Thursday, September 2, 2010



Most of you are probably familiar with ocean cruising, but if you have never tried a river cruise I urge you to do so. They are my favorite vacation for several reasons. There are the usual perks of having to unpack only once, having your food, entertainment and lodging all under one roof, getting to meet new people, and seeing new places. HOWEVER, there are some significant and positive differences.

First, a river cruise is about the destination itself. Some of the world's greatest cities lie along rivers especially in Europe where their rivers are much like our freeways. They run right through the center of town giving you the freedom of getting off and on the vessel as frequently as you like since you are docked centrally. There is NO waiting in line to go ashore and NO tenders. With this independence you will be able to experience a sense of being part of the local scene by talking to local people and having more freedom. Shore excursions from an ocean vessel are time intensive because one is usually transported via bus or van to central points in towns often hours not minutes away. The time constraints imposed on you by adherence to the ship's sailing schedule gives you less freedom. The new mega liners are often the destination itself.

Second, there are no long stretches of ocean cruising between ports on a river cruise. Passengers on the river have a chance to watch landscapes go by instead of just waves.

Third and perhaps best of all there are NO rough waters so NO seasickness, yay!

Next, on a river cruise local entertainment is brought on board many nights. For example local vintners host wine tasting, flamenco dancing, chamber music, and vocal ensembles are brought on the ship as well as local culinary treats. Sometimes as on the Douro River cruise you are docked alongside an outdoor stage and cafe enabling you to view multigenerational fests without leaving the ship. Often locals serenade and wave while you cruise past their homes and farms.
Also, the atmosphere on a river cruise is more relaxed and informal . Because of the small passenger capacity of 90-150 passengers verses 6,100 on the newer, larger cruise ships, attention and service from the staff is excellent.
All cabin categories on a river cruise state at water level and are rated from the water up. There are NO inside staterooms. Staterooms are ALL outside with river views. They are comparable in size boasting sliding glass doors or large windows. Open seating for all meals gives you an opportunity to get to know your fellow passengers if you choose. Often free internet is available with flat screen tvs in the cabins.
Finally, you are not nickeled and dimed to death as on many cruise lines. Walking tours are usually included in your fare for each city as well as other unique shore excursions. Uniworld hosted a dinner in a historic monastery one night. Passengers also have the option to sight see on their own.
My favorite line for value and itineraries is Uniworld. My cruises with them include the Douro River beginning in Porto, Portugal to Salamanca, Spain and back. I have also done from Amsterdam to the Black Sea and back. Avalon is another excellent company. I loved my cruise from Budapest to Prague along the Danube. Pre and post packages are also available. There are many itineraries offered with cruises offered in China, Egypt, and Russia as well as Europe. Food and wine themed cruises are popular as well as holiday sailings visiting Europe's famous Christmas markets.
For this river vacation I chose to experience an American river cruise with Cruise West. This journey will take me through three states, three rivers, and eight locks with terrain changing from western coastal temperate rain forest to eastern dry, high plans and sagebrush. So let's begin!


