American Cruise Lines Queen of the West by Linda Morehouse USA: River Cruise August 28, 2010
On Queen of the West, under new ownership by American Cruise Lines, midrange staterooms for two, advertised as spacious, are in fact only large enough to accommodate a vanity on one side and a small chest of drawers on the other side of a queen-sized bed. You'll be able to unpack your clothes into the tall wardrobe closet opposite the bathroom; most luggage stows neatly under the high beds. The writing desk is good for your accumulating paperwork (each day's itinerary, passenger manifest, and so forth), though it's a squeeze getting past whoever's working there. But if you have one of the many balconies, it eases your space constraints and expands your view.
Avoid booking a stateroom to port near the elevator: it operates all night. Going upriver, a cabin to port is a good choice; it puts your verandah on the sunny side going downriver toward Astoria, and on the shady side for the much warmer climes as you approach the voyage's end at Clarkston, Washington.
Crew is young, cheerful, capable, hardworking, and unfailingly courteous. You will see different "uniforms" as the day wears on and their duties change from waiting table to cleaning rooms or tending decks, but it's the same smiling faces. Most are college students earning their next semester's expenses, or the recently graduated taking a break before beginning careers. But all are consistently respectful toward the predominantly senior—in some cases very senior—citizens aboard these cruises. Housekeeping crew is responsible for 6 rooms each; deckhands take on equivalent duties. They all sign on for 12 weeks, meaning 6 rotations from Portland to Clarkston and back. Some, bitten by the travel bug, plan trips of their own after their cruising stints are over.
Considering the (sometimes very) senior component of this cruise line's customer base, American would be well advised to replace their standard height toilets with the "comfort height" more appropriate for older people. The ubiquitous grab bars are much appreciated, but for the ladies' restrooms in the public areas, disposable seat covers would be well in order. And the bed height, which works comfortably for those crew who change linens and for taller passengers, is difficult for shorter passengers, who would benefit from some sort of stepstool arrangement.
You may want to pack a lightweight robe for lounging or changing in your stateroom. Unlike a fine B&B, this ship does not provide robes.¬
Don't bother bringing binoculars: the ship provides a full complement of high-power glasses, with which you will enjoy scoping out the wildlife along the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and on the jet boat tour of the upper Snake River, where you are likely to see Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep with rams in full curl.
Entertainment is low-key, if at all: think a guitarist one night, bingo another, a lecturing naturalist the rest of the time. But the library is well stocked with guidebooks reflective of the area, the off-ship bus tours are well narrated by those truly familiar with the areas they represent, and for most of the voyage there's a decent wi-fi signal on the third deck lounge.
Don't expect to find a gift shop on board this vessel, nor a working dance floor, nor a stage. After-dinner popcorn and root beer floats are more the speed.
Meals, with a single serving time, are open seating at large, round tables for eight. This generates conviviality, but also a sound level that makes it difficult to hear anyone not seated right next to you. And by dinner time, passengers are truly convivial, for this ship, as all of the American Cruise Line crafts, serves complimentary cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, in addition to complimentary (and local!) beer and wine at lunch and dinner, a very congenial touch.
Interestingly, all menus are preplanned at the home office in Connecticut. That might explain why, even on the upper stretches of the Columbia River, we had so many crab cakes. We did have one lovely fresh salmon, held up for our inspection by the fisherman who had just caught it that afternoon, and on another evening sturgeon appeared on the menu, but in general I did not feel that the table truly reflected the fresh bounty of the Pacific Northwest as I understand it.
Besides that, it would have been nice if the crew had had a chance to taste those dishes of which we were about to partake, so they could have knowledgeably spoken about the merits of one entrée vis-à-vis another: alas, they were complete strangers to our lovely Captain's Dinner, having had turkey something-or-other, while we dined on surf-and-turf to the max.
And there is a most curious philosophy of entrée preparation: without fail, at dinner the same starch and the same vegetable appear on each of the evening's three entrée choices, so, for one memorable example, whether you preferred seared sea scallops, chicken marsala, or rack of lamb, the predetermined accompaniments were whipped sweet potatoes and braised red cabbage. (I might have comfortably paired those with roast pork, in the winter months, but only under duress with lamb, and never with scallops!)
If you take this cruise, you won't want to miss the charming streets of Astoria or the renowned Maritime Museum, but be prepared to lay out an extra $55 per person for the bus ride to get you there. All the pre-cruise literature we had read indicated that Astoria would be one of the ports visited. We had expected that to mean that we would actually dock in Astoria, which would have allowed us to stroll the city's streets.
As it turned out, rather than put in at the Astoria docks as previous cruise ships have done, on our tour we docked upriver at Rainier, Oregon, a tiny community whose only apparent commerce open on Sunday were churches, a True Value Hardware store, and several bars. I must admit, we felt duped. At the very least, American needs to improve their passenger communication in this regard.
At that, the view at Rainier was more engaging than Wednesday night's moorage, which lay 45 minutes upriver from Sacajawea Park out of Pendleton--right next to the dumping grounds for crushed automobiles (I am not making this up)! But Stevenson, Washington was a pleasant respite complete with a strong public wi-fi signal from the riverside park, and coffee—real, delectable coffee, discernibly different from that served on board (how badly do you need caffeine . . . or Dr. Pepper? [theirs is exclusively a Coke concession])—from a shop within a short stroll of the dock.
Since opportunities to stroll the streets of small-town America are few, I'd advise springing for the for-fee shoreside excursions if you want to enjoy a little shopping. Astoria and Pendleton are your best bets, though Stevenson (for free, not fee) is pleasant.
The vast, desolate, one-day stretch of river from Pendleton to Clarkston is without cell phone or wi-fi signal, but therein lies your chance to fall back on books, board games, or conversation with fellow passengers . . . the way cruising used to be.
All in all, the Queen of the West is a worthy experience. Laid back, low-key, leisurely, her tour is reminiscent of a gentler time. Unlike Delta Queen, she is obviously a nostalgic retrofit—no steam-driven calliope here; no banjo-playing crowds seeing you off from the docks of Heartland America—but she does, in décor and embellishment, evoke a time well worth remembering. On our cruise, some families obviously recognized that charm, for we saw several multi-generational entourages aboard. We salute them and offer good wishes to them and to Queen of the West. Roll on, Columbia, roll on.