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My foray to small ship cruising: Queen of the West: Highlights of the Columbia River

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Highlights of the Columbia River – American Cruise Lines 9/27/17- 10/1/17

Queen of the West

 

This is billed as a 5 day 4 night cruise, but that is somewhat of a misnomer: you get on the boat ½ through the first day, and you are off the boat by 8:00 am on the last day, so it is really a 3 ½ day/4 night cruise.

 

I didn’t see a lot of information about this cruise or this cruise line before I went, so I am going to try to supply as much info as I possibly can.

 

My mother and I took this cruise. She is 87 and uses a walker for balance. I am….well, let’s just say I tell people I am 29, but my mom did not have me when she was 58 if you know what I mean. I am not yet 60, that is for sure.

 

Before the cruise:

We filled out our pre-cruise information sheet, but the TA never got it or sent it in, so right before we left, we scrambled to put that together a second time. We asked a few questions: when is the Portland city tour so we know when to schedule our flight home? We were told it was the day before we finally disembarked. Between losing our form the first time, and the misinformation about the tour (which is on disembark day) we were slightly less than impressed.

 

We received our luggage tags and the address of the pre cruise hotel room that was included in our fare. We flew in before noon local time the day before we sailed, and we flew out on Monday the day after we disembarked.

 

We took an Uber to the Red Lion – Jantzen Beach Hotel from the airport (22.00 plus tip). The front desk staff of the hotel was friendly and efficient. Despite being well ahead of check-in time, they had a room available.

 

The Red Lion is a slightly dated hotel, but our room was recently done and was very nice. We had a wonderful view of the river from our 4th floor room. We enjoyed lunch in the hotel restaurant, and just relaxed/napped in our room: which was all we were up to after getting up at 4:00am for our flights. I walked to the nearby Safeway to buy some things for a light supper in our room.

 

I checked my emails to see that American Cruise line had sent me an email at 11:20 that morning (while we were in the air) to tell us they offered a complimentary shuttle to the hotel from the airport. The email talked about providing the shuttle on Friday (it was Tuesday when we flew) and the first two shuttle times of 10:30 and 11:00 were already past by the time they sent out the email. Hmmmm.

 

When we checked in, we got a packet of information including instructions for the next morning. We were to tag our luggage in our hotel room and the bell hops would pick it up, and then we were to meet cruise staff in the lobby of the hotel at a specific time.

 

Our luggage was picked up just like it was supposed to be, but there were no cruise staff in the lobby. There were a few other passengers, but no staff. After waiting about 10 or 15 minutes past the time when we were supposed to meet, Rochelle, the cruise director popped her head out of the restaurant and told us we were all supposed to meet in there. Sure enough, the room was full of other passengers. Sigh….if you want us to meet in the restaurant, tell us to meet in the restaurant.

 

Once everyone was checked in, we were ready to leave the inn to board the boat. There were a few passengers who were a bit late, so we had to wait for them before we could board. We took the elevator down (mom’s walker) and walked out across the access drive and onto the big wooden pier. From there, it is a walk down a steep ramp and a short couple of steps onto the boat.

 

All passengers are directed to the Mt. Hood Lounge (1st deck forward) for obligatory safety notes, an introduction to the captain, and some information about the cruise. We were given our first Ship to Shore (daily listing of activities) which defined the entertainment for the evening (resident historian giving a talk about what we would be seeing). Once we were all oriented, we were told to wait until they announced our cabins were ready. Whatever they were using for announcements did not work, and none of us could ever hear…so we all just kinds of headed out to see what we could find out. Our cabin was ready, so I walked mom to the elevator to send her up to the second deck.

 

The elevator has a sign that says 3 passenger max limit. So, three women that needed the elevator got on, and the people with them walked around to use the staircase to meet them on the proper deck. I went up to wait for mom on the second deck. And I waited, and I waited. I even tried to push the button to call the elevator, but the button wouldn’t stay light. I called up to the people who were with the other people in the elevator, but the elevator never went there, either, and it wasn’t a case of my mom getting off on the wrong deck.