Up at 4AM and out the door for OC airport-destination Portland, OR, 65 miles from the Pacific Ocean and 30 miles west of the Cascade Mountains. Cruise West greeters find us in baggage claim and we are bussed to the hospitality suite at the Embassy Suites Hotel, just 3 blocks from the Williamette River. The Bite of Oregon is being held within walking distance as well as the Portland Saturday Market, the largest continually operating outdoor handcrafted arts and craft market in the nation ! Wow, can't miss that can we! Shoppers alert! It stretches from one side of the railroad tracks to the other ending at the river. Not familiar with the logistics we started the the Import section displaying goods from India and Tibet, stopping for something to eat at the International Food Court. Did you know that Portland has more brewpubs and breweries per capita than any other city in the US?
After crossing the tracks we find the quality and uniqueness that we were expecting. Glass swirled wave necklaces, decorative hydrating beads for plants and vases, hand painted flower pots, recycled silverware masks and ornaments, scarves, art etc. are only some of the items that tempt us. The biggest find is a handmade vest for travelers holding everything needed i.e. passports, Ipods, glasses, maps, and more thus eliminating the need for a purse. This definitely facilitates TSA check in and thwarts unsuspecting pickpockets. The area we are in is a juried show so wares must pass a certain level to be shown here. Shopped out and out of time we walk past the outdoor entertainment and head for the hotel where we meet fellow passengers and bus to our ship at 3:30 "The Spirit of '98". Fred, our steward, introduces himself and shows us to our cabin on the second deck. We are pleasantly surprised with the cute headboards, armoire and plenty of storage. As on any cruise we don our life jackets for the emergency drill in the lounge while we cruise through the downtown area beneath the city's historic bridges connecting the east and west sides of the north flowing river.
After dinner our guides, Debbie and Chandra, promise us that we will be rewarded with historic sites and native history as we explore some of the route traveled by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Both of are reading the book Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose for additional background. It is rich with their journal entries and drawings.
Bonneville Dam & Multnomah Falls
Early this morning we awake cruising in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area dedicated by President Reagan in 1986. The 80 mile long gorge is a sea level route through the Cascade and drains our West, BC, and Alberta. These mountains rise up to 5,000 feet. I am up for the early morning self-serve breakfast and coffee in the lounge. Regular breakfast is at 7:30 where we meet more of our fellow passengers.
We see Beacon Rock before Bonneville, one of the largest basalt formations of its kind at 846 feet. We watch our crew lasso the floating cleats and secure our ship to the lock chamber as we go through our first lock. The concrete door closes behind us and by force of gravity water is piped into the chamber lifting us @55 feet. Once filled the lock chamber is level to the water above and the front door opens allowing us to proceed and dock at Bonneville. This dam was named for Army Captain Benjamin Bonneville, credited with charting most of the Oregon Trail. The lock was originally built in 1938 then updated in 1993. Wages for the laborers on this dam were considered exorbitant back then at 50 cents per hour for unskilled and $1.10 for skilled. Can you imagine?

After breakfast we board buses at 8:45 to meet our U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Interpretive Guide from the Bonneville Dam Visitor Center. He does an excellent job explaining the workings of the lock. We learn about the life cycle of the salmon, how they were affected by the dam construction, and observe these fish navigating the fish ladder from underwater windows.
Next stop Multnomah Falls, the most visited natural landscape feature in Oregon. The falls are 620 feet and remind me of Yosemite Falls. You can get up close and personal using the hiking trail to a bridge midway between the two falls. I have visited these falls previously hosted by my cousin living in Vancouver a road trip. She treated us to brunch at the scenic restaurant at the foot of the falls. The Lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places....beautiful.
Back on board we are treated to a BBQ lunch but are unable to sit on the sundeck because of windy conditions. We resume cruising through the Gorge watching forests changing to sandy colored buttes not unlike central CA. This are is a natural wind tunnel with TONS of sailboats (a race is in progress as we pass. Suddenly our windows are filled with the sail from one of the boats-a near miss). The wind is a brisk 40mph and can get up to 100 mph, one of the reasons it is the site of international wind surfing competition. Watching from the sundeck through the binoculars provided for us in our cabins we see these daredevils come as close to the ship as possible. The second lock at The Dalles Dam raises us @85 feet. Narration is proved by an onboard geologist from the area as we cruise along. Choices..... nap time or the warm, gooey chocolate chip cookies that come out of the oven every day at 4PM . Hmm... which do you think I chose/?? More narration from the geologist for the evening entertainment after dinner... or not.
I beat the wake up call at 7AM and head for coffee in the lounge. There are many of us early risers. We're docked in the remote town of Umatilla, Oregon, made famous by gold seekers and riverboats bringing supplies to a now grain and wheat shipping port. Soon we board the motor coaches for Pendleton, a Wild West town where the annual Pendleton Round-up (rodeo)is held in September. This town named after U.S. Senator George Hunt Pendleton became a commercial area in 1851 when a trading post was established. It had a booming Chinatown from the 1880's until 1920. As a result of discrimination the Chinese were forced to both live underground and conduct their business there. We walk through underground passageways recreating their baths,laundry facilities and brothels.

Being in the first tour group we have time to hop a shuttle and tour the famous Pendleton Woolen Mills. Unfortunately the looms are silent for maintenance but these blankets are a rainbow of colors!

