American Empress riverboat tour calls Vancouver home port

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

Published:

 

o Nine-day tours start in Vancouver and in Clarkston. Fares range from $3,795 to $6,595. The 2014 cruise season runs through Nov. 16.

o The 223-passenger riverboat operated as the Empress of the North from 2003 until 2008 when its owner, Majestic America Line, went bankrupt. The American Queen Steamboat Co. said it spent $5 million on renovations before relaunching the boat as the American Empress.

o On the Web: www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com

o Nine-day tours start in Vancouver and in Clarkston. Fares range from $3,795 to $6,595. The 2014 cruise season runs through Nov. 16.

o The 223-passenger riverboat operated as the Empress of the North from 2003 until 2008 when its owner, Majestic America Line, went bankrupt. The American Queen Steamboat Co. said it spent $5 million on renovations before relaunching the boat as the American Empress.

o On the Web: www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com

The Columbia River has powered this region’s economy for hundreds of years.

Native American paddlers in dugouts relied on its waters as an artery of commerce.

Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark rode the river toward the Pacific Ocean while checking out America’s biggest real-estate deal.

Trading vessels docked on its northern bank after the Hudson’s Bay Company headquartered its Northwest fur empire at Fort Vancouver.

But now a trip on the great river of the West isn’t an artery for conducting business: It’s the product.

Call it an alternate take on the familiar initials “CRC.” They once stood for Columbian River Crossing, a now-defunct joint megafreeway project. In this case, they mean that Vancouver is generating some economic activity from Columbia River cruising.

Riverboat cruises — including one based in Vancouver — are putting the Columbia River on the travel map. Tours of the Columbia-Snake river system from Astoria, Ore., to Lewiston-Clarkston got major media coverage a couple of months ago. A couple of publications focused on the American Empress, which calls Vancouver its home port. The biggest riverboat west of the Mississippi is operated by American Queen Steamboat Co. of Memphis.

Anne Kalosh, who wrote about her American Empress cruise for the Miami Herald, says Washington and Oregon have a world-class attraction in the Columbia River Gorge. While some see the Gorge’s designation as a national scenic area a barrier to development and locals can eventually zone out on the dramatic landscape, many visitors who see it with fresh eyes are impressed.

As Kalosh wrote in June, “A well-traveled friend ranks the Columbia River Gorge on par with Norway, Alaska and Montenegro’s Kotor Fjord. After sailing through all of them, I agree.”

The river tour industry is helping the local business community make progress toward a long-held goal: attracting tourists who don’t mind spending a little money as they visit some of the Northwest’s most significant historical places. And with packages that start at $3,795 per person for a nine-day tour, the American Empress passengers have some disposable income.

So far, the American Empress has contributed “just under $1 million” to the Clark County economy, said Rosemary Cooke. That’s a two-year total, said Cooke, director of sales at the Visit Vancouver USA regional tourism office. It includes some of the set-up work and planning, but a large percentage of that economic impact has happened since cruises started in April. The figure includes money passengers spent on lodging at the Hilton Vancouver Washington, dining, dock fees and purchases at local businesses.

The American Empress passengers originally were slated to stay in Portland, but there was a convincing counter-argument for a north-bank overnighter.

“Look at Vancouver. We’re on the (Columbia) River,” said Christie Rust, director of sales and marketing at Hilton Vancouver Washington.

It’s not as though Portland has been left at the dock by the riverboat industry. American Cruise Lines and Un-Cruise sail from Portland on their tours.

While Portland does have its metropolitan amenities, Vancouver has that heritage-rich core that’s within easy reach of the riverboat’s berth at Terminal 1.

People who book these river excursions tend to be lifelong learners who are interested in history as well as scenery, Cooke said. And when it comes to significant chapters in American history, “it’s all right here downtown.

“Portland has history, but not like ours,” Cooke said.

The Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is perhaps the city’s biggest attraction. Tour clients who want to stretch their legs can walk from the downtown Hilton to the city’s heritage-rich core, including the Fort Vancouver site. Or they can ride the tour’s motor coach, which serves as a shuttle bus in town.

“We have set up stations throughout the national park where their bus can stop,” said Greg Shine, Fort Vancouver’s historian and chief ranger.

The hop-on, hop-off loop includes Officers Row along Evergreen Boulevard, with the Marshall House, Grant House and the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center. Other stops are at Pearson Air Museum and the reconstructed stockade.

Each stop can provide more background for curious visitors.

“The level of questions is fantastic,” Shine said. “The staff and volunteers who work those events really find their level of interest wonderful.”

It can start with the basics such as: What’s an English flag doing here?

“We go into how this was jointly occupied” by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the U.S. Army, Shine said.

Then there are the more advanced students of America’s westward expansion, Shine said.

” ‘There was a military fort at The Dalles, (Ore.), right?’ ” Shine said, quoting one recent visitor. “That’s not a question we get every day.”

The Fort Vancouver staff does some scene-setting for the trip upriver, using maps to highlight other Army posts such as Fort Walla Walla administered from here.

“The context helps them on the rest of the journey,” Shine said.

“What’s awesome about groups like these, they’re using the river as a highway,” Shine said. “That perspective is a wonderful way to experience” the Columbia River Gorge. “They’re seeing it like early settlers.”

But a lot more comfortably.

The American Empress pampers its passengers with regional cuisine, Northwest wines and local brews. The tour bus, which follows the American Empress up the river and back, provides side trips. The regional attractions (some cost extra) include Mount St. Helens; Timberline Lodge, Ore; Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale; Bonneville Dam; Multnomah Falls, Ore., and the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center in Stevenson.

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