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Riverboat rambler

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[Photo: Tom O'Toole]
Comfortable wooden chairs line the decks of the Columbia Queen, for relaxed viewing of the passing scenery.

By TOM AND JOANNE O'TOOLE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


Riding the Northwest's rivers on the Columbia Queen has its ups and downs: The scenery is beautiful, but life onboard could be better.

The guide looked out over the sea of gray-haired passengers and asked, "Has anyone here been windsurfing?"

Snickers rippled through the group. "Sorry, you've got the wrong crowd," someone in the back offered.

Indeed it was a senior group aboard the Columbia Queen, the newest riverboat plying a 1,000-mile journey along the Columbia, Willamette and Snake rivers in the northwest United States.

Having cruised and traveled around much of the world, many of the passengers had signed on for what they hoped would be a new type of adventure: following the last part of the 1804-06 route of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

The route of the 161-passenger Columbia Queen showcases the beauty and history of the Pacific Northwest.

A few passengers were disappointed because they expected this riverboat to be a paddle wheeler. In fact, it's powered by four diesel engines that zip the boat along at a peppy 10 miles per hour.

The eight-night "adventure" starts out with a Friday overnight stay in Portland, Ore., and a daylong visit to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument on Saturday. Then there are seven nights aboard the boat, with excursions to 18 attractions along the route from Portland to Astoria, Ore., near the Pacific Ocean, then inland as far as Lewiston, Idaho, the gateway to Hells Canyon on the Snake River.

We found the precruise bus trip to Mount St. Helens fascinating. There are two stops at visitors centers, where the devastation of that May 1980 volcanic explosion is graphically displayed. Everything in a 156-square-mile area was wiped out. The landslide from the mountain traveled into the valley at 150 to 180 mph.

Imagine the power that flattened 68,000 acres; trees were blown more than 17 miles away. Ash clouds were sent more than 15 miles into the air.

This excursion made the sites along the river for the rest of the week that much more beautiful.

After the Mount St. Helens trip, the group returned to Portland and boarded the Columbia Queen; our luggage was in the staterooms.

By boat and by bus

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[Photo: Tom O'Toole]
New amid the old: Recalling another era, the Columbia Queen is tied up amid old pilings at Astoria, Ore.
The boat cruised past Portland and through the Willamette River Valley while we enjoyed our first dinner aboard. Reaching the Oswego Rock, the Columbia Queen then headed back north toward the Columbia River, and west to Astoria.

The boat was in Astoria all day, with various options for sightseeing. Dockside was the excellent Columbia River Maritime Museum. Near the dock is a trolley, and for $1 you can ride along the waterfront.

The cruise line provided three shore tours: up to the "column," which is dedicated to the discoverers of this area; on to Fort Clatsop National Memorial; and to Cannon Beach, an upscale seaside shopping hamlet about 25 miles away. Trying to do all three places would be a bit hectic, working out the departures on the cruise line's buses.

The buses are comfortable and the drivers informative (especially Reid, our driver/guide), but there was a lot of riding and sitting each day for those taking advantage of the excursions included in the cruise cost. Needing to maintain a schedule, the bus drivers do not stop along the way for photography, except what can be shot through the windows.

Frequently, between sites, the driver had a videotape ready and passengers were given background information about the upcoming attraction, along with details of what to expect when they got there. It was well-planned.

The daily tours go to interesting places, but it's basically all or nothing: Some passengers were not enthused about the daylong outings, but there were no other options. At some of the ports, it would have been helpful to have had one-hour tours of the towns themselves, or shuttles from the dock into the center of these places, for passengers to spend time on their own before going back to the boat.

All of this missing, many went on the bus tours reluctantly -- and frequently nodded off during the long rides from one attraction to another.

Monday's schedule included moving through the locks at a number of dams and then disembarking in Hood River, Ore. Here, the buses headed to the Maryhill Museum of Art, a castlelike mansion perched above the river that houses a sampling of Rodin's sculptures, Faberge eggs, Russian treasures and contemporary art of the Northwest.

The buses then went on to the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and the Wasco County Historical Center, where tourists could delve into local and natural history.

The next day, the boat docked in Pendleton, Ore., and the coaches took everyone to the Pendleton Round Up, a rodeo that seemed a waste of time. Then everyone was bused back into town, with two options:

A preserved, underground Chinese community that had been the site of bars, card games and brothels for cow punchers, as well as the living and working quarters for the Chinese who came to lay the rail beds but faced discrimination above ground.

The Pendleton Woolen Mills, for a tour and a stop at the gift shop. Cruise personnel said there was time to do both, but it would have been tough.

