My husband is always twisting his lips at me as I plan yet another European birthday vacation. He has little desire to see Europe, and I have little desire to travel within the U.S. Yet last summer as I was scoping for places for us to spend our March anniversary, I stumbled upon the American Queen Steamboat Company’s intineraries for American river cruises.
Having priced European river cruises and deciding they were much too expensive to travel to places where I’ve mostly been, I was pleasantly surprised by the AQSC’s prices. While not cheap, they were decidedly cheaper. Traveling in the U.S. meant less expensive plane tickets, using the same currency I use everyday, and not worrying about international roaming and calling.
My husband had spent a semester in college studying in Portland, Oregon, so we chose the cruise that headed down the Columbia River. We decided against the Mississippi River cruise because we didn’t want to have to throw hands on fellow passengers as they reveled in the “beauty” of antebellum luxury on the inevitable plantation stops.
We flew out of the Midwest and into Portland’s airport a few days ago. The coats and scarves we flew out of the Midwest with were needed just as much in Portland as back home. The temperatures weren’t too far apart. In both places, the high temperature barely peaked at 45 degrees. Instead of the dreaded snow, it rains a lot. The milder temperatures out west make the cool weather a little bearable.
Even though we stayed in Portland the first night, the riverboat sails out of Vancouver, Washington — a mere twenty minutes from our hotel on the other side of the Columbia River. Vancouver and Portland are so close that many people live in one community and work in the other.
We Ubered to the Hilton in downtown Vancouver. Our driver was Native American, and didn’t mind us inquiring into the numbers of Native Americans in the area. He didn’t have definitive numbers, but told us that Oregon was much more diverse now than it was twenty years ago. He also told us that most Native Americans in the area did not want to live in the cities and chose to stay on the reservations. To me, that seemed like a great way to protect their cultural identity and cultural norms. However, he believed that their refusal to integrate kept them dependent upon the U.S. government for assistance.
Vancouver, Washington is a very quaint and welcoming small town. The local square was buzzing with a farmer’s market. The vendors sold everything from honey to hummus to handmade metal saws hewn into welcoming yard signs. A group of musicians serenaded the crowd with lively tunes in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. We got to meet Democratic candidate David McDevitt, who is running for Congress. We chatted with him, gave him a small contribution, and wished him luck.
Back at the Hilton, we checked in at the cruise headquarters and settled in to wait for the charter-sized AQSC buses to drive us to the dock. We chatted with fellow travelers as we lunched on fresh seafood and kept tabs on the March Madness basketball games. We learned from a Canadian gentleman that because many of the Native Americans who lived in the upper reaches of the country, near the Arctic Circle, had migrated to the cities and left their traditional ways; many places like Ottawa (where he was from originally) were overrun with caribou and beaver. The things you learn on trips.
We finally boarded the AQSC buses and arrived at the riverboat, the American Empress. The Empress is billed as the largest, steam-powered paddlewheel boat west of the Mississippi River. To be honest, I don’t think that’s a hard title to achieve because I don’t believe there are that many paddlewheel boats who operate west of the Mississippi. However, I digress.
The American Empress has four decks, one hundred twelve cabins and suites, two restaurants, a small fitness facility, and two bars. Not bad for an American river cruise boat.
The staff are outrageously friendly and welcoming. Although we are the only Chocolate Drop Couple on the entire boat, we feel not a bit out-of-place. The first night spent in the Astoria Dining Room was a feast for the eye and tongue. Crystal chandeliers illuminated our Daylight Savings Time enhanced dinner. I relished eating one of my favorite meals — corned beef and cabbage, with potatoes, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. The wines were delicious, and the cocktails crafted just right. Even the creme brule was delicious.
After dinner, we saw the house band use fifteen minutes before the start of the main show to play several jazz standards. “One Note Samba”, “Misty”, and “You and No One Else” were just a few of the songs that the quintet played before the main musicians, Jordan and Issac, gave a preview of type of shows they would be performing during the cruise. Even Cruise Director Greg, and Hotel Manager Lindy (a fellow Buckeye, ayeeee!), managed to do a song each. Lindy, a classically trained soprano, performed “O Mio Babbino Caro”. I didn’t expect to hear jazz standards, classic tunes, and opera on a river cruise. I am very pleasantly surprised.
I finished the night by myself in the Paddlewheel Lounge, so named because it is located directly in front of the massive paddlewheel that helps to power our boat up and down the Columbia River. Musician/pianist Frank seemed forced to do the Irish “sing along”. He played several “popular” Irish songs as we sang along. I say “popular” because as a Black person, I haven’t heard most; not even when I was in Ireland. I did recognize “Danny Boy” and “Toor-A-Loor-A-Loor-A”. Beyond that, I sang along to the paper that Cruise Director Greg passed out before the sing-along began.
At Frank’s first break of the evening, I took my leave. He muttered that he would just have to re-sing the songs we had already sang when the large group celebrating St. Patrick’s Day found their way from the late dinner seating to the Paddlewheel Lounge. I left around 9:30 p.m., and the late seating had to be done eating by 9:00 p.m. I think the revelers Frank was looking for were in the bed and sound asleep, and that Frank had to re-sing those tunes by himself.
So far, this has been a great experience. The Pacific Northwest is an amazing area, the riverboat is just large enough not to run out of things to do, and the hospitality has been fantastic. Next up is our first stop in Astoria, Oregon. Check back to see what Astoria had in store for us.