waterways made famous by native Alaskans, Russian explorers, gold rush prospectors and cruising into places the big ships can’t reach.

Her sister-ship, the Queen of the West operates 7-night cruises year round on the Columbia, Willamette and Snake Rivers, along the Lewis & Clark route, Oregon Trail, and Columbia River Gorge, both riverboats providing passengers with an an insight into the rich history, culture and geology of the area.

One of the most appealing components of the trip is that ALL shore excursions are included in the cruise fares.

Every day the Empress moors in a different spot and the motorcoaches are there waiting to transport passengers not only to Mt. St. Helens and Fort Clatsop but to a close up view of 620-foot high Multnomah Falls, the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, and excursions to Walla Walla (Washington) for the Fort Walla Walla Museum and a wine tasting at the Three Rivers Winery, a ride on the Mount Hood Railroad, visits to Astoria (Oregon), Long Beach (Washington), quaint Ilwaco and the Ilwaco Heritage Museum and Fort Canby, located at the mouth of the Columbia River, plus a jet boat ride into Hells Canyon. The drivers, familiar as they are with the routes, provide a running commentary, a mix of gossip, folklore and facts. So does Pete Montson, the onboard historian who shared his rich knowledge of the Pacific Northwest with us.

At journey’s end, back in Portland, we had followed Lewis and Clark over nearly a thousand miles of three of the mighty rivers of the West through three states: Oregon, Washington and Idaho, along the scorched deserts, snow-capped mountains and cascading waterfalls that had lured the American Indian, explorers Lewis & Clark, intrepid fur traders and stalwart settlers.

They did it first in simple canoes, then in paddlewheelers.

We had followed in their wake on their voyages of discovery, reliving the rich history and legends of the American West .... but without the hardship.

Photo courtesy Majestic America Line

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