Also on the itinerary was a bus ride to the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, a tour, lunch and a colorful show by members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Passengers who had taken the excursions reboarded the riverboat at Pasco, Wash., and went through a series of locks on the Snake River, past mighty hydroelectric dams.

The next day, the Queen docked at the foot of Clarkston, Wash., with Lewiston, Idaho, right across the river. Passengers were bused about 50 miles upriver to Hellers Bar Lodge for an early lunch, and then a three-hour jet boat ride along the Idaho border into Hells Canyon.

The release form passengers had to sign before boarding the jet boats seemed outrageous. It relieved everyone connected with the boat company from any responsibility and noted, in big letters, "By signing this document (you) may be waiving valuable legal rights."

Anyone not joining the jet boat group had no other options, and there were no shuttles to the two nearby towns.

Lewis and Clark must have found their exploration of the Northwest fascinating. Despite the hardships, there were new vistas around every bend and over every hill.

In some places the vegetation is lush and green, and in others it's more desertlike. When strong winds blow across the Columbia plateau scablands in this unforgiving environment, they produce nothing more than sagebrush, sand and bunchgrass. Roadbeds of rock have been set along the base of the hills, giving truck and car traffic the only means of getting through.

The rest of the cruise included trips to a pioneer supply stop along the Oregon Trail, the Bonneville Dam, watching migrating salmon and a trip 6,000 feet up Mount Hood, for lunch and a few hours on that beautiful mountainside.

We retraced our route back to Portland for disembarkation.

A look at the boat

There is a rich, riverboat atmosphere onboard, with a combination of cream colors, dark woodwork, wide staircases and a decor familiar to passengers who have taken trips on the Mississippi on the line's paddle wheel boats.

The oval purser's lobby has comfortable chairs and a big couch, and this is where daily newspapers are put out for passengers. It seems to be the warmest of all the public areas. The lobby also has the boat's library and VCR collection, for those who want to pass time in the cabins.

Down a sweeping, split staircase is the Lewis and Clark lounge, a favorite gathering place for cocktails before dinner. When the dinner bell rings, passengers step right into the Astoria Room, where they have been assigned to either the first or second seating. Tables seat two, four or six.

The comfortable dining room is transformed into a showroom at night, presenting entertainment by the boat's personnel and others, ranging from big band music to country and western.

Aft on the top deck is the popular Back Porch. In this casual atmosphere of easy-to-doze-off-in chairs, with a complete sweep of big windows, passengers can enjoy continental breakfast and lunchtime snacks. Here, too, are the around-the-clock coffee machines, teas and a frozen custard machine.

Passengers' opinions

As the cruise was about to end, passengers were encouraged to let the line know what they thought. The boat had been on the river less than three months by then, and lots of sharp pencils went to work.

There were essentially four things that passengers would like to see improved:

The staffing. The department heads were seasoned, but most of the staff were college-age and inexperienced, though pleasant.

Passengers who had cabins in the aft (rear) of the boat complained of two things. There was a lot of noise, and at times the diesel fumes were overpowering. The line had already tried to remedy the fumes problem, but on some days they were still bad. The white exterior in the rear was discolored from the dark exhaust. Crew members told us they are still working on the problem.

The biggest complaint during our week aboard was about the food. Adjectives such as "bland," "flat" and "tasteless" were used often by passengers.

In the dining room the breakfasts and lunches were open-seating buffets, the food nothing unusual. Passengers could order from a limited menu, and the highlight at breakfast was when a chef in the dining room prepared omelets to order.

Lunch was salads and a big spread of cold cuts; hot items could be ordered from the menu.

Dinner was always a good selection, but the problem was the preparation. Many passengers sent their meals back to the kitchen or did not finish the entree.

As one passenger said loudly, "If I'm going to pay first-class rates, I want first-class food."

* * *

Tom and Joanne O'Toole are freelance writers who live in northeast Ohio.

If you go

The 218-foot-long Columbia Queen, owned by the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. in New Orleans, has a beam (width) of 66 feet.

Each of the 81 staterooms is equipped with satellite television and radio, VCR, boat-to-shore telephone with data port, hairdryer, iron, ironing board and twin beds that convert to king size.

Fares for the eight-night vacations vary seasonally, starting at $2,100 per person, based on double occupancy, including port charges, taxes, ground transportation and tours.

When booking six months or more in advance, couples can receive a discount of $500 off 2001 sailings.

FOR INFORMATION: Contact the Columbia Queen, Robin Street Wharf, 1380 Port of New Orleans Place, New Orleans, LA 70130-1890. Call toll-free 1-800-297-3960. The Web site is http://www.columbiaqueen.com.

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