Cruise passengers get rollin’ on the river

Vancouver-berthed American Empress proves highly popular

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor

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With the Columbia River now a hot destination for U.S. river cruises, the Vancouver-berthed American Empress is preparing to welcome record numbers of travelers as it moves into its third consecutive year on the great river of the West.

“This year we’re off to an unbelievably good start,” said John Waggoner, chairman and CEO of American Queen Steamboat Co., the ship’s Memphis, Tenn.-based owner. “August and September are already completely sold out.”

The Empress, which launches on alternate weeks from Vancouver and Clarkston for seven-day, eight-night cruises on the Columbia and Snake rivers from Astoria, Ore., to Clarkston, isn’t alone in enjoying the new boom in river cruises. Cindy Anderson, owner of Vancouver-based USA River Cruises, said a growing number of companies now serve the Columbia and all are drawing heavy bookings.

“The Columbia River is probably the most popular (cruise) river in the United States,” she said. “Only a few dates are open sporadically in the summer.”

The 223-passenger American Empress, which launches this season’s second voyage from Vancouver on Sunday, is the most visible sign of that interest in Clark County. It berths at the Port of Vancouver’s Terminal One, just outside the former Red Lion.

The Empress’ tour bus, which provides passengers with day trips at various points along the journey, can sometimes be seen at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Mount St. Helens, and Portland tourist attractions. On Saturday nights before Sunday departures, cruise ship passengers overnight at the Hilton Vancouver Washington as part of a package deal, and many spend Saturdays at the Vancouver Farmers Market or other local attractions.

Last year the Empress sold out for 18 consecutive weeks before a drop-off late in the season, Waggoner said. For this year, it lowered prices in the spring and fall shoulder seasons by 12 percent to try to even out demand and fill out the early and late excursions, he said.

Seasonwide fares are between about $2,600 and over $7,000 per person/double occupancy, depending on the time of year, and room size and quality. The price includes services and amenities that are added-cost extras on big ship ocean cruises. Passengers are treated to on-board live music entertainment as well as local cuisine and wines.

This year the boat’s operators are adding new shore excursions, including opportunities for zip-lining and fishing. Waggoner said one passenger suggested the company convert some berths into an exercise room. In response, it now provides six bicycles that can be used at various stop-off points. It also offers organized guided walks and provides passengers with maps of local running trails.

“The gym is right here,” Waggoner said. “It’s called the Pacific Northwest.”

Waggoner said California residents are a big share of the market for the American Empress. The state is large with many “high net worth” residents, and is heavily served by airlines to Portland. For Californians, the Northwest “is so pretty, and it’s easy to get to,” he said.

Anderson said many of the river cruise passengers she sees are moving from larger cruises to river travel. After experiencing the smaller and more intimate river journeys, those passengers rarely to back to the world of huge cruise ships, she said.

Other Columbia River cruises available at various times this year are on the S.S. Legacy; the American Pride paddle-wheeler; the  Queen of the West paddle-wheeler; National Geographic Society’s Sea Bird and Sea Lion expedition ships; and the MV Island Spirit.

The American Empress operated on the Columbia River and in Alaska under a different name and with a different operator from 2003 to 2008. It was mothballed for years and returned to the Columbia under its current ownership in 2014.