Cruise Review
Columbia Queen
Cruise Line:
Great American River Journeys
07/08/2005 - 07/16/2005
Cruise Length:
8 nights (7 nights on board)
History Comes Alive
Category A 212, Cabin Deck
Portland roundtrip
Columbia River, Willamette River, Snake River
Review by:
Glover Epperson
We have cruised once before, on Royal Caribbean, and were seeking an alternative to the 2000 passenger itinerary. My objective for submitting this review is to (1) assist you in deciding if this cruise is for you and (2) provide some helpful hints if you decide it is.

If you are seeking one or more of the following, you should give this cruise a try:
Stop reading here if you are seeking one or more of the following: At 59 and 61, we were in the younger 10% of the group. If nothing else, this showed us that we have many more years to enjoy cruising vacations.

First, I would make a strong pitch to have you arrive a day or so early to enjoy Portland. The Hilton is in the midst of the city with lots to do and see. The walking tour(s) provided by the visitor center on Pioneer Square, start only a couple of blocks away. Bring your rainwear, yes, it does rain in Portland. We were fortunate enough to be in Portland on the weekend of the sand sculpture competition - what a stitch. You can book an extra night at the Hilton Suites through the cruise. The Blue Star shuttle takes 20 minutes from airport to Hilton and is included if you book your extra night through the cruise line. We had a dinner of hors d'oeuvres at the Portland City Grill on the 30th floor of the US Bank building. A beautiful view and inexpensive way to sample smaller portions of some of the entrees, and appetizers - available during happy hour (4 - 6 p.m.). Bring rain gear for Portland, sorry, I repeat myself.

Day 1 Portland
Day 1 is really not a day at all. There is check-in with the cruise company in the afternoon (4 - 5 p.m.) prior to a Champaign cocktail hour which includes a short briefing by one of the "characters" employed by the line.

Day 2 Mt. St. Helens / Boarding
This is a very long day, about 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., most of which is spent on the bus. The buses are brand new with very knowledgeable and talkative drivers. Our driver, Tracy, was quite enjoyable. Two one hour stops included a viewing of Mt. St. Helens from Coldwater Ridge center and lunch at Hoffstadt Bluffs viewing center. When you finally arrive at the ship, it is a beautiful sight to see. There were 6-8 people in period costume to greet you. The historian, David, is dressed in buckskin, and packing a "flint lock" rifle. Champaign and hors d'oeuvres await you on boarding.

We only had 90 fellow passengers instead of the full compliment of 160. This allowed for a single seating for dinner at 6 p.m. Since we had planned to be on the second seating, we were originally disappointed because we were hoping for more time to rest and freshen up after the daily excursion. It turns out that the single seating allowed for the entertainment to start earlier and thus to get to bed earlier. With excursions leaving at 8 -8:30 a.m. every day but one, an early bedtime is a good thing. We set the alarm for 6:30 a.m. each day but one. There is a signup sheet for wakeup calls in the purser's area.

Before dinner the first night, there is a wine tasting so that you can purchase wine to be served at dinner each night. Wow, a savings of 10% if you buy at the tasting. The server will store the bottle from night to night.

We sailed overnight to Astoria. The optional tours in the brochure were not mentioned once on board, as far as I know.

Day 3 Astoria
Two tours were available. We only took the morning tour (8:45 - 11:30 AM) to the Astoria Column and Fort Clatsop. If you can climb the steps to the top of the column, be sure and buy a wooden plane from the little gift shop and throw it off the top. Mine is still flying as far as I know. During the first morning tour, the staff at Fort Clatsop put on an exhibition of firing a "flint lock" rifle, which was great - ok, maybe it's a "guy thing". The Maritime Museum is just off the ship's gangplank and well worth the time. We skipped the afternoon tour (1:30 - 4:00 p.m.) to Cannon Beach as it was raining and we needed a rest from the previous day. The massage offered on board was the kind where you sit in the chair with your face planted in a vinyl pad and received a back and neck message - we passed on this too. The Astoria "Sunday Market" is just a few blocks from the boat. The offerings were more sophisticated than I had expected. There was food, beautiful flowers and crafts. It was much more than a "flea market" as described by others.

At 5:30 p.m. the Captain's Champagne Reception - time for your picture with the captain.

Day 4 Stevenson
Another full day on the bus; however, since lunch is back on the boat you can opt out of the afternoon tour if you wish. Morning tour (8 - 11 a.m.) included Bonneville Dam and Multnomah Falls very educational and the falls were very nice. Be sure and follow the path up to the higher vantage point on the little pedestrian bridge. It's not nearly as hard as climbing the Astoria Column. Columbia Gorge Discovery (1-4 p.m.). NOTE: You have approximately one hour at each of the tour sites, so taking that into account you can calculate how much time you spend on the bus getting to and from each tour. This will be your first view of the desert area. It is amazing how the terrain changes. The ship passes through a large and very popular wind surfing area. We were very disappointed that the optional "Spa package at the hot springs" in Stevenson was not available on Monday. This would have been a nice option for the afternoon. The staff did not seem to know about it at first and then stated it would be offered during our stop in Stevenson on Friday (meaning you would miss the Mt. Hood railroad excursion). The golf package was not mentioned as well. I would suggest that you try to confirm any "optional" items in advance. Although I assure you there will be plenty to do with what is already offered.

