Lifestyle

OFF THE RECORD: My first cruise was on a boat built here

It's only fitting that my maiden voyage on a cruise ship was aboard a boat built right here in my own back yard. In early December, my mother and I went on a weeklong cruise aboard the Queen of the West, traveling on three rivers (the Columbia, Snake and Willamette) and logging nearly 1,000 miles.

The journey pretty much followed the same route as the Lewis & Clark expedition, plying the waters between Portland and Astoria, Ore., and Lewiston, Idaho. By week's end I was declaring it the best dam vacation I've ever had -- but more on that later.

If you're not familiar with the Queen of the West (www.columbiarivercruise.com or 800-434-1232), she's an elegant, authentic paddlewheel cruise ship built by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders for the American West Steamboat Co. Another paddlewheel vessel, Empress of the North, is under construction in the Freeland boatyard and will head to Alaska this summer.

I was drawn to her small capacity (a maximum of 163 passengers, and only 61 people on board this particular trip). I've never yearned to be herded onto a floating hotel with thousands of strangers, so the small number was a big plus for me. And since it was off-season, prices were reduced significantly.

Here are the other highlights of my seven-night cruise:

CREW AND PASSENGERS: I can't clap loud or long enough for the friendly crew on board. From Capt. Galen Ford (whom I had the luck to dine with at the Captain's Table one evening) to Mel the Bartender and Chris the Waiter -- we were downright spoiled. And although I was one of the younger passengers on board, I had a blast hangin' out with the seniors and tellin' tall tales from my youth. I'm still in touch with a few of them (and yes, we all hugged when we disembarked).

FOOD: Talk about three yummy squares a day. The meals were marvelous, but by Day 2 I switched to half portions (the kitchen is totally accommodating about any dietary needs). By midweek I was also doing laps in hopes of keeping the chubbies at bay. One morning I had a cheering section as I made my way around the top deck 20 times in pouring rain (equal to 1.5 miles). Something must have worked; my pants still zipped all the way up by the end of the trip.

ENTERTAINMENT: There was nightly entertainment in the Columbia Showroom and the Paddlewheel Lounge (just watching the big red paddlewheel go round and round through the windows was mesmerizing in itself). A young and talented four-piece house band warmed up the featured showroom acts, which ranged from a country-western duo to a singer of Broadway tunes. And following in the tradition of 19th century paddlewheel riverboats, the entertainers boarded the ship at one spot on the river and departed hours later in the middle of nowhere. Yes, they had Bingo (I won $40!), a funny stagecoach race and an afternoon of wine tasting.

HISTORY: If you're a history buff, you'll love this cruise. Seattle native Junius Rochester was on board and made sense of where we were in his unique and engaging style. The charismatic historian and author spoke on such topics as the demise of wild salmon in the Columbia ("once the greatest salmon river in the world") and the three-year Lewis & Clark Bicentennial that kicked off in Monticello, Va., earlier this month.

EXCURSIONS: A new day, a new excursion. If you want to go, fine. But if not, sit back and enjoy the quiet (I did that one day; foregoing the bus trip to Pendleton, Ore., and doing my Christmas cards instead). The menu of activities is diverse: Columbia River Gorge Discovery Center in Hood River (it's fantastic, don't miss it); the Hells Canyon jet boat ride (the skies cleared and it was a total thrill -- big bumps and all!); Maryhill Museum of Art and Stonehenge (I'd visited before, but you have to marvel at Sam Hill, who built this in the middle of nowhere); and Mount St. Helen's (shrouded in fog and mist but the visitors center is fascinating). There's also time to poke around Astoria and Hood River, both fun river towns. All excursions are on comfortable motorcoaches with drivers providing narration along the way (and all are included in the price of the cruise).

DAMS: If only my dad was still around to enjoy this cruise! Not to be sexist, but the men on board were totally enthralled that the Queen of the West went through eight locks and dams during the week-long journey: four on the Columbia (Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day and McNary) and four on the Snake (Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite). No matter what time of day, the diehard dam lovers would be out on the deck, weather be damned. And for those of us tucked into bed sound asleep, the occasional nighttime bumping and grinding at the locks was enough to interrupt our dreams. But no one complained.

It was a dam fine vacation, indeed!

Sue Frause can be reached by e-mail at skfrause@whidbey.com.

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