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American Empress Just One of Many
Ways to Cruise Columbia, Willamette Rivers

by Terry Richard
The Oregonian, April 5, 2014

The American Empress cruises beneath the Burnside Bridge as it enters downtown Portland on the Willamette River. (Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian) Time spent on a boat gives passengers an entirely new perspective of the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

From a couple hours in a speedy jetboat on the Willamette River to a week on an elegant sternwheeler plying the Columbia and Snake rivers, the cruising industry offers residents and tourists alike multiple ways to connect with local waters.

This weekend's arrival in Portland of the 223-passenger American Empress, reborn after five idle years, returns the ultimate level of elegance to travel on the Columbia River. The ship was dedicated Saturday on the downtown Portland seawall. It's home port is Vancouver, Wash.

Long cruises on local rivers may not appeal to Northwest residents, since they know the territory already, but the business creates jobs and brings a buzz to towns when they land between Astoria and Clarkston, Wash.

Here's a look at ways to cruise the Columbia, Snake and Williamette rivers, including the day tour options that local residents love.

American Queen Steamboat Co.: The company's namesake, the American Queen, sails on the Mississippi River. Now, its sister ship, the American Empress, is back on the waters of the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

The cruise season lasts April to November, with nine-day trips priced beginning at $3,795; 88-749-5280,

American Cruise Lines: Operator of Queen of the West, another luxury sternwheeler, the Connecticut company operates April to November with eight-day trips on the Columbia/Snake starting at $3,750. The Queen was renovated in 2011; 800-460-4518,

Un-Cruise Adventures: Eight-day Columbia River tours on the 88-passenger S.S. Legacy are offered in spring and fall, leaving from Portland; prices for these Legacy of Discovery tours begin at $3,195. The ship will stay on the Columbia for the full 2015 season; 888-862-8881,

National Geographic Expeditions: Offered in association with Lindblad Expeditions, this small ship (62 guests), seven-day tour in the Sea Bird or Sea Lion brings along Zodiacs and kayaks for side explorations. Fares begin at $4,490 for fall sailings; 800-397-3348,

Portland Spirit: This is perhaps the best known local cruise company due to the visibility of the green and white ship that moors in downtown Portland, plus its famous Sternwheeler Columbia Gorge at Cascade Locks.

The Portland Spirit has dinner, lunch, brunch, music and sightseeing cruises on the Willamette, but also a longer Lewis and Clark-themed cruise out to the Columbia on summer Thursdays.

The company's smaller boat, the Explorer, offers tours in Portland harbor, as well as an all-day tour upriver to Cascade Locks. From June to September, the Explorer will carry a limited number of bicycles one way from Portland to Cascade Locks. Cyclists can return to Portland using the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, which last fall saw completion of its last section that makes it possible to bicycle between Cascade Locks and Portland without using any part of Interstate 84.

The Sternwheeler Columbia Gorge is owned by the Port of Cascade Locks and is operated by Portland Spirit, offering a mix of dinner, lunch and sightseeing cruises. The sternwheeler is the boat for impressing out-of-town guests.

Portland Spirit tour prices range from $23 to $88, less for seniors and ages 4-12; 503-928-3395,

Sternwheeler Excursions: Operator of the Willamette Queen, the tour boat is home ported on the Willamette River in downtown Salem. Its solid oak dance floor on the upper deck gets most of its use in private rentals, but guests on meal and sightseeing cruises can dance a jig if they feel inclined. Prices range from $12 to $48; 503-371-1103,

Willamette Jetboat Excursions: This Willamette River eye-catcher docks at OMSI across from downtown Portland. Its main excursion is upriver to a closer view of Willamette Falls than you may want. Prices range from $29 to $51, for one or two-hour and lunch tours. The season stars May 3; 503-231-1532,

Note that a professional travel agent can help you decide which of the longer cruises offers a package of amenities that will suit your needs. There are also several websites that offer choices from among the varied cruise offerings, among them and

Here are links to other reports of the American Empress arrival in Portland:

American Empress returns to Columbia River cruising as West's largest riverboat (photos by Michael Lloyd)

Largest riverboat west of the Mississippi, the American Empress, docks in downtown Portland (video by Michael Lloyd)

Terry Richard
American Empress Just One of Many Ways to Cruise Columbia, Willamette Rivers
The Oregonian, April 5, 2014

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