 

I flagged down a deck hand, and he went to the bridge to see if there was an alarm, (there was not). He came back, and I showed him that the lights weren’t staying lit, so he went to engineering and had them reset the elevator. 12 minutes after I put her in the elevator downstairs, she finally got off on deck two. Not the best way to start the cruise.

 

Our balcony stateroom had a desk with three dresser size drawers in it, a dresser with three doors, two twin beds and two nightstands. There was a chair for the desk. There was no place in the room where there was more than 18 inches from another piece of furniture, and some places where there was a lot less. There was no room for my mom’s walker, and she had to back into the room so we could park the walker in the closet by the door. Closet by the door is an open niche with plenty of hangers and one high shelf.

 

Bathroom is a full size step up, and not the easiest to use. There is no storage in the bathroom other than a small shelf they have stocked with toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, lotion, make up wipes, mini sewing kit, mini vanity kit, bar soap). There is also liquid hand soap on the sink edge. There is only one towel bar, and all the towels are on it, so once you use a wash cloth or a hand towel, you have no place to put it. While you are stepping up into the bathroom, the door swings wide open, and there isn’t a good way to reach it to close it…so it takes two people to close the bathroom door. You cannot use the front door or even the closet unless the bathroom door is closed.

 

Our cabin had an alarm clock, most did not. No cabins had phones. The small TV sits on the desk. There is no place in the room other than on the beds for more than one person to sit.

 

The balcony door swings our, and there are two plastic webbed arm chairs on the balcony with a small table between. The door is very stiff and it is difficult to open it to get back inside once out. We got a door stop after the first day so I could leave my mom on the balcony, otherwise, she would not have been able to use it without me there.

 

I got us unpacked and stuffed our suitcase under the bed, and then it was time to head back down to the dining room for lunch.

 

The dining room is open seating, but all tables seat 8. The same wait staff waits on the same two tables, but you can’t be sure of ever getting to sit at the same table twice. The tables are so large across you can’t really reach the things in the middle of the table without standing up. The chairs are comfortable, but very hard to slide on the plush carpet. Tables are set with vinyl placemats for breakfast and lunch, linen tablecloths and napkins for dinner.

 

Each day at breakfast (well, on the first day, at lunch) you pick what you want to eat for the rest of the day. You still need to order it later in the day, but this way the cook knows about how much of each entrée to make.

 

Lunch and dinner give you a choice of two appetizers and two entrées. Once there was more than one dessert, but most days it was one dessert on the menu or ice cream off the menu. Appetizers were for the most part soups and salads and they were wonderful. All the food was very very very good. And the service is pretty fast, and the servers are friendly and wonderful. There are two bottles of wine (a white and a red) open on the table, and staff can bring you a soda or ice tea if you want.

 

On that first day, the soup was an oyster stew, which everyone said was delicious, but the oyster was pretty big for the small soup bowl and you had to put it on a plate to slice it.

 

There really wasn’t anything on the docket that day until the cocktail hour, so we explored the boat a bit. The open air lounge on the 4th deck was very nice, but a bit windy. The paddle wheel lounge on the second deck was very nice if you don’t mind the vibration of the engines. There was a presentation regarding shore excursions that we skipped, because we used the printed material to choose our excursions.

 

Multnomah Falls was not open due to smoke damage, but we did slow down so we could get some pictures as we went by.

 

Cocktail hour started at 5:30, and was well attended. There is always a table of hors d'oeuvres, the first day it was crab claws and shrimp, cheeses and fruits, and crostini with toppings. In addition to the food you go get, they walk around with two appetizers they bring right two you. Bar is amply stocked, and drinks are free. I got my mom and me some Brandy Old Fashioned Sweets, and we sat down and listened to Take Two (Ted and Laura) play some quiet lounge music. At 6:30, they close it all down and we head to the restaurant for dinner.

 

While we were dining, we went through the locks at the Bonneville Dam, which was pretty impressive. Dinner takes a while, because it is multiple courses, and you are talking between them, so by the time you are done, it is time to head back to the lounge for the evening entertainment. But, the evening entertainment was NOT what was in the Ship to Shore so there was a bit of confusion as the people who came to hear the historian speak had to decide if they wanted to stay to dance to the rhythms of Take Two.