Day 5 Pendleton
A really full day to Pendleton (8 a.m. - 5 p.m.). Personally, I would skip this excursion. At this point, I really needed the day off. But, since you've paid for it, you want to take advantage of it. You might want to ask what the ratio of hours on the bus vs the hours off the bus. Pendleton included a tour of the Pendleton "underground" (the most interesting), the Heritage Museum and school house, and then on to the rodeo grounds for the "Wild West Show" - a demonstration of firing a flint lock rifle (again), sheep dogs, and some general "tom foolery" - not what people were expecting. A barbecue lunch (good) is served at the convention Center with a cowboy singer for entertainment. In the afternoon, you continue to the Tamastslikt Cultural Center - very educational. This is a museum showing the "Indian perspective". Actually, I thought it was pretty important to view it from the conquered viewpoint vs the white conquerors. A dance group did a demonstration in native costumes. In summary, the top two events of the day were the Underground and the Tamastslikt cultural Center, but I wish I had stayed on the ship for a day of rest - can't have it both ways. Rum punch was awaiting us on return to the boat moored at beautiful Sacagawea State park. The passengers who stayed on board for the day enjoyed their visit to the park and the cruise that took place between here and where we loaded the buses earlier that day. Here again, the brochure mentions a golf outing that I don't remember being offered - not that I play golf, anyway.

Day 6 Clarkston/Lewiston
The jet boats!! - Here's a day you don't want to miss!! You board the jet boats at 7:45 a.m. directly from the Columbia Queen. The jet boat is covered, but you might consider sunscreen anyway. We sat right up front. The ride is a bumpier, but there is much less wind. We stopped at a beautiful site overlooking the river (Garden Creek) for a picnic lunch provided by the ship. We only saw a few big horned sheep and a couple of deer. We saw a few petroglyphs on the return trip and were back on board the ship by about 2 p.m. - the perfect length of time for a day off the boat.

Day 7 Cruising
Finally, a day off. We spent the day cruising back down the Columbia. Actually, we were supposed to stop at the Maryhill museum in the afternoon (2 - 5 p.m.), but lock traffic got backed up and we didn't make it in time. Barges have first priority going through the locks. I was glad to stay on board for the day, but my wife was sorry about missing Maryhill. It is supposed to be a great museum and estate.

Day 8 Mt. Hood Railroad/Skamania Lodge
Mt Hood train ride and lunch at Skamania Lodge. About a 1/2 hour bus ride to the train which took about 2 hours. It doesn't take you to Mt. Hood, just within viewing distance. When we changed back from train to buses, this was supposed to be a good place to take photos of Mt. Hood, it wasn't - too many cars and buildings in the foreground. I got better shots from the train than I could at the destination. The salmon lunch at the lodge (1 hour stopover) was probably the best meal we had all week.

Day 9 Portland
Disembarkation. The boat tied up overnight down river so that we could come cruising into Vancouver, WA. The only problem with the overnight stop (11 p.m. to approximately 4 a.m.) was there were bright flood lights on all night at the dock and regardless of the room darkening drapes sufficient light came in around the drapes to light up the rooms on the dock side of the boat making sleep difficult. With only 90 passengers, leaving the ship was easy, with no lines, pushing, or shoving. All luggage was handled by the crew and we just got on the bus for one last trip, to the airport. A second bus took passengers staying over in Portland. We were at the airport by 9:30 a.m.

As on any cruise, there is no worry about starving to death, or even getting a hunger pang, for that matter. Breakfast includes a buffet, off the menu, or continental on the Back Porch. Lunch is a buffet, off the menu, or hot dogs on the Back Porch. Breakfast and lunch are probably the best and most consistent meals of the day. Dinner, which should be the best meal, received the most grumbling from the passengers. There was always a choice of two appetizers, two soups, two salads, about five entrees, and several deserts. Surely you could find something to eat in all of this. The consensus was that because there were so many entree choices, the focus was spread to thin. Most entrees were mediocre/okay, few were good to great. The good news is that the wait staff gives you lots of options. You can get multiple half portions or full entrees. If you don't like what you receive, you can get an immediate replacement. They do everything they can to help you have a good meal experience. I think we just get spoiled and have too high expectations (don't get the pork tenderloin, it was roundly ridiculed). The Back Porch eating area is on the rear of deck 4. It is very nice for a continental breakfast or soft ice cream in the afternoon. Be sure and check out the four big chairs on the outside deck great place for viewing the scenery and reading. Dinner seating. You have a choice of tables for 2, 4, or 6 people. There were about eight 6-person tables along the windows. In the interior were the two and four person tables. All provide a good view through the large windows of the moving shoreline.

One chair, desk, one nightstand, and two single beds. We were in room 212 and the single beds could not be made to fit together into a king. The shower is very good. There was sufficient storage in the closet and under the beds.

The ship's "cruise directors" and staff were absolutely wonderful. Dave and Charley (the cruise director's wife) were experienced, professional, multi-talented, and generally very nice people. They are always around and answer the most mundane questions with a smile and good feelings. They really helped to make the trip.

As with the food, the entertainment had peaks and valleys as well. By far our favorite was Joe Stoddard's "Music and humor with a cowboy feel". He was truly funny. Charlie Shore and Doug Fulton, with Dave Shore on the piano, put on a patriotic theme evening finale on our last night which was excellent. Rounding out the top three were the Swizzle Chicks. The Columbia Quartet played backup for the various acts and were really quite good on their own.

The only exercise bike was on the 3rd deck below the Back Porch.

No computers for www searching, only email at $2/per.

You will meet the Captain early on. He is very open to questions. There were two scheduled meetings with him for Q&A.

Be careful using your balconies when down inside the locks. The exhaust actually comes out of the 1st deck rather than the two large smoke stacks. Why would you want to be on your balcony in a lock anyway - time to be on Deck 4.

You really should try to read something about Lewis and Clark before you go. If, for no other reason, theirs is an incredible story. Another interesting read is "A River Lost" about the construction of the dams on the Columbia River.

Don't get up early just to see the first set of locks. Believe me, there will be plenty of lock transits on this cruise.