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Never thought I’d take a cruise. A first-timer’s experience.

Barbara DeLollis  (US writer), recently travelled aboard American Empress on a Columbia & Snake River cruise, we hope you enjoy reading the article.

Even before Covid, taking a cruise had never been on my list of things to do. The idea of large crowds, fear of motion sickness and lines at buffets turned me off. And, on the flip side, I’ve never grown bored of exploring new destinations such as Ireland, Kauai, Rome and Buenos Aires. But like so many others, the pandemic has me re-examining some fundamental perspectives, including how I want to see and experience the world and people around me. 

So when American Queen Voyages offered to host us aboard the 223-passenger, U.S.-flagged American Empress paddle wheeler’s first cruise of the season through the dramatic Columbia River Gorge, I thought: That’s something I’m ready to try! I liked the idea of digging deeper into the region’s rich history, tracing Lewis and Clark’s 1805 expedition and contemplating how steamships, railroads and paved highways transformed the West. The timing to explore a new-to-me part of the U.S. was good, given ongoing international testing requirements and uncertainties about European travel with war raging in the Ukraine. In today’s world, I was open to a slower pace.

The American Empress sails the Columbia River — Jeri Clausing

The 36,000-foot overview

Pros: An inspired (and safe) experience. The American Empress itinerary focused on a part of the U.S. that I knew little about, and it made exploring off-the-beaten-path towns accessible. Exploring this historically rich area from the lens of the working Columbia and Willamette rivers ignited my curiosity. From the safety lens, the cruise operator followed strict Covid protocols. And unlike mega cruise ships, river cruise boats offer a more intimate experience and the ability to disembark easily.

Cons: Slow pace. Limited physical activity.Sold out. The river cruise experiences force you to slow down, which can be a positive or a negative, depending on where you’re at in life and who you’re with. Normally, this would bug me, but I’d just skied Vail with my son, explored Miami with friends last month and needed some time to catch up on life. Also, some of the “slower pace” travel requires coach excursions (not our favorite), although destinations included fun stops like the dramatic, 620-foot high Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The other catch? The next six sailings are sold out, and domestic rivers operators say demand is booming. So if you want to try it this year, don’t wait.

A deeper dive: Dealmakers and deal breaker

Exhale. … No motion sickness! I was nervous because there’s nothing worse, and I’m prone to it on high-speed trains, cars and some boats. I admit I felt it for a fleeting moment when our boat first left the dock, but I was fine the rest of the trip.

A rare, first-ever experience. I’ve spent many nights away from home over the years, in everything from spectacular oceanfront luxury resorts to humble tents from Target. But I’ve never stayed overnight on a commercial boat. I enjoyed having a brand new experience, and one I discovered I’d happily do again.

Dramatic scenery, without the hassle. The Columbia River Gorge has the coveted classification of being a National Scenic Area, thanks to its diverse terrain. We rolled through lush rainforest climates with gushing waterfalls, parts of Oregon’s famed wine country along with high-desert terrain that receives a tenth of the rainfall of the more soggy coastal areas.

Unpacking once for eight days was a bigger perk than expected. At some point packing and repacking on the road gets tiresome. With each passing day on the American Empress, I increasingly found the value of never having to pull out my suitcase.

Experienced interesting towns I’d probably never visit. The towns we visited were once thriving port communities reachable by steamboats, railroads or early Model T’s, via the region’s first paved highway. But as those modes of transportation gave way to the modern highway, many quaint towns got left behind. When we hopped off the boat in Astoria, for instance, we were just steps away from immersing ourselves in the oldest city in the state of Oregon that was established as a fur-trading outpost and the first American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. I enjoyed Astoria and Stevenson, but doubt I ever would have driven to see them “just because.”

My modest cabin made me feel at home. It wasn’t large or fancy, but it had a thought-through design, comfortable queen bed, ample storage, outstanding waffle robes, slippers, complimentary water bottles, turn-down Godiva chocolates and a small but well-designed bathroom. I didn’t feel cramped, as I’d expected. The private balcony (including a door with a large window) and another large window made it feel bigger than it was and showcased the best perk: the ever-changing view. I was able to “work-cation” thanks to the sturdy desk, lamps and plentiful power outlets to charge gadgets. Wi-Fi, however, could be slow in desolate areas, which made using Zoom or other conferencing apps unpredictable.

David Benko, owner of National Neon Sign Museum in The Dalles, Ore. — Barbara DeLollis

It was an interesting trip, to say the least, and one that now has my thinking about future small ship cruises — from the rivers of Europe to additional domestic destinations like Alaska and the Great Lakes.

The original article can be found HERE