 

Back up in our room, we found that our steward had locked our cabin when he did the turn down service, which was a bit inconvenient because we had left both keys sitting on the desk in the room. We flagged down someone to open it, and pretty much retreated for the night. I was still awake when we docked at Hood River Oregon for the evening.

 

Next morning it was up early and down to breakfast. Breakfast menu doesn’t repeat, and features four choices plus “ad hoc” breakfast. The choices are a quiche, a pancake of some kind (blueberry, huckleberry, etc.), a breakfast sandwich or wrap, and a fancy breakfast (eggs benedict the first morning, steak and eggs the second). Ad hoc breakfast is ordering eggs and sides independently. In addition to the menu, there is a nice spread of breakfast pastries (scones, muffins, Danish), yogurt parfaits, fruits and cold cereals.

 

The weather forecast provided in the Ship to Shore must have been a copy paste error, It said mid-sixties and cloudy, the high that day was going to be in the mid-80s and sunny all day long. I had a phone to double check the weather, but there were a number of people dressed for cold that must have believed the Ship to Shore.

 

The morning tour was to the Columbia River Discovery center in The Dales, which was just up river a piece. The same two large motor coaches are used each day for the excursions. Jody, our driver, was excellent, with great local information and a lot of charm. After about a 25 mile drive, we arrived. The center is part history museum, part nature center, with a great raptor show thrown in. The grounds are lovely. It was a great way to spend a morning. On the way back, we drove on old Highway 30 up to an overlook for an excellent view of the river. The drive is not for the acrophobic as it scales the side of a mountain with next to no guard rail. But the drive was one of the best parts of the excursion.

 

We got back on the boat just in time for lunch. Mom and I both pre ordered the steak sandwich, mine was excellent but mom had a hard time with hers. I forget whether I had soup or salad before, but whatever I had it was pretty good.

 

The afternoon tour, which would normally have normally been to Multnomah Falls was to the Western Airplane and Automobile Museum. Since I was not travelling with my husband, I figured I could skip the planes and cars. I left mom to rest and walked around Hood River and did a bit of shopping. There was a complimentary shuttle that they offered from the boat to down town, and it made four stops down town for you to hop on and off. And, they provided a map of the down town…but they didn’t tell me where any of the stops were. I planned on walking to the down town and taking the shuttle back, but I never did see the shuttle in town. It was about a mile from the boat to downtown, and a down town is only a few blocks big, and then the mile or so back. The day was lovely, unfortunately, not windy enough to attract too many of the kite boarders and wind surfers the area is famous for.

 

The boat set sail again before cocktail hour, went back through the dams during dinner, and finally, we got to hear our historian Robert give a talk. After that, we went to bed even though the ship was still chugging away. Our cabin, in the middle of the ship wasn’t too bad, but passengers in cabins closer to the stern complained of noise and vibration when the ship was sailing overnight.

 

The ship took us to a beach in Washington where we docked. All aboard time in the Ship to Shore was 11:45, and Mt. St. Helen’s the morning excursion was a 90 minute ride there and a 90 minute ride back. Leaving at 8:30, which left us all of 15 minutes to see the Mountain. I checked at the office and found out that all aboard was actually 12:45, so no worries. Hmmmm.

 

Anyway, we got on our bus with Jody again, and headed up to the Johnston’s Ridge Observatory. Mt. St. Helens is wonderful. This visitor center is named for a volcano observer who was standing at that spot the morning the volcano erupted. When you see the trunks of the massive trees sheared off by the force of the blast, you can understand why they never found the observer who’s last words were “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it.”

 

Mom enjoyed the interpretive displays while I took a little hike to take more photos. We never really had time to watch the film, but that was OK with us. Other people who did see it said it was very good.

 

We drove back down and headed back to the boat, and were able to get back on just a little late for lunch. It is worth noting that at this stop, we stopped at a beach and not at a pier. It was a steep sandy climb to the busses, and not the easiest for a lot of people to manage.

