Riverboat reborn as American Empress

Vessel's tours will emphasize scenery of Pacific Northwest

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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The American Empress, a refurbished and renamed riverboat that operated on the Columbia River and Alaska from 2003 to 2008, will return next month with Vancouver-based operations and tours extending from Astoria, Ore., to Clarkston, on the Idaho border.

The 223-passenger Empress, the largest overnight river vessel in the West, will be introduced during festivities in downtown Portland on April 5, said the American Queen Steamboat Co., based in Memphis, Tenn.

Ray LaHood, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation and an advocate of river cruises, will be keynote speaker. The kickoff will include performances by local musicians and a blessing of the boat by Chinook tribal elders.

The boat's first public journey, a nine-day adventure stretching from Astoria to Clarkston, departs Sunday, April 6, from a dock near the Red Lion Inn at the Quay in downtown Vancouver. The riverboat will journey on the Columbia and Snake rivers 32 times through November, departing either from Vancouver or Clarkston, the company says.

American Queen Steamboat Company, a subsidiary of Indiana-based HMS Global Maritime, has hired about 80 employees for local boat operations, said Ted Sykes, the company's president and chief operating officer.

The four-deck, historic-themed riverboat is a familiar sight to local residents. It operated as the Empress of the North before its owner, Majestic America Line, filed for bankruptcy and the boat was laid up in Portland.

American Queen Steamboat, which also operates a 436-passenger riverboat on the Mississippi River, purchased the boat from the bondholder, the U.S. Maritime Administration. American Queen agreed to purchase it last May.

The new owners spent $5 million on upgrades in preparation for its re-christening as the American Empress, Sykes said. The company's vacation packages cover a nine-day period, including a pre- or post-cruise hotel day before departure at the Portland Hilton or in Spokane.

Ports include Astoria, Vancouver; Stevenson, The Dalles, Ore.; Washington's Sacajawea State Park; and Clarkston. Music and entertainment will be provided, and motor coaches will be available at every port for shore excursions. Standard fares range from $3,795 to $6,595 per passenger, covering nearly all costs except tips.

The Northwest's stunning scenery is the main selling point for the American Empress, Sykes said. "We tell them this is about viewing the unspoiled nature of America," he said. "We're selling scenery and winery and Lewis & Clark."

More than half of passengers on the Mississippi River's American Queen are ages 65 to 72, Sykes said, adding that he expects a somewhat younger crowd for the Columbia River cruises.

The Mississippi River cruises draw up to 20 percent of passengers from foreign countries, primarily Europeans, New Zealanders, and Australians, he said.

Sykes acknowledged the challenge of marketing a riverboat adventure that replicates an earlier venture that fell into bankruptcy. But he said the bankruptcy was tied to financial problems of the previous owners unrelated to the riverboat, which had been making money for the company. The company is offering an advance tour to national travel writers as part of its marketing of its Columbia River journey.

American Empress' former fleetmate, Queen of the West, is being operated on the Columbia and Snake rivers by American Cruise Lines, a Connecticut-based company.