American Empress Review

This classic paddle wheeler sails the Columbia and Snake Rivers. - Photo by Peter Knego

Line: American Queen Steamboat Co.
Built: Originally as Empress of the North in 2003; refurbished and christened as American Empress in April 2014
Passengers: 223
Routes: Seven-day Columbia and Snake River cruises between Portland, Oregon (from the port of Vancouver, Washington — not to be confused with the city in British Columbia) and Clarkston, Oregon, on the Idaho border. 

Best For:

Those who love river cruises and want to see the beautiful scenery of the Pacific Northwest comfortably and at a leisurely pace, and wine aficionados and history buffs.

Not For:

Anyone trying to pack in their itinerary or focus on more active ways of exploring the terrain, such as hiking. Also, this is not the vacation trip for families, as there are no children’s facilities onboard.


  • Wine tastings onboard feature the high-quality Oregon and Washington state wines that this region is known for.
  • The Paddlewheel Lounge is stocked with local beers as well as liquors that were distilled in the region.
  • Menus showcase the area’s seafood as well as seasonal produce.
  • Passengers can take bikes out when in port to explore the towns along the Columbia River on their own.


american empress oregon waterfall

Don't miss Multnomah Falls.
Photo by pazzophoto / Thinkstock

This paddle wheeler is the line’s homage to the Pacific Northwest, where it sails eight-day trips from Vancouver, Washington (just outside of Portland, Oregon) to Clarkston, Oregon, from April to November. Days are structured with the option of a complimentary hop-on, hop-off bus tour in port each morning — which runs continuous loops between breakfast and lunch — and passengers can get a ride to everything from small museums to wineries and shopping districts.

These bus tours are an enormously convenient way to see the towns efficiently, and in many cases, the cruise line has covered the admission fees to the sights included on the tours. On some days, guides offer insightful commentary on the history and economy of the local region, adding context. In Astoria, Oregon, for example, we learned all about the Finnish settlers to the area, the colorful history of “Shanghai” kidnappings, and how fishing has impacted the economy. In other towns, such as The Dalles, Oregon, the “insights” — including the fact that the flagpole of the local schoolhouse is in the back of the building, and a talk on Google moving computer servers to the area (with painfully inaccurate descriptions of what servers actually do) — could use some fine-tuning.

After lunch, which just about everyone returns to the ship for, there’s an optional shore excursion for a nominal fee. On some days, such as in Richland, Washington (the port for the Walla Walla region), the focus is wineries; on others, such as in Stevenson, Washington, the emphasis is food. There, you can travel through the orchard district, known as the Fruit Loop, and taste pies made from the seasonal produce. Other tours focus on history, particularly the Native American culture and the westward expansion led by Lewis and Clark.

In Stevenson, we highly recommend the nature-focused shore excursion, which drives through the gorgeous Columbia River Gorge area, stopping at the Crown Point lookout and Multnomah Falls. The scenery is the real star of this trip, with gorgeous pine-covered mountains around every bend of the river. The captain announced a sea lion spotting on our sailing, and passengers flocked to their balconies and the rocking chair-topped decks to keep an eye out for wildlife.

In addition to the bus tours and guided excursion, it’s a pleasure to explore these small fishing and logging villages, especially Astoria, where the popular ’80s film “The Goonies” was shot. (Yes, we geeked out a little bit when we recognized the scenery from the movie, as well as when we were shown the house on Scenic Byway the day before, where “Twilight’s” prom scene was filmed.) Astoria is also home to several microbreweries, including the Fort George Brewery, where you can order a Taster Tray of 2.5-ounce pours in the pub. On a rainy day — and this area has many — there may be no better way to spend an afternoon.


american empress cabins

Even the standard cabins come with fluffy duvets.
Photo by Peter Knego

There are seven cabin categories onboard: Luxury suites are 410 square feet, and there are only two. Six suites take up most of the fourth floor, and they’re 310 square feet each. Standard rooms come in five different sizes (ranging from 180 to 225 square feet), and some include private balconies. Some shared ones open up to the deck, and others don’t have balconies at all.