 

We enjoyed lunch, and then listened to Robert (or Richard as our Ship to Shore called him) teach us about the Astorians. The ship moved from Kalama to Astoria and parked before dinner in Astoria.

Cocktail hour, dinner (really good Dungeness crab cakes), and we didn’t stay in the lounge for the show, but other passengers raved about the singer who sang river songs. We didn’t stay to watch him because we snuck back up to our room to watch the Packers play Thursday night football on our little bitty TV. I felt like I was playing cruise hooky.

 

Anytime during the day or night, you can go to the Paddlewheel lounge and get sodas (mostly coke products in cans) or snacks. And, on the excursions, they send along water (for the short ones) or snacks and waters for the longer ones. You really have to work hard to avoid food on this cruise.

 

Breakfast before the morning tour left: we did not join because the city tour of Astoria and Fort Clatsop tour was not handicapped accessible. I walked into town again and poked around, but many of the stores were not going to open until 11:00. A Royal Caribbean ship was also in port so the town was pretty crowded. After lunch, we did take the Cape Disappointment tour, which was not at all disappointing. I left mom in the visitor center while I walked down (the equivalent of 17 stories) and back up (the equivalent of 15 stories) to get out to the point with the lighthouse, and then I walked back down and all the way back up to the visitor center. More than once I had to stop and do the “taking a picture” rest stop so I could catch my breath. I managed it all in just a bit more than 30 minutes, and as we only had 45 minutes total at the cape, that was just about right. We stopped for a quick photo stop down on the beach covered with driftwood, and then back to the boat.

 

We got our statement for our on board charges, the only charges we incurred were for the Cape Disappointment tour (most of the other tours were included in the fare). However, the amount billed did not match the amount we were told we would pay (40 per person in the brochure we signed up from, 50 pp on the bill). I took it to the office on the first deck and got it corrected, but I did point out that there was not a single piece of paper provided to us on this cruise that didn’t have an error on it somewhere. The wrong date on one, the wrong day on another. The wrong weather forecast, the wrong all aboard time. I don’t want to be all school marmy on them, but the cruise director really is the face of the cruise line, and when she can’t produce a single document that is error free, you kind of get the impression that she is not all that devoted to her job.

 

Our last cocktail hour, and one last dinner. This was our fanciest dinner, the choices were lobster, tenderloin, or lobster and tenderloin. Mom had the lobster, a tail with some crab stuffing on top, and I had the tenderloin, which was excellent.

 

I think I forgot to mention dress code on this ship: they say resort casual. Because the weather changes so much, during the day, make sure you dress in layers, and bring something warm like a fleece or a vest and something waterproof like a wind breaker. Almost everyone changed into something slightly nicer for dinner (my wardrobe was black slacks, black flats and some different top/scarf combos). But there were some people still in t-shirts at dinner.

Before the show that night, they gave us some disembarkation instructions. Our luggage needed to be out in the hall before we went to bed, which was not necessarily convenient for those people who didn’t bring an overnight bag for their pajamas and cosmetics needed for the morning. And, then they confused us all with the times the city tour bus would be leaving ($35pp) and the airport bus ($15pp) since the cruise director said one time but the brochures said another.

 

In any event, on the last day of the ship, you have to be out of your room by 8, breakfast starts at 7:00 and everyone is off the boat by 8:30. We were renting a car from the airport, so we took the airport shuttle.

 

The very steep ramp from the boat dock to the street level that my mom had been able to successfully navigate on the way down was too formidable for her to manage on the way out. So, we asked for a wheel chair to help her, while I pushed her walker up for her. All was well and good until the guy pushing her wheel chair pushed the chair into the backs of my legs and split the skin over my Achilles tendons. Sigh.

 

The literature on the ship says tips are not expected and are included in your fare. There were a couple of servers I slipped a little extra too and there was a steward (not our own) who helped unlock my door when our own steward kept locking it that I tipped a bit.

 

All in all:

Sorry this was so long to plow through.

