Rollin’ down the river of America’s iconic journey on AQV’s American Empress
AQV's American Empress (all photos courtesy Toby Saltzman)

Rollin’ down the river of America’s iconic journey on AQV’s American Empress

ONBOARD AMERICAN EMPRESS — Romantic images of the film ‘Show Boat’ dance through my mind as I approach American Empress.

Majestically berthed at Washington State’s Vancouver riverfront, she appears gleaming white, her balconies ornamentally framed, the red paddlewheel anchoring her aft like a round sculpture spoked for motion.

Refrains of Ol’ Man River – and it just keeps rollin’ along – ring in my ears. Though composers Hammerstein and Kern meant to reflect early steamboat life on the Mississippi River with their famous tune, I feel their inspiration as I embark on the iconic Columbia River journey that historically led to settlement of America’s Pacific Northwest.

Well-dressed with traditional interiors, American Empress sets an elegant standard on the Columbia and Snake rivers as she calls at riverside towns of Washington and Oregon, all gateways to delightful experiences in nature, local culture, bucolic wine regions and, for history buffs, places significant to the legendary 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition.

Rollin’ down the river of America’s iconic journey on AQV’s American Empress

American Empress

Acquired by American Queen Voyages (AQV) in 2013, American Empress originally entered service in 2003 as Majestic America Line’s Empress of the North.

After extensive renovations, the 223-vessel began plying this route in 2014, poised to give passengers AQV’s signature all-inclusive treatments. These include one pre-cruise hotel night, ground transfers, unlimited guided shore excursions in port with free hop-on-hop-off coaches and free use of bicycles, abundant meals and snacks, and unlimited beverages including good selections of wines, spirits and beers. Specialty excursions and premium vintages incur charges.

Eyes wide open for my first riverboat cruise – admittedly jaded after experiencing many of the world’s luxurious cruise ships in exotic locales – I find myself impressed, start to finish, with the entire AQV operation and the authentic experiences in each port.

Rollin’ down the river of America’s iconic journey on AQV’s American Empress

AQV founder and chair, John Waggoner, and American Empress Godmother, Claudette Waggoner, toast local vintages on a winery tour

On embarkation day, AQV’s coach greets passengers at the Hilton Vancouver Washington for a tour of Portland, Oregon’s top sites. The Lan Su Chinese Garden evokes gardens in China’s Suzhou and Hangzhou. At the International Rose Garden, though it’s not yet in bloom, a lady who seems thrilled by certain species explains that, as president of her New Orleans garden club, this place is a dream.

American Empress is primed to welcome passengers with ease, her four floors accessible by stairs and two elevators. The hallways are lined with rare collections of prints, paintings and artifacts, each floor depicting the steamboat lore, Indigenous Americans or explorations stretching to Alaska.

My comfortable balcony room echoes Victorian style with fabric window valances and mahogany desk and cabinets. The compact bathroom has a shower stall. Amenities include a personal Keurig coffee maker and fridge.

After freshening up, I visit the Paddlewheel Lounge. The boat’s social hub – with its long bar, dance floor and library stocked with books and games – has windows showcasing views as well as the ever-spinning paddlewheel at aft. While sipping Champagne cocktails, I am enamoured by the engaging Claudette Waggoner, Godmother of American Empress, and the cheerful Regina Charboneau, Culinary Ambassador of all AQV vessels. I sense great fun on the horizon. Charboneau will sail on select voyages throughout the season.

Rollin’ down the river of America’s iconic journey on AQV’s American Empress

AQV Culinary Ambassador Regina Charboneau at the Sazerac cocktail demonstration

Later, over dinner in the Astoria Dining Room – its embossed ceiling dripping with dozens of crystal chandeliers – I learn that Regina will lead culinary tours in certain ports and give cooking and cocktail demonstrations on the river.  Dubbed ‘Biscuit Queen of Natchez,’ she gained American culinary icon status as a cookbook author and restauranteur who cultivated loyal customers at two San Francisco establishments.

The first dinner sets a culinary standard for fresh, beautifully presented, delicious dishes, all paired with choice regional wines. Available every night: lobster, salmon, steak, chicken, vegetarian and vegan dishes. I relish my Yellowfin Tuna poke appetizer, and beef tenderloin with enoki mushrooms in red wine demi-glace. Passengers who prefer casual dining gravitate to the fourth floor River Grill for abundant buffet selections that may be eaten indoors or out on the aft deck.

As American Empress rolls along the Columbia and Snake rivers – navigating through locks, and passing by landscapes that transition spectacularly from rainforest to verdant hills to sheer cliffs to rocky basalt to parched desert en route to the Columbia River Gorge – touring options abound in every port.

Here are my own top picks:

  • Onboard the ship, be sure to attend the Riverlaurian’s talks in the Show Lounge, to enhance voyage appreciation.
  • Astoria, OR: Lewis & Clark Experience
  • Stevenson, OR: Multnomah Falls, Oregon’s highest waterfall, and Vista House for views of Columbia Gorge
  • The Dalles, OR: Tour exquisite Maryhill Museum of Art, Stonehenge Memorial and winery, Columbia Gorge Discovery Centre and the National Neon Sign Museum
  • Richland, OR: Sacajawea Park Museum for stories about Lewis and Clark and their Shoshone Indian woman guide
  • Spokane, WA: City tour of Bing Crosby’s childhood home, Manito Park, and ride on the 1909 Looff Carousel

American Empress’ easy pace, engaging riverboat ambience and good quality food and wines seem to please all passengers. Ultimately, American Empress is my true ‘Show Boat’ for showing landscapes and authentic sites I would otherwise never see.

American Queen Voyages (AQV) was formerly known as American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC), rebranding in fall 2021. The company is part of Hornblower Group. American Queen Voyages also runs cruises in Alaska aboard Ocean Victory, and on the Great Lakes with Victory Cruise Lines.