Cabins have some nice touches, from decadent Clarins bath products — not just soap, shampoo, and conditioner, but a full line of amenities — flat-screen TVs with cable, alarm clocks with iPod® sound docks, fluffy down comforters, high thread-count sheets and towels, and Keurig® coffee makers. One complaint: Many passengers on our sailing found the bathrooms to be small and the showers cramped. We also would have liked to see a nicer blow-dryer; considering the high quality of the rest of the offerings, it felt wrong to dry our Clarins-scented hair slowly and inefficiently.

Tip: Within the standard stateroom categories, we’re partial to the two superior veranda staterooms in the fore of decks two and three. They have windows on two sides, creating a brighter, airier feel.


american empress food sorbet

Look for Merrionberry sorbet on the dessert menu.
Photo by Peter Knego

The ship has two different dining venues: the Astoria Dining Room — which is the classic, elegant dining room with open seating — and the River Grill, which requires reservations at dinnertime and serves grilled dishes in an open-air, casual setting. In the Astoria, breakfast, lunch, and dinner are plated meals. Breakfast menus include oatmeal and omelets, as well as fruit-topped pancakes served with caramelized bacon. Lunch always features a soup and salad option (including some impressive salads, such as one topped with candied nuts, dried cranberries, and buttermilk-fried oysters), as well as heartier choices, such as seared trout over spinach and hefty brisket sandwiches. Dessert is served at lunchtime as well, and the highlight on our sailing was the very popular Marrionberry sorbet.

Dinnertime in the Astoria is the main event of each evening, with appetizers (think Dungeness crab cakes, or a tart filled with caramelized Walla Walla onions) followed by creamy soups or a simple salad. Entrees are heavier: Picture seared lamb chops or pork loin or trout crusted in hazelnuts and dressed in a rich butter sauce. Desserts might be big hunks of New York-style cheesecake, slices of carrot cake, or ice cream.

The River Grill has a continental-style breakfast and a casual lunch buffet, but at dinner, guests can order from a tasty menu of grilled specialties. Start with smoked salmon on blinis or Dungeness crab with drawn butter, followed by a soup or salad. Main courses include grilled lobster, seared salmon, or filet mignon. And while the flourless chocolate cake is rich and satisfying, the biscuit-topped mixed-berry cobbler is the better dessert. On a lovely summer evening, dining up on deck feels like the right way to experience the natural beauty of the region.

Activities and Entertainment:

american empress sea lions

Astoria plays host to more than 1000 sea lions.
Photo by Sherri Eisenberg

While daytime activities focus on touring the region — first on the hop-on, hop-off bus tours and later in the day on the optional shore excursions — onboard activities are also sprinkled throughout the cruise. Look for wine tastings, lectures by the two “riverlorians” (historians who travel with the ship), and cocktail hours hosted by the captain (included alcohol onboard is otherwise limited to wine and beer at dinner). The ship also sails with six bicycles (which come with helmets and locks), which you can reserve at no additional cost, and sometimes, passengers who have been trained in aerobics instruction offer to lead classes. (On our sailing, there were several morning Zumba classes with good turnouts.)

In the evenings, one- or two-person acts perform comedy or musical revue routines in the show lounge. Although the quality of the food and wine onboard is high, these performers are hokey at best, and the acts feel dated. Fortunately, the singers at the piano in the Paddlewheel Lounge offer classics and standards, which make that the more pleasant place to enjoy an evening as you work your way through the impressive onboard menu of local microbrews, wines, and spirits, discovering interesting local distilleries on the way. 

Insider Tip

One highlight of the local products you can sample at Paddlewheel Lounge: the Wild Roots Oregon Marionberry vodka, which debuted in February. Each bottle is made with almost two pounds of local berries.

iPod is a trademark of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and certain other countries.
Keurig is a registered trademark of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc.

Join the discussion

What do you like to see on the Columbia River?

1 Comment

Posted by beall33

Would like to know exactly where the empress docks in Vancouver so we can get rental car upon arrival after trip from Clarkston. Thanks

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