This is the same river route Lewis and Clark took 200 years ago, a 1,000-mile journey along the Columbia and Snake rivers.
What’s so great about increasingly popular river cruises, including this one in the Pacific Northwest? With a maximum of 88 passengers, this fetching little ship, run by the Seattle-based Un-Cruise Adventures, is a fine alternative for those tired of massive floating hotels — or seasickness or endless days of open ocean.
More than the sea, a river pulses, every bend a new chapter. We cross gorges and pass 7,000-year-old petroglyphs and stop in dusty former frontier towns that once brimmed with brothels. One afternoon, with Oregon’s Mount Hood luminous in the distance, hundreds of kite boarders show off for us, like a fleet of polyester butterflies. Pure travel magic.
Our vessel? The Legacy is Un-Cruise’s 30-year-old replica of the late 19th-century coastal steamers (it was renovated in 2013) with brass fittings and gleaming wood rails.
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For eight days we make shore visits to waterfalls, wineries, dams, fish ladders, museums and forts along the way. Back on board, your favorite hangout probably will be the ship’s bridge, which is open to passengers night and day, as the river pilots use a watchmaker’s touch to snug the 190- by 40-foot vessel into one of the eight locks along the way.
The river scenery is the star here, but the personable crew is a close second.
At times there was an overdose on cultural stops.
“It’s just a few too many museums,” said fellow passenger Tracy Antonioli of the six such stops. “In so many naturally beautiful places, we could’ve spent more time in them.”
Sure, there’s a lot of history to swallow in a week, but if it gets to be too much you can opt out of one of the too-many museum trips and spend an afternoon in the hot tub with that thriller you’ve been meaning to tackle. Like the bridge, the ship’s saloon is always open.
“The cruise surpassed our expectations,” said Jim Kouracos, a Chicago dentist who took the trip with his 91-year-old dad, Nick. “What really put this over the top was how accessible the boat and shore tours were, as well as the efforts by the crew and staff to create a stimulating environment filled with good food and camaraderie.”
Whatever you do, you’ll end the week with a bit of a wind burn and a river of good memories.
My seven-night cruise began and ended in Portland; here are some snapshots from the June trip:
Leave Portland at dinner time, heading north on the Willamette River, then east on the Columbia. Anchor overnight on the river, near Corbett, Ore., about 30 miles from Portland. Comfortable cabin and gentle roll of the ship make for a good night’s sleep. When we awake, we’re in the first of eight locks we will pass.
Tour the Columbia River Gorge, a recreational Shangri-La of hiking, waterfalls, fishing. Stops include a private tour of Bonneville Dam, home to locks, fish ladders and massive turbines that generate hydroelectric power. Also tour Oregon’s Multnomah Falls, 620 feet of splashy splendor that draws nearly 2 million visitors a year.
After cruising overnight, we turn onto the Snake River (which joins the Columbia River near Pasco) at about 8 a.m. Scenery, which had been rain-forest lush a day before, is now cardboard brown east of the Cascades. Shipboard activities: knot tying, yoga, galley tours. The galley tour is a bust, but the long day of cruising gives us a chance to read, relax and get acquainted with other passengers. Tie up for the night in Clarkston, Asotin County, in Washington’s southeast corner.
In the morning, still docked in Clarkston, we hear about the Nez Perce tribes, this region’s legendary horsemen. Depart on jet boats to Hells Canyon, a comfortable but splashy trip across modest rapids and past petroglyphs, old mines, deer and big-horned sheep in this wild and scenic stretch of the Snake River on the Oregon-Idaho border. The four-hour ride is a window on the Old West.
Returning west, back down the Snake River, we disembark and visit Fort Walla Walla, built in 1858. Today, cabins and displays tell the story of the settlers here in the Walla Walla Valley. Two winery tours follow, neither impressive. Best stop of the day is the Whitman Mission National Historic Site where in 1847, Cayuse warriors turned against the Methodist missionaries. Story of the deadly attack gives a deep sense of the tensions caused by disease and the tribe’s disappearing way of life.
The ship’s chef has quit. Oddly, the food, which had been merely satisfactory, seems to improve. We arrive at The Dalles, Ore., for the day, greeted by women in period costume. “At one time, there were 28 brothels in The Dalles,” a madam-type says. Visit Maryhill Museum of Art, over on the Washington side. End with a rollicking talent show by passengers and crew: jokes, stories, sea songs, some led by Capt. Dano Quinn.
All the way west to Astoria, Ore., a lovely little slice of New England plopped where the Columbia River meets the Pacific. We tour Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark wintered. Later, we explore Astoria and the town’s Maritime Museum, one of the most engaging of the trip because of its life-size displays and harrowing tales of sea life.
Back in Portland, we eat breakfast and disembark for home. The crew lines the dock to bid farewell to passengers, who are pleased with the diverse scenery and range of experiences on the trip. A dud here and a dud there, but mostly a distinct and attractive voyage, primarily for the over-40 crowd.