Exploring the Columbia River Gorge with the American Queen Steamboat Company
American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress was enveloped in fog early this morning as she sat at her berth in The Dalles, Oregon. Like steam coming off a hot tub, wisps of mist danced across the charcoal-grey waters of the Columbia River on our port side as guests awoke to their second full day aboard our classic sternwheeler.
And what a full day it was, with the vast majority of guests electing to take part in today’s full-day tour: a 7.5-hour complimentary excursion known as the WAAAM and Hood River Tour.
The American Queen Steamboat Company offers this excursion completely free of charge, but it is important to still reserve it either online pre-cruise or once you’re onboard American Empress, as space is limited. It’s a comprehensive tour of some of the highlights of the Columbia River Gorge area, with visits to the WAAAM (Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum); downtown Hood River; and a craft beer tasting at the Full Sail Brewing Company.
Our excursion set out at 9:00 am promptly this morning. I hung around at the back of the line, and got onto the third (and last) coach, which was far less crowded than the first two. Each coach has its own dedicated local guide who delivered the local history and fun facts to us as we travelled approximately 40 minutes west to the town of Hood River, where the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum is located. Since that’s kind of a mouthful, it’s more commonly known as the WAAAM.
Time to quickly mention our dedicated coaches: they’re European-made Van Hool CX45 coaches with leather seats, mood lighting, and all the latest gadgetry. They’re also exceedingly comfortable, with high-back seat and wheelchair-accessible lifts that help mobility-impaired travellers to still take part in the tours ashore.
Why is this important? Because the United States isn’t exactly known for its great motorcoach fleet. Unlike Europe, your chances of being stuck on some old piece-of-crap from the 1970’s is pretty high when you travel within the continental U.S. I’ve personally been on three separate cruise ship excursions – including one in Bar Harbor’s steep Acadian National Park -where the brakes on my rather ancient tour coaches have failed. Having brand-new, European-engineered coaches for guests on the American Empress is an important detail.
Our first stop as we sped out of the fog and into Hood River: the WAAAM. First opened in 2007, the museum houses 95,000 square feet of exhibits, including over 315 cars, trucks, and early airplanes – all of which are fully operational. The museum also offers rides in some of their classic automobiles on days with good weather conditions, and today they were out in full force, toodling guests around in vintage cars – one of which (a Ford Model T) was 102 years old!
The museum is just massive – and you don’t have to be a car or aviation geek to appreciate it. The sheer depth of the museum’s collection spans several buildings, and seemingly goes on forever. In that vein, we were given three full hours to enjoy this special museum at our own pace, which included a homestyle lunch of hand-made sandwiches, fresh vegetable soup, salads, and of course, homemade desserts.
Afterwards, we were given a little over one hour to shop in the downtown shopping district of Hood River.