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CRUISE VIEWS

Delta Queen Gets Downright Rustic for Oregon Trip

August 13, 2000|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH

It doesn't have the familiar paddle wheel, but Delta Queen Steamboat Co.'s new 161-passenger Columbia Queen already has a waiting list.

The boat began eight-night cruises, round trip from Portland, Ore., at the end of May and will continue sailings through the departure of Nov. 24, then resume on March 30, 2001. Most cabins are booked through the end of this year, company officials said.

Queen of the West, a similar river vessel carrying 163 passengers, also makes weeklong sailings along the Columbia, Snake and Willamette rivers. Owned by Seattle-based American West Steamboat Co., it has been cruising the area virtually year-round since the spring of 1996.

Other seasonal sailings on this itinerary, usually scheduled in autumn, include the Sea Lion and Sea Bird from Lindblad Special Expeditions.

What makes a Columbia Queen cruise unique? One factor is a bonus Friday night stay in Portland at the historic Multnomah Hotel (now operated by Embassy Suites), with a lavish cocktail reception and a greeting by a cruise director team that stays with passengers throughout the sailing. A Saturday motor-coach excursion to Mt. St. Helens, including lunch, picks up at the hotel and ends at the vessel, where passengers board in late afternoon.

Another difference is the absence of a paddle wheel, a feature that passengers, most of whom are repeat travelers from the Mississippi riverboats, quickly remark on. There's also no steam calliope, a detail lovers of music (or quiet) will particularly appreciate.

"This is not your Mark Twain steamboat; this is a Lewis and Clark expedition boat in the Pacific Northwest," says Louis Boone Jr., the ship's captain. He doesn't want his passengers to expect the plush Victorian decor and riverboat gambler ambience of the paddle wheelers.

Instead, the Columbia Queen is decorated in a comfortable but rustic Northwest style, with oversized wooden rocking chairs on deck and bright wool blankets and pillows instead of ruffled coverlets in the cabins. Cabins also contain a TV/VCR, telephone and data port. The boat was built in Louisiana in 1994 as a casino vessel, but the owners failed to get their gambling permits. Delta Queen bought the then-unused vessel in May 1999 and towed it by barge through the Panama Canal and to the Northwest, where it was gutted and rebuilt.

Our main disappointments during our June 23 cruise, the boat's fifth sailing, were the dining room food and service. While the all-American crew is friendly, some servers are still inexperienced. Bartenders and cabin stewardesses seemed more skilled.

The food varied from delectable (a spicy fried catfish one day at lunch, fresh salmon for dinner, a crab cake appetizer with polenta) to mysteriously overwrought (sauteed veal medallions topped with crumbled bleu cheese, walnuts and red flame grapes; filet of salmon crusted with poppy and sesame seeds pan-seared and served with brandied lobster cream sauce).

Although there are enough places and chairs for all passengers to be seated at once, mealtimes and tables are assigned to take the pressure off the galley and service staff.

All shore excursions are included in the fare. The Mt. St. Helens tour and three other shore visits each take all day and include lunch. Also available: a trip to Pendleton that includes a rodeo show, a tour of the Pendleton Woolen Mills and an afternoon at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes; a jet boat ride into Hell's Canyon (the passenger favorite on our sailing); and a tour of Bonneville Dam and Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood. Half-day land excursions are available the other days, which also feature a half-day of sailing along the rivers and negotiating the locks.

Cabins range from 235-square-foot staterooms with sitting area to 143-square-foot windowless cabins. The best buys are the 165-square-foot A cabins with a door opening to the deck, where two chairs face the river scenery.

A warning for light sleepers: Two of the four cabins on the main deck, a double and a single, are directly behind the bandstand in the Astoria Lounge. (The other two are occupied by cruise staff.) As the daily program advises, passengers can "dance the night away with the Columbia Four."

Another caution: During early sailings, the elevator was frequently not working, requiring a walk up or down four flights of stairs between the top deck and the dining room. Passengers with disabilities and others who require elevator service should ask about the status of the machinery before booking. (For the rest of us, it was a good way to work off the morning's hot biscuits, grits and sausage or an after-dinner New Orleans bread pudding.)

Low-season fares begin at $2,100 per person, double occupancy, for an inside cabin with two lower beds that can be put together into a queen-size bed; they rise to $4,300 per person, double occupancy, for a superior stateroom in high season. There's a $500-per-couple bonus for booking six months in advance.

To get a brochure, contact a travel agent or Delta Queen Steamboat Co., telephone (800) 297-3960, Internet http://www.deltaqueen.com or http://www.columbiaqueen.com.

*

Shirley Slater and Harry Basch travel as guests of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears the first and third week of every month.

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