Everyone meets back in town at Hamley's Old West Saloon above the store of the same name which is famous for its high quality saddles sold for up to $5,000. Live cowboy ballads serenade us as we munch. At 1:30 we leave for the Tamastslikt Cultural Center, the only Oregon Trail interpretive center that gives the Native point of view including the Cayuse, Umatilla , and Walla Walla nations. Native artifacts, art, videos, demonstrations, and the outside Naami Nishaycht culture village comprise this center. It was very well done.
Boarding motor coaches again we have a short ride back to the ship while viewing a video about Cililo Falls. Geology lecture AGAIN this evening.....history is when???
Well today we had a very different wake up call. At 3:30 AM we were literally JOLTED awake and almost out of our beds. Teddy jumped up saying "Let's pack. We have to evacuate!!" Hearing voices outside I got dressed to find all my neighbors in their pajamas talking and pointing at a concrete wall of the lock we were in. Apparently whoever was steering the ship hit a knuckle and crashed into the wall of the lock. As the first mate walked by I asked if if he was going to tell us what happened and if the captain was in charge. All he would say was that the captain "was up there". The hit which was on our side dented the metal side of the ship, wrenched free the bolt of the disembarking gate,separated the ladder from its position and buckled a support pillar. Needless to say no one went back to bed and made the conversation at breakfast. Apparently the crew had set the table for breakfast the night before and all the dishes crashed. The captain made an appearance and gave the explanation that we caught "a tail wind and were going too fast" etc. ,reassuring us that there wasn't a hole in the boat and that we wouldn't sink .We made it to our next "scenic" port on our stop which turned out to be a big junkyard of crushed cars. The Coast Guard would not let us continue until repairs were completed which went on until midnight that night.

After our breakfast we enjoyed a presentation by Angel Sabotta, a Nez Perce native about her tribe's culture and history. In the fall of 1805 the Lewis and Clark party camped at the junction of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers during their overland journey to the Pacific Ocean. Here they rested and were cared for by the Nez Perce. The twin cities of Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston WA began on opposite sides of the river.
From just south of Clarkston and upstream for 100 miles the Snake winds its way through the deepest gorge in North America with a maximum depth of 7,900 feet. This canyon separates the Blue Mountains of NE Oregon from the Seven Devils range of Western Idaho and is loaded with wildlife such deer and big-horned sheep. Man has a long history here as witnessed when we stopped to see ancient rock petroglyphs along the riverbanks. On the slopes above are the remains of old Nez Perce horse trails where in 1877 Chief Joseph led his band of 250 warriors and 500 women across the water to their supposed destination of the Lapwai Reservation. They were pursued on their trek across 1,400 miles of this rugged terrain as they tried instead to reach Canada for a rendezvous with Sitting Bull and his people. They were stopped just 40 miles before their goal.

Armed with cameras and binoculars we transfer from our bus to a large, covered jet boat. Our captain lives on the primitive Idaho side of the river and knows the rapids well. Our lunch stop is at Beamers Heller Bar. Fortunately, we get to see big-horned sheep frequently as well as some white tailed deer by the river and on the slopes. Bird watchers would love seeing the Osprey and Heron. Going over the rapids in our jet boat is great, but along the way we pass many river rafters in inflatables. Now that would be awesome! We depart Clarkston for the ship only to find thewelding still on-going (until midnight actually). Our evening entertainment is a video about York, Lewis and Clark's slave who went along on the expedition. We retire wondering what tomorrow will bring-what a day!


Because of repairs we have lost half a day so our lunch stop has been cancelled and out visitations shortened. While on our 45 minute drive to Fort Walla Walla we pass fertile farmlands over 750 in this county with 1/4 of them over a 1,000 acres of wheat. Remember the sweet Walla Walla Onion? In 1977 the first winery was established and over 100 vintners followed thus thousands of acres are grape producing.

