Step Back In Time With the American Queen Steamboat Company
Last night, I slept the sleep of angels aboard American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress. Cruising the Columbia River overnight, she slipped quietly into the sleepy riverside town of The Dalles, Oregon just after seven this morning. The first rays of sunlight were there to greet us on what would turn out to be a brilliant, unseasonably-nice day.
Had I not been up and moving about my stateroom, I wouldn’t have known we were docking. American Empress is one very quiet ship, with no rattling, shaking, or even the slightest noise as she came alongside. Some vibration can be felt aft, in the Paddlewheel Lounge, but throughout much of the passenger accommodations, little noise manages to seep through.
Some wonderful discoveries last night. First, stateroom bathrooms contain a handy night-light that turns on when you turn the main lights off. I didn’t even realize that until I awoke in the middle of the night to use the facilities and didn’t have to pop any lights on.
The other wonderful discovery involves the beds here aboard the American Empress: they’re so comfortable. I just got off a luxury cruise a week and a half ago, and the beds here are every bit as good as the beds were on my luxury cruise with Silversea. The same goes for the pillows, two of which are added to each bed. It’s like sleeping on a well-supported cloud.
Breakfast aboard the American Empress is served today in the Astoria Dining Room from 7:00am until 8:30am, and in the River Grill and Bar from 6:30am until 9:30am. The latter offers a typical buffest-style breakfast, while meals in the Astoria Dining Room are cooked-to-order.
I chose to have a quick buffet breakfast in the River Grill and Bar this morning, and I wasn’t disappointed. Your typical North American breakfast fare is here, from fruits and yogurts to pastries and heartier fare like bacon, sausage, eggs and roasted hashbrown potatoes. A set of machines along the forward wall serve up an assortment of juices and coffees.
The Wheels on the Bus
In most ports of call on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, the American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) offers both paid and complimentary excursions. The easiest way to get around, however, is to take one of the American Empress’ logo-wrapped shuttle busses, which run complimentary tours with multiple stops at attractions and points of interest.
These Hop-On-Hop-Off (or HoHo) busses run at intervals between 15 minute to one hour. Each guest is provided with a map of the town that lists major sites of interest, along with a diagram of the bus route and expected stops. These busses pick up where they drop off, and stops are indicated with oversized sandwich boards.
Here’s how this works: if you want to be among the first off the ship, you must visit the electronic kiosk adjacent to the reception desk the night before. It looks a bit like an airline check-in kiosk at an airport, and it works like one, too: simply tap the screen and pick from one of four available departure times. The kiosk will then spit out tickets for that HoHo departure.
If you want to enjoy the HoHo later in the morning, or any time during the afternoon, tickets aren’t necessary; they’re merely used to manage “the rush” of folks looking to get off the ship first thing in the morning.
Personally, I love this idea. Not only is it amazing to have a complimentary shuttle service in every port of call, but the American Queen Steamboat Company distinguishes itself by also offering included admission to certain attractions along the way.
Today’s complimentary HoHo route in The Dalles makes six stops. Or, one stop if you end up relieving one of the local brewpubs of their hoppy nectars:
- Stop 1: The Columbia River Gorge Discovery Center & Museum*
- Stop 2: The Original Courthouse Museum*
- Stop 3: The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce*
- Stop 4: Fort Dalles Museum*
- Stop 5: Sunshine Mill Winery
- Stop 6: Downtown Shopping
While stops 2, 4 and 6 are arguably within walking distance of the ship for most folks, stops 1, 3 and 5 certainly aren’t. And with a population of just over 13,000 inhabitants, much of what makes up the downtown area of The Dalles can be explored on-foot.
Today, I chose to do a combination of the two: personal exploration and sightseeing on the HoHo.
The Dalles was first referred to as such by French-Canadian explorer Gabriel Franchère, who was employed on John Jacob Astor’s 1810 expedition to establish a Pacific Northwest settlement that would come to be known as Astoria. Today, it is a sleepy town that nonetheless exudes plenty of personality.
A stroll through downtown’s Second Avenue reveals abandoned and “for-lease” buildings, many of which have passed their best-before dates. There’s a J.C. Penny store that still has the 1960’s logo brand of that retailer, and an abandoned Art Deco theatre a few blocks up.
Closer to the railroad tracks, the hands of time wind back another 50 years, to the turn of the last century. The Baldwin Saloon, just inset from the area where American Empress is docked, is the best-preserved example of this frontier-style architecture.
You probably don’t know that The Dalles is also the site of the worst bioterrorism attack on United States soil. Back in 1984, followers of a man named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh poisoned salad bars in ten local restaurants in The Dalles with the Salmonella enterica, resulting in nearly 800 residents falling ill. Rajneesh and his followers purportedly held the attack so that they would win an election in Wasco County. Things didn’t go exactly as planned: the crime was traced back to him and his followers, tw