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Rollin' on the Rivers of the Pacific Northwest

May 21, 2000|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Shirley Slater and Harry Basch travel as guests of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears the first and third week of every month

Paddle wheelers cruising America's rivers are hot, especially in Mark Twain territory. Queen of the West, which cruises the Columbia, Snake and Willamette rivers from Portland, Ore., is popular partly because of its association with the well-known Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen and American Queen, classic paddle wheelers that cruise the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers through the American heartland.

Queen of the West is owned by Seattle-based American West Steamboat Co.; the other paddle wheelers belong to Delta Queen Steamboat Co. of New Orleans, which introduces its own riverboat, the 162-passenger Columbia Queen, also cruising the Columbia, Snake and Willamette from Portland, at the end of this month.

The 163-passenger Queen of the West, now in its fifth year, provides some unique shore excursions that are included in the cruise fare. When a cabin on Queen of the West became available in March, we decided to take a look. Despite the cool, rainy weather, the trip was entertaining.

Passengers visit Mt. St. Helens and Columbia Gorge, take a splashy jet boat excursion along the Snake River into Hell's Canyon, ride a train through the Hood River Valley, walk through Lewis and Clark's 1805-06 winter camp and see a horse and sheep dog show at the Pendleton Roundup rodeo grounds.

A highlight was the spectacular new Tamastslikt Cultural Institute near Pendleton, where elders of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation demonstrated traditional crafts and told tales. A company of dancers performs a program of tribal dances in splendid costumes that combine turkey and hawk feathers, quills, beadwork and deerskin.

Most passengers aboard the vessel come from California, according to the cruise line, but on our sailing many were also from other parts of the country. A few couples were in their 40s, but most were over 60. Children and teens would find little to do on board.

The decor throughout Queen of the West suggests the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when stern-wheelers flourished on the Columbia. We liked the period photographs and prints.

Evening entertainment takes place in the Columbia Showroom, where cruise staff members perform along with specialty performers from towns along the river.

In the smaller Paddlewheel Lounge, where a window wall overlooks the paddle wheel, singer and pianist Brad Stevens performed standards, pop and country songs before and after dinner. In the daytime, the area doubles as a card, game and reading room.

A guest historian narrated passages along the river, especially when the ship negotiated locks. Excellent driver-guides aboard the company's three comfortable motor coaches gave a running commentary during shore excursions.

All cabins have large windows, and some have private verandas. Largest are the owner's suite, three veranda suites and two view suites with forward views. A dozen cabins have additional upper berths so that they can be occupied by three or four passengers, and one cabin is wheelchair accessible. It's a good idea to specify queen or twin beds when booking, because most cabins provide one or the other.

Advance menus are posted for three hearty meals a day with a choice of two entrees at breakfast and lunch and three at dinner. A hot and cold breakfast buffet is also available, as well as a daily continental breakfast on the top deck in the all-weather Calliope Bar & Grill. In cool weather, heavy plastic tarps are unrolled and heat lamps activated. Light lunches and between-meal snacks--cookies, hot dogs, a pot of chili, popcorn, ice cream with chocolate sauce and a variety of beverages--are available. Unless you have a private veranda, this is also the only place for smokers.

Executive chef Donovan McGinnis uses fresh Northwest ingredients wherever possible, including local salmon, but, following passenger preferences, dishes are prepared without salt, and red meats are usually cooked past the rare stage unless you request otherwise when you first board.

Queen of the West sails from Portland on Saturday afternoons, spending the evening cruising the Willamette River through downtown Portland while a Dixieland jazz band plays. During the week, the vessel transits the lock systems of eight large dams, four on the Columbia and four on the Snake.

Brochure fares range from $1,115 to $4,329 per person, double occupancy.

A few four-night sailings are scheduled in the winter. These shorter sailings, at $689 to $2,249 per person, double occupancy, cruise the Willamette and the lower Columbia between Bonneville Dam and the mouth of the river where it enters the Pacific.

For brochures, ask a travel agent, call (800) 434-1232 or visit

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