 

This cruise is not really handicapped accessible or ideal for anyone who is mobility impaired, the rooms are too small to use any kind if a walking aid, the bathroom step up is pretty formidable, there is a grab bar in the bathroom but you can’t reach it to help you get up from the toilet. There is an elevator, but it is very very very slow and not always reliable. The places the ship docks are not always easy to navigate if you are mobility impaired.

 

The food was wonderful the dining room staff delightful and the cocktail our was great fun.

 

The tours were well planned and executed, and it is nice to be able to do more than one a day and still make it to the ship for meals.

 

The cabins are just too small and dated.

 

This is NOT a five day cruise. If you want me off the boat by 8:00 in the morning, you can’t count that as a day. And if you don’t start until half way through a day, you really shouldn’t count that as a day either. You definitely can’t count them both as whole days. At most this is a four day cruise.

 

The hotel the night before is a great idea so everyone is at the same place at the same time: we all boarded within minutes of each other.

The cruise director is either too young or too apathetic for this job. Proof read your work, know that it matters to people if the bus leaves at 8 or 8:30, and make announcements when you make mistakes so people know the correct information. If you told people to meet you in the lobby and you go to the restaurant instead, put a sign up in the lobby or have staff direct people to the correct place.

 

The attention to detail also extends to the home office. Don’t send me an email at 11:20 to tell me about a shuttle that left at 10:30 and 11:00. Don’t tell me about shuttles on Saturday when we sail on Tuesday.

 

And the last one is probably the weakest, but don’t run out of stuff right away. At the first lunch, they had coffee ice cream as an off menu choice (they also had mint chocolate chip, chocolate, vanilla, huckleberry, and raspberry sorbet). Next day, they were out. First day on the boat, there was caffeine free diet coke. Next day, they were out. If you only have enough for a few people on the first day, don’t even serve it. Better that I not know it was an option than know some people got it but I missed out. It is not like you couldn’t have stocked up along the way, the ports of call are close together.

 

And everything served in puff pastry is wonderful. Whether sweet or savory, the puffed pastry little cups were always devine.

 

Mix up the dining: tables of eight are fine for dinner, but lunches and breakfasts could be 2s and 4s. Sometimes you don't want to talk during every single meal.

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I think their scheduling problems relate to the high turnover of staff. We had THREE cruise directors on our one week Queen of the West cruise. Each person does it their own way and doesn't coordinate with the written info.

 

I agree that Jody, the bus driver was the most consistent person on the entire cruise. Always cheerful and always accurate.

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Thanks for taking the time for such a thorough review. Taking one of these small ship cruises is on our "bucket list".

 

I have taken some all inclusive land trips that were just top notch. We love to cruise and I love the idea of a small ship with fewer passengers.

 

Hopefully someone from management will read your review and take some notes! Sounds like good product that could use some tightening up of the ship!

 

Susan

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Thanks for taking the time for such a thorough review. Taking one of these small ship cruises is on our "bucket list".

 

I have taken some all inclusive land trips that were just top notch. We love to cruise and I love the idea of a small ship with fewer passengers.

 

Hopefully someone from management will read your review and take some notes! Sounds like good product that could use some tightening up of the ship!

 

Susan

 

We have done well over 100 ocean cruises and only five river cruises (Europe and North America). We enjoy both and have decided to concentrate more on the river cruising.

I agree that American Cruise Lines has a very good product, AND they do need to tighten up passenger relations side of the business. Unfortunately, I don't think that many of the top management types do much reading of these boards. That is probably also true of most all cruise lines (unfortunately).

We have three cruises booked with them over the next 10/11 months -- different ships and itineraries. That should give us a better sense of whether we want to continue with them, or move on.

NRayH

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There is always hope!

 

We are interested in the Alaska and Pacific NW tours with ACL.

 

They are adding new ships so maybe with time. We are very low maintenance cruisers/travelers.

 

We are both retired in our mid 60's and we live full time in our RV. We winter in Florida and leave Florida in the summer to avoid the heat and humidity. We spent April thru early October in the Black Hills of South Dakota where we workamped at a camp ground and it was an amazing time!

