A cruise on paddlewheel steamer American Empress along the Columbia and Snake Rivers takes you through some of the Pacific Northwest’s most dramatic scenery, says Nick Dalton
From the Bridge of the Gods I look back and see American Empress pristine and white against the towering backdrop. We’re in the Columbia River Gorge and never has a pretty little paddlewheel steamer looked so out of place.
The bridge, a 20th-century structure that looks like a Meccano model, connects the states of Washington and Oregon, crossing Cascade Locks; one of many that the steamboat passes on its journey west in the footsteps of explorers Lewis and Clark.
Like so much on our voyage it’s a place of history. In 1927, shortly after his groundbreaking transatlantic flight, aviator Charles Lindbergh barnstormed under it in his plane Spirit of St Louis. Bridge of the Gods gets its name from a natural stone arch that was said to cross the river on this spot hundreds of years ago.
We cross the modern version in our luxury coach, on a free excursion to nearby Bonneville Dam, one of more than 50 hydroelectric projects on the river’s 1,253-mile journey from Canada to the Pacific. Here we see huge generators and the fish ladder, where through windows we watch salmon struggling upstream to spawn.
There is no other river cruise like this; a journey through American pioneer history and some of the continent’s most dramatic scenery,
on board a discreet, elegant riverboat.
Railroad tracks run both sides of the river carrying long freight trains and the occasional Amtrak passenger service.
Our cruise actually starts in Richland, Washington, as the Snake is off-limits due to work on its locks. The scenery is rolling countryside dotted with cherry trees and newly-planted vineyards. But it’s not like this for long, as sandy canyon walls start to rise and we’re in Western scenery
– cowboy territory.
This is a ‘shrub-steppe’ environment, an area that’s little more than a desert with minimal rainfall and vegetation. It’s a dramatic backdrop and seems to get bigger by the moment. Even the dams are super- sized – John Day Dam has a single 110ft-drop and was once the world’s tallest until the completion of the Three Gorges on the Yangtze in China.
The gorge is 80 miles long and cuts through the Cascade Mountains and the scenery changes almost by the minute. I go to bed in a dry, dusty Western setting but I wake to find forested mountains, peaks lost in the dark rainclouds of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a temperate rain forest although it would be easy to believe that you were in the fjords.
We dock in The Dalles (it means rapids), an Oregon town that occupies the land between river and mountains. On the opposite bank there are strangely contorted peaks covered in lush, low vegetation.
As I’m told by many people including the enthusiastic “riverlorian” Lawrence Cotton – font of all river knowledge – the strange, unrivalled topography was carved out in the last Ice Age. Ice had created a bottleneck in what was already a valley, forming a vast lake hundreds of feet deep. The ice melted and the waters rushed through – a process thought to have happened about 100 times.
The cruise offers free hop-on hop-off tours and here I get to see the riverside Columbia Gorge Discovery Centre, with exhibitions on prehistoric animals, the river’s importance and Lewis and Clark. It was here that they were foxed by the mountains and took to their canoes. Other stops include a local museum and a little, timber building, the oldest surviving courthouse west of the Mississippi.
Afternoons are time for ‘premium’ (ie paid-for) excursions and I opt for the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum. It’s a loquacious name for a charming place run by chatty old folk, some of whom have flown planes off roofs and done all sorts of daredevil stuff. There are over 100 planes and many more cars.
It’s just outside the town of Hood River, a pretty red brick place that’s home to the Full Sail microbrewery as well as winery tasting rooms and cute cafés. The river balloons out here and the open waters are one of the world’s leading windsurfing spots. It’s only a short drive from 1,000ft Mt Hood, a snow-capped dormant volcano – and only the weather stops me taking a £100 plane flight around the mountain.
Next stop is Stevenson on the Washington bank, in sight of the Bridge of the Gods. After the Bonneville Dam our premium tour is a sightseeing tour along the Historic Columbia River Highway, Oregon’s first paved road, started in 1913, which meanders among the mountains. High point, in every sense, is Crown Point at 733ft with views over the now wide river valley from Art Deco Vista House, an early roadside rest stop. There are also seven giant waterfalls, topped by 611ft Multnomah Falls, in eight scenic miles.
Soon after sailing under Bridge of the Gods the gorge comes to an end and the scenery mellows as American Empress serenely approaches the city of Portland. Here the ship passes under roads and railroads, with even a bridge rising in salute. Although this is the final destination, the cruise first heads out to Astoria, only 11 miles from the coast. The scenery has grown wild again in that rugged West Coast way and the river widens to accommodate sea vessels, even the occasional Alaska-going cruise ship.
This is where Lewis and Clark’s expedition ended, with them wintering here in 1805-06 and a tour visits various related sites including the spot where they had their holiday home.
Portland is the perfect end to our expedition across the Pacific Northwest; a vibrant, arty city full of hip bars, restaurants and lots of music and theatre. As one of the trendiest cities west of the Mississippi it mirrors the style of American Empress while being the ultimate counterpoint to the primeval scenery we’ve enjoyed.
American Empress was built in 2003, and originally served as Empress of the North before being rescued by the American Queen Steamboat Company.
American Empress entered service in April 2014, sailing between Clarkston on the Snake River tributary and Portland, with capacity for 224 guests. Itineraries include a night in the early 20th-century Davenport hotel, near to the Spokane Falls.
Ambiance is stylishly old-world, the work of Florida-based Scottish designer David Kelly. Rooms combine the best of the past – rich wallpaper, ornate mirrors – with modern essentials: flat screen TVs, pod coffee makers and iPod docks. The shower room is a good size and all balconies have chairs and a table.
Cuisine is local: salmon hash for breakfast, salmon salad for lunch and smoked salmon at dinner.
As well as the main restaurant, River Grill is a casual breakfast and lunch alternative. In the evening it serves lobster, crab, steaks and Denver lamb. There’s no extra charge, and on full sailing guests are guaranteed two reservations. Wine is free with meals.
The Paddlewheel Bar has views through the wheel, serves beer from microbreweries and spirits from small distilleries. There’s also evening piano entertainment.
GETTING THERE: Light Blue Travel has a seven-night cruise with one night pre-cruise hotel stay from £3,495 including flights, transfers, and excursions. Call 01223 568904, visit lightbluetravel.co.uk. For more on Oregon go to traveloregon.com, and for Washington, experiencewa.com.
Whether you’re looking for a cultural holiday or relaxing break, find your perfect cruise here.