muriel j smith 120aAs enticing as the excursions to various museums and points of interest are while on an American Queen river cruise on the Columbia and Snake rivers, there’s so much to do, see and talk about even if you opt to stay aboard and not take advantage of all the extras included in the cost of the trip.

There’s no doubt it, river cruising is expensive, whether it is in the United States or Europe, probably a bit higher here because of higher port fees and salaries.  But once you pay that initial whopping amount, you really don’t have to spend another cent.  Even for tips. There’s a $17.50 charge per person per day put on your credit card payable at the end of the trip, and it’s only if someone has done something extraordinary, gone out of their way, or you simply want to, that you would go over and above that amount. It’s shared by everyone from the entertainers and cruise director right on down to the room cabin and dining room wait staff.

In addition to every room having an outside view, most with doors leading out to private balconies, all meals, snacks, non-alcoholic beverages and wine at dinner are included in the original price.  On the American Empress, there was a great soft ice cream machine  with three flavors in the Paddlewheel lounge on the top deck along with soda and juice machines with four or five flavors or varieties.  And there are always cookies or pieces of fruit. It’s hard to go hungry!

american empress dining roomThe meals themselves are plentiful and offered in more than one venue. Breakfast is served in the formal dining room and you can help yourself to pastries and fruit and then be served all manner of cooked, baked, or fried breakfast entrees. Or you can opt for that Paddlewheel Lounge and help yourself buffet style to both hot and cold selections.

Lunches can be as sparse or palatial as you’d like, and dinners are varied, attractively presented and prepared by chefs who take advantage of local fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood and meats, all of which are outstanding. Having salmon in the Washington, Idaho, Oregon area is worth the price of the trip alone!  There are no ‘assigned’ seats and you might invite yourself to sit at a table with three or four others or choose a table by yourself to finish that last chapter in the great book you brought along. And never fear, if you’re about to pass through a lock, or there’s an eagle or mule deer just off the port side, or a congress of crows are flying over, the ever-alert Riverlorian Laurence will be on the PA system to point you in the right direction. It’s some of these impromptu and unplanned sights that turn out to be the most memorable and exciting.

american empress mountains oregon

Every evening there’s a different form of entertainment, and here again, the Empress folks take advantage of local talent. Probably one of the most unique on this cruise was while we were on the New Perce reservation  and  a local resident, in full regalia, cam aboard to delight and charm an audience with humor, stories, and a little bit of home.  Other nights there are varieties of musical style, one night it might be a sock hot with a quartet leading the way, a rock and roll party, or an evening of sheer entertainment rivalling Broadway. There were two memorable nights of unbelievable talent…one with Greg Pendzick who can belt out spectacular Broadway hits complete with accompanying dancing and costume changes, and Lindsey Pendzick, possessor of a voice you can never forget. Greg and Lindsey are married and both work for the cruise company, having turned down several offers to bring their talent to stages in Manhattan and the west, but instead opting for the cruise line because of the time it gives them to each practice their art and talent and still have time  together. Lindsey is also the hotel manager and is as tireless as she is both accommodating, ever-pleasant and always charming.

For those wanting to keep the party rolling, there’s late night music, drinks, jokes and conversation in the top lounge, and Frank’s a great pianist who keeps it all together.

Even if you opt to stay aboard every day instead of taking any excursions, there are activities top draw your interest, from crafts and games to quizzes, trivia contests, and tours of the wheel house and engine room. There’s also all those magnificent paintings, precious papers, and photographs that line the walls and are explained and identified so well in the Art Gallery book in your stateroom.

american empress greg and lindy

So, what does it all cost? Depends on the trip, when you book it, and what you need. Of course, rooms for singles may add a premium, but the room is still plenty big enough for two.  A recent trip, eight days, seven nights, including that first night in the spectacular Davenport Hotel in Spokane, generally goes for around $7000 a person. But there was a special going on, offering the trip to just under $3,000…even for a single reservation…..to folks who have never tried the American Queen Line. |Hardly a gamble, and too good an offer to turn down, even with airfare from New Jersey to Spokane added.  Admittedly, I was a bit dubious as to whether every luxury would be included, but indeed it was, plus so much more! When I noted the trip was featuring the roue Lewis and Clark took when commissioned to find a route to the Pacific by Thomas Jefferson and we would be celebrating the President’s 275th birthday while on the trip….rest assured, there was a special Black Forest cake complete with fresh pansies on top served to me and my table guests, as well as a rousing Happy Birthday led by the crew  with everyone in the dining room joining in.  Mr. Jefferson would have been humbled, but pleased.

NEXT: The Dalles, Columbia Gorge, and more