 

Now we are home in Florida and cruising on Magic and Vista this winter along with some other non-cruise travels.

 

Susan

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I just received their new brochure in the mail and thought I would take a look, as some of the itineraries looked pretty interesting. Plus, not flying so far is sometimes attractive. We really enjoyed river cruising in Europe.

I have to say after reading this, that for the prices charged (which i am good with if the value delivered equals the associated cost) along with description of the cabins and lack of attention to detail, is a non starter -IMHO. There are other lines that can provide much higher quality staterooms and ship amenities, great itineraries, and excellent service & food, along with smaller river ships .....maybe it takes flying long distances to achieve this....so, I truly thank you for posting this detailed review. Maybe this was a fluke, maybe these strings of disorganized events were an exception to the norm, maybe this ship is old and needs dry dock...I don’t know.

No offense intended to anyone who is a fan of this line. We all have our personal preferences, and it doesn’t mean that mine are the right ones for others.

Edited by Vineyard View

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Fitchburg wifi family,thank you for your review. My wife and I are sailing the new "American Song" down the lower Mississippi in Oct/Nov 2108. We've taken several river cruises with Viking on the Danube, Rhine, Main, Yangtsee, and finally the Amazon on Viking Ocean's, Viking Sea this past December/January. We are hoping the American Cruise Line is on a par with Viking.

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Fitchburg wifi family,thank you for your review. My wife and I are sailing the new "American Song" down the lower Mississippi in Oct/Nov 2108. We've taken several river cruises with Viking on the Danube, Rhine, Main, Yangtsee, and finally the Amazon on Viking Ocean's, Viking Sea this past December/January. We are hoping the American Cruise Line is on a par with Viking.

 

Knowing the evaluations always carry personal preferences/biases, I will still offer our opinions on American Cruise Lines.

First, bit of background on our cruise experiences. We have done somewhere around 125 ocean cruises (on a number of different cruise lines), but only three river cruises (two on Viking and one on American Cruise Lines). We did our American Cruise Lines cruise last year aboard America (R/T New Orleans). We enjoyed it so much that we now have three more cruises booked for this year, aboard three different ACL ships.

We would give Viking River Cruises a slight edge over American Cruise Lines. Not necessarily the on-board experience, but the overall experience. We found the on-board experience very similar (like the on-board entertainment and services provided). However, Viking does not have the pre-dinner (gratis) cocktail hour, but some of the Viking shore excursions were often times more appealing (again allowing for personal preferences/interests).

One area where we saw a larger difference is in the pre-cruise information/services -- Viking is much easier to work with and to garner information from. As previously stated, our one cruise was enjoyable enough to entice us to continue with some of ACL's other itineraries. Quite a few have our interests aroused. Our next one is coming up in March.

NRayH

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Absolutely loved reading your review, I was on the fence about these sailings and I'm still on the fence; I like that these cruises are iny backyard but I expect a lot for these prices so it's going to take some nmor research.

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Absolutely loved reading your review, I was on the fence about these sailings and I'm still on the fence; I like that these cruises are iny backyard but I expect a lot for these prices so it's going to take some nmor research.

 

I am hoping that there will be more posts as the new ships are sailing this summer, or about to sail. We would really like to explore some of these itineraries, but we are on the same page with you that at these prices we need more convincing.

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Thank you very much for your detailed review. This cruise was on my bucket list, but I am very hesitant to take it now based on what I've read. I have sailed large cruise lines often (50+ times), primarily on Celebrity cruises. I did not expect the same experience due to size, but for the price of these cruises I certainly would expect better staterooms and definitely better service and communication. I will read some others reviews as well of course before making a final decision, but I am pretty confident my bucket list needs to be revised. I also do not mean to offend those who like these cruises - there are definitely advantages to them and they visit some very interesting places. But for the $$ - I think there are better ways to spend it.

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Very nice review. Question - were the two handicap-accessible cabins on the main deck (110, 112) not available to you at time of booking?

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