Travel via massive cruise ship is an ideal vacation for a good portion of travelers, especially those who don’t enjoy extensive planning when it comes to their vacation. With nearly all cruises, your accommodations, food, entertainment and itinerary are all taken care of for you, allowing you to simply relax and enjoy the trip. Ships offer huge pools and waterslides, athletic courts, casinos, dozens of bars, cafes, buffets and kid zones. They dock in popular ports and offer prearranged shore excursions that make sure you get back to the boat on time before heading to the next stop. One of the drawbacks to such a trip however is sharing your vacation with so many other people. Most ships accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 guests, with some of the bigger ships in the fleet taking on 4,000 or more. This doesn’t include an army of staff as well, often up to 1,000 personnel. From the Northwest, a roundtrip flight to New Orleans, Orlando or Miami typically isn’t the easiest, fastest or cheapest either. For those wanting a more laid-back cruise, free of chaos, a trip up and down one of the West’s most iconic rivers is an amazing way to see many beautiful areas.
“A more relaxed atmosphere on the river allows the passengers more opportunities to explore the destinations and immerse themselves in the history of the region they are visiting,” explained Tony DeMarco, a franchise owner and vacation specialist with Cruise Planners and based out of Gig Harbor. “With a smaller passenger list, the location they arrive at does not feel overwhelmed by people, which is sometimes the case with large cruise ships.”
Instead of sharing your vacation with several thousand other guests, riverboat cruises often accommodate less than 200 people with some having space for only about 50. Passengers enjoy all the same comforts of larger scale vessels, just on a much smaller level. Another big complaint for travelers on larger vessels is the minisculeand often stale looking staterooms. Cabins are often a bit more spacious and unique on river cruises, and you’re far more likely to receive a room with an outside view than if you go the budget route via larger ship. “With all the comforts of a fine hotel, your stateroom has an ever-changing view of the scenery passing by. Most rooms come with a private balcony,” said DeMarco.
Unlike ocean cruises where much of the trip is spent staring into vast empty ocean, the scenery on a river cruise is always present and constantly changing as you make your way inland. Ships are designed with this in mind to give guests multiple areas to relax and watch the landscape go by. DeMarco added: “There are spacious public areas and lounges for socializing, making new friends or enjoying a cocktail before dinner. Ships have many outside viewing positions to take in the natural beauty of the area, which is great for the photography enthusiast.”
As with traditional cruises, meals are all included, and dinner is typically open seating so you can dine where and when you like. Most trips also offer complimentary beer and wine with both lunch and dinner. Being inland, cooks also have access to fresh foods that you wouldn’t find on a larger ship. “The cuisine is prepared by highly trained chefs who source the freshest ingredients locally from the locations the ships visit,” said DeMarco.
While river cruising does allow children, most parents choose a different route as these ships don’t offer the same level of child entertainment. This tends to offer a more relaxed environment on board and is ideal for those seeking a more peaceful cruising experience. This isn’t to say these trips are for retired couples only, as younger couples are getting on board as well. “We have seen huge growth in the multi-generational segment, and cruising provides a great way for families to travel together. Everyone can share time on board, but you still have your private space when needed,” explained DeMarco.
The Columbia River is one of the most well-known in the West, and it’s where you will find all sorts of intriguing itineraries. There are three main lines that service the area: UnCruise Adventures, American Queen Steamboat Company and American Cruise Lines. Each company offers different cruise lengths, and below are just a couple examples of what a local river cruise entails.
Rivers of Wine – Seven nights aboard the SS Legacy
This cruise is all about exploring Oregon and Washington wine country. The ship employs a sommelier and an additional guest wine expert to accompany guests on the trip. Tastings at some of the finest wineries are set up at stops within the Columbia Gorge, Walla Walla, Red Mountain, Columbia Valley and Willamette Valleys. Guests also get to explore both Multnomah and Palouse falls as well as the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area. Your ship, the SS Legacy, is modeled after a turn-of-the-century coastal steamer but with modern convenience of flat-screen TVs, air conditioning and private baths mixed in with industrial-age décor. With just 44 cabins, you will find plenty of space to stretch out and an attentive staff. Dinner is open seating, and there is a main lounge as well as a saloon onboard serving beer, wine and cocktails. There are two hot tubs, fitness equipment, yoga classes and a massage suite for relaxing.
American Queen Steamboat Company
Portland to Clarkston – Eight nights aboard the American Empress
The American Empress is the largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi, and its iconic red paddlewheel will at first glance transport you back in time. Guests are pampered in this luxurious ship where the dress code is considered country-club casual with no formalwear necessary. This trip is designed to follow in the footsteps of famous explorers Lewis and Clark. Stops include Astoria, The Dalles, Stevenson, Tri-Cities and Clarkson. This trip can be booked from Clarkston to Portland as well for those wanting to end their trip on the coast. Shore excursions are included at each stop and feature museums and historical sites, state parks and downtown shopping. Each day onboard, the riverlorian gives a daily lecture about the area in which the ship is passing, and each night guests are treated to Broadway-style entertainment in the Show Lounge or piano and single performances in the Paddlewheel Lounge.
American Cruise Line
Highlights of the Columbia – Four nights aboard the Queen of the West or American Pride
For those wanting a shorter trip and more time on the water, this trip is a great option. From Portland, guests travel to Astoria, Mount St. Helens and Multnomah Falls before heading back to the Rose City. Much of this trip is spent navigating the Columbia River Gorge with ample opportunity for photography. Both ships were recently upgraded and feature some of the largest staterooms available. Nightly music and cocktails, as well as dinner featuring fresh local ingredients, make this a memorable trip if only for a few days.
If peace, relaxation and taking in the sights are top priorities for your next vacation, consider a cruise along the Columbia. There are trips for all tastes, and no matter what you choose you will be well taken care of and come home with a whole new crop of memories to share.