I am excited to see Fort Walla Wall because it houses a pioneer museum of five exhibit halls with military exhibits, pioneer artifacts, dioramas, and a pioneer village of 17 original buildings -doctor's office, barber, shop, schoolhouse, settler's cabin, jail, livery stable etc. Reminiscent of the Pioneer History Center in Wawona, Yosemite National Park where I volunteer I check it out carefully . The village is only manned by docents on the weekends.
Next stop is a tour and tasting at a local winery. The town of Walla Walla is older, quaint, and very much like Main Street USA with its candy and ice cream store. We have 45 minutes to sightsee then back to the ship where it anchors for the evening in Richland, next to a beautiful park. Boaters are out on the river enjoying the warm weather. After our all you can eat Dungeness crab dinner we walk it off through the park checking out all the hotels etc. We find that the tourists prefer staying here rather than Walla Walla because it is newer. Back on board by 10pm and off we sail.
The comedy of errors continues I am afraid. The ship overshot the next port so we have to turn around and go back-this is a crazy cruise. Who's at the wheel? Today we have a full day of leisurely cruising as we head back toward the way we came. Once again we pass The Dalls. Originally the town was a Wasco Indian Village called Win-quatt "place encircled by rock cliffs". The falls that were here before the dam was a place for Native tribes to gather followed by becoming a stopping place for Lewis and Clar, the first white men to visit. Their campsite was named Rock Fort but was renamed by French Canadian fur traders "Les Grandes Dalles de la Columbia" or The Great Falls of the Columbia . About 12,000 people live here now. Narration is ongoing throughout the day as we observe wind surfers and kit boarders from the sun deck again. Everyone is enjoying a leisurely day . Once again we pass through our final lock at Bonneville, whew!


This is going to be one of my favorite days! After docking in Rainier some of us take an excursion to Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument , but we opt for a short bus ride to Fort Clatsop where the Corp of Discovery spent a dismal winter in 1805-6. Lewis and Clark prepared for their return trip by working on their journals. After a video in the visitor center we out outside to the replicas of the fort buildings. Captain Lewis was suppposedly awed by the size of the trees here which include Sitka Spruce. Old dugout canoes are on display as you walk along a 1/2 mile trail past the landing through the forest. We are constantly reminded on this trip of how tough and courageous these explorers were. Outside of the fort living history is going on(yay!) as two docents effectively demonstrate the loading and firing of the early rifles. Wow, the audience is impressed by the volume of the shot and amount of smoke.

The museum back at the visitor center has artifacts, dioramas and an excellent selection of books re Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark left this wet and stormy area (but not on our day here)with no regrets but after a picnic lunch we leave with regrets with so much to see and so little time.
Next stop, Astoria, named for John Jacob Astor who built Fort AStoria to support his fur trading company. Located just within the Columbia River entrance it was a perfect location for fishermen and 49'ers to load up on supplies. On a mission I ask my new friend, Rose, to accompany me on my quest to visit an 1898 Victorian home that the brother of my friends from La Quinta, Pam and Doug, took 9 years to restore. Abandoning the group,we head up the hill to 11th street where Eric graciously gave us a tour. This home was FABULOUS- beautifully decorated and worth the trek. Part 2 of my mission is to find a special kind of coffee called "Working Girl" that Pam loves. Not to be since it is not within walking distance. Instead, we discover the Astoria Coffeehouse and Bistro with AWESOME pastries 3 inches high and a roast they call "Hairbender" that I am sure Pam will love.
We race back through town to the Columbia River Maritime Museum to meet up with the group and watch the short video about the treacherous waters where the river meets the Pacific Ocean. This museum is the only nationally accredited maritime museum on the NW coast of the U.S. housing over 30,000 unique artifacts and 15,000 photographs of the maritime industries and stories.
Because it is our last night on board everyone is saying goodybe and taking pictures. In the lounge we gather to view a CD available for purchase of candid photographs that our tour director, Chandra, has taken all along our voyage. What a great idea! Ugh.... we must pack a true signal that the journey is over.
Luggage is out and marked for either airport, hotel or independent travel and outside the door. Even though our flight is not until late afternoon we debark at 9am and head for the airport which is an hour away. Some passengers are taking a city tour and then light rail on their own to the aiport. At the aiport we spend time with new friends, Conrad and Rose, eating lunch and finding goodies at Powell's Book Store, the largest independent bookstore in OR.