muriel j smith 120aSeeing the rivers and visiting the camps that Lewis and Clark set up on their trip west to find an inland passage to the Pacific Ocean is exciting enough to those of us proud of Thomas Jefferson and everything he has done to make the United States what it is.  On April 13th, to celebrate the 275th birthday of the third President at The Dalles in Oregon where Lewis and Clark camped at Rock Fort Camp was significant to Jeffersonians. But even that was made more special when everyone in the Astoria dining room aboard the American Empress, led by the staff, sang Happy Birthday and enjoyed Black Forest cake for dessert, complete with fresh pansies and nasturtaims in his honor.        

    And even if there were some aboard not particularly enamored of this era of American history, or shudder, shudder, not great fans of Mr. Jefferson, traveling on American Queen Cruise Lines’ paddlewheeler American Empress is an unforgettable experience.

american empress ship captainPHOTO:  Captain of the American Queen

    The largest hotel type riverboat west of the Mississippi River, the Empress came through some tough times before being acquired by American Queen five years ago when it began excursions between Vancouver, Washington, her home port, and Spokane, Washington, visiting many of the Lewis & Clark camps as well as museums, reservations, and other points of interest on both sides of the Columbia river which is the dividing line between Oregon and Washington, the Snake River, which empties into the Columbia, and the other waterways in the Northwest.

america steamship

      The Empress is a sternwheeler, meaning that large red paddle is at the back of the 360-foot-long boat, although it is more for show, what with that diesel power that moves the boat and its 185 or so passengers who can get to enjoy it for the 8-day trips! The boat is four decks high, with every cabin offering an outside view, and most of them complete with private balconies with tables and chairs for an even more pleasant experience. There are lounges for casual eating and drinking on the top, first and second levels, a great theater and dining room on the first level, and what I consider one of the most spectacular attractions, an art gallery throughout the boat!

    Each traveler finds a Self-Guided Art Gallery Tour book in the cabin, which serves not only as a knowledgeable assistant throughout the cruise, but a great souvenir of the trip.   Every corridor on the Empress is filled with historical artifacts and magnificent artwork depicting Native Americans, the Gold Rush, sternwheeler and nature scenes as well as Russian royalty, reflecting the interest of previous owners of the boat when it was an American Majestic company ship with an accent on 19th century Russia. The book gives descriptions of each piece, making it possible to either enjoy a few at a time walking from your cabin to the lounge or debarking, or taking a leisurely stroll, book and perhaps wine glass in hand, and glimpse some incredible artistry on a rainy or overcast day. 

IMAGE: Queen of the Mississippi  sternwheeler

   As with any adventure, it’s the people you meet and the people who serve that can make all the difference in the world, and on the Empress this month, both were spectacular. I didn’t need, but certainly enjoyed, a trip to the bridge to see how capable, friendly and professional Capt. Ron Gray.  Jr. former US Navy quartermaster on a nuclear sub, is.  The sparkling, shining cleanliness of both private and public rooms and corridors and the friendliness and efficiency of Sara who daily cleaned and made up my cabin were more than enough to prove that Joan Smith is a terrific chief housekeeper. And of course, Jimmy Briseno headed up a kitchen that kept up the tradition of too much, too delicious, too varied, too irresistible meals, snacks and drinks throughout the day and into the night.   I didn’t get to see the Engine Room but had the opportunity to dine with Chief Engineer Noah Sheppard, so I know how shipshape his department is as well.

american empress chief engineer

PHOTO:  With the Chief Engineer

    But clearly, Lindy Pendzick was the pearl that draws everyone together, the highly professional but down to earth hotel manager who miraculously could remember everyone’s name by the second day aboard!  Lindy has way too much to do on the Empress, considering in addition to keeping it the high caliber it is, she is also a professional singer, dancer and actress who provided entertainment in the theater that was better than some Broadway productions. But more on that in a later column.

american empress steward

PHOTO: The steward with some delicious dessert

  The ship has another great special in its off-boat excursions, offered every day except the one day we simply cruised the river. They have colorful busses that take the land route we cover by water and meet passengers at every dock. All passengers have already received their daily newspaper the evening before and know what to look for and what excursions are offered, all included in the price of the cruise. Boarding the busses is great; you get on at the boat, take any or all the three or four stops offered that day, stay as long as you like, then hop on another bus either for the trip to the next museum or site, or to head back to the boat. Great, because it enables you to spend more time at that historic house you might like, and either skip or limit your time at the auto antique place that is also on the day’s schedule.  Or, another option, is to take advantage of some of the ‘premium’ tours for an additional approximate $75 or so and visit other places.  For me, the only premium tour I felt necessary to take was that dramatic, exciting, and thrilling visit to Fort Clatsop, where the Columbia flows into the Pacific Ocean the last encampment of the Expedition before turning around and heading back east with their stories, treasures, and full reports for Thomas Jefferson.

american empress nez perce showman

Next:  The Nez Perce and Clarkston, Washington